Books as life rafts

booksBack when I retired, I could not read a book during the day. Reading had been a reliable, if obviously addictive sleeping aid for so long that whenever I picked up a book, even my beloved Agatha Christie, I was asleep within ten minutes. Besides, only bored housewives read during daylight hours while eating chocolates and smoking cigarettes.

But my T-shirt does not lie.

The shirt comes from the Jefferson Memorial in St. Louis, purchased on a visit with my high school buddies, the Union Queens—all graduates of Union High School, classes of 1950 or 1951. A plaque announced the museum was built with money from the 1903 World’s Fair of Meet Me in St. Louis fame.

Two books shook my world this week:

  1. Cloud Atlas, a novel that Shona, my eldest grandchild recommended for years before I gave in and checked it out of our local library*. A fabulous read by a fine writer, David Mitchell. Highly recommended. On the last of its 509 pages, a character, Adam Ewing, sailing home to California from the South Pacific in 1850 after escaping death by a hair, writes:

“If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earthy and its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.

I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.”

He vows to pledge himself to the Abolitionist cause when he gets home, knowing his pragmatic father in law will assure him his plan is hopeless, that his efforts will amount to “no more than one drop in a limitless ocean.”

”Yet,” asks Adam Ewing, “what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Amen, hallelujah, ándele.

If you are an American citizen, get to work on the upcoming election: Your drop is needed in that murky ocean.

  1. I visit the library twice a week for an equally fabulous Spanish class, where after class, I am drawn to the used book sale table like a mosquito to a sound sleeper. Last Thursday, I brought home The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman, one of Modern Library’s World’s Best Books. Who could resist?

Last night (still have trouble reading in daylight), I read in James Gleick’s Introduction, the key to why the current bombastic sureties from politicians turn my stomach.

He quotes Feynman.

“Physicists had hands-on experience with uncertainty, and they learned how to manage it. And to treasure it—for the alternative to doubt is authority, against which science had fought for centuries.”

From a jotting on a notepaper: “teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed.” Gleick notes: “This became his credo: he beloved in the primacy of doubt, not as a blemish upon our ability to know but as the essence of knowing.”

YES! Certainty poisons and leads to crusades and jihads. A modicum of doubt keeps us from the abyss. Never trust the man who is sure of everything, an ignoramus like He Who Is Not To Be Named so as to give him one more iota of publicity.

Doubt trumps dogma every time.

*my much beloved Biblioteca Publica in San Miguel de Allende, GTO.

Eyes on the Sky

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Paris from satellite, photo credit ESA

It becomes easier and easier to know anything—almost all the world’s knowledge is available online. A late blooming learner, I recently finished a course on Monitoring Climate from Space. I heard about it from a newsletter to which I subscribe from the European Space Agency.

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One of ESO’s telescopes in Chile, photo credit, ESO

ESA runs the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a facility in Chile’s Atacama Desert—one of the driest, darkest places on earth, making it perfect for viewing the sky. Although a longtime stargazer, turned on by my seventh grade teacher, Sister Carlene, I had never heard of the site, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012, until a photo from ESA turned up on my StarWalk app. BTW; if you want gorgeous pictures of sky subjects, subscribe to their feed, ESO publicity.

The course I took describes how satellites monitor and predict ocean temperatures, iceberg fields, and much else, collecting hard evidence of climate change.

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Blood cells before being launched into space to the International Space Station on Space X Dragon satellite, purpose: to learn how cells react to living in space., photo credit, ESA

I just began a second course from the same source, Future Learn, on the abdomen. A bit late to be finding outside what is inside my stomach, but I am vague about where my liver or gall bladder is, and about time I find out while they are both still functioning. The courses are all free; the two I have tried well organized and well taught. Most of my Profs had British accents, music to my ears after Downton Abbey.

Among new courses recently announced: Shakespeare and his World, The Mind is Flat; The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology and The Power of Social Media.

Check them out at https://www.futurelearn.com.

P:S:

Hope some of you saw E. O Wilson, the star of my last blog on PBS. He and his book, Half Earth were featured both on the NewsHour Weekend, and the April 28 edition of the PBS NewsHour. What fun to scoop PBS.

Half Earth is a fit for WinterBloom, since the blog’s theme—“late bloomers” describes Wilson’s daring proposal at 86. No late bloomer himself, Wilson had a long and distinguished career as a naturalist starting as a boy in his native Alabama woods.

PPS. Eyes on the Sky mimics the title of an excellent movie starring Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky, highly recommended by me and Rotten Tomatoes 94%. About drones, not telescopes.

Riff on Ritual

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Last week, I traveled one morning on a PEN mission—Rochelle Cashdan, one of our members died recently, and I was on my way to Guanajuato where she lived to help plan a gathering to honor her life.

As I sat in the front seat of the bus awaiting departure—a long distance Primera Plus bound for Guadalajara, a six-hour ride away—I noticed a middle aged man and a young woman facing each other standing a few feet from the bus door. The man rested his right hand on the girl’s head for a moment, then touched his upright palm first to her left, then her right shoulder, ending with a cross in the air in front of her heart. They embraced, and she boarded the bus with her backpack. The father (my guess) stood and watched the bus pull away.

I had never observed this parental blessing in real time, but it was familiar from a Mexican movie, El Infierno, in which a mother blesses her son as he sets off to seek his fortune. Sadly, he ends up working for a drug lord, but that is later in the story.

Touching; the parent sending his daughter off for school or work with his blessing; I imagine an intercession for the blessing of God upon her journey, her safety along the way and success in her new life away from home.

Reminiscent of the custom in my own Jewish tradition of blessing one’s children on Shabbat.

Here, perhaps, is a rationale for what many contemptuously refer to as “organized religion.” In Mexico, Catholic custom; for me, Jewish practice.

I suspect these rites of passage handed down for generations do not spring easily to the unaffiliated. Although it can work: My older son improvised a welcome to his first son, a lovely party with neither baptism nor brit.

Yet something calls many of us to celebrate death, birth, weddings with classic rituals.

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Would that we had more shared rituals to connect us to each other and our ancestors. Whether believers or scoffers—we all need hands to hold.

Certainly our political morass could do with some blessing? Ritual healing? Cleansing?

Like a blessing for a politician from Fiddler on the Roof:

May the Lord bless and keep the Czar—far away from us.”

Maybe laughter is the best connector.

Vis-à-vis another quote:

And if I laugh at any mortal thing,

‘Tis that I may not weep.” Lord Byron.

Whatever can connect us and help us get on with our work—our human family needs more blessings.

conga line

Lesson from my father

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Scenes to honor nature and travel lover, my father, Andrew Barnes Browne; San Miguel de Allende; great granddaughter, Shona surfing at Sunset Cliffs; great grandson, Nico, climbing in the Shawangunks.

On 21 May 2015, midway between the 30th anniversary of his death on May 15,
and the 115th anniversary of his birth on May 29.

A man for all seasons.
Ace-ing every role: son, husband, father, grandfather;
Entrepreneur, raconteur, elder statesman.

Rather than the traditional paean of praise, I share my father’s teaching about money.
I learned mostly from his example, but there were a few maxims:

“Money is a good thing, if it doesn’t cost you too much to get it.”

ABB worked as newspaper boy, bellhop, night clerk, accountant, river barge hand, auto worker, shoe pattern cutter, president of Bourbeuse Shoe and owner of a Ben Franklin store—always earning and growing, but money was never a goal in itself. He worked to live life with zest and to enjoy his many communities, whether shoe workers, golfers, bowlers or family.

“The difference between being miserable and being content is very small: it is the difference between spending $5 more than your income every week and spending $5 less than you earned..”

Money is a prerequisite for the good life, but he never followed his alcoholic father into the life Roger Miller describes, all too common in my Irish family’s heritage:

“Just sittin’ round drinkin’ with the rest of guys
Six rounds bought and I bought five
Spent the groceries and a half the rent
I lack fourteen dollars havin’ twenty seven cents.”

My lesson learned:

You need money to fund the good life; but you can’t cuddle up to a bank account.

Save our kids

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Photo credits, Jay Williams, Georgeann Johnson

“All is for the best in the best of possible worlds.”― Voltaire, “Candide”

A self confessed news junkie, I am often told by friends they avoid the news as depressing. Why don’t I? I reply that I read about solutions to the problems. Is this my Pollyanna head-in-the-sand escape artistry? Am I, like Candide, insisting all is for the best as horrors flash across my TV screen?

While I am mulling this over, a post from Vox blings into my mailbox. “How low social mobility hurts children — and what we need to do about it,” by Danielle Kurtzleben, Vox March 16, 2015; an interview with Robert Putnam’s about his new book, “Our Kids.”

No Pollyanna, Putnam is even darker than Voltaire since he reports facts rather than using satirical overkill. The study began with a clue from a graduate student four years ago. She objected that some of the rosy statistics about the nations’s youth were skewed. It was not like that in my neighborhood, she told Putnam, citing her experience in a low income family.

Putnam followed the bread crumbs and was shocked at what he discovered. Poverty matters hugely in more than the obvious—food, housing, schools.

“Social capital,” what kids get outside of school, determines their chances of being middle class—watching Mom make a grocery list, getting a ride to practice for the swim or debate team, building a snowman with Dad.

The evidence is that “our kids” are growing up with vastly unequal social capital. Putnam shows that this contributes mightily to the inequality of opportunity that is strangling our democracy. He begs us to “look what’s happening to the kids in the lower parts of our society. And how that is damaging our future.”

“Do we really want to live in this kind of country?” Putnam asks, “a country in which it isn’t even approximately true that everyone has a fair start in life? And it’s getting worse and worse.”

The interview ends with Putnam’s plea for change.

Danielle Kurtzleben:
There are some heartbreaking tales in “Our Kids”. I’m sure a lot of people will read this book and ask themselves how they can change this. What would you tell someone who’s more affluent who picks up this book and wants to change things?

Robert Putnam:
Chapter 6 [titled “What is to be done?”] is aimed at exactly that person. We can join others to press for important public policy changes, and that includes stuff like early childhood education, where the evidence is overwhelming that providing early childhood education makes a huge difference in the physiological brain development of kids. And that puts [poorer kids] behind the eight ball when they’re still one or two or three years old.

So if I’m talking to an ordinary fellow citizen — and that’s what I’m doing in the book — you should work with your friends and neighbors and push hard for having universal early childhood education.”

He quotes directly from “Our Kids:”
“If you’re concerned about the issues discussed in this book, here is something you can do right now: close this book. Visit your school superintendent. Better yet, take a friend with you. And ask if your school has a pay-to-play policy [for extracurricular activities]. Explain that waivers aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, because they force kids to wear a virtual yellow star, saying, ‘I’m so poor my parent’s can’t afford the regular fee.’ Explain that everyone in the school will be better off if anyone in the school can be on the team or in the band. Insist that pay-to-play be ended. And while you’re there ask if there are things you can do to help the local schools serve poor kids more effectively, both in the classroom and outside.”

With that, I out down my pen—ok, my iPad—and resolve to act. Use my child development training to make a difference. However I can. Wherever I can. As soon as I can.

Adios, Pollyanna.
Get thee behind me, Candide.

No more passive listening to the news.

Links to the Vox article:

http://www.vox.com/2015/3/16/8199897/robert-putnam-interviewimage

Mexico awakens

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Cartel AyotzinapaSome countries, like slumbering spring bulbs, take a long time to break through the frozen earth.
Like Mexico.
To quote David Lida’s blog (davidlida.com):

“When I first noticed the enormous public outrage about the kidnapping, torture and, most probably, murder of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, last September, I wondered why everyone was reacting so strongly. … I couldn’t help but ask myself, where have these people been for the past ten years? Asleep, like Rip Van Winkle? Don’t they know that in Mexico people are murdered and disappeared every day, victims of a state – politicians, the police and the armed forces – that colludes with drug cartels and gangsters, or are the gangsters themselves? …Finally, I – and many others – have come to see Ayotzinapa as the straw that broke the camel’s back.”