Depression

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Depression
Jan 152018
 

Popularly, people use all kinds of words that have a precise, technical meaning for professionals, but they use them in imprecise ways, often causing confusion. As an anthropologist I frequently use the word “culture” to mean the totality of behaviors of a particular group. I might say, for example, that I am not comfortable living in England because of the culture, and by that I mean I am not comfortable with the whole system of ideas and behaviors that unites the people into a recognizable whole. However, when I say I don’t care for British “culture,” people who are not professional anthropologists may think I mean that I don’t like art, museums, music etc. in Britain: not what I mean, at all. In this post I want to talk about depression, but first I want to be clear what I mean by the word “depression.”

Most people have experienced some form of depression at some point in their lives, many, without knowing what depression is. There lies the problem with words. What comes under the popular umbrella of “depression” is actually many different things. First of all, depression is not sadness. That can be the first point of confusion. Everyone experiences sadness because of circumstances – loss of a pet or loved one, trouble at work, an accident, bad news, that sort of thing. Sadness comes in many flavors, but in general it does not last, and there are ways to overcome it. It is also possible to be sad and happy at the same time. Depression is not like sadness. While everyone has experienced sadness, not everyone has experienced depression, or, if they have, they may not know what it is.

It is hard to describe depression in a nutshell, but I will try. Depression, like sadness, also comes in many flavors, but the root feeling is one of hopelessness and/or crushing fatigue and indifference to the world around you. You want to do NOTHING: just crawl into bed, pull the covers up, and shut the world out. Meanwhile, your mind churns with inchoate thoughts of blackness and despair. You may sleep a lot because being awake is intolerable. I know depression because I have experienced it and I know what it is, so I recognize it when it comes over me. For me, the good news is that my depression is exceptionally rare. I have experienced it only a handful of times in my entire life, and it has never lasted more than one or two days. That kind of depression is sometimes called “situational depression” because it is often (not always) triggered by a particular situation. Situational depression is still something of a mystery because it is not clear what the mechanism is. The same situation can cause depression in one person, and not in another, (whereas similar situations are likely to produce sadness in just about everyone). Sadness and depression are different animals.

Many people experience situational depression at one time or another in their lives, but some people experience a more permanent state of depression. This is clinically called major depressive disorder (MDD), although there is a whole alphabet soup of potential depressive diagnoses, such as, post-partum depression (PPD), seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and so on. The common denominator in all of these is depression, and – despite the acronym SAD – they are not about sadness. Depression is a whole different thing. For convenience (at the risk of being simplistic), I will just use the term depression here.

You might know someone who is depressed. I’d be surprised if you did not. The thing is that you may not know how to recognize depression, nor what to do about it. You may not recognize it in yourself. When I first met my late wife, she used to tell me about these periods during the day when she felt dismal and hopeless. She described them as being like tumbling down a deep, dark vortex. I had no idea what she was talking about, although I was sympathetic, and she had no idea what was happening to her. Over time, these dark periods got longer and longer until they consumed her whole life. Eventually she sought help, and was diagnosed with chronic depression. Having a label is a start, because then you can do some research to figure out what is going on. Also, once you have a diagnosis you can get treatment. She began on antidepressants coupled with therapy, which is the usual standard of care.

Antidepressant medication is not a cure for depression, nor is therapy. There is no known cure for depression. That’s the first lesson that you need to learn if you are unfamiliar with depression. Medication plus therapy is a way of managing depression: a way of helping people with depression to cope with daily life. It is not a cure. With medication and therapy, depressives may begin to feel less hopeless, less worthless, less dark; but those feelings are still there. However, instead of lying in bed all day with a head churning with horrible thoughts, they may be able to get up, get dressed, get active, and, in general, get on with regular, day-to-day activities. For some depressives that is a huge step. But . . . this management must be in the hands of a professional. There is not much you can do to help.

Even though there is not much you can do to help, you can do something. First thing you can do is learn about depression so that you don’t try to help in ways that are counterproductive. Do not, for example, tell a depressed friend to cheer up, or suggest doing things that will cheer them up. They don’t need cheering up; they are not sad. Furthermore, if you do something you think will cheer them up and it does not work, they may end up feeling worse, either because they feel that they have let you down, or because the attempt just shows them how hopeless their situation is, or both. These are 3 things I did with my wife.

  1. A Hug. Physical contact made her feel a little better sometimes. Giving a depressive a hug is never wasted as long as you have no agenda along with it. You can give someone a hug (anyone for that matter) simply because you care about them.
  2. Listen. Once in a while, my wife wanted to talk about how she felt. At first I was not much of a good listener, but I learned over time. Her great mantra to me (and her therapists) was, “I don’t want you to cure me, I just want you to listen.” What she wanted, maybe what all depressives want, is for someone else to understand what it feels like to be depressed. She was not asking for advice or suggestions or anything like that. She was content to know that another person understood what she was going through. That way she did not feel so alone and isolated.
  3. Change of scene. Sometimes when my wife had been in bed for days on end I would suggest a simple change of scene. I designed a large, beautiful garden around our house with flowers, fish ponds, vegetables, trees, and whatnot. I worked in it most days when the weather was nice. Every so often I would go to my wife’s room and say, “Honey, I’ve just cleaned the fish ponds (or whatever). Would you like to see them?” Quite often she’d refuse, but now and again she would come out with me (if I pushed). Then, if it were a nice day, I’d suggest sitting in the garden for a while. We didn’t need to talk, but the simple change of scene could be energizing, for a while.

I’m not going to make any big claims about how I helped my wife. I probably helped very little. I’m also not going to claim that what I did is universally helpful. But I can say two things. First, what I did helped my wife a little, but it helped me as much. Every tiny step forward she made felt like a step forward for me too. Second, the three actions I advocated with my wife are useful in life for more than dealing with people with depression, especially the first two. Everyone can benefit from a hug, and everyone can benefit from having an uncritical listener.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 2:41 am

New Year’s Resolutions (2)

 Philosophy  Comments Off on New Year’s Resolutions (2)
Jan 022018
 

Last year I started my little pondering on New Year’s Resolutions here:  http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/new-years-resolutions/ This year I’ll continue. Last year I noted that giving up a habit requires adequate planning, otherwise you will fail. My goal for 2017 was to give up worrying all the time. Well . . . I did !! It was not as hard as I thought it would be because I had a solid plan in place, and I stuck to the plan. This year I’d like to talk a little bit more about setting goals – and achieving them. Once again I’ll stress that I am not giving advice; I am going to talk about what I do. You are not me. What I do may work for you; it may not.

Last year I spent some time exploring the problem of giving something up – smoking, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, whatever – without taking adequate stock of all the parts of your life that that thing impacts. I’ll start now by going back to that point and adding another issue.

As I said last year, New Year’s Day is not a great day to begin a new regimen, whatever it is, because the day is a holiday when your whole routine is disrupted, and there’s a strong chance that you’ve overindulged the night before. One particularly nasty problem arises when you realize that in the morning you are no longer going to allow yourself (fill in the blank), so one urge is to indulge as much as you can the night before. Clinically, it is well understood that this is the worst thing you can do. If you plan to go on a strict diet in the morning and in preparation eat like a pig the night before, your stomach will expand, and in the morning you will be much hungrier than you normally are in the morning. That’s going to be how you start a stringent diet? Hungrier than you’ve ever been? The same problem results from smoking more than usual, drinking more than usual – whatever. A more sensible approach is to come at your resolve from the opposite direction. That is, not to quit all at once on a given day, but to reduce the intake of whatever it is according to a well planned out agenda. Thus, for example, I quit drinking coffee a number of years ago when I realized that I was drinking a minimum of 2 pots per day, sometimes much more, and that it was affecting my health (and my sleeping patterns). I worked out a schedule so that first I counted the exact number of cups I drank per day, and then over a period of about 2 weeks I slowly weaned myself off coffee altogether.

On the other side of the coin, I quit smoking 40 years ago, by setting a date and stopping cold turkey. So, I am not saying that one method is better than another. I am telling you simply what works for me now: baby steps (to borrow a line from What About Bob?). I’ve become accustomed to baby steps in many spheres of my life – including both eliminating habits from my life, and goal setting. For all of my adult life until I turned 40 I weighed 128 lbs (58 kg), and it made no difference what I ate. I wasn’t a big eater, but even if I did have a giant session, I just burned it off. Then after 40, things changed. Without paying complete attention, I grew to 155 lbs (70 kg). The fact that I had been buying larger sizes of clothes for some time, should have been a giveaway, but I ignored the evidence, and kept growing until one day I looked at a recent photograph someone had taken of me, and was horrified by what I saw. Immediately I resolved to lose weight. I wanted to get back to 128 lbs, but I did not set that as a clear goal, nor establish a time frame. I simply determined to lose some (undefined) amount of weight, and established a protocol for reducing my food intake – slowly, over time. I didn’t find any kind of special diet plan, nor stringently cut out any foods in particular. I simply determined to eat less – over time.

One key factor in reducing my food intake was figuring out when I ate – and what I ate. My meals had not changed substantially since I was a teenager: little, or nothing, at breakfast time, a sandwich or soup for lunch, and a full meal of meat, vegetables, and carbohydrates at dinner time. What had changed was that, as a teenager, I never ate anything except at meal times, and now I was eating quite regularly between meals, and before bed. The first step in my plan, therefore, was figuring out when I ate between meals – and why. One small hint was that I never ate at work – nothing – even though I often had long periods between lectures or meetings. When I left in the morning until I came home in the afternoon, I almost never ate anything, not even lunch. I never ate in the car to and from work either. Watching television was another matter. I didn’t watch many shows, but there were a few, such as Dr Who, followed by Torchwood, that I watched faithfully for stupid reasons. When I watched television, I ate incessantly. I was not hungry; it was just a habit.

I also have another habit that I find hard to explain. When I start a package of something – anything – I finish it. It can be potato chips, cookies, chocolate, ice cream – it doesn’t matter. Even if I am not remotely hungry, when I take a bite of chocolate or eat a cookie, I end up finishing the whole bar or package. The trick, therefore, is not to start in the first place. Trying to stop in the middle is fruitless, but not starting in the first place works just fine. In other words, for me (and me only !!!), I can quit something that I want to quit if I have a proper grasp on when I do it and why. In this case I was overeating partly because of a stupid addiction, and partly because I wanted something to do while kicking back. When I was working I was not remotely interested in eating; while relaxing I was antsy. Simple solution: find something else to occupy myself with when I was at loose ends.

Next step: I did not set a specific goal or time frame. All I wanted was to lose some weight over an unspecified time – which I did. I am now back to what I consider a comfortable weight, 135 lbs (61 kg). That is, I shed around 20 lbs (10 kilos), so when I see my shadow, look in the mirror (which I do very rarely), or see a photo of myself (also very rare), I’m content with what I see. I didn’t weigh myself constantly, nor did I keep a record of my weight, or fret about it. I simply cut out eating between meals, and found other things to occupy myself when I was slacking off. I’m guessing that it took about a year to lose 20lbs – around that amount of time. The chief thing I noticed over time was the hole I used to buckle my belt. At the outset, I buckled my belt at its widest, and gradually I had to make it shorter. Now I buckle it at the last hole but one – sometimes the last one.

This brings me back to baby steps. Setting a massive goal to be accomplished overnight has always seemed foolish to me. You are going to fail, and fail miserably. Setting a massive goal can be managed, however, IF it is broken into baby steps. One summer I had a book contract which required me to produce 450 pen and ink drawings in 3 months. This would have been formidable under any circumstances, but at the time I had a one-year-old who barely slept. He did take 2 naps of an hour apiece, though, so I parceled out 450 drawings daily for a 3 month period. 92 days for 450 drawings is 450 ÷ 92 = 4.89 (about 5 per day). Doing 2 at morning nap time, 2 at afternoon nap time, and 1 at bedtime in the evening worked fine. In fact I finished with time to spare. 450 drawings to complete was MASSIVE; 5 per day was tough, but manageable. Losing 20 lbs was MASSIVE; losing an ounce every few days was manageable.

Baby steps is my answer to all my life goals. Added to that, I don’t set goals that have little or no chance. It might be nice to be a best-selling author, but it’s not a goal – not this year or ever. To get some manuscripts accepted by publishers IS a goal, and I will work on it this year using baby steps. I have 5 book manuscripts that have been sitting on my hard drive for over 8 years. Time to get moving. But it will be baby steps: one agent or one publisher per week. I have letters to compose, chapters to edit or revise, and so forth. Little by little I’ll get it all done, and maybe by the end of 2018 I’ll have good news to report. But I don’t mind if it takes a whole year.

 

HAPPY 2018 TO ALL.

 Posted by at 1:54 am

Science and Religion (Again)

 Philosophy, Religion, science  Comments Off on Science and Religion (Again)
Dec 302017
 

I’ll begin my discussion on science and religion this time around by asking a beguilingly simple, yet important question: Why have so many brilliant scientists and mathematicians from the Enlightenment to the present day been theists? Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and John von Neumann immediately spring to mind. I just wrote a post on my other blog concerning von Neumann — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/john-von-neumann/ — so he is uppermost in my mind.  He once wrote: “There probably is a God. Many things are easier to explain if there is than if there isn’t.” On his death bed he had a priest come to his room and deliver the last rites, and he had nominally been a Catholic since his first marriage, when he was baptized, although he came from a Jewish background.

I am not going to make the claim that the likes of von Neumann, Einstein, or even Newton were dogmatic believers. That would be absurd. Newton was as much involved with alchemy as he was with Christianity, and it’s quite likely that von Neumann (like Pascal) was hedging his bets about heaven and hell. My point is simply that none of these great scientists thought that science alone was enough to explain everything in the universe. Von Neumann also said, “If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.” In other words, “life” is not reducible to science or mathematics or even logic of any kind. Great scientists do not believe that they have the answer to all of life’s mysteries, and, more important, do not believe that science alone will ever be sufficient: mediocre scientists do, however.

Certainly, when I use terms such as “science” and “religion” I am being atrociously general and simplistic. I’m certainly not alone in this. Countless times I’ve read attacks on “religion” which are usually attacks on the writer’s view of the religion he was brought up with, or is familiar with in some way – often a crude perversion of what Christianity is, or claims to be. Richard Dawkins rails against creationists because evolution is obviously correct, and also makes the – completely uninteresting – claim that you can have a morality without religion. Ho hum. Got any other windmills to tilt at? How many times have I heard critics foam about the damage that “religion” has done, such as the Crusades and other Holy Wars? War is not the fault of “religion” but of the people who use their religious convictions to justify their actions. People of all faiths can use their sacred texts to bolster prejudices they hold, even if those prejudices are at odds with the principal tenets of their faith. There are machine-gun toting Buddhist monks in Myanmar who justify their violence using sacred texts. But . . . their actions are fundamentally at odds with the teachings of the Buddha.

When I talk about “science” and “religion,” therefore, I may have to be simplistic, but I’ll try not to be too stupid. When I use those terms I am, at heart, equating modern science with a particular method: a method that attempts to explain phenomena in the natural world using rigorous experiments. I am equating “religion” with a different method: a method based (in part) on spiritual intuition. They are coming at the world from completely different angles, and, as I have said many times before, pitting the one method against the other is rank idiocy. Face off a baseball team against a football team and see who wins. When you play by different rules you can’t compete. In fact, even within the separate realms of “science” and “religion” there can be disagreement about the rules – less so in “science” than in “religion,” but the disagreement is there.

What is quite patently false is the distinction between science being about facts and religion being about belief (or faith). I’ve already killed that one, stone dead I hope (http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/what-is-faith/ ). ALL human thought ultimately rests on principles of faith. Von Neumann made it very clear that even in mathematics THE TRUTH is impossible. All we have are approximations. Those approximations can be very good, but they are approximations. He also said that when pure mathematics gets too caught up with itself the mathematician sometimes has to rely on aesthetics, and sometimes has to retreat to the empirical world as a systems check. Neither is exactly a rigorous approach.

There is a story told of von Neumann that I hope will not lose you in mathematics. There is a famous problem concerning a fly and 2 bicycles which someone once asked von Neumann to solve. The problem is as follows. “2 bicycles begin 10 miles apart and ride directly towards one another until they crash an hour later. Meanwhile, a fly starts flying at 15 mph at the time the bicycles start towards one another. He starts on the tire of one bicycle, flies to the tire of the other bicycle, then immediately flies back, over and over again until the tires crash, and the fly is crushed. How far does the fly travel before it is crushed?” Through a very complicated series of geometric equations (an infinite geometric series), you can calculate the distance the fly travels on each leg of his journey, and sum them all together to get the answer. The answer will be correct, but this is an ugly way to solve the problem. A simpler way to solve it is to say that the fly travels at 15 mph and the bicycles crash after 1 hour. Therefore, the fly flew a total of 15 miles. Both approaches get the same answer, but the second method is much more elegant than the first, and mathematicians prefer it. Apparently, von Neumann, when set the problem, came up with the correct answer instantly. When asked if he figured out the simple trick of dividing speed by time, he answered, “No, I summed the geometric series.” You’re supposed to laugh here. The anecdote is pointing out that von Neumann was so facile with mathematics that he could do extremely complex calculations in his head in times that mere mortals find staggering. It’s probably an apocryphal story anyway, and, besides, von Neumann was an advocate of elegance. But what makes elegance a preferred method? Why do scientists apply Occam’s razor? Put simplistically, Occam’s razor states that when 2 fundamentally different solutions give the same answer to a question, choose the simplest. Why? What gives elegance (or aesthetics) a privileged place in the quest for THE TRUTH?

Fast forward to Robert Lanza, founder of biocentrism, who wrote, “What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. … Biocentrism is a new theory of everything and is based on the idea that the universe arises from life and not the other way around.” This is an update on the old tree-falling-in-a-forest question, which Bishop Berkeley made famous, but vastly improved upon. Biocentrism is a radical new approach to “Life, the Universe, and Everything” that I am taken with because it puts consciousness at the center of EVERYTHING. We’re not talking about the “simple” process of observation any more. That was tricky enough. We are talking about life – about consciousness – now. Among other things, Lanza is proposing that consciousness is everywhere, even in sub-atomic particles. Furthermore, consciousness is not limited in its ability to communicate across vast distances in space by such trivialities as the speed of light. If Lanza is on to something, and I am not prejudging the issue because I have not read enough, this would be a monumental paradigm shift in both science and religion. If you have to add consciousness to space and time, the equations get much more difficult. I’d hazard to guess that, in fact, equations not only become complex, they become impossible because they are a much too limited tool. Could this be a much-needed synthesis of science and religion?

Stay tuned . . .

 

Christmas and Easter

 Bible, Religion, Ritual, Spirituality  Comments Off on Christmas and Easter
Dec 192017
 


Nowadays Christmas and Easter are quite distinct celebrations both within the Christian church and in secular celebrations. Perhaps ironically, Christmas is the big secular blowout, but Easter is the prime celebration within the church. In the early church (1st century) Christmas was not celebrated at all, and Easter celebrations were more than likely linked with Passover, as the original Passion had been. That part is obvious although we have no direct evidence of ritual practice in the 1st century. By the 2nd century Easter celebrations are well established, but a fixed date for the Nativity did not start appearing until the 4th century. Even then it was a low-key affair, and didn’t really get off the ground for many centuries. In our earliest church records the Nativity and the Crucifixion were commemorated on the same day – sometimes March 25th.

Origen, in 245, says that only sinners celebrate their birthdays. Pharaoh had his chief baker hanged on his birthday (Genesis 40:20–22), and Herod had John the Baptist beheaded (Mark 6:21–27) as a component of his birthday dinner. Origen also mentions saints as cursing the day of their birth, namely Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14–15) and Job (Job 3:1–16). Heavy stuff.

By Medieval times March 25th was celebrated as the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth, and hence December 25th (9 months later to the day) was picked as the date of the Nativity. Easter was still pegged to the Passover, and so moved around the solar calendar a bit, but Christmas was fixed. Even so, it was not an especially big deal. Easter was still the big one – rightfully so. The Passion narrative is central to Christianity; the Nativity is not. You’ll still find a few evangelical zealots seeing if they can work out the “real” date of Jesus’ birth from the narratives in Luke and Matthew, but, as I have said many times, this process is ludicrous. The gospel writers cannot be trusted when it comes to the Nativity. They were more interested in the theology of the event than the historical facts. The prophet Micah says that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem in the line of David, and so both Luke and Matthew construct narratives that play out Micah’s prophesy, even though on the surface they are utter nonsense. There was no census in the time of the emperor Augustus that had everyone in the Roman empire wandering around to be counted in their ancestral homelands. There is no outside reference to such a census, which would have been a monumental undertaking that someone would have recorded, and would likely have collapsed the entire economy because of the disruption caused. Jesus was undoubtedly born in Galilee on some unknown date.

When Christmas was celebrated in Medieval times in Europe it was a slack time for farmers, so it was routinely declared as a holiday before the ploughing and lambing began in January and February. Many farm animals (especially males), were slaughtered before winter began because there was not enough fodder to keep them over the winter. Female breeding stock were kept, of course, but most of the males could be salted down for winter meat. So, it was not only a pause in the farm cycle, but also a time when there was more meat than usual. Why not have a party?

In the Medieval church cycle, Christmas flowed naturally and seamlessly into Easter. Chronologically, they typically come very close together: Lent starts soon after Epiphany in many years, and in most church calendars Lent was the end of Christmastide.

Why not? Birth and death are two sides of the same coin. We are all born to die, and the moment we are born we begin dying. The Easter message is the kicker – death is not the end; it is a rebirth. Some of the earliest Christmas carols we have on record combine Christmas and Easter into one. This is one of my favorites:

There are many, many others in the same vein.

So . . . I like to be thoroughly holistic at this time of year. I “unpack” both Christmas and Easter, as I have mentioned many times before. Instead of thinking of Christmas as one BIG DAY and Easter Sunday as a second BIG DAY, I prefer to see them as long flowing periods with ups and downs, melding together in harmony – like life itself.

MERRY CHRISTMAS ALL.

Money

 anthropology, Philosophy, Religion  Comments Off on Money
Oct 192017
 

The first epistle to Timothy is frequently misquoted as “money is the root of all evil.” The actual quote (plus context) is:

9 Those who want to be rich, however, fall into temptation and become ensnared by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. By craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. 11 But you, O man of God, flee from these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness (1 Timothy 6:9-11).

Pedants will correct you if you come out with the misquote, but I actually like the misquote by itself. I’ll explain.

I’ll start by saying that the epistle is quite right in saying that the love of money leads people astray. I’m impelled to this topic by my post today on Gerrard Winstanley in Book of Days Tales: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/levellers-and-diggers/  Winstanley was the kind of leader who comes along once in a while and asks, “Have you really read the Bible – ALL of it?” Many people get attracted to Christianity because they follow leaders who pick and choose the bits of the Bible that suit them and explain away the bits they don’t like. So, we’ve got televangelists in the US who preach that their flock should give them a ton of money and they will be rewarded in turn. As Ray Stevens once asked, “Will Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?” Of course not. Jesus preached the importance of the spiritual over the material, but a lot of so-called Christians didn’t get the memo apparently.

Winstanley was what I would call a true “Bible-believing Christian” – not what politically motivated scum think that phrase means. Winstanley looked at the early church and saw a group of believers living together communally, and sharing everything they produced for the betterment of the community as a whole. If they earned money, they pooled it. If they produced food for a living, they shared it. Everything was held in common. The Acts of the Apostles is very clear on this point. The Pastoral Epistles, which include 1 Timothy, come out of late 1st or early 2nd century attempts to codify what the church was all about. I’m reasonably certain that these epistles are treated as “minor” these days, not just because they are short and lacking in the sophisticated theology of Paul’s epistles, but also because they preach socialism as inherent to the Christian way of life. Heaven help us !!! Socialism ???? Well, in my oh-so-humble opinion, capitalism and Christianity are mortal enemies, even though I’m happy to go along with the general idea, espoused by Max Weber, that puritanical Protestantism was the breeding ground of capitalism in Europe.

To be fair, it was Weber’s contention that the puritanical aversion to the love of money was what bred capitalism in the first place. He argued that the Puritans saw it as their Godly duty to work hard, which led to financial success – BUT . . . they could not spend their hard-earned money on frivolity, so it grew and grew. All they could do is re-invest it in their businesses. Bingo – you have capitalists. Fair enough. There have been some thoroughly decent Christian capitalists. The Cadburys are a great example. Their Bournville factory and model village were paragons of how a capitalist industry could be both profitable and profit the workers. But it was, still, a master/worker system. The Cadburys were Quakers, but the Quaker ideology of consensus and sharing did not extend to their business model. They were the bosses and made the rules.

Without the proclivity towards love and fellowship enshrined in Acts and 1 Timothy, capitalism simply breeds greed. You don’t need capitalism to breed greed, however. 1 Timothy was written well before capitalism came along. The uneven distribution of wealth is the key issue. Rich and poor have existed for millennia.  The rich are rich because the poor are poor. Karl Marx saw this clearly but his words got perverted as Jesus’ words did. So-called Marxists are no better than so-called Christians. Even “communism” is now a dirty word because of the likes of Mao and Stalin, even though it is patently obvious that the early Christian church was communist in the basic meaning of the term: work together, live together, and share equally – no rich, no poor.

The inherent problem nowadays is that everyone wants to be rich, so that the ideas of sharing and equality are anathema. Put simply, a lot of people (not all) are happy with inequality as long as they are on the plus side of the ledger. And, all the time that the people with the money have all the power things cannot change. Matters are not helped by the fact that the poor, while not happy with their personal situation, are happy with things in general as long as they are given hope that one day they will be on the plus side of the ledger themselves. Hence, you have poor people voting for Trump who promised riches for all. Riches for all cannot happen in an inherently unequal system. Someone has to be poor. Duh !!! But fair shares for all can lead to a comfortable situation for all.

Clearly in the capitalist situation the LOVE of money creates all kinds of evils. But there’s more to it than that. The existence of money itself is a problem. Some foragers (hunter/gatherers), notably the Bushmen of the Kalahari, have become legendary for their indifference to money. They don’t need it and see no point in accumulating wealth of any kind. The world provides them with food, clothing, and shelter. What else would you want? Need food? Pick fruits and vegetables or hunt for meat. Need clothes? Weave some cloth from natural fibers that you collect. Need shelter? Cut down some trees and build a hut. They live in a modern Garden of Eden.  Of course, they don’t have cell phones and cars and dishwashers and whatnot, so most modern people would not want to live in the same way. Just as well, because the contemporary world cannot support the current population through foraging alone. We need modern agriculture to survive, and, even so, millions barely do.

Where the idea of domestication of plants and animals came from is fiercely contested among anthropologists. It was certainly independently invented 5 times, and maybe more, and the impulses were probably different in each case. What we do know with absolute certainty is that domestication led to social inequality in all manner of ways. I won’t wear you out with the details now. In a (very small and limited) nutshell, with domesticated plants and animals you get social divisions between sedentary agriculturalists and nomadic pastoralists, cities, divisions of labor, war, empires . . . and vast inequalities. In the process, the development of a medium of exchange becomes inevitable. Very simple economies can use barter or other forms of exchange of goods that do not require money. But the more complex a society becomes, the more it needs money as a neutral intermediary. If all I do is raise vegetables, I cannot rely on finding a person who has something I want or need who will barter that thing in exchange for my vegetables. But if I sell my vegetables for money I can use that money to buy the things I want/need. Money greases the wheels, but it’s also a trap. When money becomes an end in itself and not a means to an end, the game is lost. Marx knew this.

Marx distinguished between “use value” and “exchange value” and that to me is a crucial distinction. Use value is the inherent purpose of a particular product: clothes keep you warm; soup nourishes you. Exchange value is the price in money someone is willing to pay for a product. So, a $5 shirt is equivalent to a $5 meal IN MONETARY TERMS.  They are not the same at all when viewed according to use value, but exchange value evens them out. Without money this equivalency cannot exist. Furthermore, in a society based on sharing through loving-kindness, there is no need for such a medium of exchange. You can parse this fact in many different ways, but at heart money is a problem whether it is a product of inequality or the cause of it. Whichever way you look at it, money is a problem. Money reduces everything in the world, including people and ideas, to a common denominator. The worst equation of all in my mind is the expression, “Time is money.” NO !!!!! Time is time. Capitalism equates time and money, but they are different – very different.

The sting in the tail of this analysis is that there is nothing that I or anyone else can do to change the system at this point. Even if I were able to effect an enormous cultural revolution that would set the world on a path of sharing and cooperation – which I can’t – we’d still be stuck with money as the basis of the system, and as long as money exists its weaknesses stay with us.  Apart from anything else, the existence of money breeds greed. It’s built in. So, for the moment I’ll disagree with 1 Timothy slightly and say that the love of money does indeed breed all manner of evils, but money itself is an evil to begin with.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 4:51 am

Dreams, Visions, and Plans

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Oct 072017
 

The English words “dream” and “vision” can have many meanings, but here I am using them to mean “thoughts or hopes about the future” (somewhat consonant with “plan”). They do have significantly different meanings from one another, and it’s those differences I want to explore in this post. Let me start with “plans” first, though, and work from there. In a previous post I mentioned my acronym GPA, which stands for Goal, Plan, Action. This is one of my many guiding mantras. Action of any significance is not much use without a plan, and to make a coherent plan you need a goal in mind first. So, my plans in life are always in pursuit of a goal. The thing is that I have not had an awful lot of luck with my plans in the past 5 years or so.

The long-term goal that I established for myself 7 years ago when I was living in Buenos Aires was to live on a different continent for 2 years at a stretch in a location that would provide me with a job, but would also be within easy reach of a lot of places I wanted to visit. It was a broad goal inspired by the fact that it is hard to get much of anywhere outside of South America without significant effort. Whilst living in Buenos Aires I had traveled a lot both within Argentina and to a variety of countries in South America. Those trips, even to Easter Island, were manageable. But Buenos Aires is not a hub for major airlines, and the most common routes were to North America and Western Europe. To get anywhere other than those destinations required trips to them first, which were lengthy, then one or two more changes before you got where you were going.  I looked into going to Hong Kong or Singapore and they were three-day trips each way. I had been in the habit of going on 7 to 10 day trips, and spending 6 days in transit was not going to cut it. I figured that if I lived in Hong Kong or Budapest or Nairobi or wherever for a couple of years I could use those cities as springboards to travel around in the region before moving on. So far so good – sort of.

The goal was a good one, I felt, but the plans went awry almost straight away. I landed in Hong Kong, couldn’t find a job that would get me a resident permit, so moved to Kunming, capital of Yunnan in SW China. I stayed there for 18 months working at various jobs that did not give me much chance to leave Kunming. Then I caught a lucky break – I thought. I got a job at a university that gave me 4 months’ paid vacation. Perfect. That way I could travel to Myanmar, Cambodia etc. But . . . the government had an issue with the fact that I entered on one passport but wanted my university work visa in another (because the university insisted and checked with immigration before acting). The fact that the university had got prior approval did not matter. I was given 10 days to leave.  My hopes of traveling in SE Asia, journeying the Silk Road through Central Asia etc, went up in smoke. In fact that was the start of 4 years of planning that kept going off the rails that I won’t bore you with. Right now I am in the middle of plan Z.2.6 – sitting in the airport in Bangkok en route from Mandalay to Phnom Penh.

My point is that my general goal is in place, but the execution is not all it might be. This leads me back to goals. We can use various words such as “dreams” or “visions” or “goals” and they all have rather different emphases. The thing is that I don’t have any dreams. I think of dreams that are BIG and very difficult (if not impossible) to accomplish. They are things young people have. I had dreams when I was younger. When I was in my 20s my main dream was to write books on anthropology and become a published author. I saw that as my path to immortality – of a sort. I might die, but my books would live on. Well, I’ve done that. I’ve accomplished all of my dreams; I don’t have dreams any more. I do still have goals, though. Goals are of a different order from dreams. They are manageable, obtainable – even if they take effort.

I see visions as a subset of goals: how I envisage my goals playing out over time in specific ways. For example, I worked in Italy for 2 years and in the summer I traveled to Slovenia and Austria as well as around Italy. That’s one set of plans that actually worked out. After 2 years I wanted to move to SE Asia and a job opportunity opened up in Mandalay in Myanmar, so I took it. It was a little impulsive. I had planned to spend my summer meandering along the Silk Road from west to east, ending up in Myanmar, but the job came up some I skipped the Silk Road – AGAIN !!! My job in Italy ended at the end of May and the job in Mandalay started in June. Not ideal, but I figured I could travel at the end of the school year in March.

I did have long weekends when I was able to travel around Myanmar a bit, but I couldn’t go very far. The time between terms was only one week also, so I’d have to work for 8 months straight before traveling (with no summer holiday before starting). This September I ended up with some unfortunate contract talks with my boss, so I quit, and worked out a way to live in Cambodia for some months. As I left Mandalay this morning I was rather melancholy. The reason is that I had had a vision of my life in Myanmar, but it did not turn out as I had envisaged. I was expecting to stay for 2 years, mooch around a lot in the cracks, then leave for some new 2-year destination. Instead I am moving on after 3 months. I’m fine with the decision. I could have stayed for 2 years. My boss did not want me to leave. It’s just that the reality did not match the vision. It was not a dream; it was a vision related to a larger goal. And . . . it failed. It’s not like finding a dream falling apart. It’s just a vision that did not pan out. My world’s not going to fall apart as it might if a life dream fell apart. When you DREAM BIG (as an old girlfriend put it to me – in caps), your life is completely guided by it. This was just a vision of a component of a goal this is still a work in progress. I’ll survive. But it is sad when visions fail.

 Posted by at 1:49 pm

Education (3) Testing

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Aug 312017
 

Last week I gave all my classes a test – 10 classes in all. They were all written tests which I had to mark by hand. That’s a lot of work, but it’s part of the job. I can actually get my assistants to do the marking, but I’m not going to do that. I take my teaching seriously, and testing is very important. I hate marking, and my students hate tests. So why do I do it? I’ve hated taking tests all my life. Couldn’t I just find an easier way out? Tempting – but no.

At the start of all my undergraduate classes I used to give my students a little pep talk about my methods, especially about testing. I used to tell them that I hate testing and marking, but I don’t do it because I am a mean, nasty, horrible person who enjoys inflicting pain. I do it because it is intrinsically worthwhile – but only if done right. Some ways of testing are worse than useless, they are counterproductive; some ways are invaluable to the learning process. The trick is knowing which is which.

Schools (final exams) at Oxford are probably the most brutal exams I have ever sat for. I had to do 13 exams, each 3 hours long, over the course of a week (with Sunday off) – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. They tested everything I had studied for 3 years. Unlike the US system where you take a course and get tested at the end of it, at Oxford there are no tests per subject as you go along; just one set of final exams on everything at the very end of your undergraduate years. In your final term you have no tutorials or lectures. You simply look back over every essay you’ve written, and all of your notes, and cram as much in as possible, over a 5-week period, ready to regurgitate it all on paper over a grueling week, 3 hours at a pop. It didn’t help that we had to sit the exams dressed in black suit, white shirt with white bow tie, and academic gown (carrying a mortar board), but that was a minor inconvenience. The point was that for a brief moment in time you had the whole subject matter at your fingertips.

Having everything to hand is an important part of the intellectual process for me. By “to hand” and “at your fingertips” does not mean being able to look it up quickly via the internet or whatever. Everyone has that capacity. I mean having the information IN YOUR HEAD. That ability is vital to the thinking process. Testing in the right way encourages that style of thinking: get students to internalize as much as possible all at once, not so that they can simply regurgitate it, but so they can put it to practical use.

Some tests are the absolute opposite of this style, notably the standardized tests for entry to undergraduate and graduate programs of learning. The classic SAT and GRE exams used by the vast majority of universities in the US had 2 sections – verbal and mathematics – and now they have logical reasoning and essay sections. Supposedly the latter two make the tests more diagnostically useful. The fact is that repeated analysis of SAT scores has shown that the test cannot even accurately predict success or failure in the FIRST year of college, let alone after four years. They are worthless as predictors. Universities use them for only one reason: they are swamped with applications and so they need a simple measure to select among the applicants. They set parameters among the test scores and separate applicants into those they will accept and those they reject. Then they use other measures such as essays or interviews for the fine tuning. So, they start off with a worthless test that is not remotely related to the subject matter the student is applying to study, and which has no predictive power concerning success, and use that as their arbiter for who gets in and who doesn’t simply because it gives them a numerical score they can use to compare applicants. An actual test is too much work.

When I applied to Oxford I had to first sit five exams, three hours each, on the subject I was applying to study, and was marked by the relevant tutors at the college I was applying to. When I cleared that hurdle, I went to the college for an hour-long interview by the tutors. That is a reasonable test. When I applied to the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of North Carolina I was accepted on my written work – very commendable – but scholarships were assigned solely on GRE results. My scores were respectable, but not great, because I sat them without knowing what they were for. I was told to take them, and I did. I had never taken a multiple-choice test before in my life, and just did the best I could. I did not get a scholarship and spent 5 years studying at my own expense. Two of my classmates did get full scholarships, however, because they scored very well on the GRE. (They also got major funding from the National Science Foundation for their fieldwork. I had to take out a bank loan for mine.) The upshot? Neither of them finished the Ph.D. – one of them because he couldn’t string together a coherent sentence in writing !!! So much for standardized testing. Standardized testing tests only the ability to take standardized tests.

Standardized tests are popular because they can be machine graded and because they provide a simple numerical score that can be used to compare one student (or candidate) with another. The degree to which standardized tests provide meaningful results depends on the skill of the tester in many ways. First, there is the nature of the questions themselves. On the GRE I had to answer such questions as “ball is to bat as (something) is to (something)” with 5 choices of answers. How exactly will that question tell you whether I will be a good anthropologist or not? Second, if you look at the array of answers on a particular question you can decide whether your questions are too hard or too easy. If 100% of people being tested get the right answer the question is too easy; if the answers are spread more or less evenly over all the possible answers the people being tested are guessing, therefore the question is too hard. Professional test-writing companies spend a lot of time and money researching their testing methods. Your average university professor generally has no clue about this stuff when making up a multiple-choice test.

I used to use multiple-choice tests in very large lecture classes to test certain base level knowledge. I think this is fair as long as it’s not the only method of testing students. When I first trained as an emergency paramedic I had to take a grueling standardized test to certify. It tested basic knowledge in a host of medical areas. But it was only ONE part of a series of tests. I also had to show live examiners that I knew how to do a variety of things such as insert an IV line, intubate a patient, identify a fibrillating heart from an EKG and defibrillate, and splint a broken bone. You were allowed several attempts at each but if you failed any station you had to redo the test at a later date after more training. Furthermore, I had to work as a trainee under a supervisor on ambulances and take several 12-hour rotations in an emergency room, all of which were assessed and graded. So, the standardized test was part of a mix of tests. One hopes that the result is competent paramedics.

Bottom line: testing is an essential component of teaching/learning, but to be useful you have to know what you are doing, and too few teachers do.

Education (2)

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Aug 142017
 

Over and over, nowadays, I read complaints that education is not practical, and these voices are getting louder and louder. What exactly does that complaint actually mean? I am more than a little tired of hearing that subjects taught in school or university have no practical application. “Why must I learn the Pythagorean theorem, or Latin, or (fill in the blank)? I am never going to use them.” Sure. I can’t remember the last time that I needed to solve a simultaneous equation outside my academic writing (and I haven’t done it much within my writing either). The great mistake hidden within this question is the unquestioned assumption that the TOPIC must be relevant to some life goal for the study of the subject to be “important.” One variety of this great fallacy I see all the time in the media is the assumption that the point of a university education is to get a good job, and the road to that goal is to study a subject that will enhance your career prospects, whether it be business studies, computer science, nursing, or whatever. History, Literature, Sociology etc. are, therefore just a waste of time and money because they can’t lead to a good job (except, perhaps, in teaching). Science and mathematics are on the cusp (political science too), not because they are perceived as intrinsically useful, but because they can lead to training that will be marketable.

Vocational subjects are certainly necessary: I don’t want to go to a doctor who does not have a medical degree, obviously. But there is much, much more to education than vocational training. In my oh-so-humble opinion, education (at least my kind of education) is about learning how to think, and to learn how to think the subject matter is not relevant.

Let’s start with the obvious. In business these days, especially in the US, the supposed path to a “good” job (that is, pays a ton of money) is, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in business, and preferably a master’s. My first (not so obvious) question is: “How did the titans of 19th century industry succeed without any formal training in business studies (because such university programs did not exist)?” Answer: “They were smart, creative, imaginative people.” They didn’t get that way by studying pi charts or sales analysis in university. Actually, in many cases they had no formal education at all, but I’ll get to that later (probably in another post).

I will confess that teaching students how to think is a wretched enterprise – usually doomed to failure because it’s very poorly understood. But I don’t think we should give up because it is hard. That’s pretty weak kneed. The problem, as I see it, is not that teaching students how to think is a complicated endeavor, it’s that the vast majority of teachers don’t see this as their primary mission: they see communicating their subject matter as their main goal, whether it be social work, mathematics, Chinese language, or world religions. Generally, this is because they love their own subject matter (or are expert in it), and think that (at best) by simple enthusiasm they can convince their students of its intrinsic value. That ploy does not work. I can’t count the times I have taught an arcane subject with passion only to be met with bored stares. You really can’t make people care about what you care about by simple enthusiasm. Mostly you get laughed at or ignored.

Of course, it’s easy to get students to learn the rudiments of any subject by threats and intimidation – that is: “Learn this set of principles and be able to regurgitate them as needed or receive a failing grade.” Brilliant. This kind of mechanical “education” is worthless on any number of counts. Chief of these counts is that rote learning does nothing when it comes to applying the materials you have learnt. I taught English to dozens of university students in China who had, in theory, been learning the language for years, but what they had been learning (by rote) were the answers to standard grammar and vocabulary questions which they could reel off unerringly and score 100% on tests (and all had). But . . . they could not really speak English, even after years and years of such tests, because they had never encountered actual English speakers nor engaged in genuine conversations in English.

One simple conclusion you might draw from this basic example (which I could multiply many times) would be that less emphasis on theory and testing, and more on the application of principles taught would improve education. Maybe. But that’s not really what I am getting at. You’re not going to get much traction with that argument when it comes to conjugating Latin verbs or solving quadratic equations. There’s a deeper issue at stake – much deeper. For a great many years I taught subject matter without really thinking too much about why I was teaching it beyond the needs of the university and the department I was in. I argued, for example, for the need to make Fieldwork Methods a requirement for anthropology majors and the faculty readily concurred. The curriculum I put in place is still unusual for undergraduate anthropology programs in the United States in requiring a course in fieldwork. My reasoning was that anthropological theory was just a bunch of words without the experience of actually collecting and analyzing data for yourself – in the process seeing all the messy problems that data collection produces. I taught the Fieldwork Methods course under this aegis for 20 years, and I always began the course by explaining WHY it was required. Now we have the crux.

Maybe about 15 years ago I extended my ideas outward from Fieldwork Methods to EVERY class I taught. First lesson started with my statements as to why I was teaching the subject matter that I was teaching, and why I thought it was important. Every course had its own particular rationale, of course, but at heart there was one principle that was invariant: To help students to think critically. As I’ve already said, this is a thankless, sometimes futile, maybe impossible, task – but it was my goal – always. I stated it plainly so there was no mistaking my deepest intentions.

Let’s now take a step back. How many times in class did a teacher explain to you WHY you were learning a certain subject? If you ever questioned why you were learning a particular subject, what was the answer? The simple fact is that most teachers can’t give a coherent answer. I am sure that most teachers teach what they were good at in school, and can’t explain why they excelled at it or what excited them about the subject. For me, subject matter is utterly irrelevant. I’ve taught anthropology, history, sociology, chemistry, physics, biology, dance, music, anatomy, archeology, computer science, political economy, Biblical analysis, technical drawing . . . and on and on. I’ll teach whatever you want. I don’t care because it’s not the subject that’s important. I’m trying to spark creativity, imagination, and mental agility. I’ll do it using lab equipment, computers, novels, drawing boards or a piece of chalk (or nothing at all). Teaching in any other way is, to my mind, nothing but drudgery, and I’m not surprised if students rebel. Many of my students rebelled. Many just wanted to know what would be on the final test, and, if possible, wanted a neat list of all the answers to memorize so they could get 100%. With me they were plain out of luck. One student asked me on the first day what it would take to get an A in my class. He didn’t like my answer: “Be creative, imaginative, and intelligent. Impress me.” He didn’t.

To be continued . . .

Education (1)

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Aug 072017
 

This post is the first in a series on education which will, of course, sprawl all over the map.

In these days of vile politics preying on fear and bigotry amongst the general population I often hear the cry: “They need more education.” Really ???? That’s the solution? Somehow if people were “better” educated they’d stop succumbing to fear and make more reasoned judgments about who they elect, and what propositions they vote in favor of? It’s going to be hard for me to sum up all the flaws in that argument in a short post. In the simplest terms, “They need more education” is as sensible a statement as the phrase I see written on social media from one person to another all the time: “You should write a book.” Sure. Writing a book, finding a publisher, and selling hundreds of thousands of copies to eagerly awaiting readers is a breeze !!! Anyone who airily makes such a statement is clueless.

The hardest nut to crack here is to decide what exactly people mean by “education” followed by getting some grasp on why these people think it’s a good idea. Education comes in a host of flavors. Should we all learn more about certain subjects? Mathematics? History? Physics? Geography? Anthropology? Which ones? Which are most important and why? We can start with these questions before moving on to more challenging ones.

I can see a crying need in the West for the general public to have a better grasp of mathematics but I’m not certain at all how to achieve that goal. Simply taking more classes in mathematics is not going to help. Most of my college students had a blind spot when it comes to mathematics and their eyes would glaze over when I introduced even the most basic of mathematical equations in my classes. They were all required to achieve a certain level of mathematical competence on entry or in their first year, but it did no good. Simply taking classes is not the answer.

Knowing more than the most basic arithmetic is not only useful in such arenas as personal budgeting and planning, but also in more arcane areas such as statistics which forms the cornerstone of climate science, medicine, polling and the like. For example, when my wife was pregnant at age 36 doctors told us that she should have amniocentesis because the risk of Down syndrome in babies doubles for women over age 35. DOUBLES. Wow !!!! This is actually completely useless information unless you know the statistics that this statement is based on (and can interpret them). If the normal chances of having a Down syndrome baby are 1 in 10, then doubling would mean 2 in 10. That’s a pretty serious increase and one would be foolish not to take note. But if the normal chances are 1 in 10 million, then doubling would be 2 in 10 million. I certainly wouldn’t waste my time worrying about those odds. This reminds me of a favorite saying: “Lottery tickets are a tax on the stupid.” Some people will blow $100 per week on $1 lottery tickets because they have 100 times more chances of winning than buying just 1. True. But 1 versus 100 out of tens of millions are just not great odds. They fall back on the old chestnut, “Someone has to win.” Also true; but it’s not going to be you. The odds are heavily against you no matter how many you buy. If you take the same money weekly and invest it in indexed stocks you will be a guaranteed winner, but few seem willing to take that lack of risk. Education might help there, but I doubt it.

Many people continue smoking or eating fat-strewn diets etc. on the grounds that they had an uncle who smoked 2 packs a day and lived to be 90 (or whatever). What is their brilliant conclusion? This one case “proves” that statistics are useless. Rubbish. The statistics are not saying that EVERYONE who smokes will get cancer or heart disease. Many do not. But the CHANCES increase if you smoke. Are you willing to take the risk? I wouldn’t be surprised if these same people go to casinos even though it is a statistical CERTAINTY that they will lose more than they will win over time. Casinos get rich on this public ignorance. I will concede that some people like the atmosphere of casinos, and don’t mind losing because they like the thrill. Fair enough. I don’t.

I will also point out that you need to understand statistics to use them wisely. They have no end of problems in themselves (sampling error being the prime one), and their interpretation is not simple. For example, statistics can tell you about correlations but are silent about causation. I can tell you from statistics that 9 out of 10 New York businessmen wear black shoes to work. I can’t tell you WHY.

Enough about mathematics. What about other subjects? Being a professional anthropologist I could tout anthropology as an antidote to xenophobia, bigotry, racism etc., but I know very well that it isn’t. At my university it was a general education requirement that all students take a course from a list called “Other World Cultures” most of which were anthropology classes. It was great for my department’s numbers but I doubt that taking an anthropology course changed anyone’s behavior. Racism etc. are deeply held beliefs that are generally rooted in family and cultural experiences. Anthropologists and biologists have shown over and over that there is no biological basis for racial classifications. The concept of race is a cultural prejudice. Will pointing that out to students eradicate racism? Of course not.

Maybe you believe that getting people to think more clearly in general is the great panacea. Also a huge problem. Many people believe that thinking clearly means “thinking like me.” For starters, that’s the last thing I want as a teacher for many reasons. I want my students to think for themselves, not to think the way I think. About the only thing that ever made me angry as a university lecturer was having a student agree with me because he/she thought I would like it. I didn’t. I was more than happy to have students disagree with me, but . . . they had to support their arguments.

Here’s the meat of the problem. What is thinking clearly? Reasoning comes in a host of flavors too. Logical reasoning is only one and it is not always applicable. Nor is reasoning from self interest (the bane of classical economics). There is a good case to be made in economics and anthropology that self interest is NOT the normal driving force in culture, although it has its place. Pundits are frequently puzzled as to why people vote for candidates who are quite obviously going to work against their self interest. Are these voters blind or stupid or both? Not at all. For many people self interest is secondary to other values. Whether we find these other values important or relevant is a judgment call, not a matter of clinical logic. Candidate A’s policies will help me directly whereas Candidate B’s will help a number of other people, but not me directly. Must I inevitably, therefore, vote for Candidate A? By no means. If I think that the needs of the people that Candidate B will help are more important or urgent than mine it would make sense for me to vote for Candidate B. To vote for Candidate A out of self interest also requires that I trust Candidate A. Here intuition and experience may play as large a part as logic.

I’m going to have more to say on the subject of education if coming weeks, but this should serve as the appetizer.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 4:39 am

Home

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Home
Jul 172017
 

In my last post I said that Mandalay is home to me, and I promised that in my next post I’d muse on what “home” means to me. Well, I tend to keep my promises. My idea of “home” is not like most people’s because of my life circumstances. I should begin, however, with parsing the word “home” because without that we’ll get nowhere.

We use “home” in many different ways in English. In some of the languages I speak, notably Italian and Spanish, you can differentiate between “house” and “home,” but the distinction is generally blurred and the common word for “house” (casa) is commonly used to mean “home” as well. “Vado a casa” or “me voy a casa” should be translated as “I am going home” not “I am going to a house.” Here is a significant stepping off point. Is the house where you live right now your home? I think for most people that’s a minimally acceptable assertion. If I ask you, “Where are you going?” and you reply, “I’m going home,” I take no more from that statement than the simple understanding that you are going to the place where you live – now. You need much more context to change the idea to something deeper. For example, the old hymn, “Lord, I’m Coming Home” (title of one of my books), means that when I die I’m going to heaven: my true (spiritual) home. Likewise, if I ask, “Where is home for you?” I’m not asking where you live right now, but where you consider to be your place of belonging – sometimes phrased, “Where are you from?”

I imagine that for most people the answer to the question “Where are you from?” is very simple. A few of my friends have lived all of their lives in or near the place where they were born, and in some cases their parents were born there too. For them the answer to the question is easy. For others it’s slightly more complicated, but not much more so. Many people I know were born and raised in one place, but then moved to another as adults and settled there. Their answer to the question can be a little more hedged, therefore: for example, “I was born in Atlanta but I’ve lived in New York most of my life.” In this case Georgia is probably home in a deep sense, but New York is home for all current intents and purposes.

So . . . where am I from? There things get sticky. People seem determined to place me somewhere, but they are misguided. I am not from anywhere. I was born in Buenos Aires to a Scottish father and an English mother. My elder sister was born in England, and the middle sister of the family was born in Buenos Aires. I am the youngest. When I was 2 years old the family moved from Argentina to Eastbourne in England, my mother’s home, where we lived with her aunt for almost 5 years, and then emigrated to South Australia. Therefore, by the age of 6 I had lived on three continents. We lived in South Australia in several locations for 8 years, then moved back to England, eventually landing in Burnham in south Buckinghamshire. I lived there for 5 years, then moved to Oxford for 4. After that I was a bit adrift for a while but landed in Leamington Spa for a year. Then I emigrated to the United States.

I went to North Carolina where I was married and attended graduate school for the Ph.D. I lived in Chapel Hill for 4 years, and spent 1 year doing fieldwork in a fishing village in the Tidewater region. Then I moved to Long Island, New York, for 1 year, got divorced, and settled on the campus of the university, where I was an assistant professor, for 3 years. Then it was up to the Catskills where I married again, bought a house, had a son, and all of that “normal” stuff for 27 years (with a year’s sabbatical in Santa Fe, New Mexico). When my wife died and my son went off to college I retired and moved to Buenos Aires. I’ll get to that part in a minute. After 4 years there I moved to China for 2, Italy for 2, and now I live in Myanmar.

So . . . where is home? Where am I from? The deeply truthful answer is nowhere, but I’ve had different answers throughout my life. If you want a general answer to those questions it is “Not here.” For a while Buenos Aires was a strong contender, and my location there is certainly deeper than any other place I have lived. It’s impossible for me to describe fully the feelings I had when I landed there at age 58 after a 56-year absence. The minute I stepped into the terminal at Ezeiza airport and got a taxi into the city I knew I was HOME – finally. It’s impossible to explain. It just felt RIGHT. Some deeply embedded memories must have been stirred. The sounds, sights, smells, feelings of the city resonated with me completely.

The food brought back memories of my father’s and mother’s cooking when I was a boy. Milanesa and spaghetti with tuco were mainstays for dinner and El Libro De Doña Petrona was the only cookbook we had besides our battered version of Mrs Beeton. I had made sure I had milanesa as my first meal when I arrived. I also got some yerba mate and a mate gourd and bombilla early on because the smell of mate is the smell of my boyhood. Drinking yerba replaced tea and coffee in Buenos Aires, and still does. I carry my thermos and all the accouterments all over the world with me. Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge getting yerba, but I’m never without a supply. I brought 2 kilos with me in my very limited luggage when I flew to Myanmar. I’ll do without a suit and dress shoes, but not yerba.

Tango music will make me cry in a heartbeat, and the dance in the milongas and in the streets generally captivates me. If you have not seen tango in the streets of Buenos Aires you have not seen tango. Show tango in the theaters, and ballroom tango are not tango. The tango of the people of the streets is the real deal, as the music of an orquesta tipica with a front line of bandoneons – if you can ever find one. Traditional tango is a dying art.

Everyone called me Juan the minute I arrived even though for 56 years I had been called John. Juan is on my birth certificate but my mother always hated the fact that I had to have a Spanish name when I was born and changed it to John the minute we arrived in England. She registered me as John at my first school, and for some reason I’ve never had any trouble getting a UK passport, and such, as John even though my birth certificate says Juan. Back in Buenos Aires I got an Argentine DNI (identity card) and passport as Juan Alejandro, and since then I’ve insisted on being called Juan.

It was an enormous wrench leaving Buenos Aires 4 years ago, but I knew I had to leave for several reasons, even though my friends begged me to stay, and have sent me heartfelt messages periodically ever since. The main reason I wanted to leave was that it’s very difficult to get anywhere from Buenos Aires. My son was intent on traveling in Asia after college and I wanted to catch up with him. But flying to Hong Kong or Tokyo is a 3-day affair from Buenos Aires. It made a lot more sense for me to move to Asia for a while. After that I figured I would spend 2 years on a different continent, travel around, then move on. So far, so good – with a few bumps in the road. It’s been China for 2, Italy for 2, and now Myanmar. In the process Argentina is fading more and more from my consciousness. Argentina is still bedrock, but it’s not as deep as I thought it was. In Mandalay when people ask, “Where are you from?” I respond “Argentina” automatically. It makes sense to say that, and I feel it. But, in reality, Argentina is no more home to me now in a profound sense than anywhere else. I have no home. In truth I never have had, and never will have, a home. In some ways that gives me the kind of freedom that few people have. For one thing, you can’t be homesick when you have no home. There’s nowhere I yearn to be.

Of course, there are plenty of platitudes like, “Home is where the heart is” and the like, but they are just platitudes with no real meaning for me.

The big question for me at the moment is, “Where next?” In truth, I have not the slightest idea, and that’s a bit troubling if I set my mind to it. Usually I don’t. The larger question will come at some point, “Where will I choose to settle for the long haul?” I’m healthy, and my body keeps up with me. But that will change at some point. For now I am just being pragmatic and thinking only about the present. I’ll let the future take care of itself. Wherever I land it won’t be HOME, but I’ll manage.

 Posted by at 12:54 pm