Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Lovely Late October Day

Warm golden sunshine beams through the tall glass doors that lead to my balcony, reminding me they need to be cleaned. A large tree branch adds pattern, and nothing could be more beautiful, I tell myself, as I gaze out on the woodland beyond. Truly, what is more lovely than this late October day in the mid-latitudes?

My world -- alright, our world -- is tilted to the sun so that its hot rays must pass through quite a slice of atmosphere, with its pollution and dust, favouring the golden rays of my October day. Of course, the intense colours fade as the sun rises, but this means the day will warm up. And as for colour, frosty nights are not far away, and the trees over there are aglow with beautiful dying hues as the leaves prepare to fall off. This seeming decay protects the trees from sucking up too much water to service leaves which could not do their job in the cold weather in any case. Nature knows what she is doing.

Events in the fall do seem to be intelligent, and what is intelligence if it is not survival in changing circumstances? As I bask in this lovely morning, I know it will not last; it will be followed by snow on ground and trees, and by ice that will glitter in the branches on bright, cold mornings. I know winter can be stunning in its own way, to be followed by spring with its return of bursting life.

Eventually, outside my kitchen glass doors, I know too that lovely late October days will come again, and again.

Friday, October 27, 2006

"In The Bowels Of Christ"

The quotation is, of course, from the well-known remark of Oliver Cromwell, urging the mule-headed General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to repudiate their allegiance to the crown, i.e., to Charles II. Cromwell, mule-headed himself, made his famous plea: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken".

History is full of those who were wrongly sure of themselves, to the point where we suspect that anyone who is completely sure is never quite right. Many religious groups have been "sure" that "others" were wrong, and have used force to convert them. Within Christianity, Roman Catholics have burned heretical Protestants at the stake, and vice versa, and so on.

Not only in religion do we find this, but in political life as well. Communists have forced their ways on society, as did the Nazis. None of all this made many true converts, or proved who was right. Sports and styles offer more examples, without the violence, mostly.

If we search for reasons for all this, we find ourselves considering, again, the biological need to belong, preferably to those whose appearance, language or geographical origins are similar to ours. We are uneasy being alone. It all seems as simple as that. So much for freedom.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What's Your Herd?

As I was going over the newspapers, very fat on the weekend, I couldn't help marvelling at the fashion sections. Spots are "in", as in those of the leopard, a creature becoming scarcer as hunters pursue its skin. Coats, bags, skirts, boots are to have spots, but also stripes and swirls in spots. These patterns will indeed be everywhere, from $20 to $1000 or so, depending on what store you patronize, which is an odd word when you reflect on how very much they patronize you. You are, of course, being herded once again, depending on your age, wealth, where you live, and so on and on. You belong to many herds.

At the centre of this issue is the need to belong. First at home, then in the schoolyard, in Tim Hortons or McDonald's, in your church of choice, we must belong, and belong to the right grouping. On a larger level, wars are fought and "enemy" identities exterminated. And still, we believe in free will and intelligent choice. We look with scorn or pity on flocks of sheep or herds of cattle, following anything but freedom or any choice of their own, either as individuals or groups. Really, what is the difference between us and them?

This is not all bad, of course. We have the comfort, the security, of not being exposed. We have our philanthropists, our hospitals, our jails for our support and protection. It is natural to identify (and to identify with) your herd. As for myself, God Save the Queen, I say!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Salt Shaker And Casket

My title indicates that table salt kills people. Of course it does --there is no mystery about it. In the past, traditional African people living in the wild did not get heart attacks, at least not at any significant rate, but if the same people took jobs among the white people and ate a "good" Western diet, they experienced heart disease at the same rate as in the West.

You see, in the bush their diet was mostly plants, along with whatever animals, large and small, they could catch or kill. Plant juice is high in potassium and animal blood is high in sodium, minerals that we need in the right quantities. But in the Western world, a bit more salt for cooking and a bit more at eating time makes things tastier. The purveyors of dried, preserved and pickled foods know this, and so with "progress" comes tasty, salty food.

You can draw logarithmic lines for amounts of salt and potassium intake versus time in years, and you pretty well get a diagram of incidence of heart attacks over the same period. All this is well known, and the medical people and the "health nuts" agree in urging us to eat our veggies and to avoid dousing everything with salt.

As more of us eat out, and as fast foods increase, so do heart problems. This can't be ignorance, so it must be stupidity, or is it perhaps a modern form of death wish? Certainly, the old saloon motto in German-American bars is "dead" on: "Too soon we get oldt, too late we get schmardt".

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Half? Or Half?

There is something fascinating in what we reveal about ourselves when we give an opinion. Two people can see the same thing as quite different, opposite in fact. One sees that the glass is half full, while to the other it is clearly half empty. Both are right. It is simply that they are different people, probably seeing every situation as either reassuring or as very much to be watched.

Unsettled weather is threatening to one and hopeful to the other. To one, a thousand dollars is very much alright, to the other far from being security. A healing broken leg is great to one, crippling to the other. A hamburger is junk food to one, but very satisfying to the other. I could go on and on, but we all know this. Why this difference?

Staying with our either/or hypothesis, the answer could be in-born or acquired. I suppose it could be both, and I think it is. We are conditioned by our surroundings as soon as, or perhaps before, we are born, so our behaviours, including our attitudes and opinions, are indeed both from heredity (DNA if you like) and from environment (of all sorts). I don't think we can fully pin this down, but in any case there are these two sorts of people we must deal with, the optimists and the pessimists, and I proclaim myself to be the half-full type. "I know and know full well" that I am right, and yet I know that "they" are right too. Collectively, we are all on the edge of being sane, with all the problems that accompany this state of being. And musing on these things doesn't do much to change the world around me, but it sure is fun.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

I Wish I Loved The Human Race

Long, long ago I learned a mean little rhyme, and there are days when it comes back. I have a head full of these gems, some of which are handy bits of wisdom that make up for my lack. Others, like this one, are reactions to times when people seem to cooperate to make my time irritating, frustrating, or simply boring. The full version (by Sir Walter Raleigh) is:

     I wish I loved the Human Race;
     I wish I loved its silly face;
     I wish I liked the way it walks;
     I wish I liked the way it talks;
     And when I’m introduced to one,
     I wish I thought "What Jolly Fun!"

This is the flip side of the herd instinct, which keeps us together, collectively and individually. I suppose we have to have crowds to make us value being alone sometimes, and certainly when we have been alone too long, we value company.

Occasionally, I believe, we agree with the sentiment behind this rhyme. We do not always need company, at least not necessarily human company. Certainly, cats, budgies, puppies, big dogs or little ones for hiking or hunting, are company. The don't argue; indeed, they seem to agree. My oldest daughter has snakes longer than herself which almost seem to purr when she wraps them around her neck. If they could talk to you, I'm sure they would say they love her.

I suppose if you exercised requited love with some other friendly species, you might believe you did not like our own species, and there is plenty to dislike. For myself, I'm frequently partial to certain humans, but I am very choosy about it.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

My Experience With Lung Cancer And TB

Once upon a time, over 50 years ago, I was a member of the Council of the American Association of Museums, and was to be away for three weeks at their Annual Meeting in the U.S. I was working evenings to get ahead of my responsibilities in Halifax, Nova Scotia. So I was tired, and had a lame feeling in my side, and foolishly consulted a medical doctor. He took X-rays and put me in hospital, where he and a very good surgeon (whom I had taught to cut up cats in Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy), took out two-thirds of my left lung in a nine-hour operation that left a 25-inch scar. The lung was supposed to be cancerous, but in fact had a lump of healed tuberculosis, and should, of course, have been left alone.

Following that, I told them to put it back, but they said it had been thrown away. As I had had tuberculosis, I was put into the TB sanitarium, where I stayed for six months.

Afterwards, I was short of breath for a couple of years, and of course avoided doctors like grim death, and pondered what I had learned. High on the list is "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", and "Doctors have to get experience". Also, "Don't ask so many questions", and "Well, we don't have to do that again". Or, as Thomas Edison must have so often remarked: "We know that doesn't work". I must say, it cured me of smoking, a habit that consisted of one cigarette around a campfire or a pipe of tobacco at university reunions. So all is not lost, yet. I've cheered up, and so should you.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Time To Get Rich!

Given enough time, and doing some very simple things, you can hardly avoid becoming rich, maybe very rich. For example, if the $24 paid by the Dutch for Manhattan Island to the natives had been put out at 10% compound interest, it would be worth over 12,000 trillion dollars by now, more than North and South America are worth by any accounting. So what are you waiting for?

We do not have that sort of time, of course, and there are taxes to contend with, but the principle is the same, if you will pardon the pun. Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today. As our wants will always exceed our earned income, this means you do not wait until you have some left over, but put your 10% away first and live on the rest. Time is, indeed, of the essence. The future never arrives, and the present is always sliding into the past. So do it now, quickly, before it too becomes the past.

I have talked one family member into putting money away daily, never to be spent, but instead to be put to earning. It seems as if that were just last week, but already this person is wondering how to do better than a savings account at the bank, which pays 2% for money that it then lends out at 14% or so.

When I worked in Buffalo, there was a sign in a tavern which said "Too soon we get oldt, too late we get schmardt". There is a principle that if you force yourself to do something every day at the same time, you will find it difficult not to do it in two to three weeks.

Habits can help us or hurt us, so right away, put the same amount aside every day, so its earnings can sooner look after you. Time to act!