What Is A Good Birth?

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I vaguely remember studying heredity in biology when I was a fifteen year old sophomore in high school. I recall learning about the work of Gregor Mendel in which he unlocked the mysteries of producing various traits in peas. The study of genetics was as fascinating to me as it must have been to those who first began to unravel a bit more of how nature works. By the beginning of the twentieth century Charles Darwin had proposed his theory of evolution, Thomas Edison had begun to light up cities and towns, and Alexander Graham Bell was busy bringing a new form of communication to the world. There was great excitement among scientists and inventors as mankind progressed from the mostly rural horse and buggy days into a brave new world of automobiles and an industrial revolution. I suppose that it is only natural that a group of researchers began to consider the possibility of learning how to eliminate the weakest traits of humans by controlling genetic pairings much as Gregor Mendel had done with peas. With the exciting goal of creating stronger and more healthy people Sir Francis Galton describe a whole new science which he called eugenics, meaning “good birth.”

The original motives that propelled eugenics may indeed have been noble, even as they were naive. The driving thought was to prevent the suffering that so often plagues humans by weeding out the weakest traits deemed to be the result of heredity. Thus the eager scientists began to codify the pairings that appeared to create intelligence, beauty, good health, and athleticism while also identifying those that led to “feeble mindedness” and disease. Little consideration was given to the role of environment or to the consequences of classifying individuals as fit or defective. Sadly such practices advanced dangerous ideas like warehousing those with mental illnesses or learning difficulties in asylums away from the public. Some states even willingly passed laws allowing so called experts to determine which people needed to be sterilized for the sake of a “better” society. Invariably certain ethnicities were determined to be more perfect than others which lead to changes in immigration laws.

In retrospect it is easy to see how horrific the eugenics culture that arose actually was, but there was a kind of tunnel vision about the movement that was so enamored with the science that few bothered to consider the ethical consequences of the various studies. Surprisingly many of the theories were enthusiastically embraced even by individuals who were seemingly forward thinking like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, and Alexander Graham Bell. Eugenics conferences attracted renowned scientists from around the globe and behind the ivy covered walls of universities there was great excitement about the potential for improving the lot of the human race. Few appeared able to see the horror or that the idea of classifying human traits might lead to very dark places.

There were incidents that began to give pause to the excitement, including the case of a young woman who had been sent to an asylum because she was thought to be incapable of caring for herself due to her lack of mental acuity. Her mother had also been deemed unfit and was institutionalized as well. When the girl became pregnant and delivered a child judged to be as “feeble minded” as the other family members authorities decided to sterilize the her rather than risk bringing even more weak children into the world. The girl fought to prevent this atrocity and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court where Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes proclaimed that society had a duty to prevent the continuation of defective families that become a drain on national resources. She was sterilized!

Sadly such events were not isolated as state after state enacted laws that allowed medical personnel to determine which women were flawed enough to warrant sterilization. Individuals were judged by the appearance of traits like mental illness, addiction, ethnicity, and even poverty. Immigrants from places like southern or eastern Europe were thought to be a threat to America with their ignorance and “dirty” ways. Die hard eugenists believed that it was their duty to keep the best traits pure by limiting contact with those who seemed to be damaged.

It was not until a scientist named Hermann Joseph Miller from the University of Texas demonstrated the complexities of human heredity that the eugenics movement began to lose its luster. When news of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps reached the world, its link with eugenics insured that all thoughts of meddling with human heredity were mostly put to rest. Eugenics became an embarrassment that was secreted away.

I shudder to think of how my own family might have been viewed through the lens of eugenics. My maternal grandparents were from one of the countries thought to be inferior. Had they not arrived in the United States before the immigration laws became more constricted I might not be writing these words today. My maternal grandmother had a mental breakdown as well and spent time in a state hospital in Austin. Luckily Texas was not one of the states allowing involuntary sterilizations or she may have been deemed a candidate for such a procedure. My paternal grandfather spoke honestly about his father’s alcoholism and his own. Until he took control of his addictions he was hardly the kind of person who would have been deemed worthy of fathering children.

My family demonstrates the folly of the so-called scientific judgements of eugenics. In spite of what appeared to be undesirable traits the descendants of my grandparents are some of the most intelligent and productive individuals in society. From those so called defective genes there are now medical doctors, teachers, lawyers, doctors of philosophy, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, business men and women, ministers, athletes. We put the lie to the very essence of eugenic arguments that some groups of people are so inferior that they must not be allowed to produce. Thankfully the scientific community regained its wits and turned away from the ignorance that it was propagating, but not before millions had suffered and even died.

The black mark of eugenics should give us pause. We should always question any ideas that claim legitimacy while admitting that there are still many unknowns. Just because those who are better educated insist on the righteousness of their ideas does not make them so. When our hearts tell us that something feels wrong, we need to listen. Sometimes our instincts are more in tune with reality than those propagating unproven theories. We always have to ask ourselves if generalities can be believed. 

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Inventing a New Way

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When I was growing up I knew a number of elderly people who lived with their children who cared for them until the day they died. It wasn’t all that unusual to see households composed of extended family members. My own maternal grandmother lived with her two bachelor sons and the rest of her children often took turns sitting with her whenever she became too sick to leave her bed. She died peacefully in her home with her loved ones hovering over her.

My husband often speaks of his grandmother and mother caring for his great grandmother who had been struck down by a stroke. It was an exceedingly difficult task because the woman was unable to move on her own and she had become chronically irritable because of her afflictions. He often heard her screaming at the ladies who attempted to tend to her every need. They understood that she was the victim of her circumstances, but that knowledge didn’t make their task any easier.

By the time I became an adult the idea of having several generations living under one roof seemingly went out of style. I only knew of a couple of people who opened their homes to elderly relatives. One was a very compassionate neighbor who lovingly cared for her invalid mother-in-law. It was hard work because the woman could never be left alone. One time I went to help out by sitting with the sickly lady, and I was physically and mentally worn out by the end of the session. 

I had one other friend whose mother lived with her, but the older woman in this case was healthy and energetic and helped greatly with duties around the house. I used to love visiting their home because the two women laughed and joked with one another constantly and always offered me fresh cookies that they had baked together. They made their somewhat unique situation seem almost idyllic.

Eventually my own mother spent a little more than two years living either with me or my brother. She was in relatively good health, but her mental difficulties required more and more monitoring as she aged. She and I both struggled with the enforcement of her daily medication intake. She felt that I was overstepping my bounds, and I felt beset upon by the battles that ensued each day. If it had not been for the clash of wills, I would have viewed her time in my home with great joy. I liked having her at our dinner table each evening and talking with her about my work day. She possessed a kind of folk wisdom that helped me, and I valued her opinion. She appeared to be doing very well while in my care, so it was shocking to learn that she had lung cancer. In fact, I was reluctant to believe that she was as sick as she was. I’m still happy that I was able to provide a safe and loving place for her until the very last few days of her life when she had to go to the hospital. 

The number of elderly individuals no longer able to take care of themselves without some supervision will continue to grow as the “Baby Boomers” enter their seventies and eighties. The question becomes how our society will be able to adequately care for those who require assistance in their daily routines. There are already a number of companies that are creating technologies that may support the younger generation in dealing with the coming surge.

Of course there are some people whose illnesses require twenty four hour care. Nursing homes will no doubt become crowded, but what I know from friends is that they are not the only answer. I know many people who realized that their parents needed to be in a more professional facility than their homes, and then found that they had to monitor the care they were receiving on a daily basis to insure that it was being carried out properly. It was an exhausting experience that required energy, patience and joint efforts by siblings.

The idea behind many of the new devices being invented and used is to provide caretakers with systems to monitor all of the necessary activities of older adults. There is technology that will detect heart problems, recognize when someone falls, note when a person has not moved for an inordinate amount of time. check blood sugar, send alarms when daily medications have not been taken, and alert caretakers and first responders in the event of an accident or health emergency. The Echo Dot is capable of turning lights on and off, playing music, setting clocks and even running microwaves and ovens. The Roomba will vacuum a house on a schedule and then return to recharge after doing the work. There are devices that help people to get out of their beds and into wheelchairs without human assistance. Cameras can run a feed to caretakers even when they are offsite.  Doors can be locked and unlocked without from afar. The cell phone has already changed the ways in which we communicate. Before long there will be self driving cars that will allow the elderly to just key in a destination and then sit back until arrival. Uber and other such forms of transportation are already taking people places with little or no trouble. Because all of these inventions will no doubt be profitable, I expect inventors to come up with even more new and better ideas at a rapid pace. 

Best Buy is banking on this kind of revolution happening to the extent that they are going whole hog into to the business of providing their older customers will all sorts of ways of taking care of themselves and keeping their children less anxious about what may be happening to them. While such a focus from major retailers won’t solve every problem, it will go a long way to encourage those with great ideas to monetize them and make them available to the public. It’s going to be exciting to watch our society change in the ways that we deal with our aging population.

Of course there is no substitute for the loving concern of family members. Even in the present it’s a bad idea to put an older individual in a facility and then just walk away. There has to be a routine of visiting and checking to be certain that all is going well. What we do know is that most people wish to stay at home as long as they can, but sometimes that just won’t work for a multitude of reasons. When we manage to find the right environment for them so much worry is lifted from everyone’s shoulders. The coming world may make our choices more plentiful and easier than they have ever been. I will enjoy watching the progress unfold.

Mastering Our Machines

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Our high tech world is glorious until it is not. We are surrounded by machines that are designed to make our lives easier, and most of the time they do. When something goes awry, however, we go into a tizzy. Our links with the world suddenly create chaos and frustration. We’ve perhaps taught Alexa to turn the lights in homes off and on at particular times, but when the Internet goes down we have to scurry again to do things by hand. Our phones keep us linked to the world wherever we go, but in a power failure they are as useless as bricks once they lose their charges. Without all systems working in tandem our computers and cameras and irrigation systems go awry. We are reduced to doing things by hand in the old fashioned ways. We get frustrated and because of that the tasks become more difficult than they need to be. The beauty of our mechanized world is glorious, but when it fails to deliver it adds to our angst.

We now take much of our progress for granted. In just a little more than a century the world has changed so much that our ancestors would not recognize the earth that they once inhabited. My own grandparents had no electricity or even indoor plumbing in the homes of their youth. They rode from place to place in horse drawn buggies. Their homes were heated by fireplaces and cooled by open windows. They communicated with far away friends and relatives with letters that often took weeks to arrive. They witnessed radical changes in their adult lives that transformed their daily routines. By the middle of the twentieth century they were literally in awe of all that they had witnessed, and spoke of seeing the first lights and hearing of the first planes with a kind of reverence.

My own lifetime has been dominated by a kind of inventiveness that was almost unimaginable. I am from the first generation that grew up with daily doses of television. I watched mankind venture into space when such feats seemed to be the stuff of science fiction. I worked in a building that headquartered IBM in my city and I recall entire floors of computer equipment that was less powerful than the laptop that I own today. The phone that I used as a child was tethered to the wall by a cord. Now I carry my means of communication inside my purse, and wear a watch on my wrist with powers that would have made comic book heroes of old green with envy The advances in science and technology came so quickly and regularly that we almost take them for granted, so much so that we become discombobulated when something causes them to fail.

The old ways seem ancient and yet it was not that long ago that we were hanging clothes on lines to dry in the sun. Television was limited to three or four channels that often went off the air at midnight. Student research required long hours culling through books in libraries and writing notes on index cards. Calculations were done with paper and pencil or maybe gigantic adding machines with a hand cranks. Somehow we managed without our current raft of devices that have become commonplace, and we’re not quite sure how we did that.

My father-in-law uses a computer that is somewhat out of date. He owns a big screen television and subscribes to a cable provider. His cell phone is quaint because it is not of the smart variety. He has accepted the newer technology only reluctantly, and usually has to rely on his son when problems with his devices occur. He admits that sometimes the new fangled machines frustrate him more than they help. He marvels at what they do, but wonders if it is worth it to try them given that he has done without most of them for ninety years.

I suppose that I might be more inclined to my father-in-law’s way of thinking were it not for my husband. He likes to be a pioneer in the use of all that is bright and shiny and new. He seems to think that he inherited that trait from his grandfather who was always the first on the block to try the latest inventions. He reads Wirecutter regularly and watches the Apple announcements with regularity. His computer reminds him of events and keeps track of business. He’s souped up our home with devices that automatically do all kinds of tasks. He enjoys discussing and installing innovations with my brother and one of my nephews. It all works quite nicely, and admittedly makes life easier, but when it goes amiss he grows frustrated.

I suppose that I most enjoy being able to write with a word processor. I recall all too well the pain of attempting to type on an electric typewriter. One slip of the finger on the wrong key required an application of a white liquid to hide the error. My printed copies were always filled with little polka dots that shouted out my incompetence with a keyboard. I much prefer the forgiveness of my laptop that gives my papers the appearance of perfection.

Once my essay is done I load it onto a website that schedules my work to appear at a certain time on a particular date. It is a lovely process that allows me to enjoy my favorite hobby of writing. Nonetheless, things do regularly go wrong, and then, like my husband I become anxious and irritable. Glitches steal my time and my joy. I bemoan the horrors of things that do not work, forgetting about how hard the same tasks actually used to be.

Our technology is grand, but I suppose we have to be careful not to allow it to overwhelm us. It’s okay to spend a day without cable television. We can wash our dishes by hand if the dishwasher breaks. We don’t really need our phones every minute of every day. Sometimes it’s actually good to take a moment to just enjoy the world without the artificial sounds and workings of machines. Putting them aside for a time stills the soul and puts us back in touch with our connections to nature and the universe. We need to now and again remind ourselves that we should be the masters of our machines, and not the other way around.

Premonition

pexels-photo-247676.jpegOn a typical Sunday last May I had a major panic attack. It was so painful and foreboding that I spoke to no one about it. Instead I went to some of our local stores and walked around hoping to be distracted enough that I would be able to return to a state of calm. Sadly nothing worked, and I ended up retiring to bed later that night still feeling as though something horrific was about to happen either to me or to the world at large. Insomnia kept me from sleeping for hours until my body finally collapsed from exhaustion, leaving in a state of relative comfort. By the next morning I had returned to my more normal cheery self and I set aside the dreadful feelings that had so plagued me the day before. I decided that I was simply having one of my May attacks that have been brought on over the years by remembering the day that my father died when I was eight years old.

The human mind is wonderful, but it also has the power to send us into dark corners  filled with unfounded fears. Still I have often wondered if we are even close to understanding the capacity of our brains and the abilities that this remarkable organ holds. In truth I believe that we have yet to unlock all of the potential that lies inside our minds. I sometimes think that those we call geniuses are actually people who have found ways to probe into depths of abilities that the rest of us do not encounter. There is still so much to be learned about how we think and what we have yet to discover how to use.

I am if anything very rational and practical, but I also have an emotional side that takes hold of me from time to time just as on that Sunday. I have been known to feel as though I am experiencing a moment of ESP. It does not happen often, but when it does I feel almost overwhelmed with forebodings that I do not understand. One particular instance came years ago as I was driving home from a class that I was taking at the University of Houston. For some reason I felt compelled to stop at a store to buy a black dress. I vividly remember walking around as though I were in some sort of trance, and I must have looked a bit lost because a salesperson walked over to see if I needed some help. I told her that I needed formal attire suitable for a funeral. Bear in mind that nobody in my family had died. I just sensed with a kind of urgency that I would need the proper clothing for such an occasion, and so there I was in the store no doubt appearing to be a alarmingly confused.

I rather quickly found exactly what I wanted, paid and left with a sense of relief. It wasn’t until I reached my home that I felt a bit silly, and wondered how I would explain my strange purchase. I was happy to see that none of my family members had arrived from work and school, so I put the garment in the back of my closet where I thought it would stay until reality proved that I had been a silly goose. Much to my surprise I received a phone call from an aunts a few days later letting me know that one of my favorite uncles was in the hospital, and he was not expected to live. He had been mowing grass when an aneurysm burst inside his brain, and he had been unconscious since then. He did in fact die a few days later.

A chill came over me as I thought of my compulsion to purchase the dress that I would undoubtedly wear to his funeral. I did not know how or even why, but somehow I had foreseen death. It would not be the last time that such feelings would lead me to have some cosmic sense of impending doom. Thus when I felt such overpowering anxiety last year I wondered for weeks what it meant.

At first there were a few minor things that happened to friends and family that made me think that my worries were all for naught. I forgot about the overpowering nature of my thoughts on that Sunday and began enjoying the summer with abandon. The days and weeks were so glorious that I envisioned having one of the grandest times of my life. I journeyed to Cancun and had a most enjoyable experience. I made plans to spend the Fourth of July with family and shortly thereafter to go camping with long time friends. I would end my vacation time in Colorado from whence I would travel to Wyoming to view the total eclipse of the sun. Without warning none of that happened. My world was jostled upside down and torn apart on July third, the day on which my husband had a stroke.

So much changed after that. His prognosis had been grim, but the two of us were determined to adapt our lifestyle to the new reality and reclaim his health. There would be no camping trip, and we would forego the travel to see the eclipse. Our focus was on eating well and exercising and enjoying each moment of even the most routine days. I thought of my fears on that Sunday back in May and began to believe that my premonition had been real and it had been about my husband. I was thankful that things had not turned out as horrifically as my feelings had lead me to believe that they would.

Then came the rains over Houston, fifty one inches over a period of only a few days. I was in a panic as I watched my beloved city drowning. I worried constantly that my husband would have another stroke and die because we would be unable to get to a hospital for help. I felt the full weight of my premonitions bearing down on me as I wondered if Houston would die. I have rarely felt so emotional as I did during those four tension filled days. I wondered if I would ever be able to tell anyone about my crazy hours of anxiety that appeared to be coming to full fruition in the horror of what was happening. I only shared with my husband and because he knew that I had been right about such things in the past, he was willing to respect my sense that I had somehow felt the coming of the terrible events.

Unlike those truly gifted in the use of the mind, my intuitions are always vague, much like the fortunes buried inside the cookies from a Chinese restaurant. Because life is a series of both good and bad events my feelings that something terrible is about to happen has a fairly good chance of coming true based solely on the odds. Still I think that there is a bit more to them that my just being in a low state of mind now and again. I only wish that I had more understanding of what might be happening inside my mind.

My husband seems to think that I am actually just a very observant person, and that my subconscious  stores the information that I note causing me to formulate hypotheses that I can’t explain. For example, I may have noted slight changes in my uncle’s appearance that lead me to worry about his health without actually realizing that I was doing so. Perhaps the same was true in what I saw in my husband’s countenance. I had certainly had misgivings about his general state of well being because he was overweight and rarely exercised. My mind was making connections and drawing conclusions that revealed themselves in my so called premonitions.

Who knows where the truth lies? We may in fact have the ability to predict the future by developing aspects of the brain that have mostly been hidden from us. It is such a complex organ and I can’t help but believe that in the coming decades we will learn more and more about it, and in the process find ways to harness more of its power. For the time being I am simply happy that as of now I have had no overpowering feelings of impending doom. I’m ready for an uneventful summer.

Elon, Larry, Mike and More

Starman_SpaceXIt’s been a very long time since I have felt the rush of excitement that I used to get whenever a new space mission was televised. I grew up in an era of rocketry firsts that literally took my breath away when they were happening. I saw Alan Shepard become the first American to go into space. I watched John Glenn make history with his orbits around the earth. I was tuned in when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words as he stepped onto the surface of the moon and worried with the rest of world when the crew of Apollo 13 announced to Houston that they had a problem. I marveled at the Space Shuttle and the very idea that there might be a vehicle that could return from a journey to be used again and again. I was watching in horror when the Challenger blew up just after launching. I enjoyed the advances that allowed astronauts to make repairs and live for weeks in a space station. I believed that the most wonderful qualities of humans were encapsulated in the space program and as it all seemed to fade away I felt a sadness that was difficult to explain. Then seemingly from out of nowhere came a most remarkable feat that has reawakened my belief that one day in the future we will be able to journey across the universe.

The launch of Falcon Heavy by SpaceX last week was so stunning that I literally found myself crying tears of sheer joy and excitement. Everything about the event was spectacular from the music by David Bowie that accompanied the liftoff to the glorious humor that sent a cherry red Tesla into orbit with its Starman passenger gleefully hitching a ride. Perhaps even more stunning, however, was watching the booster rockets return to earth and land precisely on target to be used again, a triumph that at one time seemed impossible. Elon Musk, the innovator and maestro of the flight is surely a pure genius, who like Da Vinci and Einstein before him has an ability to see the world in ways that move all of mankind forward in our quest for knowledge. He is one of those people who does the impossible. He has managed to make America and humanity great again in ways that no politician has enjoyed.

Progress has always depended on those who are unafraid to gaze into the future. They are the dreamers and risk takers among us. Sometimes we scratch our heads as they announce their ideas, thinking them foolish or worse. We can’t always comprehend the seeming silliness of their notions, but they believe nonetheless and are compelled to move forward in spite of the negativity that often surrounds them.

I have a friend named Larry who long ago announced that he wanted to start a business selling t-shirts with messages and illustrations on them. This was at least fifty years ago at a time when shirts of all sorts were generally plain and of all one color save for stripes or plaids. The very concept of clothing with more personality seemed strange to those of us with whom he shared his proposal. He wanted to set up a kiosk inside a mall to sell his wares. He had heard of a machine that would place a decal on a shirt using heat. He imagined people flocking to personalize their clothing, We instead insisted that he would be wasting his money and his talents to pursue such a bizarre notion. How were we to know that he was indeed on to something very, very big? He was a seer of sorts, while we were too tethered to thoughts of how things had always been to be willing to accept his out of the box thinking.

On another occasion when we visited Larry he proudly showed us a huge box near his television. He explained that the machine would record any program that he wished to keep for the future. We were polite as he explained how it worked and what its uses might be. Inside our heads, however, we felt that his had been a ridiculous purchase. After all,  we wondered, who would ever want to make a recording of a show? Once you watched it why would you want to see it again? We simply did not have the vision that Larry had. Our ability to see ahead was far too limited. Unlike Larry we were not willing to think of the world as it might be.

My brother Mike was very much like Elon Musk and Larry from the time that he was only three or four years old. He walked around with a book written by Werner von Braun that told a tale of man one day  going to the moon. He tucked it under his tiny arm like a treasured toy and gazed at the illustrations of rockets and living quarters in space vehicles as though he was enjoying the characters of a little Golden Book. He told everyone who would listen that one day a man would go to the moon and that he was going to be a mathematician so that he might help to design systems for building the craft. Adults laughed good-naturedly at his assertions, but he was totally serious, and he built his life around those goals. He created a marble computer when he was in high school that won him the Grand Prize at the Houston Science and Engineering Fair. He went to Rice University and studied mathematics and Electrical Engineering. In time he went to work for Boeing Aerospace in conjunction with NASA and eventually authored the computer program for the navigation system of the International Space Station. He too was someone who was always able to envision a future that was far more exciting and complex than most of us are capable of realizing and he sustained the confidence to follow his journey.

Now I have a grandson named Jack who is imagining the possibilities of one day being part of the SpaceX team designing software. A granddaughter named Abigail is already recording ideas for making the care of animals more humane. Grandson William is writing stories about the future. The odyssey of the mind continues with amazing individuals who see a box of junk as a source of possibilities. These kinds of people turn problems into magical creations. They are the thinkers and dreamers who move us ever forward. They are the future and instead of chuckling at their imaginations we would do well to encourage them to propel us forward.