Learning From the Past

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I was not born when it happened, but it was close enough to the time when I entered the world that I often heard about it. It was during the reign of terror brought on by Adolf Hitler that book burnings became common place in Germany. Any writing that Hitler and his men thought to be counter to their beliefs was deemed inappropriate, confiscated and burned in the public square. The idea was to eliminate works that might cause citizens to ask questions, to actually think. Books and philosophies have been banned in other eras and societies as well. It has been the topic of dystopian novels and movies depicting dark governments where freedom is obliterated in favor of a set of ruling beliefs. It is something that we particularly find abhorrent here in America, but nonetheless such extreme control sometimes creeps in, often with good intentions. We have learned that there is a very fine line between judging the appropriateness of the written word, and becoming authoritarian in controlling it. If we are to protect our freedoms we must be very careful in our approach to ideas that we find uncomfortable.

It is one thing to avoid certain books or authors on a personal level, and quite another to suggest that particular writings be removed from the public domain. I may find the Shades of Grey books to be offensive, but I would never suggest that others who enjoy them be denied the pleasure of reading them. The rantings of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf are impossible to accept, but I plowed through them just so I might know how the mind of a true fanatic actually works. Often our best option with volumes that disturb us is to become more familiar with them. As the godfather said we should keep our friends close and our enemies closer. There is much to be learned from the words of those with whom we disagree. We may never embrace their philosophies, but we know what they are thinking which is always a good defense.

Lately we have a kind of policing of writings that is far from being akin to the Nazi methodologies, but nonetheless should be troubling to all of us. The latests dust up is over the Little House on the Prairie books from Laura Ingalls Wilder. In a series of stories written for children Ms. Wilder described her life with a pioneer family moving west. She spoke honestly of the people and events that she encountered and for many decades now the volumes have been a favorite among readers, even spawning a long running and successful television program. For her efforts a literary award was even named in her honor, but recently the society of librarians who distribute the distinction decided to erase her name from the prize because of a perception that her works demonstrate racist and mysoginistic tendencies. The parsing of her words and ideas has even led to suggestions that schools named for Ms. Wilder be changed, and some question the appropriateness of reading them to children.

I find myself feeling a tiny bit squeamish about all of this, especially since the judgement of the books doesn’t appear to take into account the realities of a bygone era. Instead of using the tales to demonstrate how far we have gone or to hold discussions of how offensive some common ways of past thinking were, we want to just wipe the author away as though none of what she described actually happened. Children really can handle the truth, and usually do it better than some adults. It might be shocking to hear Ma Ingalls making disparaging comments about Native Americans, but think of what a teachable moment reading about it might be for youngsters. When Pa takes off his belt to whip one of the kids yet another dialogue about changing ways of discipline might ensue. It is important that our young understand that in judging historical events we are almost certainly going to encounter ways of doing things that seem foreign in today’s world. It’s a fairly certain bet that our own times will have elements that confuse and confound the people of the future. We are slowly but surely changing and evolving and approaching situations differently than our ancestors did. It should not hurt us to learn about their ways, but instead should enlighten us.

Whenever I read books written in a time passed I always consider the influence of the people and events that were taking place then, not now. Our manners and even our language adapt over the decades. I often wonder how shocked my great grandparents would be if they were suddenly plopped down into the twenty first century. They died without ever having electricity or running water. They lived in the wilderness in an atmosphere of quiet. They had little education and never traveled far from home. Their experiences were limited to a tiny geographical area. They did not enjoy the educational opportunities that we today take for granted. With such a limited worldview it is likely that they may have had philosophies that would make me cringe, but I would not be comfortable judging them because they were not exposed to as much diversity of thought as I have been.

Read the books from Laura Ingalls Wilder or not. It is an individual prerogative. Don’t however indict her for an honest telling of a time when minstrel shows were common and thought to be fine entertainment. Don’t call her racist simply because some of her characters were afraid of the Native Americans that they encountered. Don’t parse her every word to find omissions or slips of the tongue that appear to demonstrate a hidden agenda. I suspect that she was simply a talented writer who wanted to tell her story of a time and people that even she understood were not without flaws. In fact she made her characters very human and did not mince words in pointing out their problematic features. She should be applauded for that, not condemned.

So far nobody has suggested banning or burning Ms. Wilder’s books but a bit of a dust up of indignation has indeed occurred. If we let the ruckus go too far we might find ourselves obliterating the magnificent works of Mark Twain or even William Shakespeare. We need to be certain that our goal is only to critique, not to banish. Every voice must be allowed in the spirit of freedom, otherwise we run the risk of overstepping the bounds of liberty.

Life has changed in so many ways. My mother-in-law often told of the time that her father was beaten by a teacher when he misbehaved at school. She proudly noted that her grandmother demonstrated her disapproval of the punishment by summarily whipping the offending educator with a buggy whip. We know that such behavior would have ended badly for both women in today’s world, but the memory is expressive of just how much we have changed. My mother-in-law was one of the most nonviolent people I have ever known. To attribute bad behavior to her because she repeated the story would be absurd. Perhaps we need to think about things that trouble us with less judgement and more joy in realizing that we have moved beyond such beliefs. Use the past as an educational tool, not a whipping post.

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The World Is Thirsting

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Things were slower, less complicated when I was a child. The noises that I heard came mostly from the hum of daily living that wafted through the open windows of my home. There was a kind of routine on my street that rarely varied, even in the summertime when school was out for three full months. The world became relaxed in June, July and August, filled with precious time that I was able to use however I wished.

The cooler mornings always lead me outside to see if anyone else had ideas for new adventures, but by noon the heat often became too much for us to bear and so we retreated back inside our houses where we were sheltered from the burning rays of the sun, if not the humidity and heat. Most homes on my street had massive attic fans that pulled hot air in through the windows, creating a kind of artificial breeze that made our climate only slightly more bearable. Afternoons were a good time for quiet play and so we engaged in marathon card games or set up never ending boardgames like Monopoly.

Without a doubt reading was my favorite pastime when summer rolled around. I positioned myself on my bed in front of an open window and forgot all about the temperature or any of my worries as I escaped into worlds brought vividly to life with words that painted pictures in my mind. It mattered little what volume lay before me. I was willing to explore new authors, new genres. The excitement was in expanding my universe from the confines of my little house, my street, my neighborhood. Through those books I traveled all around the world and learned of people and cultures. I considered new ideas and felt as adventurous as if I had actually embarked on a junket to the far corners of the universe.

I guiltlessly indulged in the stories that expanded my horizons and taught me the beauty of language. Each summer I was mesmerized by the written word and its power to transport and transform me. I read voraciously like a starved soul, and mentally catalogued my favorite authors and titles. I little understood at the time how much more complicated my life and the world would eventually become, but as the years went by and I entered my adulthood, the luxury of spending hours reading for three months out of the year would become little more than a memory. My time became ever more filled with obligations that absconded with the minutes and hours. I found myself rushing from one thing to do to another. I was lucky to find a few minutes here and there to stoke my passion for reading. I had to steal moments from my always filled calendar, and somehow my favorite thing to do became that last thing that I would do, often reading long after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. In the quiet of the night I escaped from my own complex world to those of others.

The list of books that I have read speaks to the change in my habits. I have enjoyed most of the classics but I am sadly unfamiliar with so many of the modern authors. I simply haven’t found as much time to discover them and yet so often when I do I am enthralled. I suspect that there is a whole new world of wonder just waiting for me if only I can talk myself into slowing down. I raced through my days for so long that even in retirement I don’t seem able or willing to return to the delightfully slow pace of my childhood. I have bought into the idea that I must somehow justify the merit of each day by ticking off my accomplishments. I am still trying to justify spending three or four hours reading everyday when so many other things need to be done.

Perhaps I must teach myself once again to be more like a child, open to letting each day unfold without plans or expectations. I need to release the stresses and guilts that we adults so often carry like baggage. I must accept that giving time to myself is as important as giving to others. I try to remember that it was in the innocence of childhood that I learned so much that made me who I am today, and those hours reading were invaluable in my development.

I’ve heard that people do not read as much today as they once did. Libraries don’t see as much traffic. Bookstores sell fewer volumes. Newspapers are struggling to sell subscriptions. I know folks who blithely admit that they haven’t read a book in years. We spend time that might be better used reading in the pursuit of other activities  like playing computer games or posting on Facebook or tweeting our thoughts. We feel as though we know more about what is happening in the world, but we rarely bother to read up on the facts behind the headlines. Our knowledge is often limited to the soundbites that we accept from our favorite politicians or celebrities. We believe without going into depth on any topic, learning the history and all of the background. We rush around and rely on others to keep us informed. We have incomplete pictures of the world because even with all of the global communication at our fingertips we still operate in tiny bubbles that rarely give us the big picture. We readily believe whatever lines up with our own thinking rather than challenging ourselves by seeking to delve more deeply 

Reading challenged me when I was in my formative years. It taught me about the history of mankind and the variety of personalities that comprise the human race. I learned to think and to see the difference between a fact and an opinion. Those hours spent feeding my mind that seemed so lazy and even a bit selfish were actually some of the most important moments of my life. There is little that I might have done that would have been more valuable and truly I suspect that it is more important than ever for me and the rest of the world to set aside time to learn lessons from the past and ways to move toward the future.

In spite of the nonstop flurry of headlines and commentaries our world is thirsting for knowledge and information. We are falling victim to propagandizing that is everywhere. Reading is the antidote for our malaise. Just as with exercise, the more we read the better our minds will be, particularly when we don’t limit ourselves to one point of view. I’m ready to begin a journey into the world of books once again. I have a fine list of suggested titles from a friend. I can’t wait to start reading.   

When We Open Our Minds

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If you have not yet read Fahrenheit 451 you should put it on your summer reading list. It is a dystopian tale written by Ray Bradbury in the early nineteen fifties. As with most classics it is still worthy of discussion today, and maybe even more so than back then. Bradbury managed to predict a number of pursuits that have almost become an addiction in today’s world long before such things had even been invented. The main idea of his masterful work is that books have been banned in the future world and firemen do not extinguish blazes, but instead burn any remaining volumes that they find. It is all supposedly done to make people feel better along with providing them with mind altering drugs and a daily diet of numbing entertainment.

The main character is a man named Montag who is quite a rockstar when it comes to carrying out his book destruction duties, at least until he begins to question the the process of turning the masses into unquestioning sheep. Ultimately his desire to find the truth becomes his compass.

The book itself is extraordinary and it translates well to film. The first effort was a movie from the nineteen sixties, and most recently HBO took a turn bringing the story to life. The latest offering changes many aspects of the original story, but not the main idea. It shows us an America that has endured a second Civil War in which millions of people died. Books are now contraband and Montag is one of the best at eliminating them. The HBO version is visually stunning particularly in its portrayal of the masses being instantly gratified by watching the firemen in action and tweeting comments as their work unfolds. It is a frightening look into what might happen when the members of a society are no longer able to accept differing ideas. To the victor belong the spoils, and that can result in a total refusal to allow critical thinking of any kind.

I found myself drawing so many parallels with our present day environment that seems to only grow worse. There is a kind of group think within the dominant political parties that actually worries me greatly. Even at universities that used to be centers for open discussion, certain people and ideas are denied a platform. It is so different from when I was at the University of Houston, and part of the excitement was being able to hear every possible kind of belief. Nothing was considered too out of bounds and we were taught to weigh philosophies heavily and ask relevant questions before accepting theories. Now people are judged by public opinion, often without any facts to back up the arguments. It truly worries me that we shut down public debate even before it has happened. How are we to know what different platforms actually are if we never find out about them?

There is a wave of concern that is being voiced by those courageous enough to point out that our political discourse has gone very wrong. We are asked to choose sides and give one hundred per cent agreement or bear the consequences. The militancy that both ultra progressives and ultra conservatives demonstrate is more and more becoming the norm, crowding out those of us in the middle. Few of us have been willing to hold out for individualism and truth rather than blindly accepting the noise of the crowd. It doesn’t take a grand leap to imagine a schism in our country growing so bad that violence ensues.

I suspect that some of my historical heroes would be deemed losers in today’s atmosphere. Imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. insisting on peaceful demonstrations or Republicans providing the needed votes for Lyndon Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act passed in Congress. We are no longer willing to give credit when it is due if the person is not in tune with our way of thinking on every issue. Today’s feminists refuse to consider a conservative woman who is pro life as a success even if she holds a powerful position. They certainly scoff at a woman who chooses to stay home to raise her children. When a conservative like John McCain valiantly votes in the name of honor, he is spurned as being wishy washy if his stance is not in tandem with the president and some mysterious base. We see so much hatefulness coming from all quarters, and we wonder why our teens are turning to violence to solve their problems.

Fahrenheit 451 asks us to imagine taking our anger just a few steps forward until we answer all of our problems by preventing freedom of thought. It is a world in which sadness and disagreements are not allowed in the ridiculous hope that if we simply avoid confrontations and free speech we will all be happier. Instead I maintain that such a world imprisons us. We should all push back at any attempts to treat us like mindless children. We need to be wary of electronic hypnotizers that are stealing away our individualism.

I used to tell my students that the most priceless thing in their lives was education and the freedom to learn about anything that interested them. It is true that the first thing that autocrats do is kill the educators and destroy the books of which they do not approve. That is the exact opposite of how a free nation should be. Over time I have read painfully horrific books so that I might better understand even the minds of evil. I plowed through Mein Kampf because I wanted to see for myself just how twisted Adolf Hitler’s mind actually was. I find the exercise of reading and seriously studying all forms of thought to be an important exercise. I find that I rarely am able to align myself totally with anyone because I am a free spirit, and I love that being that way is still allowed. Nonetheless, I see signs that being so are often misunderstood, and I have had my share of ugly criticism, Still, I will fight for my right to my own thoughts and I will continue to do so for others as well, even those with whom I vehemently disagree.

I sometimes wonder if we have become too prone to victimization. It seems that almost everyone has something to complain about rather than focusing on progress and all that is good. If we are continuously seeing half full glasses we change, and not for the better. It’s time for real dialogue, and lots of research and reading. We should beware of soundbites and slogans and ideas that bully us. There is no greater right than the ability to read and discuss even difficult tracts. We should be eager to hear from everyone, even when the words disturb us, perhaps even more so in such cases. We cannot allow ourselves to be drugged by the opium of mass media and entertainment. Like Montag we will find ourselves when we open our minds.

It’s My Hobby and I’m Sticking To It

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I was reminded by a Facebook memory that I have been posting blogs five days a week for six years now. If my math is correct that means that I have somehow managed to write somewhere around one thousand five hundred sixty essays, a number that is almost overwhelming when I think about it. I suppose that in many ways an undertaking that was supposed to be an avenue for advertising the book that I have written has become an obsession, while the book itself languishes in a state of unfinished editing which leads me to believe that I have some sort of psychological hangup regarding my opus magnum. Surely there is a reason for prioritizing my daily chatter over the work that took so much of my time. Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts which brings me back to one of my earliest and most memorable posts.

Husband Mike and I had gone camping with friends at Ink’s Lake State Park located in the hill country of Texas. Things went awry from the start, beginning with the failure of one of our tent poles that resulted in a fix that left the structure leaning to one side. We should have taken this as an omen and either left immediately or made a visit to a camping store to purchase new outdoor living quarters. Instead we soldiered on, and for a time everything went remarkable well until the next bad sign came with the arrival of a group of young people late one evening. They literally came into the campground like storm troopers intent on stealing our sense of security

The members of the group appeared to have no sense of the lateness of the hour as they set up their tents using the bright headlights of their trucks to throw light on the project as well as all of the nearby sites including ours. They bantered so loudly that we heard every sound that they uttered which included both arguments laced with profanity and laughter laced with profanity. One of the members of the group had a chortle that most surely had been designed to drive people insane. Unfortunately he seemed to think that everything was funny. Even after the new folks finally went into their tents they chattered on and on and on, with the sound of that horrific laugh punctuating every single comment.

Needless to say it was a very long and unrestful night, but I was encouraged when I awoke to find the irritating people packing up to leave. In truth I almost asked if I might help them in order to hurry the process along. Instead I simply observed them while I ate my breakfast. I noticed that they were flying a large flag that was unfamiliar to me so I Googled a description and learned that it was something known as the new Nazi banner. Somehow I wasn’t surprised at all because the group was accompanied by a black Labrador Retriever whose name was a pejorative starting with the letter N. I held my temper as best I might, and soon enough they were gone leaving behind so much garbage that vultures came around to clean up the mess. As creepy as those birds were, they were preferable to the people whose place they had taken.

I was able to laugh at the adventure and enjoyed a lovely day at a winery with our friends.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner together and played a rousing round of Scrabble while sipping on wine, so I truly thought that I would enjoy a night of deep sleep until thunder, lightning and a torrent of rain began falling mercilessly on our tent. The “sturm und drang” only got worse as the wind picked up and took advantage of the broken tent pole that now threatened to collapse under the intensity of the weather. I was far too terrified to sleep and so I lay on my cot hoping and praying that the little stream right behind our site would not decide to flood the floor of our home away from home, or that the wind might become too much for our structure. All kinds of warnings were making frightening noises on my cell phone, so when there was a small break in the downpour I raced to our car with a pillow and a blanket and found the refuge that I needed. It wasn’t long before Mike had given up his post and joined me. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but at least it felt safe.

By morning we assessed the damage and decided that it was time to bail and head back home. As we were leaving the park rangers mentioned that we had been the only tenters left in the park during the storm. They said that they were glad to see that we were okay because they had worried about us and even considered coming to check on our safety,\. Sadly they felt that it had been just too dangerous outside for them to brave it. Somehow I did not feel better for their kind thoughts.

Ultimately Mike and I gave up on being boys scouts and invested in a nice trailer that has kept us safe from other storms that we have endured. We were eventually able to laugh about our adventure in the tent, and I felt some sense of gratitude that it had given me a topic for launching my blog.

I’m not quite sure why I still get so much out of writing so prolifically. I sometimes wonder if anyone other than my good friends Linda and Adriana or my cousin Terri are reading my work. I know that I am addicted to putting my thoughts on a page. It is my drug of choice and since it does me no harm I suppose that it is as good as any habit gets. The ironic thing is that six years later I find myself in a new state of chaos much like the storm of long ago, and it is just as humorous. Who knew the power of water? Just a brief sprinkle from a hot water heater has upended my household for six weeks now. By tomorrow I should have all of the repairs completed including getting new carpet, but the process has been akin to moving out of the house, tearing it apart, rebuilding it again and then moving back in. For someone as obsessive compulsive as I am it has taken a great deal of laughter to keep me from losing my perspective. I’ve even thought of those God awful campers of late and chuckled at the thought of them just to stay sane.

Right now every item from our walls, closets, drawers, etc. is stored in boxes stacked high in the garage. We attempted to remember to leave out things that we would need for the duration but have found ourselves returning again and again to those boxes because we neglected to keep something at hand. Mike realized that he was going to need his checkbook after we had boxed it up,  and after a bit of a hunt retrieved it and carried it around in his back pocket. One morning he came to me and announced that he had somehow lost it. We searched everywhere and were on the verge of calling the bank to have the account changed when I used my most excellent sleuthing skills to retrace his steps. I eventually found the missing item on the floor of the guest bathroom where it had apparently fallen from Mike’s pants when nature called.

I’m doing rather well given my perfectionist tendencies. I’ve made my journey a study in empathy as I think of friends and family who suffered far greater devastation in the floods of last summer. I also have a new appreciation for anyone who is remodeling in any way. I remember Adriana telling me once that she and her husband had been forced to stored their belongings sky high in their garage while new floors were being laid in their home. I honestly had no feeling or understanding for her situation. Now I just want to give her a long overdue hug for what she must have endured.

In the meantime I suppose that I will keep writing, even if it is only for myself. I’m part of a vast group of people crying out in a kind of wilderness, unknown authors who write out of compulsion. Perhaps I am a bit crazy for doing it, but it’s my hobby and I’m sticking to it. Oh, and I really do want to get that book out for the public. I really believe that it has some merit. I hope it won’t be another six years before I get it done.

Dear Mr. Z

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Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I heard you testifying before Congress last week, and I for one totally understand and appreciate you purpose in founding Facebook. I have enjoyed the benefits of being reunited with long lost friends, as well as being kept up to date with family events since I joined several years ago. Each morning I go to my Facebook wall while I eat breakfast and find out who’s having a birthday or anniversary and what has happened overnight. This early morning routine has become a very pleasant part of my day. I really don’t know what I would do without Facebook because I am now retired and don’t often get to see or hear from my friends in any other way.

I write a daily blog and have a page to introduce my topics and to invite people to read my work. You don’t charge me a thing for doing that or for getting together with friends, so I just want you to know how much I appreciate your amazing creation. I live in Houston and during Hurricane Harvey when fifty one inches of rain fell on our city Facebook became my main means of knowing how family and friends were doing. I learned who was in trouble and who was lucky enough to make it out of harm’s way. My Facebook friends and I looked after one another during those intensely stressful three days and then were able to help one another in the weeks after the water subsided. I was able to quickly find out who was looking for assistance and what they needed. I felt that Facebook was a godsend in so many ways. I can’t imagine enduring that tragic time without the information that came to my wall. I never really thanked you for that, but I feel that I especially should now that you are under fire.

We Houstonians had so much fun sharing our enthusiasm for our Astros as they raced toward a pennant. It was good to be able to smile and celebrate after the undeniable stress of the floods. My wall was filled with excited comments and wonderful memes. You have no idea how great that made all of us feel. Along the way so much money was raised via Facebook for people in our city who had been so affected by the rising water. I’m not sure that would have happened otherwise. Facebook made our devastation real.

I’ve joined prayer chains that began on Facebook, and been the recipient of prayers in my own times of need. I’ve found interesting tips for home care and beauty regimens, as well as suggestions of books that I might enjoy. Mostly though I have smiled over and over again at the photos that fill my wall. I’ve seen newlyweds, babies, graduates, puppies, birds, gardens, and so many lovely images that brighten my days. I know that this is what you envisioned for all of us who enjoy your creation.

Of course you run a business that must generate income somehow and so there are advertisements. I don’t mind those at all. I have to admit that I mostly just ignore them, just as I do the political posts. In fact, I really do doubt that any memes or articles or even fake news influenced many folks in the last election. I generally find that people believe what they believe and aren’t affected by ads or emails or any of that. I also don’t think that you should have to police what is happening on people’s walls. You should not have to become a censor or arbitrator. In fact, that would actually be creepier to me than knowing that once in a great while someone may create an advertisement to entice me to think in a particular way.

Long ago I understood that we can’t believe everything the we see on the Internet. Only a very foolish person would take something as gospel without doing a bit of research to determine its veracity. I always do my homework, and I’ve found that most of the people that I know do as well. Admittedly I wasn’t a fan of President Trump and so I paid no attention to positive commentaries that appeared on my wall. On the other hand most of the people that I know who do like him voted for him mostly because they simply did not want Hillary Clinton or they worked at jobs that they felt he supports.

Anyway, I hate to see big changes on Facebook just because a political group used information to target potential voters. If I’m not mistaken the Obama campaign did something similar and everyone thought that it was genius, which it was. Our world is changing and we need to move along with it. You are an innovator and what you have given us is wonderful. I really do hope that things work out well for you in the end, and that Facebook doesn’t change too much.

In the meantime I don’t mind getting political emails from both the far left and far right. I actually find them interesting and sometimes even humorous. I use Google and Amazon and Apple, so the odds are quite good that someone somewhere knows a bit about me. I write this blog and pretty much tell whomever is willing to read my words about my life and my feelings because I have nothing to hide. I’m not so easily influenced by any form of propaganda, so keep up the good work and know that I’m someone who will stand behind you. Thank you again for bringing so many of us together from all around the world. You’ve done a very good thing.