A Nation of Knowledge

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There are many national treasures in the United States, a number of them gifts from nature. The Grand Canyon is a breathtaking spectacle. The mighty redwood forests are haunting. The Rocky Mountains are the marrow of the country. We sometimes forget our manmade creations that seem to pale in comparison to the ancient edifices and wonders that lie in other parts of the world, but one that stands out as a true gift is the system of Smithsonian museums in Washington D.C. that span so many facets of human enterprise. Surprisingly the beginnings of that incredible institution came from a man who had never even been to the United States.

James Smithson was a wealthy Brit who possessed an intense curiosity about science and the world. From a young age he dabbled in research and his studies and findings enabled him to accumulate a rather tidy sum of money for the time. When he died his will stipulated that his fortune would go to his nephew, but if that nephew died without heirs then it would revert to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  As fate would have it Smithson’s nephew indeed died without children and so a plan was devised to send the five hundred thousand dollar estate to the U.S.

After a flurry of debate over how best to spend the windfall Congress decided to create “a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.” In August of 1846, President Polk signed the bill into law and of course the rest is history. Today there are nineteen different museums in the Smithsonian family and countless visitors from around the world enjoy the exhibits and benefit from the research that happens all because of the largesse of one man who never actually explained why he had chosen to donate his wealth to the fledgling country. This generous act has indeed increased and diffused knowledge to countless ordinary people over the ensuing decades and has become one of the most popular destinations in the world.

I suspect that during his time Mr. Smithson saw the United States as a rather wild place with little history of which it might boast. The country was still struggling to define itself and to keep afloat in the early nineteenth century. Much of the world sat back waiting for the whole experiment that had been unleashed by the Founding Fathers to implode. It was easy to see that there were still many problems that needed addressing when Mr. Smithson died in 1829. He must have been considered rather eccentric to even consider leaving his fortune to a nation that had yet to prove itself, but in retrospect it was a brilliant idea. What better way to insure progress than to promote education? It is indeed in opening our minds to the knowledge that has come before us and the ideas of the future that we as people become stronger. The foundation of success lies in learning and uncovering truths. The Smithsonian Institution has dedicated itself to being a repository of information that is open to all people.

We are presently engaged in heated discussions about how to move forward in a world that is very different than the one that James Smithson inhabited, and yet his essential understanding of the importance of knowledge holds the key to unlocking our full potential. If the Smithsonian Museums that grace Washington D. C. have taught us anything it is that the power of mankind is unleashed at its best when we work together as people to provide win/win situations for all parties.

What worries me most about the environment that I observe today is that people are taking sides and demanding that their points of view be accepted without quarter. In other words there is an atmosphere of extreme partisanship that virtually insures that half of the population will be angry one way or another. Little effort is being made to consider alternatives or to engage in healthy research and discussion of issues. Much of the population is ignoring the knowledge that we have accumulated over time that might help in unravelling the challenges that we face. I find that few people even possess a fundamental understanding of our Constitution and why it was created the way it was. Even our presidents are sometimes guilty of believing that they have powers that do not belong to that branch of government. We seem to promote freedom of speech only as long as it aligns with our way of thinking and the entire political spectrum is quite guilty of intellectual laziness.

The Smithsonian Institution and all for which it stands should be more than just a vacation destination for Americans. It is not Disneyland, but rather a treasure trove of information and ideas about which we should be eager to learn and discuss while eschewing our preconceived notions. Ours is supposed to be a nation of “we, the people” not “you people” and yet so often I hear taunts that divide us into camps as though there is no possibility of ever coming together.

Propaganda is bombarding us every minute of every day. It is up to each of us to take the time to unravel fact from fiction, lies from truth. It should not be them against us, but rather all of us searching together for the truths that are evident and that may be found in the unfolding history of mankind much of which is housed in the Smithsonian Institution. Our goals should not be to defeat those who think differently from ourselves but to find ways of managing our beautiful diversity so that everyone feels a sense of belonging and power. Our journey to such ideals should begin with educating ourselves and our children.

As we begin yet another school year we would be wise to be inspired by James Smithson’s generosity and wisdom. Somehow he understood that all nations need to learn from the knowledge that mankind has assembled over time. It is in using our rationality that we better the lives of everyone and those who have come before us have demonstrated time and again that struggles for power are not the answer. All of the lessons are right in front of our eyes. It’s time that we buckle down and take them to heart.

Music of Angels

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I was more than excited about having tickets to see Hans Zimmer in concert. I have enjoyed his soundtracks for years. I purchased the first one after watching the movie Greencard. Since then I’ve added The Last Samurai, Blackhawk Down, Sherlock and so many others to my collection of his works. Each of them is unique and captures the essence of the movie in which it was featured. Since I was going to attend the musical event in the company of my husband, daughter and two grandsons, I was even more excited about the evening, especially since my husband had suffered from a stroke after I had purchased the tickets. I thought it would be a grand way to celebrate life, but I expected to sit in the audience listening politely to some of my favorite music with perhaps a film clip or two to go along with the hits. I had no idea how much more wonderful the experience would actually be.

The concert began with Hans Zimmer entering the stage under a lone spotlight. He sat down at an upright piano and began playing. Slowly other musicians began to join him, adding a bit more interest to the tune. One by one they entered and the depth of the music increased until there was a full orchestra and a choir with the entire stage lit in cadence with the amazing sounds. It was one of the most musically exciting things that I have ever witnessed. It demonstrated the power of a single melody to expand with the help of multiple instruments and intricate arrangements. It was like a lesson in the development of a soundtrack or a symphony. I found myself almost imagining the workings of Mr. Zimmer’s mind as he develops the wondrous music that enhances so many movies. He manipulated our interest and our mood with the help of remarkably talented individuals who have worked joyfully with him for decades.

I was particularly taken by his use of amplified instruments to enhance the normal orchestral implements. There were guitars, violins and cellos all amped up and making the most incredible sounds. To use a terrible pun it was quite electrifying. I was particularly enchanted by an Asian woman playing an electric cello. She was wildly enjoying her work so much so that I was enchanted by her. The audience would learn that she has been playing since the age of three and that she practices for eight hours every day. Such dedication to a craft is almost unimaginable but it has paid off for her.

The concert featured some of Hans Zimmer’s most popular works including music from The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, Angels and Demons, Interstellar, Inception, Driving Miss Daisy and many more. With lighting designed to operate in time with the music it was a very interactive evening, and I was thrilled beyond anything that I hoped to see and hear. I swear that I actually felt the music on my skin and I’m certain that my seat was vibrating from the sounds. I know that there were moments when I became so emotionally involved with the music that I felt almost breathless. I even joked that some of the music was of the type that I imagined I might hear as I enter heaven one day. At least I hope that it will be that lovely!

After the concert I read an interview with Hans Zimmer in our local newspaper. He mentioned that he was concerned that so many orchestras worldwide are losing money and audiences. He fears that we may one day see the demise of such local musical troupes because they have failed to capture the interest of younger audiences. They struggle just to keep the older folks in the seats. He suggested that the orchestras employ more fun and innovation in their presentations, and he believes that the people will then come. He noted that the composers of the past were often way ahead of their time. They experimented with music and created new forms. It was the excitement of their compositions that made them famous. Now we seem to simply offer stale copies of their inventiveness. He urged musicians to instead be more daring as he has tried to be.

I completely agree with his analysis because I found his presentation to be so stunningly exciting that I would have stayed for hours more if only his musicians had continued to play. The concert hall was filled with people of every age group and everyone appeared to be enchanted. My grandsons who are college age were as taken by the concert as my husband and I who are in our sixties. The affair spoke to the genius of humans and their ability to create sounds that both please and tell a story. The level of brilliance and musicianship was astounding and mesmerizing.

As people we have incredible creative talents. What we have achieved scientifically and medically is a testament to our intelligence. It is in the arts, however, that we truly demonstrate an aspect of our essence that goes beyond utility. We enjoy art for arts sake, for our pleasure. Our ability to fill our environment with sights and sounds that elevate the human spirit is what truly makes us different from the animals. We take words and string them together in beautiful combinations. We draw lines and curves to create visions from our souls. We use sounds blended together to intensify our stories and our moods. We use our voices and play instruments crafted out of wood and metal and strings. What we have done is so amazing if we really stop to think about it.

I can’t imagine living in a time in which there were few opportunities to hear the best music from the finest composers. Because of our inventiveness anyone has the opportunity to listen to the sounds of angels wherever they may be. It is a gift that I enjoy and cherish every single day. I wonder that we don’t seem to fully appreciate such miracles born of our creativity.

Some seem to believe that we are teetering on a precipice as people. I happen to think that as long as we continue to celebrate and enjoy music and art in its many forms we will maintain our humanity. Music is universal. It brings us together without a need for translation. It speaks to each of us and burrows into our very souls.

As a new school year approaches I find myself thinking of a child will picking up a cello and brimming with excitement upon plunking the strings and creating music for the first time. Perhaps that youngster will one day be entertaining all of us. I can’t wait to hear from him/her. We so badly need such souls in our midst, so I hope we will be careful when making cuts to education. I can’t imagine anything more thoughtless than using arts programs as a way of saving money. We truly need our most creative individuals to keep us centered. It is in our natures to desire enrichment of our imaginations. Bravo to the musicians, singers, dancers, artists, and actors who make our world all the more beautiful with their gifts. Like Hans Zimmer I truly hope that we don’t lose any of them.

Shall We Begin?

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There was a time when the world was a quieter place. There were fewer sounds, no cars, planes, trains, televisions, radios, telephones, complex machines. People heard each other, the calls of animals, the wind, the rustling of water. Life was stiller, slower and in most ways more difficult. The very things that so often annoy us, cause us to feel stressed and steal the silence that we often desire also make our lives easier than those of our ancestors. The conundrum that we face in the modern world is how to keep a balance between simplicity and over consumption. It is the tightrope that we walk in our pursuit of happiness and comfort.

I live in a southern climate. I might be happy to eschew using a great deal of energy in the winter because the days are mostly mild and even on an abnormally cold day a heavy coat and a pile of blankets make the chill go away. The summer presents me with a far greater challenge when temperatures linger in the mid nineties for weeks at a time. It is so hot that I take refuge in my air conditioned home and car during the middle of the day. The thought of being without the cool air is almost untenable and yet there was a time in the not so distant past when I lived through nineteen summers without air conditioning and never felt beset upon.

It was a normal and accepted way of life back then. We simply adjusted to our circumstances and carried on the way people had done for thousands of years before us. We led simpler lives that were still more modern than those that our grandparents had known. It never occurred to us that we may have been disadvantaged. We coped with what we had.

Somehow in spite of the multitude of improvements in American life our society seems to be more dissatisfied than ever. We tend to believe that we should all have more and more and more when just maybe we have reached a tipping point at which we should consider cutting back on some of the things that we do and take for granted. We often argue that each successive generation should do better than the last but what if that idea is flawed? What if our real goal should be to find ways to enjoy the best of our modern inventiveness without being so obsessed with accumulating wealth and things? Is it possible to live the good life while also being more frugal in our use of resources and capital? These are our modern day questions. Our dilemma is in finding the answers that will benefit the most people in the world, a gargantuan task at the very least.

I believe in the concept of liberty and as such I mostly disdain the idea of forcing a particular lifestyle on people. I prefer that we each decide on our own how to partake of the world’s benefits. Still I would like to encourage everyone to find their own personal ways of stepping back just a bit and considering how they might simplify and thereby save for the future. By that I mean in terms of both money and our precious resources. Small measures taken collectively often lead to great gains. Our ancestors knew this well and they pulled themselves out of a major depression and two world wars with determined effort and a great deal of patience.

When I describe the world of my youth it sounds absolutely antiquated. My family had one car, one phone, one television. Computers and cell phones were but dreams of inventive souls. Travel was by car for most people other than the wealthiest among us who had the means to fly from place to place. Eating out was a rare luxury. The books that we read mostly came from the library. I only knew one person who had a swimming pool in her backyard. The rest of us went to the city pool on hot afternoons. Air conditioning was a luxury that was only beginning to come into vogue and even then it was in the form of a unit set in a window. Homes usually had a single bathroom often shared by as many as six or seven people. Children bunked together in rooms. Most of us had two pairs of shoes, one for special occasions and the other to be worn for daily activities. We exercised by running and walking and riding our bicycles. It was a happy time and it never occurred to us that one day people would look back on how we lived and think it quaint and wonder how we were able to endure such seeming want.

The average household of old would appear to be more like a state of poverty today. We have improved things considerably but what have we lost in the process? Our desires seem almost insatiable. Our complaints would confound those who lived in another era. They would wonder at the luxuries of even an average person and ask why we still feel as though we need even more.

We argue over the state of our planet ad infinitum. Why would we risk being wrong? The simple answer is to always think about the consequences of our actions. Our golden rule should be to leave every place better than we found it. If that means recycling, planting trees, composting garbage, picking up trash, adjusting our thermostats, buying only what we really need, turning off lights, or finding our own ways of using less energy why would we complain? These are actions that our ancestors took for granted. It doesn’t matter who is wrong or right when it comes to climate change. We should all still want to be kinder to our world.

We probably will never receive the entire cake of benefits but we are certainly capable of sharing pieces of it with our fellow men and women. We will never be able to achieve perfection but surely we will find more contentment in working together just as our ancestors once did. They raised barns as a community and made certain that people experiencing hard times were cared for. My grandfather told countless stories of people coming together to insure that all members of the community were safe and secure and happy. It was understood that this was behavior expected of everyone. They had so much less than we have today but they willingly gave whatever they were able in times of need.

Sometimes it seems as though we have closed ourselves off inside our modern day castles. We have everything that we need inside and we may have anything that we want delivered to our front doors. We isolate and insulate ourselves from the problems outside our domains, often not even knowing the names of our neighbors or what challenges they are enduring. We come and go and rarely think of the difficulties that are ongoing all around us. We turn off bad news and idealize existence and quibble over issues that should have compromised solutions. We have lost our way on so many levels when we need look no farther than the examples of the past to know what to do.

Thoreau admonished us to simplify, simplify, simplify. Mother Theresa showed us how to share. Our grandparents demonstrated courage and a willingness to adapt to changing situations. Marshall rightly urged us to help our struggling European neighbors after World War II. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us how to open our hearts to differences. The lessons to be learned tell us how to live without the worry and strife that exists in so many corners of our world today. If each person were to change just one way of doing things for the better perhaps we might all wake up to brighter days. It’s time to cease all of the grumbling and work together. Shall we begin?

We Don’t Have To Be Who We Are

dnadoublehelix2I once took a psychology class that focused on reviewing the history of learning theories. The professor pointed out that our knowledge of the brain and how it works is less complete than say what we know about the heart. This is because for most of history the brain was considered to be an almost sacred vessel, the repository of the mind and the center of spirituality. For this reason it was considered sacrilege to invade the space in which it resides, even in terms of merely discussing it.

At the end of the nineteenth century pioneers in the study of how we think began to posit theories and perform experiments. Many of these men and women were seen as societal pariahs with ghastly and ghoulish ideas. Their work was often marginalized and misunderstood. Luckily they had the courage to continue their research and build a foundation of knowledge upon which much of what we know about the brain today is based.

The brain is perhaps the most interesting aspect of our human bodies. We are still learning how it works. We have yet to become as expert at repairing malfunctions of our brains as well as we do with our other organs. We are hundreds of years behind in our understanding of how it operates, but we have indeed made great strides in unlocking so many of its secrets. Those who spend their days in research and medicine take us closer and closer to the time when we may be able to fix even the most delicate problems.

The twentieth century heralded a kind of scientific renaissance. Not only did we conquer gravity and successfully fly above the ground and into the heavens, but we increased our knowledge about our own bodies and what makes the remarkable machine that resides inside each of us operate. Part of those studies lead to questions of just how much each of us is affected by nature versus nurture.

What we have learned thus far is that each person carries a specific set of DNA that defines much of our physicality and even affects our intelligence. Once we are born with certain traits it is up to first our parents and later ourselves to determine how we will use the basic aspects of our chemical and biological makeup. We can’t change the color of our eyes unless we mask them with colored contacts, but we are able to either enhance or retard other aspects of who we are with our upbringing and the choices that we ultimately make as adults.

We know for example that we may carry a propensity for obesity but if our parents feed us healthy diets and encourage us to exercise regularly we may enter adulthood with a foundation for maintaining a lifestyle that will keep us fit. If on the other hand indulgent parents fill our bellies with sugary treats and allow us to sit in front of gaming units for hours every day it is more likely that the gene that makes us obese will take the lead. In other words we are not necessarily bound to the fate of all aspects of our genetic makeup. There are things that we have the power to control if we are willing.

As we learn more and more about our own personal DNA we have the powerful capability of improving or even overriding certain tendencies that lurk inside our bodies. If we bear a marker that tells us that we may be prone to heart disease we may start early eating a cardiac friendly diet and exercising to make that muscle that is the engine of our bodies stronger. We don’t necessarily have to be victimized by the reality that we carry signs of pending trouble. We can be proactive in preventing the very disease that threatens us.

I am fascinated that DNA is even able to determine which of us are related to one another. I have found a host of cousins that I never knew existed just by testing my own DNA. There is something rather powerful and mysterious about the double helix that is the essence of our lives, but it is also rather liberating to know that we often have the power to change our physical destinies with our own choices and actions.

I don’t think that we use the power of our knowledge nearly enough. We all too often operate as though we are still as ignorant about our makeup as we were hundreds of years ago. We make studies of health and nutrition come across as so dry and boring that our young have little interest in such things when in reality the information is fascinating and has the potential of radically altering their lives for the better. 

One of my mother’s all time favorite high school classes was homemaking. In today’s world such an elective would no doubt be viewed as not only having little value but even as being a bit insulting to women. Ironically my mom was constantly quoting her teacher and speaking of the things that she learned from her. She had a keen sense of nutrition and how to create a healthy and safe environment in our home. She used the information that she had learned in highly practical and useful ways. The class was deemed important by her in guiding her daily life even as she grew into her old age.

We miss the mark with our students today. Our health classes are riddled with definitions and rules that do little to inspire. Perhaps we should instead be showing them how to cook healthy meals and which forms of exercise work best. Our quest for creating more scientists and mathematicians is a worthy one but we would do even better if we were to also emphasize and encourage healthy lifestyles, not with lectures but by demonstrating how to be kind to our bodies. We have sadly regressed in this regard.

I recall watching a program many years ago in which a particular tribe of native Americans were found to have a disproportionately high incidence of diabetes. Groups of researchers descended on the area in hopes of learning why this was happening. What they found was that the people ate enormous amounts of fast food and led sedentary lives. More importantly, the scientists did a study of the history of the tribe. They saw that these were people whose ancestors had been runners who traveled everywhere on foot at rapid speeds. They had even held an annual contest to determine champions able to navigate long distances over rough terrain in record time. Their genetic structures showed that they needed this kind of physical activity to keep from succumbing to the symptoms of diabetes. The scientists built fitness centers for the entire population and sent personal trainers and nutritionists to help the citizens change their habits. Within a year the incidence of diabetes had fallen to levels below the national average in most cases without the use of medications.

We owe it to ourselves to use the remarkable genetic information that is available to us to improve our lives and those of our children. To ignore the warning signs that lie inside our bodies is foolish. It’s time that we all became both aware and active in the care and feeding of the bodies that affect us for good or ill. Let’s choose good.

Embracing Life

Come-to-Your-Senses-940x627When my daughter was in the first grade her teacher noticed that she appeared to be reading lips rather than listening with her ears. After a visit to the nurse it became clear that my little girl had lost over forty percent of her hearing. We took her to see a specialist who eventually performed surgery on her ears. As we were leaving the hospital she quite suddenly gasped and asked us what all of the noise was. Her eyes were as big as saucers as she heard normally for the very first time. For her it was a grand experience that she rewarded with a great big smile.

All too often we take so much in our world for granted that we miss some of the most remarkable pleasures. We rush from here to there with our heads full of thoughts about what we need to accomplish. We don’t even notice the hue of the sky or the singing of the birds. We fail to see the tiny gecko skittering across the yard or pay attention to the laughter of children in someone’s backyard. Our eyes don’t even see the beautiful white texture of the milk that we pour on our cereal. We don’t smell the aroma of the coffee as it brews. We are far too busy to stop long enough to allow our brains to appreciate the wonderfully simple miracles that are happening all around us, that is until something forces us to consider the most basic aspects of our lives. Then it is as though we have received a new pair of spectacles or a special hearing aide that allows us to fully experience the world as never before.

Those moments when we pause long enough to appreciate what we have refresh and renew us. They remind us that in most cases our blessings far outweigh our difficulties. We realize that the vast majority of the people we encounter are smiling and friendly. We feel the love and affection that comes our way and see that we are never really alone. We begin to fully understand the importance of the many tasks that people are performing to help us, sometimes so quietly that we hardly notice that they are there. In taking nothing for granted we are filled to the brim with optimism and gratefulness.

I pass the medical center of Houston all of the time without actually thinking about the people inside all of those hospitals. At any given moment there are so many people in distress who are being assisted by kind, caring and well trained medical personnel who are there ready to hep even on a big holiday. They do their work day in and day out with little fanfare simply because it is what they do.

I hear the sirens of passing fire trucks and ambulances rushing along the streets of my neighborhood and quickly return to whatever I was doing without considering how those noises signal that help is on the way. The men and women who rise from their sleep in the middle of the night are good Samaritans in every sense of the word. Their work is critical to us and yet we don’t even think of them until they are coming to our own personal aide.

We complain about our teachers and joke that they may not be the brightest bulbs in the pack even as we have to acknowledge that our entire workforce is built upon the foundation of the knowledge that they provide. Somehow in spite of our constant criticism they carry on with their duties, faithfully striving to help our young to learn. Neither salary nor respect matter as much to them as enriching a child’s mind.

Who ever considers the enormous contributions of engineers who anonymously advance our world? We use their inventions and products with little thought of the effort, inspiration and intelligence needed to build them. We travel down roads and cross bridges as though they somehow just miraculously appeared.

Our garbage disappears because of people who toil in the heat and the cold. Our homes are comfortable because workers built them to be solid and safe. We enjoy an abundance of food because of farmers working in fields hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Every single aspect of our lives is affected by the hard work of countless individuals who use their skills and hard work not just to earn a living but to make the world a better place. Even that ketchup bottle filled with a homespun kind of sauce is a miracle of sorts that we should never think of as just being ordinary.

We should all be like my child who rejoiced in the simple gift of hearing. The world is filled with the voices of those who would make us better. It is a repository for the music of nature and of composers who use instruments to bring us so much pleasure. It is but one of the incredible senses that we should never fail to enjoy. Even the feel of the clothing on our backs should fill us with joy and thankfulness.

Perhaps I have been reminded of late that it is a most unfortunate attitude to ignore the wonder of the people and things that are right under our noses. While a trip to an extraordinary place is a special adventure, our own backyards are also filled with treasures that we need to embrace. Rejoice that the sun rises and sets. Feel the rain as it falls. Enjoy life in every moment. The pleasure and happiness that you seek is already right in front of you. Embrace it with gusto.