Saturated in Science: Memories of a Part Time Course in a Full Time Life

birlinggap By Adam D.A. Manning

On a cliff top near Brighton, England over a decade ago, bewildered that even an everyday plant like grass had a scientific name, it struck me. Whilst not a professional scientist, I could feel the longing, the burning thirst that is the passion that a scientist must feel.  The wanting to know, to discover, to learn; this was far from the logical, emotionless feeling I had expected. Science is a passion, not a cold, dry world of learning by rote but an exhilarating dive into an endless ocean of new thoughts and feelings.

A long time ago, in that long lost era before Facebook, I took part in an introductory course on science with the Open University. I was going to fit this part time studying in around my full time career and family life as a newly married man.  I had always enjoyed science as a child but my career aspirations took me to other places.  This was a chance to learn more and see what would unfold in the process.  In the UK, the Open University (OU) has for a number of decades been providing courses on all sorts of subjects for people who cannot attend a University full time. I was familiar with the OU from having tried to understand some of their programmes on TV but this would for me be a new adventure, so I was intrigued to see how it would go.

To my delight the textbooks and the materials provided by the OU were vibrant and colourful works which made me very excited about the subjects we would be studying.  The course covered the whole spectrum of science. My first observation was how detailed and thorough each section was.  Those of us who are not scientists by profession often indulge our curiosity with books of varying sizes. These are often “coffee table books” which can take a somewhat sensationalist slant on the subject.  It soon became clear that the course was going to study matters much more comprehensively than these populist tomes. The advantage of this was that the less every day aspects of science, say quantum physics, could be rooted more firmly in a solid foundation of knowledge.

As well as the colourful textbooks, we were supplied with all manner of equipment and props. This included a special lens to diffract light, various mineral and crystal samples and even plaster cast mock fossils.  Throughout the course we were instinthelabructed on carrying out experiments and observations at home and I have a distinct memory of setting up a homemade spectrograph on the dinner table.  Some of the course used material on a CD ROM, especially intensely studying an area of woodland and analysing the data from observations from the site and there were also the TV programmes which are a famous part of OU culture.

The course lasted for most of the year and there were times when it was a lot of work, especially when an assignment was due. Some days I would come in from having a hard day at the office to stay up till late studying for my course. One night, I was reading about the Earth Moon system in astronomy and ended up seeing the midnight moon out of the lounge window. We worked mostly at a distance by post but there were regular meet ups in Southampton where a tutor could help us with any specific problems.  Science uses the language of mathematics and this was a challenge some of the time but mastering the maths that was needed was satisfying.

For one glorious week in the summer, we took part in a residential course at Sussex University, staying in the halls of residence.  This really was time travelling; slipping back a decade to student days. The other students on the course were great classmates and we got stuck in carrying out experiments in the lab, poring over microscopes, dissecting tiny plant samples or studying radioactive decay – while being careful not to stand too near the radioactive source!

As well as lab work, we even had a field trip to a nearby beach and cliff top at Birling Gap near Brighton, on a beautiful summer day. We studied the geology and biology of the local area and even had time for a picnic. It was a wonderful experience and by Friday, after the end of course disco, I was rather sad it was all over.

Such a course obviously entails a huge amount of material to work through and you learn so much from taking part.  There were some particular revelations that have stayed with me ever since.  The periodic table is much more than an aid to memory in learning the elements.  When we studied the formation of atoms and molecules, it became clear that the relevant number and arrangement of atoms or molecules radically alters how they interact with other atoms and molecules around them. So, the world around us is built at the smallest scale on differences in the numbers of these parts. The periodic table is based on this information and far from just a convenient means to tabulate this data, tells us so much about how the cosmos is formed and behaves. At the time this felt like a breathtaking revelation; seeing the world in a whole new way.

Our look at quantum physics highlighted the strange and wondrous interior of the atom.  At this level, nature doesn’t operate in accordance with our expectations from every day life.  Learning about this, it was easy to develop an almost awe like admiration for the scientists who have built up such understanding and insight.

There was so much to learn on the course and I hope at some point to do further, more advanced courses.  Fortunately, in this time of our global, digital culture such courses are readily available. I would always recommend the Open University, which now has free, online courses available called Open Learn, but there are alternative sources and in particular edX is very popular. They have an online learning experience, using videos for lectures, and I find them to be very enjoyable.

Science isn’t only for professional scientists at the cutting edge of research; those of us who are curious and passionate can gain so much from taking part as well. So if you are curious, my advice is to dive in and learn more!

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Living a Good Life

By LadyJulBug

LiveAGreaterGoodEveryone wants to be happy.
Everyone wants to live a good life.

I don’t think those are over-generalizing assumptions about our species.

The path towards achieving these goals looks different for each person.

For me, it looks like education and science.

A few years ago, I was taking a course on Diversity in Education as part of my professional education minor requirements. In this class we had an assignment to research and present on a topic related to the course material. I chose to focus on bullying. In my research, I discovered that there are three types of people who participate in bully situations: the bully, the victim, and the bystander. I discovered that the bystanders play the most important role. They either fuel the situation by remaining neutral or by joining in, or they can be a force for good and intervene. I wondered: how do we get them to speak up? In my research, I discovered that there are two factors in play when a person decides to speak up during a situation like this. They need to care about the victim, and they need to feel like if they speak up it will help. Getting people to feel empowered enough to speak up is the easy part. Making them care about the person they’re standing up for is much more difficult. This requires empathy. So, I started researching empathy. I wanted to know how to instill this quality in others.

In my research, I discovered much more than I ever expected to learn.
I discovered the secrets to living a happy life.

I found The Greater Good Science Center from Berkeley, where they explore the “Science of a Meaningful Life.” When I came across their website, I was shocked to find that there’s a wealth of information and research on the best qualities humanity possesses: kindness, altruism, forgiveness, gratitude, mindfulness, compassion, and empathy. When I started reading this information, it spoke to me in a way I understand.

Seeing it in research somehow made the necessity for these qualities more important to me. I think before this, I knew these were qualities I valued and tried to embody. Yet, somehow I didn’t always put so much emphasis on them. I was mostly kind. I could be compassionate sometimes. Too often I failed to show gratitude, but I tried to be altruistic. Forgiveness wasn’t always something I strived for. Empathy was something I extended to many people, but too often not towards everyone. Something about understanding the science behind all of these good qualities made me want to focus on them in every situation, to be better at them.

Soon after I discovered this treasure, I found out that they were trying to start up a website dedicated to translating this research into something useful: how to apply it to ourselves, to put it into action. So, I donated to the cause. A month later, the “Greater Good in Action” website was launched. Here, you can find a wealth of activities to help develop and promote these good qualities in yourself and others.

One of the sections I particularly found useful was an activity for promoting empathy in others called “Putting a Human Face to Suffering.”

It goes like this:

TIME REQUIRED
How long it takes you to do this practice will vary depending on which strategy you choose, but make it a goal to follow one of these strategies at least once a month.

HOW TO DO IT
To inspire others (or yourself) to give time or resources to a cause, try at least one of the following strategies. However, avoid explicitly telling others that you are using these strategies to get them to give more—research suggests that can backfire.

1      When researching a problem in news reports or other sources, look for profiles of specific individuals.

2      Use photographs and video footage—not just individuals’ names—in your appeal to make the problem more vivid and emotionally moving.

3      Use descriptive language and identifiable details that allow people to imagine themselves in a specific victim’s shoes, rather than abstract language that presents facts and statistics.

4      Don’t feature the stories of too many individuals; research suggests it’s easier to foster an emotional connection to a single person in need than to multiple people.

5      When possible, try to make direct contact with victims. For example, if you are a teacher, consider bringing in a speaker—in person or via a video call— who can share a first-hand story with your students (assuming you can’t visit the disaster site with a relief organization, which would be even more effective).

As a teacher who’s interested in making our society a more beautiful place to live, science has provided me with the knowledge I need to help me effectively instill empathy in my students.

More incredibly, science has provided me with the knowledge I need to help my friends and family, as well as myself, develop these good human qualities that can ultimately improve the world around me. As a person with a naturalistic worldview, these science based practices excite me, because this is what I understand. It’s what speaks to me. I can look at the research, comprehend what it means, and apply it in a meaningful way. I have the deeper understanding that I naturally crave.

Here is a tool that can help not just myself, but others understand how to most effectively apply them to our lives, and to understand the research behind what we’re doing.

I share these in the hopes that we can use them to our benefit.
I share these in the hopes that we can use them to the benefit of our society.

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What If It’s Now or Never?

Grim ReaperI used to keep a New Yorker cartoon taped to my printer. It showed a hooded death figure, scythe in hand, standing next to a writer seated at a typewriter. The caption was something like “Oh good, I’m glad you’re here. I can never get anything done without a deadline.”

I don’t think many of us can be quite content, much less happy, if we’re not doing what we ought/want/need to be doing. As for me, what I want to do is immerse myself into writing my second novel. No one else is telling me to do this. In fact, nobody cares if I do this or spend my time on something more practical, or on nothing in particular at all. After all, my first novel made barely a ripple in the time/space continuum.

It’s the process of writing I miss. The challenge, the flow, of creating a whole imaginary world. Do you know what I mean? If you do, then let me suggest some ways to think about what’s keeping you from doing what’s most meaningful to you.

6 STEPS TO MAKE “IT” HAPPEN

  1. Figure out your fears. Do you fear the tedium that’s a natural part of any project? Are you experiencing the unsettledness of not knowing exactly how to do what you want to do? Is it someone’s (or your own) judgment you fear? You can’t easily combat a fear that you don’t first acknowledge.
  2. Ditch perfectionism. There’s no such thing as perfect. You have to put in the time and practice until you’re as good as you can be. When you begin, whether it’s writing a novel or going back to school or embarking on a new relationship, forget about perfection.
  3. Un-split your consciousness. Part of you wants to do this thing, whatever it is. Part of you fears it, hates it, doesn’t see the point of continuing to make the effort. Perhaps another part of you insists there are other ways to go about it that you haven’t tried yet. Get your selves together in a kind of committee and thrash out all the details and options. Just don’t invite your doom-saying perfectionist self.
  4. Line up some parameters. Freedom is liberating, but sometimes we need some sort of deadline or specific goal to give ourselves a push. Find a way to structure your time that feels like a real deadline, even when you’re the one and only boss of you.
  5. Decide if it’s worth doing. Bottom line, is this what you want to do? Are your expectations at least a little bit realistic? Improving your skills is realistic, writing a bestseller may not be if you’re new at writing. Will doing this thing allow you to have some balance in your life, and, if not, does that matter to you? How much do you want to do it?
  6. Find the flow of it. Analyze what parts of this project or set of tasks are the most engaging for you. If your goals are challenging but not so impossible that they make you uncomfortably anxious, that can be entry into flow. If, when you do this thing, you feel lost in a kind of zone that makes time disappear, you will have found your flow.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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9 Insights into the (Misnamed) Pro-Life Movement

Whthoughtful womany, after all these years, are we still talking, reading, and writing about why abortion should (or shouldn’t) be legal? In the United States, at least, so long as a woman’s right to control her own body is under threat, we must continue to have this discussion and tell our stories.

Katha Pollitt, author, essayist, poet, and long-time columnist for The Nation, has a new book: PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. In spite of any number of social advances, we must not forget how things used to be. Pollitt does a terrific job of laying out old arguments in a new way, and of contributing fresh thinking about women, childbirth, and abortion.

This is one of the rare instances where I’d love to be able to quote the whole book. Pollitt’s writing is both rational and elegant, a superb set of arguments for the rights of women, for the non-personhood of an embryo, for logic and fairness to be applied to abortion laws. She cites statements from fundamentalists, the Catholic Church, and even the Centers for Disease Control to point out fallacies, illogic, and very old-fashioned misogyny that tilt the national conversation about abortion.

“Pro-life,” by the way, is a huge misnomer that takes a vast amount of chutzpah to apply to those who would make abortion illegal. “Women Controllers” would be much more accurate.

9 ABORTION INSIGHTS:

The following quotes are all direct from PRO (I’ve removed Pollitt’s footnote indicators):

1. Abortion has always been common. “American women had great numbers of abortions throughout our history, when it was legal and when it was not. Consider this: At the beginning of the nineteenth century effective birth control barely existed and in the 1870s it was criminalized—even mailing an informational pamphlet about contraceptive devices was against the law and remained so until 1936. Yet the average number of births per woman declined from around 7 in 1800 to around 3.5 in 1900 to just over 2 in 1930.”

2. The pro-life movement is powerful. “The self-described pro-life movement may not represent a numerical majority—only 7 to 20 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want to ban abortion—but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in intensity, dedication, cohesion, and savvy.”

3. It’s about more than the unborn. “The anti-abortion movement, however, is not just about ‘the unborn.’ It is also a protest against women’s growing freedom and power, including their sexual freedom and power. That is why it is based in churches with explicitly limited roles and inferior status for women. . .”

4. Abortion is rational, not evil. “Terminating a pregnancy is always a woman’s right and often a deeply moral decision. It is not evil, even a necessary evil. . . . Motherhood is the last area in which the qualities we usually value—rationality, independent thinking, consulting our own best interests, planning for a better, more prosperous future, and dare I say it, pursuing happiness and dreams—are condemned as frivolity and selfishness. We certainly don’t expect a man who accidentally impregnates a woman to drop everything and accept a life of difficulties and dimmed hopes in order to co-parent a baby.”

5. Fertilized eggs aren’t people. “The bedrock argument of the anti-abortion movement is that intentionally ending new life at any point after conception is murder, or close to it. A fertilized egg is as much a person as Pope Francis. Not a potential person, but a person at that very moment. . . It is hard to see how a fertilized egg qualifies as one. It has no brain, no blood, no head, organs, or limbs; it cannot think, feel, perceive, or communicate. It has no character traits or relationships and it occupies no social space. It is the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Before it implants in the uterine wall, and usually for quite a while after that, the woman in whose body it exists does not even know it is there. In fact, about half of all fertilized eggs fail to implant and are simply washed out of her body with her menstrual flow. If fertilized eggs are persons, God is remarkably careless about them. They are potential persons, yes, but that is not the same thing as actually being one, any more than my being a potential seventy year-old means I am one now.”

6. Why the focus on women’s virtue? “The obsession with women’s virtue infuses the abortion debate even for some who want it to be legal. Is she promiscuous? On drugs? Does she want an abortion out of genuine hardship or is she taking the easy way out? If she were a serious responsible person, the thinking goes, she wouldn’t have gotten pregnant (Haven’t these people ever heard of condoms?). So having an abortion becomes an evasion of the responsibility to be prudent and continent. Yet it is precisely because having a baby determines so much about a woman’s life, and because women take maternal responsibilities so seriously, that they have abortions.”

7. Contraception should be easy. “The way we distribute contraception reinforces the view that there’s something unusual about having a sex life. It’s too medicalized, as if a woman still needs a doctor’s permission to have sex without risking pregnancy.”

8. Do we need babies to sacrifice? “There’s a steady drumbeat of conservative punditry warning of all the terrible things that will happen if women don’t have enough babies. There won’t be enough children to fuel consumer spending, enough workers to support Social Security, enough clever young people to invent things, enough Americans to best the Chinese in the race for world domination. ‘The widespread practice of abortion culled an entire generation’s worth of babies that otherwise might have been born,’ laments Jonathan Last.   Without plenty of young people, the right-wing writer David Goldman frets, war will become impossible: ‘A people without progeny will not accept a single military casualty.’”

9. Getting involved is critical. “Clinic doctors, nurses, directors, and employees risk their lives to help women. Patient escorts, abortion-fund volunteers, bloggers, organizers, lawyers, and thousands of other activists work tirelessly to keep abortion legal, expand access, change the discourse, and sway the vote. But it’s the millions of pro- choice Americans who are so far uninvolved (and still complacent) that will ultimately decide the fate of legal abortion in this country.”

Highly recommended.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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Questions and Answers

By Leyden Marks

After recess, the children settled into their seats. It was time for social studies, and the youngsters (most of them, anyway) knew what to do. They had dutifully placed the appropriate text on their desks.

The teacher (holding her own copy open) instructed that they not yet open to the pages they had studied the day before. She intended to start with a review, and so she moved to the front of the room and began the lesson this way:

teacher1“We’ve been studying about what humans need to live. Yesterday we learned about three different basic human needs. So, who here can tell me one of the things we know all people need for survival?” (Many hands shot up; some quite energetically.)

“Yes, Nathan?” (Not using real names, of course)

“Air.”

“No, no – that’s not it. Who remembers?”

“I do,” said Lorna, having waved her hands frantically for attention.

“Water.”

“It seems you’re forgetting what we’ve been studying. Who can tell me something humans need that we studied yesterday?

(Fewer hands now.). Josh puts forth a tentative: “Food?”

“Right. Food. That’s it.  And what else?”

And onward the lesson goes until the “correct answer” – food, clothing, shelter – is reached.

No kidding. This was a real event. And in a second or third grade, no less (I forget which – it’s been a long time and I witnessed it well over twenty years ago). Still, I’ve never forgotten the overall message I drew from the incident.

Air (not needed). Water (not the correct answer).

There is so much right with the children themselves here. The students respond to the teacher’s query forthrightly and likely from direct experience (perhaps insufficiently “switching gears” to recollect yesterday’s lesson?).

Just so many questions are raised by this type of lesson, though. One can question the presence of the material itself, which is hardly an easy match to most of the youngsters’ developmental or experiential levels, even if the academic understanding is grossly simplified to match reading capability. One can question the approach. One can question a teacher’s drive for “the right answer.”

What is really taught? Is it the “basic needs” drawn from sociology and “watered down” for transmitting in an elementary school classroom?

Moreover, one can wonder what children take away from even such a short exchange. What is it they really learned?

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12 Ways to Raise a Savvy Skeptic

curious kidSkepticism is sometimes given a bad rap.

Skeptical doesn’t mean cynical. Raising your kids to be mindful, to question, to apply critical thinking to ideas that are popular in the culture (often undeservedly), will help them become more informed and woo-averse adults. So how do you raise a little Bright?

A DOZEN IDEAS TO TRY:

1. Teach your child to see everything in new ways. When you pass a garden, ask her to imagine seeing it as though she were a mole, from underneath, or from above, as if from an airplane. Paying attention is not about staring at a thing, but about really seeing it. And when your child has the habit of finding the novelty in any situation, she can never be bored.

2. Play “What’s the difference?” In this any-age game, choose an easy route in your neighborhood, even simply around the block. Each time you take the same walk (or the same car pool route), see how many differences you and your child can discover. Has that old tree begun to lose its leaves? Is there a picket missing from Mr. Jones’ fence? Does the Rodriguez family have a new car? In what ways is it different from the old car? In what ways might it be different that we can’t see unless we go inside or underneath it?

3. Show kids how to reflect on their thinking processes. You might ask, for example, how you would divide up eight items among four people. One might move eight cubes around to see how many each person would get, while another might manipulate eight sticks, and a third child would think the problem through in her head. They learn that there are many ways of coming to the same right answer

4. Have your child interact with story characters. One elementary school teacher told me he would point to a picture in a book and ask the children, “What’s his name? What is he doing?” When reading them “The Princess and the Pea,” he’d ask them to write letters to either the Princess, the Prince, or the Princesses who didn’t get picked by the Prince. One child wrote, “Dear Princesses: I’m sorry you didn’t get picked. Maybe there aren’t enough princes. I think you should marry someone your own age.”  These youngsters learn that there is more to the story (or any situation) than what is first presented to them, and that they can contribute to the working out of the story. In addition, humor is a great way to break open people’s mind-sets.

5. Draw unusual solutions. Though schools mostly teach how to react analytically to what’s already been suggested, children need to learn to come up with novel ideas. Noted educator Edward de Bono suggests the drawing method. Begin by giving your child a problem: How would you weigh an elephant? Then have your child illustrate a solution with a drawing, and discuss the drawing.

6. Make use of the method called “Consider All Factors.” For any situation, think of everything that must be considered. For instance, what factors must you take into account when deciding where to go on vacation? Cost, climate, nearness to a beach. What about the availability of other children? Distance from home? Ask your child, “What else must be considered?”

TWO VIEWS ARE BETTER THAN ONE

Photo: Nick Kenrick / Flickr.com

Photo: Nick Kenrick / Flickr.com

7. Introduce new cultural perspectives. Visit different ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants, read library books about kids in other cultures, and point out simple differences (bowing versus shaking hands). By becoming comfortable with diversity, kids adapt quickly. And by adapting, they absorb the knowledge that there is no one right way to be.

8. Use television mindfully. Just because some celebrity says something tastes good doesn’t mean it does. Point out that famous actors, singers, and sports figures are paid millions of dollars to convince us that a cola drink is the best one, even if they never drink it themselves. Teach your child to ask why the person who says a thing has taken that perspective, whether it’s to sell a product or win public office. Talk about how advertising is designed to get people to buy things they might not even need.

9. What else could it be? “B b b. . . ball,” says your toddler, and most parents respond, “Yes, honey, that’s a ball.” However, according to Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer, a better answer in the long run might be, “Yes, that could be a ball. But it could also be. . . .” “The point,” Langer explains, “is to begin at a very early age to get across the idea that all knowledge is provisional.” In everyday life, that means that, although that round thing might be called a ball (someone once gave it that name and it stuck) and even be used for bouncing games, it could also be a footrest or a drain-stopper or a pillow.

THIS IS NOT A HAT

10. Demonstrate Edward de Bono’s 6 thinking hats. Say your child is trying to decide whether to join Girl Scouts.

  • Use the White Hat for gathering information and facts (what activities do they do?)
  • Put on the Red Hat for dealing with the emotional angles (are her friends in the troop?)
  • Don the Black Hat to represent cautious thinking (will she have time for her other activities and homework if she joins?)
  • The Yellow Hat helps you think up advantages and benefits (she can make new friends and learn new skills)
  • The Green Hat represents exploratory thinking (what other groups might offer the same benefits? What if she delayed joining for another year?)
  • The Blue Hat is for thinking about thinking (have we considered all possible ways for thinking about Girl Scouts?)

11. Give up fairy tales sooner rather than later. When your child expresses a doubt about the existence of large furry creatures who deliver candy to every child, or fairies who deposit cash under pillows in exchange for used teeth, admit that it was just a story told for their fun. That way, you’re showing them they can trust their own perceptions.

12. Make up a research study. Educator Neil Postman suggested saying that a new study has shown, for example, that there’s a connection between homework and shin muscle development, that “they” believe it has something to do with the way students tense their legs when they concentrate. That’s bogus, of course. Postman found that two-thirds of his friends won’t disbelieve his made-up studies. Encourage your child to question you, or anyone, who comes up with the results of a study. Who was the study done on? How did they measure the variables? And so on. (Try this with a four year old: “I’m going to make up a story. Eating ice cream makes it rain. Can that be true?” Little kids can be pretty gullible, so you might add, “That’s not true. Rain comes from the clouds, and clouds don’t have anything to do with ice cream.”)

Finally, you needn’t worry that your savvy child will have a problem getting along with people who see objects as only one thing. According to psychologist Langer,

You’re going to raise a super-fit, a multi-fit kid, not a misfit. You can use a dog’s chew toy your whole life as a dog’s chew toy, but to know that chew toy is a name and function that people have put on this thing, that it can be many different things, even if you never use it, sets you up for a whole different way of understanding the world.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel and of the parenting guide Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4 to 14.

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The Truth About Getting Older

old people signIt’s said that age is just a number. Sure it is. But I wonder why that number, the one that implies, “Now you’re actually old,” varies so widely among individuals.

My husband Stephen and I are both in our 60s. Yet often (too often) he says to me, “We’re old now.” With our four parents aged 85, 89, 89, and 90, I refute his assertion. Not that we can count on that sort of longevity. After all, they’ve all made a habit of some kind of regular exercise, and we haven’t been consistent in that way. We do eat far more healthfully. Anyway, who knows the future?

The other day my son told me he thinks about death daily and he can’t wrap his head around eventually not existing, being nowhere forever. He hopes he’ll face the end gracefully once he gets older, not with the sort of denial he sees around him. I hope so, too, as much as I hope it for myself.

CAN IT BE DONE WITH GRACE?

An old/new book has come to my attention. It features brief essays (actually polished journal entries) by a superb writer facing old age, May Sarton. She was sharp enough to offer genuine insight into the stage of life we all enter (if we’re lucky) before we exit the stage of life entirely.

May Sarton, the celebrated poet and novelist who died in 1995, wrote At Eighty-Two, A Journal, in 1993-4. It’s available this month as an e-book (Open Road). Her conversational comments are laced with poetic observations. Most of all I noted and appreciated her honesty about the highs and ever-more-frequent lows of her mood. Need I add “Trigger warning for depressives”?

I have begun this journal at a time of difficult transition because I am now entering real old age. At seventy-five I felt much more able than I do now. Forgetting where things are, forgetting names even of friends, names of flowers (I could not remember calendula the other day), what I had thought of writing here in the middle of the night—forgetting so much makes me feel disoriented sometimes and also slows me up. How to deal with continual frustration about small things like trying to button my shirt, and big things like how to try for a few more poems. That is my problem. It does help to keep this journal; it forces me to be alive to challenge and to possibility.

The third cause of my depression I have already described: the chaos of my life and all that is asked of me beyond my strength. Day after day I wait it out, wait for the time when I can lie down and have my nap.

But life right now is joyless. There is nothing that I look forward to, and that is bad. Yes, I look forward to reading. . . . Another is that nothing has to be done; it has to be done in my mind because of my conscience, “I must write this answer,” but it is not as if I had a job which required me to appear at four-thirty and be brilliant. I can choose what I am going to give and when I am going to give it, and that is a wonderful dispensation to old age.

I have entered a new phase and am approaching my death. If I can accept this, not as a struggle to keep going at my former pace but as a time of meditation when I need ask nothing of myself, will nothing except to live as well as possible as aware as possible, then I could feel I am preparing for a last great adventure as happily as I can.

Most of the time I am happy, learning a new kind of happiness for me which has nothing to do with achievement or even with creation. Each day I plan something I can look forward to. Today it may be ordering bulbs. I think of a letter I want to write today.

Of course I do not want to die, although death seems to be the only solution to my problem at present. Let us hope that Prozac will help me, and it might even begin to happen next week. But the fact that it has not happened and that I have to take strong laxatives or I am constipated does not help; it is the worst thing possible for me. Why talk about this? But I say also, Why not? I seem to be totally absorbed now in my body and what it is doing, and this is miserable.

Unfortunately, the Prozac didn’t help May Sarton. Her previous cancer returned with a great deal of pain and killed her the following year. Still, she had all those good days and never seemed to tumble into self-pity.

NOTE: In the midst of writing this post, we got a call that my father-in-law had fallen again (at Walmart!), banged his already cognitively-impaired head, and was being taken to the ER. Shortly after, we learned he was transferred to a larger hospital where a neurologist would have a look. I spent an hour looking up subdural hematomas in the elderly. But at 3 in the morning, he called us to say, “They didn’t find anything. I’m clear! I’m home.”

It begins.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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The End is Near

cherry tomatoesThe following narrative is closely based on a deeply moving conversation I had with “Knut,” an elementary schoolmate whom I’d never forgotten, and with whom I managed to get back in touch just as he was facing his mortality. In this novel excerpt, the grieving narrator, an atheist, is trying to decide her own future.

Knut lives in a fatigued yellow wood-frame bungalow with windows overlooking the sea. When he opens the door to my knock, he has on silk pajamas. “Come,” he says, and his soft warm voice and presence reminds me of the Knut of my school days and dissolves my nervousness.

“Would you like to take some tea into the garden?” He pours us mugs, and I follow him out the back door, where we walk along a curvy stone path as he points out his vegetables in various stages of growth.

He stoops here and there to pull a weed. Then he says, “I’m dying.” Startled into muteness, I withhold an impulsive “Me too.” Some vague complaints over a period of several months last year spurred him to see a doctor, and blood in his urine led to a diagnosis of bladder cancer. “About four months ago they found it had metastasized into my lungs.” I wait, determined to emulate the nine-year-old boy he used to be who listened so well. A wind chime tinkles.

“It’s okay though,” he says. “Maybe some of the way I feel has to do with my Zen Buddhism. I’m comfortable with the idea that my life is coming to an end.” He points to a stone bench, and we both sit. “Of course, it’s always a little scary at first. I had no idea what the options were, what the prognosis would be. Actually I was curious,” and though this startles me, he’s relaxed, his body posture unresisting, no sarcasm or irony in his tone. “And it’s been educational, fascinating.” He laughs. And then he isn’t smiling. “But I’m not going to get better.”

“What do you think comes next?” When he hesitates before responding, I work out that the scattered design on his pajamas is a series of short ladders leading every which way.

“I don’t claim to know. I’m open to whatever it may be. It could be oblivion, or something I don’t have a clue about. It could be spectacular.”

“Amazing,” I say. “I mean, that’s really open-minded. It reminds me, somehow, of what a non-judgmental kid you were. If it makes sense to say that about a fourth grader.” He nods and sips his tea, pleased. “Do you think Zen has the key? Is it the non-attachment?”

hourglass“Maybe,” Knut replies. “Back when I was studying meditation, I had a long conversation with a Buddhist monk from Cambodia. A couple of days before that, his daughter had been killed in a car accident. He kept repeating, ‘She didn’t do anything wrong.’ I asked if his faith was of any help to him with such terrible grieving.”

“How did he answer you?” I ask, desperate to know.

“‘I’d be weeping non-stop if it weren’t for that.’ That’s what he said, exactly. I’ve never forgotten it.” We’re both quiet for a minute or so. The sun is behind a cloud, leaving the sky the washed-out tan of cheap bleached canvas. I ask him how he feels now.

“Surprisingly okay, aside from the debilitation and the pain.” For a second, I suspect he’s kidding, until I realize he’s not. Taken aback by his equanimity, his patient endurance, I shake my head.

“Really, I’m enjoying myself.” He laughs again, not nervously, and I can see he means it. Mostly, he says, he reads, tends the garden when he has the energy, sleeps when he doesn’t, talks on the phone, and friends often come to visit. He has a profusion of friends, and it’s easy to see why. “I didn’t mind saying good-bye to the classroom. I did what I needed to do. No regrets. I like thinking that I’ve always been able to live in the moment.”

Ah, well, sure, if you’ve got the knack for that. Me, I make lists of my lists and plan tomorrow today.

“So what’s next, Knut? There must be some experimental medications?” I don’t know how to let go.

“I see hospice nurses,” he says, looking me straight in the eyes, “and soon I’ll see a doctor once every six weeks or so, but I’m pretty much beyond the medical. Chemo was only making things worse. Nausea, vomiting, terrific exhaustion.”

“Can’t they do anything for you?”

He lets loose a light sigh. “I take two kinds of morphine. One is the pill form, and I take that twice a day.” Perhaps it’s the drugs that allow him to laugh in spite of the ghastliness. Is there a drug that causes you to perceive horror as enlightenment?

“The other one is the liquid,” he goes on, “and I take that as needed. I’ll probably have a third: a line with a pump that runs from my elbow into a vein,” and here he points to his elbow, “and then into the vena cava of my heart. That’s faster and more direct. I’d be in charge of that one myself.”

He’s so willing to share that I dare to ask, “Don’t people—?” I glance away. Now, as the sun slides downward, the sky turns pale shades of orange and pink. He gets up and pulls some cherry tomatoes off a tangled set of vines. I get up, then, too, and pull a couple off to help. He pulls a folded bag out of his pajama pocket and pops his tomatoes into it, but waves me off when I try to put mine into the bag.

“Take them with you,” he says before responding to my question. “We’re given careful instructions for what not to do and what to do. They limit how much of the drugs you have on hand. But of course I think, I’ve heard, people do hoard and eventually—.” He stops there.

fleeting“I think it’s only fair for people to have that option, if they want it,” I murmur, still hesitant about crossing a line.

“I do, too. It would be better if it were formalized and legal.”

Out with it. “Can you imagine being at a place—a time—where you’d want to do that?”

“Oh, sure. From the desire to have it over with. At a certain point, if you were just existing and you were staring blankly out the window. I can see making that decision. Deciding it was up to you and you were here by choice.”

A lay minister once wrote to my column  to describe how he gets into a trance-like state while helping a person to die. He said it was an extraordinary experience. I hope Knut has someone like that. I wish it could be me who shares it with him. Or is it that I long for someone to be there for me?

We hug gently, and I leave with my handful of diminutive tomatoes. The ocean is to my right as I drive south alongside the last of the sunset. Surely I don’t envy Knut? He is getting it to “come out even.” No partner left behind, no children, no work uncompleted except a vegetable garden that will keep growing for a while yet.

No regrets.

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Spirituality and “Inner” Life

By Vinod Wadhawan

I have come across many scientists who say: “I do not subscribe to any religion, but I am a spiritual person.” What exactly is spirituality? Here are a couple of definitions:

The term “spirituality” lacks a definitive definition, although social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for “the sacred,” where “the sacred” is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration. The use of the term “spirituality” has changed throughout the ages. In modern times, spirituality is often separated from Abrahamic religions, and connotes a blend of humanistic psychology with mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions aimed at personal well-being and personal development. The notion of “spiritual experience” plays an important role in modern spirituality, but has a relatively recent origin. (Wikipedia)

Photo: Alice Popkorn / Flickr.com

Photo: Alice Popkorn / Flickr.com

Spirituality means something different to everyone. For some, it’s about participating in organized religion: going to church, synagogue, a mosque, etc. For others, it’s more personal: Some people get in touch with their spiritual side through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or even long walks. Research shows that even skeptics can’t stifle the sense that there is something greater than the concrete world we see. As the brain processes sensory experiences, we naturally look for patterns, and then seek out meaning in those patterns. And the phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance” shows that once we believe in something, we will try to explain away anything that conflicts with it. Humans can’t help but ask big questions  –  the instinct seems wired in our minds.
(Psychology Today)

Shorn of the superfluous and logically untenable God concept (or the “some higher power” concept), spirituality is mainly about the so-perceived “enhancement” of the so-called “inner life”. Each person has his inner life, pertaining to what his mind perceives, or imagines, or aspires for, but so what? I think it is no different from idle reverie. My inner life is different from yours, and all that really matters is the “outer-life” expression or manifestation of the inner life, and this outer-life manifestation is a natural phenomenon like any other, amenable to scrutiny by science.

Our brain is a physical organ, subject to the laws of physics. And our mind is what our brain does. I subscribe to the view that there is nothing wrong or unscientific about any efforts to make one’s thinking more productive and innovative and original by meditation etc.; and there is nothing mystical about that. It is perfectly fine for a person to do meditation if that helps him achieve better mental health, and greater intuitive capabilities or originality.

Photo: Federico Coppola / Flickr.com

Photo: Federico Coppola / Flickr.com

One of the most innovative minds I know of is Ray Kurzweil (2012). Here is what he does for getting new, problem-solving ideas: “Relaxing professional taboos turns out to be useful for creative problem solving. I use a mental technique each night in which I think about a particular problem before I go to sleep. This triggers sequences of thoughts that will continue into my dreams. Once I am dreaming, I can think  –  dream  –  about solutions to the problem without the burden of the professional restraints I carry during the day. I can then access these dream thoughts in the morning while in an in-between state of dreaming and being awake, sometimes referred to as ‘lucid dreaming'”. Fine. And very impressive.

The mind-body relationship is a subject of great importance. There are so many unexplored examples of what the mind can make the body do or endure. Scientific researchers should be duly skeptical on one hand, and open-minded on the other, when it comes to accepting or rejecting outlandish-looking claims. Reproducible verification has to be the final arbiter, always.

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The 9 Commandments

10 CommandmentsSay it’s an extremely hot day, and you’re out in the sun and get a vision. Metaphorically, of course. You ponder what might be on the tablets you’d bring down from a mountain to share with the world, your own version of the ten commandments. Because, obviously, only about four of the so-called Biblical commandments have any value whatsoever in a rational world.

So make up your own, without overthinking. Any number will do—we needn’t continue using the ancient religious magic numbers 3, 7, and 10 (but 9 = 3 x 3, and was thus held by some to be magical too).

Here are my personal “9 SUGGESTIONS”:

1. Don’t kill any viable beings (unless a very wise committee—way more medically trained than a jury of your peers—agrees that the person is in irremediable pain, and he or she is ready to be done with life).

2. Don’t steal. Unless they stole it from someone else, and then get the law involved. Or work to change the laws if they favor stealing in any form.

3. Don’t mess around with someone else’s mate while your own prior commitments are still in effect.

4. Always be nurturing to young children and treat them the way you wish you’d been treated when young.

5. Act as though you’re part of a society and community, because you are. No one is entirely independent so we all have to chip in to ensure than no one lacks the basics, including a chance at a healthy future when you’re no longer around.

6. Live lightly. Making and getting rid of our excess stuff clogs up the world in so many ways, it’s kind of obscene to waste that many resources on ephemeral junk. Even if you earned the wherewithal fair and square.

7. Live as though there’s no tomorrow, meaning that there’s no heaven or hell beyond this life, so appreciate every possible moment.

8. Be kind, even though there’s no such thing as karma. True niceness requires no direct payback, but it feels good to give it and also to receive it.

9. Be honest. Don’t lie to yourself either, which can mean admitting to yourself that you’re making a bad choice.

Those are my suggestions/commandments. They won’t create a utopia, but they won’t hurt either. What are yours?

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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