Sunday, January 31, 2010

trying a little heavier fare

We can't find much on tv to enjoy.  We have watched tons of CSI and Law and Order.  Lately, we got interested in NCSI.

One of our friends has a principal that when the characters start falling in love, the show is in decline.  NCSI has character interaction but only sexual tension and charge, But there are limits to the number of bloody murders and DNA analyses we can pay attention to.  The other night, Lynn suggested we switch to PBS to continue watching something she has started: "This Emotional Life."  

Stiff?  Heavy?  Schoolish?  Boring?  No way!

Within three minutes, I felt a surge of sympathy, curiosity and interest I hadn't experienced for a long time.  Sometimes, a little depth, a little weight is extremely refreshing and engaging.

A good story has a charm and timeless interest but nonfiction can engage history, culture, science, religion: the whole world.  Whether it is tv or movies or books, purposely entering a little deeper water can be profoundly rejuvenating.

Friday, January 29, 2010

power of music

I  have been listening to the history of opera by Prof. Robert Greenberg.  He emphasizes the development of song as a tussle between words and music.  I have been attracted to words but had much less experience with music.  Lately, in Hawaii and in Cajun country, we have had  a chance to hear from musicians and composers about the place and importance of music.

Greenberg explains that it was a given in the 15 and 16 hundreds, that tunes were background to words, that it was the words and their articulation that mattered.  Then, discovery of ancient Greek writings about music challenged musicians to produce music that altered souls as the Greeks claimed their music had.  They moved toward the thrilling Verdi and Puccini arias we are familiar with today.

We have so much sound today, as background to ads and part of nearly every story on tv, that it is easy for me to overlook the power of rhythm and tone.  But when the congregation sings a great hymn or a single powerful singer sings a moving song at a wedding, I get refreshed respect for the power of music.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I meet very intelligent people every day as I imagine we all do.  The other day, we had a presentation by a man who is a musician and a historian.  He is especially interested in the history of his family and his people, the Acadians.  He mentioned he is invited to speak to classes at the university by genuine PhD's.  He made the comment in a tone that equated PhD's with very intelligent people.

I was impressed with his obvious intelligence and wondered how hard it would be for me to convince him that he was as intelligent or more so than many PhD's.

What is a PhD, anyhow?  I think it is safe to say a doctor of philosopy has taken many courses at a university and passed them.  Normally, a PhD has written a long paper, usually called a dissertation.  The PhD may be very intelligent or not.  There is no guarantee.  They must be able to read, remember what they read and be able to write.   But many people who have not managed to get funded by savings or grants to sit in classrooms and libraries can read well and remember and write clearly.

You can expect that a PhD will be able to question and criticize.  Thus, you can expect that a PhD, especially a group of male PhD's together, will be somewhat grumpy.  No matter what is said or done, some or all of the group can think of objections and alternatives.  Some of those objections or alternative may seem superior to the present course of action.  The dissertation typically contains five chapters, the last of which is usually required to be well-based opinion as to what use the discoveries or revelations of the research might be put.  

Several people who receive this blog by email are PhD's and they may have comments, extensions or objections to these statements.

The definition and possible measurement of human intelligence has been of great interest for a long time, especially since Alfred Binet tried to create a test to sort children for the Paris schools.  So far, the measurement has been pretty much of a failure, althought not completely so.  

To me, the intelligent person is usefully imaginative, sees what opportunities lie at hand and how to make use of them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I wish I could whistle

Our leader is a peppy woman with knowledge and dignity.  So, I was surprised when she got our attention after a break with an ear-splitting whistle.  You wouldn't think a nice girl like her would know how to whistle like that.

It's another failure reminder.  Durn it, I want to whistle like that.  There are basically two ways: using fingers and no fingers.  I have read books and web pages and I have tried often.  I have re-read instructions and practiced when driving alone.  I can't make any good whistle.  I sure hope I don't expire before reaching my goal of having a really loud whistle.  I don't really need one but I want it, still.

It is similar to my other sound problem: trilling my r's.  Good Spanish speakers and opera singers can make that initial r at the beginning of "rope" into "rrrrrrrrrrrope".  Lynn can make that sound all day if she wants to.  Again, I try and try but nothing.  I am afraid I am going to be scorned in Sicily and ridiculed in Rome but to same my soul, I can't make that sound.  Lynn says I have to relax my tongue.  I have it relaxed enough to slobber but still nothing Latin comes out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stereotypes shattered

I have read and seen movies about Mississippi. I have heard of poor diet, poor education, poor medical, etc. I imagine no state is perfect nor are conditions uniform across the state.

I have learned that the major city of Memphis is right beside the border of Tennessee and Mississippi. So, places like Horn Lake, Mississippi are literally right next to a very urban place. The main intersection of I55 in Horn Lake, like the most developed intersection of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is a good example of commercial presence of every major chain that consumers and travelers might look for. On a Saturday night, the Horn Lake intersection of many lanes of traffic of dinner seekers make for way more traffic than I am used to. We found 50 minute wait times at both the Red Lobster and the Olive Garden. We were told things were slow that night and usually there is a 90 minute wait.

Further south, in McComb, MS, we stayed in our second brand new, perfectly outfitted hotel for a very low and accommodating price. Good service and friendly people are sharply revising my image of the state of Mississippi.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to improve your town's economy

Improving your town's business rep and property values is easy.  Smile!  Say Hello to strangers.  Or, if you are hoarse, nod your head when you catch their eye, a single vertical drop of your face  is a conservative way to say you see them and recognize them as children of God.

When we enter a town, walk in its park or visit one of its stores, we feel the place is charming and friendly and upbeat if the first three people we meet greet us clearly and deliberately.

If you take the simple step of greeting people in a friendly and respectful way, your action will lead others to do the same.  In no time, your neighborhood or town will acquire a reputation for being forthright, energetic and having a good work ethic.  Give it a try and see.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

How to have some fun

Plan a trip.  Notice all the little objects you use during the days before and make a list of them.  A day or two before the trip, run down the list and put each item in a bag.  A cloth laundry bag is good since it can be closed and you won't lose anything.  Massage the bag gently to give everything a good jumble.  Then, while on the trip, try to find your cell phone, your keys, your address book or whatever.  It is hilarious to suddenly realize you need an item and that you again will have to scramble through the bag to find it, especially for the 10th or 20th item.

For even more fun, take enough stuff that you require several bags of things.  A few beach bags that must be kept upright to avoid spilling your stuff into little cracks between other bags and things in the trunk will add to the good times.  Eventually, Gandhi and his simple life without extra gadgets will come to mind as an ideal.  Fugetabout it!  You are no Gandhi and you need your lip ice, your gum, the remote for your car and your coin purse.  Using this method of bags and search, you will not have time to worry about the weather or remark on the expense of the whole adventure.  You will just be doggedly searching for your keys.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

change but not too much

It seems that we are food-hunting mammals and as such are wired to meet change, emergencies and new conditions.  I think that means that we don't do all that well with long-range stability.  On the other hand, we do want some regularity and dependability in our lives.  Earthquakes that re-arrange our lands ruin our buildings, roadways and dams create too much change too quickly.  Sudden changes in the law to make wearing a head scarf in the public schools required of girls and women or to make them forbidden may create too much change too quickly. 

Some of today's headlines about the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti and a decision by the Supreme Court to change who can spend what in connection with elections bring this see-saw of change/stability to mind.  I am interested in the work of Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong and any others working on what form Christianity should take in its third millennium.

I admire the current efforts to modify the banking law so that no institution gets so big that its failure would endanger the national economy and the efforts to workably extend health insurance to those who don't have it.  Trying to harness the drive for improvement enough to allow for essential change while still giving us all enough stability and reliability is difficult, heavy work without guarantees of success but it is a good way to spend our time.

Friday, January 22, 2010

young can be fun

We are over 70 years old, which technically means that we are into our 8th decade.  So, you might think we enjoy being around older people, say those over 60.  You would be right.  We do.  But we also enjoy being around 1 year olds, 2 year olds, 9 year olds and those in their 20's and 30's. 

In Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, there is a college or two so there are young people.  We have eaten at an Italian restaurant downtown but there were few customers and there seems to be little spirit.  Our favorite eatery in the twin towns is Swingers, actually the restaurant at the golf club.  The name tells you it wants to be an upbeat place and it is.  Not only is the menu imaginative and the cooking excellent but the place has energy.  Most of the staff is young, with all that implies in energy and freshness.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


We are pay for a gizmo that fits into the USB port and connects to the internet.  Sounds neat and it is a little bit.  But I am so addicted to the net that I use it to look up how the weather is where I am instead of looking out the window.  True, one needs to know what is going to happen in an hour if possible and what it will be like 100 miles down the road.  But truthfully, no one knows.  Especially when you are trying to distinguish rain from freezing rain, very slight changes can switch things from fine to deadly and back again in a flash.  Today's travel showed me how much a little courage and common sense can do.   When I add to that the power of dollar hunger, the urge to make communications on tv or a web site exciting instead of informative, I see that our modern technology has a long way to go.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

up or down?

I am stuck between a kind of cheerful mentalism and a grasp of despondent materialism.  Part of me urges upbeat thinking, believing that an upbeat attitude makes everything better, sweeter, more fun, happier.  But, another part says to face facts: taxes are due, there is winter and global warming and a recession on. 

Should I grin rigorously while bearing life in order to throw my emotional weight on the up side?  Or is that unrealistic and (horrors) childish?  Should I be rigorously grim and feel superior to all the false merriment around me, knowing in my heart that we all slide downhill from birth to reside forever in a cold grave?  Or is that wasting moments of gold for the  sake of tin?

Some friends sent me a link to an article about the Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer.  I have read her books "Mindfulness" and "The Power of Mindful Learning" and was impressed enough to give copies of the book to my colleagues in a multi-professor class we all taught together.  The link here goes to a rather long Chronicle of Higher Education article.  Langer believes in the power of the mindset and I understand that attitude matters.  I also understand that I can influence my attitude.  So when I find myself grim and snarly, I have a habit of focusing on relaxing, realizing my many blessings and remembering that the pot-holes of life almost invariably bring positives along with the unpleasant jolts.

As I read the comments on the Langer article, I was struck by the two main groups: "yes, let's all smile our way through life" and "humbug! don't be mislead by sunlight".  I have read before that people who are cheerful may be less accurate at assessing their chances at scoring big wins in life.  So, do I want to be accurate or happy?  I would be quick at deciding for happiness but as usual, there are other important things to consider.  Clear, even critical, thinking has given birth to science, increased understanding, good engineering, new discoveries of great value and insight.  Merely giggling at everything is as blind as scoffing at everything.  Guess I will continue alternating.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pi and his religions

Wouldn't it be surprising if you found that your neighbor or the mayor or somebody attended and contributed to both a Christian church and a Muslim mosque?  I didn't read "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel.  I listened to the audiobook.  Listening to a story is a little different from reading a text.  Sometimes, when I am reading, I notice a conversation is coming up before I actually read about it.  So, reading may give me hints about some twist or surprise that I don't get in listening.  In listening, you find out about something when the narrator tells you, not before.

I highly recommend "The Life of Pi", which I am pretty sure is quite unlike any other story you have ever read.  You can find the basic premise of the story by using the links above.  If you do, you may well think the basic idea is unappealing and decide to skip it.  I urge you to get it a try.  If you can, you may try listening, either to CD's or an audio download played through an iPod or other mp3 file player.  A portable computer can play such files from a convenient location, too.

One of the many surprises in this prize-winning novel of a Hindu teenager is that when the boy reaches a certain age, he becomes curious about his religion, as well as Christianity and Islam.  He attends classes aimed at initiating people into each of the religions and strikes the leaders of all the classes as a promising future member of that congregation.

When I see the "Co-exist" bumper sticker, I am reminded of Pi and various predictions that slowly, over say, the next 1500 years, the religions of the earth may merge, strengthening and enriching each other.  I wouldn't hold my breath and I don't believe all religions are the same.  I do think that any religion of intelligent and aware people is capable of recognizing the strengths and value of other faiths. 

If you are looking for a good overview of the great religions of the world (and there may be a few more than you realize), a good source is The World's Religions by the highly respected Huston Smith.  If it is not in your local library, point that out to the librarian.

Monday, January 18, 2010


This is our 50th year together.  We have already started making a history of those years.  You might think it would be easy but that is a long time.  Sometimes, I forget what I went downstairs for so remembering even big events 20, 30 or 40 years ago is tricky and spotty.

I do know some of the steps that got us started.  I wanted to work with people and my mother, who loved teaching, suggested I look into going to a teachers' college.  I found it was inexpensive and handy so that was where I went.  I didn't take the time to think or find out that few young men wanted to be teachers, probably for financial reasons.  Teaching is famous for its limited pay, especially after a decade or so, compared to other possibilities.  Not finding thinking about typical male-female choices meant I had no idea that the college would be 80% female.  Since my high school was 100% male, it was a pleasant surprise to find so many young women around me.  I dated some of the more interesting ones.

In my junior year, I started dating Lynn.  I student taught during that year and it was not an easy time for me.  I was too rigid and self-preoccupied to be as open and flexible as teachers need to be.  Lynn listened to my complaints and fears and rages. I saw that I didn't want to be away from her.  Then, I found a summer job at a professor's summer camp in Maine.  She had her job at the plant in Florida where she had worked the previous year.  So, there came a day when I stood at the stairs leading into a railroad car and watched her board.  I felt very severe pain seeing her go.  I had just gotten my driver's license and the long drive of a camp vehicle to Maine was a challenge.  That drive and relocating temporarily got my mind off my longing and pain.

But, as the days went by, I felt her absence grow heavier and heavier.  I tried to phoning her to bridge the distance between us, sometimes more than once a day.  I tried writing daily.  In those days, we had not heard the words "computer" or "email" and for youngsters without money or means, that was about all we could do.  One day, a group of the camp staff were working in a stand of trees somewhere and the day's mail was brought out to us.  I received a letter from Lynn.  I opened it and read words that changed our lives.  I have the letter written that day hanging in a frame beside me now as I write.  She said she had died and was in Hell.  She was tortured by everything around her.  I felt the same way and had for weeks.  That did it.  I quit on the spot, took what pay I had coming, begged a ride to the local bus station from the irritated and now short-handed professor.  I could afford a ticket and rode the bus to Florida.  I told no one at home or at her house what I was doing.  It took a long time for such a bus ride and I had plenty of time to wonder what I was doing.  I got to Florida and went to an employment agency.  I got a job as a kitchen supply boy in a large public restaurant.  My job was to dole out the supplies needed for a recipe to the cooks as they prepared various dishes.  Poor pay and lots of cleaning but I did have a job.  I phoned Lynn and told her where I was and what I had done. 

She was delighted and her parents kindly invited me to stay with them.  It was a great relief to be together.  But the summer was nearly over by then.  A more rational person would have waited and reunited with his sweetheart at college.  I was happy but not rational.  I had to borrow money from Lynn to get back to my house, one of several facts that did not recommend me to her parents as a future son-in-law.  We were married a few weeks later and that was the beginning of our 50 years.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Getting in the spirit

A good case can be made that spirit is the basis for everything human.  Desiring to move my arm, I move it if I am in the mood, if the spirit to do so moves me.

There was a Hagar, the Horrible, cartoon that showed a priest-type leader who marched in front of a band of men and began to speak to them.  By the end of his speech, the men were aroused and ready to complete their mission.  They were moved by the spirit.  They were en-theo-sed -- the god of action had entered them and they were enthused, empowered by spoken words.

An old question is whether the mind or matter/material is the foundation of the world.  You can go round and round on the question but for human beings in normal circumstances, the motivation, the spirit seems basic.  In fact, if someone is highly motivated, they may find a way to overcome obstacles but if they aren't motivated, no other obstacles are needed to stop their actions.

So, whether it is a song, a poem, a story, a rally, a speech or a movie, the words and the music can empower.  Isn't that amazing?  Words - puffs of air or marks on paper- and music - puffs of air- can strengthen will and desire and produce movement, action, accomplishment.  That means that art in many forms is a strong force in the world.  The ancient Greeks thought that an orator, a speaker, was a highly educated, valuable citizen, a model of achievement that the society could be proud of.

True, in today's world, everyone tries with writing, persuasion, ads, fads, rhetoric to create movements of the sort they desire, for their party, their product, their church.  We have to keep our attention ours and direct it consciously since everyone wants it.  It is also true that once I develop the motivation to do something, whether it is weeding or writing or cooking, I can lock onto that motivation and no longer attend to other streams of words, music or images.  I then have a mission, an interest.  But when my interest flags or the job is done, some art or other may again energize me with new spirit.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Looking for a little college money

As my senior year of high school ended, my homeroom teacher offered me a job.  He wanted a dishwasher and handyman at the camp he ran for girls.  It was an upscale camp in New England and it had been founded and run for years by his parents.  It was a pleasant summer.  He invited me to return after my freshman year of college and I did.  But by then, I had a relation developing with a lovely young thing I met at college.  I got her a job at the camp, too. 

I guess I spent too much time with her and in situations and places that did not meet approval because neither of us was invited back.  That was ok with me.  I was pretty sure I wasn't going to spend all my remaining summers at the place.  I had already worked at a large Boy Scout camp for two summers and now had spent two summers at the girls camp.  I thought I would look around for something else.  Another friend from college had a job in an ocean resort town.  I think he was a waiter or something but I was too young to handle alcohol legally.  I went with him to the town and tried to find some I was qualified for.

I did.  A photography business was looking for young people to wander up and down the board walk with a camera at the ready.  Snap a good shot of young lovers or older vacationers or their cute kids, get their name and have them pay for the developed shots to be mailed to them.  I was to get a cut of each sale. 

I had never developed the habit of examining how much I would be likely to make and how that amount compared with my likely expenses.  Also, I was very naive about actual arrangements for pay, taxes, rooming, etc.  I think I was offered a bed in a small room by the man who ran the business, along with one or two other young men.  I did not have a sales personality and spent a couple of days wandering through the crowds with very little to show for the time.  It was probably at the end of the second day that the business man happily offered us a paper bag with Garrison Keillor's grease stains indicating freshness.  The bag contained cooked breaded blue fish, which he told us was delicious. 

I don't remember much about the whole adventure but I clearly recall my reaction to luckily getting something to eat from an anonymous paper bag.  I knew I would be on my way back to the big city the next morning.  I was.  A different person might have had a lovely summer by the sea with that job but it didn't click with me, even a little.

I found a sort of make-shift job teaching boxing at the local YMCA.  I had no training, no aptitude, no skill and a poor body for boxing.  I hope none of the boys I "trained" ever needed boxing for sport or defense.  I kept looking for something else at the Y that might be more up my alley and was moved to teaching archery, which I did know a little about.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hanging with Dr. John

Dr. John is a orthopedist.  He is especially interested in the shoulder joint.  He told me that $3 billion is spent annually on shoulder treatment and surgery.  About 20 or so years ago, Dr. John had shoulder problems himself.  The situation was bad and he was told that surgery was his only hope.  He started hanging by his hands from a straight metal bar.  He found that the stretching and the weight bearing was very helpful.  Over time, he healed completely.

His interest and experience has opened his eyes to the very few times in modern life when most of us raise our arms about our heads.  We type, we eat, we drive, we use computers and all without any overhead action, movement or stretch.  I always wondered why Laurence Morehouse advocated stretching straight up overhead and up on the toes as the first of his warm-up exercises.  Maybe Morehouse, a nationally best-selling author and professor of kinesiology, knew how rarely we make that move. 

I asked my own physician about the practice and he didn't know about it.  He did say that he thought it wouldn't hurt anything.  Dr. John told me about a physical therapist who would not have patients perform a hang as it wasn't standard practice. 

I have not had shoulder problems but I know several people who have.  Lynn seems to have benefited from hanging.  Dr. John recommends building up to 30 seconds of hanging, twice a week, if possible.  He has noticed that there are few places in the average home where a person can actually do such a simple thing as hang by their hands.  When people try to make do with a hang where their feet still touch the floor, they tend to push themselves forward with their feet and legs.  That is not recommended.  A few inches off the ground from a straight bar is all that is needed.  Dr. John was quite explicit about doing the hanging with the palms away from the hanger, not with them turned toward the body, in the traditional pull-up position.  The right kind of hang will stretch and move the shoulder blades properly, which is not true of a pull-up.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Getting what you pay for

A company that tests consumer goods warns once in a while that the idea that "you get what you pay for" may not be correct.  They mean that sometimes an expensive item is not so good while something rather cheap is better. Since reading that idea, I have seen cases where it is quite true. 

When we rent a motel room, we have often found that an expensive room is not well furnished and does not have accommodating features.  Cheaper rooms are often superior in all noticeable ways.  Same thing has happened to me with "luxury" goods and services.  I suspect that the highest level of luxury is not that difficult to achieve and that attempting to rise about that level gets silly.  Personally, I have a limited tolerance in having my brow wiped or a bowl of warm water to clean my finger tips.

Sometimes, I am a sucker for the fancy bells and whistles.  The first microwave I ever bought cost around $500, back at a time when that amount of money was more than it is today.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics has an inflation calculator that says that amount of money today would equal $1900.  I wouldn't pay that for a microwave today since my favorite, the Panasonic, costs about $110.  What I learned with that first machine was that I have a tendency to pay for features I won't use and that are not needed.  Some expensive features may even impede performance.

I like to find a product that meets my needs and stay with it.  That policy has limits, too, though.  My favorites aren't that popular and the vendors go out of business.  My favorite gets moved to a much cheaper, sloppier manufacturer and the quality level drops but the same price is asked. 

Price is a poor guide.  Some vendors simply try to gain the reputation for being the high end of the spectrum without really having a product that merits the highest price.  It would be nice in a way if the highest price really did mean the highest quality.  Since that is not the case, buying is even more of a guessing game since you can't be sure what product is best and if what you buy doesn't work to your satisfaction, you can't be sure whether a higher price is warranted next time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

moving movies

My friend mentioned that he really like "The Mission".  I did, too, and I found it to be memorable in an etched-in-the-mind sort of way.

His comment made me think about movies.  Since I was a kid, I have been moved, enchanted, scared and emboldened by movies.  What a great art form!  Lots better than murals.  The two movies I have seen the most times are "In the Spirit" starring Marlo Thomas and Elaine May and "The Russians Are Coming!  The Russians Are Coming!".  "Spirit" is about a flaky babe and a sensible woman thrown together against bad guys.  Clever from top to bottom.   The movie was written by Elaine May's daughter and she sure knows how to make you laugh.

"Russians" is about a Russian sub required by its captain to get closer and closer to the North American shore.  The captain wants to see America.  He's never seen it.  The sub get hung on a sandbar and the crew needs help to get it loose.  This is during the Cold War when being a uninvited member of the Russian military on American soil is numbingly dangerous.  It may not sound like it but this is a comedy, written by Carl Reiner, the father of Rob Reiner, Archie Bunker's "Meathead".  The script is unmatched in evoking sympathy for all the uptight and fearful people on both sides.

Here is a link to a list of movies we have liked over the years.  Besides the ones I just mentioned, I would say that "Ruthless People", "Cold Comfort Farm"and "My Cousin Vinny" are among the best I've seen.  Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for her role in Vinny.  Most people haven't heard of "Cold Comfort Farm" but they should have.  Both Ruthless and Vinny were written by Dale Launer.  I am not a great film buff but some movies move me, for sure.

What has stayed with you over the years?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Habeas Corpus ("You must have the body")

The order issued by a judge to bring an imprisoned person to the court for consideration of whether the prisoner is being held legally is often referred to by the Latin words "habeas corpus".  The practice of examining the legality of an imprisonment is an important part of maintaining individual rights.  However, the English play "Habeas Corpus" was a sex comedy.  The production I saw was very funny and I was struck by the title's insistence on the fundamentality of the body in our lives. 

We won't be born without our parents' bodies.  We won't grow and move and eat and think without our own bodies.  When, as Bill Bryson so wonderfully put it, our atoms loose themselves from their bond and dissipate off, we will be dead.  We must have the body.

Sometimes, people who have trouble speaking in public are advised to picture their audience sitting nude before them.  The advice is supposed to assist the speaker in lowering the tension of speaking and make the audience seem less formidable. Our bodies are often used as reminders that we aren't angels and are actually animals.

When humans between the mid-teens and their sixties mix with members of the opposite sex, the presence and meaning of bodies is in the forefront of imagining, planning, and wondering. 

Using the book "Individuals" by Peter Strawson, my grad school class in metaphysics considered how the logic of our lives would be if what we saw would be controlled by a separate body from ourselves, rather like my viewing a monitor from a tv camera on your head.  We considered the logic of our lives as we know them if there were to be resurrection of the deceased that did not include their bodies.  We knew that some bodies would be quite old and decayed, not to mention those that were cremated.  We concluded that we are material beings and wouldn't know how to function without our bodies. C.S. Lewis says in one of his books that God loves material - He invented it.

This idea that we can't do without our bodies sometimes gets shelved.  Older people whose bodies work poorly may try to forget about the body.  Computer geeks and those addicted to long phone conversations may seem disembodied.  St. Francis of Assisi referred to his body as "Brother Ass" (Brother Mule, stubborn, slow, ponderous).  The earthly sides of us are sometimes very attractive to others, may be the subject of curiousity or lust.  But we must have the body, regardless of whether it is exciting or repulsive.

Monday, January 11, 2010

technical solutions

Every solution is a technical one.  The way we bake a cake uses a certain series of steps and a certain set of equipment.  We can possibly find alternatives to either the process or the ingredients involved.  Alternatives might make better cakes, make them faster, make them cheaper, make cakes of higher quality.  We might get interested in certain properties of our cakes, such as their glycemic index ratings or their sweetness or how many eggs get included.  We might try to invent alternative steps or tools that change properties of interest.

As we modify our technical approach, very surprising things can happen.  Walking around with an iPod and headphones on, I am obviously less likely to hear what someone in the room says.  That might be a negative property of iPod use.  But then, finding that I am mobile and can also hear music that uplifts me, I may find I am a more cheerful person, from all that lifting up of my spirit.  The amount and direction of the goods and bads of a process will change over time.  Not being able to hear others in the room might be okay at first but then it might be a blessing or a curse.  The "valence" or algebraic positive or negative sign attached to a property or result changes as I age, as I learn, as I become accustomed to something, and simply as time goes on.

When I think of technical solutions and the ups and downs they give our lives, I think of the scenes in the powerful and memorable movie "The Mission", starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.  In the 1500's, the Spanish were founding a mission in South America and a pair of brothers, a soldier and a priest, are part of the group involved.  At one point, we see the tremendous labor used to move enormous cannon of great weight up cliffs to build a fort.  Watching the dangerous and strenuous work, we are tempted to think of it all as a waste of time.  Who needs a cannon in the jungle?  How Christian is a cannon, anyhow?

Good or bad, the later fight for dominance and the land between the natives and the army is no contest because gunpowder and cannons are a technical solution that overmatches arrows and spears.  When the natives try to adopt the same technical approach of building and using explosives, they find that they need mining and smelting and casting along with the concepts or the process doesn't work.

We engage in a difficult guessing game when we select technologies.  Are pistols an asset or a danger or both?  Do all those labor-saving devices save labor?  When we are lugging one to a repairman or considering a new mixer, we can doubt the value of electricity or gasoline.  When we fear for the earth's climate and the richness of our soil, we can doubt the value of our way of life.  On the other hand, an outside temperature of 12° makes me glad for our roof and walls and windows and furnace.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Un-real estate

When we put our minds to something, surprising things can happen.  When mathematicians and scientists and kids in garage workshops began working with binary numbers and circuit boards, who could have forseen those efforts would lead in a rather short time to downloaded Beethoven symphonies and Socrates' Apology

We bought several dozen CD's of music we like and treasure.  The compact disc is much more compact than the 78 record but not nearly as compact as the computer file of the same music or text or video or pictures.  We now have downloadable movies.  I downloaded one of my favorites, "In the Spirit", starring Marlo Thomas and Elaine May, from Amazon and the file is more than 2 gigabytes.  A gigabyte is a billion bytes and a byte is 8 bits.  A bit is a 1 or a 0.  Who cares?  We all do since our health records, our medical and financial records and much of the important documentation of our lives is written in these odd little 1's and 0's.

As time goes by, the old storage of 132 kilobytes in the mainframe of the first computer I used becomes unbelievable, like the oldtime price of a nickel a gallon for gasoline.  Each time we buy a new computer, it comes with an amazing amount of storage space on it.  Yet, each machine eventually gets filled or nearly so.  My current main computer has 30 gigs on it but my friend just bought a computer with 500 gigs on it.  We ourselves make us of a 320 gig external hard drive.

If every word you ever wrote, notes to the milkman (what's a milkman?), homework assignments and school essays, your master's thesis - everything were written down, it could be probably be contained on a single DVD, about 4 gigs.  But then comes one of those big leaps.  When we switched to sound and try to preserve every sound, we need close about a gig for an hour of speech.

The surprising thing about all this is that the actual storage space is so small. The little camera cards used to store picture files are about the size of a postage stamp.  A postage stamp that hold a full length Hollywood movie!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Glory be

Glory be to our mother and our daughter

Feminist scholars are a new thing on the earth.  I guess men mostly ignored all the spiritual and intellectual things women did for themselves, their mates and their families while the men may concentrated on getting out of the cave, paling around together, finding and killing animals and magnanimously doling out the meat.  Then, as time went on and writing and scholarship began to develop importance, they muscled the women aside.  It wasn't fair and it wasn't smart and feminist scholars in all disciplines are helping us realize that.  In spades.

As Lynn gathered music for her first playlist, she included Bobbie McFerrin's The 23rd Psalm.  The piece can be sampled with the link in the title above.  He sings the famous psalm with only feminine pronouns and references and ends with a doxology that also uses feminine references only.

When people have protested that the King James Bible and many legal documents have served well with only masculine reference, feminist scholars have said that is not true.  They said that using only masculine references subtly tells girls that they are not suited for many things, that the world barely recognizes them and hasn't considered them important. 

We come from females into this world.  If you are a typical male, you may be cocky (!) and proud of yourself or try to be.  Still, we only need a male contribution for a few minutes while we tend to want our mommies our entire lives to get to be a human. 

Glory be to our mothers and our daughters!  And wives!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Just playing

We watched a National Geographic presentation about arctic wolves the other day.  There were the mother and father and three yearlings, two males and a female.  They travel around to hunt together.  But the young female was a wanderer and tended to lack the unity and pack sense of the others.

The narrator said she spent too much time "playing."  That got my attention.  How do we know when a wolf teenager is playing?  Right after the comment, she waded into a pool (probably qu even in the arctic summer) and took a good-sized chunk of ice in her teeth.  She carried the chunk with her for a short while and then dropped it.

Sometimes you run into statements that playing is important for staying young.  Children usually have many ways to play.  How do you play?  What do you do to play?  Suppose a person has aged or serioused or soured or focused on business too much for long.  How can they regain the ability to play?

Sometimes, the child playing seems to have the mind turned off.  The fingers and the eyes may be manipulating or gauging but it doesn't seem that there is any agenda to be followed.  But sometimes the bossy kid knows exactly what is to be done and informs other playmates of their duties and responsibilities in an imperious and confident manner.  We say that is only play because the boss is not really in charge, lacks authority or credentials to command obedience.  So, playing may involve heavy use of the imagination.

I imagine I am an angel.  Angels have wings so I need wings or a substitute.  I know they aren't really wings but they help me in my play.  With a pair of coathangers dangling down my back from my collar, I am more the angel I want to be.

Sensations just for their sake, whether it is a chunk of ice in the teeth or doodling or chasing a ball of yarn.  Mental pictures just for their own sake, whether it is being a princess or a cowboy or an astronaut. Exploring possibilities just to see where they lead and what might happen.  Heck, I guess I play every day!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Beads and clothespins

W.E. Deming was a physicist but his fame and contribution came mostly from his work on process improvement.  He was employed in the U.S. Census Bureau but he assisted in the post WWII raise of Japan with his thinking on quality manufacturing.  I have found his writings somewhat difficult and obscure and I felt the same way during my only chance to see him actually perform a presentation.

But he did have some memorable ideas.  One of the famous demonstrations he invented was the bowl of red and white beads.  He had two wooden paddles, somewhat like small cutting boards with handles.  Each had 100 small, shallow indentations in it.  A participant was asked to insert a paddle into the bowl and allow the indentations to fill with beads.  The white beads were "good" and the red beads were "bad".  The participant was admonished and exhorted in a firm way before drawing the sample to avoid the red beads since they were errors, mistakes, boo-boos, costly, embarrassing, etc.  Since there were red beads scattered throughout the bowl and the draw was random, there was no way to avoid the baddies.  Some baddies were drawn and the culprit was frowned upon.  Often, a 2nd participant would also make a draw and whoever had the least red beads was praised as a better or excellent worker while the person with more reddies was asked, "Why aren't you more like so-and-so?So-and-so only had xxx beads but you went and allowed yyyy errors?  Why did you do that?" 

It can sound funny, ridiculous but it is a model of what happens everyday all over the world. 

Another memorable exercise is the clothespin and the bottle.  You try to drop a clothespin into a bottle or jar.  You stand and drop the clothespin or other object into the bottle or jar with it sitting on the floor at your feet.  Some people try to notice which way the drop was off and correct the position of the bottle.  But when the variations are simply random, re-positioning the bottle simply adds error to the process.  The more corrections, the worse the alignment.  If you have a good position, it is best to simply stay with it and weather the failures.

Any process with random components, and all processes have some random but maybe very small parts, is best not tampered with to try and improve it.  Doing so can worsen performance.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Stimulating company

You may have done the same thing.  We feel reluctant to vacuum or dust.  Those activities seem to represent stolen hours, boring hours. 

But then a friend calls.  We realize while talking that we haven't seen them for a while.  We think of our recent additions to the house and recent projects we haven't shown off to them.  We invite them over. They accept.  Now, we are energized.  The straightening, the dusting -- we dive into it with enthusiasm and energy.

Later, our friends arrive.  They compliment us on how nice the house looks.  Sometimes, we just accept the compliments and sometimes we mention that it didn't look so good just a little while ago. 

It is easy to think of having company in as a favor to them.  We give them coffee and some goodies.  We show them our latest photos and purchases.  But they are the ones doing us a favor.  Traveling through the winter cold, leaving their warm houses, shedding pajama and slippers, they come over.  The acceptance of the invitation and the honor of their visit are a compliment. 

But, the excitement of the arrival of friends is the real gift.  A little housework is easy and even enjoyed to prepare for a visit.  The honor of their presence is no small thing.  Especially as their house has some many delights and projects they themselves are working on.  Their computers, their music and televisions, their toys.  Sometimes, they are hoping for the doctor to call back or to hear from their accountant. 

Sure, we all benefit from spending time together.  It is not one sided.  We get ideas, clarifications and inspiration from each other.  But when they leave, and we still have our recently cleaned house, I sometimes feel that I have mooched energy from them.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


The first time I heard of a "whisperer", the reference was to a trainer of horses.  I learned that most horses in the past have been "broken", that is exhausted while wearing a saddle and carrying a rider to the point of acceptance.  The horse whisperer had a different approach: gentle nudging and soft speaking, whispering, even.  That approach was supposed to be less damaging and traumatizing.

Then, I saw a DVD or something about how to be a baby whisperer.  Every adult wants to somehow communicate with a newborn that life is good and eating or taking a bottle or a bath is not something to be afraid of.  Some people seem to have a knack for projecting calm acceptance of life and enjoying it.  They can often get a nervous infant or frightened child to see that some new horror is not a horror at all but actually a good thing, a further enrichment of life.

Then, I saw the amazing dog whisperer on the National Geographic channel, Cesar Millan.  I watch in fascination as he skillfully and quietly changes an unsociable dog that has been misbehaving for years into a civilized and happy animal and does it in MINUTES!  His knowledge of dog psychology is wonderful to behold and impossible to grasp.

Now, I learn of an expert who is the "database whisperer" for a large organization.  I immediately understand that the expert is the "go-to" person when others simply cannot get the damned database to do what is needed.  A full-sized database is a wonder and a mystery.  It can coordinate inputs and outputs from many different locations so that users get the latest information on inventory or funds or whatever.

If I grow up, I want to be a whisperer but I am not sure what kind yet.

Monday, January 4, 2010


It is hard to say when it all began.  The day we could no longer stand piles of books on every side is probably a better starting point than when some sort of fish first crawled out of the sea.  The overwhelming stacks and shelves of books got to us in the summer.  It was the following spring that I thought the Kindle would be a good way to get books without taking up space and without the need to dust them and lift them.  Then, I found how many books are free on the Kindle.  Nearly all books are cheaper on the Kindle than on paper.

The next push Fate gave us was the part of our Hawaiian trip when we drove down the mountain we had just come up.  The driver wanted to introduce us to Hawaiian music and played his tapes and talked about it.  The gentleness, the rhythm, the tunes were captivating.  Next, we asked our guides about good Hawaiian musicians and first heard of  Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole.  I made a mental note to buy some of his music when I got home. 

At home, I did order some of Iz and some Keali'i Reichel.  I order from  They are fast and convenient and they seem to have good prices.  While buying my first Hawaiian music, I saw that the audio downloads, like the Kindle books, were cheaper than the CD's.  My green, enviromentally-conscious wife helped me be aware that the cost of shipping, handling, packing, driving and delivering are removed when something is downloaded, too.

Well, you know how it goes, down music and you get an MP3 file.  My computer can play such a file but I like to get away from the computer every now and then.  What is the world's most popular MP3 player?  The iPod!  So, we are now learning about iPods and iTunes.  Like the classics on the Kindle, many of the really great music is very inexpensive.  For me, that is means Mozart, Beethoven, Bizet, Rossini and that group.  Like the Kindle files, the songs and pieces of great music fit into a very, very small space.  No shelving needed, no dusting.

I love audiobooks and they may be the next thing to fool with.  I am a big fan of Lisette Lecat, the reader of Alexander McCall Smith's No.1 Ladies Detective Series, and of Ian MacKenzie, reader of Smith's Love Over Scotland series.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

When Mommy Cries

When I was five years old, I experienced my first moment of total despair.  I committed a grave crime.  My mother was on the phone with her mother, mentioning the exciting and beautiful gift she had received.  It was a set of glass place name holders.  They were little objects to sit beside each plate on the dinner table.  Each had a small panel for temporarily writing the name of that guest and each had a delicate and beautiful glass flower beside the panel.  They were probably the most beautiful piece of artwork my mother had ever received.

As my mother mentioned them to Grandma, I remembered how beautiful they were and I wanted to see them again.  I felt their beauty mostly because my mother told me they were very beautiful.  I wanted to get another look at them.  I climbed up to reach them on the mantle piece and somehow while reaching for them, I knocked the flimsy cardboard box to the floor.  Instant shattered glass everywhere.  My mother, naturally, reacted with shock, disappointment and horror. 

I immediately grasped that I had done a very bad thing.  I hoped that maybe it wouldn't turn out too bad.  But, Mommy just sat with her head in her hands, the phone dangling.  She was crying over the loss of the treasure.  I immediately grasped that my life was over.  I was on the fast track to hell where I would be permanently.  I had a panicked thought that maybe my grandmother would take me in and I could live with her. 

I apologized about 500 times but after a while, it became clear that apologies reminded Mommy of the damage, the loss and the culprit.  I stopped apologizing but I am still very sorry.  If my mother was alive, I would call her and apologize again now.  I know her well and she would say," That was 65 years ago.  Let it go.  I have and you need to.  Heal now." 

Boys want to be loved and honored, just like anyone else.  Their genes, their personalities and what they learn from all sorts of others combine to tell boys that the way to be valued and to be valuable is to be a hero, just what society expects.  In today's advanced and specialized way, there are tons of ways to be heroes.  We have heroic women and girls, heroic whistle blowers and bookkeepers, heroic singers and sculptors.  But there are many situations that have no openings for heroes.  Situations of shock, of grief may only allow for suffering and acceptance.  When you are a male child and the most important person in your world, your mommy, is upset, you want to fix things.  You want to be a hero.  But when a grandmother has died, a loved and honored person that Mommy grieves and is going to leave a hole in Mommy's life, Mommy's tears cannot be fixed.  They can only be accepted and if you are older and stronger, commiserated with.

A vital and lovable boy I know has yet to learn this.  As his mommy cried with grief, his heart sank and despair began to darken the world.  He tried a typical male move: give a command.  Tell the source of your despair to get over it.  That was not happily received by Mommy.  But, don't worry, this budding hero will learn better loving.  It just takes a while.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Quite a woman! She brought 13 healthy, productive people into the world.  In America today, that is a very large family.  You might think that if one woman actually accomplished that, she would be pretty crushed as a result.  Don't, though, because you would be quite wrong.

She had more pep than people can find these days.  When she invited Lynn and I over take some of her raspberry bushes, we were quite happy.  We went to her house.  She offered me a shovel and indicated which plants I should dig up.  I guess I was a little slow for her because she soon came out of her house with another shovel.  Before I could get a plant out of the ground, this grandmother, a couple of decades older than me, had two dozen plants out of the earth.  I could only stammer an embarrassed thank-you.

As a child, she lived in a very small community.  There was no chance that she could attend high school there so she moved in with relatives to get some more schooling.

It is clear that she was a loving person because the whole resulting group, now including all 13 and their mates and their children and their grandchildren are still in touch with each other, still get together for holidays and birthdays and weddings and funerals.  With so many members, it is only to be expected that some of its members live far away and can't always manage to be there for the holidays.  But they clearly enjoy each other.  They spend many days together at all sorts of events.

And get this: all 13 busy, energetic, engaged adult kids were with her at her death. 

Ok, you try it.  Get pregnant and bear a child 13 times.  Raise them on limited funds and give them good feelings about themselves and the world while keeping your own.  Live your whole life, about 9 decades, with zest and commitment to the whole family and the church.  If you manage to pull that off, you will be quite a woman.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The little sweetie

I think of my sister as a calmly happy and accepting person most of the time.  There have been a few times when she wasn't.  The first time I remember was when she and I faced a bothersome little kid and complained about something or other he had done.  We were standing in his front yard and he was backed up against a low cherry tree that was in blossom.  The little sneak put his hand behind his back and plucked a cherry from the tree without our noticing.  He brought the fruit to the front and held it up to my eye level and squeezed.  Some of the acidic juice went into my eye and it hurt and surprised me.  I cried out. 

My sister was a first or second grader at the time and so was this little joker.  As I cried out,  she launched herself into the kid knocking him to the ground.  She planted herself on top of his chest and pummeled him.  It was his turn to cry out and his cries brought his mother out of the house.  She shouted at my sister to get off of her little darling this instant.  It was a little embarrassing since he outweighed her by at least ten pounds.  How this calm little sweetie could floor the brat wasn't clear to any of us.

A similar incident happened a few years later.  I think my sister was in the 3rd grade then.  She and I walked along a sidewalk and here walking toward us was a boy in her class.  I knew he liked her because he always smiled at her and spoke to her.  As we passed him, he smiled and said hello.  Again, she launched herself onto this kid, too, much as before.  Knocked him down and began pummeling him.  I respect my sister but as far as I could tell there was no reason to assault him.  I began to interfere and she stopped.  The boy got up and ran off.  I was very surprised and asked her why in the world she had attacked an innocent person.  She replied that he bugged her, he always smiled and spoke to her and she wanted him to stop it.  I imagine he did.

About that time, my mother got the idea that both my sister and I would benefit from boarding school.  She had no money for the tuition and expense but the schools she had in mind offered scholarships to children who merited them.  Both my sister and I took exams to try for scholarships.  I rather wanted one but I didn't score well enough.  I had looked forward to wearing a smart uniform and living a military-ish life.  But my sister did better on the exams and won a scholarship to an all-girl, ladylike school.  I was a little envious.

It turned out that my sister did not like the place.  She didn't like uniforms,  she didn't the faculty, she didn't like the routine and she especially didn't like being away from home.  She was younger than me.  My mother told me that she thought her daughter felt abandoned and unloved and saw herself as being dropped from our family.

One day, the school called and reported that my sister had climbed out a 2nd story window to escape the place.  She was lowering herself to the ground when the sheets she had knotted together came apart.  She fell into a bush.  She was not hurt but everyone was upset.  My mother changed her mind about the value of a board school and my sister came home for good.

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