Building Bridges

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Our ability to think and to communicate is the great gift of our humanity, but it can also be the source of our most horrific misunderstandings. We are each products of a unique set of circumstances blended together into a complex a stew of heredity and environment. The way we view the world and its people is the product of hundreds of interactions in our personal lifetimes. A single word or statement is interpreted through a lens of DNA and experiences that twists and turns what we believe we are hearing. Two people in the same place at the same time may walk away with entirely different interpretations of the same utterance or idea. Unless we take the time to hear the rationale or emotion behind another’s thinking we may misunderstand them in ways that lead to schisms between us.

We live in a world of almost unending words and talk. At every turn of modern life we see, or hear or read of events and commentaries. We are inundated with facts and opinions. How we interpret them depends on the totality of our life’s journey. How we use and decipher certain words is determined by our individual circumstances. A single utterance may be subject to a multitude of translations in the minds of those who witness it.

Words have power and there are those who have a gift for using them to bring momentous change. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used such talent for the benefit of humankind. Tyrants like Adolf Hitler used speech to create a nightmarish world. We are continually being tempted with words that reach into our hearts and cause us to hope, but what inspires some is abhorrent to others.

“Make America Great Again” means hundreds of different things depending on who is hearing that phrase. For some it is a reminder of a time when our country fought for the very life of a world overtaken by evil. To others it is a call for a return to injustices wrought upon members of the Black community. There are those who think it means having jobs and security and serenity. Still others insist that it is meant to deny freedoms to those escaping harsh conditions and hoping for better lives. Some even hear it as little more than a slogan designed to entice us, but having little or no actual effect on our realities. In other words like a gigantic game of “telephone” we hear many different versions from the exact same words and then we imprint our own translations onto our judgements of the people around us who are making their own determinations. In fact we are most likely running the risk of grossly misinterpreting what each person’s thinking actually is.

What most people want is quiet. They have little or no desire for debates and discussions and too much information. They prefer to fill their lives with pleasant images and thoughts. They want to hear about happy things. They wish to keep their lives as uncomplicated as possible. They have enough problems on the personal level that they don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the complexities of the world. They simply want things to run as smoothly as possible.

While there may have been a day and time when people lived and died without feeling the impact of anyone much farther away than a few miles, today’s world is indeed a kind of global village. When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Middle East we hear it and feel it. The oceans that once seemed to insulate the United States from the problems of the rest of the world are no longer effective in keeping us out of the fray. Walls neither real or virtual will ever be able to turn back the clock and provide us with a sense of security because the global genie is out of the bottle. Technology has linked us with words and images and the means of destroying each other. We are being forced more than ever to find ways of communicating our needs and working together for the sake of all of humankind. We may not like that this is so, but it is part of our new inescapable reality. Because of this increasingly our communication with one another will become ever more complex and subject to misinterpretation.

So what can we do if we don’t want to descend into a tower of babble that continually tears us apart? How do we learn to live with our new normal without shattering our relationships? Perhaps the answer is to be found in quieting our minds so that we will be able to finally discern what others are attempting to tell us. Maybe we need to investigate the idea of compromise and understand the power of making deals. Perhaps some of the old platitudes from the past that so abound exist because they actually made sense. If we take away all of the gilt of our progress and listen only to the wind and the beating of our hearts we may find that our desires are not as different from one another as they may at first glance seem. It may remind us of our need to work together and to get along.

There are a few saintly individuals who are so good that they almost seem to be devoid of the imperfections that plague the rest of us. There are evil individuals whose black hearts make us cringe but they are definitely in the minority. For the most part everyone else is about the same regardless of our superficial differences. We may have a variety of ideas about how to make the world a better place, but our intentions are generally aimed for the good. It is only our solutions for problems that may differ. Perhaps its time for us to quit arguing and begin building bridges of understanding starting in our own families and communities and moving ever outward from there. 

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The Quest

MichaelSome people seem to have a destiny. They know from an early age what they want to accomplish in life, and then pursue that dream as soon as they are able. My brother, Michael, is one of those people. When he was still a toddler he walked around the house carrying a book by Werner von Braun describing a futuristic journey to the moon. It was filled with illustrations depicting how the spacecraft might look complete with drawings of the accommodations inside. Micheal studied the book carefully even before he was able to read, and he told anyone who asked that he wanted to be a mathematician because he liked numbers.

Michael was true to his word, graduating from Rice University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and later earning a Masters degree in mathematics. His job search involved deciding what sounded the most exciting because he was recruited for a number of positions. It did not surprise any of us when he chose to work for a contractor with NASA. After all he had been fascinated by space from those early days and by the time he was ready for the workforce mankind had already found its way to the moon. Sensing that there was more to come he eagerly began what would be a long career associated with our nation’s exploration of space.

I don’t think I have known many people as eager to go to work each day as Michael always was. His job was fun, exciting. He never told us much about what he was doing other than to sometimes speak of the long hours that he devoted to his occupation quite willingly. It was only over time as we prodded him with questions that he told us about his work with the International Space Station. We learned that he had been part of a unique team that developed the computer program for the navigational system for this extraordinary feat. He was proud of his contribution, but quite humble in his description of the need for precision in all of the necessary mathematics, noting that a slight mistake had the potential of causing a spacecraft to overshoot the destination and wander forever in space.

Michael’s work with NASA also led him to a meeting with the woman who would become his wife, the love of his life. With a characteristic determination he decided to call her but soon found that she was not easy to find because her name was more common than he had realized. Not to be daunted, he dialed one number after another until he finally reached her. By then he was already hooked and determined to win her heart. The two of them worked at their NASA related jobs and raised three terrific children in Clear Lake City, the home of NASA and many of their dreams.

Michael spent the entirety of his career working toward the various goals of the space program. He was so well regarded that his superiors often urged him to stay a bit longer than he might have. Finally he decided that it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labors in retirement. so in December he left his full-time position with the promise to return one day a week to help in the transition from his expertise. His was a glorious career that brought him great satisfaction and an unparalleled sense of purpose.

Micheal plans to travel, spend time at his cabin in Colorado, and spend more moments searching the heavens with his telescope. He will be free to revel in reading and enjoying music and his grandsons. I suspect that he will continue to see mathematics as something fun to explore, and will no doubt keep abreast with any and all steps forward in the quest to learn about the vast universe in which we live. His curiosity knows no bounds and will not be subdued by a lack of formal work.

All of us are very proud of Michael and his achievements. His brilliance never fails to stun any of us. We all marvel at the intricacies of his mind, especially my grandson Ian who has seemingly followed in his uncles footsteps by showing tendencies toward genius early in life much as my brother did so long ago.

My mother was always unabashedly enchanted with Michael and his capabilities. She nurtured his talents and encouraged him to follow his dreams. She would be quite happy to note his accomplishments as would my father if he had lived long enough to see his son finding so much joy and success in his career. I suppose that nature and nurture joined together magnificently in creating the outstanding person that Michael became.

We will celebrate Michael’s birthday tomorrow as well as his retirement. There is something somewhat poetic about the fact that he was born on Three Kings Day, the Epiphany. Three wise men followed a star on a long ago day and found the meaning of life in the form of a child born in a stable. Like those men Michael too was a wise man whose quest lead him to a most satisfying life. He has seen and done wondrous things all while looking toward the stars.

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not

For the Fallen

BY LAURENCE BINYON

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 

England mourns for her dead across the sea. 

Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 

Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 

There is music in the midst of desolation 

And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 

They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning 

We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 

They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 

They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 

They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 

As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 

To the end, to the end, they remain.

Source: The London Times (1914)

Peter Jackson, perhaps best known for his brilliant work on The Lord of the Rings, has produced a stunning documentary using remastered film from World War I. He was given privy to hundreds and hundreds of hours of old films from that era along with a mandate to create something stunning, different. His final product, They Young Shall Not Grow Old, is a moving homage to the young men who so gallantly volunteered to fight in a war that they so little understood. It boldly demonstrates their bravery and their innocence in heartbreaking scenes that remind us of the treasures that are lost when we send our youth off to war.

Jackson had to first create a unified story from the millions of images that he found in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. He chose to focus on the stories from British men who had told of their personal experiences during World War I in an oral history project created in the nineteen sixties. Using only their voices and actual footage from the time of the war Jackson paints a portrait of bravery and fear as we follow the young men who began as naive innocents in support of their country only to learn how horrific battle can actually be.

Jackson’s challenge was to make the old footage more modern and easy to watch. Most of the film was in terrible shape, almost unusable in many instances. It was too dark or too light, blotchy and prone to appear jumpy. Using modern techniques Jackson and his team were able to adjust the speed, add appropriate colors and even create sound. The result was a stunning portrait of real individuals who brought the feelings associated with that war to life.

Jackson’s own grandfather participated in World War I and so his film was a labor of love for a man who in many ways became broken as a result of his participation in that awful chapter of history. The documentary demonstrates the humanity of the ordeal in the faces and voices of real people. Many of the men appear to be barely within reach of adulthood and yet they were to endure unbelievable horror in days spent in the trenches and the battles. Jackson pictures one group staring at the camera with obvious fear in their eyes and later notes that virtually all of them would die. It would be the last image of them alive.

Jackson brilliantly brings both the glory and the brutal reality of war to life in a way that no amount of acting is able to do. It is a stunning feat that will not soon leave my mind. Sadly the documentary will only be shown twice in December, at least at this point in time. I believe that it is such an important work that it will eventually become available to a wider audience. It is a film that every one of us should view.

Policing Our Information

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Long ago I was a daily subscriber to The Houston Post, a newspaper that ceased to exist after a time. It’s competitor, The Houston Chronicle, had never had great appeal to me, but in the aftermath of the Post’s failure I began to have the Chronicle delivered to my house each day. When I moved to a new home about thirteen years ago I was so busy with work and other responsibilities that I decided to only sign up for weekend delivery. Even then I hardly had the time to stop to read all of the Sunday sections. The paper often lined the bottom of my trash can without ever having been adequately digested. With the advent of online news sources I was more likely to sit with my laptop on my knees while I sipped on my morning tea and munched on my breakfast. I eventually decided to stop the delivery of a newspaper to my home and instead subscribe to national sources offering coverage on my computer.

A couple of Sundays ago when I visited with my in-laws I noticed a copy of the Sunday Houston Chronicle lying on their kitchen counter. I was horrified to see how much it had shrunk in size. It looked more like something that might be distributed on college campuses by the journalism students than the local news source of the fourth largest city in the United States. I suppose that it has come to this dire end because of people like me who abandoned the paper when it became more of a vehicle for want ads and inserts from merchants than a purveyor of good quality information. In fact, such appears to be the fate of many newspapers around the country.

It makes me sad to watch the demise of good old fashioned reporting in local papers because there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. I dreamed of gathering information on the happenings around my city and then writing stories about them. I imagined one day garnering the respect of a byline with my name on it. The thought of being a newspaper reporter sounded exciting and important to me. Never did I imagine that news outlets would find themselves struggling to stay afloat, even in places with large populations. I did not conceive of a revolution in electronic reporting that would displace almost all but the most notable newspapers with online information delivered to computers in nanoseconds.

Not even when I got my first home computer was I able to foresee the future as it unfolded. Things changed so quickly that I hardly noticed what was happening. In the nineteen nineties when I was earning an advanced degree my professors urged me to learn about email and the Internet. Both methods were still clunky and not so easy to use, but I proudly complied and thought of myself as being modern and adventurous. By the turn of the century things were progressing online at warp speed and inventive minds were finding more and more ways to simplify the process of garnering information so quickly and easily that even small children learned how to use the worldwide web. It was a brave new world that was exciting and intoxicating, and it was being used more and more often in ways that most of us never thought possible.

Suddenly we were instantly linked to people all around the world with only a few keystrokes. Those old fashioned news sources made of paper that invariably contained old information by the time they were delivered seemed outdated and inconvenient and even overpriced given that they were so late in providing us details about the world’s happenings. I suppose that only those who contrived ways to stay relevant have remained robust, and even they must worry that the day may come when the marvelous invention of the printing press will seem as insignificant as a horse drawn plow or a buggy, the kind of things relegated to museums.

When Facebook came along it was initially the domain of college students, a way to get to know and communicate with more people than ordinary means allowed. By sharing photos and messages it was supposed to bring people together, and for a time that’s mostly what it did. Eventually adults long past their younger years entered the fray, and users began to realize the power of the comments on those walls. Facebook became a vehicle for presenting points of view, and setting up discussions. It was almost inevitable that it would also be a way of sharing news stories and political opinions. Editorializing and propaganda and stories whose veracity was questionable found their way onto people’s feeds without even asking. With information flooding in from hundreds of unnamed sources it became more and more necessary to fact check virtually everything that appeared on the Facebook walls. It also lead to abuses by information gathering sources that then used their data to target certain users with political propaganda.

By now everyone has heard the accusations of attempts by the Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election by using Facebook and other outlets to spread false information. Mark Zuckerberg has defended his organization by noting that his original intent was to do good by bringing people together, and to that end he did not want to become a judge and jury for who and what should appear in the newsfeeds of his billions of users. Nonetheless he has been criticized for not being more vigilant in monitoring the information that subscribers send and see on their walls.

I’m rather libertarian when it comes to any form of censoring. I find the idea of having someone determining what I may see on my Facebook page to be far more frightening than knowing that some of what is there is false and misleading. I would prefer taking the time to fact check on my own than to be limited by some kind of algorithmic board that scans the offerings and comments. While I understand that there is some exceedingly contemptible and frightening information being passed along as truth, I stand by the idea that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we choose to accept as fact versus fiction. In fact, I think that even if Facebook were to totally change it’s standards tomorrow by only allowing greetings and photos of family and puppies there would still be places where shenanigans rule.

Teachers have told me for my entire lifetime to beware of propaganda which may be found even in old fashioned newspapers and on television and in the speeches of our politicians. We’ve had the rainmakers and traveling medicine peddlers forever. Those who bang on drums and attempt to fool us into believing fake ideas have been around since the beginning of time, and one way or another we humans have had to be careful not to fall for their snake oil routines. It’s in our own best interests to always and without exception be wary. If something sounds too incredible to be true, it’s possible that it actually is a tactic to mislead us. There are so many ways to unfold the veracity of ideas, and we have to learn how to use them before following our emotions rather than our reason. We must always be willing to determine fact rather than opinion, truth rather than lies. We shouldn’t require Facebook to be our police and more than we asked that of our old newspapers. That’s why we have the ability to think. Let’s put that talent to use rather than asking a stranger to do it for us.

My Electronic Secretaries

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The holiday season is upon us. You may have noticed in the stores last week that the retailers were hardly able to wait to toss all of the fall and Halloween merchandise aside so that they might bring in the Christmas items. Some even eschewed old time tradition in favor of bringing out the holly back in June or July. The old idea of enjoying each celebration in order is long gone, and if you want to secure the prime products you have to buy them and set them aside for the future. Of course, if you’re like me that means that you run the risk of forgetting that you bought a particular item or where you stored it until needed. When you finally decide to do some spring cleaning around March or April it will suddenly appear and then you have to store it again and hope that it doesn’t grow old in the back of a closet or drawer without ever being actually used.

My husband has most recently taught me to be a bit more organized with regard to things that I need to remember. He insists that I record future events on Google calendar and that I list upcoming projects on an app called Asana. It’s actually working out rather well with the exception of those times when I am feeling hurried and I tell myself that I will think about doing my record keeping duty tomorrow. Sadly that’s a bit more often than it should be and so I can’t quite recall if the appointment that I made to have my hair cut is this week or next. I’ll have to rely on a reminder email or phone message from the salon to verify. I know that I might call to confirm the date and time, but I have to do it so often that I have grown a bit embarrassed.

In the summer I purchased some bluebonnet seeds that needed to be sowed in October. When the time came to perform the task I was reminded by my electronic “secretaries” but unfortunately I was not able to immediately recall where I had placed the tiny packets for safekeeping. After a frantic search and some Sherlock Holmes style sleuthing I finally found them hidden under socks in one of my dresser drawers.

Now I’ve created a new wrinkle to my memory keeping rituals. I add a little note explaining where I have placed things so that my reminder in the future will lead me directly to whatever I have stored away. When I took down a lovely hand blown glass hummingbird feeder from its perch in my garden I not only set a date on my calendar to return it in mid May, but also made note of where it is safely stored until spring. I felt particularly proud of my effort because I will be able to walk right to it when there is no longer a possibility of a freeze that would no doubt break or at least crack the globe. An added bonus that I received for my foresight was saving the orb from an horrific storm that raged on Halloween night that undoubtedly might have wreaked havoc on such a fragile object. It has made me think that I should also record a date for bringing the feeder inside each fall while I my brain is in gear.

We all have so many appointments and things to do that our brains go into overload at times. I’ve been guilty of missing all kinds of events, especially since retiring. Without the constrictions on my time that a job provides I find myself losing all sense of what day it is. While this is actually a very pleasant dilemma after years of being bound to a clock and an unremitting routine, it can also create problems. Using different aids to assist my memory has been a kind of saving grace. Now I get reminders on my laptop, my phone, and even on my watch.

At first I thought of such electronic policing of my time as a kind of ball and chain. I wanted to be free to be me without any form of nagging. I soon learned that my tranquil lifestyle was festooned with chaos of my own making. The reality is that we humans really do feel better when we march to a semblance of routine. We don’t have to be overworked or over stressed, but it helps to keep track of when to take out the trash and be generally aware of the time of day. Devil may care attitudes are fine now and again but on the whole things really start to fall apart without some system for managing the business aspects of living. I have slowly learned how to free myself from future worries by spending a bit more time in the moment keeping track of obligations and tasks.

Last spring my hot water heater malfunctioned and many thousands of dollars later we had repaired our home to such an extent that it was almost totally remodeled. The plumber who installed a new hot water heater mentioned that we might never have had the trouble if we had simply set aside a time each year to have the appliance inspected. It’s a small idea with great merit, and so it is now part of our yearly ritual, something we have decided to do with our truck and our air conditioner as well. All such routines are hitting the calendar far in advance in the hopes of avoiding future catastrophes like the one that upended our lives for many weeks last April and May.

As a teacher I lived by a calendar and religiously followed routines to stay updated and prepared for anything that might happen from day to day in my classroom. I suppose that when that phase of my life ended I would never again be required to be so fastidious in keeping up with time. I’ve learned the hard way that a little bit of preparation goes a long way. Even the squirrels understand this as they collect their stores for the coming winter. I watched many of them working hard while I was recently camping in the bosom of nature. It’s the way of survival, and we all owe it to ourselves to keep track of the future before it surprises us.