Saturday, January 31, 2015

To Be or Not to Be Sad -- an essay

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   This morning my dad slept late. As he took his morning pill, I commented that the snow that had been forecast for today was running late and wouldn’t be here until tomorrow. He grumped that he’d just as soon not have any. I asked him what he’d like for breakfast – egg and toast or oatmeal. I know he likes both. He said it didn’t matter. He just wanted to get it over.
   That’s it. I’ve had enough and, like the line from Network, I’m not going to take it anymore.
   My father lives with my husband and me. He’ll be 90 years old in May. As with any almost nonagenarian, he has some physical and mental limitations. He can’t walk as far as he used to, though he still walks around the block – with his cane. He’s forgotten many things, but because he knew more than most people to begin with, he still knows more than the majority of people who live in this block that he walks around.
   He listens to conservative radio talk shows practically twenty-four hours a day. Where they argue the world is going to hell in a hand basket and it’s all because of Obama Care and illegal aliens. Not that TV is any better with its Judge this or that and Maury Povich. Even Dr. Phil. None of which Daddy watches. (Let me give him credit. He does like reruns of the old Andy Griffith show. If you haven’t watched it in a while, you might check it out. Its humor is gentle and Andy is thoughtful and kind.)
   Okay. So maybe Daddy’s depressed. Not unusual for people his age and we have had some dreary days weather-wise. It is winter. Maybe sadness is like mercury or lead poisoning, it can build up in you over the years. Daddy was a child during The Depression and The Dust Bowl. He came of age when the whole world was going to war and participated in that war as a very young adult. As bad as the world was then, he seems to think the world is worse now.
   Maybe it’s because so many people he’s known and loved are gone. Like all of us, he has hopes and dreams that fade or have become memories that fade.
   Everything changes. Most beyond understanding. Simple things like communications. You can walk around the world while talking on your cell phone without being tethered to a telephone line. You can cook without a flame. You can travel from Denver to Oklahoma City in an hour and 35 minutes, maybe faster if the jet stream is going your way. To the Moon from Earth in 8 hours and 35 minutes like the New Horizons probe on its way to Pluto. Many of these changes may be unfathomable, but they’re also amazing and wonderful.
   It’s easy to find ourselves surrounded by negativity. Negativity is what defines news. Sunday is the Super Bowl. The winners won’t get nearly as much air time as whatever riots break out in their home city in honor of celebration. (Though with Seattle and Foxborough, MA, maybe that won’t be the case.) We may have to content ourselves with ‘Deflate Gate’ for our Super Bowl negativity.
   And there’s war. This war or that war. Deaths from war are always awful, a blight on the human condition. 
   A little history here: In the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression if you’re from Mississippi) 214,938 Americans died in combat. 400,000 to 500,000 died from other causes, like accidents and disease. World War I took 53,402 American lives in combat and 63,114 from other causes. (Of course some say we were a little late getting into that one.) WWII had 291,557 combat deaths and 113,842 from other causes. The War on Terror (Afghanistan and Iraq) has had 5,281 American combat deaths and 1,432 from other causes. (Information from Wikipedia)
   Any death by combat is too many. But look at these figures. There is something striking besides the horrifying numbers and the significant reduction in the numbers between the Civil War and The War on Terror. The war deaths caused by ‘other.’ Deaths due to accidents and disease attest to the remarkable achievements humanity has made in medicine. This is positive. Not that I’m advocating going to war to advance medicine.
   Arguably I (and by default my dad) live in the most beautiful place in the world with its snow-capped Rocky Mountains and unlimited skies. But, of course, Southeast Arkansas must be the most beautiful place in the Spring with its azaleas and wisteria and the deep green light of the piney woods. And Logan County, Oklahoma, in the Fall with a brilliant yellow cottonwood in the valley spreading sunshine even on rainy days.
   The point is: if we are sad we have an antidote right at hand. No matter where we live or what kind of work we do, who we live with or what kind of movies we watch, or who our parents or children are there is always something good we can choose to see or hear or touch or smell or taste or remember or think about.

   So for Daddy, I’m assigning him a daily task. He is to find at least three things in his life for which he can be grateful. I’m going to do it, too. And today the first thing on my list is my Daddy.

My Daddy
Portrait by Bob O'Daniel

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Educating Americans, the Shocking Failure -- An Essay

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I woke up this morning feeling fine. We had 47 degrees at 6 a.m. That's a good way to start the day. Then my husband told me about an article in this morning's Washington Post.
A national survey by Oklahoma State University's Food Science Department found that more than 80% of the American public would support mandatory labeling for foods containing DNA. The information included about DNA in the survey question is all completely true, but it is presented in a way that would sound frightening to a reader who does not know what DNA is. Apparently the vast majority of survey respondents do not know what DNA is.
This should be taken as an indictment of our education system. I do not know if biology is required for high school graduation. If it isn’t, it should be. I had high school biology in the 1960s and DNA was not mentioned, but in college it was. Scientists were just beginning to understand DNA. In 1962 Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for their work with DNA, so I don’t know how many public school biology teachers knew much about it then. Which brings up the question of continuing education for school teachers. Is it required even after they get their Masters? And does that continuing ed have to be in the field they’re teaching?
The responsibility for education does not fall solely on teachers. If we didn’t learn it from them, we have a responsibility to learn it on our own. And the world’s knowledge keeps growing. Even after we leave school. The resources for our own continuing ed are more available to us than they’ve ever been in human history. Pluto is no longer classified as a planet. Why not? Stem cell therapies are being used to treat various forms of cancer. Why?
If we like Dancing with the Stars, that’s fine, but just like eating burgers and fries is just fine, we need fruit and veggies for a healthy body. And we need healthy food for our minds. Watch Nova. Listen to Star Talk. Read a book. Google it.
When we get into the habit of exploring things we were just wondering about, we’re feeding our minds and learning to recognize that hunger for knowledge. We’ll soon discover that that hunger pops up more often than we ever imagined.
Flip a switch and turn on the light. Where did those electrons that are lighting our room actually come from and how did they get here? Read Isaac Asimov’s Atom. (What? You didn’t know he wrote anything but Science Fiction? Which, by the bye, is worth a read, too.) Exploring electricity, we’ll run into the names of Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla. Check them out.
Why don’t you ever see crows dead on the highway? Are they too smart to play in the road? How smart are they? Watch the documentary A Murder of Crows originally shown on PBS’s Nature. Now available at That’s right, youtube has things other than people and cats being dumb and cute, respectively.
Why do some people let their small children run loose in restaurants? Hmmmm. I don’t think Google can answer that satisfactorily. We’d probably have to ask those people and that might get us a few choice words we don’t need to look up.
Ask a question. Learn a new word. Expand your mental horizons.

And keep in mind, if it ain’t got DNA, it ain’t food. It might be a food supplement, but it ain’t food.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Style vs. Story -- an essay

Jackson Pollock,
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My husband recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. If you’ve been following my blog very long, you know I’m a big fan of those three books. My husband is not only widely read, but well-read so I value his opinion.
The Border Trilogy? He liked them. After he got past McCarthy’s style.
McCarthy does not use standard punctuation. For someone who not only knows the basic rules of punctuation, but respects the role of rules in controlling chaos, this can interrupt the flow of the story.
Much of McCarthy’s stories are in dialogue for which he uses few or no attributions, making it sometimes difficult to know who’s speaking. Again, because the reader may have to go back quite a ways to figure out who’s saying what, the story is interrupted.
McCarthy writes run-on sentences that would give Henry James pause. And yes, by the end of the book, McCarthy the story-teller becomes McCarthy the Philosopher with a capital P.
All this being said, why did my husband like the books? For the same reasons I did. The characters, the setting, and the stories. McCarthy does those three things so well, that many of us readers overlook (and in some instances, overcome) his style.
Not everyone is willing or able to get past a writer’s style to get to the good parts.
How many of us were introduced to Shakespeare in school? And haven’t touched him since.  
How was that introduction made? Through reading. Keeping in mind that Shakespeare wrote plays and poems in the styles of plays and poems. To make things more uncomfortable we were subjected to that form of torture peculiar to traditional English teachers – divvying up the script among students who then read their parts cold. Not only are the students reading their parts unrehearsed, they are reading them in what amounts to a foreign language with which they have little familiarity.
(If you could see me now, you’d see my hands thrown into the air – whether in exasperation or supplication even I can’t tell.)
And Shakespeare’s characters and settings and, best of all, his stories are lost to his style.
Okay, so sometimes you have to do reading differently. Shakespeare, we should watch performed by qualified actors under the tutelage of good directors. There are numerous DVDs available from professionals and wonderful productions by college and high school drama departments throughout the English speaking world.
Charles Dickens is another writer we’re introduced to in school. And seldom, if ever, read again. I very early on discovered that I could follow Charles Dickens if I read him out loud or at least heard him as I read silently. But he wrote for pre-television readers. His wonderful stories were produced chapters at a time in periodicals. People would get the newest installment and gather together in their living room and listen to someone read aloud to them. So, in a way, these are performance pieces, too. Dickens, language sounds like the story he’s telling. He paints pictures with his descriptions and dialogue and even the names he chooses for his characters. We are transported into his stories. If we do not read them in our modern way of reading which is somehow fast – more like we’re watching a movie.
I couldn’t read James Joyce. And I can’t stand being left out. I had to find a way into his stories. Then I discovered his work on audio-books. By a reader who has a slight Irish accent. Of course! Joyce’s stories are all inside his head and he’s Irish. So I experience his stories inside my head. With a slight Irish accent.
 Generally speaking, my husband (and he is not alone in this) is of the opinion that a writer whose style makes the story difficult to read is ostentatious, arrogant, and a waste of the reader’s time. There are too many good stories out there and too little time to read them. Why waste that valuable time reading a writer who is more focused on his style than his story?
     My opinion? I’m still working on Faulkner.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Justice -- an essay

According to the American Heritage Dictionary the first definition of the word justice is “…fairness.” The second is “The principle of moral rightness; equity.” The third is “…fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law.” And the fourth is “conformity with truth, fact, or sound reason.”
Fair? What if you hit Millie with your car and she dies? Completely by accident, you understand. You were driving within the speed limit. You were not impaired by drink or drugs or cell phone or rowdy children in the back seat. She stepped in front of you and you hadn’t time to stop. For the purposes of this essay we won’t even consider the question of fairness to Millie.
Because you were in no way at fault for Millie’s death, you have moral rightness on your side and equity would require that you be absolved of any responsibility for Millie’s death.
If Millie were Joe’s pet of ten years, morally all you would be required to do would be to apologize to Joe. You could also offer to pay a token amount to cover Joe’s loss or replace Millie. And maybe that would be due reward – especially if Joe had other pets he liked better or he had family and friends who would continue to provide companionship.
But what if the situation is more complex? Millie was Joe’s only friend in the world? Because Millie was not a human being, you will not be required to answer to the law for her death, nor will Joe have recourse to civil law. He cannot sue you for everything you’ve got. You receive fair treatment in accordance with honor, standards, or law. But he’s lost everything important to him. Will your apology and offer of money be due reward for Joe?  
Or what if Millie was Joe’s wife of fifty-two years? Or Joe’s mother and only support? Or Joe’s only child? Even if the law determines you were not at fault in any way. That it was truly an accident. Something beyond your control. It might take weeks or months. Can that be fair to you? Your life is on hold until the situation can be resolved. However it is resolved can the loss of Millie be fair to Joe?
Finally comes the question of conformity with truth, fact, or sound reason. The truth is that you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fact is that Millie is dead and sound reason holds that nothing will change that. You can’t un-be at the moment of impact. Joe cannot un-lose Millie. Can there be justice?
Does this mean justice only happens in trivial cases? Or in our imaginations?
In murder mysteries we almost always find out who dunnit and we end the books assured that the perpetrator will be brought to justice. I think that’s what I like so much about John Lescroart’s novels. (That and the fact that they’re well-written.) And when the hero is involved in something that seems right but against the law, he gets safely out of it. But then we run into the Italian justice system as Donna Leon writes it and even though her indefatigable Commissario Guido Brunetti identifies the baddies they don’t get their comeuppance because of who they are or who their family is.
In what is considered literary fiction justice happens even less often. Steinbeck’s Goad family in The Grapes of Wrath finds no promised land. McCarthy’s cowboys in the Border Trilogy don’t find true love and live happily ever after. Unfortunately these injustices, as uncomfortable as they make us, seem more true to life.

Maybe justice is just a human construct to give us hope and keep us trying.