The Other I

July 19, 2014

“Those who live by the sword…”

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:59 pm

As readers of this blog know, I have understood for many years that violence only breeds more violence.  And I have been disturbed by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians for a very long time, and have reflected that even the Israelis who suffered the awful brutality of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing did not seem to fully understand that peace will never be established in the Middle East through military means.

But I was not prepared for the shock and almost physical revulsion I have felt since I read the details of a Face Book posting by an Israeli MP saying that “Mothers of all Palestinians should be killed.”   All the Palestinian people are our enemy, she wrote, and even the mothers ” have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists.”

A two-state solution is the only possible resolution of this conflict which – let us not forget – displaced tens of thousands of Palestinians in the first place from the lands in which they had lived for hundreds of years in order to create an Israeli state.

How can the United States and Britain simply maintain the position reiterated by President Obama that the Israelis have a right to defend themselves?  As of today, the Israelis have killed 333 Palestinians.  Palestinians rockets have killed one Israeli.

July 15, 2014

Music for growing old

Filed under: Growing Old — theotheri @ 1:47 pm

I have lived, even by the most optimistic projections, at least three-quarters of my life.  So whether people think I look my age or not, whether I am more agile than some, or have on occasion a modicum more energy, I am elderly.

And I must say that I am finding it one of the happiest, and fascinating periods of my life.  Admittedly, I am not suffering from overwhelming physical pain, financial anxiety, or dementia.  How well I would (or will) stand up to any of these possibilities in the future I do not know.  What I do know is that there is a beauty in old age that I find almost breath-taking.  It can bring with it a kind of joy and peace and even wisdom that I didn’t so much as imagine in my youth.

Several days ago I stumbled on this you-tube from a group whose music has for many years delighted me.  They are a group of Cornwall fishermen who have been singing together now for more than two decades, and I have watched them age.  Their latest release demonstrates for me just what I mean about getting old.  Although I am sure their average age is well below mine, I can see that joy and letting go of conflict that old age can offer.

Just watch this video.  There is the physical beauty of the landscape, and the hypnotic rhythm of the tune they are performing.  But for me, the most beautiful part lies in the faces of the singers.  They are simply having a wonderful time.  One of them is even collapsing with laughter.

There’s a beauty there that all the make-up products and hair salons in the world cannot produce.  All those signs of aging don’t have to be rubbed out for someone to be beautiful.

My hair hasn’t turned grey yet.  But when it does, there’s no way I’m going to try to hide it.

July 10, 2014

The peace of the incomprehensible

A friend sent me a reference to a series of books by Ilia Delio, which he said seemed to echo some of my ideas and which he thought I might like to read.  So I checked Delio out on Amazon and saw that the introductory quote in one of her books was Einstein’s “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

No.  I am among that group of scientists, including Stephen Hawking who believes that we will never reduce the universe to the totally comprehensible – that there is an infinity which we will never exhaust.

I find a deep and profound peace in that acceptance.  I don’t have all the answers;   I never will.  I live surrounded by mystery.  Somehow I am immensely comfortable here.  That knowledge and that peace is probably the single most important contribution to my coming to terms with my childhood socialization as a Roman Catholic.  There were several other significant steps as well.

One was the realization that the concept of matter as totally inert had been exploded with Einstein’s equation  e=mc2 – the equation that demonstrated that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing.  We know now that matter is not a passive blob sitting there until something else pushes it along.  Matter is a seething mass of movement and energy at its very core.

Why is this so exciting?  Well, for me, it brought the problem of the emergence of consciousness into the scientific world.  Even today, in my opinion, the single most important unresolved question for science is the fact that we have no idea how the brain produces something as seemingly immaterial as consciousness.  Consciousness in all of life is totally dependent on a functioning body.  Today through MRI scans, we are even learning some of the minute pathways in the brain that are activated by various kinds of consciousness.  But we do not have a theory about how this conversion takes place.   It is a parallel problem to the one we had when we used to think, less than two centuries ago, that matter and energy were two completely different things.  I do not have the answer to what many philosophers call “the mind-body problem” but I am convinced now that the answer lies in the natural world.

In other words, we do not have to have recourse to Plato’s “spiritual” world which Christianity eventually adopted as “heaven” and “hell,” populated by spiritual beings including God, the angels, and the souls of those who have died before us.  I remember the almost ecstatic feeling I had when I realized that I was already home in this universe.  I am not living in exile.  For all its pain and trouble and difficulties, I am already where I belong.   And whatever happens after death, I will not be spirited away into some another plain, to some ethereal heaven or fire of hell.  However it will happen, what I am will continue to evolve as part of this natural universe.

Another giant step in my coming to terms with Roman Catholicism was the discovery that the original meaning of “faith” as understood by the Hebrews and the early Christians did not reflect adherence to a strict set of doctrines, but is more accurately translated as “faithfulness.”  “Faithfulness” does not require that every one in the community always agree, or always accept the same doctrines.  This switch to belonging to the community based on faith as unquestioning acceptance of universal dogmas did not occur in the Christian church until the 4th century.  Until then, the  essence of the Christian message was that “the greatest of these is love,” that “we are no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female;  we are all one.”  In other words, we are all — all — in this together.  All of us in the human family.

Refusing to reduce faithfulness and universal love of all humanity to a set of doctrinal and liturgical rituals might diminish the power of religious leaders.  It certainly destroys the “one of us” attitude of so many religions, and the claims of any single religious tradition that it is the “one and only true church.”   Roman Catholicism with its proclivity today for excommunicating dissidents and its insistence on papal infallibility is benign compared to its torture and execution of those who refused to accept church authority for over a millennium until papal power was finally separated from the secular authority of the state.  But this commitment to literally killing those who disagree with us is still rife in the world today.  Turn on the news tonight and look at what is going on in Iraq, in Syria, in South Sudan, even in the United States where some fundamentalists are trying to change the law to match their own religious beliefs.  In this war-torn, trigger-happy world, we badly need to understand the original Christian message that we are all one.
One doesn’t  have to be a Christian to understand that.  Unfortunately, the converse is also true:  one can think of oneself as a Christian and not understand it.


July 8, 2014

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:53 pm

I learned something new yesterday.  I was looking for some clever way to keep our strawberries from being spoiled while they were ripening lying on the earth around the plant.  “The old-fashioned method,” my husband told me, was to put straw around the plant.  “It’s why they are called strawberries,” he said.

My goodness:  this has opened a whole new world of berry-naming to me.  Without any help at all, I figured out all by myself why the berries on another bush are called “blueberries.”  And perhaps raspberries are named after their raspy surface?  I doubt elderberries were named after the village elders, though, or that barberries are named after the barbarians, and if currants are supposed to be contemporary, the name isn’t even spelled right.





Maybe, though, gooseberries are named after geese.  I had to climb down on my hands and knees yesterday to pick them from underneath the pickly gooseberry branches.  Would have been much easier for a goose than it was for me.

July 5, 2014

A heroic lesson still unlearned

The most frequently read post on this blog by far is the post  Why do abused children become abusers?    Why, I asked, are a disproportionate number of abusers people who have themselves been abused?  Would you not think that they, above all, would know how painful and destructive it is?  The key explanation seems to be that we don’t learn kindness and love through negative example.  We need to learn how to love from positive experience – at least from one other person in our lives for however short a time.

I have reflected on this fact again several times this week but especially this morning when I read that Israeli pathologists have announced that the Palestinian teenager kidnapped and murdered in an apparent revenge attack following the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli boys last week, was burned alive.  Not just murdered.  Murdered in what must have been excruciating agony.

Would you not think that every Jew in the land, above all, would shudder at the horror of this act?  This is a people living in a land returned to them after the Holocaust, in which up to 8 million Jews were put into gas chambers for no other reason than that they were Jews.  This is a people whose by-word is “Never Again!”

This is not to suggest that the majority of the Israelis support this ghastly revenge.  I strongly suspect that the majority are as appalled as I am.

But how could there be a single Israeli who feels that this act is not abhorrent?

I think it is because kindness and love are not learned simply because one sees how terrible hatred and abuse can be.  Unfortunately, there is in all of us an instinctive desire for what we blindly call “justice,” a “tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye.”

But history shows us it doesn’t work.  The legacy is bitterness and anger and an unending cycle of revenge.

It will not bring peace.

July 2, 2014

The limitations of prediction

Filed under: Growing Old — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

I’ve been pondering the fact that the number of posts I have been writing in recent months are getting fewer and fewer.

Why, I wonder.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to blog about.  I find it impossible to read about what is going on in the world and not find myself mentally blogging.  It might be about economics, climate change, war, religion, even the possibilities of humans managing to wipe ourselves off the face of the earth.  Or it might be more light-hearted things – like Dolly Parton being the most popular act at the Glastonbury music festival last week.

So why aren’t I writing more?  it’s something I have been doing since I was ten years old.  What’s happening?

I don’t know.  I am finding myself driven out doors to be more physically active than I can ever remember. Since I tire more easily, I often sit here in front of my computer screen too exhausted to string three coherent sentences together.  But I don’t know why I’m choosing to work outside rather than write more.

One of the things that is fascinating me is how hard it is to plan reasonably about how to get old.  When we’re young, barring the unexpected, we have some idea of how our capacities will develop over the years.  We have some idea ahead of time what it’s going to be like to be 20 or 30, or even 60.  But the energy and health levels get more and more unpredictable as we move into our 70’s and beyond.  Will we be able to handle this garden in ten years?  even in five years?  will I reach a point when I can’t handle my own bank accounts, or do my own tax returns?  What about cleaning?  and cooking? in  fifteen years?  twenty?

I’m beginning to understand how life overtakes people in their old age.  I have no desire to move into a care home at this point.  But when or if I need to, will I be too old to engineer it?

I’m not afraid of dying, although I can’t say I’m looking forward to leaving this fascinating place we call life on earth.  I’m just not 100% sure how not to let my last precious years drizzle away in an unfocused haze.

Getting old is a different kind of challenge than I thought it was going to be.

June 25, 2014

How we think about God

I have been introducing myself to a field of study called neurotheology.  It’s a relatively new field, made possible by our developing ability to study the brain.  Using magnetic resonance imaging  or MRI scans, it is possible to see which parts of the brain are operating in relation to different actions.   Different parts of the brain are activated, for instance, for analytical thought than are activated for strong emotions.  Nor do we use the same parts of the brain to see, to hear, to position ourselves in time and space.

Neurotheology is interested in how the brain is activated when a person meditates or thinks about God or other religious subjects.

This, as I have said, is a relatively new field, and the findings thus far, fascinating as they are, are still tentative, and should not be taken as “gospel truth.”  What does look pretty clear is that there is a relationship between the part of the brain that is active and a person’s concept or experience of some transcendent reality, whether it is called “nothingness”, or “god” or “the universe.”  This is accompanied by a loss of a sense of self, but a strong sense of interconnectedness of all existence.  During experiences like this, there is an increased activity of the limbic system which is connected with the experience of emotion, and a decreased activity in that part of the brain that we use to orient ourselves in time and space.

Interestingly, people who do not believe in any concept of God tend to have brains with highly active analytical areas, while at the other extreme, when people having what they describe as a religious experience and are speaking in tongues, analytical activity is almost completely replaced by an active limbic or emotional activity.

In addition, those who believe that God or other supernatural agents influence what happens in the time and space in which we live tend to use brain pathways often associated with fear.  Those who emphasize doctrinal believes use pathways primarily associated with language, while atheists favor visual pathways.

Similarly, the practice of religion often seems to be a healthy activity, leading to better mental, and physical health,  better social relationships and a sense of well-being.  Paradoxically, those who are “born again” religious converts often show signs of hippocampal atrophy leading to memory, dementia, depressions, and Alzheimer’s.

How strong any of these trends are is not clear.

In any case, our brains, formed by both genetics and the environment, are ultimately unique to each one of us.  Our experiences are highly individual — whether it be in relation to music or math, art or nature, hot or cold, men or women, colors or tastes.  It is no surprise, then, that individual experiences of transcendence, or concepts of divinity should be so varied.

There is a common mistake, however, made by both committed believers and non-believers.  That is the conclusion that if we can identify the parts of the brain that are associated with an experience of God, we can prove that “God” is no more than an illusion.  This isn’t so.  We don’t conclude that what we see is an illusion just because we know the part of the brain that is responsible for our experience of sight.  It is possible that God created humans with a brain that is capable of experiencing transcendent reality.

Each of us probably has a fairly strong opinion about this.  I know I do.  But I do know that if I want to prove my point, science, even neurotheology, can’t give me the indisputable evidence, whichever side I’m on.







June 16, 2014

Scottish Independence

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 3:53 pm

We’ve just returned from a week in Scotland.  Peter spent much of his professional life there, so he knows it well.  We’ve also spent many holidays there, but every time we go back, I seem to learn something more.  This time seeing Scotland up close as they grapple with the question of independence was particularly stimulating.

The referendum in which Scots will vote on whether to separate from Great Britain and become a totally independent country on its own is taking place in almost exactly three months, and the debate is becoming heated.  I was a little surprised at some of the name-calling and accusations that those who don’t want to vote yes to independence are unpatriotic.  Some of the debates within families are also becoming quite strained.  I hadn’t realized how psychologically complex the issue is for some.  It seems to resemble some of the religious debates among various believers all of whom are convinced that only they possess the Truth.

Scotland is an incredibly beautiful country, even when it’s raining, which is often, with a unique, rich, old culture of its own which I enjoy immensely.  That is one of the arguments I heard for independence, but not one which I found convincing.  Other areas in Great Britain can make similar claims.  Yorkshire is as different from London as Scotland is.  Or Cornwall, or Wales.  It’s the same in the U.S. where the north-east coast has a different culture  and different history than Texas, for instance.  (Interesting, though, that we did fight the Civil War which was basically over states’ rights before some compromise between the authority of Washington and that of the individual states was finally agreed.  Scotland and London have agreed to settle it with a vote.)

My own hope is that Scotland votes to remain within the United Kingdom, and that this results in greater devolution, so that more decisions are the responsibility of local people and not dictated from London.

It’s the kind of  challenge that is facing many parts of the world, including the European Union:  how to benefit from cooperation without over-riding individual cultures and the great benefits of our diversity.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when President Obama said he hoped Scotland would not become independent.  But to my astonishment, I read yesterday that Pope Francis also has expressed his view that Scotland should not vote for independence.   If I understood, he thinks it is a world-wide challenge for us all to learn to cooperate and to live together, and to break up  a partnership that has worked for centuries is a step backward.  The Yes campaign in Scotland apparently took a hit as a result.  But whether they become a separate country or not, they are independent  in themselves, and the Scottish people will make up their own minds.

June 3, 2014

Anybody you recognize?

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 3:56 pm

My father was the son of first and third generation German immigrants.  In America they made their living as lawyers, musicians, farmers, and engineers.  The inheritance is evident among my 5 brothers and 4 sisters.

Two days ago, my lawyer-brother sent the family an engineer test, with the question:  “Does anyone recognize anyone in our family?”  The gasp of recognition was heard throughout cyberspace.

Since then we have been exchanging stories all suggesting that the incipient characteristics of the engineer were evident from an early age.

I remember –  I’m probably the only living person who does — that when I was about three years old, my oldest brother, who was four at the time,  decided I needed a cross on my doll house.   He didn’t discuss it with me, but I went out one day and there was this big ugly thing nailed onto the roof of my lovely little house.  We all had crucifixes over our beds, and there was Tom deciding that my dolls needed one too.  Actually, I doubt he was making an attempt to rescue my dolls from the clutches of paganism.  He just decided to try out his incipient skills as a construction engineer.  It was terrible and I remember asking Mom for her scissors so I could cut it down.  The adults in my life thought that was hilarious.  My sister – who wasn’t around at the time – says she is sure it wasn’t supposed to be a cross at all but a lightning rod.

I have another engineering brother who at about the age of six thought that taking off one’s clothes to go to bed at night was a total waste of time, when you simply had to put them all back on again in the morning.  So he developed a masterful time-saving plan:  put one’s pajamas on over one’s clothes.  When Dad found out, he called him to “come here immediately” in a scary authoritative voice of judgement he could use, so there wasn’t time to do anything but appear in full regalia.  What those of us who witnessed the confrontation knew was that Dad was laughing so hard he could barely hold it together.  Personally, I think that brother showed the ingenuity of a budding engineer.

Even my husband Peter (who grew up in a coal-mining village during WWII in England) could not believe the outfit Dad put on to “work on the farm.”  It was the outfit his second wife forbid him to wear above the basement level.

Which demonstrates why we are all unanimous in our gratitude to the partners of the engineers in our family for supplementing the lacunae in their undoubted skills.

If you know any engineers, I’d love to know if you recognize any of the hall marks too.   Double click on the test for engineers for the full authentic list.


May 28, 2014

Look who said it!

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 4:36 pm

It might not be all that surprising to hear bankers castigated for greed one more time.  But when the head of the Bank of England says it, I’m surprised.

Mark Carney is the Canadian brought in last year as the best possible head to direct the Bank of England.  So far he’s been doing a good job in a position that takes economic as well as political skill.  But I never expected to hear him say that modern capitalism will fail if banks continue to be too big to fail, if they are not run ethically as a service to their clients rather than as a way to make huge personal fortunes.

He also said that the huge discrepancies that exist globally between the small minority of the very rich and the huge numbers of very poor is destabilizing.  I would not have been surprised to hear Pope Francis say something like that, or even a socialist leader, but not the head of the Bank of England.

If you are interested in reading or hearing more, take your pick:

It gives me hope.

May 18, 2014

Claude, the cows are out again

Filed under: Food chains,Growing Up,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:15 pm

My father made his living and supported his large family as an attorney.  But influenced by Dorothy Day, he bought 70 acres of  virgin land in northern Ohio, where he set out to provide his children with a life close to the natural goodness of growing things. He transformed a swamp into a lake where we went swimming and ice skating, and fishing.  The fields were planted with wheat which fed the cows and chickens and pigs, quonsut huts left over after the war were converted into barns for the hay, the orchard gave us apples and pears, the garden gave us berries and vegetables.

But at heart, my father was not really a farmer.  He went to his law office  5 1/2 days a week, and on Saturday afternoons and after church on Sundays, when he put on a pair of grungy overalls and boots to go into the fields, it was as much recreation as farming.   One of my recurring memories of childhood was our herd of cows escaping from the fields in which they were feeding.  Occasionally they made in onto a neighbouring field, but most often they escaped onto the public road.  My mother would look out the kitchen window, and inevitably make the phone call to my dad at the office:  “Claude, the cows are out again.”

For my part, I’d decided by the age of six that I was not a farm girl and hatched a plan which I eventually achieved to live in New York.  After I was married, my husband and I agreed that the final decisions about the inside of our property would be mine, while the decisions about outside were his.  It’s worked out well.  The closest I got to gardening was to water our decorative house plants.

Several years ago, however, a friend introduced me to square-foot gardening, a process by which one grows plants in planters rather than fields or allotments, and which I thought sufficiently urban to try.  I’ve rather enjoyed being introduced to various plants which ultimately land on our dinner table.  Handling them seems to me rather like managing a kindergarten of energetic two-year olds all of whom have a personal opinion about what they want to do.  Since our opinions don’t always agree, we have learned to compromise.

I ran into a problem with the strawberries, though.  Last February, I meticulously prepared a planter raised several feet above the ground with a mixture of vermiculite, compost, and a peat-substitute, and  planted two dozen plugs,  I ran a watering system to feed each plant and constructed a frame and netting to protect the berries from our endemic flock of wood pigeons.  It was a lot of work, but I was chuffed, and the strawberry plants looked just as happy.

Two weeks ago, the bottom of the planter fell out, spilling its contents all over the ground.  It took me three days to rebuild and replant it, but in the end it looked as good as new.  The strawberries brushed themselves off and adapted to their shake-up as well.  It was worth the effort to have made the repairs.

Thursday, at the end of a long working day outside together when we were just about ready to sit down for a well-earned gin and tonic, my husband came into the kitchen and said “Come here.  I’m afraid you aren’t going to like this.  You aren’t going to like this at all.”  We went outside to see the strawberry planter had collapsed again.  I started to laugh.  My husband looked at me quizzically.

“Tell Claude the cows are out again,” was all I could say.

I’ve put the planter together again, this time with better screws and stronger support bars.  And I apologized to the neighbour’s cat.  I’m sure it wasn’t his fault after all.



May 13, 2014

Money matters

Despite my silence, I have been giving some hard thought to just what it is that makes us all equal, and what inalienable rights and responsibilities flow from that fundamental equality.  I said in my last post that this equality obviously cannot be defined in monetary terms.  And of course it can’t.

But on further thought, it doesn’t seem that simple.  Almost the world over, we need money to meet some of our most basic needs – food, shelter, clothing.  Without a financial base, we cannot get an education, hope to do many of the jobs that are essential to a functioning society,  even to raise a family.

Seeing this, many people concerned with fairness and justice support the concept of a minimum wage – the belief that people should, by law, be paid enough for the work they do to live responsibly in dignity, to develop their individuality and skills, and to contribute to the common good sufficiently to help care for those who cannot work at a paying job.

So far so good.  In theory this should allow us to use our talents to contribute to the diversity that is so essential to the human community.  So we will ultimately be quite different in our contributions, our levels of education, our social and financial status, our popularity, our physical abilities.

But we’re human beings.  We often try to game the system.  Or turn it around in a complete reversal of values.  So on the one hand, there are those who will try to get social and financial support without working, even when they can.  Or we somehow conclude not that we pretty much all need some basic financial base in order to develop and flourish, but that if we have more money we must, by that fact, be more important, more valuable, even more virtuous than those who don’t.

Today, for instance, we have the far right who think that social security or health care should be earned, and if you don’t earn it, that’s your lazy fault and you should get along without it.

And we have those on the far left who will strike for unconscionable wages, whatever it costs the community. Similarly, there are many who think that no other criteria should be required except that one has at least one child, and that the more children one has, the more funding should be given, no questions asked.

I can’t buy either of these conclusions.  I think the far right are wrong in failing to appreciate how much we each need to be given what we have not earned.  We need to be loved, we need  opportunities, we need encouragement, and forgiveness and even to be given the chance to overcome failure and mistakes – sometimes big mistakes.  Personally, I am revolted by the idea of the Great and the Good.  I’m revolted by the idea that “success” is defined in terms of money.  I’m revolted by the idea that more elevated human beings must help “the poor”.  Whatever our finances, we need to help each other just as much as we need to be helped — all of us.

But I think the far left too often do not appreciate that we each need to feel that we are needed, that we need to make a contribution.  And just as having greater wealth does not necessarily make us more or less virtuous, neither does being poor.  The poor are not intrinsically either more virtuous or more criminal.

All of which gets me, rather tiresomely I fear, back to the conclusion that we are all part of an incredible universe.  We are all incomplete by ourselves, and we need each other every bit as much as we need to be individuals.  We’ll make mistakes.  Some of will make big, destructive mistakes.  Even when we are trying to be heroic, to make a significant contribution.  But that’s the way we were made.

So after this little sermon to myself, I will continue to do my hum-drum best.

And be grateful beyond words for a chance to share in this great incredible mystery of life.



April 30, 2014

What makes us equal?

Equality is one of those soft fuzzy words, like love, that almost everybody says is a good idea.  Politicians, philosophers, theologians, and most people in everyday life think it’s a great idea, even an important principle.

Pope Francis in recent weeks has said that building equality is quite possibly the biggest challenge of the modern world.  Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics has just published a book on capitalism in the 21st century, presenting powerful data that the growing disparities between the rich and the poor in countries from America and Britain to emerging economies risks fueling significant social unrest, democratic deficits and even revolution.

But if we look beneath the surface, what different people mean by equality is so different that they sometimes seem to be completely opposite concepts masquerading behind the same word.  Is it based, as the U.S. Constitution suggests, on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?   or the Golden Rule in which everyone deserves to be treated as we ourselves would wish to be treated?  or the religious exhortation to “love one another”?  These are principles which many of us support.  But our universal agreement about what they mean breaks down almost immediately after we try to apply them.

The difficulty, as I see it, is that equality tends to become reduced solely to economic issues, which in turn become inextricably mixed with our human diversity.  It would be great if we could just give everybody the same amount of money, period.  But apart from the fact that nobody would put up with it, at the end of the day, some people would still  manage to have more money at the end of the week than others.  So the essence of our equality cannot be economic.

Just as important as equality to our happiness and survival is our diversity, our vastly different abilities and talents.  We are all different.  And we need to be different.  We need others who are different from us to be complete ourselves.  We can’t each grow our own food, make our own clothes, build our own shelter.  We can’t even have offspring without the cooperation of a member of our opposite sex.  Our great diversity is one of the greatest attributes of the human species, and why we have been able to accomplish so much.  Some people are great athletes, some are skilled mathematicians, others musicians.  Some people have great social sensitivity and a capacity for insight and kindness, others are unusually creative, have exceptional language abilities, or engineering or spatial abilities.  Some people have a dogged determination that keeps them going in the face of great adversity, others  have acute sensory abilities.  There are great leaders, great facilitators, great doctors, great financial analysts, great teachers.  The list is endless, and we each can benefit from almost every one of them.

The problem is that diversity gets confused with equality.  In thousands of very important ways we are not equal, and instead of rejoicing in our combined strengths and gifts, we often are resentful.  Diversity in relation to religious beliefs and cultural practices and in relation to material wealth seem to me to be the areas where we have the most trouble accepting diversity.  If you are “one of us,” it might be more tolerable for you to have more than I do.

But if you speak a different language, practice a different religion, or have a different colour skin, resentments often swell to a determination to stamp out your gift.  Besides war, there are many social practices and laws which work quietly to eliminate diversity on the grounds that it’s “not fair.”  Or that acknowledging one kind of gift will make others feel inferior.  We ignore or even denigrate many great contributions in place of superficial accomplishments like “celebrity.”

Clearly we can’t reduce equality to economics.  And yet there is a bottom line.  There are basic things which every individual in any society needs to flourish, and we can’t assure that basic equality with monetary handouts.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what those basic needs are.  And also asking to what extent society has an obligation to do everything possible to give every individual a chance to fulfill their potential.

I’m not so naive as to think I can come up with the definitive answers.  I’d be competing with Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Marx, and the founding fathers of more than one country, and too many others to name.  But it’s what I’m thinking about these days, so it’s what I plan to blog about for the next couple of posts.




April 25, 2014

“Made in the USA”

A friend has just sent me a You-tube arguing that Americans should stop buying imported goods and instead “Buy American.”  It presents what initially might sound like a rather convincing argument:  if we stopped paying foreigners for making things for us, and instead put our workers back into our own factories, America would completely eliminate unemployment.

It sounds well-informed with all sorts of statistics to back up its argument.  But I think it is economically and perhaps even morally quite naive.  Inward investment – ie:  investments from companies setting up businesses in poorer countries – has been the single most effective means of reducing poverty in the emerging economies in the last 20 years.  So now America brings all those jobs back “home”?  What happens to the families of those workers who have been working to support their own families in other countries?  young women who are supporting their families are driven back onto the streets, children no longer have any chance of an education, medical help is harder to get, starvation increases.

And trade is reduced not only for the emerging economies but for America.  America sells our cars, our computers, our food, etc. to the people in other countries who can now afford them.  That’s why free trade, when it is done well, is a win-win situation.  Each country sells to the other what they can best produce or grow, and buys from the other those things that are better done in that country.
Under the influence of Gandhi, India tried the Totally Self-Sufficient policy — we will make our own clothes, grow our own food, build our own trains & cars, etc.  It was in response to a one-sided trade arrangement that Britain had set up which had been great for the British — they imported Indian cotton, brought it back to the UK, turned it into cloth and clothes and sold it back to the Indians.  So it was understandable that India thought they could do it for themselves.  But it is only in recent decades when they opened the country up to international trade that they seriously began to reduce grinding poverty in the country. China tried it too, closing its doors to foreigners, and as a result, the West went galloping ahead.
No, Buy American is, in my opinion, an ignorant and destructive economic policy.
Yes, what we call “free trade” can be lopsided and destructive, and in some cases needs serious rebalancing.  But my own concern is not fundamentally with free trade.  Actually, many jobs are now coming back to the U.S., as transportation is getting cheaper, and workers in developing countries are demanding better pay.  So the issue is not essentially that foreigners are taking all our jobs, but rather that so few at the top of American society are taking such a great proportion of the profit.  For at least 30 years, the middle classes in the U.S. have been getting less and less of the profits while the CEO’s and those in the top 5% are making mind-boggling profits which are not filtering down to the workers.  And if you want to add another problem, it is technology.  A lot of jobs are simply disappearing, and being replaced by automation and robots.  
So we might very well find ourselves back to the question Henry Ford asked a century ago about his cars:  how can I make them affordable enough for people to buy them?  The whole entire global economic system is changing, and solutions like “buy American” aren’t going to work.  I think ultimately it could make things worse.

Because we are all in this together  It’s a global society now, and we can’t solve our own problems without worrying about everybody else.  This isn’t Christian charity.  It’s hard economic fact.  The bottom line is that I have to worry about you for my own self-interest.

April 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.

April 16, 2014

“I don’t know” is a big step forward

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:12 pm

With eight younger brothers and sisters, I didn’t need to say “I don’t know” very often when I was growing up.  I was in my middle age before my sisters started to tease me, suggesting that perhaps I didn’t always still know better than they did about any conceivable subject we might talk about.

Ah, I thought, I might be able to stand up in the classroom and deliver lectures like I’m more knowledgeable than anybody else in the room.  But in social relations I needed to make a small adjustment.

Being a master at rationalizing, I began to notice how often people who are experts in their field were able to say “I don’t know,” and make it sound like a really really intelligent insight.  First of all, I often didn’t even understand the question, let alone be in a position to acknowledge that I didn’t know the answer.  But I also began to realize that if we can’t say “I don’t know,” I’m not going to learn anything more than I already know.  So actually, the ability to say “I don’t know” is a very big step forward from ignorance.

I’m thinking about this today because I have  just had a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in evolution.  “God didn’t make me from a monkey,” he stated firmly.  “What about the science?” I asked.  “Oh, I don’t know the science”, he replied.  “I just know that evolution is just a theory.”

I didn’t dare ask about global warming.


April 8, 2014

Who are my people?

I have often been surprised in recent years by the number of friends and family who have told me that they don’t believe anymore a lot of what the Roman Catholic church teaches, nor do they feel an obligation to abide by many of the church’s moral dictates.   The surprise is not that so many people find the church’s teaching unbelievable.  The surprise is how many of these same people still consider themselves Catholics.

I have asked myself a hundred times how this is possible.  How can someone reject fundamental doctrines, many of which are even supposed to be infallible, and still consider oneself a Catholic?  The Catholic Church itself tries to convince us that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.  Catholics cannot become “non-Catholics.”  They are lapsed Catholics, or perhaps even more accurately “fallen-away Catholics.”

But this doesn’t match up with my own sense of myself.  Although I am still discovering ways in which my early socialization as a Catholic influences my thinking, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, I feel no desire to interact with the institution of  Roman Catholicism today, and I would not describe myself to anyone else as “Catholic.”

In pondering this conundrum for myself, I have come to understand that doctrine is not as important to many people as I was taught.  For many people it is as Harvey Cox put it, “if you feel you belong, then you belong.”

Why then, raised as I was as a Catholic with friends even today going back to my Catholic days, do I not feel as if I am a Catholic?  It’s not that I don’t feel welcome.  It’s that I absolutely do not want to belong to a Church that seems to me to be so rigid, so frightened, so sexually neurotic, so authoritarian.  But above all, I feel no sense of identification with an institution that itself cuts people off.   Even if one agreed (which I don’t) that gays and the divorced or those who have an abortion are by definition sinners, how can a church that argues that we are all sinners — all of us — cut some sinners off from communion with those who presumably consider themselves saved?

It’s almost as if there were a group of Catholics getting ready to stone the woman caught in adultery.  And then when Jesus said that he who was not guilty of any sin should throw the first stone, the entire Catholic congregation started throwing.

This seems to me to deny the single valid core message of  Christianity:  that we are all one.  We are all in this together.  Two thousand years ago, St. Paul told the Galatians that “here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Paul did not say that here we are the saved rather than sinners.  He did not say we are Catholics rather than ex-Catholics or non-Catholics.  I think today he would probably say that here we are neither Catholic or Protestant, Black or White, Muslim or Christians, Buddhists or Communists.  We are all of these things.  Because the essential command of Christianity is to love our fellow human beings.  All human beings.

This does strip Christianity of any claim to being the one and only true religion.  Many other religions also are based on a fundamental respect for all humankind, even for all of life.  Yes, of course, we belong to our own communities, our own cultures.  We belong to different ethnic groups, different nations, different sexes, with different talents, interests, skills, and opinions.  But that is potentially a great strength for humanity, not a weakness.  We have incalculable benefit  to gain from embracing our differences.

So if I’m going to feel a kinship with a community, it has got to be one that respects our differences.  It must be a community that recognizes that we are all of us incomplete in different ways and that we all need each other.  Above all, it is a community that doesn’t cut off anybody who might disagree with the high command.

Am I, I wonder, a minority?


April 1, 2014

When did we start making fools of ourselves?

Filed under: For when nothing is going right,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:14 pm

The origins of April Fools day are not clear.  Some people say it began with the Roman festival of Hilaria held at the end of March.  Others say it began in the 1500’s with the switch to  the Gregorian calendar that reduced the year from 13 equal lunar months to 12, and moved the celebration of the new year from April 1 to January 1.  Others point to beginnings in India and Iran.  Some Biblical-based claims have even been made that it was Noah with the animals on his ark who began it all.

But really, it’s a wonderful day, isn’t it?  when we can laugh at ourselves and each other for being either clever or naive.

My favourite April Fools’ story is still the BBC’s documentary on the failure of the spaghetti crop in Italy.

But I do rather like the story about the business student who replaced the filling in chocolate Oreo cookies with toothpaste and served them to a friend.


With best wishes for a laugh-filled day.

March 27, 2014

Magnifying a ray of sunshine

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:35 pm

Tesla is an electric car company that has recently announced plans to build a “gigafactory”  possibly in Arizona.  The goal is to double the world’s production of lithium-ion batteries while reducing the cost by 50% by 2020  for batteries that charge faster with a higher storage capacity than anything on the market today.

It’s potentially a serious game-changer.  If  Tesla succeeds, we are much closer to affordable storage batteries for individual homes which charge up when the sun shines or the wind blows and then give us heat, light, and power when the sun goes down.

Ultimately, this could do a great deal to reduce environmental pollution and climate change.

But it will be highly disruptive.  The role of traditional energy companies will change radically.  Energy companies in Germany are already facing huge losses as a result of renewables there. (One company posted a loss of $2.76 billion last year.)   Traditionally, energy companies have smoothed out the delivery of electricity to our homes and businesses, so that we mostly experience a steady steam of electricity whether the sun is shining or not, or however much electricity is being pulled out of the grid at any given peak time.

Of course, there aren’t any simple answers for problems as huge and complex as our increasing global use of energy.

But part of the solution lies in human ingenuity.

This might be a big one.

March 22, 2014

Last voucher?

Filed under: Growing Old,Illness and disease,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:33 pm

In 1957 I was a teenager when I caught the Asian flu.  I was very sick, but the doctors said it was a new strain and those of us who got it would probably have immunity to the flu for many years.  It was 30 years before I had the flu again, and another 15 before I got it a second time.  I was sick enough that time to think I might die, but also sick enough to go back to sleep and promise to worry about it if I woke up.

Two weeks ago I came down with the 2014 version of the flu.  I haven’t been sick enough to think I was dying, but I do understand why it kills people, especially the elderly.  The worst of it, after the incessant hacking cough, is that I can’t get rid of it.  Every time I think I’ve finally vanquished it, I start coughing again, or fatigue sweeps over me and even the most mundane daily jobs seem gargantuan.  Which is why my last post was March 15.   I’m missing my cyber-conversations, though, so hope to return without too much delay.

But I am thinking perhaps I’ve used up my last flu-protection voucher issued in 1957.




March 15, 2014

How not to be a victim: a demonstration


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


March 14, 2014

Not powerless!

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:33 pm

Tony Benn, a leader Labor politician died at the age of 88 today.  He was a man of principle, and has been praised even by those politicians who didn’t always agree with him.

But one leading politician praised him for “defending the powerless.”   I found myself bristling.

From my limited perspective, Benn did not degrade members of the working class whom he represented  by calling them powerless.  He did not suggest that people with less money, less education, or with other social or economic disadvantages were merely helpless victims who had to be helped by the more fortunate.

Yes, he fought for justice.  Yes, he fought tenaciously for human rights, for democracy, for education.  But I never heard him suggest that anybody is without choice, that anybody must submit to being a victim because they are powerless.

Do we need help sometimes?  Absolutely!  But the first step in not being a victim is to refuse to be one.  One of the things counselors for rape victims sometimes find is that some women insist on identifying some behaviors in which they engaged which may have been interpreted – however wrongly – as a come-on.   What the women are saying is that they can take some responsibility for what happens to them in the future, that they are not powerless, that they refuse to be nothing more than victims to explain what happens to them.

We might not always like our choices.  But as long as we are conscious, we can choose.

March 10, 2014

What does genius look like?

It is amazing sometimes how ordinary extraordinary people look.  Sometimes they even look like outstanding failures.  Churchill was a miserable student, Einstein’s teachers thought he was lazy, sloppy, and insubordinate.  Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.”  Walt Disney was once fired from a job because he had no imagination.   Beethoven’s music teacher said that as a composer, he was hopeless.

Here in Cambridge, England, a hot-house of geniuses, one learns not to presume.  That man in the wheel chair making his way across the greens might be Stephen Hawking.  But many other extraordinary men are not so easily recognized.  In fact, they might even be women.  But the ordinariness of greatness is not just true in Cambridge or Silicon Valley or other places where known geniuses gather.

I have just read what may be my all-time favourite story of the sheer doggedness that I think explains why genius so often looks like failure to us ordinary folk.  There is a self-determination that comes from within and that refuses to be daunted by society’s prosaic standards of success.

Arunachalam Muruganantham was a school dropout from a poor family in southern India.  He did not develop the vaccine that eliminated small pox, or that can prevent polio or aids or malaria.  He developed a machine that women can use to make cheap sanitary pads.  Since poor menstrual hygiene causes some 70% of all reproductive diseases in India and an unknown number of maternal deaths, it matters to a lot of families.

But not only was Muruganantham a school dropout.  He risked his family, his money, and his reputation in the process.   They thought he was crazy, that he himself was suffering from some bizarre sexual disease, and should be ostracized.  Nobody, but nobody, believed in the truth or value of what he was doing.

Shortly after he was married in 1998, he discovered the filthy rags his wife used during menstruation.  When he asked her why, she said she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy milk or run the household  if she bought sanitary pads.  Later he learned that along with rags that they were too embarrassed to disinfect by drying in the sun, women also used other substances like sand, sawdust, and leaves.

So Muruganantham decided to buy his wife some sanitary pads.   That’s when he found out that pads themselves cost 40 times more than the 1/2 oz of cotton out of which they were made cost.  He decided he could make the pads cheaper himself.  The problem — well, one problem anyway – was that he could not get women to test out his pads.  So he decided he would have to test the pads on himself .  He created a source of bleeding by punching holes in a football bladder and fillin it with goat’s blood.  Then he went about the daily activities of life constantly pumping blood to test his pad’s absorption.  

Villagers believed he was a pervert, or possessed by evil spirits.  He avoided being chained upside down to a tree by agreeing to leave the village.  His wife and mother had already left him.

It took four and a half years before he finally discovered the process required to make sufficiently absorbent pads.  The machines cost thousands of dollars.  So he set about designing his own.

And that is the gift he is giving to India.  The machine is simple and affordable, and not only provides hygienic sanitary pads for India’s women.  It also provides a source of income for thousands of women who can now make and sell them to others.

Muruganantham stands next to his invention in a still from the documentary Menstrual Man

A year after he had made the first machine, someone entered it into a national innovation competition.  It came out first among 943 entries.  The award he received from India’s president put him in the limelight, and is helping to sell the machines.  It also redeemed him in the eyes of his wife, his mother, and the village which had ostracized him.

The machine could make Muruganantham a rich man.  But that’s not what he wants.  People don’t die of poverty, he says.  They die of ignorance.  That’s what he wants to change.

March 1, 2014

The question of war in Ukraine

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 4:10 pm

Last month I began an exploration of World War I, because that was when wars became industrialized, using tanks,  germ warfare and mustard gas, bombs and submarines and the hell-holes of the trenches.  I thought that if I could understand that war that I would be able to decide for myself whether I thought the horrors of war were ever justified.

I have now read two books about World War I, read reviews of four more, and thus far watched three BBC documentaries debating whether it was a futile war which Britain and America should have stayed out of, or whether, terrible as it was, the Allied victory saved the world from even greater enslavement, brutality, and bloodshed.  I know a great deal more about the events leading up to that war and the reasoning of politicians as they grappled with it.  I now have a great deal of information but rather than producing answers, it has left me with many more questions.

BelgiumThe first thing that seems apparent to me is that at the beginning, it is rarely clear what a war is really about.  Even those who start it seem to find themselves fighting for different reasons and goals than they first had in mind.  History generally begins WWI the Sunday morning in June 1914  when  a student drop-out assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the  heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as he was on his way to church in Sarajevo.  This took place in the context of  an empire threatened by calls for independence in the Balkans.  Germany immediately sent word that it would support the Empire should it attack what is now called Bosnia.  It looked as if it could be a short sharp war that nobody would notice and would quell the unrest which the Empire was facing.  But Russia, worried that the attack could spread to Serbia, lined up against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Then France, responding to its alliance with Russia allied herself with Russia.  Germany at this point thought it could take over France before Russia had time to get there, and invaded Belgium because militarily that was the best way to invade France.

It almost worked.  There was one last battle to be won, in which Germany had overwhelming force, and they had already drawn up their demands for any peace settlement.  It included parts of France and Russia.  But they lost the battle and had to retreat.

That is what changed Britain’s mind about getting involved.  First of all, Germany had invaded Belgium, a sovereign country uninvolved in the dispute, for no other reason than that it was militarily advantageous to them.  This violated an international agreement, a violation which made Britain feel highly vulnerable should a triumphant Germany be installed across the Channel.  Germany was also building huge ships, which ultimately would threaten Britain’s control of the high seas and so the entire British colonial empire.  Finally, Germany’s goals, as revealed in the demands for the peace settlement which they had thought was imminent, showed a Germany bent on vastly expanding the lands it controlled.  Almost overnight the British public backed a war which up until then they had resisted.

America got involved in the war on similar grounds of self-preservation.  For several years, President Woodrow Wilson kept American out of a European war which most Americans felt had nothing to do with them.  Wilson also saw his own position as a peace-maker.  But a German diplomat stationed in Washington rather stupidly – from Germany’s point of view anyway – admitted that intercepted messages from Germany to Japan and Mexico were indeed valid.  Germany was encouraging Japan and Mexico to invade the U.S., promising Mexico that it would support its attempt to regain Texas, and plotting with Japan to take control of Latin America.  As in Britain, the American public  swung behind a war effort against Germany almost immediately after they felt personally threatened.

World War I killed an average of ten thousand people a day for four years, including eight million troops and almost as many civilians.

The news today is about Ukraine.  It has some worrisome similarities to the situation in 1914.  Is it all right for the EU and US to effectively say to Russia that they can take over the Crimea simply cutting it off from Ukraine?   Should we say that the Russian helicopters flying over that part of the country is not an unacceptable invasion?  should we pretend that we don’t think  the troops who have taken over the sea and air ports aren’t Russian?  Should we say it’s not worth the fight?  – after all half the people in the Crimea speak Russian and would prefer to be part of Russia. Crimea is only that bottom bit sticking out into the Black Sea.  And Russia only gave the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

Is it comparable to Germany’s invading Belgium in WWI?  And if so, was it worth fighting then?  Would millions fewer have died if Britain and America had stayed out of the war altogether?  Could the Crimea become another Belgium?  Should it?

I don’t know.  Ukraine does not have a functioning government.  It has been corrupt almost since the Orange Revolution.  The people in the west of the country want to become part of the European Union some day.  Can we help and support the creation of a free, truly democratic government and functioning economy there without stumbling into an escalating war?  Can we find a compromise with Russia that protects the strategic interests of all the parties?

We all are in great need of wisdom and skill and knowledge.  And good fortune.

February 25, 2014

I broke my fingernail and it’s your fault

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

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

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

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




February 21, 2014

Life on the street

Filed under: Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 4:30 pm

Yesterday I sent a link to a newspaper article to a friend originally from Norway.  The story is about a ten-year-old boy near Oslo who, very early one snowy morning this week, put his little sister in the back of the car, and began a 68-mile drive to visit his grandparents.  Unfortunately – or otherwise – he drove into a snow bank 6 miles down the road, and was eventually found stuck but unhurt by a snowplow driver.  When the police arrived, the ten-year-old told them he was a dwarf and that he’d left his license at home.

Having grown up on a farm where several of my brothers were driving tractors and even cars around the property by the age of ten, my first thoughts as I read the story was about recent research suggesting that creativity tended to be associated with a relaxed attitude toward rules.  My friend who lives in New York city took a slightly more concerned view and wondered if something of concern was going on in the family home from which the boy was trying to escape.

She also sent me, at the same time, another story from life on the street subject to more than one interpretation:

A young nun who worked for a local home health care agency was out making her rounds when she ran out of gas. As luck would have it there was a gas station just one block away. She walked to the station to borrow a can with enough gas to start the car and drive to the station for a fill up. The attendant regretfully told her that the only gas can he owned had just been loaned out, but if she would care to wait he was sure it would be back shortly.
Since the nun was on the way to see a patient, she decided not to wait and walked back to her car.  After looking through her car for something else to use, she spotted a bedpan she was taking to the patient.  Always resourceful, she carried it to the station, filled it with gasoline, and carried it back to her car.
As she was pouring the gas into the tank of the car, two men watched her from across the street.  One of them turned to the other and said “I know that Jesus turned water into wine, but if that car starts, I’ll become a Catholic!”

February 17, 2014

Us and Them

Next September, Scotland is going to have a referendum to decide whether they want to be an independent country again and no longer part of Great Britain (also known as the United Kingdom) which today is composed of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.  The wording of the referendum has been agreed by the current governments in London and Edinburgh, and whatever the outcome, nobody foresees the issue degenerating into outright war.

But the situation is becoming tetchy.  Last week all the main parties in the UK agreed that if Scotland chose independence, Britain would not agree to their using the pound sterling as a common currency.  Scotland could continue to use the pound, if she wished, but her debts would no longer be secured by the Bank of England in London.  The reasoning, which seems obvious to me, is that the euro has already demonstrated that a common currency used by a number of independent countries each responsible for their own budgets is unsustainable in the long run.  The Scottish National Party which is Scotland’s independence party is accusing the English of being bullies.  And when David Cameron, the Prime Minister, encouraged the English to ask their Scottish friends to vote against independence, many Scots asked who the English thought they were to tell them how to vote.  Etc., etc.

I strongly suspect the exchanges are going to become more heated, if not more enlightened.  My hope is that by the time September arrives, the trading of accusations will not have become so bad as to make it impossible for the British and the Scots to work together, whether Scotland is or isn’t independent.

All of which has set me wondering again if we human beings are capable of getting along in our increasingly globalized world.  Can we stand being this relentlessly close to each other and still maintain our individual identities?

It seems to me, war inevitably requires a sense that “Us”, and “Them” are incompatible.  Whether the conflicts are between Catholics and Protestants, Black and White, Shias and Sunnis, Allied and Axis powers,  the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, or one of the hundreds of other warring sides, it happens when we find it impossible to share our essential identities with others.  Christianity still preaches that we are all God’s children, but that has not stopped us from killing each other as intolerable heretics.  Whites for centuries enslaved Blacks on the grounds that Blacks are inferior.  Tribes in Africa and Asia are also unable to find common ground, and would rather die than live together.

I don’t know if we can do it in this stage of our evolutionary development.   Maybe we are too aggressive and insufficiently cooperative, unable to recognize our common humanity whatever our differences.  The European Union was founded as a result of World War II, in the belief that if Europe were sufficiently united economically, countries would avoid the destructiveness of war.  But more than a functioning economy is required.  Sometimes people don’t understand how much cooperation a global economy requires.  Sometimes they’d rather take the chance of going it alone rather than take orders from Brussels or London or Washington or Moscow or Beijing.

It is highly unlikely that a Scottish vote for independence would utterly destroy their economy.  I strongly suspect independence would come at an economic cost, however, to both Scotland and to a lesser extent to the rest of Great Britain.  But that’s not the only issue.  Many Scots don’t like the feeling that they are being ruled by London, just as many states in the U.S. resent federal laws and taxes, or the way many in England resent the rules coming from Brussels and the European Union.

As anybody in any long-term relationship has discovered, making it last requires both compromise and cooperation.  If both feel that the independence one gives up is worth what one receives in its stead, the relationship is experienced as a success.  But if I’m losing more than I’m giving, I want out.

I suppose it’s the same way with countries.  Right now it’s the Scots who are asking the question.  But there are many other places too that are asking if they wouldn’t be better off on their own.  Scotland, I am glad, is not resorting to bombs and guns to find the answer.

Still, I hope things don’t get too nasty before the issue is resolved.

February 12, 2014

Taking the weather seriously

Some years ago, I read a weather forecaster who said that the effects of global warming were unlikely to be what people were expecting – even looking forward to.  Familiar weather patterns would not disappear, he said, but become instead more extreme.  Droughts would occur more often and last longer.  So would floods, snow storms, and deadly heat waves.

For Britain, the forecaster said, the chances were that colder winter temperatures would sweep down from the arctic.  They might dump snow on America, but as the weather systems crossed the Atlantic, they would turn to rain, bringing more rain, gale-force winds, and potentially disastrous floods to Ireland and Britain.

Well, this might not be global warming.  One can’t say with certainty until a clear pattern has set in over many years, by which time it may be far more difficult if not impossible to reverse forces that have been triggered by greenhouse gases.

But the weather we are experiencing now in Ireland and Britain sounds like it could be a brutal introduction to environmental change, and is breaking centuries of records.  Storms have been arriving on a conveyor belt from America since December.  Some people have been flooded out of their homes since before Christmas, and many will never be able to go back.  Tens of thousands of acres of farmland are under water, and herds of farm animals are in grave trouble.  Tonight more than a quarter of a million homes in Ireland are without electricity and half that many again in England.  A thousand people were evacuated from their homes just last night.  Sewage water is backing up into the streets and into people’s houses.  Some homes have been told not to flush their toilets but to use porto-toilets.  Gale winds have washed rail lines into the sea and blocked access to much of England’s south-west coast.

The army and navy are both out, supporting thousands of volunteers who have been working for weeks to try to hold the sea at bay, and politicians have been buying boots in order to wade about in the waters to make it look like they are doing something.

What is most worrying is that it is getting worse and there is no end in sight.  These weekly – even tri-weekly – storms could last into the end of March, bringing more rain and floods, uprooting more trees whose roots have been loosened by the water, pushing more people out of their homes.  When I hear weather forecasters telling Americans in the north that more snow is coming to be added to their already 15-foot snow banks, I tremble.  I know what that kind of snow is like.  But when it arrives as unrelenting rain, it’s devastation can be even worse.

We here in Cambridge are not getting the worst of it.  Roads are closed and fields are flooded.  Yesterday when we returned from shopping, we had to take four separate detours to get through.

But we’re not flooded out – yet anyway.

I won’t say it’s easy, but there is a spirit of determination among the English right now.  I won’t say they aren’t angry.  And they certainly aren’t enjoying it.  But they are pulling up their boots.

If the only expected result of global warming were the potential for flooding, I wouldn’t worry about Britain.  They’re going to solve this problem one way or another.

In the meantime, it’s wet.  And depressing.

I think I’ll make a cup of tea





February 10, 2014

Alternative to innocence

I have just this minute finished reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmermann Telegram, the volume in her trilogy that explores how America finally entered WWI.  It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, and makes me realize how uninformed I have been.  It has convinced me that it is not enough to take a principled stance against war.  We need more.

President Wilson adamantly stayed out of the war for two years on the grounds that America had to remain uninvolved militarily in order to negotiate a peace between Germany and Britain.    He believed that America’s entering the war would simply harden the implacable lines of disagreement.  He did this despite the fact that by 1916 German troops bestrode Europe from the English Channel to the frontiers of Russia, and from the Baltic to the Black Seas, occupying Poland, Romania, Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, and industrial France as far west as Reims.   In addition, German allies, the Austria-Hungary empire, and Turkey held the Balkans from Italy to Greece, and from Baghdad to Jerusalem.  German u-boats had sunk the Lusitania which was not a military ship with huge loss of life.   Even when Germany announced that any ship, even of a neutral country, would be attacked by German u-boats,Wilson remained determined to keep America out of the war.

It was only when German u-boats sank three US military ships with massive loss of life, and shortly after that, when Wilson got incontrovertible evidence that Germany was negotiating with Mexico to join forces with Japan to invade the U.S. and  take back Texas and Arizona that he – and the American public – decided that war was unavoidable.  It was, Wilson said, democracy or dictatorship.  It was a cause more important than peace.

I have no doubt that had I been alive then, I would have supported the war.  I think that the evidence still supports the evaluation that Germany was set on world domination and the destruction of democratic governments in Britain and America.

But today I ask  Wilson’s own anguished question:  “For God’s sake, is there no other alternative!?”

I am convinced that a stance of pacifism is not enough.  It might be moral.  It is undoubtedly often courageous.  Yes, we need to stop glorifying war.  Yes, we need to stop using it as our weapon of choice when we feel threatened or outraged, even legitimately so.  But pacifism by itself is not enough.  It is not enough to say “never again.”  By itself,  it will not stop the almost unimaginable carnage wrought by modern warfare.

It is a hundred years since World War I began.  It is even more imperative, for our sakes, not for God’s, that we commit ourselves to find and implement alternative solutions to our differences.

Far greater minds and hearts than mine have struggled with this question, and have paid a far higher price in the search for answers.  The world is not going to be revolutionized by my search.  But it is a small step.  It is replacing a cozy innocence that belongs to childhood.

February 9, 2014

Gonna study war some more

Since I was old enough to think about it at all, the question I have always asked about a war was whether it was morally justified.  Were the wars being fought because of injustice so grave that it merited killing and dying for?  If all other alternatives had been exhausted, if negotiations or economic forces failed, genocide obviously seemed a cause worth opposing to the death.   Mass starvation, slavery, unjustified invasion for the purpose of taking over a land to which one has no right or need also seemed justifiable reasons to go to war.

But I am now reading Barbara Tuchman’s superb  trilogy examining the events preceding and during World War I – The Proud Tower, The Zimmermann Telegram,  The Guns of August – and I am realizing how very much more complicated the question of war is beyond questions of morality.  In the stories we tell ourselves afterwards, we inevitably make the victors of war into heroes, even saints provided we are the victors, and into villains if we are the losers.  But it’s much much more complicated than that.

It’s not just about good guys and bad guys, right and wrong.

As I look at this question, I feel much the way I felt when 15 years ago I decided to grasp the events of  time since the Big Bang, and ultimately wrote The Big Bang to Now.  My ignorance to begin with was vast.  But I was fascinated, and bit by bit I got a hold of time and the major events of the last 14 billion years – at least those we know about.

I am now staring at the abyss of my ignorance about  war.  I doubt I will achieve sufficient wisdom to write a book on the subject, but this blog has always been primarily my platform for thinking out loud.  So I am going to think out loud as I continue to read.  Any comments or suggestions will be accepted with appreciation.  Not, perhaps, always with agreement.  But I am emphatically in a learning mode right now and am seriously listening.

January 31, 2014

Generation gap

Filed under: The English,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 2:09 pm


Yvettte Cooper, a leading Labour Party member of Parliament, told the annual Labour party conference today about her parental limitations.  

“I have to be realistic,”  she admitted.  “I have to ask my kids how to use the parental controls. “

January 29, 2014

I ain’t gonna study war…

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.





January 28, 2014

Fried eggs or a copper pot

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:28 pm
Tags: ,

A friend who knows I am also a cognitive psychologist just sent me an email she thought I might find of interest:

“A cognitive psychologist friend of mine sent on a piece of trivia:  research has shown that intelligent people have more zinc and copper in their hair.  i am now wearing my copper pot as a hat.    hope it works.   on the street today as i took my daily walk, folks seemed to be treating me with more respect… “



Under the influence of Bette Midler, I’ve always thought the magic trick was a fried egg.  I do try to wear it on the inside though.  I  think it’s more considerate of others not to parade my gifts.

January 27, 2014

The first level below godliness

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 3:23 pm

We had a strange fishy smell in our refrigerator yesterday.  I couldn’t see any cause for the offending order, so I gave it a deep clean this morning.  This is not my usual procedure, which may be why, as I was trying to make the 20-year-fridge look like new, I was remembering that it was nuns who set my much-abused standard for “really clean.”

Image from e-How:  How to Mop a Floor

“Cleanliness is next to godliness” was the motto of the nun who directed my scrubbing the convent pantry floor every afternoon for several years.   The unambiguous implication of Sister Teresita’s daily repetition of her motto was that I was unfortunately lacking in sufficient godliness.

By that standard I’m still not going to make it to the top celestial tiers.

But these days I’m more inclined to think that kindness is closer to godliness than cleanliness.

Unfortunately, compared to some of the acts of kindness I’ve seen in others, I doubt I’m going to make it to the top tiers on that score either.

January 26, 2014

New Year’s resolution adjustment

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:57 pm

My New Year’s resolution just over three weeks ago was to read at least one hour every day.  I’ve now tweaked it a little.  Because I can’t read a full straight hour anymore without starting to nod.  So the second half hour of my “reading” was pretty much wasted.

My first alternatives to reading were to play another computer game, or to grab something surgary, preferably something sugary with chocolate.  That, the snake in the tree said to me, would give me a boost of energy and then I could return to reading with a more lively mind.

All right, I knew the snake was leaving out half the consequences of this latter solution.  My fatigue would return quite quickly, and it would not take long for that sugary chocolate to transform itself into a little bit more stored fat than I needed.  More sensibly, I thought about introducing a daily nap in to my schedule.  But I found I wasn’t tired enough.

So I’m now onto an adjusted resolution.  I’m reading for two half-hour bits every day.

In the process, I’ve discovered something else.  It might be the German in me, but I like living on a schedule.  I am now scheduling my day much more definitively in 30-60 minute slots, and I’m getting much more done.  Or at least, I think I am, and I feel much less unpegged and potentially anxious.  I haven’t got much time to play computer games, which I didn’t enjoy anyway, even as I compulsively pressed the icon for one more game of mahjong.

Of course, life has a way of interfering with schedules.  So I have to be a little bit flexible when we wake up to find the kitchen floor flooded with last night’s rain.  Or I break another molar, requiring three previously unscheduled visits to the dentist.  Or the electricity shuts off and it takes the entire afternoon of experimentation to discover that the immersion heater in the hot water tank is what keeps shorting the system.

Whatever else though, 2014 has not been boring.  Though I do have a few suggestions to the gods of fate for future diversions.  Winning the lottery would be interesting, for instance.

January 23, 2014

What’s wrong with Utopia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 18, 2014

What do you think about your mother?

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff,Teaching,The English — theotheri @ 4:53 pm

Shortly after leaving the convent and before I met my husband, someone gave me a piece of advice that still looks brilliant to me.  “If you want to know whether your perspective husband will see you as an equal, don’t look to his father;  find out what he thinks about his mother.”

It worked for me.  My husband’s mother wanted to be a teacher, but she had to leave school at the age of twelve to support her family.  Nonetheless, Peter thought she was extremely intelligent, with equal amounts of determination and energy.  When I met her I agreed.  At the time, I was wondering whether I was wasting my life as an educator.  She never expressed regret about the opportunities life had not offered her.  But just knowing her  convinced me that giving an education to a young person is one of the most wonderful gifts we can bestow.

I was reminded of that advice recently.  I am now in my 70’s and sometimes subject to the kind of prejudice against the elderly that unfortunately I see quite often here in Britain.  It may be compounded for women compared to men,  and in addition I rarely tell people that I have a Ph.D.  So if young people, particularly young men seriously listen to what I have to say, I notice.

I have a new dentist who I bet has a mother whom he respects.  He’s young, and on my first visit told me that I hadn’t just lost the filling on the tooth I was concerned about, but needed a root canal.  So I grilled him.  I told him I’d already had one root canal done by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and that I did not approach another procedure with automatic trust.  I asked him about his background and experience, and he was completely unthreatened.  I couldn’t look up his record the way I could in the U.S., but I decided that someone who was able to answer my questions without being aggressive or defensive felt confident in his abilities.  So I decided to stay with him.  Yesterday he put the crown on the finished job.  It looks and feels terrific.

I didn’t think that I had the right to ask him what he thinks about his mother.  But I bet he has a high opinion of her.  Or if not his mother, a grandmother, aunt, older sister, or teacher.

I’d love to know.

January 15, 2014

Even my senior moments are organized

Filed under: Growing Old — theotheri @ 3:27 pm

I think it is my German DNA, but I am, above all else, organized.  Not obsessively clean — a layer of dust or a stray spider web in the corner don’t bother me much.  But I am an obsessive organizer.

Yesterday I realized this extends even to my “senior moments,” which occur most often in terms of names.  You’d  think that if one can’t remember something that by definition it can’t be organized.  My insight to the contrary came as I was trying to remember the name of a plant in our garden given to us by a friend several years ago.  I spend five frustrating minutes using the usual trick of describing the object I’m trying to remember, which often leads to success, but still came up with that irritating tip-of-the-tongue blank.  Except that I was pretty sure the plant’s name began with an “A.”

So I went to Google, typed in “perennial plants in the UK,” in the search line and went to a gardening site which listed their offerings in alphabetical order.

Sure enough, there it was – Acanthus!

January 14, 2014

My musical blind spot

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

Earlier this month I read a blog post by pianomusicman who discussed a you-tube of Mahler’s 1st Symphony that he thought was without equal.

So I listened to it.

I listened to it carefully and attentively.

And I was reminded again about a musical blind spot that I’ve never read any research about, but which I know is real.

I have perfect pitch, and my music teacher in high school told me my musical abilities were way above average – that my understanding of the nuances of rhythm and chords was excellent.  What she didn’t know, and what I didn’t discover until years later is that there is a “blind spot” in my musical memory.  When I hear a piece of music, I know whether I have heard it before.  I recognize it, and know how it is going to develop.  But I am almost completely unable to identify it.  If the melody has words, I might be able to figure it out.  But that’s cheating anyway.  Even worse, if I hear the same melody in different contexts, I  don’t recognize that they are the same.

I didn’t know this in my youth, because  the record or CD or musical page I was playing always included the composer.  So I had no idea that if I weren’t told, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a familiar Beethoven or Mozart.  I can tell the difference between Stravinsky and Bach, or between Vivaldi and the Beetles because the structures of their music are so different. (or at least they are to me).   But I would have to guess between Vivaldi’s Spring and Summer.  And hundreds of other classical and popular pieces of music.

So in some very profound way I’m an idiot when it comes to music.  In relation to music, I’m rather like a color-blind painter.

And yet, I understand music in some profound way.  It has taught me things that I do not understand through any other medium.  Only poetry comes close.

I wonder if there’s a partial disconnect between the two halves of my brain.  Perhaps it keeps my analyzing right brain from jumping in and “explaining” before the other half of my brain has a chance to simply absorb the experience itself.

Whatever the reason, the paradox is that my problem might just be the reason why music call tell me things I don’t know in any other way.

January 2, 2014

My 5-minute trick supplement

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:54 pm

In my earlier post about New Year’s resolutions I described The “5-minute trick” I use to keep my craving for sugar under control.  I have found that if I can delay my urge to have “just one more” for 5 minutes, and if during that five minutes I concentrate on something else besides that blessed temptation shouting out at me, the chances are greatly increased that the craving will greatly diminish or even disappear.
Since then, I was reading an research article about exercise as an aid to dieting, which reportedly found that one of the most effective techniques for dealing with food cravings is to engage in ten minutes or so of aerobics.  But another piece of research found that engaging in as little as 3 sessions of 45 second intense aerobic exercise at 3 minute intervals has an even greater effect for some individuals.  The theory is that it works because aerobic exercise stimulates that part of the brain where rational thought predominates, and so reduces the influence of the part of the brain that is responsible for irrational and often destructive cravings.  Short bouts of intense exercise can also, for some people, actually increase overall energy.

So I’m going to try it.  It might be another one of those crazy ideas like cabbage-soup diets or those other fads that eventually return to the oblivion which they deserve.

But I can’t see that I have anything to lose.  And those five minutes with a couple of aerobic bouts might work.  In which case, it’s a 2-for-1 gain:  less sugar, more energy, better brain.   At least I might be able to tell myself it’s making a difference…

I’ll report back in the spring with my assessment.




December 31, 2013

A blue-blooded compliment

Filed under: Thinking about it: Angst amongst the Thickets — theotheri @ 5:22 pm

I grew up thinking that to describe someone as “blue-blooded” was a compliment to their genuineness, their gracious generosity, their unselfish nobility of spirit.  I guess it did.  But that claim to unselfish nobility came from a rotten core of arrogant self-elevation.

I had no idea until today where the term originated, and it certainly never occurred to me it was racist.

But according to Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes, it began in Spain in the 15th century with European colonial aggressions into north and south America.  Throughout the Middle Ages, vicious discrimination existed between “Us” and “Them” but it was based primarily not on genetic or even cultural identity but on religious affiliation.  Jews and Muslims could agree to be baptized, and if their conversions were deemed to be sincere, they would be spared persecution.

But with the discoveries of the “New World,” it seemed that these creatures living there might not be humans like us at all.  Some of them didn’t wear any clothes whatsoever, and their skin seemed to be of a different hue.  They were a different breed.  You could tell, because you could see the blue blood running through the veins on the back of the hands of the white man, indicating that his superiority was not religious, but more fundamental than that.  They were of a different race.

In this sense, modern racism was invented by Europeans – and the first European immigrants brought it with them not only to Central and South America but also to North America.  Fully 95% of the North American Indian population died as a result of either the diseases imported from Europe and to which the Indian population had no immunity, or as the result of the harsh working conditions of what was essentially serfdom imposed by the newcomers who laid claim to the land in the names of their originating country.

And so I profoundly hope I am not blue-blooded in the original sense of the term.  I know for sure my blood runs runs red just like everybody else’s.

December 29, 2013

My 5-minute New Year’s resolution

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:24 pm

Whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, drugs, calories, temper tantrums or finger-nail biting, I suspect that resolutions about addictions are the single most frequent source of  New Year’s resolutions.

The addiction to which I am prone is sugar, especially if it is cuddled up with chocolate and nuts.  I don’t have a weight problem as such, but the only reason I still wear the same size jeans today as when I was 18 is that Lands End size 8 is a good deal more generous than it was 4 decades ago.  And every Christmas I demonstrate to myself just how easily I could slip on another ten pounds a year.  I know my potential to lose control of my sugar intake is very much like that of the alcoholic in relation to alcohol.

The challenge for the addict or potential addict is that additions have the power to overcome almost any resolution by narrowing our consciousness to that single obsession.  I think sometimes that the reasons an addict can find for indulging “just this once” are among the most creative and ingenious known to man.  I knew a man once who actually chained himself to his sofa to make it impossible for him to leave the house to buy cigarettes.  George Best dressed up in his wife’s clothes and posed as a woman in order to get the barman to serve him a drink — or two — or ten.  If you or anyone you love is struggling with an uncontrolled addition, you know the routine.

A long time ago, though, I learned a small trick from a monk who finally managed to lose weight.  The only rule he had was that when he was going to break his diet, he would brush his teeth first.

I never tried that particular distraction, but I have found what works for me is my “five-minute delay.”  You can have that second cookie/candy/piece of cake, I say to myself, if you still want it in five minutes.  In the meantime, get on with what you were doing.

I am still amazed at how often this works for me.  That mad irresistible irrational impulse needs the breath of attention to survive.  And five-minutes is its starvation point for me.  On the rare occasion when it doesn’t work, I give myself the promised forbidden fruit.  But then I apply the 5-minute delay rule to the inevitable impulse to grab a third bite of that tree of the Knowledge of Failure.

I am sure my need to control my sugar intake will remain with me for the rest of my conscious life.  So just to add a little diversification to my annual resolutions, I am also resolving this year to set aside an hour each day for concentrated reading.  Reading is so intrinsically rewarding that you’d think no intelligent person would need to resolve to read.  But I’ve been watching myself develop an eerie preference for playing Free Cell or Solitaire.  It doesn’t give me any satisfaction whatsoever – it’s just a compulsive excuse to waste time.

So I’m simply going to try to crowd it out by doing something I enjoy more.

Whether additional concentrated reading will be evident in a display of brilliant posts is in doubt.  But I rather think it will be one of my more enjoyable resolutions.

December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 17, 2013

Equality is a dangerous word

Equality has a fuzzy comfortable feeling, especially if you’re an American like me.  We have a constitution that says we are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and even though it took a century and a half and a civil war to recognize even in law that WE did not mean only white men, and even though racism still rears its nasty head, we nonetheless all cross our hearts to the concept of equality.

But what does it mean?  What does equal mean?  In hundreds of important ways we are obviously not equal.  We differ in sensory sensitivity, in physical strength and coordination, in talent, in looks, in mathematical, musical, spatial, verbal, and social abilities to name just a few.  And we can only be grateful that this is true.  We would all be indescribably poorer if we were all the same.

And that’s the problem with the word “equality.”  Equal does not mean identical.  It does not mean we all have the same needs, the same abilities, or the same desires or opportunities.

And so, with all due respect for Pope Francis who in so many ways is a breath of fresh air, I think to talk about the injustice of economic inequality is asking for trouble.  Of course it is absurd for Limbaugh to say Francis is advocating Marxism.  If nothing else, it shows how little Limbaugh knows about Marxism.

And yes, there are some aspects of economic inequality which are hugely unjust and which we must try to reduce.   When people do not have the basic needs of food and clothing and shelter, when they are denied education for which they have the ability, when they are sick and denied medical support, when they cannot live even with basic dignity, how can we justify this if we can prevent it?

And that is part of the problem.  How can we prevent the kind of inequality which denies whole groups of society the basic necessities of life, or the right to education? The last century is littered with systems that have tried and failed.  The sources of injustice in society are not simple to eliminate.  India is dealing with the effects of a caste system, Britain a class system, ethnic and tribal differences in Latin America and Africa are both overlaid by waves of colonialism.  American today is dealing with the 2%, whose influence is destroying the hopes of the middle classes that if they work hard enough, they can build a better life and become more prosperous.

But achieving justice does not lie in economic equality.   Nor will it bring happiness or fulfillment.  To preach that it does is to walk down the road of envy and resentment.  Having as much money as everybody else is not the road to happiness.

I think we need two things which are often confused with economic equality.  The first is opportunity.  Not every job should pay equally.  But every adult should be able to do work which enables him or her to survive with dignity and to support those who depend on them.  This might sound like a simple principle, but it demands an educational system that enables young people to gain those skills which will benefit society.  And it demands a functioning economy which provides jobs for society’s workers.  Figuring out how to achieve this is not obvious.  In fact, as the political disagreements demonstrate, we really don’t know for sure how to do it.  My own sense is that we are in desperate need of gifted economists as much as politicians.

Yes, let us offer a helping hand to those in need.  Let us worry about the poor.  But in some sense giving is much easier than receiving.  When  our needs are greatest, it is often humiliating to receive.  But it can be gratifying to give, one can feel quite superior as a giver in a way we can’t at the receiving end.  So let us worry about giving people the opportunity to work, and not languish on benefits or unemployment insurance, or even to starve and live in degrading  penury.

The second thing we need beside opportunity is an appreciation of the vast richness for human society of our diversity.  Let us be grateful that people can achieve things we cannot, that others have talents and abilities we do not have.    We are all in this together.  We need each other.  We need those special gifts of others in order for our own lives to be enriched.  We need to learn to delight in our differences, not resent them, or try to insist that our own differences somehow make us superior.

The great injustices of life are not inequality across the board.  We need inequality.

But we all need love and respect and dignity.  That is how we are equal.

We all need to give and we need to receive.  We do not need to be all the same.

December 14, 2013

Travels of the pumpkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 30, 2013

“You’re welcome.”

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:24 pm


Image source:

If you are an American, you will never believe this.

But the British have imported Thanksgiving.

I’m not kidding, they really have.  Turkeys and all.

Well, also including Black Friday, as well, so it may have a little consumerist motivation and is not all a deep appreciation for all the gifts of life and family and friends.

On the other hand, perhaps they really are grateful, in retrospect that those rebels left England on three ships and didn’t come back?  I haven’t heard anybody say so.  But perhaps British politeness…

November 28, 2013

Way more than my share

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 3:01 pm

Thanksgiving is the only holiday in the year that I celebrate without any qualifications.  What else can I possibly say but Thank You for so much that has been given to me in abundance?

This year I’ve been thinking particularly about how much my students gave to me during my university teaching years.

They were, first of all, challenging.

I’m sure they had little idea how much reading I did to address the questions they were asking.  And how exhilarating I found it.

I also often tried to put them in contact with their own gifts, talents and abilities that many of them did not realize they had.  And once in a while one of them would come back and tell me I’d changed their lives.  Or that I was the best teacher they’d ever had.  Or some other act of appreciation that was way beyond what I deserved.

So getting up at 6:30 am to review my lecture material, or reading hundreds of student papers to give them detailed feedback, was repaid a thousand times over.

I will admit that I always seemed to appreciate the joys of teaching more during the summer break than during the bleak cold winter.

But seriously, being a university professor ranks as one of the greatest joys of my life.

And I don’t think I have ever so much as said a single thank you to those students who gave me so much.  I suspect it’s a little too late now.  But I do know on this Thanksgiving that I have been given far more than I ever earned.

Thank you.



November 26, 2013

Us and them

One of the enduring struggles in human societies for as far back as we can see in history revolves around the inevitable tension between the small and the large.  Some times the tensions is between the individual and the family or the small group that constitute our friends, classmates, neighbours, or associates.  Sometimes the tensions are between families, between teams, between organizations, between ethnic groups, between nations, or even groups of nations.  Inevitably there is always a trade-off in benefits.

We can’t, for instance, work primarily for ourselves or for our own group and still gain all the benefits of cooperating with a larger circle.  And we can’t work for the benefit of the larger group without giving up some of the benefits that come with exclusively pursuing our own.

Often these tensions lead to war – the Allies versus the Axis powers, the east versus the west, the Christians versus the Muslims.  Sometimes the tensions are manifest in political struggles.

The St Andrews Cross and the Union JackToday the Scottish National Party published its arguments for an independent Scotland, which is going to be the subject of a referendum next September.   If they win, Scotland will no longer be part of the United Kingdom, presently consisting of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Scotland and England were united under the same king and parliament in London 400 years ago.  But although they speak a common language, they remain different cultures, rather the way the north and south of the United States are different cultures.  The Scottish National Party is trying to convince the Scottish voters that the benefits of becoming an independent nation of their own will greatly outweigh the benefits of being united with England.

Right now, those Scots who say they will vote for independence are in a minority.  But it is not at all clear how the vote will eventually go.  There are great number of undecideds, people who are not sure whether what they will gain with independence would be less than what they would lose.  For most people the questions seems to be primarily economic, and the paper arguing for independence promises all sort of goodies.  The question being hotly debated is whether these promises are economically realistic in an independent Scotland.

The struggle is not unlike the debate going on in the United Kingdom in general about British membership in the European Union.  All sorts of rules and regulations are sent down from Brussels which apply to all 27 member countries.  They inevitably sometimes feels high-handed, self-serving, picky, or ill-informed.  But they do a great deal to facilitate trade and economic development.  It’s a tension that also parallels the question of States’ rights in America.

As an American, I have no say on the question of Scottish independence.  As an outsider, it doesn’t look like a good economic move to me.  But I have some sympathy with the feeling that London is too far away, too remote.  I watch the struggle of the European Union, and particularly the struggle over its common currency, the euro, as Ireland, Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, even France, struggle, and I think I understand how the Scots feel.  Part of me would like to see the whole EU enterprise fail.   Brussels’ nannying is so infuriating.

But would it be worth it to try to go it alone?

My gut feeling is that in both situations, more would be lost by cutting loose than would be gained.

But for once, neither the EU or Scottish independence are my problems.

Thank goodness.  I have enough to worry about as an American.

November 23, 2013

Comic sense

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:46 pm
Tags: ,

Snopes says it wasn’t written by Schultz, but The Philosophy of Charles Schultz, the creator of the cartoon strip Peanuts feels like it should have been.  The fundamental question is who we remember over time, who makes a difference in our lives.

The point is obvious – people who are kind to us, who go out of their way to help us, whom we enjoy, are the people who have made a difference to us.  It is not the celebrities or the famous whom we remember.  If I’d read this as an adolescent, I would have thought I understood and lived by those values.  After all, I was going to be a missionary nun and spend my life serving the poor.  I was going to make the world a seriously better place.  I didn’t think I was worried about celebrity or wealth or fame.

But with a little rueful self-knowledge that comes with years, I know I didn’t really understand.  In fact, I think if I’d been growing up in the world today, I might very well have thought that the number of friends I had on Facebook was an indicator of just how successful and important I was.  But I was socialized as a serious Catholic.  So my version of celebrity was sainthood.  It certainly wasn’t anonymity!  I was going to be right up there with St. Theresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena, telling popes how to run the world.

In fairness to my parents, I wasn’t named after Therese of Avila but after Therese the Little Flower who was supposed to illustrate that holiness resided in little things.  I thought that meant things like picking pieces of paper up off the floor, or drying the dishes so they were really dry all over.  I didn’t understand it meant kindness or doing obvious mundane things like cooking for the family every day or doing the laundry, or working hard with one’s students or patients or clients.  I thought to be a really great saint one had to be noticed.

In retrospect, I don’t think I was an exceptionally self-centered adolescent focusing only on my own future and fame.  I think I was inescapably young.  It is part of the human condition.

The great feature about our human species is our incredible capacity to learn.  But the other half of this great potential is that we are not born with the variety of instinctive behaviors that include all the essentials we need to survive.  We need to learn from experience, from being taught, from watching others.  If we don’t have them, it’s a lot harder to learn to love, to work, to think.  I’ve had some wonderful people in my life to learn from.

And so if I no longer have the slightest regret about not being a celebrity in any sense of the word, I have a lot of people to thank.  Becoming a saint was my adolescent mid-west Catholic version of being famous.   No doubt as an adolescent today my version would look rather different.  But at the heart of it, it would be the same.

Because I think we have to learn that recognition and adulation isn’t really the mark of ultimate success.  In that context, one of the compliments I once received that I treasure almost above all others was the statement from an old friend who said “You were always so kind.”  Fifty years ago I suspect I would have disregarded a description of myself as “kind” as wimpish and pretty common.  I was aiming for something much greater than mere kindness.  Now my greatest regret is those times when I failed to be kind.

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 18, 2013

Christians and Catholics and everybody else


A spokesman for Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, recently said that Pope John Paul II had taught him to be a Catholic, but that Pope Francis was teaching him to be a Christian.

For about two minutes, I had a positive feeling about this comment.  Yes, I thought,  being a Christian is about love and caring about the welfare of others rather than worrying about judging whether people believe the right dogmas or obeying what the church has insisted on calling “natural law.”

But I was socialized as a Catholic, and this distinction between Catholic and Christian made in this way makes me leery.

It sounds to me as if this particular Catholic who is broadening his perspective to include Christianity still sees the church as having access to truths that non-Christians don’t.  I worry that this “one true religion” belief is still alive and well.

Personally, I find Pope Francis a likeable, even admirable, person, and I’m grateful for a greater emphasis on caring about the poor and those in need rather than on sex and all its ramifications.  But ultimately, if he is made into a celebrity who simply makes Catholicism more appealing to the masses, deep down things really will not have changed that fundamental belief on the part of the RC hierarchy and many faithful that only they have access to “the one true faith.”

There are many groups in the world who care for the sick and poor.   Not all are religious.  NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam are not tied to any single religion.  Even terrorists groups often make themselves popular by their acts of good will among the poor.  Loving one’s neighbour is not a uniquely Christian virtue.  And bribing people into church with the promise of rewards either now or in eternity offers little appeal to me.

This is not a criticism of Pope Francis, or of the many Christians who care unselfishly about others.

I just want to point out that people all over the world, in big and small ways, give their lives in unselfish care and service of members of their family, their community, or complete strangers.  Loving others might be a central value  of Christianity.  But it is not unique to Catholicism or even Christianity.  Being a Christian is one way of framing a philosophy of love of one’s neighbour.  It’s just not the only one.

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

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 12, 2013

I might be a genius

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:41 pm

I’ve never had a brilliant memory.  I remember discovering in second grade that it was often easier to figure things out than to rely on brute remembering.  I did manage to memorize the multiplication tables up to 12, but Peter can still quote long passages from Shakespeare and poets like W.H. Auden and remembers facts that have passed into oblivion for me.

And these days I’ve noticed I am increasingly searching for lost words.  Being a compulsive researcher, I even contemplated keeping track of just how many words I found myself searching for in a week.  I now sort of wish I had gone through with it, because something interesting has happened.

Lack of vitamin B12 is often a cause of memory loss, particularly as we get older, so a month ago I started to take a vitamin B12 tablet every morning with breakfast.

The question is whether my memory has improved.

I am lacking any hard data on the number of times I am currently searching for lost words.  But I do play various computer  games like Solitaire and Free Cell, which keep track of my win/loss rate.  My Solitaire win rate has gone from 20 to 35%, and I’m winning all 100% of the games on Free Cell.

I know it’s not an intelligence test.

But do you think I might be developing into a genius?

November 9, 2013

Not as obvious as it is obviously obvious

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:12 pm

One would think that at least our understanding of space was universal.  An inch is the same length wherever you are in the world, a mile isn’t shorter if you are measuring straight up or side ways, or whether the observer speaks Hindi or Chinese or Swahili.  But actually, both Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics argue against this.  Einstein demonstrated that time and space are relative, and quantum physics says that even concepts like inside and outside, near and far, up and down don’t operate in the quantum world the way we expect.  Even here in our world of everyday, our concepts of space are much more culturally influenced than most of us appreciate.

My husband, for instance, has a better sense of direction than I do.  But when I ask him what direction we are going in, he often doesn’t know.  His sense of direction isn’t based on the fundamentals of north, south, east and west.  He understands cardinal directions, of course, but they aren’t always essential to him.  For me, if I’m the map reader, and I can’t put us on the map at least mentally, my response is that we need to ask someone for directions.  Peter, on the other hand, will keep going.  I used to think it was male vanity that didn’t want to ask for help.  But he found his way too often for me to continue to hold onto this hypothesis.  His sense of direction simply operates differently.  And it frustrates the life out of me that I don’t have a clue how he does it!

I read another study recently comparing the sense of direction of an Aboriginal group who do not learn left and right as we do, but only north, south, east, and west.  Along with a comparable group of Westerners, they were led through a tangled maze of buildings, repeatedly turning this way and that.  At the end, the Aboriginals were much better at orienting themselves than the Westerners, and could identify north accurately, while the Westerners could not.

I can see that for a hunter-gatherer society, the Aboriginal sense of direction would be a much more valuable survival skill than depending on knowing one’s left and right.  But I wonder if there are skills in  a developed society where being able to identify one’s left and right would be as important.  Though knowing to set a table with the fork on the left and the knife on the right doesn’t seem quite significant enough to matter that much, does it?

Either way, it does suggest that the measurement of spatial skills in traditional IQ tests may be culturally biased.  So if I’m ever lost in a desert or jungle, I’m going with the Aboriginal.

Unless you have a compass, of course.  And even then…

November 8, 2013

Up, Down, or around?

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 4:42 pm

Cultural differences have fascinated me ever since my father told us, when I was about six years old, that some Chinese people ate birds’  nests.  Why?  I wondered.  And did the Chinese use catsup on their nests?  Did they cook them first?

Over the years I’ve come to understand that cultures don’t just influence our language and food preferences.  They can even shape our most fundamental understandings.

Yesterday I realized it even influences our understanding of space.

I’ve been living with my husband for 40 years, and thought I knew him pretty well.  But there is still room for surprises.  We were discussing the best route to take to a farm shop we wanted to visit.  I suggested that we start by going “down Rt. 603.”  Yes, he nodded in agreement, and then “down the A-10.”

Down the A-10!? I asked in startled disagreement.  “That’s going in exactly the wrong direction.”

Then I remembered.

Here in England one goes “up” to London, whether one is going north or south.  So of course, if one is heading away from London, one goes “down,” even if it means heading north.

I asked Google where this conception of Up and Down came from.  The most convincing answer I found was that the words are not directional in the sense of space but in the sense of social status.  Since London is the capital of the country, it is always “up.”  And if one is expelled from Cambridge or Oxford, one is “sent down,” even if one returns to the north.

Fascinating.  It’s enough to get a foreigner going in circles sometimes.  But we did make it to the farm shop — going “down” the A-10.

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: Growing Old,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.  


October 20, 2013

Sign language in Scotland

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:08 pm

We have just returned from a wonderful week in Scotland.  I’ve been there many times before, and Peter knows it well from his years on the Edinburgh University faculty.

But I’d never noticed the signs before.  As we were driving along, I found myself laughing and wondering how they would go down in America.  Or even in neighbouring England.

A no-parking sign read:

“No parking on the zig-zag lines.  It’s both dangerous and selfish.”

Another sign warned:

“Delays due to maintenance.”

 It  was followed by what I thought at first was an admonition to the impatient driver but turned out to be the name of the town:

 “Rest and Be Thankful.”

Or what about a sign flashing across the motorway reading:

“Be a courteous driver.”

My favourite actually lured us inside a chocolate factory and shop:

 “Money won’t buy happiness.  But it will buy chocolate.” 

October 13, 2013

Peanut butter panic

Filed under: Growing Old,Worries — theotheri @ 2:59 pm
Tags: , ,

Last night at about ten o’clock, I read a review of  some introductory research suggesting that the loss of the sense of smell is one of the earliest signs of dementia.  Specifically, if the sense of smell is more impaired in the left nostril, it may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s.  If the greater impairment is in the right nostril, it may indicate some other form of cognitive impairment.

The research used about a tablespoon of peanut butter with a blind-folded patient who was instructed to indicate when they could smell it.  A difference of about ten centimeters (four inches)  in the distance between  when the peanut butter was detected by the right and left nostrils turned out to be significant.

I dashed into the kitchen and dished up a soup -spoon of peanut butter.  It could hardly be called a blind study, since it was self-administered, but it seemed to me I couldn’t smell peanut butter with either or both nostrils, at any distance.  I dug around the cupboards for something more strongly scented, but although curry powder made me sneeze, I couldn’t actually say I could smell it.  Ditto for the vinegar, orange, and tomato juice.

My scientifically validated conclusion, based on this evidence, is that either a) my allergies are still acting up, b) I’ve never had a good sense of smell, c) peanut butter doesn’t have a smell, or d) I’m in the late stages of cognitive impairment.  (Notice how I have cleverly omitted the possibility that I’m in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.)

I have noticed, though, that I have to concentrate harder than I used to when I’m working on cognitive tasks or trying to figure out a problem — like how to make some new gadget work that three-year-olds can figure out in about as many minutes.

I also  concluded many years ago that achieving true and honest self-knowledge makes understanding quantum physics look easy.

So if I’m really loosing it, some complete stranger reading this blog will probably know it well before I do.

October 11, 2013

Which is the worsest?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 7:08 pm

Like many others, I have been watching in stupefied horror as the House Republicans try to un-do legislation passed by an earlier Congress by holding the country hostage.

Some changes need to be made so that a minority is not again in a position to negate legislation which is already law because they don’t like it.  But that is for the future.  The question now is not just how to get government workers back in their offices again, but how not to avoid an even worse situation in which the United States defaults on its debts.

I have thought that Obama is right to refuse to compromise on Obamacare at this point.

But if it comes to it, and the choice is between defaulting on our debts and defunding (ie, essentially destroying) Obamacare, I think Obama should choose the lesser of two evils and make it clear that it is the Republicans who are responsible.

The health care being made available through Obamacare is essential for tens of thousands of seriously sick people today unable to afford essential medical treatment.  It is terrible to refuse to help them.  But the economic destruction that will be caused by default by a major economy whose currency is the reserve currency of the world will cause even more suffering and poverty.  It will last for years – some economists think the economic effects could last a generation.

And the loss of prestige and trust and leadership by a country that does not pay its debt because it is fighting over whether to provide health care for its sick will probably be permanent.

I’m finding it hard these days to be proud to be an American.  We seem to be betraying so many of our own basic principles of justice and responsibility.

September 30, 2013

Like you know has been updated!

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:57 pm

Like, you know, I mean… 

I can’t say I’ve actually known it all my life, but I have known for many years that inserting words like “like” and  “you know” in the middle of what we are saying, sometimes several times in a single sentence,  is often a way of giving our brain a few extra milliseconds to think through what we to communicate.

But I mean, you know, I think it’s gone too far.  I often hear journalists not only add an extra two syllables to “you know,” in mid-stream, but it is not uncommon to hear them begin a question with “I mean, you know.”  Do such people have the required communications skills to do their job?

But what is really irritating is that I now hear myself doing it.  This morning I heard myself ending an answer to a question with “I mean.”

I mean, that really was my concluding statement.  

September 29, 2013

Why do I care at all?

A comment following my post yesterday asked why I care at all about what happens to the structure of the Roman Catholic church, or about whether it might change from bottom-up after changes from the top-down have clearly failed.

Actually, I wrote the post as a result of discovering yet another of my unrecognized Catholic assumptions.  You’d think after almost half a century during which I no longer considered myself a Catholic that I wouldn’t still be discovering ways in which I am unconsciously thinking like one.  But it was only when I heard someone express the view that if Pope Francis can’t change the Vatican-controlled structure of the church, he will be a failure that I recognized this same unspoken assumption in my own thinking.

A study of history shows that power is rarely yielded by those who hold it.  Cultural and social structures change when the people no longer recognize their authority as legitimate.  Why would the Roman Catholic church be any different?  It won’t.

Do I care?  I do not take my direction from the church.  But many people do, and in that sense, I care to the extent that any powerful institution is as bigoted and sexist as the Roman Catholic church so often is.  But I do not see myself involved in any attempts to try to change that particular institution – from below, from above, or from the outside.

One thing I do ponder occasionally, however, is the recognition that some of my values were rooted in my early socialization as a Catholic.  They are values like a respect for truth, for the rights of others, for the value of work.  Not uniquely Catholic or even Christian values.  But it is where I first learned them.

I am grateful.

September 28, 2013

Top-down or Bottom-up?

I said in a post last month that my worry about Pope Francis was that he would eventually be canonized as a saint, while the Vatican hierarchy itself proceeded in its autocratic ways unchanged.

But I’m not so sure about that.  Pope John XXIII tried the top-down method of reforming the church.  He called Vatican II, and all sort of suggestions for radical reform were heralded.  Then the pope died and for the last half century, the Vatican has systematically dismantled, ignored, over-ridden or distorted practically every reform suggested by Vatican II.  Meanwhile, the exodus from the RC Church has reached hundreds of thousands.

And so I’m wondering now if the mistake is expecting change to be mandated from the top, rather than from below.  Perhaps 50 years ago too many practicing Catholics expected it to be done for them, so that all they had to do was to continue to follow in humble obedience.

But several of the things Pope Francis has said and done suggest that he does not think this kind of blind obedience to church authority is any more Christian than blind obedience to civil authority.  The Nuremberg trials were based on the recognition that “I was only doing what I was told” is not an adequate justification for crimes against humanity.  In the end, we must refuse to follow commands against humanity no matter where they emanate from.

So when Pope Francis asks questions like the one he asked about homosexuality “Who am I to judge?”, is he not saying that the bottom line is not obedience even to church teaching?  is he not saying the bottom line is caring, love, respect for our fellow-man?  When some bishops and priests are welcoming divorced Catholics who have remarried to the communion alter, are they not saying that love is more important than obedience?  When theologians argue against excommunicating a nun working in an emergency ward for authorizing an abortion for a woman who had been raped in order to save the life of the mother, isn’t the fundamental principle one of love?  When millions of couples use birth control so that they can engage in sex without passing on the AIDS virus or having another child which they cannot feed or care for, isn’t it getting our priorities backwards to say that this expression of love must take second place to procreation under any circumstances?

I don’t know, but maybe what Pope Francis is saying is that “the greatest of these is love.”  That whatever we do, for a Christian it is love that is the bottom line.  It’s not doctrine, not obedience, not approval from the religious powers that be.  Of course, the hierarchical structure of the church needs fundamental change.  But perhaps it is only going to come from the bottom up.  That’s the way it was with the first Christians.

Hmmm.  I might even consider myself an aspiring Christian again.  Though I’m sure I couldn’t possibly get the Vatican’s acceptance.  I don’t think they could handle the scope of my disbelief.

Well, unless maybe if I met Pope Francis.  He did say recently he believed that many atheists were men and women of good will and didn’t suggest that their only future was the fire of hell.

September 19, 2013

An unexpected downside

Last month I read about research suggesting that using Facebook seems to make people feel rather miserable.  It’s not that lonely and unhappy people use Facebook more than happy people do.  The research found that the more time volunteers spent on Facebook, the lower their self-esteem and feelings of worth and the higher their feelings of depression and loneliness.

Even more surprising was the discovery that spending the same amount of time socializing with people directly had exactly the opposite effect.

These results reflect the experiences of young people in their 20’s, who seem to compare themselves to the presentations of their friends on Facebook, and feel they don’t measure up.  What doesn’t occur to them is that these presentations may be a little overly idealistic with doctored photographs, clever answers and masterful achievements that weren’t exactly the way things happened in real life.

I wonder if these results would find something similar among older users.   My guess is that as we get older, we get a little less naive, a little less self-centered, a little more suspicious, and that that would make a difference to how we evaluate the Facebook presentations of others.

But I can’t really say for myself.  I didn’t like the experience at all, and deactivated my Facebook account.

On the other hand, there is also research showing that working at a computer for a couple of hours before bedtime is associated with sleeping difficulties.   I had already begun to discover that for myself.  It’s one of the reasons I’m not blogging as often as I used to.

I’m reading more at night, though.

I wonder why that isn’t interfering with my sleep.

Maybe I’d better not ask.

September 12, 2013

What can we do about Syria?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:18 pm

I’ve signed the petitions to add my voice to the swell of Americans saying that the United States should not bomb Syria.

But that’s not enough.  Hundreds of thousands of people are being killed by a brutal civil war, and millions (millions) have been turned into refugees.  How can we possibly stand by and say “let them get on with it;  when they are tired of killing and being killed, they will stop?  it’s not our business”?

Because they are our fellow human beings, it is our business.  But what can we do that isn’t at high risk of making the situation even worse than it is?

Following are suggestions that reflect my own thoughts.  It’s not my own words, but I can’t say it better.  I hope that won’t stop you from bothering to read it.

By Prof. Aryeh Cohen and  Rabbi Michael Lerner

 The tragic dilemma we now face is that the murderous Assad regime in Syria should have been overthrown long ago, but the U.S. has no moral standing or credibility to be the agent of that overthrow.

 The U.S. interest in Syria is not perceived by much of the world as a human rights interest. If the U.S. cared about human rights, it would not have armed Saddam Hussein after he gassed the Kurds in Iraq, it would not still be arming the Egyptian military after its coup and murder of thousands, it would not be arming Israel without demanding that Israel end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and create a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel. The U.S., finally, would not have waited until one hundred thousand Syrians were killed to begin contemplating action against Assad.

 Neither can nor should we be indifferent while watching as civilians are systematically murdered. The planet has shrunk to a size where we are in fact responsible for each other’s well-being and we must take that responsibility seriously.

 What is needed is different strategic approach, an approach which is grounded in an expanded sense of moral imagination. Instead of trying to right every wrong at the moment, the U.S. should be involved in a global strategy to relieve the huge suffering of people on this planet.

 Slow down the rush to militarism and instead let Obama use this moment to forge a whole new direction for the US’s role in the world. Congress would be wise to hold town hall meetings in every Congressional district to discuss the range of options  before voting to support a military intervention.

 In the fierce urgency of the current crisis in Syria, in which the U.N. is blocked from acting decisively because Russia and China will use their vetoes against any action that imperils Assad, President Obama should call a conclave of the world’s other countries, all of them, and let them together decide on what should be done with regard to saving the people of Syria from its rogue regime. The specific use of chemical weapons should be referred to the World Court for possible trial of whoever is responsible for that use in Syria.

 Meanwhile, the deliberations of a world conclave should be open to the public, democratic, and not controlled by the United States or other Western powers, or any one group. Let that body decide whether there should be an intervention, and if so, led by whom, with what short term and long-term goals, and what mechanisms to ensure those goals are achieved. This creates a de facto global forum such as the UN should have been, by eliminating the ability of the Great Powers to veto any decisions made by the people of the world. Hopefully, that global forum will come up with non-violent ways to hasten the end of the Assad regime. But if that body decides on an intervention, the Obama Administration should decide if it can bring the U.S. population along with that, in part by conducting public fora throughout the U.S. focused on the call for an intervention issued by the nations of the world participating in that open and democratic meeting. And if the people of the U.S. support it, then the U.S. should be part of that international intervention.

 Clumsy? Undoubtedly. Postponing immediate action? Certainly. But this path would  create a precedent precisely because it would slow down the hunger for more violence. It would allow the people of the world to introduce into that global forum the possibility of a different kind of logic in world affairs, a logic based on recognizing our mutual interdependence and mutual responsibility for the well-being of all.

 This plan is not perfect, as many will readily point out. The governments of the world often do not actually represent their people, but often only an elite of wealth and power. The killing in Syria would not be stopped while the process went on. However, the Obama administration has all but explicitly said that the symbolic action they will take will not stop the killing either, nor would it overthrow the Assad government.

 If President Obama were to use this moment to teach the world and the US about a new direction in dealing with the forces of evil, he could take his place among the great peacemakers of the human race.

 In the fierce urgency of this moment we must look beyond the tired options and rhetoric that have brought us to this place. The options are only limited by the narrow visions of the elite and the powerful. The options are only limited by a discourse and set of assumptions that should have been replaced many decades if not centuries ago. If not now, when?

 Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, a contributing editor at Tikkun Magazine,  and author most recently of Justice in the City.  Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine and chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (which has developed a detailed plan for a Global Marshall Plan at  He is the author most recently ofEmbracing Israel/Palestine which you can order at

September 8, 2013

On Greatness

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:52 pm

Abandoned Yugoslav Monuments

“All the great men are dead.

And I’m not feeling too well myself.”


Mark Twain

September 6, 2013

Why we shouldn’t bomb Syria

I have just read what for me is a compelling case against the United States bombing Syria.  The following are my own words, but the ideas are taken directly from  Dan Ebener.  He calls it “the Catholic case against attacking Syria,” using Catholic social doctrine but I can’t see what’s Catholic about it.  I’m convinced because I think he is right:  it gravely risks making things much worse rather than better for just about everybody involved.

Ebener gives several convincing arguments:

  • The evidence is pretty strong that somebody used chemical weapons.  It’s more likely to have been the Syrian government, but the evidence is not conclusive, and it could have been the branch of rebels supported by Al Qaeda trying to get the U.S. involved to support their attempts to overthrow Assad.
  • It would be illegal for the U.S. to bomb Syria under the circumstances.  Russia and China will clearly use their vote on the UN security council to veto a military strike on Syria.  Since the U.S. itself was not attacked, we will violate international law if we attack Syria without international backing.  In other words, as Ebener puts it, “we would be breaking international law against a country that we think broke international law to show that breaking international law is wrong.”
  • But let’s assume the U.S. bombs Syria and removes Assad from power.  I think about the possible alternatives.  The most powerful of the diverse rebel groups is probably controlled by extremists such as Al Qaeda.  If they gain power, they will have access to Assad’s chemical weapons.  Whether or not they have already used chemical weapons (and they may have) would they use them to maintain power?   I fear it is a strong possibility.
  • Along with putting the extremists in power, the chances that US military involvement will escalate the war seem to me to be huge.  Iran has already said it will not stand idly by, and Russia has made it clear that it is not a neutral observer.  How can a situation like this possibly make things better for the millions of Syrians already displaced?    or the millions more civilians caught in the line of increasing fire?  It is no good saying we would not target innocent civilians.  Modern warfare makes it almost impossible not to kill innocent bystanders.  Wouldn’t it be better to use the funding that would be used for a military attack to provide humanitarian assistance?
  • I was living in England on 9/11.  The response throughout Europe was one of solidarity with America.  But I saw that solidarity slip away as the Bush administration decided to use it as a chance to attack Iraq under the false pretenses that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction but was really a war in pursuit of oil and greater control in the Middle East.

Today, I’m convinced that our credibility and reputation would be far greater if we relied more on demonstrating that we are a country that lives according to its principles and the rule of law, even when we are threatened.

But the alternative to not bombing Syria is not doing nothing.   So what can we do?

  • We can give much more in humanitarian aid to help the refugees both in and around Syria who have fled the violence, support a full-fledged arms embargo in relation to all sides in the Syrian conflict, and reiterate again that the only viable lasting solution is political.
  • We can give our strongest backing to the United Nations/Arab League and call for a conference including Iran to work toward a negotiated settlement,
  • This settlement should not make the mistake we made in Iraq where we tried to replace all government institutions and people who had served in Saddam’s government.  It created a political vacuum, and ultimately simply changed the groups theoretically in control.  It has not established true democracy or eliminated regular acts of terrorism.  A true solution has to include the entire diversity of ethnic and religious groups in Syria.

America is often a trigger-happy country, and we tend to think that if our bombs are the biggest our moral superiority must be beyond question.  But the world today needs countries with the wisdom to find other paths to peace besides violence.

Besides, what we’ve had to recognize more than once since Vietnam is that our bombs simply don’t automatically make us the winners anymore.

And we really do need peace if we are going to survive.

August 31, 2013

The power of One

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:07 pm

Advertisers know it.  When we see the experience of a single individual, we are more apt to respond than we are to numbers, even when the numbers are about huge catastrophes and even millions of people.

We light up to the smile of one face in a way that statistics telling us how many people are happy with some political event leave us unmoved. We respond to the face of a starving child the way we do not respond to a report that there are six million people starving in the latest flow of refugees fleeing from war, drought, or flood.  

In other words, one person can often do what millions cannot.

And so when we are walking around in infuriated anguish and helplessness over the latest turn of events, we are kicking against the goad.

Because no, of course, we can’t do what millions of people can do together.

But millions of people together can’t do what only one person can do either.

I would even go further.  It is only individuals that can really transform the life of another individual – a child, a friend, our partner, even a stranger.

As individuals we were not created to run the world, no matter how competent and right we so often are convinced we are.   Actually, I might today think I’m right about a lot of important things, like whether we should bomb Syria over the use of chemical warfare, for instance.  But I have been desperately wrong in the past about a lot of important things.  I am pathetically  grateful that I didn’t have the influence to change things the way I thought the world needed.  And so I have to look at the serious possibility that I’m still wrong about a lot of things.  As I look at the history of the world, as well, I’m not at all sure that those individuals who do seem to have made a big difference did more good than harm.  Look at Hitler.  Or Stalin, simply to top a long and painful list.

But the reality that we are all often wrong about the big things is not really the point.  Even if we are right, we have not evolved to make the entire world a just and loving place.  And if in my frustration I cavil at that fact, it is much harder to see that my fulfillment as a human being is on a more intimate scale.

It is hubris – or at least it is a mistaken understanding of what it is to be human – to be angry that I cannot do what millions together can do.

I do think I’m much more apt to make a positive contribution if I recognize that there are many important things that only I can do.  And that if I don’t do them, they won’t get done.

I think there’s more joy, peace, and fulfillment in knowing that too.

The above meditation (or diatribe) was brought on by the pianomusicman.  I would like to say he can be blamed for anything you don’t like about this post, but I’m afraid I must take responsibility.   He may, however, be responsible for the best of it.

August 29, 2013

A different point of view on Syria

In my earlier post today, I said I’d signed the petition to Obama not to try to deal with chemical weapons in Syria by bombing.

The Economist today published an argument for limited strikes, on the grounds that doing nothing in response to the chemical attacks that killed hundreds and injured thousands will eventually lead to more of the same.

It’s a measured reasoning which one cannot call war-mongering or even unreasonable.  Actually, it represents the kind of reasoning that has influenced my own thoughts every time I think of Nazi Germany.

I think now we have to find other ways than brute strength and military might to fight for even such important issues as the use of chemical weapons.

But the Economist’s position deserves to be taken seriously and answered with respect by those of us who don’t agree with them.  Because the results of whatever decisions are made will effect millions of people.  It’s worth struggling as hard as we can to be right.

Feeling righteous isn’t enough.

I don’t think we should bomb Syria

Tell President Obama: Don't bomb Syria

I am assuming that if enough of us sign a petition telling Obama that we don’t want the United States to try to solve the problems of chemical warfare by bombing Syria that it will influence his decision.

So I’ve signed the petition.

The more I read and think and listen, the more I am convinced that, ghastly as the situation is, our bombing Syria will make matters far worse, not better.

Yes, I know, we stood by in relation to Rwanda and we could perhaps have made things better if we had intervened.  And intervening in Bosnia, in retrospect, even without the UN approval, seems like a good idea.  But Iraq and probably Afghanistan have made things much much worse for the people living there, for the U.S., for the region, and probably for world peace.  Not all situations are the same, and each one must be examined carefully.

During the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations I asked my father what he thought about the war.  “I’m against it,” he said.  “Why?” I asked.  “Because we can’t win,” he said.

My first response was to be appalled.  How could one make a moral judgement based on whether one would win?  Shouldn’t one be willing to die for a cause that is right, whether or not one wins?

But I have come to realize that there is a terrible price that is exacted for fighting a war one can’t win.  The price is paid above in the deaths, starvation, loss, and suffering by civilians on whose benefit we are allegedly waging war.

Even when we drop our bombs, shoot off our missiles, or send out our drones without putting boots on the ground, we can make things much worse, however righteous our cause may be or wrong the actions we are trying to correct.

I think we can only make matters worse by military intervention in Syria at this point.

So as I said, I signed the petition.

August 28, 2013

Is there a third way?

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 2:56 pm

I hope the situation with Syria does not escalate.  I think Obama was a fool to say that the use of chemical weapons was a line in the sand.  One can only hope that the results of our going in there militarily are not as catastrophic as the past suggests they will be, and as many are predicting.

Having said that, I’m not sure what I would do.  The older I get, the more I am convinced that Homo sapiens is too trigger-happy, and Americans have a particularly bad case of it right now.  We seem to think that because we have been economically so successful and have so much money compared to everybody else that we are also morally superior, and that our use of force is qualitatively different from an body else’s who disagrees with us.

I don’t see how we in the West can possibly bring about a resolution of the kind of conflicts that are ripping Syria apart and that are crisscrossing the Middle East.

But yet:   even without Obama’s having warned Syria, for the West not to respond in some way to such a massive use of chemical weapons against civilians would be a green light for more and worse from Syria as well as other governments under threat from civil unrest.

Over here, Prime Minister Cameron is bringing a motion before Parliament tomorrow asking for support for a response to Syria specifically targeted to the chemical weapons, not toward regime change or getting involved in the civil war there.  That sounds great in theory to me, but in practice I have grave doubts that the two can be separated.

As the man once said who was asked to give directions to a lost driver: “I wouldn’t start from here.”

I’m glad I’m not the President.

August 26, 2013

A story of revenge

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:58 pm

First, a confession:  I have lifted the following story about George from Kaleidoscope, a blog which helps keep my feet on the ground, my head in the air, and my heart singing.

It illustrates,why revenge will always be with us.  It is not only sweet,  but sometimes very very funny.  (Don’t tell me if you think I have a warped sense of humour.  It’s beyond a cure.)

Mildred, the church gossip and self-appointed monitor of the church’s morals, kept sticking her nose in to other people’s business.
Mildred 1
Several members did not approve of her extra curricular activities, but feared her enough to maintain their silence.
Mildred 2Mildred 3
One day she accused George, a new member, of being an alcoholic after she saw his old pickup parked in front of the small town’s only bar one afternoon.
Mildred 4
She emphatically told George and several others that everyone seeing it there would know what he was doing.
Mildred 5
George, a man of few words, stared at her for a moment and just turned and walked away.
Mildred 6
He didn’t explain, defend, nor deny.

He said nothing.

Later that evening, George quietly parked his pickup in front of Mildred’s house
Mildred 7
… walked home

….and left it there all night.


August 24, 2013


Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:58 pm

For some reason, I seem to have been inundated of late by headlines and articles that begin with big letters promising me THE TRUTH ABOUT…!

The truths being announced range from revelations about the banks, medicine, food, fracking, politicians, global warming, the economy, health, dieting or even the creation of the universe.

Sometimes these revelations are accompanied by requests for money for the full story.  But whether or not money is involved, the implication is always that up until now we have been lied to.  What’s disturbing is that the frequency of these Truthful Announcements suggests that an awful lot of people believe that they are being lied to an awful lot but are willing to believe that at last, someone has arrived who is going to tell it straight.

Doubter that I am, promising me the Truth about important and complex processes – like the economy or health or the environment – sounds like a dead give-away that the Truth in question is a fraud.  Anybody who thinks they have all the right answers on any of these subjects hasn’t examined the evidence.

The TRUTH is not so easily found.

August 20, 2013

counting goodness is hard to do

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:21 pm

I don’t know any research to back this up but I doubt it’s an exaggeration to say that most people think the world is in a mess and probably getting worse.

But is this so?

Yesterday our boiler repairman, Geoff, came to fix a problem that he first visited last January but unknowingly left partially unsolved.  I told him about it several days later, but since it was a problem we could live with, I suggested he wait until our regular servicing this summer to address it.  In the meantime, I narrowed the problem down to either a mal-functioning thermostat or incorrect wiring.  The first was going to cost somewhere in the region of $500 to fix, the latter was due to an error Geoff had made in January.  I budgeted for the former.

When Geoff arrived, I told him the problem and left him to it while I fixed him a cup of coffee.  Ten minutes later he emerged into the kitchen and said “It’s fixed.”  Then slapping the back of his hand, added “it was my error.”

What was so uplifting about this for me was that there was no way I would have suspected foul play if Geoff had disappeared into the boiler room for an hour or so, and then announced that the problem had been fixed.  He might even had added a feel-good factor by giving me a discount and charging me “only” $400 instead of $500.

When I told him that, he said “oh no, it was my fault.  I put my hand up to it.”

My question is: “Is Geoff just one in a million?”  Would most repairmen try to make money on their own mistakes?  Surely there are many who would.  Surely there are many who at least would not admit that the mistake had been theirs, even if they did not charge to correct it.

I’m not convinced Geoff is one in a million.  I think I know a lot of honest people.  In fact, I think I know more people who are honest and truthful and sometimes even incredibly generous than not.

But honesty and generosity doesn’t make news.  Crime does.  Tragedy does.  Even really good news makes the headlines far less often than bad.

I wonder why.  Is it because we really are on the road to destruction?  Do we think we really are all sinners and cheats at heart?  Do we really  believe that the bad will win out in the end?  Does bad news give us a tremor that boring old good news often does not?  Or is the good news often harder to see because it is more private?  Is that act of kindness that means so much – that might even change a life – simply not available for the journalist to see and so report?

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 13, 2013

The unfinished story

More than one thoughtful person who guessed rightly that I would be interested have sent me the link to the Sunday New York Times editorial and video about the Maryknoll Sisters, the group of nuns of which I was a member for nine years.  Sister Mary Joseph, originally Mollie Rogers of Boston, Mass. will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y.  along with Betty Ford, Nancy Pelosi and others.

Mostly over the years I have looked back at that time I spent as a Maryknoller rather the way one reviews  a long education.  It was often difficult, it was often traumatic, and  I was keenly aware that the Maryknoll Sisters were profoundly conflicted about their mission, and about what kind of women we wanted to be.  Should we be submissive, blindly obedient, unquestioning of our superiors?  Or were we an order that was creative, responsive, innovative, finding new ways to be among the poor?  Mollie Rogers had the latter in mind.  Those who took their cues from Rome thought the former.

As a result of this conflict, over several decades hundreds of sisters were either forced to leave Maryknoll or left voluntarily.   I’ve just learned that my friend Pat Logan, about whom I wrote earlier this year, was told to leave because she was “too creative.”  Others were told to leave because they were too questioning, or resistant to spending years at the Motherhouse in Westchester County, New York, when Maryknoll had said that they would be missioners in underdeveloped countries.  A few simply broke under the strain.  In 1969 there were 1169 Maryknoll Sisters, and hundreds of young women asking to be admitted every year.  Today there are 471 Maryknoll Sisters, and many of them are old.  Young women are no longer banging on the door to join.

I learned a lot during those years, though, and have not regretted the time I was there.

Summer in the City 1967What I had forgotten was why I had entered the Maryknoll Sisters in the first place.  But when I read the editorial and listened to the video, it came back like a flash of lightning.  Yes, that was why I’d entered the convent!  I wasn’t wrong.  The choices that had been offered to me as I was growing up on a midwest farm in America was to become a nurse, but not a doctor,  to teach grade school, but not in university, to be a secretary but not a lawyer, to choose social work but not psychiatry or psychology.  But nuns did all those things not open to me as a mere lay person.  And Maryknoll Sisters, above all, went to other peoples, other cultures, and lived there.  They made a difference.  I saw it as a kind of life-time Peace Corp.

As I have said before, the Maryknoll Sisters have changed a lot.  They took Vatican II on board, and in many ways are today among the most active and innovative group of nuns I know.  The hundreds of sisters who were forced or decided to leave were, I believe, a necessary part of bringing about that change.  It became apparent to those still there that Maryknoll itself had been in part responsible for betraying the promises made to those who thought that Maryknoll Sisters were different.

But on some level, Maryknoll is still conflicted, and I am not sure whether they can survive within the straight-jacket imposed by the ruling hierarchy of bishops.  The Roman Catholic Church is itself now engaged in the kind of conflict that characterized us at  Maryknoll.  Hundreds of thousands of people are leaving the RC Church and not returning.  Pope Francis knows that change is called for, but I’m not sure at this point how fully he understands what needs to be done, or indeed how to do it.  My fear is that he will be loved by the people and eventually be canonized as a humble unpretentious pope who cared for the poor and who is held up as an example to the faithful.  But the Vatican power structure may remain, perhaps a little battered but fundamentally unscathed.

Perhaps I am wrong and real change is coming.  I think since 9/11 something similar may be happening in America.

Perhaps the tectonic plates really are shifting.

August 11, 2013

Do we want to know?

The Sunday papers today are reporting that two British professors have patented a test that analyzes endothelial reactivity.

Oh good, you say – just what I always wondered about myself.

The paper is calling it a Death Test, but if the Americans get hold of it, it will undoubtedly be called a Life Test.   Either way, endothelial reactivity measures the oscillation within the blood cells of capillaries, our smallest blood vessels.  The results indicate just how well an individual is functioning over all, and so can predict the undiagnosed presence of cancer and dementia.

But the results are also graded for optimal functioning between 0 and 100, and with sufficient data will ultimately be able to make a reasonably accurate prediction of when an individual will die – even if that event is decades away.

The good news is that the test is a laser test that is completely painless, non-invasive, even user-friendly.  The expectation is that the test will be available to GP’s within three years.

If it were on offer, would you take it?  At my age now I would – it would make it much easier to plan for the rest of my limited future here.  But would I want to know at the age of eighteen how long I probably had to live barring accident or epidemic.  Or at the age of forty?  fifty?

One thing for sure, once the data is reliable enough, insurance and pension companies are going to want to know.

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.

August 4, 2013

Generation gap

Filed under: Growing Old — theotheri @ 1:45 pm


Pickles by Brian Crane




For those days when I think I know best…




July 31, 2013

Poverty really isn’t good for us

There’s a column in The Economist this week reviewing a paper by an economics professor at Georgetown University on our changing attitudes toward poverty during the last four hundred years or so.

The thinking that dominated European thought between the 16th and 18th century was that poor people were an economic necessity f a society didn’t have slaves.  Who else would be the workers in the factories and fields if we wanted to keep things ticking over?

Given that they were economically necessary, there was not much appetite for improving their lot.  Even the Poor Laws designed in the 18th century were not really designed to help people get out of poverty, but just to help them survive shocks like failed harvests or unexpected illness.

I suppose it’s not surprising that the poor, by and large, were blamed for their own plight.  The comforting rationalization gradually emerged that people were poor because of their own flaws like laziness, alcoholism, and lack of discipline.  The clergyman Thomas Malthus popularized this view, which led to an adjustment of the Poor Laws making the workhouse the only option on the grounds that people shouldn’t be given money or food or even shelter if they wouldn’t work.

There are people alive today whose parents and relatives know what the workhouse was like, or who survived under exploitative factory regimes.  But in the 20th century these attitudes toward the poor began to change.  Researchers began to show that poverty really isn’t good for the economy at large.  Henry Ford exemplified this thinking, insisting that if his workers were paid enough to buy the cars they were helping to manufacture it would be beneficial for everybody.  And Karl Marx began to develop a theory whereby the workers themselves would take over ownership of the economies which depended on them – although in practice it didn’t work out that way.

For the West, the real game-changer was the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  People couldn’t get work no matter how hard they tried, and platitudes blaming the poor themselves stopped working.  In addition, it became increasingly apparent that high levels of poverty were a drain, not an engine, for economic growth.

Fascinatingly, though, it was not until the 1990’s that economists began to develop alternative models to Communism by which the poor could be helped to break out of poverty.  Researchers began to demonstrate that low levels of education, health, and nutrition rather than laziness and drunkenness often kept people in poverty.   As a result, countries now are changing their policies.  Brazil, for instance, gives poor people money as long as they send their children to school, or protect their health by having them vaccinated.

For me, reading this article was like opening up a huge window to let in the fresh air.  I found the analysis of poverty as an economic challenge much more liberating than the traditional schizophrenic view of Christianity in which the hierarchy live in palaces and dress up in gold and jewels to carry out religious ceremonies and in which the poor are kept in their place with charity and assurances that they are blessed.

Poverty, real poverty, is not a virtue.  That is not to say that avaricious materialism is not destructive.  I think it is.  But its alternative isn’t poverty.

I’ve always had doubts about giving money to charitable causes for anything but short-term help in emergencies.  I’d rather give to the Malala Fund or some other fund that provides education for those who otherwise could not get it.

July 29, 2013

30-minute happiness program

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:47 pm

I recently read a brief summary of a new book by  clinical psychologist  Todd Kashdan purportedly  offering the secret of happiness.

What do you think it is?  nurturing relationships?   engaging in work and recreational activities you enjoy?  living in the present rather than in the future or the past?  being curious?  taking care of your health?

Kashdan devised his “feelgood formula” allegedly based on research exploring what makes people happy.  He recommends all of the above, but one of his top recommendations is 30 minutes of daily exercise.

I am a great believer in significant physical and psychological well being resulting from daily exercise.  I do it myself .   I find the rewards are worth the effort at least ten times over.

But I doubt happiness can be purchased quite that easily.

And at the risk of sounding like someone who says they still believe the world is flat, or that Darwin’s theory of evolution has no proof, I strongly suspect that the research on which this acquired happiness is supposedly based is highly questionable.

I will admit, however, that as soon as I post this, I am going to turn on some Mozart and do my daily 30 minutes exercise.


July 26, 2013

What it’s like from the inside to be an Aspie

Filed under: Depression and Autism — theotheri @ 9:04 pm

I have occasionally blogged about people with Asperger’s syndrome.  I find it a fascinating syndrome, being neither an indicator of intelligence (or lack thereof) or of mental illness, although frequently misunderstood as both.  It’s a way of thinking that can change a person’s entire perception of the world, and is often a source of misunderstanding by those who love but do not understand him.

Yesterday, Alex made a comment following my post “Missing the obvious” in which he describes his own Aspie thought processes.  Since the post is over two years old, I don’t think many people are apt to see the comment.  But I think it’s immensely valuable both for Aspies themselves to understand the way their thought processes may be different and also for those who may live or work with, and love an Aspie, and so I am presenting the comment here.  Personally, I found it clarifying and confirming.

I have added some paragraphing, but apart from that, the description of Alex’s thoughts and experiences are totally in his words.

“I know this is an old post but I have been looking for information on this very subject as I am trying to understand myself. Any religion I get involved in, I become a raging fundamentalist. I never understood why I did that. Whatever the beliefs, label, theology, etc etc, I piss people off.

I find I can’t even handle being part of the Atheist movement although I am a devout Atheist at this point (mostly due to how I act under the influence of religion). If I take something as “the truth”, I take it to the ends of the earth and drag my neighbors through the mud figuratively speaking (yes, aspies can use figures of speech, I simply have trouble not taking everything literally despite understanding some sarcasm that even I use).

I don’t believe that all fundamentalists suffer from AS, but if an aspie is indoctrinated as a child, they will probably become a fundamentalist. It is similar to the idea that AS leads to Atheism despite not all Atheists having AS. Will you find aspies in fundamentalists circles? Probably just as much as you would find in Atheist circles. This is probably also why I never understood how my peers at church didn’t walk on “eggshells” as far as “God”, I only was capable of processing “faith” in the sense of fear due to taking it literally. I don’t understand “faith” in the sense religious people use it. I understand it in the sense of “confidence based on past experience” which is rooted in reason and logic. If it doesn’t make sense, it drives me insane. Tell me to believe something without evidence, the only way that has ever worked with me was threatening me with torture and death in the afterlife. Offering me “rewards” in the afterlife is boring, not a REAL concrete reward that I can even understand. NT’s will typically just accept it, yet I will ask 100 questions on every little detail.

I wasn’t an Atheist until I got into my twenties (and I am 34 now), before that I was a fundamentalist Christian. All I understood about Christianity was if I didn’t believe in Jesus I would spend eternity in hell. To me this was more real than the people I interacted with everyday. Never could understand why my peers(at fill in the blank church-was in the Navy when I deconverted), but they would get fed up with my ranting. They weren’t extreme enough by my standards. I finally understood that the only reason I “believed” in a man being raised from the dead was fear of Hell. I obviously never believed, I was manipulated into believing. My NT counterparts at church couldn’t understand my reasoning despite it being blatantly obvious. Their thinking was so fuzzy, not cut and dried, black and white like mine.

I even did the same as a Nichiren Buddhist. I joined the Soka Gakkai and eventually left to join a fundamentalist sect because SGI wasn’t extreme enough. I left all of it alone and wrote my own mantra/practice based on Nichiren’s teachings but rejecting all of the dogma, couldn’t practice independently because I automatically become a fundamentalist whether I like it or not. I am thankful for what I learned from Buddhism and even Christianity, but learning that my brain doesn’t work like a NT certainly has helped me to just be me, free of religion. Actually, I now attend a Unitarian church. No dogma. I even dabbled with Laveyan Satanism for about 9 months, it seemed totally nonsensical but it helped to free me from religion. I took that to an extreme as well which is why I rejected it as nonsensical gibberish.

Now I am simply an Atheist, no religion, no anger toward religion, no caring about what religious people do as long as they live and let live. Threaten me all they want, I don’t care. Not my problem. So no, being an aspie doesn’t mean a person will automatically be a fundamentalist fill in the blank nor does it mean the person will automatically be an Atheist. Being an aspie simply means the person will process the information from religion differently and react to it differently which could result in fundamentalism or Atheism. At the end of the day if we would all respect each others boundaries regardless of beliefs, handicaps, desires(given that the desires don’t involve harming anyone else), the world would be a better place regardless of being an aspie or being a NT, that could even bridge the gap between all of us.

July 25, 2013

Papal thumbs up

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:32 pm






I noticed on the news tonight that Pope Francis gave a blessing to a young boy in Brazil today, and followed it with a thumbs up sign.

I know it’s a long way off from carrying forward the Church reforms stalled after Vatican II.

But I have to admit it’s refreshing, coming from someone sitting in St. Peter’s chair.

July 24, 2013

A black prince story

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:21 pm

At last Kate and William’s baby, the third in line for the British throne, has been born.  Journalists and tv cameras have been posted outside the hospital where the birth took place for weeks to make sure they had a good place.  The Americans got there first, and camped out for a full 23 days in anticipation.  I can only imagine what the American coverage was like.  Here it felt like 24/7 non-stop, during which, as one reporter eloquently put it, “Never has so little been said by so many.”

But finally the baby arrived – late as first-borns often are, but by all accounts healthy and robust.  The news here reported that when the birth was announced a cheer went up outside the hospital.  But also in Times Square in New York City.

One story that I love and I doubt made the U.S. media occurred outside the hospital after the new prince was born.  One reporter began interviewing people among the hundreds gathered on the street outside.  “Have you heard it’s a boy?!”  she excitedly asked an observer.  “Yes,” he replied, “and it’s black.”  The reporter was completely flummoxed and stood there with a stunned expression on her face.  As a result, everyone else around also stopped talking.  The reporter never did recover her aplomb, and finally simply addressed another observer asking “Have you heard it’s a boy?”  To her relief, the response was a more prosaic, if less creative, “Yes, and isn’t it just wonderful!”

I’ve been thinking of various appropriate responses with which the reporter might have responded.  I don’t know if I would have been fast enough on the draw either, but in theory I would have said “Oh, wouldn’t that have been just wonderful?  almost as good as if it had been a girl.”

But I rather suspect that life is full of one-liners one doesn’t think of in time.

Now we are waiting for the baby’s name.  I’m hoping for Mike.


July 20, 2013

Health care: two alternatives

In his exploration of democratic alternatives to some of our American institutions which seem to have gone array, Gar Alperovitz discusses health care.  In the United States, we have mostly either paid for health insurance or  pay up front when we need treatment.  Up to a point, Medicare and Medicaid helps those who have paid social security, but hundreds of thousands of Americans are deprived of medical treatments they need because they cannot afford it.  Obama Care was meant to plug this gigantic hole, making it possible for all Americans who need medical care to get it, whatever their financial state.  It has run into fierce opposition, been rejected outright by some states, and even taken to the Supreme Court on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Alperovitz recommends setting up a health system run not by private insurance companies and hospitals but a system by and for the people.  The National Health Service (or NHS for short) here in Britain is closer to the kind of system he describes.  The NHS was set up after World War II in a country rejecting the injustices of a system which allowed thousands of working class people to die for their country, but which did not provide health care even for families of those who had died for democracy if they could not afford it – as many many could not.   Today, it is a system at which treatment is free at the point of need to anyone.  It is paid for out of general taxes.

I have seen the NHS, for better and worse, close up for more than 20 years.  I have received, I believe, some of the best treatment available in the world here, and I have seen dedicated medical treatment go far beyond their defined duties to care for the sick.  I have also seen first hand examples of prejudice, particularly against the elderly, that are terrifying.  I saw a 90-year-old man dying of cancer in a wheel chair left outside a hospital door in the middle of winter.  I have seen arrogance and indifference on the part of medical staff, and now a major report has  identified 14 hospitals in the UK where the death rate is far higher than average, and in part almost certainly due to medical errors, carelessness, and sheer lack of concern even for the dignity, let alone suffering, of patients.

These latter are the kind of stories that turn many Americans away from “socialized medicine.”

But should we be so ready to dismiss the British system or other similar systems in Europe?

I’m not so sure we should.  First of all, the British are immensely proud of the NHS.

I have seen enough in America to know that injustices and disregard for patients occur in our medical system that are as grave as anything that has been uncovered here.  The difference is that here in Britain, failure to protect  the health care system can bring governments down just as surely as a failure to protect the economy.  The outrage at the state of some of the UK hospitals is huge, and the government as well as opposition parties are putting unprecedented effort into improving the system.  There is little doubt in my mind that some of the gravest deficiencies here will be effectively addressed.

Cost, too, is a major factor.  Americans’ life expectancy is lower than it is here and throughout most of Europe, although our medical expenditures are about twice as high.  That is in large part because the US system is private and run as a business to make money.

It seems clear to me that no system, as a system, is going to eliminate prejudice or disregard supported by the culture at large.  But when they are exposed in a socialized system of health care, there is apt to be outrage.

In America, too often I fear the response is the one we are seeing to Obama Care — that it is people’s own fault if they do not have the insurance required to pay for the medical care they need, and that the rest of us should not have to pay our taxes to take care of them.  To the extent that is true, I suspect socialized medicine would not work in America.  When scandals are uncovered, too many of us may very well respond by saying that it’s not the system, but the fault of the patient who should have been paying for his or her own treatment in the first place instead of relying on the state.

So which system, given the choice, would I prefer to live with?  If money is no object, one can get some of the best care in the world in the United States.  As long as I can afford adequate health insurance, the American system can meet my needs.  But what if I can no longer afford to keep paying insurance?

And what about those who, often through no fault of their own, do not have adequate insurance, or who cannot get insurance at all because companies label them as not potentially cost-effective?  I don’t really feel comfortable reaching the conclusion that “I’m okay, jack.  I’m sorry I can’t  help you as well. But that’s life.  It’s tough, and we get what we pay for.  You’ll just have to take care of yourself.  ”

For all its limitations, I think the British system is better.

July 18, 2013

A glitch of silence

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:13 pm

I’ve just received a comment from a reader who says that several of her comments to my posts have not appeared, and suggests that I check the spammed comments for misplaced items.

Wow!  I’m going to do this a little more often.  I found a whole handful of comments by followers, some of which I definitely would have wanted to read and respond to.

If your comments disappeared into a black hole, it was some mysterious hand in cyberspace that is responsible.  I’ve been through the entire file of spammed comments that are still available for my perusal, but I suspect some have been spammed into nether-land forever.

I’ll do my best with the hope that it doesn’t happen again.  I value your thoughts too much not to bother.

July 17, 2013

The tree of knowledge of good and evil

A comment following my post two days ago “What’s good for the goose…” suggests that sometimes we are introduced to an idea that we somehow recognize without further analysis, that resonate with a depth that cannot be fully described.  As I said, I’ve had this experience in what we sometimes call “love at first sight.”  I’ve also had it in relation to music.  I can’t tell you why a piece speaks to me, or even put into words what it means.  But it is sometimes immensely powerful.

Ideas, on the other hand, rarely bowl me over in that way.  I love ideas, but I so often see their potential limitations that I am rarely stunned into silent awe.   “And the greatest of these is love,” probably belongs to that very small group of ideas that seem to reflect a transcendent truth.  And Chomsky’s exploration of the implications of Einstein’s e=mc2 which completely eliminates my need for another “spiritual” world beyond the world of energy and matter in which we exist.

Today I was introduced to a third idea that I find simply stunning.  It is an explanation of the “sin” committed by Adam and Eve which drove them out of Eden.  The Sin was to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, an action which always mystified me.  Until now, I thought this sin was a violation of some supposed arbitrary rule like eating pork or having meat on Friday.  Or far more destructively, the sin was the desire to understand, a definition that in my view represented nothing more than the attempt by those in positions of power to maintain that power by keeping the “plebs” in a state of ignorance by naming the attempt to gain knowledge “hubris.”

But today I was introduced to a third possibility.  The sin of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is exactly that.  It is believing that we can judge who is bad and who is good.  It is believing that we know who is pleasing to God and who isn’t, who is on their way to hell and who is going to heaven.  It is knowing who the enemy is who deserves to be killed, it knowing what other people’s motives are, it is knowing who is “one of us,” and who isn’t.

Believing that we can make these kinds of judgements with accuracy and impunity is what destroyed life in the Garden of Eden.  It divided the human community into good and bad, into “us” and “them.”  It gave war and revenge a legitimate evil justification.  No wonder the authors of Genesis made this an idea of the devil.

I need to think about this more deeply, but I am wondering if ultimately Genesis sees a willingness to settle our differences through physical power rather than through listening and negotiation and compromise as THE great sin of mankind.

Is all war, then, always wrong?

I have been greatly influenced by World War II.  Could we, in all conscience, simply have let Hitler complete his ghastly work of ethnic cleansing?

Clearly Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler, his “peace in our time,” was a charade.

But could we have, should we have, negotiated?  Could we, in the worst case, negotiated to accept all of the Jews and all the other people Hitler claimed were “inferior,” into our own countries?

And what of Afghanistan today?  From what I am reading, outsiders from the British, the French, the Russians, and now the Americans, have,  for centuries, misunderstood the tribes living there.  Today we Americans have vilified the Taliban, with the “knowledge” that they are evil.  It’s an attitude which is making negotiations with these “terrorists,” and  our withdrawal from Afghanistan extremely difficult.  Because we already know who is right.  We already know that anybody who disagrees with us are the “bad guys.”

Of course we have to live by principles, and by our convictions.

But eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil might just be that terrible sin of judgement by which we think we know not only ourselves but everybody else too.

What if we had the conviction that war is always a Great Sin, always the wrong way to solve our differences?  Yes, I know this is immensely idealistic.  But as an ideal, how does it stand up against the nuclear option?  or sending in “more troops”?  or “dying for one’s country”?

As I say, I need to think about this more.  But I’m stunned.

July 13, 2013

What’s good for the goose…

When I was a graduate student not too far off half a century ago, I remember addressing the question in philosophy asking if the human mind is capable of ever fully understanding the universe and how it works.

The answer is that, although we will never exhaust our potential for learning more, we will never achieve a complete understanding of the world in which we live either.  Our minds are not sufficiently capable of transcending the kind of time and space in which we were created to survive.

This rarely  emerges as an urgent problem for most of us.  Many of us (and I include myself) don’t even understand what it is that we don’t understand.  I don’t really understand, for instance, how negative and positive electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom produce electricity, which in turn runs all the appliances in my house with a simple switch.   Some people do.  But even physicists have no idea how some of our most basic, even everyday processes work.  Gravity is one example.  Thanks to Newton, scientists can describe gravity mathematically, but even Newton said it was a complete mystery how objects can act on each other over distances of millions of light years.  We still can’t explain it, and the number of events in which this kind of thing occurs has expanded with the evidence leading to quantum physics.  In fact, the more we learn, the longer the list gets of things we can’t fully explain.

Some people explain everything we don’t understand – and a lot that we do – with the concept of “God.”  They conclude that there must be a God, for instance, because there isn’t any other explanation for how the universe came into existence.  What people mean by the term “god,” however, varies.  God for some is a kind of all-powerful dictator whose all-encompassing love seems subject to irrational tirades during which anybody in the way gets punished for displeasing him.  Others have a  more transcendent, even mystical, idea of god, beyond simple anthropomorphic description.  Finally, there are those who decline to use the god explanation at all, and prefer to live with unanswered questions, or even in mystery.

So I Got It Wrong

The interesting thing for me, though, is that our certainty about some of the most important questions in life does not seem to depend on whether we believe in god or not.  I’ve been accused of being on my way to hell for straying from the Path of Righteousness, but I’ve heard non-believers make accusations about the pig-headedness of believers with the same level of intolerance.

I have convictions by which I live, and for which I would fight.  I think, for instance, that it is morally despicable to refuse an abortion to a woman to save her life and who is in the process of a miscarriage which was going to result in any case in the death of the fetus.  Yet that is what happened in Ireland, and members of Parliament who have just voted to change the law so this will not happen again have been accused of a sin so grave that they deserve to burn in eternal hell-fire.

But how do I know that some of my convictions are not as wrong-headed as I think some convictions of others are?  And would it not be as wrong for others to follow my convictions simply because I tell them I am right as it would be for me to follow their convictions because they say I’m destined for hell?

No.  Difficult as it is, we each have to follow our own conscience, and respect others who must do the same.

Even if they do disagree with me.

July 12, 2013

A cultural discovery

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

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

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

So what’s the surprise?

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

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

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

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

July 11, 2013

An aging day

Filed under: Growing Old — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

As I’ve said before, I’m finding that for me growing old is a surprisingly fascinating experience which mostly I am enjoying.

Aging does have its down sides, however.  I have to arrange my day differently so that I don’t run out of energy to do what I’ve committed to get done.  And I forget words with an annoying frequency.

What I don’t do very often is lose things.  That’s not because my memory is so brilliant, but because I’m compulsively organized.  Things have a place, and most of the time that’s where I put them.

Which is why I suppose I have never before in my life lost my car keys.

But three days ago I couldn’t find my keys or the attached fob that operates the alarm… 

And the car was locked and the burglar alarm was on.  I was able to use my spare key to open the door, but the battery in the fob which turns the alarm off was flat.  So I’m sitting in the car frantically pushing buttons before the entire neighbourhood is running over to tell me I have a problem.  I already knew I had a problem all right as I desperately paged through the car manual which helpfully told me that the ONLY way to turn off the alarm is with the fob.

Finally, with the alarm still blaring, I jumped into Peter’s car and drove to our local garage where we have our cars serviced.  He changed the battery in the fob for me, and said that should at least give me enough peace to find the lost keys.

That was three days ago.

But the problem, I have discovered, with having a place for everything, is that one soon runs out of obvious places to look when something isn’t where it belongs.  I’ve been through drawers, under chairs, through the trash, under the car, in the workshop, even under our mattress.  I can’t think of any more obvious places to search.  I’ve even run out of the impossible places to look.

I have two hypotheses left.  Did someone walk in and lift the car keys?  This is about ten times less likely than my winning the lottery.  Besides, if they lifted the keys, why didn’t they take the 14-year-old car, which is worth all of $250 on the open market?  So I’m not contacting the police with my problem.

The second possibility is that the keys were somehow dropped into the trash which, unfortunately, was picked up the morning before I realized they were gone.

So today I finally phoned the dealer to order a new key and fob which is uniquely coded to operate only the burglar alarm on the car.  The cost is about $250.

I think it’s the kind of thing that speeds up the aging process.

Still, it could be an awfully lot worse, couldn’t it?  I won’t say I actually feel lucky.

But in my heart of hearts, I know I am.

July 9, 2013

What does a college education cost?

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 2:58 pm

A comment following my post yesterday said “I always ask when this subject is raised is how much is the monthly repayment of the loan over the working life of the graduate? How does that equate to the monthly expenditure on a bottle of wine/gallon of gas or weekend break in Blackpool?”

The figures are different in Britain and the US, but it seemed to me such a relevant question that I did some calculations.

  • The average cost of tuition per year at a US college or university is $7,000 (about £4700 at today’s exchange rates).  A loan at 6.8%, to cover the cost of the 4 years it usually takes to earn a BA, would currently result in monthly payments during a thirty-year working life time of $123 or £82.
  • The most expensive US universities charge $28,000 (£18666) annually, which results in monthly payments of $737 (£490) for thirty years.

These figures do not take into account the cost of food, accommodation or books which for a full-time student averages an additional $15,500 (£10,000) annually.  Nor do they take into account, on the one hand, the cost of lost income during those extra educational years, or on the other, the increased income most college students do eventually earn as a result of acquiring a college degree.

I am, of course, reflecting my own experience.  But I think an education to those who are qualified and eager to work for it is one of the most rewarding investments we can make in our citizens, and for our country.

July 8, 2013

Banking on it

I have a tendency to think something is a good idea for about 24 hours, and then I begin  to think it might not be quite as unassailably brilliant as I first thought.

But 24 hours ago I learned that Senator Elizabeth Warren is submitting a bill to Congress which would make student college loans available for the same rate that the Federal Reserve lends money to banks.  That would reduce the rate students are charged from 6.8% to under 1%.

Every single day through the Federal Reserve, the US government invests in our banks – largest financial institutions in this country.  As the senator says,  “We should be willing to make that same kind of investment in our kids who are trying to get an education.”

This sounds like a brilliant idea to me.  It’s an investment in the nation ‘s future.  It’s not a hand-out or free-bee.  It says “if you have the ability and are willing to work hard, the government is willing to make an investment in your future.”

The only safe guard against potential abuse that I can see would be required would be that colleges and universities do not lower standards in order simply to be a four-year break between graduating from high school and entering the work world.

What do you think?   Read more here.


July 7, 2013

An optimistic hypothesis about Homo sapiens

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:12 pm

Sometimes it feels like the only way to maintain a sliver of hope about the future of mankind is through blind faith betting against all the odds.  So often, as individuals and as governments we seem bent on wresting our way in the world by sheer force.  And we seem bent on achieving what we want with bigger and bigger weapons of mass destruction.  This weekend the news is full of mass demonstrations and civil war by thousands of people around the world from Brazil to Egypt, from Turkey to Syria.  It feels sometimes as if we are ruled by the evolutionary mantra that biggest is best and power makes right.

But taking a long — admittedly very long — view of history, I wonder if indeed we are learning something, and I wonder if the demonstrations on the streets of the world today aren’t a reflection of it.  These demonstrations are often infused for demands for equality, for individual rights, for a limit to the powers exercised by those at the top.  Are we creeping slowly to a recognition of our equality within a human community?

2500 years ago, Athens was ruled by a limited democracy.  800 years the Magna Carta brought the English king under the rule of law.  It was another five centuries before the divine right to rule was abolished in Britain and it is a legitimacy that some governments still claim today.  But the slow, often bloody, movement has been toward some form of equality.  In Britain, in France, in America, and in the last century in Asian countries like India, and in former colonial countries in Africa democratic governments have emerged.

Communism is also part of this movement.  It’s a system that may have failed in Russia and eastern Europe, but it was a system set up to serve the working people.  Unfortunately, it merely replaced the ruling class with its own autocracy.  People were theoretically subject to the common good, but in practice they were still ruled by a small coterie of the unassailable powerful.

Today many people are questioning the capitalism operating in democratic countries on the grounds that something has gone terribly wrong with a system where opportunity for the masses has been sacrificed to the power of banks and corporations.  Unions were originally set up to protect workers against the blatant power of employers, but they were still the workers, still dependent on the companies who employ them.

In response, one of the things which has been happening to counter this fundamental inequality of power between employee and employer is that factories and services are being taken over by the workers themselves.  Unions in America originally fought worker-ownership for fear that it would weaken their own power base.  But many of them are now supporting worker-ownership.

In What Then Must We Do?, Gar Alperovitz describes examples of these worker-owned businesses flourishing throughout the United States.  Here in Britain, I am personally acquainted with a supermarket and department store chain whose workers are all shareholders.  The service and the quality of goods are noticeably superior to those of other supermarket chains.  When jobs or wages need to be cut, it is the workers themselves who make the decisions.  They are not imposed from above.

Even the Roman Catholic Church, that bastion of infallible hierarchical authority, is no longer able to continue as before without objections from within and without.

Are we then stumbling toward something better?

No system is ever going to be perfect.  There will always be a tension between creativity and independence on one hand,  and cooperation and predictability on the other.  Progress cannot take place without failure and change, and we differ in how comfortable we are with risk.  Nor is any system going to eliminate our drive to take care of ourselves first.  No system is going to eliminate our disagreements.  No system is going to make us all equal in our talents and gifts.

But our evolutionary strength is in our diversity, in each of us bringing to the feast some unique gift.  Some systems are better at this than other, more constructive than others.  And perhaps we are moving, as a species, to trying to set up systems that recognize that none of us are born with an intrinsic right to lord it over others.  The right to leadership comes from the people who are led, not from those who impose their will on others.

Well, it’s a hope.

But maybe – just maybe – there’s a slim chance for us Homo sapiens after all.

July 2, 2013

What can we do about the banks?

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

Since reading What Then Must We Do? (see previous post), I’ve been thinking about banks and how they might be re-structured to be of greater service and less risk to our economies.

During the Great Depression, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act which separated commercial banks from securities firms.  This meant that banks could not gamble on the stock market or with derivatives using the money of their depositors.  Depositors’ funds were used instead to provide credit for mortgages and local businesses which the bank thought were good credit risks.  A share of the profits went to the depositors, the bank took a cut as the middle-man, and the borrowers also benefited hopefully through a successful business or eventual property ownership.

The banks, then, were not on a pedestal of moral high ground, but by and large they were seen as providing a valuable service to the communities in which they operated.

Gradually this quietly changed, and in 1999 the Glass-Steagall Act, which to a large extent banks had already circumvented, was officially repealed, and investment banking firms were free to gamble openly with the depositors’ money held in commercial banks.  With the help of computers and traders with mathematical gifts, banks began to make hundreds of millions of dollars.  Big banks became places where huge fortunes could be made, not places that were essentially there to service the diverse needs of the community, or even of the country.

Unfortunately, the risks still lay principally with the depositors, not with the banks themselves, and when the crash came in 2008, most top-level bankers were not bankrupted.  Many even continued to receive mind-boggling bonuses on the grounds that they were the only ones who understood the entire system well enough to keep the entire global economy from catastrophic collapse.

And that in many ways, as I understand it, is where we still are.  Big banks are still too big to fail.  In fact, some of the biggest banks are now even bigger than they were in 2008, and are effectively still insured by the government who could not let them fail.

What then can be done?

Gar Alperovitz in What Then Must We Do? gives many examples of banks still functioning today principally for the benefit of its depositors and borrowers.  There are many more than I had realized – thousands of credit unions, cooperative banks, and small and medium-sized public banks providing millions of dollars to finance small businesses, renewable energy, housing, and infrastructure.  He thinks we can not only survive, but actually thrive, with banks like these.

Alperovitz doesn’t say what he thinks specifically should be done about mega-banks like Citicorp, Goldman Sachs, JKPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.  But I think the implication is that they should be cut loose altogether from government support and that its investors should be made solely responsible for gains and losses they incur.

This sounds simple, but I can’t see that it is.  If their size is not regulated, their very existence is going to have vast economic repercussions, for better or worse.

But can their size be controlled?  Do mega-banks already have so much clout, so much money, so much political influence, that they cannot be cut down to size?

I don’t know.  But if it is possible, it seems to me it’s going to come from a ground swell of public demands as we realize two things.  The first is that we as individuals and as communities are not dependent on the big banks, that our credit unions and cooperatives and local banks are meeting our banking needs without the same level of risk related to the operations of the voracious mega-banks.  And secondly, we need to see that mega-banks themselves are too risky.  It is like living next to a volcano which we cannot predict with any precision, but which is certainly going to erupt again and again, pouring its destructive lava on all of us living in its path.



June 25, 2013

What’s the matter, honey?

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 9:17 pm

I said in my last post that I was going to try to summarize the main points in What Then Must We Do?, a book I have now read twice.  My initial enthusiasm for some of the solutions proposed by the author is not quite as unquestioning as it was after the first round, but it remains a provocative book.

It is provocative first of all because of the questions it asks and the depth of some of the problems that our American system of “Democratic Capitalism” seems to have developed.  There are four areas I find particularly worrisome.

The first problem, as I mentioned before, is the huge unequal distribution of wealth which has developed in the States during the last thirty years.  It is not only that a mere 400 at the top own more wealth than 180 million people at the bottom.  It is that this trend continues to accelerate.  This tiny group at the top are continuing to amass more and more wealth, and more and more power while the purchasing power of the middle and lower classes has almost stagnated completely for three decades.

Can we still call this a land of opportunity then?

This leads to my second concern:  unemployment.  The benefits of global trade are huge, and  it has done more to reduce poverty in under-developed countries than any other single factor.  But the benefits are not universal and companies often abandon workers in the States with little concern for their subsequent welfare.  Many of the dismissed workers remain unemployed despite their best efforts for the rest of their lives.  The devastation spreads from individuals to families to entire communities.

Should corporations have responsibility only to their shareholders and little or none to their workers?

Banks are my third concern.  One does not need to come to this blog to know that in 2008, banks brought the economies of the developed world to their knees, and it will be generations before they recover to pre-2008 levels.  The $2.6 trillion dollars lost to the American GDP alone, the $19.2 trillion loss in household net worth, and the loss of 9 million jobs is bad.  But the real worry is that almost every economist I have read, from far right to far left, are agreed that it has happened before and that it is going to happen again, probably in less than ten years time.

Yet today, banks are still the most powerful lobby with the most highly paid lobbyists in Washington DC.  With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that corporations have the same rights as private individuals to spend as much money as they wish to influence the vote, banks and corporations are terrifyingly powerful in determining our laws.

And what about Health Care?  America spends 18% of our GDP on health care, close to twice as much as other developed countries.  1/3 of all federal expenditures goes to health care, and 1/2 of all federal revenues.  But our health care is far worse.  Infant mortality rates are 31st of the 34 countries with developed economies.  Our life expectancy is less than 79, 27th of the 34 developed countries, below life expectancies in countries as diverse as Australia, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore, Andorra all of whose residents can expect to live well into their 80’s.  We rank a shocking 34 out of 34 in terms of obesity.

What could it do for the quality of life if the American health system could get the same results as many other countries do for half the cost?  What if the savings could be spent instead on roads and bridges, on schools and education, on our energy grids?

No system is perfect, even good systems, like the one in the U.S. that has produced the biggest economy in the world and improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people.  But to hold onto the gains we have, we need to find a few new ways to achieve our goals.

In my next post I will talk about some of the solutions the author Gar Alperovitz suggests.

June 20, 2013

Thinking about it out loud

I’ve just finished reading What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz, a political economist with extensive political experience in Washington, and now a professor at the University of Maryland.

Fundamentally the book addresses the question:  if you think capitalism as it has evolved is not the answer to the needs of the majority, but if you are equally not enamored with the various versions of socialism which have been tried, what are our options?

Despite its drawbacks, I have long thought that capitalism operating within the context of a democracy was the least worst option.  But I am no longer convinced that this is still the case.  Today in America, 400 people at the top of the income scale possess more wealth than the bottom 180 million people put together.  It doesn’t bother me in principle that some people have a great deal more money than others.  But what does bother me is that these numbers suggest that a very small number — that famous 1% — have a great deal more political power than millions of people each with our famous “one vote.”  Just as worrisome, fewer and fewer people are able, in practice, to improve their standard of living by working hard, by creativity, ingenuity and saving.

I think that fundamentally this gigantic income, power, and opportunity gap is undermining democracy.

But most versions of socialism with which I am acquainted make me just as concerned.  Socialism might in theory mean power to the people, but in practice it seems has too often meant power to the politically elites in government.  At the same time, unearned benefits paid to the poor  too often risk creating people who expect a free ride, who do not feel they owe anything to anybody, that they don’t have any obligation to pay anything back.  This isn’t good for the economy, it isn’t fair to the taxpayer, and above all it is an unfulfilling, even destructive, way to live.  Because we all need to be needed.  We all need to make a contribution to the community.

What Then Must We Do? offers a fascinating series of analyses and suggestions, which over the next few weeks I hope to summarize.   I’m not trying to convince anybody.   It’s my way of  clarifying what I think myself.  It’s a kind of thinking out loud, which often provides me with the same return that preparing a class lecture used to do.

June 15, 2013

Oh please, not again already

Filed under: Political thoughts — theotheri @ 8:33 pm

The US announced late last week that the US would start arming the rebels because it was clear that Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people.  Not unexpectedly, Russia defended the Syrian government and said that chemical weapons had not been used.

Nonetheless, a shiver of dread ran through me.  This sounds an awful lot like Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the justification for the US going to war there, with all the subsequent catastrophe which this had caused and the disaster that still stalks that land.

And now chemical experts in Washington are saying it out loud:  they are highly skeptical of the evidence supposedly proving the claims that Assad has used chemical weapons.

The situation in Syria is tragic, almost 100,000 people have been killed there already, whole cities have been destroyed, and at least half a million Syrian refugees are living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.  But I’m afraid that our getting involved in Syria will make things worse for everybody.  Not better.

The Syrian conflict is multi-layered.  The conflict between the Sunni and Shia Muslims goes back more than a millennium.  Overlaying that are the conflicts between Iran and countries like Saudi Arabia, and between Russia and China on the one hand and the US and the West on the other.

There is also the difficulty of controlling who our weapons will actually go to.  Weapons the US sent to Afghanistan to help the rebels there against Russian occupation are even now being used again US troops there.  And the Syrian rebels are not a united front.  There are Al Qaeda operatives there, and the rebels cannot even agree to coalesce behind one leader.  Weapons are sold, captured, abandoned, and would certainly get into the hands of fighters who ultimately would try to impose a regime that would severely limit the rights of the Syrian people.  As I listen to the news analysis over here in Britain, I’m not convinced that Assad is not the preferred option.

The chances of the conflict spilling over into neighbouring countries is also high, and could escalate into a major war with global ramifications.

And would American boots on the ground there help resolve the situation?  If Iraq and Afghanistan are anything to go by, they would not.  We do not understand the complexities of the mid-east conflicts, and more bombs and drones and raids will not bring peace.

And so I am terribly apprehensive about America’s announcement that it is going to send military aid to the rebels.  We cannot make things better by sending in more arms.

We should stay out of it.

I just look at the map with photos from the BBC and tremble.

Map of Syria and neighbouring countries

June 13, 2013

What is a thought made of?

Someone just asked me what I thought about recent research strongly suggesting that the brain and thought are intrinsically related.  Is thought physical, he asked?  

This is cheating, I know, but this was my attempt to answer the question to the best of my ability:

Whew!  Do you know you are grappling with one of the biggest philosophical, theological, and scientific questions of all time.  In psychology it’s most often referred to as “the mind-body problem,” but the question goes back at least as far as Plato.

 Whatever it’s called, the question is whether consciousness/thought/learning/intelligence are intrinsically bodily processes?  and if they are, how is it that something that seems to have no physical characteristics can possibly be physical?  Thought, in any of its forms, does not seem to take up any space whatsoever.  And although a thought can be communicated, the word or message itself is not the thought itself.  In other words, thought seems to depend on the body, but it seems to be different from any other bodily process which we can observe.
Basically, there are three potential solutions to this conundrum:
The first is the one offered by Plato – that there are two completely separate worlds – the natural world and the world of pure ideas.  Despite the fact that the early Christians did not believe in another world, this is the solution evenually adopted by the Roman Catholic church and in which you and I were socialized as Catholics.  Plato’s world of ideas became the spiritual world inhabited by God, the angels, and all the human souls who have managed to make it out of purgatory and into heaven.  
The second solution came into its own with the scientific revolution.  Paradoxically, it was in an attempt to keep the Roman Catholic authorities happy by assuring them that science only dealt with the “natural world,” and that the spiritual world was still under the sole authority of the church.  But in the process of accepting this division, science accepted the assumption that matter is completely passive, moved only by external forces.  Given that understanding of matter, life itself and especially thinking seemed to belong to the spiritual world.  The idea of a soul still seemed logically necessary.  Some scientists in recent centuries, however, rejected both the idea of a separate spiritual world and the idea of a soul.  Since they couldn’t explain thought, they simply said it didn’t really exist – that it is an epi-phenomenon, rather like a shadow that is really only the reflection of other forces and not real in itself.
Since Einstein a third possibility has been increasing in popularity, and is one with which I myself have the most resonance.  Until just over a century ago, most scientists assumed that energy and matter were two different things.  But Einstein’s theory, with his equation E=mc2, demonstrates that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing.  In other words, matter is potentially dynamic.  It is not an inert blob passively sitting there waiting for something to push it.  Actually, there is no evidence that we have ever seen in the entire universe of this kind of complete inertness.  A stone that looks to us like it’s just sitting there is a seething mass on the atomic level.  Matter, even on the level of the smallest particles, is continuously interacting.  Development, then, is intrinsic in matter.  The emergence of life and of consciousness is built-in to the very nature of matter.
(Interestingly, this position  has a lot in common with the original Hebrew position, and some forms of paganism, especially animism.)
This latter position makes sense to me, but as you may have noticed it does not solve the mind-body problem.  We still don’t know how thought is related to the brain.  MRI studies show increasingly that the brain operates in different ways depending on the thought processes that are occurring.  We also know, of course, that if the brain stops functioning altogether, thought, and life itself ceases altogether as well.
My own assumption is that there is a relationship between mind and body parallel to the relationship between matter and energy – that they are different forms of the same thing.  But we don’t have a clue at this point what the nature of this relationship might be.  Some scientists see this question of consciousness as one of the most profound unanswered problems of modern science, far outstripping the Higgs Bosom.   How do bio-chemical processes produce something that seems as ethereal as thought?
I’ve thought a lot about this question over the years, and for a long time didn’t see how we could make sense of life if we abandoned the idea of a separate soul.  I don’t think that anymore.  
But as I say – it’s still an unsolved mystery.  
Take your pick.

June 11, 2013

Spot the difference

I remember as a child a game in which we tried to spot the difference between two drawings.  Below is a grown-up version making the rounds on the internet.
There are 6 differences that can be spotted, and two more the camera doesn’t catch.
1. The golden throne is replaced by a wooden chair …
something more appropriate for 

the disciple of a carpenter.
2. The gold-embroidered red stole,
heir of the Roman Empire, and the

red cape have been discarded .
3. The classic red Prada footwear are now just plain old black shoes.
4.  The cross in the second photo has no rubies or diamonds.
5.  There’s no red carpet in the second photo.  
Not apparent in the photos:
6.  the papal ring is gold in the first photo, silver in the second.  
7. And under the cassock in the second photo are black pants, a reminder that the wearer is another priest.
Have you guessed the 8th?  There’s a different man sitting there…
I would need an impossible doctrinal revolution to be re-converted.  But I’m glad for the differences.  It reflects, after all, the community into which I was born.

June 10, 2013

The liberty to think or the duty to believe?

For the first two and a half decades of my life, I was taught history from the perspective of Roman Catholicism.  That perspective was probably most influential in relation to the Tudor era of Henry VIII and his offspring Queens Mary and Elizabeth.  I have three brothers named after Catholic martyrs of this period – Thomas More, John Fischer, and Richard Reynolds.  According to the stories I was told, they were heroic martyrs who defended the True Church against the monarchs trying to displace the divine authority of Rome.  I had no idea that the “other side” also had an array of martyrs who had stood up against the Catholic regime.

The BBC right now is running a series of documentaries on this Tudor era.  Last night we watched the story of William Tyndale, the English priest who was burned at the stake for translating the New Testament into English.

As a Maryknoll nun, I also fought for the right to read the bible privately instead of hearing it only read, usually by a priest who then explained to us what it meant. Since I had Vatican II as the justification for my argument, I was not burned at the stake for my views.  Instead we actually managed to convince our superiors to change their minds.  At the time, however, I had no appreciation of the depth that had caused the determination to keep the bible out of the hands of anyone but the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Tyndale was an ordained Roman Catholic priest educated at Oxford.  But he believed that the Word of God should be put into the hands “even of the plowman,” that God spoke directly to each of us, without the intervention of others.  Tyndale was vehemently opposed by both church and government authorities who argued that ordinary people would descend into lawlessness and chaos if they were permitted to interpret the Word of God on their own.  Tyndale was pursued and finally cornered by the arch-heretic hunter Thomas More (he who was himself to be beheaded by Henry VIII for refusing to recognize his marriage to Anne Boleyn) who was one of the leading defenders of this religious “rule of law” view.

Besides that, over the years, the Roman Catholic Church had added a good deal of superfluous doctrine to scriptures – original sin, purgatory, ordination of priests, confession, and indulgences were doctrines added centuries after the scriptures were written.  But since people were not permitted to read the bible for themselves, few of them were aware that these were additions, and believed them to share the authority of sacred scriptures. Rome rightly feared that if the bible were to get into the hands of ordinary people – even into the hands of mere plowmen – the authority of Rome would be undermined.

But ultimately, after many struggles and persecutions, the King James Bible, which incorporated most of Tyndale’s elegant translations, was placed in every church in Britain.  Every one who could read was free to read it and draw inspiration from it.

It was, said Melvin Bragg, the triumph of “the liberty to think rather than the duty to believe.”  It was the triumph of individual conscience against even religious authority.  It was the triumph of the common, ordinary man.

It was also, I think, one of the foundation stones of democracy.  People not only could hear the word of God without depending on the interpretation of the authority of the church.  That same ordinary man, that same plowman, had a right to determine who was to govern the society of which he was a part.

I understand now why so many people were afraid that electing John F. Kennedy as a Catholic president in the US could spell the end of democracy as we knew it.  Their fear was unfounded.  But I understand now where it came from.

June 8, 2013

Nothing to fear?

The British today are on fire after Barack Obama’s confirmation that UK spies are cooperating with the CIA to monitor the phone and internet communications of UK citizens.  Barack Obama, in the meantime, is wheeling out the old saw “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.”  According to him, we all must bear some modicum of inconvenience and loss of inconsequential privacy in order to keep the world safe from terrorists.

I’m not a defender of terrorists, I do not want to minimize the terrible suffering they can inflict, and I think responsible governments everywhere must work to maximize the security of their citizens.

But I do not look without a certain amount of serious apprehension at our governments’ increasing intrusion into our lives without warrants or any court oversight.  I’m not worried that some secret activity of mine is about to be revealed to the glare of publicity or government scrutiny.

But I do not trust our government – or any government – absolutely.  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Americans are not exempt from this reality.  Our founding fathers set up a constitution with checks and balances for this very reason. I fear the potential secret terrorism of my own government as much as I fear the terrorism from others.

Has our government ever lied to us?  Do you think they knew that Iraq did not actually have weapons of mass destruction?  Did President Reagan tell us Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala, was “man of great personal integrity and commitment,” even though he knew Montt’s forces had killed tens of thousands of Mayans in a single year, because it was a price worth paying to maintain a right-wing government in Central America?   Do you trust that the US had nothing to do with the mysterious dismissal of Montt’s trial which found him guilty of war crimes against humanity?  What about Guantanamo?  or Allende, the democratically elected president of  Chile?

Or etcetera.  I don’t believe the US government is guilty of every treacherous act suggested by every conspiracy theory offered to us in the last fifty years.

But I’m old enough to recognize the human condition, and I think watering down our system of checks and balances is a very dangerous development.

In fact, I find it terrifying.

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.

June 2, 2013

Everybody wins

I’ve just read an interview with Noam Chomsky in which he suggests that effective education doesn’t teach to tests, but teaches students to discuss and explore processes, events, issues, problems.

This reflects my own philosophy of education.  I never tried to teach my students the right answers.  Their grades didn’t depend on their agreeing with me or with any particular theory we might be studying.  Their grade depended on their ability to describe each theory, or each side of an issue, in a way that someone espousing that theory would agree fairly reflects their thinking.  Then, and only then, do I think we have the credentials to make our own decisions.

Every once in a while, a student would say he or she didn’t want to learn about some theory or other because he didn’t agree with it.

How in heavens’ name can we legitimately disagree with someone if we don’t know what they are saying?


I’ve once again gotten so excited about the value of understanding the points of view with which we disagree that I’ve even fantasized writing a book for teachers who are mandated by state law to teach both Darwin’s theory of evolution and Creationism.

What an incredible opportunity for a teacher in this position!

This is a topic about which feelings run so deep that they often suffocate rational discussion.  And I am not talking only about the view of Creationists.  I have met Evolutionists (with whom I happen to agree, by the way) who are as dogmatic, close-minded, and judgemental about Creationists as any one.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could learn in the classroom to take the alternative seriously, seriously enough to grapple with the legitimate claims of both sides?

Wouldn’t we have brighter students?  And would we have a society that is more tolerant of those with whom we disagree?


Oh no, I’m not going to write another book!  There’s too much work to do in the garden anyway.



May 30, 2013

Back to normal in cyberspace

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:09 pm
Tags: ,

During a wonderful visit with my sister (who has now returned to what she called “The Land of Stuff”) we were in London to see Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at the Globe Theatre.

I’m embarrassed to say that I truly understood the play for the first time in my life.  Admittedly, I was an adolescent the last time I bothered with what I thought was a pretty ridiculous story about magic and good and bad spirits lined up to help the good and bad guys marooned on an island with a one-dimensional romance thrown in to keep the audience sufficiently optimistic.

Out of curiosity, I went on the internet to see if it was still presented in the stilted fashion in which I was first introduced to the story.  I’m afraid I think it is.  At least the SparkNotes version is.

I’d love to have a chance to introduce this play to adolescents today.  Prospero’s “magic” and his books could represent any kind of power today – money, modern weapons, terrorism, the ability to make war.  The challenge of the play is to understand first why Prospero is so legitimately angry – robbed of his position and cast away to die at sea with his young daughter as his sole companion.

And then to understand why Prospero decides to forgive.

That’s the great challenge:  to understand why forgiving is more creative, more constructive, more life-giving for Prospero and those he loves than is the revenge which after twelve years he can at last execute.  Yet he chooses to forgive instead.

For me “The Tempest” raised the whole question of modern warfare again.  However legitimate our grievances, the price of war is huge.  It’s not enough to say our anger is legitimate.

We must find other ways to bring peace to this world.



May 17, 2013

Enough already!

Filed under: Family,Growing Up — theotheri @ 9:52 am

When I was a very grown-up age of twelve, my mother told me she was pregnant with her tenth child.

I was furious and told her so in no uncertain terms:  “You have enough children!”

I didn’t understand it then, but  I was really saying that I didn’t want to be a surrogate mother to a baby about whose arrival I had not even been consulted.  Of course, in my adolescent wisdom, I had no idea just how much I myself was gaining from being an older sister who, however great my ignorance may have been on any subject, was always less than those of my younger, lesser experienced siblings.  So I grew up with a self-confidence that was perhaps not always due solely to my superior abilities.

My mother did have her tenth child, of course, and though I at first refused to so much as change a diaper without sulking, I eventually discovered that I have a great deal in common with my youngest sister.  And among other things, we are agreed today that if one is going to be a member of a large family, being at the top or the bottom of the array is almost always less of a challenge than fighting for a separate identity as a squashed in-between.

So I am now most grateful that my mother did have her tenth child and that she is now my grown-up sister.

Thanks, Mom.  She really is a gift.  Just like you said.

Besides that, she’s arriving from America today for a ten-day visit.  So I’m taking a break from blogging.


May 15, 2013

Ignoring the question

When I was about ten years old, my brother Jack came home from first grade one afternoon, and told my mother that he had some homework.  It was, he said, to learn the first five questions of the catechism.

I’m sure by then my mother knew the first five questions by heart – Q:  “Who made you?”   A:  “God made me.”  Q:  “Who is God?”  A:  God is the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving…” etc.  But she nonetheless sat down with Jack, opened his catechism and asked him:  “Who made you?”  “Who made you?” repeated Jack.  “That’s right,” my mother replied, “who made you?  What is the answer?”

“Oh, we don’t have to learn the answers,” Jack said.  “We just have to learn the questions.”

At the mature age of ten years, I thought this was so very funny.

But now I think how right this little brother of mine was.  As Roman Catholics, we belonged to the One and Only True Church, which in addition had just a century earlier infallibly declared itself infallible.  We had no need of questions;  we already had the answers.

And yet the questions are profound:  where did we come from?  why are we here?  where are we going?  Oh, those questions are worth learning.  They are worth a lifetime of pondering.

What a terrible loss to learn to skip over them before we had barely reached the age of reason.

Jack was right:  we have to learn the questions.

May 13, 2013

Reflections on blogging

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:35 pm

Some time ago I took time off blogging in order to finish my latest book.  I did that, but somehow the rhythm of daily blogging was disrupted and I’ve never gotten back into the flow in the same way.

Why? I ask myself.  I’ve seen it happen to other personal blogs too.  They will be posting regularly sometimes for years, and then they dribble off.  I thought at first it was because I was trying to fit too many things into a single day.  That may have been true.  But something else changed too.

Instead of asking myself on a daily basis “what will I blog about today?”  I subtly changed the question to “Is there anything I feel would make a really good post today?”  9 times out of 10, my thoughts did not pass the muster.  If I keep this up, I think I might manage about 1 post a year in good years.

So I’m going to experiment with changing the question.  I really do want to blog less and read more, so I’m aiming to write 3 posts a week.  But on those days, I’m not going to ask myself if I have anything worthwhile to say.  I’m going back to my original question:  what am I going to blog about today?

This isn’t because I think the world needs my blogging.  But it helps me.  And many times the comments are a big bonus for my thinking out loud.  So blogging is worth while for me.  And I’m going to stop worrying about whether it’s making a contribution to the Greater Good.

I think a little itty bitty bit of good, even if it’s only for myself, is enough good to matter.

May 5, 2013

When less is more

Filed under: Growing Old — theotheri @ 8:47 pm

When I was a young faculty member, I remember a faculty member who kept agitating for our department to teach a course in geriatrics.  How boring, I thought.  Who wants a course about old age when all the exciting things in life are finished.

Oh my my my.  How wrong I was.

Getting old is one of the most fascinating, unexpected, and often enjoyable experiences of my life.

Yes, neither my husband or I are suffering from some of the diseases that typically appear among the retired that can cause so much pain and distress.  And although we’re not rich, we are not poor and we don’t have to choose between eating and heating, which is my short-hand definition of poverty.

And many of the challenges of one’s younger years are already faced as well.  I don’t worry much anymore if people like me, if I’ve attractive enough, if my chosen career has any intrinsic value.

But getting old is also rewarding in itself.  Just having a life to live somehow seems more wonderful, more amazing.  And terribly surprising.  I find all sorts of things I never appreciated before are now quite beautiful.

I have less energy than I used to though, and I have developed a strategy that I find is essential if I’m not going to drive myself absolutely mad.  I get a great deal more satisfaction if I set goals for myself that are realistic in terms of what I can reasonably accomplish today – not what I could do even five years ago.

Less really is more.  I go to bed at night feeling much happier if I have accomplished my more modest achievements for the day than if I go over an impossibly long list of things I said I was going to do and didn’t.

All of which is a rather long explanation about why I’m not blogging every day anymore.

I do hope it’s included in the times when less is more.

April 29, 2013

The original garden view

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:05 pm

I was taken aback when I was asked recently by a friend why anybody who doesn’t believe in God and in heaven and hell would bother trying to be good.  If there is no threat of punishment or promise of reward, why should we bother trying to be loving and generous?  Why bother being faithful and honest?  Why value truth above lies?

We’ve known each other for more than half our lives, and I thought my own answer to this question was clear:

Because human beings are happier if we love each other, if we are honest and truthful and trustworthy.

St. Augustine of Hippo concluded in the 4th century that the reason we humans suffer is because we are conceived in sin.  Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ate that forbidden apple, and God was so angry that He has punished every man, woman, and child ever since.  That, despite the fact that we are redeemed by the death of God’s own son.  We might be redeemed, but even innocent children are still being punished.

I don’t think that’s the meaning of the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, and I don’t think that’s the way the Hebrews, who did not believe in heaven and hell, understood its meaning.  I know that Augustine was trying to solve the problem of suffering, but he didn’t.  Turning God into an unforgiving, irrational tyrant doesn’t make sense.  Especially when at the same time one wants to argue that this is an all-powerful God of Love.

I think the Garden of Eden is a poetic answer to a question we all ask sooner or later – why is there so much suffering?  And I think the answer suggested by this ancient Hebraic parable is that we create much of our own suffering.  There are things we might want to do – figuratively eating the forbidden apple.  But if we do, we are ultimately going to be unhappy.  Profoundly unhappy.  Far more often than we want to admit, we create our own unhappiness.  We expel ourselves from paradise.  It is not God.  It is we ourselves who create our own hell.

I think Freud, who was Jewish, understood this.  As he was puzzling over patterns of unhappiness in people’s lives, he reached the conclusion that we so often are the authors of our own unhappiness.

It is Cain who murdered Abel, and the story is not that it made him happy.  So too, it is we who are bombing each other, it is we who are destroying so much of our environment, it is we who are untrustworthy, we who do not keep our promises.

It is we, not an eternally unforgiving God, who are the authors of much of our own discontent.




April 26, 2013

Misinterpreting the obvious

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:01 pm

One of the things I find fascinating about living in Britain is the names of places.  It’s hardly unique that the names are often a short-hand for their location.  But what I find so endlessly surprising is that the short-hand so often goes back not just hundreds but thousands of years.

“Roman Hill” obviously got its name over a thousand years ago.  “Cathedral Close” is close to the cathedral,”Stocks Lane” suggests the ancient location of the stocks used to humiliate and punish recalcitrants.   The meanings of  “Boot Street,” “Cheese Place,” or “Westgate” might be obvious, but “Ludgate” is a little more elusive if one doesn’t know that Lud was an ancient Welsh god.

I assumed that our organic farm shop located on Bury Lane was among the obvious, and I asked our fish monger yesterday where the cemetery was – or at least had been.  He said that his knowledge went back no further than its long history as a fruit farm.

So I went to Wikipedia and discovered that “Bury” is an old English word for castle or stronghold, and is a precursor of the word borough.  Instead of looking for a cemetery, I should be looking for the castle.

So I think I must admit that my obvious interpretation of “Bury” was — ahem, are you ready for this? — dead wrong.

April 23, 2013

Wonderful blog!

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

It’s nice to get encouragement to keep blogging, but in the last several months, I have been getting an awful lot of what seem to be generic comments telling me what a great blog this is.

I’m beginning to get suspicious.  Is this a way of getting a general approval to make comments following my posts and so to get spam past the spam-screen?

The psychologist R. D. Laing described people who do not believe in themselves and so conclude that anybody who offers them a positive assessment must be either very needy themselves or very poor judges of character.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just getting cynical in my old age.  As we used to say during the Vietnam War protest years, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get me.”

April 20, 2013

And now what will we do?

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 2:59 pm
Unlike the politicians in Washington who were accusing the attitudes and policies of each other for being responsible, Boston’s response to the marathon bombing has been restrained.
It will be interesting to see what happens now that the bombers have been identified.  Will the fact that they were ethnic Chechens who’d converted to Islam be the only thing that matters?  Will it matter that they came to the United States as 9 and 17-year-olds?  Will U.S. attitudes toward using violence to get what we want occur to us Americans?  In the 31 days following the Newton shootings killing 20 children and 8 adults, an additional 919 people have died as the result of guns.  An estimated 176 children have been killed by American drone strikes in Pakistan.  Is there any relationship between our attitudes and those who we call terrorists?
I hope the people of Boston are more like the people of Connecticut or Norway.
Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty.  I’m assuming that the surviving suspect will be tried under state law. Don’t know if he can be tried under federal law, and if so, if he could face the death penalty.
I hope not.  Not because I feel sorry for terrorists.  But because too many Americans think our strength is in having the biggest bombs and the most guns, rather than in implementing our principles of freedom and democracy without prejudice.

April 17, 2013

The other side of the bombs

Filed under: Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 9:17 pm

Celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher with joyous renditions of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead felt cruel to me.

But then there was the Boston Marathon bombing.

I felt horror and pain and outrage.  But there was a part of me that should help me understand the Ding Dong singers.  I found myself hoping that this bombing – awful as it is – might give Americans some insight into what it must feel like to be living in an Afghanistan village hit by an American drone strike.

Apart from that thought, which I confess gave me little comfort, I could see little that was positive in most of this week.

Then I read an article by William Rivers Pitt.  He was reminded of the advice given to frightened children:  “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.”

And so it was in Boston. Not just the police and medical professionals ran into the smoke.  Runners and people who’d come to cheer them on ran into the potential danger to help.  They used their own belts and scarves as tourniquets.  They literally saved lives.

In that sense, the bombers failed.  This was Boston, where they ran to the sound and the smoke to help each other.

No, I’m not a Pollyanna about all this.  I am too well aware that there was dancing in the streets in America when Osama bin Laden was killed.  I know the opposing parties in Washington have already begun to blame each other for the Boston outrage.

But at least not every impulse in the American psyche is to shoot first and worry about innocent victims after we have wrecked what we think of as our justified self-defense.  There are helpers.  There is heroic selflessness.  There is another side of the bombs.


April 15, 2013

Ding dong dummy

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 11:54 am

I have often been critical about people who put inappropriate comments and content on the internet.  Obviously, that includes child pornography, but also bullying on social networks, lying, and yes, theft.

As you can see by two of the comments following my post yesterday, I initially  included a photograph which had been copyrighted.  I’ve now removed it, and since my stats show that it was viewed by a maximum of six people, it is not now swirling around cyberspace in gay abandon.

But it is the property of a professional photographer, and it is embarrassing to have accidentally appropriated his work.

I hope that I can qualify as a good witch rather than a bad one.  Or as a good thief rather than a bad one.

April 14, 2013

Ding Dong the witch…

It is something of a shock, if not a surprise, to be living here in England listening to some of the unedited comments about Margaret Thatcher.  Hatred lives long and deep in the hearts of those who feel that she destroyed their communities, their jobs, even entire industries.  “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” is reaching number one in the song charts, and people are drinking champagne to celebrate her death.

I personally think Margaret Thatcher saved Britain from becoming a much poorer country, but I can understand and respect those who disagree with her policies.  I can positively agree with those who feel that her methods sometimes seemed to lack compassion.

But she was a legitimate leader of the country, re-elected prime minister three times.  The lack of restraint in relation to those who disagreed with her seem to me to show a lack of respect for the very political freedoms of Great Britain and of which she is so justly proud.

Besides that, Margaret Thatcher has been out of office for 23 years.  She leaves children and grandchildren and many voters who benefited hugely from her policies.  Many of the comments are cruel, mean, coarse, arrogant, and ignorant.

Not, of course, that we ever engage in behavior distantly resembling anything like that in the United States.

We’re a gun culture after all.  Guns are much more effective than words.

April 9, 2013

Hail to the SUN!

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

I’ve never been someone who has felt I have to get out of the house.  In fact, ever since I learned to read, I could sit for hours with a book, un-tempted by the sunshine and fresh air outside.

But after a pitiful excuse for summer last year and then one of the longest, coldest, windiest, wettest, and dreariest winters I have ever known, I am now greeting the sun with awe.  I understand – and I do not exaggerate – how primitive people thought of the sun as a god.  I admit that I am now looking at the weather forecast with almost religious fervor.

And although I’m not suggesting that we return to offering our vestal virgins in sacrifice, I have foregone my postings on this blog this last week because the sun-god has returned.   I can’t ever remember feeling quite this exhilarated because I can walk out the door into sunshine and engage in what in other times I might have called “work.”

How long this will go on for, I don’t know.

But right now, if I have a choice between being on the internet or under the sun, the sun is winning.

April 7, 2013

Is slowing down a good idea?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 9:16 pm

Sometimes I find the economic naiveté combined with the self-righteous high-mindedness of the left-wing  irritating.  (You may have noticed.)

But yesterday I read a left-wing proposal suggesting that we re-instate the 55-miles-per-hour speed limit that struck me as eminently sensible.

  • Cars on average are about 25% more fuel-efficient at speeds below 55 mph.  So it would save drivers money at the pump.
  • There aren’t any upfront costs involved in implementing this policy.  Cars don’t need special adaptation, panels don’t have to be installed on our roofs, we don’t even have to lower our thermostats.  It wouldn’t involve any new taxes.
  • A new law doesn’t even have to go through Congress.  The Environmental Standards Agency could mandate it without further legislation.
  • By reducing America’s  oil consumption about 4%, it would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and help reduce pollution of the air we breathe.
  • A 55 mph speed limit might even save lives.

Unfortunately, upon further reading, I have discovered that  the arguments are not quite as convincing as I first thought.  For one thing, it’s not at all clear that cars are 25% more fuel-efficient at speeds between 45 and 55 mph.  So it might not save as much oil as proponents think.

And the number of lives that a reduced speed limit saves is also not quite as straight forward as the initial claims reported.

It might still be a good idea to reduce the speed limit.  But it might not be quite as obviously a good idea as I thought at first.



April 4, 2013

A politically incorrect solution to global warming?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:44 pm

I have just read an article by Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, the well-known – some might even say infamous – author of The Skeptical Environmentalist.   He is one of the few people I have read who has presented some startling facts and figures about climate change that just might change my mind.

First, he says that almost certainly global warming is real, and almost certainly mostly man-made.  At that point, however, he parts company with the politically correct view.

First of all, he says, let us stop claiming that at this point, global warming is about to end human life as we know it.  Over the next century, more people will die from excessive heat, but an even greater number of people will not die from exposure to cold.   Global warming will reduce the yields on some crops but the higher levels of CO2 which acts as a fertilizer, will significantly increase yields on other crops.  Economists estimate that global warming will cost more than it saves beginning about 2070.   Assuming nothing else changes, global warming is predicted to cost about 1.5% of global GDP  in the next two centuries.  A problem to be solved, then, but not utter disaster.

So how should  we solve this problem?  Lomborg argues that the Kyoto agreement has had almost no impact whatsoever.  Countries like Britain which are producing less greenhouse gas have simply exported its production to countries like China.  So has Denmark.  So has much of the European Union.  America, as you may recall, declined to join the Kyoto agreement.

I’ve been reading for years that renewable energies simply were never going to be able to take the place of fossil fuels.  For one thing, we haven’t figured out how to get renewable energies to do a lot of the heavy-duty things fossil fuels do.  Secondly, even assuming we can and want to dedicate hundreds of square miles to solar panels and wind and wave farms, it is hugely expensive. Here is the central fact that the Green Lobby must address:

The cost of CO2 for the next 200 years is projected to average about £3.50 a ton – that’s about $5.  Reducing CO2 emissions through the use of renewables today costs £26 a ton in China, in Britain and much of the developed world it costs £81 a ton.

Okay, maybe this huge cost would be worth it if renewables could do the job.  But on current form, the most optimistic forecasts are that renewables can reduce the use of fossil fuels by about 8% total in  the next hundred years.

That’s just not going to solve the problem, is it?

Lomborg argues that rather than putting money into expanding our present-day renewables, we should instead invest much more in research and development to find ways of producing the energy we need that is both clean and affordable.

He gives some rather tantalizing analogies.  We did not, he said, get better computers by subsidizing the vacuum tubes on which early computers were based.  We didn’t get them by taxing typewriters either, or provide grants so that every home and school  had at least one computer.  We got better computers because IBM and Apple invested in human ingenuity – that is, in research and development that produced both better and cheaper computers.

Lomborg believes that global warming is indeed a potentially very serious problem.  If global temperatures rise by an average 4 degrees Celsius (about 8 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists simply don’t know how bad the flooding, the droughts, and extreme weather events will be.

But Lomborg also points out that research is showing that we have a little more time to deal with it than we thought just a few years ago.  Okay, he says, let’s take advantage of this.  Let’s learn from the mistakes we’ve made for the last 20 years.  Let’s plug in to that great reserve which has been our greatest force for the last two hundred thousand years – human creativity.

Will it work?

Well, one can’t be sure.  But the evidence is suggesting that what we’ve tried so far hasn’t succeeded and isn’t going to.

Personally, I’m inclined to bet on human creativity.  If we’re willing to put the money and effort into it, I think we have the brains to do it.  If we do, we could save the planet as well as ourselves.


April 2, 2013

Remove shoes before entering

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:47 pm

The Old Lutheran Gift Shop is selling socks embroidered with Luther’s famous words:

Here I Stand.

Here I Stand Socks

The words are written twice – once above the ankle and once on the foot.  So you don’t really have to take your shoes off to let people know you’re not moving.

Personally, I’m thinking of buying a pair for a wonderfully steadfast friend.  Though I admit that some people might prefer to use the word stubborn.

March 31, 2013

If it won’t, we shall spring it make

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:14 pm

when faces called flowers float out of the ground

and breathing is wishing and wishing is having –

but keeping is downward and doubting and never

-it’s april (yes,april;mydarling)it’s spring!


when more than was lost has been found has been found

and having is giving and giving is living-

but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing

-it’s spring (all our night becomes day)o,it’s spring!

ee cummings


May today begin another festival of new life for you and me and all those leaving winter behind.

Happy Easter!  

The Other I

March 29, 2013

Thought for the Day

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:42 pm



The wife of President Calvin Coolidge once asked her husband after he’d come home from attending church services what the sermon had been about.

“Sin,” he replied.

“What about sin?” his wife asked.

“He’s against it,” replied the president.

March 25, 2013

Serving the poor might be a bad idea

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:42 pm

The new Pope Francis said that he wanted to focus the church on service to the poor.  At first this sounds wonderful.  Which is why I’ve been trying to figure out why it is making me so uncomfortable.

First of all, I worry about defining the poor.  What qualifies someone as being poor enough to deserve service?  We are all poor in the sense that we all need each other.  We all need love and caring and forgiveness.  We all need to work with others – even when we work alone.  We need forgiveness, we need others to enjoy us, we need others to appreciate what we try to do for them.  We need them to remember us, we need them to share their insights and skills, we need support, even if it is to do no more than deliver our daily mail.  Or email and social network messages.  We all need that birthday card, that telephone call, that text message, that smile from a neighbor.

I also worry about this implication that I am a holier person, a better Christian, if I serve the poor.   Why?  Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am a creative physicist?  if I discover how to use electricity?  if I share a great musical talent?  or paint great pictures ?  if I develop a business that provides thousands of jobs?  If I am a dedicated teacher on a good salary?  Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am myself poor?  Is being poor intrinsically better than being middle class?  or even a rich philanthropist?  Is it better for me to be poor or to serve the poor than to use my particular talents which may, actually, make a lot of money?

I worry too about what serving the poor as a primary focus pushes out of first place.  I’m afraid that a goal like “serving the poor” still  leaves too much room for discrimination – in terms of gender, ethnicity, color, religion, age.  Of course I’m not against helping the poor.  And I’m glad if a focus on serving the poor means that the Roman Church will be less obsessed with doctrinal issues like gay marriage, consenting homosexual relationships, birth control, papal infallibility, and the plethora of beliefs which the church has insisted are necessary for salvation, beliefs that seem to the Vatican are more critical to true Christianity than loving our fellow creatures.

But I’ve been around a long time, and I’m afraid it might not mean any of these things.

I would feel less uneasy if the pope had made love his primary focus.  That would not have excluded giving a loaf of bread to someone in need, it would not have excluded teaching, or caring for the sick.  But it would have been a great deal less patronizing.  Which ones of us want to be “served” because we are poor?   Look at the expression on the face of the young man whose foot is being kissed by the pope.  Perhaps I am projecting, but what I see on that face is the expression of someone who is not at all sure he’s not being used.  There’s no way I would want someone kissing my foot on the grounds that I’m among the needy poor.  It’s demeaning.

Love, as a primary focus, instead of serving the poor, also would have made it much more obvious that discrimination in relation someone who is of a different religious, sexual, or ethnic persuasion is against the basic Christian commitment above all to love.  It would not have distinguished between the poor and those who aren’t poor.  It would not have suggested to the Christian who is “serving the poor” that he or she is in some way superior to those being served.

No matter what our talents, what our economic condition, what our social status, we all need to serve and to be served, we all need to be needed.  And so I don’t like this materialist division between the poor and those who supposedly aren’t.

We are all in this together.  We need each other.

We all need to love and to be loved.





March 22, 2013

The you that is me

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:06 pm

I just want to clarify that my post yesterday, “Sermon to myself” really was meant to be a sermon to myself, and not to the reader.  It was a soliloquy about what makes me happy, energized, feeling as if I am living my life as it was given to me to be lived.

I’m someone who simply loves to work.  The last day I left the university, I sat in my car and sobbed.  I loved the challenge of the students, I loved the self-discipline and continued critical thinking that being a university professor called for.  I didn’t see retirement as a holiday but rather as a chance to learn different things, to face new tasks.  I’ve written two books since retiring, learned how to build walls, tile around pools, grow lemon trees, fix electrical appliances, and appreciate just how profoundly different cultures really are.

So my sermon to myself was very personal – it was not advice to other retirees.  It was merely a reminder to myself that in truth I can’t sit still and be happy.  In part, that’s a limitation.  It makes me very goal-oriented but not so good at letting go and simply appreciating the glory of the moment.

I thrive best with a schedule.  Not a schedule with rigid inflexibility, not a schedule which does not take into account the changing needs of age in myself or my husband and friends.  But I don’t do well with days filled with complete spontaneity, asking myself every quarter of an hour or so “what shall I do next?”

It’s the way I am.  But certainly not the way everybody should be.  Thank goodness they aren’t.   They’d drive me crazy.




March 21, 2013

Sermon to self

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:52 pm

You get more done and have more energy even at the end of the day if you live by a schedule.  A realistic one that is not inflexible in the light of unexpected events, but one that you take seriously.  This was easier when employment imposed certain non-negotiable requirements.  The older you get, the more you have to be self-disciplined.  You are not the kind of person who enjoys retirement as a kind of extended vacation.

Looking at a list of the things you want to get done on a day and then playing five games of Free Cell while you decide which one to tackle first saps your energy, interferes with your ability to think critically, and doesn’t help you decide anyway.

A schedule is not the same thing as a list of things to do.  You get more done if you set time limits for yourself.


March 19, 2013

Worrying out loud

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View,Worries — theotheri @ 9:41 pm
Tags: ,

Cyprus is on the edge of total bankruptcy.  The European Union has offered them a bail out but Cyprus has to come up with a contribution of their own in order to get the bailout, which the EU and the IMF have suggested come from a 10% tax on the savings deposited in the Cypriot banks.  The Cypriot parliament, in the face of mass demonstrations on the street, have just refused to authorize such a tax.  Right now the situation is in stale-mate.  The banks have been closed for the holiday, and now seem to be in lock down.  Once the cash in the cash machines runs out, people will be running out of money.

I see the Cyprus situation as quite grave – not just for Cyprus, not just for Europe, but for the world economy, with all the implications for war and strife that entails.  I cannot see a solution, but what is more worrying, no economists of almost any persuasion is offering one either.  They all do agree that the collapse of the euro could be close to catastrophic, and I’ve read a lot of analyses about what went wrong, but how to fix it feels like asking how to get somebody out who is fast sinking into quick sand.
The European Union began as a free trade union to bind Europe’s nations together so that something like WWII would never happen again.  But the currency union which came later was cobbled together by politicians against the advice of economists who said that it could not work unless participating nations were more fiscally united.  As it is, each country still runs its own budgets.  The Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, even France, continue to run up deficits that they used to deal with by devaluing their currencies, but which is not possible when they are tied to the euro.  Meanwhile, Germany has greatly increased its productivity, and benefited greatly from a euro that is undervalued relative to the strength of their economy.  Even with the re-integration of eastern Germany, they are now by far the strongest economy in Europe.  
The Germans do not want to see the euro destroyed — they have benefited from it too much, and will also be badly burned if it goes down. But they are not willing to bail out other countries who they see as having failed to grasp the nettle.  Meanwhile, countries that suffered under Germany during WWII are arguing that this is WWIII fought on the economic front, and Cyprus said in words of one syllable today that they would choose bankruptcy and bring Germany down with them rather than let Germany dictate a 10% tax on all their savings.
On the other hand, Cyprus is awash with billions of euros of corrupt money of Russians storing their ill-gotten gains in Cypriot banks.  They would be hit by the tax, which is why Putin called it unfair but might also be why Brussels as well as the IMF would be happy with it.  Unfortunately the Cypriot banks themselves are not being asked to pay the price;  their savers are.
There is a lot of blame – both in Brussels, and among individual national governments who have lied both about the size of the deficits they have run up and to the people who elected them. The people least responsible for the debacle, the working people, are the ones being asked to pay the highest price.
The problem, though, is that I don’t see a way to protect the average worker.  Period.
In some ways it’s just like Syria – hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and millions of people are now refugees.  But I have little hope that Muslim Brotherhood, or the Sunnis who are among the rebels, will be any better than Assad who is an Alawaite, a third Muslim group exiled to the mountains for years by the ruling Sunnis until Assad’s father got control.  The Sunnis and the Shias have been at each other’s throats since Mohammed died, and whether it’s Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., they view each other as heretics whom they have a God-given mission to wipe from the face of the earth.  It makes Northern Ireland look like a child’s sandbox.
Frankly, I’m glad I’m not running the world.
But I wish I thought the people who are were better at it than I would be.


March 18, 2013

Bombshell! Bigger isn’t always Better

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 5:19 pm

In the face of little concrete evidence, it wasn’t  totally unreasonable to assume that the bigger the brain, the more intelligent the head that held it.

Gradually, though, doubts about that simple equation have begun to creep in.  The brains of Neanderthal man were larger than the brains of Homo sapiens.  Surely they couldn’t have been smarter than we are, could they?  And then we’ve been discovering that dumb animals can do all sorts of things that we can’t.  Birds can navigate half-way around the world without getting lost and without the help of even an old-fashioned compass.  Dogs can hear things we can’t, and bees can see colors we don’t.  Dolphins can communicate with each other.  So even can trees.  Then we discovered that some parrots can correctly use as many words as the average two-year old.

And now, using MRI scans, scientists have found that female brains are more efficient than male brains.  The brain of the average woman is 8% smaller than the average male brain.  But research isn’t suggesting that men are 8% smarter.  Research from both the Universities of California and Madrid have found that on the whole men have better spatial intelligence than women.  (So when they won’t stop and ask for directions, maybe they aren’t as lost as we women think they are.)  Women, however, outperform men in inductive reasoning, are better at keeping track of a changing situation and at some numerical tasks.

Ah, but not to worry:  Trevor Robbins, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge University in England says that the finding was fascinating, but controversial.


March 16, 2013


Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:46 pm


I am what I am
I am my own special creation.
So come take a look,
Give me the hook or the ovation.
It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in,
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.
Life’s not worth a damn,
‘Til you can say, “Hey world, I am what I am.”

I am what I am,
I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity.
I bang my own drum,
Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty.
And so what, if I love each feather and each spangle,
Why not try to see things from a diff’rent angle?
Your life is a sham ’til you can shout out loud
I am what I am!

I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses.
I deal my own deck
Sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces.
There’s one life, and there’s no return and no deposit;
One life, so it’s time to open up your closet.
Life’s not worth a damn ’til you can say,
“Hey world, I am what I am!”

A wonderful person sent me this declaration for my birthday.  I’m tempted to ruin the whole thing by tiresomely trying to explain.  But my guess is that explaining isn’t how one comes to understand this.  Not this.

The written words make me dance even more than the music.  But Shirley Bassey deserves to be heard!


March 14, 2013

Non-thoughts on the papal election

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:44 pm

I can’t pretend I haven’t noticed.  Or that I don’t think it’s a big deal.  Or that I haven’t read a lot about it, or have a lot of thoughts about it.

But enough people who are better acquainted with the new Pope Francis than I am, and who indeed may be believing, practicing Catholics, have had a great deal to say.

So I am not going to write about the thoughts I’ve had about the papal election and where I think Pope Francis might direct the Vatican and the RC Church.  Time will tell.

Besides, what happens in any religious community is at least as much a result of what the people think and do as what their leader thinks and does.

So tomorrow back to my prosaic hodge podge of postings.


March 10, 2013

Are mothers the same the world over?

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:44 pm

Today in Britain is “Mothering Sunday.”  It’s mother’s day now in that it’s a day children pick whatever is growing to give as a gift to their mothers, and grown-ups buy cards for them.  But  as the 4th Sunday in Lent, it’s traditionally the day when church-goers return to the “mother church” of their original families.  It sometimes involves travelling some distance, and although it is less common now that only 10% of the British population attend church regularly, it is still a recognized custom.

In this sense, “Mothering Sunday” is another example of the adaptation by Christianity of what were originally pagan practices honouring that Mother Nature who gives life to us all, and on whom we depend during every living moment.  The festival to the Egyptian goddess Nut, married to the sun-god Re, is one of the earliest mother’s day celebrations on record.

If you are interested, there is an excellent introduction to these mothering gods on a blog post entitled Mothering Sunday.

If you scroll down on that same post, the author has a wicked list of the things his own mother taught him.  If I hadn’t also learned from my own mother not to steal, I would copy it verbatim here and claim it as my own.  Not only did my second-generation Polish American mother teach me the same things as the Laird’s mother taught him growing up in Scotland.  She seems to have used the same words!  Below are a few of the teachings of the Laird’s mother:

My mother taught me –

  • religion:  “You better pray that this will come out of the carpet.”
  • logic:  “Because I said so, that’s why.”
  • contortionism:  “Will you look at that dirt on the back of your neck!”
  • weather:  “This room of yours looks as if a tornado went through it.”
  • hypocrisy:  “If I told you once, I’ve told you a million times.  Don’t exaggerate!”

Be interesting to know if other readers recognize their own mothers as often as I do.  Do let me and/or the Laird know if you do.



March 9, 2013

Van Cliburn’s sing-along

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:31 pm

Van Cliburn’s funeral was held in Fort Worth, Texas five days ago.  Reading his obituary, I have just become aware of his story.  I’ve listened with deep appreciation to his renditions of Russian music for years, but I had no idea of the trajectory of his life.  My ignorance astonishes me.   I didn’t even realize Van Cliburn was his first and last name.  I thought he was Dutch, and never would have guessed he was a Texan.

I guess most people know that in 1958, after he had failed the medical exam to enter the military, Cliburn entered the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.  It created quite a stir because here was an American, a citizen of Russia’s arch-rival, brilliantly playing Russian music.  And he wasn’t even a foreigner from somewhere on the East Coast of America – he was from Texas!  Some of the Russian judges were so upset by his genius that they fiddled their scores so he wouldn’t come in first.  But the head judge gave 25 points to Cliburn on every criteria, and zero to all the other contestants so that Cliburn came in with the top score.  The result was so contentious that before it was announced, the judges went to Nikita Khrushchev.  “Is he the best?” he asked. Yes, they said. “Then give him first prize.”

Van Cliburn came home to find himself on the cover of Time magazine, described as “the Texan who conquered Russia.”  More than that, at the height of the Cold War, the win helped thaw the icy rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union.  When Mikhail Gorbachev made his first visit to Washington in 1987, the Reagans invited Van Cliburn to perform.  It ended up as an unscheduled sing-along for the whole room as Cliburn struck up “Moscow Nights.”

Nothing could have been better.



March 7, 2013

Translation of an English weather forecast

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 4:06 pm
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As a child I remember being  told that the Inuit had 117 words for snow, and almost as many different words for various colors of  white.  Just how many words the Inuit really have for different kinds of snow is a matter of some scientific controversy.  But obviously, it would be important for survival for an Inuit to be highly sensitive to differences in snow.

Weather forecasters in Britain do not have 117 words for rain, but I have learned the usefulness of a few distinctions with which as an American I was not familiar.

But before embarking on a trans-oceanic vocabulary lesson, let me point out that  British weather forecasters are among the best in the world.  That is because Britain is probably one of the most challenging  places in the world to forecast the weather – accurately anyway.  The land mass of Great Britain is slightly smaller than the land mass of the state of Oregon.  But it is buffeted by distinct weather systems from all four directions each competing to be number one.

The UK often gets weather crossing the Atlantic Ocean after it has visited the US and Canada.  Depending on whether it is a hurricane that has travelled up the East Coast before turning east, or whether it has first travelled across the continent, it may arrive in Britain more subdued or more ferocious.  Weather also arrives from continental Europe.  If it is sweeping down from Siberia, it may be viciously cold.  If it is sweeping up from southern Europe, it is often warmer.  Then there is the Golf Stream.  It doesn’t always arrive on the same trajectory, so it may bring more or less rain and temperatures may vary. The UK is a battleground of warm air from the tropics and cold air from the Arctic.  Add a variable wind and the result is usually extremely volatile weather.

Which is why there are at least three qualitatively different kinds of rain.   I was initially mystified by a prediction that “Showers would be followed by rain”, especially when it was paired with a prediction in a different part of the country that “Rain would be followed by showers.”  Or even by “drizzle”.  It all sounded like rain to me.

Technically, rain is the generic term of condensed water falling from the clouds, but in usual forecasting parlance, predictions of rain usually suggest it will go on for some time.   A shower, on the other hand, is apt to be a one-off, not settling in for a long stay.  It might be called a rain-storm if it is heavy enough.   Then there is drizzle which consists of  fine, mist-like droplets,  also sometimes called mizzle, making the weather “mizzly.”

An incomplete list of other rain-related terms includes cloudburst, hail, condensation, dew, fog, mist, precipitation, and sleet.  Hmmm:  maybe British forecasters could compete with the Inuit’s snow list after all.

In case one is wondering whether to wear a rain coat in Britain, the default answer is Yes.  Burberry rain coats are a famous British invention for a reason.

March 6, 2013

The high ground

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

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

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

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

It’s not because I’m so smart.

It was the Romans who were the smart ones.

March 4, 2013

The gift

Filed under: Just Stuff,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 8:56 pm

I have just heard that Pat Logan died recently.  Pat, along with perhaps three or four other people during my years as a Maryknoll sister,  changed my world view as well as my view of myself.  We worked together in the Publicity Department at the Motherhouse, and Pat is the one who wrote the scripts for the Maryknoll Sisters’ weekly television show, “Let’s Talk About God,” on NBC in New York, in which I held conversations with children- well, puppets – who freely expressed their questions and opinions about whatever topic seemed relevant at the time.

Pat herself was as questioning as the puppets she created.  She was dedicated, energetic, and unorthodox.  She was born in Scotland, and came to the States when her Scottish father immigrated as part of his work during World War II.  Now that I’m living in Britain, I’m not sure Pat was quite as unorthodox as I thought then.  Part of her was Scottish.  But however much of her presentation was cultural, Pat had a liberating independence of spirit that was beyond culture.

It may be that the Maryknoll superiors knew something that I didn’t when they refused her permission to make final vows.  But I’ve often thought it was that independence that was the basic problem.  The RC Church was reeling with the shake-up begun by Vatican II, as well as the changes taking place in American society reflected in the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Corps.  Our superiors were as shaken as most of the older generation by the seemingly insubordinate attitudes of the young who thought we were going to create a great new world.  Hundreds of women were either told or chose to leave Maryknoll during this upheaval.

Pat did not want to leave Maryknoll – she thought she had a vocation.  I think she did.  But she belonged to a Maryknoll that has emerged from the tormented crisis of the 1960’s and 70’s.  The Maryknoll Sisters, unlike the Vatican, did not try to obliterate the teachings of Vatican II, but has done a great deal to understand and live by them.

Pat and I were not permitted to be in contact after she left Maryknoll, and when I left myself several years later, I had no idea for many years where she was.  We finally contacted each other just before my husband and I returned to Europe.  By that time, I’d had a university career, married, lost a child.  But learning that I was not bitter or angry about my time in Maryknoll seemed to give Pat the greatest joy.

We talked again several times over the years, but living on two different continents in those days made communication expensive.

Pat is another one of those people to whom I never thought to say thank you.  She quite possibly wouldn’t have even known what I was talking about, and still being Scottish in some deep recess of her American self, she might have found it embarrassing if I’d tried.  She would have said she was just being herself.

And she was.  There was a no-nonsense down-to-earth quality about her, undisturbed by her significant gifts.  She cared about people.  She wanted to make a contribution.  But she didn’t think one should make a big show of it.  You just did your best, which in Pat’s case was often quite outstanding.

That’s why she gave me so much.

March 1, 2013

Whether you want it or not

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:39 pm

With all the bits of Latin being bantered about with the pope’s resignation, I learned something quite delightful about the etymology of the phrase “willy nilly.”

It is a translation – albeit I will admit a rather free one – of the Latin phrase “volens nolens,” which translates literally as “willing or unwilling.”

But “willy nilly”  is a much more elegant way of saying the same thing, don’t you think?



February 28, 2013

Who is this speaking, please?

I felt a certain admiration for Pope Benedict as I listened to his final address to the public in St. Peter’s Square.  He seemed remarkably honest about the problems in the Vatican which he felt he no longer had the energy to deal with.  I’ve watched a lot of high-achievers unable to recognize that they have passed their peak, that it is time to step down, and I thought there was a courageous honesty in that shy smile.

At the same time, something else bothered me.  Benedict kept talking about his following the voice of God, and urging his listeners to do the same.

But the age-old question remained un-addressed.  The RC Church teaches that we must follow our conscience, no matter how isolated it may make us, no matter what authorities may say, no matter what the cost.  So it is no defense that some action may have been legal, if at the same time it was immoral.  It was not a defense to say that one was ordered to shove 14 million people into gas chambers during World War II.  Or ordered by one’s husband to beat one’s one child to death.  It is not a defense simply to follow custom, even if it is a religious custom.

The question, though, is how one knows if what one is listening to is the voice of God.  Cromwell was convinced he was listening to the voice of God.  The man who shot President Reagan believed he had heard the voice of God telling him to do it.  Men and women put to death by the Inquisition of the Church died because they believed they had heard the voice of God.  Today thousands of terrorists believe they are being called by God to be martyrs.  Our own military personnel often believe that they are doing the work of God.

I can understand saying that I hope I am responding to the voice of God.  But that’s not what the pope said.  He said he was responding to the voice of God.  That sounds like a kind of arrogance to me that makes me very nervous.

It’s that attitude that makes it possible for Church officials to exercise power by decreeing that disagreeing with them is to disagree with God.  It’s the grounds on which even today priests and nuns have been silenced or excommunicated for disagreeing with the Vatican about married priests, or the ordination of women, or the literal truth of the virgin birth of Jesus, or the right of divorced people who have remarried to receive the sacraments.

February 27, 2013

A better teacher than a mother

Filed under: Growing Up,Just Stuff,Teaching — theotheri @ 9:21 pm

Until I left for the convent at the age of 18, I was a sort of surrogate mother of at least half of my eight younger brothers and sisters.  As a result, I thought for years that I had all the qualifications and experience needed to be a superb mother.

As I have developed something of an enthusiasm for gardening this last year, I have treated my fledgling vegetables and fruit in much the same way as I treated my younger brothers and sisters.  And I’m not so sure I would have been such a good mother, after all.

The unrecognized child-rearing philosophy of my youth probably was a result of my own “I can do it myself” psychology that I remember even as a two-year-old insisting that I could button my own clothes even if the first attempt was a bit out of sync.  So I assumed that what children wanted was to be taught how to do something, and then get on with it themselves.  I wasn’t much for hugs or nurturing.

To my astonishment, I’ve just realized that I’ve been treating the vegetables in the garden the same way.  “There,” I said to each sprouting seed, “I’ve planted you in fertile, well-watered earth.  You can grow now.”  So I was a little late in recognizing that the collard and cauliflower needed a little help in fighting off the white fly and slugs.  And it didn’t occur to me to actually read a gardening book to see when or how to harvest kale or purple-sprouting broccoli.  I assumed I would be able to tell when they were ready, and how to pick them.

But a good vegetable crop needs a little more fussing over.

Just as some children do.
I’m glad, though, that  carrots and swiss chard have been my instructors – even if it is a little late.

And next year I plan to be a more maternal gardener.

Or maybe I should just write a book telling somebody else how to do it?  I bet I’d be good at that.  And I could just buy my vegetables from the farm market.


February 25, 2013

Applied tranquility vs transparency

It wasn’t boring, and it wasn’t tranquil, and as usual most of the news was about something else that’s gone wrong.   But this morning news did result in a couple of block-busters resulting from media dissemination, and suggests that staying in contact with the news is perhaps worth the angst.

The first block-buster has created disarray in the British Liberal Democratic party.  Last week a television documentary revealed that in the last ten years or so, complaints by women of unacceptable sexual harassment by a leading member of the party had been brushed under the carpet. The party leader, Nick Clegg, said he didn’t know anything, a story gradually being adjusted as emails and female victims come forth indicating that not knowing anything is not quite synonymous with the truth.  His leadership position right now is under severe strain.

The second block-buster is that the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal O’Brien, has resigned with immediate effect, and is not, after all, going to join the College of Cardinals in Rome to elect the new pope.  O’Brien has been accused of “inappropriate sexual behaviors” by three priests and one former priest in his diocese, and their formal complaint to the Vatican has just been made public.

Who knows?  maybe we can stop the US policy of drone strikes too, if it gets enough publicity.  From what I’m reading, the number of deaths of innocent women and children is creating a ground swell of support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Addendum:  What I find particularly interesting about all the emerging sex scandals in the RC Church is that if the Vatican were not so backward and frightened of sex, most of the scandals in relation to women and to homosexuality would be greatly reduced.  It’s the hypocrisy of so much of this behavior that is so despicable.   A less neurotic attitude toward sex might even have reduced the actual number of paedophilia attacks, since seminarians with a propensity for children might have been recognized earlier and many of the potential offenders might never have been ordained.  At least they would have been brought to book, treated and removed from temptation much earlier and more often.

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.


February 22, 2013

Seeing it my way

Filed under: Depression and Autism,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 12:16 pm

Most of us most of the time think we see things the way we do because that’s what’s there.  I see an apple, for instance, because it’s an apple sitting there on my table.  And most of us most of the time are confirmed in this view because people around us also see an apple just like we do.

But in truth, the way each of us perceives the world varies far more than we think.  Although by and large we all tend to have the same five senses, some of us don’t, and in any case, those senses don’t work in the same way for everybody.  Some people can’t tell the difference between the colors green and blue, some people can hear sounds, or taste things that others can’t.  When we move into the brain and how we interpret our experiences, those differences among us are hugely magnified.

One of those differences that most fascinates me is the Autism Spectrum.  The Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has been studying this spectrum in thousands of people, and has concluded that the population is distributed along a normal curve.  This spectrum is not an indicator of either mental health or of intelligence, but it has a great deal to do with how we perceive and relate to our world.  Some autistic people at one extreme find it almost impossible to communicate or interpret interpersonal communications from others, while others at the other social perceptiveness extreme are exceptional in their abilities to tune into the needs, feelings, and responses of others.  Men tend toward the autistic side of the curve, while women tend toward the social perceptiveness side.

People scoring on the autistic side of the normal curve may be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Again, it is important to stress that this is not a diagnosis of psychopathology.  In fact, it often helps avoid it, because it helps the individual understand why he is different from so many people around him.

I’ve long suspected a strong degree of Asperger’s Syndrome in my family.  Some of us may be bright, but at the same time say and do some of the most insensitive things to and about each other without the slightest intention of causing pain.  I’ve felt quite insightful sometimes when I have understood this after some particularly cutting remark from a close relative.

What I’ve worried about is that I too may be firmly on the left of the Autism Spectrum.  I share a lot of the characteristics that often show up on that side of the normal curve – I’m fairly good at mathematics, I am highly organized, even sometimes rigidly so, I cannot bear to make small talk with people I barely know.  Am I also someone who completely misses interpersonal signals that are obvious to the average person?

Last week I answered  the Autism Spectrum Quotient questionnaire used for research studying differences among people at different points on the normal distribution.  Typical questions ask if you’d rather do things alone or with others, if you like to do things the same way all the time or prefer changes in routine, like social chitchat, numbers, reading fiction, would rather go to a museum or a theatre, usually understand the point of a joke, enjoy meeting new people.

The average woman scores about 15, the average man about 17, 23-32 is above average, someone with Asperger’s averages about 35.

I scored 22.  Still in what would be considered mid-range, but I guess I’m not an earth-mother.  If you’re interested, you can get your own Autism Spectrum Quotient.  It is NOT sufficient as a diagnostic tool, but it’s an interesting tool — if you’re interested in that kind of thing.

February 20, 2013

The loss of innocence

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 12:48 pm

I doubt there are many people living in the real world who have maintained an unqualified  child-like trust in man’s goodness.  Whether it be in banking, business, academia, hospitals, politics, or religious institutions, we bang up against not only the loving, but also against the self-serving — often in the same people.

It is not surprising, then, to read speculation that it is the in-fighting, the hypocrisy and back-biting within the Vatican that finally exhausted Pope Benedict and led to his conclusion that he no longer had the strength to carry on.

There have even been calls for Benedict to return to Germany rather than maintain his residency in the Vatican, where some fear that he will meddle by “advising” the new pope.

But there are two reasons why that is not going to happen, however much Vatican enemies may wish him to disappear.  One is that Benedict’s physical safety will be much easier to safeguard within the Vatican, and attempts to assassinate Benedict’s predecessor suggest that this is a real concern.

The second reason is that Benedict will be beyond the reach of any legal attempts to hold him accountable for the paedophilia that has been rampant in the Church and quietly covered up for decades.  Even his worst enemies in the Vatican will not want to see this issue subjected to the full rigour of a string of court trials around the world.

February 18, 2013

A British obituary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 16, 2013

The freedom of uncertainty

I was a young adolescent when I first learned that Luther had taught that doubt was an inevitable part of belief.  I wondered at the time if my father’s ancestors had been Lutheran rather than Roman Catholics, because it was my lawyer-father who first taught me to doubt.

But what my father did not teach me, and what has taken me a lifetime to learn is that there aren’t any Right Answers available to us humans either.  Whether I was discussing theology or cooking a chicken, I thought there was One Right Way.  I was usually open to exploring the possibility that my way wasn’t that Right Way, but I was always looking for it, I always thought it was there.

A graduate course on Immanuel Kant gave me my first glimmer into the realization that Right Answers might not be absolute.  And being married to someone from a different cultural and religious background (not to mention an opposite sex), was almost a daily reminder that my Right Answers were not quite as obvious as I thought.

In recent years I have found not looking for Right Answers is amazing fun.  Whether I’m putting supper together or planning a garden or even a book, it’s so freeing, so exciting to feel that the possibilities are endless.  There isn’t just one Right Way.  There isn’t even just one Best Way.

Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy showed conclusively that we cannot and never will be able to predict exactly what is going to happen on the level of quantum physics.  Yet many people clung to the idea that the world of our everyday lives is predictable.  Most recently, economists thought that they could develop statistic patterns that would predict the stock markets.  Despite their blatant failure and the crisis of 2008 whose fall-out remains with us, many people, economists and non-economists alike, still believe they know, they have the absolutely non-negotiable Right Answer, to how we should revive our economy.

Now I have just finished reading two books which are further undermining our hopes for certainty and for right answers.  Any surviving hopes among deterministic, mechanistic scientists for absolute predictability are dangerous and illusory.  The first book is by Nicholas Taleb, the New York trader who says that the crisis was an example of what he calls “a black swan event.”  A black swan event is extremely rare, and so extraordinarily difficult – in fact, ultimately impossible – to predict using the statistic tools of probability.  Taleb argues that not expecting the unexpected is the worst possible way to prepare for it.

The second book is The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, the  New York Times guru who correctly predicted both the 2008 and 2012 Presidential election outcomes in 49 out of 50 states.  Despite this success, Silver says that prediction is getting less certain, partly because we know so much.  So much of the data is sheer noise, distraction from hearing the true signal.

In a way, in order to survive, we must live with the assumption that some things are going to happen.  We even need to plan them , and we need to believe that to some extent we can control those outcomes.  And to some extent we do.

But actually, we cannot predict even the next second with absolute certainty.  We can’t know for certain what we should do about anything.  We can plan for the future, we can put money into pensions, we can try to take care of our health, we can do our best to put effort into relationships that are significant, we can get an education, we can follow our dreams.  But we might be poor, we might die young, our relationships may not last, our dreams may shatter.

That’s a bit scary.

But it’s also the way it is.

And having spent many years in the cage of Right Answers, I also find it liberating.  What will be, will be.


February 15, 2013

Orbiting vocabulary

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 10:10 pm

Yesterday a ten-ton meteor exploded above the Urals in Russia, injuring at least a thousand people, shattering windows, and even buildings.

Tonight scientists say that an asteroid missed crashing into Earth several hours ago by a mere 17,000 miles, eerily close by standards of spatial distances.

But what’s the difference between an asteroid that misses Earth and a meteor that comes crashing down?  And as long as we’re on the subject, is there a difference between an asteroid and a comet? or between a meteor and meteorite?  or a meteoroid?

The differences are not always clear-cut because their identities often change, so that an asteroid might not remain an asteroid,  or a meteor might become a meteorite.  I know these questions do not qualify among the great epistemological questions of the age, but here are the current definitions.  It helps organize one small corner of chaos anyway.

An asteroid in basically a planetoid made of rock and basic metals that orbits the Sun in the same way that Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun.

comet is different from an asteroid in that it is composed of dirt and ice.  When they are close to the Sun,  it is possible to see a comet’s tail of dust and gas.  Apart from that, a comet is pretty much like an asteroid, and it is sometimes hard to tell which is which.

A meteoroid is a small chunk from an asteroid or comet.  They also have their orbits around the Sun but are too small to be asteroids or comets.

meteor is a shooting star.  It’s a meteoroid that enters the atmosphere of another object – like Earth – and streaks through the sky as it burns up in the atmosphere of a planet like Earth.

meteorite is a meteoroid that survives its passage through Earth’s atmosphere and impacts an object like Earth.  They are the ones that create the most damage to life on Earth.  Historically, meteor strikes may have been responsible for some of the 54 major extinctions we know have taken place in the last 550 million years.  The dinosaurs may have been felled by the catastrophic destruction caused by a meteor strike.

Well you never know.  This is information that might be useful one day.

But come to think of it, I hope not any time soon anyway.


February 13, 2013

Chin up, it’s going to get worse

A British journalist yesterday was reporting on the economy.

The bad news, he said, is that this year is going to be worse than last year.

But the good news is that this year is going to be better than next year.

And he probably thinks he’s an optimist, as well.


February 12, 2013

That Tree of Knowledge

Another blogger writing a series of thoughts on biblical stories asked last week about those two famous trees in the garden of Eden – the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Why weren’t they just called the Tree of Life and the Tree of Death?

That tree of knowledge caused me a certain amount of consternation in my earlier days.  It was suggested to me more than once that using my intelligence was a sign of hubris and unwillingness to serve others with humility.  And indeed, it did seem to me that the Genesis story did teach that the pursuit of knowledge is what began the cascade of good and evil which ultimately leads to death.

Obviously I don’t agree with that interpretation.  But I don’t think either that is what the original story in Genesis was meant to convey at all.  First of all, I think the word “knowledge” does not refer to information or intelligence, but to behavior.  I think it is used here with the same meaning often used in the bible to refer to carnal knowledge – to “know” one’s wife is to have sexual intercourse with her.  In this case, I think the “knowledge” of good and evil refers to engaging in behaviors that are destructive.  Like Cain murdering Abel.

I’m not convinced either that the Genesis story meant to suggest that before Adam and Eve human death did not exist.  The Hebrews do not seem to have preached this.

My own view is that what Genesis was saying is that there is a kind of alienation from life  which the human kind of knowledge seems uniquely capable of creating.  In our religious, philosophical, and scientific pursuits, we often set ourselves apart and above every other being in the universe.  We separate ourselves, we see ourselves as totally different.  In this isolation, our individual death really is the end of everything.  We do not see ourselves as part of a larger world, as participating in a process that is far greater than our few measured years.

We also often cut ourselves off from learning from other life forms which have not tasted of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”  All living beings do not flee death in terror.  Although I am in good health, as I am getting older, I can even feel a potential letting go in myself.  I have had the privilege of being with animals and with some humans as they have reached the end of their lives.  In both, I have sometimes seen a deep, almost transcendent, sense that it is time to go.  There has not been a terrified struggle, but a peaceful letting go, a sense that this part of the story is finished.

I’m not talking about the frenzied rush which engulfs living things faced with premature death.  I saw it in the spider which managed to get into my shower at eleven o’clock last night.  I saw it on the face of a woman today who thought she had stepped into the path of an on-coming car.  It is something that most of us have experienced in the face of grave danger.

I’m talking about the general knowledge that we are going to die some day in the unspecified future.  I’m not convinced that the fear that engulfs many people as a result of simply knowing that at some point this life is going to end is intrinsically “natural.”  It is a fear that comes with the tree of Knowledge.  But it’s not a tree of true Knowledge.  It’s a tree of denial, of false superiority, of losing contact with what we really are, and where we truly belong.

That tree of knowledge of good and evil is the Genesis explanation of death because it is a tree of alienation.  Metaphorically, it is we who walked out of the Garden of Eden, and are now spinning around in ungrounded fear.

But I think we can go home again.  I think we can learn again to love what we are and our place in the universe – however mysterious that is.

February 11, 2013

The resignation of the pope

Benedict XVI announced today that he is resigning at the end of this month.  He said that he was too old to continue to do the job required of the pontiff.

If that is the real reason, I admire his capacity for self-knowledge.  It has seemed to me over the years that one of the great challenges of old age which too many of us fail is to recognize that we can’t do what we used to do.  We might have accomplished a great deal, we might have been great leaders in our fields of endeavour, our contributions may have been significant.

But no matter how large or small our achievements may have been, we do not stay at the top of our game.  Our physical and mental energies decrease.  We are not what we were.

And quite possibly, the higher up the tree one has climbed, the harder it is to recognize this.

So if Benedict has in truth been able to recognize that he simply no longer belongs in the position of leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, I think his decision is one that many of us need to emulate in our own small ways.

But of course in this age of lost innocence, one cannot help but wonder.  The popes have declared themselves infallible, but it has thus far been beyond even a pope to declare himself incorruptible, competent and wise.

Is there some scandal threatening to emerge, some new cover-up of hierarchical corruption, paedophilia, or hypocrisy that is what the pope really does not have the strength or courage to face?

I don’t know.  Obviously I don’t know.  I do hope this decision is one of humility and wisdom.  If it is, it may perhaps be one of the biggest benefits to the church of this pontiff’s reign.

February 10, 2013

The conundrum of freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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