And that’s the way it was, June 28, 1888

One of my best antidotes for information overload is history. There is something calming about returning to a world devoid of smart phones, cable news and (yes) blogging. Today, I was delighted to learn that exactly 129 years ago Robert Louis Stevenson left San Francisco for the South Seas.

Ah, islands in the Pacific. I am fascinated by that swath of the globe, although I’ve only managed to touch it twice. And Stevenson’s Treasure Island was certainly in the back of my mind when I wrote y1. I suspect that his more famous Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has helped inspire every writer after him who tried to craft a meaningful villain.

But there is more to his story. He was a Scotsman who studied civil engineering and law, and then upset his parents by opting to become a fiction writer instead. (They weren’t too happy when he became an atheist, either. History is silent as to which bothered them the most.)

Then he went and fell in love with an American divorcee, who he married. Although he had lifelong health issues, he traveled widely. He wrote about the importance of finding joy in ones life, even though he found himself at death’s door several times during his journeys.

After 1888, he spent most of his time in the South Pacific, settling with his family in Samoa. He died there and was buried overlooking the sea.

I’ve included a couple of my favorite quotes of his here. He was more of an inspiration than I realized.

 

 

Mindless entertainment? Or not?

We all need something to do to help us relax. Whether it is listening to music, knitting, or kick boxing, we need a place to go to shut out the noise around us. It’s part of leading a joyful life.

scrabbleOn Nov. 9 2016 I discovered that my little nepenthe, playing online word games through Facebook, had a major flaw. It was connected to Facebook and that meant that every angry, fearful or obnoxious thing being said by anyone I’d ever befriended floated by in the lower left corner of the screen. This clearly was not going to work, at least not for the next few weeks.

I’m not sure why I Googled solitaire, except that this game I’d seldom played struck me as the epitome of a simple, mindless activity. I ended up at a lovely place called World of Solitaire where it didn’t take long to discover that this game requires complicated strategy and a good memory, and it is fiendishly addictive.

solitaire2As I played game after game in the waning days of 2016, I realized that I had to adjust to the idea that I could not always win. I’m used to winning, and as a matter of personal philosophy I never think it is impossible. Yet the fact was that between 8.5 and 18% of the games I was playing could not be won no matter what I did. It seemed to be a timely lesson.

Then I began to realize that winning a single solitaire game doesn’t matter, it’s all about how many you games you can win in your time frame. I began to design strategies for myself, and each one sounded wise beyond the realm of cards.

  1. Don’t even start some games. If you don’t like the odds, you can move on.
  2. Don’t try to finish every game. The faster you move on from a sure loss the more games you can ultimately win.
  3. Set your priorities before you start. What is most urgent?
  4.  Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
  5.  Always leave yourself an out if you can.

solitaireFunny, the number of games I won more or less doubled once I got my hands around these ideas. Then, for my own pleasure I added two more.

  1. Quit when you’re exhausted.
  2. Make the playing field as pleasant as you can.  (My favorite deck and background is shown to the left.

February is more than half over and I’m still playing solitaire. I may tire of it eventually but for now it continues to calm me down. I’m also putting more energy every day into trying to shape the politics of this country, doing my best to nudge both friends and strangers towards compassion, inclusion, and an optimistic view of who we are and how far we have come. These days I contact my congress people, I sign petitions, and I’ve even marched once and probably will again.

And as I do these things I tell myself

  1. Don’t even start some games. If you don’t like the odds, you can move on.
  2. Don’t try to finish every game. The faster you move on from a sure loss the more games you can ultimately win.
  3. Set your priorities before you start. What is most urgent?
  4. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
  5. Always leave yourself an out if you can.

And, just to make sure I enjoy the journey, I add

  1. Quit when you’re exhausted.
  2. Make the playing field as pleasant as you can.

(For more thoughts on Solitaire and life, see Solitaire and Nuclear War.  The rules for the version of solitaire that I play are shown below. The rules for my new found zeal for political engagement can be found all over the internet, including on Facebook, which I am once again using.)

rules

It’s an angry world in some places.

I do have fantasies of running away. I want to leave behind my chores, my email, and my sense of obligation to be nice. And more than anything right now, I want to get away from American politics.

I’m traveling abroad and the little news that I’ve gotten this week confirms my worst fears about my country’s current regime change. Identities of incoming cabinet members make it clear that the angry non-professional whites are not going to get a better deal any time soon, and that possibility was the only silver lining to this mess that I saw. No, they will only get poorer as the very rich use their new cabinet positions to find ways to siphon ever more money away from the working class, making them angrier and more disagreeable. Not something to look forward to.

img_3287At the moment, I recognize that I have anger issues of my own. I cannot seem to stop seething at those who made the stupid decision to vote for this man, no matter what their reasoning. I don’t use the word stupid lightly. If I hear one more person make the uninformed claim that “she was just as bad” I fear I may loose my remaining respect for my fellow citizens. Please stop chanting “lock her up” and look what she actually did and did not do, folks. Read the results of unbiased fact checkers about who lied most of the time and who didn’t. Listen carefully to the things your candidate said. And then show some remorse for what you’ve brought on this great nation.

Okay, I admit it, I’m not in a forgiving, let’s all come together kind of mood and it looks like I’m not going to get there for awhile. It is probably a good thing that I got to run away for a week, and that it was all the way to Morocco.

This is an ancient land, but one in transition as well. The internet is everywhere, with satellite dishes decorating the top of most of the roofs inside the Medina, the oldest, walled parts of the city. Leaders have worked hard here to eliminate terrorists from their midst, knowing well that it is the peace loving citizenry of a country that suffer the most from its own radicalism.

img_3318Two of my fellow travelers are gay men, and they are aware that homosexual acts are illegal in this country. As in many other places, no one they encounter goes out of their way to learn more about their relationship. In the city, they share a room and a bed, and the housekeeper drapes it with roses just as, I assume, she does for every other couple.

After a few days we leave the noisy mesmerizing city of Marrakesh for the countryside. Morocco is largely rural, with the kind of conservative beliefs that that remind me of my own roots in Western Kansas. Yes, I know, we were Catholic and they are Muslim, but below that surface is the same innate code that people should dress modestly, talk nicely, and behave well. My travel companions are given a room with twin beds, of course. No one would think they wanted otherwise.

img_3399Then we are on to the desolate Atlantic coast in the southern part of the country, where beer is sold and limbs are shown as people from a whole mix of ethnic origins and beliefs come together to enjoy the sea and the waves. Lodging and food are even less expensive and there is a feel somewhere between hippie and surfer. Our hostel beds are several to a room, and no one cares at all who sleeps where, with who or why.

The writer in me is wide awake, her head full of stories begging to be told. Traveling without my computer for the first time in years has meant writing first drafts by hand, something I have not done for decades. At first it felt awkward as I scratched out words and used circles and arrows to move blocks of text round, but by now it has become fun as I rediscover the joy of making a fancy arrow or giving an extra flourish a the base of a “y”. Writing is once again a visual experience as well as an intellectual one, encouraged by the sight of the beautiful Arabic alphabet that surrounds me here.

Part of me wants to stay on this beach forever, or at least for a few more months. I’ve found Moroccans to be friendly on the whole, and as a woman who made part of this trip alone I’ve had no more problems than I would have expected anywhere. And oh the stories I could write here. But I don’t belong in this place. I have a home, one where I and a whole lot of other people are very angry.

It’s time to board my plane. I linger as everyone else climbs up the steps into the aircraft, thinking how I’m glad that Morocco does not have so many angry people. I appreciate that no one has tried to make trouble for me or my fellow travelers. I wish this country ongoing peace as it makes its way along in a modern world. I vow to take some of that peace with me, as I prepare to head home to deal with all the angry people in my own nation, including myself.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetI See Ghosts, My Way, and That’s Why you Make the Trip on my other blogs.)

None of us are normal, if we’re lucky

My friend’s husband often brings her coffee in the morning. He confessed to me that if he really wants to make her smile, he brings it to her in a mug that matches what she is wearing. “Don’t tell her about that,” my friend responded. “Now she’s going to think I’m crazy.”

true voice 8Well, yes, wanting your coffee in a mug that matches your clothes is probably not normal, but my friend should know by now that I never thought she was normal, and I honestly don’t know anyone else who is either. So no worries about the color thing; it’s just another quirk.

Did you know that I code all of my to do lists? I have seven different symbols I use, depending on whether the task described is a household chore, or related to my writing, or a favor for someone I love. Seriously. I do this. Is that normal? Probably not, but it makes me happy.

Which gets me back to my current fascination with happiness. A few weeks ago I wrote about a report generated by Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Earth Institute at Columbia University about which countries have the happiest people. The results  came from asking people to evaluate six parts of their lives which account for most of the variation in world happiness. I summed these six up as wealth, health, love, freedom, fairness and kindness.

Today, I’m thinking about the freedom part.  We usually consider freedom in grandiose terms, as in the right to free speech, or to bear arms, or to choose our own religion. Obviously these are important topics, but I think it is the little freedoms to be ourselves that make for true delight.

Yes, we all do have to fit in enough to function at our jobs and be able to relate somewhat to our friends and family. Past that, though, it’s the goofy little things about us that make us smile. Getting to be quirky, our own harmless kinds of quirky, yields not only happier people, I believe that it also yields healthier ones — physically and mentally. In other words, acting a little odd doesn’t make you crazy, it helps you to stay sane. And once a society starts to tighten the constraints on individual expression, that society gets more pathology, not less.

good sign 2We tend to take the freedom to dye our hair purple or own six gerbils or collect rugby memorabilia as a given, because no one passes laws against these things. But society has other ways to force us into abandoning our happy little habits. Work places, living spaces and organizations all impose restraints which should be for the good of the group but which sometimes seem designed more for conformity. Religions restrict behavior in ways intended to be for the good of the individual, but many edicts seem to be more about simple control. Perhaps most effective in today’s world are the many public ways we have of shaming each other into conformity. From commercials that make fun of the outliers to posts on social media, we exert a pressure on others to conform to the styles and tastes of the herd.

I contend that the endless struggle to be normal is much like the endless struggle to make more money and have more things.  Up to a point it yields a certain amount of happiness,, and then after that it just doesn’t make a lot of difference. In fact, endlessly chasing after the money to buy the latest possession (yes, I’m talking about you iPhone 6s Plus) is like endlessly trying to have the latest possession to fit in. Neither is really going to make your insides glow with joy. And now we have a study to prove it.

(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates meFour Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”, Some Kind of Kindness, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)

 

 

The kinky of the future

I don’t know a better way to develop an open mind than to read science fiction. The very nature of creating alternate worlds has a way of making us question the assumptions of our own society. If done well, a speculative story leaves us with empathy for characters whose behavior causes no harm and yet would be offensive here and now. In short, we’re forced to question the rules we live by.

That’s not to say there is no wrong in science fiction. Villains continue to be mean, sadistic, greedy souls, and heroes still struggle to let the love in their hearts win the day. In world after world, the key points on a moral compass transcend time and space, even as authors acknowledge all the grey area in between. But as to the rest of those rules? In no arena is the arbitrariness of acceptable and perverted more apparent than in the world of science fiction sexuality.

good sign 4Creatures come in three genders in Isaac Asimov‘s 1972 Nebula award winning The God’s Themselves and regularly change gender in Ursula Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness from 1969. Hero Rydra Wong is part of a three way marriage in Samual Delany’s Babel-17, written in 1966. Decades before the LGBT movement reached the hearts of the average straight person, science fiction writers were pushing readers to question their heteronormative assumptions.

Other questions they posed still make me uncomfortable. I don’t member the name of the short story about a world in which normal healthy parents were expected to introduce their children to loving sex, but I remember how the very idea made me cringe. The story about a world which kept the strongest babies born each year and ate the rest still makes me nauseous when I think of it, but the writer’s description of the inhabitants horror at discovering that we ate animal flesh hit a nerve. I got it. I don’t have to change my own behavior or preferences, but it is worth knowing that my normal could be someone else’s disgusting.

Many clever writer’s have used the flip side of this to make their world more vivid. Once something becomes socially unacceptable, it has the ingredients for kinky sex. Of course, the more ridiculous the rule, the sillier the kinkiness becomes. The hero in Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale lives in a world where women are not allowed to read. The man who essentially owns her takes her to a secret place to do something depraved. Her worst fears are groundless. The man wants to play scrabble with her.

I’m now about a third of the way into Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbluth’s 1952 satire The Space Merchants, and I’m enjoying it very much. I just finished a scene in which a most likable character disgusts our hero with his perverse behavior. It should be said that the hero is a work in progress, an advertising executive slowly learning the ramifications of his work. The perverse act we witness? His friend likes to read alone in a library that is filled with countless books with no advertisements at all. So much space with no attempt to sell anything is considered obscene in this dystopia.

“I’m not a prude about solitary pleasures when they serve a useful purpose. But my tolerance has limits,” our hero says. Point well made.

(For more about why I think The Space Merchants is a clever and under-appreciated story, see my posts I Know Sexism When I See It?, Predicting the Future or Shaping It? and Through the Eyes of Another.)

 
 

What the hell happened in 1968? (The How to Get a Standing Ovation Edition)

“[The] American Independent Party candidate for president … urged Veterans of Foreign Wars Thursday not to be misled by what he called ‘liberal left-wingers, guideline writers and newspaper editors.” The first line of the Associate Press story states the news in faded shades of cream and grey.

wallaceI consider whether to find this opening funny or disconcerting. “What were they thinking in 1968?” I ask, as I take a closer look at the faded old newspaper, crumbled decades ago around the dishes that I am unpacking. It turns out to be an article about George Wallace, a former Alabama Governor most known for his zealous support of racial segregation, not for his failed run for the presidency in 1968. As I read on, forty-seven years melt away and I am Sherri Roth, thirteen-year-old news freak and hopeful Lois Lane-style journalist, skimming the news as I search for answers to the burning questions about life that keep me awake at night as I try to understand the universe.

“George C. Wallace” I read “devoted much of his speech … to attacks on communism.” I have to smile. Attacks on communism seem quaint and harmless today, although thirteen-year-old Sherri Roth was under the firm impression that both Lenin and Marx specifically advocated tyranny, massacres, and cruelty. It will be a few more years before she is surprised to learn that Communism is merely an economic philosophy and not a mandate to do evil.

panty girdlesIn his speech, captured in a copy of The Wichita Eagle from a Friday August 23 of long ago, Wallace took potshots at newspapers for being soft on Fidel Castro. He also decried anarchists, saying both they and communists “imperil this country internally and externally.” Young Sherri Roth isn’t sure exactly what an anarchist is, but the older Sherrie Cronin is pretty sure that Wallace was referring to hippies. The VFW of 1968 was not particularly fond of this group, and her suspicions are strengthened when she reads that “He was interrupted 25 times by applause, [and] given a standing ovation as he finished.”

Okay. This is starting to sound more like the news of today. Except for those poor guideline writers, that is. Even Rush Limbaugh doesn’t rail against guideline writers, at least as far as I know. What did they do back then to piss off George Wallace?

infinite times1“Guideline writers in Washington are trying to … cover every aspect of life, even to the point of telling a person when he should get up and when he should go to bed,” Wallace complained. Oh. Some government study must have recommended getting eight hours of sleep each night. Looks like that constituted government overreach in Wallace’s opinion.

I sigh as I remember some of the Tea Party complaints that have made the news recently. In 1968 you might have been able to buy a men’s pullover for $2.66 and a woman’s panty girdle for only a dollar, but other things haven’t changed all that much in forty seven years. Would George Wallace have a shot at the presidency today? You have to wonder.

For more notes from 47 years ago, where 13 year old Sherri Roth reports the news from the Friday August 23, 1968 Wichita Eagle, see my other blogs posts for the Vietnam Edition, the Women’s Edition, the Won’t You Please Come to Chicago Edition, and the Race Relations Edition.

[From page 15A of the Friday August 23, 1968 Wichita Eagle from the Associated Press News Service]

This box went everywhere with me

On April 28 I gave my king-sized bed away to a stranger, and for the next fifty-five nights I slept on the beds and couches of family, friends and a few hotel chains. It was a transition I orchestrated, born of selling a house sooner than expected while still needing to work and save money before moving across the country. I’ve known folks who’ve volunteered in Haiti and Kenya for longer, others who served in harm’s way in dangerous conditions. I would be safe and comfortable, so my little stint without my own place hardly seemed to qualify as an adventure. It even sounded easy.

mind unleashed 2But life is relative, isn’t it? After fifteen years with my toothbrush in the same place, I found being afloat disconcerting. Like most poor swimmers, I looked for things to grab onto. I was lucky in what I found. Two years ago I started a daily qigong practice, and my fifteen or so minutes a day of moving meditation became an anchor. Greek yogurt, readily available and easy to eat, was my daily bread. While putting the house on the market I worked to develop the habit of sipping water whenever I became tired or anxious, and this routine worked remarkably well once I was adrift. (As a plus, I was better hydrated than I have ever been in my life.)

My most effective idea, however, was an eighteen by thirty inch box I threw together just before closing. It was meant to hold a few comforts that wouldn’t fit into my suitcase, but over two months in turned into more than that. It became my treasure box, a child-like source of comfort that I carried in to wherever I was staying. As I added new items to it and threw other things out, it became a picture of the woman I had become. What did I really need to be happy. Which comforts did I rely on? This box was not about what I wanted people to think I was like. It was about the real me, trivial as that might be.

Contents:

1. a thin microfiber blanket
2. an extension cord
3. to go coffee cups and lids for taking that last cup with me in the car
4. a tote bag with a picture of my husband, 3 children and mother
5. a popcorn bowl and several bags of microwave popcorn
6. a cloth napkin and a real fork
7. a real wine glass and cork screw
8. a scissors and scotch tape.
9. speakers to attach to my computer
10. clean wash cloths
11. a white noise generator
12. a hair straightener to keep my bangs straight
13. a plastic bag with band-aids, hair ties and Emory boards
14. a couple of cans of soup and a can opener

box2Add my cell phone and my laptop to the list and this was everything but my clothes and wallet that I needed to survive. It is accurate to add that the phone and computer provided favorite music, contact with those I love, and entertainment, making them my two most valuable possessions.

Okay …. so it looks like the real me is a lot about eating, drinking and getting a good night’s sleep. And while Ford Perfect traveled the galaxy armed only with his trusty towel, it looks like I prefer cloth napkins and washcloths. To each their own. Could I have gotten by without my box of precious belongings? Of course I could have. Did I need much more? Not really. At least not for only fifty-five days.