The Glory of Imagination

My mother used to regale me with stories of going to the movies when she was a teen. She lived with her family in a tiny house just off of Navigation Blvd. where she once watched Franklin Delano Roosevelt pass in a motorcade. On Saturdays, if she had a quarter, she would board a bus and ride the short way into downtown Houston where she watched films from the golden era of the nineteen forties. She was madly in love with Tyrone Power and Dana Andrews whose brother was her English teacher at Austin High School. She described those times so vividly that I too became enthralled with movies, often enjoying some of the favorites from her youth as they were rerun on television.

After my father died we often went to drive-in movie theaters on family nights when a carload got into the parking area for a single, reduced price. After my Aunt Polly went to work at the Trail Drive In we went any time she was working with the complimentary tickets that she regularly gave us. Mama always packed dinner and drinks and a grocery bag of popcorn to enhance our viewing pleasure. Those were some of the most glorious times of my childhood as I watched my favorite actors playing different roles. 

I have no idea when the Academy Awards ceremony first came to television, but I suspect that I may have been watching from the start. Mama and I loved the beautiful gowns, the funny jokes, the singing and dancing and the anticipation of finding out if our own favorites would win awards. I don’t think I’ve missed a single airing of the Oscars over a span of decades. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of it all, and been disappointed many times when my own picks did not win or even get nominated. 

Once the nominations are announced I do my past to watch all of the contenders and rank them in my own mind. Of course I have my own favorites that don’t always conform with the popular thinking. I’ve learned that I tend to most enjoy movies with beautifully written scripts. I suppose that words and the thoughts they engender mean more to me than special effects. I dream of one day writing something so meaningful that it will become the kind of story that inspires a movie. As a very ordinary writer, I still know when I am watching the work of a genius. 

Last year my favorite movie was Belfast which won the Oscar for the best original screenplay. It was based on the recollections of Kenneth Branagh when he was a young boy growing up in Northern Ireland during the nineteen sixties when Irish Catholics and British Protestants were engaging in regular conflicts. The story was heartfelt and vividly portrayed the trauma of that era through the eyes of a young child. With stellar acting and a wonderful script it instantly became a classic in my mind.

This year it was another magnificently written script that captured my admiration. Women Talking was adapted from the book of the same title written by Miriam Toews. Based on a true event, it tells the story of a group of women who have been attacked by men in their in their  isolated religious community. They gather in a hayloft to decide if they will stay in the community and fight back or leave to build a new life where they and their children will be safe. The challenge in leaving lies in their belief that that they may be barred from entering heaven if they go. 

We do not see the attack in the film nor does the setting move far from the confines of the hayloft. The storyline is a conversation between the women that is recorded by a man who is a school teacher for the boys. The women are mostly illiterate because they have not been granted the privilege of an education. They have been led to believe that the attacks on them were the work of the devil. They must overcome their personal fears and differences to reach a decision about what to do. That is where the real beauty of the film unfurls with acting that is world class and a discussion that seems to almost timelessly define the challenges of being a woman. The movie is a work of art. 

Films can be as though provoking as the greatest literature. Some burrow into our hearts and we never forget them. They become so much more than just bits of entertainment, respite from our daily cares and woes. They make us think or laugh or cry. I’m a fan just as my mother was. Movies have inspired me and enriched my life. I admire those who take their craft to the level of greatness. Movies are an extension of our human capacities to create. They represent one of the most incredible abilities of being human by demonstrating the most unique power of our minds. We have glorious imaginations that lift us from the depths of ignorance. Movies are but one more grand evolution in the ascent of humankind.


We’ve Come A Long Way

Women In Aerospace Awards (201010260004HQ) by NASA HQ PHOTO is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve lived long enough to witness remarkable changes in the world of being a woman. When I was a child most of the fathers went to their jobs and the mothers stayed home tending to the children and caring for the house. It was somewhat rare for a married female to have a job, but I did witness a small number of women who worked outside the home. Most of them were either teachers or nurses, thus my original belief that I would have few choices in a career when I became an adult. Nonetheless, I was most enchanted with two neighbor women who seemed to be blazing an independent trail of their own. One was a commercial artist and the other was a lawyer. 

For some reason these two women took a shine to me. They invited me to their homes for little visits that involved walking into a different kind of world in which they were coequals with their husbands. I suppose these trailblazers left an indelible impression on me because I absolutely adored and admired them. I was impressed by their advanced educations and the interesting ways in which they lived their lives. Sometimes I think they were attempting to reframe my thinking by giving me a glimpse of possibilities.

After my father died I watched my mother become responsible for all of the tasks involved with working outside of the home and returning each evening to maintain the routines of keeping our household in order. She seemed to accomplish those her work with great aplomb, making me believe that women can be as strong and independent as men. I entered my own marriage with an attitude that I was as capable as my husband in almost every regard save for lifting heavy objects. He and I became a wedded team rather than assuming the old fashioned models that I had so often observed when I was a young girl. The old traditions of the man taking charge did not work for me. Luckily the times were changing and most of the marriages of my friends mirrored the new independence that women were achieving everywhere. 

Today’s modern married couples have taken the teamwork idea up an even more amazing notch. I watch the younger men sharing in household duties and caring for the children on an equal footing. They think nothing of cooking the dinner, doing their own laundry, getting the kids ready for school. It is simply a natural progression of mutual respect that seems to have grown from the pioneering days of women like the artist and lawyer that I once knew and from brave souls like my mother who proved that a woman can beautifully handle the whole shebang on her own when necessary. 

I still see vestiges of the old ways of doing things, especially among the older folks who are still with us. My father-in-law always takes my husband into another room to discuss business. He balks at suggestions that I have for getting repairs or managing money. He requests me to take care of the once female only duties like washing his clothes and shopping for the items he needs for his diet. He is stunned to see my husband and grandson cooking. He is visibly uncomfortable with my independence. He has balked at the openness of my opinions. I think that he can’t quite decide if he likes the way I behave or is somewhat repulsed by it. His two wives were highly capable and bright women who mostly deferred to his demands. He sees himself as the ultimate protector of the “weaker” women and he is gentlemanly in doing that in a very traditional way, but I am unwilling to give in to his old fashioned demands. He is a man of his era while I am a woman of mine. 

My granddaughter is thoroughly modern. She has run an organization with thousands of members. She flies across the country alone without batting an eye. She has formed her own set of beliefs and opinions and is not afraid to voice them. She is the newest generation of brilliant and educated women who have goals as lofty as only men once had. She brings my admiration full circle as she works toward a goal of becoming a lawyer. She is unafraid, competent, reliable and no doubt cannot even imagine being treated like a hot house flower unable to make decisions or understand complex ideas. 

There are still some people who long for the old days. They have romanticized the times when women could not have their own credit cards or bank accounts. They seem to to think that having the men in charge of everything outside of the home was chivalrous, and maybe it was back then, but those days are long gone. Women have proven that they can and will serve as equal members of a team. The young women that I know share responsibilities with their husbands in a spirit of mutual respect. 

We still don’t have a perfect record when it comes to the role of women in society. Many cultures in the world have reverted to tragically domineering treatment of the females in their midst. They withhold education and deny women opportunities to work outside of the home. Even in our own country women are often under attack when they assert their freedoms. We have to be watchful for any signs that indicate a backward trend. Our young girls deserve to be equal to their male counterparts. We’ve come a long way and there should be no turning back. 

Can We Make the Insanity Stop?

Photo by Ola Dapo on

So here we are again, groping around in the dark at a time marked on our clocks when the sun was peeking through our windows only a couple of days ago. We’ll walk around feeling like we are jet lagged even though we haven’t been on a trip. About the time that we begin to adjust to the clock, we will start all over again by falling backwards. We are rather divided in our political thinking these days, but surely we are mostly united in our desire to pick one method of marking time and stick with it. At this point in my life, I don’t really care which way we decide to forever set our clocks. I just want the insanity of going back and forth to stop. 

We tend to believe that springing forward and falling back is simply an established way of life, but the reality is that this nonsense first occurred because of World War I. What should have been a reaction to war that changed back to normal once the conflict was over, has droned on for over a hundred years. All the while people have complained about the flipping and flopping  of our routines without doing something about it. 

Doctors have challenged the changing of times, insisting that it is bad for humans to deviate from routines biannually. Statistics confirm that there are always increased numbers of visits to emergency rooms in the days after the change takes place. Often the health issues revolve around heart attacks and serious accidents. For workers and school children it means changing the feel of the morning and evening commutes. It’s an irritating way of attempting to tame the rising and falling of sunlight that makes little sense when all is said and done since electricity now brings light to us twenty four hours a day. 

I tend to be a standard time fan rather than daylight savings time. I’m not much for arising in the dark as I must do when Daylight Saving Time comes around. I worry about the school children who will be waiting for their buses to arrive before the sun has come into view. I don’t need daylight until nine at night. My system never feels quite right until we return to

Standard time. Nonetheless, I’m willing for forgo my preference for the sake of picking a plan and then sticking with it. If the majority prefers to arise in the dark and come home to many hours of sunlight before going to bed, I’m okay with that. I know that I will adjust in a few months and all will be well going forward. 

I just don’t get the reluctance to set one way of keeping time and staying with it. The whole silliness reminds me of our human tendency to try something new, dislike it, and then keep it just because its been the norm for a time. I’ve seen that happen in education more often than it should. We all have a sense that the constant testing of young children is bad for everyone, but we keep those exams going anyway. Time and again we have seen that the SAT and ACT are not as accurate in determining success in college and life as we would like them to be, but we continue to harass our young with such hurdles. We humans have a tendency to stick with whatever we have legislated even when common sense tells us that our laws and routines are not working. 

We could use a win for everyone and I suspect that ridding ourselves of the biannual changing of the clocks would be a great place to start. Imagine the joy of seeing Democrats and Republicans high-fiving each other in celebration of working together. Think of the joy of setting our clocks and never having to perform that onerous task again. Imagine becoming accustomed to a set routine with regard to our daily rotation around the sun. It would be a glorious common sense approach to life that might even begin to unite us in a teeny tiny way. 

I’m feel off kilter this morning as I attempt to conform to the idea that last Monday my body awakened on its own at six. This week I have to set an alarm if I want to arise by that hour because my brain tells me it is really only five. The children are on mercifully on Spring Break this week but when school resumes they will be at the bus stop huddling in the dark without their usual energy and laughter. The mothers will stand watch over them in silence. Nobody will have the urge to chatter like they usually do until they have once again adjusted to the artificially inflicted time keeping.

Studies show that productivity will drop on jobs. More workers will arrive late than is usual. Some will have bouts of insomnia as they attempt to fall asleep. Their bodies are not fooled by the clocks. It will take time to find a natural routine again. Just as we finally adjust we will repeat the change in the fall. The complaining will begin anew. Talk of ridding ourselves of this plague will ensue. Nothing will happen once again.

Best of luck to all of you today. Only the folks in Arizona and Hawaii know what it is like to maintain a steady routine all year long. The rest of us will grumble and mumble and swear that the insanity needs to stop, but do little to make it happen. We will drone on until someone in Congress finally has the courage and good sense to propose a bill. Even that may fail because we seem to have decided to be contrary rather than finding ways to work together. It’s all rather tiring, isn’t it?

The Future Is Now

Everybody is talking about ChatGPT, Generative Pre-Trained Transformer. It’s a powerful Artificial Intelligence bot developed by Open AI and backed by a number of Silicon Valley investors including Elon Musk. The site was unveiled to the public last November and it has quickly become the talk of the town. You can ask the bot any question and receive an answer or even an entire research paper. It is still in the beta testing phase so the bot is learning and changing with each interaction with a human. So far there are still kinks in the information, especially when it comes to mathematics, and its use has raised hundreds of ethical and legal questions. Nonetheless AI seems to be very much a wave of the future that will only get more and more useful as better and better versions develop.

It all reminds me of other trends during my lifetime that once seemed ridiculously unnecessary and maybe even a bit frivolous. I recall hearing about the first color televisions and could not imagine why they might one day replace the old black and white versions that flickered in varying shades of grey in living rooms across the land. Eventually everyone seemed to be watching the NBC peacock in brilliant color and more and more innovations were still to come. Screens became bigger, then flatter and even smarter. At the same time the cost of a television inched lower and lower. The old television repairmen became a thing of the past. 

The same was true with phones. Once they were tethered to a wall and then came the models that allowed us to the phone lift from the cradle and walk around the room while we talked. Eventually big brick looking cell phones came around to remind me of Maxwell Smart with his shoe phone. Many iterations later we have our smartphones that contain more power and information than the bank of computers used at NASA to send a man to the moon. Even some small children now have phones and students save lists of assignments on electronic calendars. Now the old style camera with film is not as necessary as it once was as we snap photos simply by lifting our phones and pushing buttons. 

I have recounted my personal story with computers. Our family started with a TRS 80 that operated with a tape deck and did very little other than run a couple of games. Eventually we upgraded to the Apple IIe with a double floppy disc drive. My husband developed a grading program for me and I used the word processor to write lessons and create assignments. My principal was so impressed with my innovations that I became the school’s computer “expert.” Now I have a powerful machine that sits on my lap and does so many things that I sometimes can’t believe its capabilities. Most students have laptops to do their school work. Some universities provide every student with an iPad. During Covid I kept my classes going for over two years from my upstairs bedroom using my laptop and Zoom. I never missed a session and my students progressed in spite of being remote. 

I am fascinated by the future of artificial intelligence. It is already being used in small ways. I have a robotic vacuum cleaner that whirs through my house five days a week whether I am at home or not. We control lights and music with voice commands. ChatGPT is bound to evolve into a very useful tool for enriching our lives, but the concerns about it are valid. How will we be able to tell if a student’s paper was written by a computer? Will electronic art become as valuable as that created with the human hand? What happens if the bot does not understand the nuances of higher mathematics but is used for critical calculations? Will such a bot decrease jobs for humans. Will it dramatically change the kind of work we do? 

All such questions are troubling many people at the same time that they are fascinated by the possibilities of AI. Will the time come when the elderly will be able to live independently in their homes with the aide of robotics and AI coupled with regular visits from humans to make certain that everything is running well? Will we one day in fact be riding around in self driving vehicles? Will teaching methods change dramatically? What will happen in medicine? Will bots be able to continually observe people in the hospital? Will our predictions of the weather and the economy become more accurate? 

Some believe that the revolution brought about by AI will make the entire world a better place to be. They imagine AI serving people in remote areas. They see a brighter future, but as we know humans often have a way of taking something good and using it in nefarious ways. The idea that AI could backfire is as valid as predictions of better things to come. We simply have to be willing to think critically about what is happening as the saga of AI unfolds and deal with problems as they arise.

For now I’ve heard of a minister who uses ChatGPT to find ideas for writing his weekly sermon. A woman who has a small business asks it to write notes to her customers. An engineer used an outline from it to create a guide for processes required by his company. I asked it a couple of mathematics questions and learned that it is rudimentary at best as the mathematics becomes more complex, but I got some excellent definitions of terms.

The future is now. One day we may look at the Jetsons and laugh at how quaint their predictions of the future world actually were. I for one can’t wait to see how AI will create better and better ways of living. Maybe there really is a Wizard of Oz and he is found in AI.

Musings on the War in Ukraine

I get emotional thinking about the war in Ukraine. I’ve never been there and I only know one Ukrainian woman by association with her husband with whom I once worked. I look at a map and see Slovakia on the border with Ukraine and think of my grandparents who came from that region. My DNA identifies me as being almost fifty percent Eastern European. Without ever having been to any of those places I somehow identify with the people in that part of the world and remember stories that my mother told me about her father’s love of his homeland. I know that I must have relatives there because I have seen letters from cousins reaching out to my grandparents. 

My mother was proud to be an American because her father taught her to be so. He had come to our shores just before the outbreak of World War I and was always grateful for the freedom and opportunities that he found in this country. He rather quickly became a naturalized citizen of the United States and all of his children were born here and spent their lives serving and honoring this country, but they also understood that their heritage was shared with Slovakia. 

Mama told me that she only saw her father cry a few times in his life. One was when Germany overtook Czechoslovakia during World War II. Another was when the Soviet Union laid claim to his homeland at the end of that war. He had hoped that the place of his birth and boyhood would become a free democracy like the USA. He did not live to see his dream come to fruition when many years later Slovakia finally become its own nation after a long history of domination by outside forces. 

I have admittedly paid only cursory attention to Eastern Europe. I know little about the place where my grandparents were born or the nations that surround it other than the fact that many of them endured the iron fist of the Soviet Union for decades during my lifetime. I celebrated their freedom as we neared the end of the twentieth century and the old guard fell. I watched the various countries struggle to build democracies and lift themselves up from the domination that the Soviet Union had held over them. 

When murmurs of potential conflict between Ukraine and Russia arose last year I had to do some research to learn more about the fractious historical relationship between the two countries. I realized that the struggles had been ongoing for a very long time and that Ukraine by nature of its location was an amalgam of many differing people. Using the skills I had learned in a long ago geography class I saw the economic worth of Ukraine to Russia and better understood why the super power was bold enough to invade under the guise of freeing Russians who live there. Its fertile land and seaports were the most likely reasons for Russia’s greed, along with the outsized pride of Putin’s dream of recreating the dominance of the old Soviet Union. 

I had hoped that Russia would see the determination of the Ukraine people and the support of western nations, including my own country, and pull back from the push to conquer the country. One year later I realize that Putin is determined to continue his murderous rampage regardless of the cost to either Russians or Ukrainians. At this point he seems determined to send waves of Russian soldiers into Ukraine no matter how many of them die or how much destruction they leave in their paths. The idea of any kind of peaceful resolution appears to be far away. 

I think of the people of Ukraine often. My mother used to muse that we might have relatives there given the proximity to Slovakia. I wonder if there is some distant cousin enduring the horrors of a year of war and worrying about what the coming months may bring. I feel a strange connection to the people there and I have admittedly shed many tears over their predicament. I also wonder why so many Americans want us to withdraw our support of Ukraine with the argument that it has nothing to do with us and is therefore a waste of our taxes. 

I find myself thinking of the grandfather that I never met. I would love to talk with him to find out how he feels about what is happening close to his old neighborhood. Would he be angry, worried, or maybe just sad that any people in Europe are still enduring the whims of power hungry oligarchs? Would he be concerned that Slovakia too might lose its recent freedoms if Ukraine falls? I’d like to know his thoughts.

As Ukraine enters its second year of war I keep the people constantly in my thoughts. I wish that the whole world were united in support for them, but politics make strange alliances that all too often choke the life out of innocent people. Such has been a fact of history for decades and it bothers me. I can’t seem to be someone who can easily ignore the suffering of others, especially when what is happening to them seems so unfair. I’m a fixer and I don’t know how to fix Ukraine other than to continue to support them in every possible way.