Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pivotal moments

There are moments in your life that seem especially weighty.  I guess all moments actually have that property.  I might have been struck by lightning at most any time.  But particular events seem to stand out as pivotal.
For instance, there are close calls.  About age 10, I was given a bow and arrow as a gift.  What a treasure!  Now, I would go around shooting this and that like Robin Hood.  These were target arrows, steel tips.  My sister and I went to a large mowed field next to our house to try it out.  We had the bow, the arrows and a paper target that had come with the set.  I put the bow and arrows down and walked to a slight rise where I set the unfolded paper on the ground.  By the time, I walked back to the bow, a breeze had blown the paper target closed along its folds.  My sister said she’d fix it.  She went to the target, unfolded it and walked off to the side.  I had used a bow in camp and thought I knew what I was doing.  She seemed totally out of the way. 
Eager to use the new equipment, I shot an arrow.  It passed through her curls along the side of her head!!
Writing about that moment now, I still feel the shame, the shock, the danger, the gratitude.  I have loved her all my life.  She is my earliest memory, my mother giving me my first try at holding her as a baby in my arms upon their arrival home from the hospital.  She has been one of the bookends that held up the volumes of my life.  Her husband of all these years, her children and grandchildren and I are all still thankful that she wasn’t hurt.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Top of the class, bottom of the class & luck

The subject is often called by the unhelpful name of “regression effects.”  Here is how it works from a famous result by Kahneman and Tversky.  Instructors of fighter pilots always gave their students a severe scolding if they did poorly.  When the investigators asked why the instructors followed that practice, they were told the nearly all the time, a student who did poorly and was sharply scolded turned in a much better performance the next time in the air. 
Anytime, you have an extreme group, either well above the mean or well below average, you have a group whose performance depends to some extent on luck.  To do very poorly, I need to have the luck of having a bad day.  Most days will not be extra bad nor extra good.  So chances are that after a bad day, I will have a more average day and I will not perform quite so badly.  However, my teacher may attribute the improvement to a scolding.  Clearly, choosing a random half of the poor performers to scold but not scolding the other half will shed some light on the power of scolding or snacks or any other treatment.
Notice that the same treatment and the same regression effects (“we all tend to be average” so there is “regression” toward the mean from both high and low ends of a scale) can be used to help low performers but hurt high performers.  If we scold the best performers after a very good job, we can expect them to do more poorly on the next attempt since their luck will be such that they can’t do quite as well the next time.  If we confuse the treatment of scolding with the reason for doing more poorly, we will think we have uncovered the treatment of scolding that seems to help poor performers but hurt very good ones.  
The truth will be that scolding has no effect and that after an extreme performance, the next performance will often be closer to average.
Deming saw this in the case of a bank manager.  (Possibly there are school principals who fall into the same problem.)  A bank manager watches the performance of his tellers and at the end of the month, rewards and celebrates the teller with the fewest errors.  That person is given a bouquet of flowers and the Employee of the Month parking space.  Trying to be fair, the same manager scolds the teller with the most errors, asking that person to be more like the shining example person.  A month goes by and the manager goes through the same process.  However, guess what?  The employee of the month didn’t do as well this time and the worst person did better.  (Exactly what we would expect from chance operations.).  The manager doesn’t understand regression effects and gives the new Employee of the Month the same treatment.  The new worst performer is also scolded, as before. 
Now, what does the first Employee of the Month think?  She or he can easily decide that they have gotten lazy and slipped.  The first person on the bottom, who was scolded, will conclude that she or he has indeed improved. 
If the manager continues this procedure for a year or two, every employee is likely to be told at some time that she or he is the best and at another time, that she or he is the worst teller.  In truth, they are equal and differ only because of chance.  Sickness, fatigue, mechanical accidents, and yes, instances of inattention can create different levels of performance but those differences are neither reliable nor dependable.


It is great to make plans and resolve to do things but what if you forget?  Well, you need a reminder.  A note on your calendar might work.  But that can be a problem, too.  Finding the calendar to make the note, remembering to look at it, then remembering to do what the note says. 
Reminders can be a big help if they are understandable and are delivered at a handy time but not too often.  We use our computers often and have had good results with Break Reminder. It can be downloaded easily.  It seems to be free for individual use without “support”, that is, help.  We have never needed support. The options and settings are used to have the program interrupt your computing at the chosen interval.  There are 2 kinds of interruptions: micropause and rest break, essentially a short break and a longer one.  I have 20 seconds in 20 minutes, a repeat of that and then a 5 minute break at the end of a 3rd 20 minute period. 
Ergonomically, one is supposed to look at a distant object for 15-20 seconds every 15-20 minutes, to refocus the eyes long-range and do 30 or so blinks.  The moments of break are a good time to use Peggy Brill’s exercises.  Spiritually, the breaks are an opportunity to search for tension and stress and then relax.  Repeat the thought for the day or take a moment of gratitude for blessings.  (There are almost always more blessings then I can be aware of.)
I write these messages at a convenient time during the day and put a time on them for delivery.  I could use the same mechanism in Outlook to send myself a reminder.  I just installed the Firefox add-on called “Reminder Fox” that will do the same thing.  I have a kitchen timer by my computer and could use that for a break or other reminder.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Strewing Rose Petals Gracefully

I probably don’t strike you as an outstanding dancer.  But I have had my moments.
Possibly, the most unusual was strewing “rose petals” across the floor of Towson University’s gym in tights.  I had read in the paper that the U of Maryland’s football team was taking modern dance in improve the players’ balance and performance.  I figured that might be a tool that would improve my wrestling.  So, I asked around and found there was a modern dance course available to me.  But it was 100% women.  Did I really want to join?
Sure.  Why not?  In junior high, I was told I could select from the list of afternoon clubs.  I looked it over and thought dramatics would be a fun choice.  It was held in room 123.  I went there and took a seat.  I felt a wave of curiosity pass around the room as I did so but I didn’t have any reason to pay attention to it.  Reason is a good guide and I ignored the feeling.  We were asked to select some sort of silent performance we could do and perform it when our turn came.   During my turn, I went to the front of the room and tried to portray an elderly sad man all alone in the world.  I don’t remember the class showing much interest in the lonely fellow.  At the end of the class, the teacher took me aside and said she thought that since I was the only male in the class, it might be better if I found a different club.  I wound up in the audio-visual club, showing movies on projectors.
In college, I choose elementary education for curricular reasons without a clue that manly men generally chose history, a subject that bored me cross-eyed.  I found that many of my classes were all women and me.  I like women so I didn’t mind. 
I thought I might wow my fellow wrestlers with my newfound grace so I did join the modern dance class.  We spent time prancing across the floor in a graceful (see?) gallop, reaching gracefully into our imaginary basket and gracefully strewing imaginary rose petals across the floor, very gracefully.
I did wow the other guys but it was my bravery and the shapes of my fellow dancers that got to them.  They had heard about my new practice and filled the bleachers high about us. They actually snickered at me, when they could take their eyes off the other dancers.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Good ideas and good words

Some people have asked if I have a list of topics I want to write about and how I come up with the subject for the day.  I don’t have a particular method.  I do keep on the ready for topics. 
Lynn and I took a course a couple of years ago from Jerry Apps, a former prof at Madison and the author of several books on Wisconsin. The course was about writing one’s memoirs.  Jerry said one approach was to think of funny or memorable incidents that happened, make a list of them and write up each.   I have such a list.  There are 30 incidents on it.  I intend to insert some of them in this blog.
I have been charmed by books since getting my first library card at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in downtown Baltimore.  At about five years old, my mother made a big deal of finding I could write my name well enough and taking me to the main branch for a card.  It was near Bowen and King, the opticians we dealt with all through my childhood.  So, in the area south of Pimlico in north Baltimore and in the Irvington library in the west of Baltimore, I spent plenty of time reading this and that.
I am interested in nearly all subjects but only in writers that speak my kind of language.  What is that?  All the usual adjectives and properties of good writing: imaginative but not too imaginative, clear but not overly simplistic, statements worth reading but too not dense or technical.
As a professor, I found that the approved language for publishable papers gave me a headache.  Multi-syllable words, heavy phrasing, and dry constructions were a sign of scholarship and deep thinking.  I didn’t buy it.  Maybe I was an academic lightweight but I like to speak and write in a clear vernacular, not academese.  When I found a book on nearly any subject, I was drawn to it.  I usually read it and I tended to remember what it said.  Sometimes the writing was so clear, the material just seemed to pour straight into my head.  The books of C.S. Lewis and Jacques Barzun, John Kemeny’s “Finite Mathematics”, Eric Temple Bell’s “Men of Mathematics”, and many other books were like that, if they were well in a way to spoke to me.  I have held up Ken Macrorie’s “Uptaught” and Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis” as the most valuable education books I have found.  It’s because they combine a very useful and inspiring message with great language sensitivity.  That is what I look for and what inspires me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Up and down

My favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastes.  It says it was written by King Solomon but in those days, it was the custom, I am told, to say the author was some famous person in the hope that the message would be taken more to heart.
Most people are familiar with the early passage about appropriate seasons for this and that.  “For every thing, there is a season…A time to be born and a time to die…A time to kill and a time to heal”  This idea is similar to the Buddhist idea that “Everything changes”.  What is salient today will be forgotten tomorrow.  The Preacher, as the author of Ecclesiastes calls himself,  says “there is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things to that to come with those that shall come after.”
The opening lines have much to say to moderns.  “Vanity of vanities…all is vanity.”  This is similar to “Everything changes” and to “Don’t sweat the small stuff and it is all small stuff.”
What got my attention first was the part that is quoted in the beginning of “The Advanced Theory of Statistics”: in the verse with the prophetic numbers 9:11, is this useful passage:
I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Isn’t this marvelous wording?  Isn’t this the insight we all come to?  That time wears us and our things out, and chance (often called “fortune”) plays with us.  Little David slays Goliath.  A mouse removes a splinter from the lion’s paw.  It is refreshing to find that, centuries before Christ, someone realized the trickiness, the unpredictability, of life. 
This up and down of luck is emphasized in the Chinese (and Jewish) story:
One day, the farmer's horse ran away, and all the neighbors gathered in the evening and said ‘that’s too bad.’
He said ‘maybe.’
Next day, the horse came back and brought with it seven wild horses. ‘Wow!’ they said, ‘Aren’t you lucky!’
He said ‘maybe.’
The next day, his son grappled with one of these wild horses and tried to break it in, and he got thrown and broke his leg. And all the neighbors said ‘oh, that’s too bad that your son broke his leg.’
He said, ‘maybe.’ The next day, the conscription officers came around, gathering young men for the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And the visitors all came around and said ‘Isn’t that great! Your son got out.’
He said, ‘maybe.’
Once a busy king demanded that his scholars reduce all knowledge to a single page.  They did and presented him with their work.  He sent them back to work to reduce that page to a single sentence.  Upon receiving the sentence, he told them to reduce it to one word.  They did and gave him the word,

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dale Spender and human communication

Basically, there are two kinds of intelligent people in the world, men and women.  When one of these groups has some activity or practice exclusively to themselves, we can’t see what happens when the other group starts into it, too.  In “Junior”, Arnold Swarzenegger gets pregnant. The men who are involved in this strange happening try to keep Emma Thompson from knowing about it.  When she finds out, she is quite angry.  She says that women don’t have much but by heaven, birthing is theirs and theirs exclusively and things should stay that way.
But, Emma, unless men also give birth, we only know birthing from a woman’s angle.  The Australian professor and author Dale Spender felt the same way about the several academic areas in which there are too many men and too few women.  In Men’s Studies Modified, she takes on such areas as history and economics and shows the prevailing masculine atmosphere and what is happening to it as more and more women get involved.
Spender’s book “The Writing or the Sex” often comes to my mind.  In it, she explores three different ideas:
  • Writing and speaking are very basic activities for women
  • Authoring was a tough area for women to break into
  • Men and women have unequal shares of talk time
Spender asserts that writing and speaking are as fundamental to women worldwide as athletics are to men.  If you look at the division of newscasts and web pages on the news, you find a big section on sports.  True, sports are very important to many women but they seem really fundamental to men.  They provide the opportunity to move and to win.
Spender presents examples of women authors in western countries who wrote at a time when doing so was questionable so they used masculine pen names.  Some male critics read their published work and praised it as very good.  A few of the authors then revealed that they were women.  At that point, the male critics re-examined the writings and suddenly found flaws in them that had not been noticed earlier.  To me, such examples are embarrassing although they happened 100 years or more before I was born.
Finally Spender reports on research she conducted.  She measured the portion of a conversation in which the man talked and the portion in which the woman talked.  She found that on average, the men had about 2/3 of the talk time and women had 1/3.  She reports with some exasperation that even after she made this discovery, she herself still tended to speak in  1/3 of her conversational time and men spoke for 2/3 of the time.
I have observed similar proportions after reading Spender.  I have wondered if that is some kind of natural fraction.  Maybe women’s comments tend to be twice as weighty and noteworthy as men’s.  Maybe it takes men twice as many words to hold up their end.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

How I Got Firearms

Lynn, Beth, Jill and I lived in a small townhouse apartment while I was in graduate school at College Park.  It was part of a large complex in which the layout of all the units was the same.   The development was bordered on three sides by woods.
At one point during our time there, a man began entering the units.  His operation was the same each night: jimmy open the door, cut the lock chain through the small opening, open the door.  Creep upstairs, hold the couple inside at gunpoint.  Use the venetian blind cord to bind up the man and then rape the woman.  Escape.
My friend a few semesters ahead of me in his studies also lived in these same units.  He was an ex-Marine and was surprised to find that I had no weapons.  He took me to a local Sears and we bought a nine-shot revolver and a shotgun.  We practiced with them a little bit. 
I had read several times that guns in the house are always a danger and that people can mistake a late night snacker for an intruder and hurt or kill them by accident.  Our bedroom was at the top of the stairs so I could quickly get a good line of sight to the front door.  I didn’t want the pistol anywhere the girls might fool with it but I mounted the shotgun on supporting racks over the bed.  I kept it loaded but warned the girls to stay away from it.  It was up on the wall in our room and was not a temptation to them.  I bought some large bells and hung them on the door inside the house.  I felt better.
Lynn wanted to visit her parents in Florida and took the girls there.  I was home alone one night when I heard a ruckus at the door.  It was actually open but the restraint chain was in place while a male voice cussed loudly and demanded to be let in.  I was quite riled up and walked down the stairs with the loaded shotgun at the ready.  I realized something was quite amiss and the criminal never announced his presence.  My friend had warned me that the gun would take out the door and anyone near it.  I remembered the high probability that an inexperienced person with a gun is open to all sorts of life-ruining errors.  I kept shouting back that I would not open the door and that the man should go away.  Eventually, he did.  I wondered what that was all about and went to bed.
The next morning, I was ready to go off to campus but I couldn’t find my keys.  I searched all over very perplexed.  I had gotten in the night before so they must be in the house.  Then I remembered the strange visit.  I realized that if I had left the keys in the door, the man would have been able to open the door but the chain would stop him.  Why would a man come to my door, close enough to see the keys?  Why would he try to come in?  Why would he be angry when he couldn’t get in?
We had had a couple of occasions when people had come to our door by mistake, having gotten confused about which unit was where.  I thought I wonder if the man meant to gain entry into his own house but was blocked out by a chain.  That would make him mad.  I went to the corresponding unit in the next section and explained my idea.  Nope.  They knew nothing about anything like I described. 
I was in a pickle without those keys.  They included keys to a major campus building and a calculation lab inside with valuable equipment.  I phoned security and told them about the problem.  They were not happy but said they would begin the process of changing lock patterns, etc.  I had an alternate key for the front door and the car and went to campus. 
That evening, a husky young man came to my door and returned the missing keys.  His father, somewhat inebriated, had come to his house in the night but come to my door by mistake.  The two men worked together at the same place where the father “returned” his son’s keys then next day, with a grumble about not being welcome at his house.
We later heard that the intruder/rapist was caught.  He lived in the woods in a poor state and was wearing ten t-shirts on top each other when captured.  I have kept the guns and acquired my grandfather’s shotgun at his death, too.  I don’t keep any ammo in the house but am counting on a warning from bad guys that I need to buzz over to the store for some before they come.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Now, Ladies and Gentlemen

Many thinkers have emphasized the fact that the future is just a guess and the past is not really here anymore.  We only have the present moment.  “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle is one example.  Jesus said something like “Give no thought to the morrow but put your faith in God.”  Pay more attention to the “nowcast” than to the forecast.  The now is richer than it seems.  Describing or just noting what things are like inside you and around you, within sight and earshot, can be quite complex.  Impossible in fact, since nobody really knows everything about what is current in their heads and bodies, much less in their basements, attics, roofs, and yards and in the minds and bodies of others in the house, right now.
“Be in the now” or “be here now” are common advice to pay attention to what is in front of us, what is currently, actually, here.  I try that regularly.  I feel that I have a grasp of the value of being present, often called being mindful, of what I am and what is happening right now.  However, there are limits to the idea.
To be human is to plan, to reflect, to have and treasure memories and accomplishments.  Anticipation of the delicious meal, soon being with a long-absent friend, hearing a piece you love.  The future and the past may be only concepts but they are treasured ones.  Our consciousness of them, our ability to describe and discuss them with words are essential features of being humans.

Time to leave

When my friend read about the joy of not going, she wrote “I also practice leaving. I have paid good money for plays and movies and then, halfway through, I’m tired or bored.  I tell myself that since I have paid the money, I deserve to do whatever would give me the most pleasure, including going home.” 
Absolutely YES! 
So many people think in the opposite way: having paid $100 for a seat, they “must” sit in it until the long-awaited end finally arrives.  Similarly, having started what turns out to be a boring book, virtue and their Sunday School teacher demand that they continue torturing themselves until they have “read” the whole book.
Somebody said that life is too short to eat cheap ice cream.  I say that life is too rich to spend time on inferior work or projects or coffee.  True, if you stick with the program or the piano, you will improve.  True, it is always a gamble to turn the page or sit through the next segment.  The story may get better.  You may be glad you persisted.  But if you are pretty sure the item looks like something not so hot that is cooling even more, I say “Exit”.
There is such also a thing as a hot taste.  The first comment by a speaker may set off such bells and shouts in your brain that the only thing to do is get off by yourself to think about the comment and its meaning for you.  Notes, talks with friends, Google searches may be urgently required.  It would be a serious loss to let this new insight or inspiration get lost in normal activities and be forgotten.
Research and exploration have costs.  You tried a new color but it simply doesn’t work.  You gave the book a chance but you are ready to leave it.  Chalk up the expense to your daring, your flexibility, your willingness to give things a try.  You did and now you know,  Bye, bye.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Drinking water

I wrestled in high school and college. It was the only sport I went out for with any seriousness. As a high school senior, I was asked to try to fill in for an injured polevaulter but I was no good at it. I kept getting hit by the giant falling pole and I didn’t like it. In college, I went out for the soccer team, our school’s main fall sport. I was terrible, running about without a feel for what I was doing, until the frustrated coach would bench me.
During all that time, I paid no attention to the business of drinking enough water. I wrote a freshman research paper on nutrition and still didn’t run into the subject of personal hydration. Sometime, in my 30’s or 40’s, I read that energy levels and muscle cramping are related to drinking enough. At that time, the idea was that caffeinated beverages subtracted from available water and that the fundamental guide was 8 oz. 8 times a day.
During my 40’s and 50’s, I prided myself on my healthy practice of drinking 100 oz. a day. I had no clear way of seeing benefits or costs but I felt ok about the practice. I read Andrew Weil’s books and respected most of his ideas. He included the notion that most people don’t drink enough water and used the mnemonic “namais”, (never) for “Not As Much As I Should”. I felt I was drinking as much as I should.
When my blood pressure began to rise from aging and a family pattern, my doctor put me on three medicines, one of which was a diuretic. The high water intake, aging and that medicine quickly become intolerable. I needed to cut down on water intake. A urologist told me that the urge to urinate is proportional to the oversupply of water. That was helpful and I began to cut back, while getting the tiniest amount of the diuretic.
About that time, our local paper carried a statement by Heinz Valtin, emeritus Dartmouth professor of nephrology, stating his review of research and knowledge indicated that 8 oz. 8 times a day was too simplistic. He said that the sensation of thirst is highly sensitive and that the idea that feeling thirst meant the body was already in a dehydrated state was incorrect. Thirst, he said, was a good guide to water intake. He also said that foods and beverages, caffeinated or not, add water to the body helpfully.
A few years later, my stepfather-in-law became dehydrated nearly to the point of dying and he did it three separate times. Clearly, no sensation of thirst was properly guiding him. He ignored his wife’s urging more water on him.
Most authorities mention the color of one’s urine as a helpful sign, the lighter the better. The National Institute of Medicine issued this statement in 2004. It states that water needs are individual but that authors feel that most people meet their water needs adequately.
Stevens Point is known in some places as The City of Wonderful Water. We do feel that its water is good and we often find tap water too chemical or bad smelling. We sometimes take a Brita filter and pitcher with us to get a more acceptable quality of water.
I recently received a powerpoint on the cost and environmental problems caused by bottled water. Before there was bottled water, I wished it were available. Now, we use refillable steel bottles.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Growing Satisfaction

I remember coming across an essay by J.B. Priestley explaining the joy of “Not Going”, his book of short essays called “Delight” (1949).  He states that the joy of not going is known only to oldsters but even as a young man, I recognized the meaning and relevance of the topic to me as soon as I read the title.  When Priestley wrote about this delight, he was a good deal younger than I am now. 
We may realize the big parade is about to start but skip attending.  We have gone before and found it was much like it was on many occasions before that.  So, we are Not Going.  It is a pleasure to know that dressing, fighting traffic, waiting and getting back are all to be avoided.  I am not the only one, either.  Local events for seniors citizens often find that half or a quarter of those who explicitly stated they would attend are all that show up.  I sympathize completely.  We look over the list of coming lectures and adventures and most sound wonderful.  But that is when they are months in the future.  When the time actually arrives, it is too lovely out to miss the gorgeous day or too rainy or too cold or too warm.  The continuous tasty pleasure of Not Going beckons irresistibly.  Ok!  We are Not Going!  Yea!
My friend is a well-traveled, worldly and educated person, a professor of French.  She confessed on the day before leaving for Paris that as usual, her house seemed extra full of delight and comfort.  She was leaving this garden, these satisfactions, for airports and confusion and stress?  She was familiar with the seductions of Not Going and didn’t succumb.  But then, she is still young.
There are invitations that are a genuine gift to receive and that I won’t skip.  I know, when I receive them, I will be there.  If I respond affirmatively, I will be there.  But in general, it really does add to my satisfaction, for some older-hermit reason, if they hold a big shin-dig and I am Not Going.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Value of Pain Talk

Older people are famous for their physical problems and their recitations of their aches and pains.  Like others, I quietly promised myself that as I aged, I would avoid such stereotypical, boring behavior.  I now delete that promise.  I didn’t realize how interesting the topic gets.  I actually am more or less uninterested in relating how my operation went but sometimes I have to talk about it to get to hear about others.
I have basically thought of myself as healthy and unhampered by unusual physical problems.  I have heard of bone and skeleton problems, heart disease and strokes, and I think I have a greater chance for difficulties as the years go by.  So, when someone relates the story of detection of an impairment, I find it arresting.  What were the first symptoms?  Were you able to recognize the nature of the problem?  Did you seek treatment early?  What did your doctor say about the condition? How is your treatment going?  What is the prognosis?
The East is famous for its awareness of the powers of the mind but I say that the West is no slouch at thinking-to-make-it-so either.  Why don’t men ask directions when lost?  They simply refuse to consider themselves lost.  Why don’t people go to the doctor?  They simply think the ailment away.  “Pay no attention!”  Resolutely ignore that cough, that twinge, the dizziness.  Such sensations are often unreliable and ephemeral anyway.  Add the severe limitations of medicine to the value of honest, complete information from actual sufferers and the reasons for fascination with tales of ailments become clear.


I love this story. It is on the web in more than one place but here is one link:
A Short Story by Terry Dobson -
a master of Aikido and conflict resolution
THE TRAIN CLANKED and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty - a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.
At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car. He wore laborer’s clothing, and he was big, drunk, and dirty. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that she was unharmed.
Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that on of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood up.
I was young then, some 20 years ago, and in pretty good shape. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training nearly every day for the past three years. I like to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. Trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.
"Aikido," my teacher had said again and again, "is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it."
I listened to his words. I tried hard I even went so far as to cross the street to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.
This is it! I said to myself, getting to my feet. People are in danger and if I don’t do something fast, they will probably get hurt.
Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. "Aha!" He roared. "A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!"
I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.
"All right! He hollered. "You’re gonna get a lesson." He gathered himself for a rush at me.
A split second before he could move, someone shouted "Hey!" It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it - as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he suddenly stumbled upon it. "Hey!"
I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.
"C’mere," the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. "C’mere and talk with me." He waved his hand lightly.
The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels, "Why the hell should I talk to you?" The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.
The old man continued to beam at the laborer.
"What’cha been drinkin’?" he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest. "I been drinkin’ sake," the laborer bellowed back, "and it’s none of your business!" Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.
"Ok, that’s wonderful," the old man said, "absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree has done better than I expected, though especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening - even when it rains!" He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.
As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. "Yeah," he said. "I love persimmons too…" His voice trailed off.
"Yes," said the old man, smiling, "and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife."
"No," replied the laborer. "My wife died." Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. "I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job. I am so ashamed of myself." Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.
Now it was my turn. Standing there in well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.
Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. "My, my," he said, "that is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it."
I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.
As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.
Terry Dobson

Monday, May 18, 2009

New eye parts

I began to wear glasses about the age of 3 so I have been wearing them a long time.  My right eye has always been the good one, 20/20 vision or better.  The left eye is not properly shaped and would not have been a good candidate for correction by surgery.  Because of the poor shape, the vision from it was sufficiently inferior to make my brain diminish my consciousness of images from the left eye.  I was once told by an ophthalmologic nurse to respect that eye, nevertheless.  She said it did more for my awareness than I thought.
Over the last few years, the medical problems I developed were all noticed by physicians or instruments before I knew about them.  The doctors said my blood sugar was edging toward diabetes, my prostate was cancerous, and my eyes were developing cataracts.  I asked Lynn if she thought it might help if I stopped further contact with doctors but she discouraged that approach.
I eat little sugar, candy, white flour, white rice and white potatoes.  I avoid beer and my former mainstay, pretzels.  The prostate was removed.  It turned out that the least problem was the cataracts.  In December 2007, I had cataract surgery.  They told me the doctor would insert a new lens which would unfold itself inside the eye.  He did exactly that.  A week later, I had the other eye done. 
I now have 20/20 vision in both eyes, something new for me.  However, those deadly words “as we age” that the doctor utters before announcing some new problem apply to focusing, too.  He told me that if a child has to have a lens removed from an eye, it is totally gelatinous while the lens from a senior citizen is a solid object.  So, refocusing on something near is much harder “as we age”.  I have purchased more than half a dozen pairs of reading glasses for use with the computer.  I had to if I was to avoid headaches from tilting my head back to use the trifocal on the monitor screen.
Early researchers found that a lens inverts its image but they knew that they didn’t see things upside down.  It was a struggle to tease out the fact that our brains early on invert the image so that what we see corresponds to the world.  My brain became aligned to concentrating on the right eye and won’t pay much attention to the left one.  It also became habituated to the feeling of glasses on my face and it tells me that my vision is inferior if it can’t detect any spectacles.
We are still unable to duplicate nature in this and many areas.  The new lenses are subject to glare and reflections in a way that my natural ones never were.  But I am grateful for the vision I have and the care and inventiveness that helps me enjoy this world.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Saying the Actual Truth

I have a friend who found Buddhism worth deep personal immersion.  We both had the same wonderful boss.  When it came time for them to part ways, the first gave the second “Offerings: Buddhist Wisdom for Every Day”.  It is a large book with photographs by Olivier Follmi on alternate pages with quotations from Buddhist writers and thinkers.  The boss showed me the book and now Lynn keeps her copy open to the day’s saying on her dresser.  I use the dresser for pouring her coffee into her mug each morning.  About half the time, the day’s quote lights up my mind.  The ones that do that the most are often from Jack Kornfield or Pema Chodron, both Americans. 
I have found that reading old philosophers does not help my life much.  It is valuable to know that the ancient Greeks felt that doing things in moderation was an important component of happiness.  But my general experience has been more like Thoreau’s that old sources have limited knowledge and limited applicability to me.  It may be that prejudice is actually my guide but modern Americans, in my times and in my society, speak to me more usefully than older thinkers in more distant and different periods. 
I know that many good movies, old and new, are waiting somewhere for me to discover them.  So, I succumbed for the third time to Netflix ads.  The other night, I rejoined them and ordered Last Chance Harvey and Burn After Reading, along with 5 or 6 other movies.  We generally get pretty good advice from AARP’s Movies for Grownups column.  We watched Dustin Hoffman wrestle with issues while getting and giving help to Emma Thompson.  They kept finding in exploring what they were able to tell each other about their lives that the refreshing and strengthening thing was the opportunity to ask direct, unguarded questions about each other.  Questions that closer, more “sensitive” relatives know are hot buttons or tender topics that are to be avoided.  Having the direct, simple question asked with interest and giving a direct honest answer was healing, energizing, loving.
Pema Chodron’s quote today is:
“Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anything to hide.”

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Translated by William Kirby

When I was about 10 years old, my grandmother talked to me about our family roots and my ancestors.  She showed me a large, old family Bible with a list of relatives going back to about 1800. Later, a historical map of the Chesapeake Bay published in the paper showed my family name among the early landowners on the Eastern Shore.  My interest in ethnic heritages stayed high from then on.
In my first college English class, the professor called the roll.  After one name, he paused and said, “That’s Finnish, isn’t it?”  I had not met anyone with connections to Finland but I had heard of tremendous Finnish courage and determination, sisu, and other aspects of Finnish culture.  I knew that the Finnish language was related to those of Hungary and Turkey but not to others.  At my college, there were four or five women for every man so I was busy meeting and dating women.  It took a while and a few twists of fate for me to get around to finding and getting to know the pretty blonde woman who had agreed with the professor that her name was Finnish.
When we started to discover how much we liked each other, I tried a little research about Finns.  I learned that the Kalavala (or Kalavela) was the national epic poem of Finland.  Curious, I went to the college library to see if we had a copy of the work.  We did.  I found the catalog card and it read “Translated into English by William Kirby”!  That was in the days before the computers, the internet and Google.  I had no idea then that there are hundreds of William Kirbys in the US, England, Canada, Australia and no doubt elsewhere. 
I just stared at the card.  Was this a joke?  Was it a cosmic message? No and yes. And so, about 50 years later, I am still with that Finnish-American in answer to lovely divine will.

Not so funny

Some theories about humor use the notion that we laugh when incongruous connections occur, as maybe, when the judge enters the courtroom dressed as a clown.  Our laughter may be a result of surprise.  But what is a surprise to us may be well-known and painful to others. 
My friend in a nuclear family of two women and two young children has described the burden of needing to inform a lawyer of any visit to the hospital so that legal advice, counseling and persuasion of others are available.  Without it, one parent may be barred from visiting the other’s hospital room on the grounds that she isn’t a member of the family.
There is also the burden of worrying about inheritance.  Again, what would be normal, typical, expected, and right between a deceased male and his surviving female marriage partner is legally questionable in other relationships.  It happens that we are familiar with a case where one of the two partners in a marriage underwent a medical, physical and psychological change of gender.  My attention has been directed to this Op Ed piece in the New York Times
For me, the most arresting paragraphs in the Times article are these:
Gender involves a lot of gray area. And efforts to legislate a binary truth upon the wide spectrum of gender have proven only how elusive sexual identity can be. The case of J’noel Gardiner, in Kansas, provides a telling example. Ms. Gardiner, a postoperative transsexual woman, married her husband, Marshall Gardiner, in 1998. When he died in 1999, she was denied her half of his $2.5 million estate by the Kansas Supreme Court on the ground that her marriage was invalid. Thus in Kansas, any transgendered person who is anatomically female is now allowed to marry only another woman.
Similar rulings have left couples in similar situations in Florida, Ohio and Texas. A 1999 ruling in San Antonio, in Littleton v. Prange, determined that marriage could be only between people with different chromosomes. The result, of course, was that lesbian couples in that jurisdiction were then allowed to wed as long as one member of the couple had a Y chromosome, which is the case with both transgendered male-to-females and people born with conditions like androgen insensitivity syndrome. This ruling made Texas, paradoxically, one of the first states in which gay marriage was legal.
A lawyer for the transgendered plaintiff in the Littleton case noted the absurdity of the country’s gender laws as they pertain to marriage: “Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Tex., is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Tex., and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male.”
I had no idea that the law in some places was behind the times or had gotten mixed up or something on the new subject of a human being who was one gender and then was the other.  I am not surprised that some states don’t yet recognize a change in gender but I can see that gender change and marital status are both undergoing modification and that the two matters interact.
Remembering the all-consuming fury of my need to be with my chosen partner, I would not have felt it was funny to find society and its law trying to stand between us.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Conformity, contributions and community

A chiropractor, a masseuse or masseur (spelling assisted by Google) can sometimes run fingers along your back and tell you right where a trigger point or muscle knot is.  In a similar way, the smart person feels all over the surface of a problem for the right spot for further development.  You can’t make a step forward if you do the same old thing too much.  On the other hand, if you simply bust out, breaking rules, expectations and forms without a plan or reason, you will only earn yourself isolation or retaliation or censure. 
It is not easy to find the points of a program or project open to advance.  The right place has to be something for which you can think of an alternative.  The alternative has to be more attractive, cheaper, faster, more productive of love, affection, laughter – there has to be something that makes the alternative seem worthwhile.  As a source I have liked over the years notes, many programs or procedures have been around a while and have their current form because they won out against competing possibilities.  That is just one reason why many possible alternatives would not be improvements.  So research, development and exploration have to be prepared for failures, flops, ideas that didn’t work out.
It is sometimes said that if you (or your company, department, family, etc.) are making not mistakes, you aren’t trying enough.  On the other hand (there usually is another hand or several), it is no good constantly making mistakes and suffering failure.  So, a balance has to be sought.  Some innovation attempts made regularly, but not too many too often, and balanced with reliability, dependability and predictability.
Many young people, especially those of the male persuasion, overestimate their ability to innovate while underestimating the challenge of keeping things going as well as they have been.  The image of a hero admired by all arises.  One gets the phenomenon remarked on by Mark Twain about how when he was 14, his father seemed hopelessly stupid but by 21, the father obviously had learned so much in merely 7 years.  Those preparing to be teachers sometimes observe many items they consider to be errors in the performance of experienced teachers only to find that it is very difficult to actually teach as well those they disparaged.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Funny Friends

I did tell Bob that I loved him.  He was right in the middle of that meeting and couldn’t go into the matter with others all around.  He called back later that evening and asked me if I wanted to go to Iowa and make our love official.  He did warn me that he had lifted the idea from President O.  He also warned that his current life-long marriage and mine meant that we would have to take our wives along.  This is the guy who keeps urging me to write about Lynn, whom he admits he would rather hear about than me.  I checked with his wife.  Both women advise us to go slow and maybe let the situation develop informally for somewhere around another 50 years before taking any serious steps.
Yesterday, the 12th, I wrote something for the next day but mishandled the post and accidentally sent it.  I wanted to write a short apologetic note stating that I didn’t want to overdo mailings and I mishandled that note, too!  My friend from New Hampshire thinks it is funny that both posts related to the title “I Can’t Concentrate.”  The more I think about it, the more I agree.
Fifty years ago, I lived in an all men’s dorm on a college campus.  Every now and then, a small group would gather by chance in the basement and watch a movie.  It didn’t matter much what movie it was.  No sooner had the title come up and somebody would make a smart remark about the wording or the setting or a comparison with something else.  That remark might be funny or not, but it was sure to inspire rival commentators in the group to put on their thinking caps and think of further witticisms.  Eventually, the humor would really start flowing.  That’s what happens with enough commentators.  The smarts level rises.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Guest author today - why it is difficult to find time

Dr. Victoria McGlone is an academic librarian in Florida.  She is interested in commenting and writing more but explains why it is difficult to find the time.  I thought her statement might be typical of many people.  Dr. McGlone is a member of the recently created Ning network "Mellows" if you want to respond to her.  If you become interested in the network but can't find the invitation email I sent you, let me know and I will send another
Spinning Life by Dr. Victoria McGlone
I do read your blog and enjoy your comments very much.  On many occasions I have tried to post to the Ning comment you posted for me, but my life is horribly hectic and I can't seem to do even that without an interruption.  Please know that I am extremely grateful to be included in your list!  I consider it an honor. I love learning new things, and I learn something new from your every post.  I admire your courage in putting yourself out there for the world to see.  I value your opinions and your wisdom.
Here are a few of the reasons why my life keeps interfering:
I work at least 40 hours a week at my library, and I have 45 minute commute each way.
I teach an online class with some very needy students, many of whom have never taken an online class (read:  I get a TON of emails from my students!!!).
My son, who was recently arrested for felony possession of Oxycontin, has moved back home and needs a lot of my emotional attention and assurance of my love.  I fear for his life if we don't get past this.
My best friend is an alcoholic.  'Nuff said.
I am my faculty union secretary, grievance representative, and I serve on the negotiating team.  We started negotiations for our new contract last week, which was also the first week of classes for the summer term.
I am, as I promised myself, taking a remedial math course this summer two nights a week in an attempt to get over the severe math phobia that has paralyzed me my entire life.  I promised myself that when I finished my Ph.D., I would work on that.
I am on more committees than I can count, and am particularly involved in a massive General Education Review at my college.
I am a housewife, whose job includes cooking, cleaning, laundry, and all other duties as assigned.  We have no cleaning people, lawn people, pool people:  we are those people.
I am in the middle of menopause, which makes every little annoyance a thousand times worse!!!!
Because I spend so much time on the computer doing my job, I try to avoid spending too much time with it while I am away from my job.  Sometimes it feels as though my entire life revolves around this damned thing.
I could go on and on and on, but, you get the picture.  Please don't stop writing!!!  When my world stops spinning so fast, I'll be right there with you.

List today

By mistake, I sent two posts yesterday, Tuesday, May 12.  I don't like to do that.  The post meant for today is "I Can't Concentrate."  To avoid too many posts, I am just sending this short statement and including a link to a new web site page listing the posts so far. 

I Can't Concentrate

A friend told me that he needed further assistance learning to meditate.  Someone had told him to sit still and concentrate on his breathing.  He did but almost immediately, his mind wandered.  He thought he needed to work on his concentration to avoid such wandering.
I am writing to say that his idea is a common misconception.  The mind wanders or more correctly, it produces thoughts.  The eye takes in images, the ear hears sounds, the mind produces thoughts.  The idea in meditation is to be as alert as possible to these seductive thoughts creeping into consciousness.  They will.  They do for everyone, all the time.  But meditation increases one’s awareness of just what is occupying the mind.
Jack Kornfield, PhD, is my current favorite meditation/Buddhist psychology teacher.  He has several books, very readable and helpful.  In “The Wise Heart”, he says that when you become aware that you are thinking, that is the MAGIC MOMENT:
“What matters is the magic moment when you wake up and realize “Oh, I have been thinking”. Whether it happens five seconds or five minutes later, that is the moment that makes a difference.”
Noticing that you have been thinking is indeed the moment of awareness of what you are doing, precisely what meditation can improve your ability to do.  Pema Chodron is the Buddhist practitioner name of an American-born Buddhist nun who is the director of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia.  She is a favorite writer and teacher, a graduate of American colleges, a former elementary teacher and a grandmother.  She sometimes advises meditators to think or speak a label, such as “thinking” to note when they catch their mind thinking.
Developing better awareness of your mind, thoughts and emotions increases your ability to choose what you want to feel and think instead of being so much at the mercy of animal wiring.  Meditation also increases your internal coherence, your inner unity and your familiarity with who and what you actually are.
So in a sense, the more your mind wanders, the better.  You have more chances to note what is happening and to gently put those thoughts and all thoughts aside for a short time. 

Local warfare

I am hiding crouching the gazebo, hiding from that 8 year old with the super water pistol.  Damned thing squirts 30 ft.  And, it has a big water supply.  If I directly tell him not to squirt me, he will refrain.  But where’s the fun in that?
I boasted that if he did squirt me while I’m digging a hole for Lynn’s transplanted bushes, I’d take that water gun away and squirt him with it.  I managed to do that a while ago.  But the truth is I have to catch him first.  He’s getting faster and stronger while I’m declining.  I didn’t think I would ever need one of those things.  I don’t have anything to defend myself with.  I filled a plastic cup with 4 or 5 oz. of water.  If I’m still for long enough, I might lure him within range.  70 year old men are embarrassed to lose to 8 year olds but I am getting used to it.
There is a kind of instant wild delight in sneaking up on him, waiting until he turns and his eyes dilate with fear, excitement and fun and then whacking him with enough water to let us both know I scored.  It is fun to hear his squeal of delight and challenge and even to feel the cold stream between my shoulder blades as I try to get away in time.
Yesterday's post on reading these messages produced this comment:
Bill, your communication group is a new experience for me and I like it. I like being part of a group and this group in particular. Believing you to be open to all kinds of folks, I imagine that we are not all alike, but I also believe that we are all “interesting” in our own ways. That seems as good a reason as any to belong.

Do you want to share this with the others, my brother and sister Kirbyites?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Who reads this blog?

A friend of mine asked me that question about noon today.  Then, I come home and a second friend, a sharp writer and thinker, asked the same question again. 
Here is the dirt: Google and other places allow blogs, web logs or diaries, to be posted for free.  I thought I might have something interesting to say and I started one.  When I started the first one, there were about 40 million bloggers on the internet.  Now, there are about 70 million bloggers.  So, it is no wonder that just about anything you write will be ignored.  You write.  Others all over the world can read what you post and, depending on the settings you use in the blog, others all over the world can post comments.  Day after day, month after month, zero comments.  I tried to make commenting easier.  A comment could then be left with a single click.  Nada.  Nobody listening. 
One day, looking over the possible settings, I realized that Google offers the option to email a blog post to up to 10 email addresses.  When I tried to decide who might be 10 people I would email my posts to, I found I had more than 10.  But then I noticed another option, one where I email to as many people I want.  Since I had a good number of friends, I tried that one.
So, since April 1, I have posted every day and sent every post to 43 addresses and also into the blog.  Do I still have time to send personal emails?  Yes, and I do send them.  Do I get comments from recipients about the posts?  Yes, usually something like one or two a day. 
I was and am still interested in more comments and associations that others have in their minds.  I know everyone of the recipients and they all have sharp minds.  They are scattered from Oregon to New York, from Pennsylvania to Texas to Florida.  But I guess they get too many emails and have too many other things to do, such as go to work.  I tried setting up a Ning, a social network where people can say a little or a lot about who they are.  There, they can exchange comments.  The invitations to the Ning network called Mellows were sent last Friday, May 1.  Since then, 8 friends or relatives of mine have signed in but so far, no one has left a comment for anyone else there, so far as I can tell.
33% of the recipients have stated without prompting or inquiry that they have been enjoying the posts.  I have no idea how many are deleted without being read or how many are automatically deleted without being opened. 
I have been fearing the day when all the recipients start their own blogs and I have 43 to read each day.  Go to the main Google page to start one of your own.

Friday, May 8, 2009

How can we say good-bye?

Maybe Shakespeare had it wrong.  Parting may not be such sweet sorrow but just sorrowful sorrow. 
I have been thinking of trying to say how much people I have been posting to mean to me.  There are nearly 4 dozen names and the lengths of relations go from my sister being born and my being in 6th grade in the early 1950’s to this past February.  College, 4 decades here in Stevens Point.
I have heard of people wishing they had told a loved one that they loved them before that person departed.   When my mother was alive but quite elderly and limited in vision, hearing and thinking, I lived in Wisconsin while she lived close to my sister in Texas.  I wanted to be sure we had said that we loved each other and we did.  I felt good about that.
I really love my wife and she is the center of my life.  We married when we were still in college and that was years ago.  Since I love her deeply, I thought I would try to compose a statement of good-bye to her, stating what she means to me.  It scared the bejeezus out of her when she looked at it.   Admittedly, it is scary to bring up the subject of not being there for each other any more, with anyone who means a lot to you. So, I am not sure if and how saying good-bye can be done.  But it may be worthwhile trying to avoid sharp regrets.  On the other hand, the people you love probably know it and may not need anything more explicit.
I looked at the list of people I have been mailing to and realized there are a wide variety of ages, places, personalities and memories.  Saying anything meaningful would have to be done individually.  At the top of the list was Bob, whom I have known since my freshman year.  I thought I would get started and called him.  Naturally, I interrupted a meeting.   He called me back and I told him I wanted to say I loved him.  He laughed and said he loved me, too.  I didn’t tell him I love his wife, too, but I do.  I know he loves mine because he told me so and asked me to write more about her.  He likes to hear about her.   When I think of the man’s good sense, compassion, balance, and ability to read people, I’m glad I said something.
He told me he had himself just said good-bye to a friend who died recently afterward and was glad he had the chance. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Green, Green Grass of Home

When we had this house built, I wanted a new deal.  We had lived in the previous one for 20 years, almost to the day, and I had cut the lawn and cut the lawn.  It wasn’t a big lawn or a big job but I didn’t like it.  We both thought it would be more fun, more natural (that was before the word “green” was commonly used to mean environmentally friendly) to have wild plants instead of a lawn of grass.
Somewhere, we read that “lawns are the neckties houses wear”.  I realized that fewer and fewer men wear neckties or formal or sports jackets.  Why not be more unusual, plus get out of cutting the grass at the same time?  We bought $400 worth of natural grasses and flower seeds from Prairie Nursery in Westfield, WI.  We followed their instructions and had the ground turned over.  We handcast the seeds over the area. 
Over the next year or so, we got big blue stem, spiderwort, golden rod, and many lovely and interesting plants.  They grew to about 2 or 3 feet.  Very natural.  Then, I began to hear about invasive species.  I learned that hoary alyssum and other plants were faster, stronger, hardier than our precious cache. 
Lynn is a plant lover and a fighter.  She quickly learned to spot the invaders and spent hot days in the sun and bugs, pulling out armloads of the nasties trying to strangle our lovelies.  That was in 1993. 
Over time, we heard from people experienced in natural and prairie lawns that the toughest opponent was the one we planted ourselves right next to our prairie patches, lawn grass.  We learned that the grass is relentless in its campaign to creep into adjacent areas and take them over.  One experienced farmer told Lynn that 40 acres were needed to make a natural area big enough to defend itself.  Our whole lot is half an acre and the prairie area is about 1/3 of that.
We learned that toddlers can’t manage plants that are 2 and 3 feet tall, nor the bugs that may live among them.  We have delicious great grandkids and we don’t want ticks or the Lyme disease germs anywhere near them.
We knew from the start that the prairie did best if it was burned over annually.  We burned it twice but the second time, doing it on our own without expert help, we managed to melt some of the siding on our house.
We still have some lovely spiderwort and some impressive golden rod but the grass has left very little.  For the last four years or so, we have had a strong riding mower instead of just a push job and it cuts the remaining prairie annually with no trouble.  It cuts the expanding lawn area quickly and neatly and it’s fun to use.  We have decided that good old grass is our friend and the safest, hardiest and most useful lawn cover after all.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Male and Female He Made Them

Once a friend asked me what my favorite quote was.  After some thought, I decided on “It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves” (Psalm 100:3). I like it because we actually didn’t plan ourselves and might be excused for our faults and failings since we didn’t design ourselves.  (Might not, too.)
Among our biggest puzzles is sex/gender.  Robert May wrote a book in 1980 called “Sex and Fantasy”.  A title like that naturally got me interested but I found the book is about the psychology of the two genders and not at all the heavy breathing I expected.  May takes the legend of Phaethon to be emblematic of maleness, which he summarizes as based on pride, the need to stand out, to achieve, to surpass, to win.  As the legend shows, that drive can result in poor thinking and poor obedience and losing control of your father's chariot in a fatal crash.
May takes the legend of Ceres, also called Demeter, to be emblematic the essence of femaleness, which he says is caring, as in caring for others.  The god of the underworld, Hades, fell in love with her daughter Persephone and stole her.  He kept her in the underworld but Ceres couldn’t stand to be parted from her beloved daughter.  They came to an agreement that Persephone could be with her mother 8 months of the year but had to spend 4 with her husband.
I love the quiet but astute writing of Alexander McCall Smith in his Mma Ramotswe series set in Botswana and featured in some current HBO shows.  The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is perfectly poised to highlight some differences between women and men (on average, since there are usually some members of either group that can do or out-do members of the other group in anything).  Looking at the maternal Jill Scott and her virile but out-for-himself competition in Gaborone, you get a good contrast between thought and action designed to minimize pain and danger and heartbreak and actions aimed at finishing a job quickly, proudly and with victory.  It is difficult to know you have won unless you know what the goal is.  So, to define a job and its goal often results in a somewhat limited, defined view.
The book by the surprising Catholic scholar Walter Ong called “Fighting for Life” is a review of maleness and attempts during the last couple of centuries to educate men.  He reviews several cultures of both the east and the west and highlights their tendency to suppose that males relate to competition, killing and death while females relate to love, not sex but love, and life.  Reading his description of the fundamental competitions in male life and recalling the grouchy male bison I saw in Yellowstone helps me to picture the process where males kill or maim each other or drive a rival (injured, bleeding, hurt, humiliated, and despondent) away from females, procreation and joy.  The process can go on quite without awareness, even in humans.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Some basic truths

Sheldon Kopp was a psychotherapist who wrote several books.   “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him” was actually devoted to the demonstration of important truths about human beings, their thoughts and fears, are to be found in the world’s great literature.  (The title refers to the need to avoid hero-worship.) At the end of that book, Kopp listed 43 basic truths that he thought everyone should know and understand.  He titled the list “the eschatological laundry list”.  “Eschatology” is defined as the study of last or final things, such as death, the end of the world, etc.  The list is provocative and valuable but it seems to actually be about living more than final things.
As far as I know, the sun is said to be about 5 billion years old and is thought to be good for another 5 billion years.  That is long enough for quite a lot to happen yet.  So, I won’t hold my breath until the end of the world.
I have found the list valuable and so have others.  I found six different web sites which listed the 43 statements, which begin with “This is it!”.  When I first read the list, there were a lot of statements I thought valuable but I didn’t understand what was meant by the first one.  When I looked at the collection of photographs by Claire Flanders, I got the message.  She showed a photo of some old grave stones.  The message is similar to “Life is not a dress rehearsal” or “Life is real, life is earnest and the grave is not the goal” from A Psalm of Life by H.W. Longfellow.

Memento Mori ("remember you must die")

It seems unlikely that anyone over 40 forgets they are mortal but naturally, we don’t keep the fact in the forefront of our minds all the time.  Still, being comfortable with one’s own death seems key to enjoying life instead of living in fear of its end.
Muriel Sparks wrote “Memento Mori” in 1958.  I have been meaning to read the story of a mysterious caller who phones elderly people with the Latin reminder of mortality.  I looked up the Latin phrase in Wikipedia and found the article interesting and provocative.  I have seen pictures like this before:
But I guess I didn’t pay attention to the living flower, the skull and the hourglass and their mutual significance.  I have sometimes concentrated on the beat of my heart and realized that each beat was one less the little engine had in it.
Lynn has been the Hospice caretaker for six dying people.  From her and others and some personal experience with the dying, I have the feeling that most people are not afraid in the abstract, just not now.  I think Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  I guess it is not possible for a thinking mind to imagine itself not existing.
But looking at the dead weeds, trees, insects and birds, it is easy to find examples of what something alive looks like after it isn’t any longer.  And, of course, history is all about humans who used to be alive.  As the Wikipedia authors explain, there is a strong connection between awareness of mortality and that other Latin advice, “Carpe diem!”  If you actually are alive, seize the day!  Enjoy breath, smells, awareness!  They are here now.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Guest author today

Today, we have a guest author. Mary Elizabeth Raines is a hypnotist and a trainer of hypnotists. She runs the Laughing Cherub web site and she is the person who hypnotized me so I could see what hypnosis was like. She wrote the statement below after reading my post on the little baby that grew.
The Little Baby Who Grew…So Sleepy
To me, one of the things that is "so cool" about our baby nation's ventures into the world is that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette were also involved in the birth of what is now called hypnotism.
All modern hypnotists can trace the ancestry of their line of teachers back to Mesmer. Lafayette studied eagerly with the granddaddy of hypnosis, and even got George Washington to correspond with Mesmer. When Lafayette returned to the U.S., he gave some of, if the not very first, lectures on "magnetism" in the country, and then proceeded to study the healing practices of Indian tribes, recognizing that what they did was related to what Mesmer did. Thomas Jefferson, old sourpuss, was the one we think dissuaded George Washington from further interest.
Benjamin Franklin invented (or refined) an instrument called the glass harmonica. Mesmer was one of the very few people who could play this instrument, and certainly was the main glass harmonica-ist in Vienna. He sometimes played the glass harmonic to his clients after healing them. In 1784, a scientific/medical panel of the some of the greatest minds in France was assembled by the King of France to study the work that Mesmer did. On the panel were gentlemen such as Bailly (major of Paris), Lavoisier (discovered oxygen), and Monsieur Guillotine (no explanation necessary).
They "busted" Mesmer's work, deciding that there was nothing to what he was doing; all the cures, they stated, were simply the result of the power of suggestion. (!!!) Soon after, Mesmer had to leave Paris and shut down his practice there, because his popularity went out the window. I think he was actually saved by the condemnation of the panel, because in a very short time wealthy gents like him were loosing their heads right and left. Anyhow, who do you think headed this panel investigating his work? None other than our own Benjamin Franklin! (And, in a fascinating footnote--because this stuff is full of fascinating footnotes--Franklin's own grandson then proceeded to study with Mesmer.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The little baby who grew

Sometimes it is really thrilling to listen to Teaching Company courses.  Right now, I am listening to a history of the US diplomacy and foreign affairs.  Boring, right?  How nerdy!  Maybe not.
When the American revolution was over, a group of scattered colonists had defeated the most powerful nation on earth.  Everything was smooth sailing from then on, right? Maybe not. 
Prof. Mark Stoler of the University of Vermont makes it clear that our baby nation was in grave peril from the start.  Not only did Britain have lots of power, precedent and motivation to return to the fight but the tired little baby was also eyed by France and Spain, both organized, powerful, rested and wealthy. 
I think of Barack taking over the top job and facing internal criticism and daunting questions and issues.  But in addition to all that, he and Hilary and advisors and scholars and colleagues have to digest all the goings and comings of all the nations and of the world.  Listening to the work done to put France in the balance against the power of Britain in the early years, to communicate effectively with Spain during the efforts to expand westward, I realize that our nation is always trying to be in touch with, to know and to represent itself to all the other countries.  F.D.R. and Truman and Eisenhower had to know what they wanted, what their internal opposition wanted and what all the allies and enemies of US wanted.  Once you get the full picture, you want to take a nap or crawl under the bed.

Warmer, heartier relationships all over the place

It is quick and I guess, environmentally good to send emails.  But businesses seem to be running on a new model, one that aims to put me in a database for future contacts.  Since things are competitive these days, I often get the feeling that even heartier friendliness is being offered.  Sign up for our delightful and money-saving e-notices and we will be your friend, your bosom buddy.  As your new friend, we will offer to have drinks with you, to walk by your side, maybe adopt a child together.
As something of a grouch and a loner, I generally don’t want new relations, even with people I know and trust.  (Lots of commercial and political advice these days is about trust, which is said to be very important and needs to be built up, enhanced, and developed.)  So when that friendlier older guy who has been selected for his trustworthy good looks or that bouncy, perky lovable little blonde model asks me ever so warmly if I’d like a closer relationship by using a platinum card with gold trimmings and a picture of my cat on it, I decline.  Don’t you?

Popular Posts

Follow @olderkirby