Truth Is Beautiful

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Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

 

I want to be left alone. I want to fix things that are broken. I want to just be happy. I want to express my anger about the state of the world. I want to turn away from conflict. I want to have the courage to stand firmly with my principles. I want to get along with everyone. I want to speak out when I see injustice. I am caught in a conundrum, a moment in time when I might cling to wishful thinking or face the realities that I witness happening around me. It would be so much easier to turn off the news, ignore my Facebook and Twitter accounts and just live peacefully in my home blissfully unaware of any difficulties stalking humanity. Unfortunately my curiosity would no doubt get the best of me if I were to make such a choice and ultimately I would be compelled to seek information and truth. My delightful ignorance would be interrupted and once again I would begin thinking about the actual complexities of life.

I’ve been watching the bots and the trolls at work on social media and on YouTube and Internet sites that purport to speak the unvarnished truth. They rile us up with doctored images and false stories. I often wonder from what hole in the ground they operate. They take many forms and present themselves with many names and faces and then spread their poisonous ideas like a virus. I wonder if they are laughing at us as we accept their premises. Do they take delight in watching us turn on one another as we share and discuss their often outrageous posts?

Much of our thinking these days is being directed by anonymous souls who live in faraway places. They purposely want to pull us apart and sadly they are quite good at what they do. It does not help at all that even some of our leaders are as addicted to their devious propaganda as we are. Instead of seeking accurate sources of information we too often find it easier to just cling to a single phrase to sum up the knotty realities that daunt us. We prefer quick fixes and quick answers and then divide ourselves into warring camps when there is a strong probability that there is a much better middle ground. We do not have to settle for “either/or” anymore than I must choose to be either uninformed and content or knowledgable and dissatisfied with the status quo.

We rarely have honest discussions anymore. Each side is busily planning a response to conflicting points of view rather than carefully listening to the other side. It is as though we are engaged in a national debate competition designed to find winners and losers rather than to determine ways to find answers. We see ourselves as opponents rather than understanding that we are all engaged in an attempt to make the world a better place. One side is demanding change and the other is worried that change will cause loss of some kind. One side is revealing uncomfortable truths about history and the other is concerned that talking about such things is hateful.

By now my readers know that my mother suffered from mental illness as did her mother. It was a carefully guarded secret in the family with much denial defining the reaction to what had taken place. Since I was the person first charged with getting help for my mom I had to face truths that were painful. For more than a decade I hid my mother’s situation from the outside, pretending that all was well. Whenever my mother needed care I called in sick to my jobs and told my bosses that I had a very bad bug. Nobody beyond my closest family members and confidants had any idea of my mother’s chronic cycle of bipolar disorder. We tiptoed around the truth of the situation.

It was not until I finally hit a concrete wall that I blurted out my story to a random coworker and finally received the understanding that I needed. I no longer had to hide my secret in the shadows and with my openness came valuable information and comfort. While some people looked askance at my new found honesty most began recounting their own experiences with mental illness. I soon learned that I was not alone and I began to develop a network of individuals who supported me in the care of my mother. I doubt that I would have been capable of dealing with her sometimes frightening behavior for decades had I kept the situation under wraps. My openness and the willingness of others to hear me even when it felt uncomfortable gave me the strength to care for my mother for over forty years.

Sadly there were still those who squirmed when hearing about my mother’s situation. They chose to ignore her symptoms and to engage in a game of pretense. They even believed that I was in some ways dishonest and hateful for talking of my mom’s illness. They could not understand what they saw as my betrayal. They preferred to act as though the great big elephant in the room was only my imagination.

In many ways this is what I see happening today. There are many who are unwilling to discuss and tackle harsh realities and others who would rather cling to a rosy picture even if that image is not true. They worry incessantly about changes that will require sacrifices and do not want to hear of skeletons in the closet of history. They simply want to be left alone, be happy, turn away from conflict, just get along in a superficial manner.

Sadly we would all love a utopian way of existence but since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden we humans have had to endure more difficulties and unhappiness. Nonetheless whenever we pause long enough to actually work together everyone improves just a bit more. Even baby steps can make a difference. Perhaps the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement are the concrete walls that have hit us all in the collective face. They are urging us to begin the process of hearing what we need to hear and not just what we want to hear. Even seemingly ugly truths can become beautiful when we use them to make the changes we have needed all along. Truth is beautiful.

Gazing Into the Future

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I spent my last years working full time as Dean of Faculty in a KIPP charter high school. One of our mathematics teachers was an extraordinary educator who was originally from Nigeria. He once told us a story of his youth and how he wanted to become an engineer from a rather young age. His village provided him with enough education to be rather literate but not enough to gain admittance to a university. For that he needed an advanced course in Calculus but there was only one person that he knew about with the credentials to help him, and that person lived in the next village over from his.

My colleague was determined to earn a spot at the university and so he visited the teacher who held the knowledge that he needed and offered to help him with his farm in exchange for Calculus lessons. For a year the determined young man walked several miles after the regular school day to meet with his teacher. Ultimately my friend indeed earned a degree in engineering.

I was reminded of the many people across the globe who do not have instant access to education when I attended a little seminar at Rice University last year. The special guest was Salmon Khan, who is best known for Khan Academy an online educational platform.  Khan spoke of the power of the internet in bringing instructional opportunities to individuals who might otherwise not have them. He told stories of young women in Afghanistan who have used distance learning to earn college degrees in fields that might otherwise have been closed to them. Today’s world is filled with ever more opportunities for advancement because of individuals like Khan who offer lessons in multiple subjects.

We’ve seen the power of online education in recent days as millions of children have learned their lessons in the safety of their bedrooms. We know of workers who are continuing to do their jobs from their dining room tables. As doctors and nurses are on the frontline of the battle against Covid-19 telemedicine is being used more and more.

My husband was supposed to have a follow up visit with his cardiologist later this month. It will still happen but this time it will take place via computer. When possible this method is being used more and more often during the pandemic and I suspect that it will become a commonplace way of providing general medical care in the future. I can see how it will be an important way of bringing world class medical care to rural areas and parts of the world experiencing a shortage of qualified doctors.

Of course this brave new world of computerized education, work life and medicine will require internet infrastructure but already internet cafes are cropping up all over the world. These are places where anyone may come and pay a fee to use networks for all sorts of reasons. Some cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma are actually leading the movement toward creating centers for online access. I can envision countries creating such places for the population just as we once built the interstate highway system after World War II. What a boon it would be to anyone living in a remote area to have a way to learn or work or get medical care or just to become more a part of the global community!

I remember watching a program about Arthur C. Clarke many decades ago. He was a futurist in every sense of the word. He lived on a Pacific island but was very much connected to the world. Of course he was wealthy enough to have satellites and computer power in an era when few people had access to such things. Nonetheless he predicted that it would one day be possible for anyone to live virtually anywhere and still experience modern conveniences. The computer era is proving him right on so many levels.

I suspect that as we move out of pandemic mode we may want to continue with some of the practices that we have been using and expand on them. While the economy may be battered I predict that new opportunities will arise as clever young people learn from observing what was essential and how we solved various problems during our time of isolation. We are experiencing lessons in supply chains, risk management, education, public health, computer power. Our teachers will be the geniuses among us who paved the road to linking the far corners of the world through online communication. We may be on the verge of a great civilizational shift much like the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution. In fact it may have already started.

Sometimes great good comes from tragedy. Let us hope that the lessons we learn will lead us to ever brighter days ahead and a willingness to try new ways of doing things. I suspect that the greatest minds among us are already making plans.

We Must Provide the Heart

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Way back in the nineteen eighties my husband, Mike, came home bearing a big box with almost childlike excitement. Inside the cardboard container was a computer from Radio Shack, an early rendition of the TRS 80 that ironically earned the nickname “Trash 80.” We were very much on a budget at that time, saving for college for our children and working at jobs not known for their generosity in salary. We carefully watched our purchases so it was unusual for Mike to spend what was then a rather large amount of money without discussing it with me. My initial reaction was to be a bit angry but Mike countered my protests by claiming that computers were going to change the world and our family needed to become intimately familiar with them. I was somewhat unimpressed but decided to just humor him since he rarely bought anything for himself.

Our first family computer, if you dare to call it that, was driven by a tape deck and seemed to be operated by a turtle. It did little more than provide Mike with an opportunity to explore a couple of primitive games and learn new ways of incorporating it into our daily activities. If I touched it more than once or twice I don’t remember. It gave Mike something to do after work and so I mostly ignored it.

It wasn’t long before computers were becoming a bit more sophisticated. Inventiveness in that arena was moving quickly and Mike soon enough wanted a bit more power than our machine afforded. In a sweet bow to me and my profession the next model that he brought home was an Apple II of the kind that was showing up in classrooms across the country. It operated with a floppy disk and our model had two drives. Since there were already several educational programs in use in my school I was able to find some practical use for it in my work. Our daughters took interest in the possibilities of the model as well and before long it was a center of family activity. 

My eldest daughter and I learned how to actually create programs for our Apple II but it was Mike who took an understanding of its power to a new level. He found ways to use the machine far beyond games and word processing while dreaming constantly of the possibilities of a technologically driven home and work life. It was as though he had become obsessed with the idea of making the world a better place through the use of intelligent machines. He constantly cornered other aficionados of computing and picked their brains about the future of a brave new world.

I soon realized that Mike was willing to drive a car until the wheels fell off but he was not content with keeping a computer past its prime. Again and again he would suddenly arrive home with the newest and most powerful model of computing and we would learn the ins and outs of the enhanced mechanisms. Before long I was incorporating the technology into every aspect of my work as a teacher. I even had a specially designed spreadsheet for keeping student grades. I got permission from my principal to replace the old style handwritten grade book with copies of my computerized system. It allowed me to keep a running average for each student at the instant I entered a grade. It was tied to a word processing program that gave me the ability to send home a weekly progress report to the parents. I became more and more convinced that Mike had been prophetic in his certainty that those machines were going to change our lives.

Of course things just got better and better in the world of technology. I now hold more power than all of the computers used to send a man to the moon in a tiny laptop that I can carry anywhere. I use technology on a daily basis to get the latest news, communicate with businesses and my doctor, keep up with friends, write my blog, do research, make purchases. The list of how my computer has changed my life is almost endless, and it has enabled me to do more in any given day than ever before. It’s difficult for me to even imagine the world as it was before and yet there are indeed times when technology drives me to the brink of frustration.

It’s quite difficult to communicate with a real human being when conducting business these days. I have to jump through a series of computerized hoops before finally hearing a human voice, often from a continent away. I have so many passwords that I sometimes  become annoyed by the task of having to retrieve them from my memory. I’ve been hacked and had to spend countless hours repairing the damage. I have had to create a routine of checking email and messages on my phone because important information is always coming in electronic form. Almost every type of business in which I engage relies heavily on the internet, which may or may not be up and running when I need it most. The frustrations of our modern conveniences have created their own form of stress including a toxic political environment and a haven for bullies.

For the most part I am in awe of the conveniences that I enjoy as a result of the continually improving technology that I use. Nonetheless I see its flaws and they are dramatic. As a society we have yet to understand the implications of instant communication around the world. We have a power that can go terribly wrong if we are not careful. Our inventiveness is moving forward so quickly that we barely have time to understand it before it changes. The lessons we teach about it are often years behind. It is a power that is both truly wonderful and frightening.

There is no doubt that today’s technology has improved life for millions. I can attest to that on a very personal level. We just have to be careful in how we use this great gift. We must be aware of its dangers and not rely so heavily on it that we become paralyzed when it fails. In the end we have to remember that we are dealing with machines that have no heart. We must be the ones to provide the human feelings.

Alone and Lost

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Humankind’s ingenuity is so incredible that getting lost is almost as much a thing of the past as the buggy whip. It’s been at least twenty years since I found myself driving around in a state of frenzy because I had no idea where I was or how to get back on track. Those were the days of big paper maps that folded into glove compartment sized rectangles that waited patiently for use. Back then we always had one for the city, one for the state and one for the entire country. Using them required stopping the car if I was alone, finding the flashlight and hoping that it was fully charged if it was dark, and praying that I would be able to figure out where I was as a starting point for creating my route. It could be a frightening experience especially before cell phones were as common a possession as a bar of soap.

The last time that I was truly lost was back in the late nineteen nineties. I had attended an evening event on the near north side of Houston, an area that was quite unfamiliar to me. I was a Magnet School Coordinator back then an I had set up an information booth at a fair designed to introduce parents to the various programs in the schools around the city of Houston. The math/science offering at my campus was rather popular and so I had been quite busy answering questions from eager parents. I had not really noticed that most of the other coordinators had packed away their tri-boards and pamphlets and headed to their cars. By the time the last parent had left I realized that I was all alone inside the school and I felt a sudden sense of foreboding.

I gathered my things as quickly as possible and rushed to the dark parking lot where my vehicle sat in the shadows. I felt quite uneasy about being all by myself in a place known for a somewhat high crime rate. I ran across the parking lot in a kind of frenzy, looking over my shoulder and dropping some of my things in my hurry. Once I was inside my automobile I locked the doors and finally felt a modicum of safety. I was only mildly comforted by the fact that I thought I knew exactly how to get back home and I found courage in that fact that I had my flip phone in case of an emergency.

It took me no time to realize that I had somehow become turned around and I soon realized that I was wandering aimlessly around the dark neighborhood. When I drove past the same group of men drinking and arguing in their front yard I knew that I was going in circles an that I was lost. I tried to get a view of the Houston skyline because I reasoned that if I followed the lights of the buildings as though they were stars I would ultimately reach a point that I recognized and be on my way back home. Sadly a fog had added to the mystery of the night and shrouded the sky in a miasmic goo.

I was becoming more and more frantic as I saw one unfamiliar street name after another. I felt as though I was replaying the journey of Apocalypse Now in real time. I finally thought to reach for my phone and call my husband, Mike, who had grown up on the north side of Houston. I was near tears when the phone rang again and again making me worry that he had already gone to bed and was sound asleep. After all it was nearing eleven.

Just when I was on the verge of total panic I heard Mike’s voice on the line. I explained my situation and he calmly told me to find a street sign and tell him exactly where I was by looking at the name and number of the first marker I found. He was stunned when I finally gave him the information he needed and wondered aloud how I had gone so astray, but luckily he knew exactly where I was. From that point forward he guided me block by block until I was finally on the interstate highway that I knew quite well.   

I did not know then that one day I would own a smart phone with a personal guide named Siri who would direct me seamlessly even in cities and towns where I had never before been. I did not even dream that my future car would be fitted with a GPS system that would keep me heading in the right direction no matter where I went. Such wonders were still in the future and getting lost was still a frightening experience, especially on a foggy night in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

We have so many wondrous inventions these days that we tend to take them for granted. There are generations who have never had an experience like I did on that night. It is unfathomable to them that one would be lost and without resources for finding the way back home. Reading of Hanzel and Gretel leaving crumbs in the forest as a guide back to civilization is a quaint idea for them, and yet I am from a generation when being lost was a real and scary possibility. If not for my good fortune of having a phone in my car back then I don’t know what might have become of me because all of the places of business where I hoped to get directions were closed for the night. Hopefully I would have eventually encountered a clue that might have led me to my destination or a source of help but I would have no doubt been overtaken by anxiety before that happened.

We like to complain a great deal about how horrific the world has become but I know that our new fears have been counterbalanced by the elimination of old ones. The days of feeling helplessly alone and lost are not as likely as they once were. For that I am deeply grateful.

Dear Diary

pathtothefutureI received a lovely gift for my birthday this year from Araceli. It was a book with 200 writing prompts to help inspire my blogs. In that spirit the following is a diary entry that might be written ten years in the future. Check back in a decade to see how prescient I was.

Dear Diary,

I celebrated my eighty first birthday a couple of weeks ago. Never did I imagine myself as and octogenarian. I’m still filled with optimism and energy but I don’t get around as quickly as I once did. I suppose that I’ve felt my age more in my joints than in my brain but the glories of medicine and engineering have come to my rescue with all of the conveniences that now do work that I once had to do.

My home is kept tidy by the little robots that whir around each day. I don’t know who invented those little “Hazels and Jeeves” but they make a world of difference in my lifestyle. I haven’t had to pick up a broom or dust cloth or mop for quite some time. The self cleaning toilets are the best. The porcelain is squeaky clean all the time allowing me to concentrate on keeping my body in shape with exercise and my mind working with continual learning. I’m enrolled in an online seminar right now that makes me feel as though I am communicating with the great writers of all time. It is mind boggling to consider how much technology has changed the world.

It was touch and go on earth for a time. We all had to adjust to the changing climate but in rushed the best minds, including those of some of my grandchildren, to invent better ways of living while conserving the resources of our earth. It has been like watching science fiction unfold in reality. I always believed that we humans would find solutions to the problems and people have not disappointed. We suffered for a time and then we get to work doing whatever we need to do. I am so proud of all the people who devoted blood sweat and tears to the cause. Mankind’s intellect is such a glorious gift when it is used for the good of all.

I especially like that I can stay independently in my home without fear or inconvenience to anyone. I have a checkup with a nurse practitioner each morning via a computer program that monitors my health all day long. I felt no pain at all when they inserted the chip that sends my vitals to my physicians 24/7. The surgery that repaired my knees was almost bionic. I really enjoyed hiking in the mountains near my brothers’ Colorado cabin last summer just like I was still in my twenties. I no longer need my glasses either after a painless thirty minute procedure. It’s all quite amazing.

I’m a great grandmother now and it is so much fun. The little ones are bright and happy. I “see” them several times each week via a new kind of Skype that is almost like having them in the same room thanks to Virtual Reality. I never feel alone because all of the people that I love are just a few voice commands away and when they actually visit the new transportation systems get them here almost as quickly as teleporting. I keep thinking back to the world of Star Trek and realize that I now live in it in so many ways.

My grandchildren are doing such remarkable things. They all graduated from college and found exciting jobs in the fields that they studied. They are so sweet about coming to visit me often. I’m hosting a big Christmas dinner this month just as I always have except that now my robots are doing all of the work. All I have to do is program them and then sit back and enjoy the party.

It’s difficult to believe that my daughters and sons-in-law are nearing retirement. Where did the years go? Perhaps when they no longer have to report to jobs each day we can travel together. I’m anxious to try that new high speed plane that reaches Europe in only two hours. I especially want to see Notre Dame Cathedral now that it has been repaired. There are still so many journeys that I hope to make.

I feel a bit like my grandfather once did whenever he spoke of all of the innovations that he had witnessed during his lifetime. I suppose that I often took progress for granted until it was threatened by the whims of mankind. Those years of anger and political divisions were worrisome but we finally realized the necessity of working together rather than continually arguing. We fought a kind of battle against our human failings and have come out stronger than ever. Things are not perfect but then they never really are. Nonetheless we have come a very long way in only ten years. It is truly a better world for the majority of the world’s people. We humans are slowly but surely continuing to evolve in positive ways.

If I live as long as my grandfather did I still have almost thirty years to go. I suspect that I will see many glorious advances and have the privilege of watching my family grow and prosper. There will no doubt be tough times here and there but one thing that never seems to change is the inventiveness and resilience of the human spirit along with the grace of God. I look forward to whatever lies ahead.