Archive for category Nature

Let Children Play

Debra Harrell became a social media celebrity when she was arrested for letting her nine year old play in a park without supervision

Debra Harrell became a social media celebrity when she was arrested for letting her nine year old play in a park without supervision

In a surreal story that made its way on Facebook, a South Carolina woman was arrested for child abandonment for allowing her little girl, age 9, play in a park all day while she worked at McDonalds to provide for the family.

Still, yeah, I get it.  Nine may be too young for that.  Though I’m pretty sure the odds of something bad happening to the girl would be greater if she rode in the car to her mom’s job and spent the day at McDonalds.   But the initial result – the woman was arrested, her daughter taken away and she lost her job  – was absurd overkill.

Luckily the backlash has gotten her reunited with her daughter and she’s back working as a shift manager at McDonalds.  She still has a court date ahead though – and if it wasn’t for social media spreading her story, who knows what would have happened!

It still says something about our society.   Everything is so controlled and regulated that parents have to worry that any misjudgment might get reported by some nosy adult.   An 11 year old didn’t want to go into the store so her mom ran in leaving the girl in the car just a few minutes.   An adult saw the child, called the cops, and the mom was arrested.   Huh?  The girl was happy, there was no abuse, but the police swooped in.

They said it was 85 degrees outside, the windows were closed and the car wasn’t running.   But the girl wasn’t hot, and hey – she’s ELEVEN!  I’ve known 11 year olds who babysit!  She can open the door and join her mom in the store if she wants.   It’s not like she’s a dog unable to operate the door handles.

When my kids went to day care I had to send food for lunch.   Both were somewhat picky eaters, so I made sure that I sent food they’d like.  It wasn’t always government approved healthy.  Luckily I don’t live in Manitoba where I could be fined for such a thing.  The unhealthy lunch in question?  Left over roast beef, potatoes, carrots, an orange and milk.   How could they feed their child such rubbish!  Luckily the day care gave her Ritz crackers to make it healthy.  I mean, HUH?

What this does, of course, is push parents away from allowing kids unsupervised creative play.  If I let my kids, aged 11 and 8, go on a bike ride around town, will someone think it’s unsafe and that they should be supervised?   If they go across the street to the playground, do I have to be there with them the whole time?

Of course not, kids need freedom to explore.  If every activity is supervised and controlled, they’ll not learn how to improvise and make do with whatever life gives them.  They’ll want some kind of formula or activity – or else be bored.

Since nature is so dangerous, parents rely on the safety of videogames.  It keeps kids inside and safe.

Since nature is so dangerous, parents rely on the safety of videogames. It keeps kids inside and away from all those dangers out in the world.

Parents respond to the societal push towards rigidity and control by allowing kids the freedom to do one thing nobody will get in trouble for: play video games.  You can shop, drive, or do anything with your kids heads focused on screens and nobody will bother you.  That is far more accepted than a little creative unsupervised free time.

The culprit here isn’t just the state, but all those businesses and companies that make money off of kids.  Nobody makes money when kids run out to explore the local stream or trails.  Yet if my 11 year old falls off his bike two miles from home, someone will certainly wonder why I would let him ride so far unsupervised.

Then there is fear.  Parents imagine what could happen, no matter how unlikely, and think it will if they don’t protect their kids.  People get so obsessed with safety that they lose a rational capacity to calculate probability.   Many activities that people think are dangerous are far more safe than a car ride across town.

When I was 11 I explored Sioux Falls on my bike from one end to the other, and I’d zoom down hills reaching 40 MPH (I had a speedometer), having to be really careful no cars were coming down the cross streets.  I’d spend hours away from home, stopping by friends, exploring or just being a kid.   Yes, I’d read, watch too much TV and sometimes have to be pushed out the door.  But no one was going to arrest my mom when my sister and I would walk to the park when I was nine (and she was seven).

finland

Schools play into this by demanding more work, tests, and seat time, leaving kids only a few hours a day for real play – and much of that gets taken up by lessons, activities or clubs.   Recess ceases in sixth grade, and parents complain about early release days.   I don’t mean this as criticism of the schools or teachers – I was President of the PTA last year at my younger son’s school and really admire the work they do.

And in rural Maine I think we have a bit more common sense.  When my youngest was in first grade he was playing with a nerf gun in the car – and proceeded to walk into school with it.  My eldest told me that he took the gun in so I headed back to the school.  The staff thought it was funny – and apparently my son turned it in voluntarily, realizing he shouldn’t have it there.  But geez, in some suburban areas I’d probably have been arrested!   Sending a kid to school with a toy gun!  And, of course, many would think I was a horrible parent, worthy of jail, for letting my first grade son have toy weapons!

So I don’t worry that the parent police will get on my case here, and there are local streams, trails, and play areas for the kids to explore.  Yes, unlike me they have to wear bike helmets when they ride, but at least they can ride.  Let kids play.  They’ll have enough serious time when they have to pay the bills and work.  This time should be magical.  They need to be in nature, not just learn about the environment.  And give parents leeway to decide what their kid can handle.

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99% vs 1%

What treasures lie in our pre-history -- are there more Machu Picchus?

No, this isn’t a post about economics or Occupy Wall Street.  It’s a post about human history.  I’ve begun to read the book At Home by Bill Bryson, which is a history of “private life,” going through the development of homes, kitchens, food, etc.

He makes a point in the book that gives me pause.   The history that we know as recorded history — starting with the early development of agriculture and cities — is less than 1% of human history.   The first homo sapiens appeared 250,000 years ago, our history is at best 6000 years, though only the last 2500 has reasonably reliable records (albeit only from parts of the planet).    That means that 99% of history is hidden from us.   Humans with the same cognitive abilities have been inhabiting the earth for a long time, but we have few clues as to how they lived.   Humanoids with high levels of intelligence have been around millions of years.

That raises two contradictory puzzles.  First, what the heck happened during that “pre-history”?   Were we simply hunter-gatherers eeking out survival in a world buffeted by ice ages and difficult conditions?  Or were there civilizations and relatively advanced societies that rose and fell?  Second, why did we develop so quickly so fast in the last 5000 years?

There are other oddities.   Apparently the foodstuffs we’ve inherited from those past civilizations, such as corn, required a tremendous amount of genetic engineering.   Not in the lab like the stuff Mansanto does, but through trial and error, cross breeding, and who knows what else.   Corn is not natural, it was a human creation.  This means that past civilizations must have been very good at dealing with crops and foodstuffs.   The fact we cannot “recreate” their processes (Bryson informs that a conference designed to determine the origin of corn disintegrated into acrimony and disagreement) shows that at least in those cases our knowledge may fall short of theirs.

We currently define development and civilization in terms of materialism and consumption.   We’re “civilized” because we have a lot of stuff.  We have high definition TV’s, XBox’s, cars, highways, airplanes, computers, and grocery stores loaded with everything one could possibly imagine eating.   We eat animals, but not in the way of our ancestors.   Rather, we turn animals into objects we construct — genetically engineered and fed a particular way solely to get them to market quicker and with more meat.  A product that just happens to be a biological life form.

We’re so immersed in this materialist/consumption oriented view of progress and civilization that it’s hard to imagine societal development along a different path.   We see 99% of human history as being a waste land where savages roamed the earth eeking out an existence with no meaning – mere animals (and don’t forget how we treat animals!)   Only the last 6000 years have had meaningful existence, and the first 5000 of those are iffy.

We live disconnected from nature and community

On it’s face that’s an absurd way to look at human existence and history, yet unless we take the time to shake ourselves out of the cultural fog that causes us to keep our eyes shut and simply reproduce the world we see around us, it seems natural to look at progress and development in purely material terms.  Once we recognize that our materialist/secular rational western point of view is a cultural construct that programs us to value certain things over others it’s like we’re sleep walking, oblivious to other ways to understand and appreciate life.   We may enjoy a walk through nature and feel a smidgen of something deeper — but how often to thoughts and stresses of the modern world even invade those moments?   As Rousseau once put it: “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”   We just don’t recognize the chains.

So to borrow from Plato, what if we were to wake up, to be led out of cave and see reality — in this case to view the expanse of the human history we do not know because it was not recorded?    The only way we can attempt that is through imagination.

What if a society developed with sophisticated knowledge of plants, animals and nature, but without using the same lens of science that we use?  Rather than breaking things down into chemicals and reducing knowledge to general processes, what if that knowledge was holistic, based on how things interact and what works in the world?    What if all of the world was taken as valuable and not subdivided and treated as disposable, or a means to an end?

Humans might be able to build sophisticated cities with plumbing, comfort and utility without having electricity or a major power source other than water and sun.   Animals would be part of the community.   People would still eat them, but in a way that respects the cycles of life and the animal’s role in nature.  The same with plants – they would be used fully seen as valuable life forms in and of themselves.  Knowledge about them would be prized and humans might know more about agriculture than we now know even with science.

A sense of oneness between humans and nature could have yielded strong civilizations that persisted millennia  without leaving a trace for us to find.   Sophisticated oral histories and other forms of communication may have been developed.   Perhaps they disintegrated, perhaps we don’t understand them.  Imagine if our civilization collapsed — most electronic information would dissipate as the grid went down, if someone happened on a CD or DVD in the future it would be a bizarre shinny metal object, certainly not something bearing knowledge!

In fact, if you think about it the idea that creatures as intelligent and sophisticated in thinking as we are roamed the planet for 247,000 years and then only recently discovered a path out of a primitive state is absurd.  Moreover, our current lifestyle works against who we are — our bodies, nervous system and psychology is not geared for the modern stresses and pressures of the consumption oriented competitive world we’ve created.   Our misguided approach to food is creating massive levels of obesity, diabetes and disease.   We have constructed a world out of synch with the kind of creatures we are, and one that disconnects us from both nature and each other.

Our lifestyle does us harm

Yet we are to believe that we are the pinnacle of civilization, that everything before us was primitive or savage.  I find it more likely to believe that humans have lived in meaningful advanced civilizations throughout much of human history.   As fallible humans in a changing world those civilizations have risen and fallen, and no doubt some were better and more successful than others.  Looked at this way, I can’t help but wonder if the path we’ve chosen in the last one or two thousand years might not be one of destruction and decay rather than progress and development.

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Rain!

Here is a great tune for our East coast weather, written and performed by Dennis DeYoung (inspired in part by Katrina), this video matches the song Rain with images from those past hurricanes, as well as other disasters, which I found on Youtube.  It looks like it was made by someone named “scarlet envelope” a couple weeks after Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008:

It’s from the album One Hundred Years from Now which you can find at dennisdeyoung.com.   It is a superb album from one of rock’s all time greats.  The song’s been running through my head all day as I’ve watched coverage of Irene.   (By the way, my first ever post on this blog was about hurricanes – Katrina vs. Nargis).

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The Nature of God?

I noted awhile back I was reading Columbia physicist Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality and trying to get my mind around just where theoretical physics is taking us these days.  It’s mostly conjecture, though often buttressed by pretty sophisticated math.  All this begs the question why do we even have a reality?   

Our minds have trouble with that question because it’s hard to imagine something without a clear beginning or causal explanation.  To get a universe you have to get something from nothing.  To get a God there has to be something from nothing.   If time stretched back an infinity, how could we reach the present?

Of course, part of this is simply that we’re limited in perspective by inhabiting a space-time universe where we move from past to future able to explain what happens by looking at how nature operates.  We live in a world where you don’t get something from nothing, where things happen for a reason, and everything we imagine had to come from somewhere else.   Clearly, the universe must reach out beyond space and time.

Modern physics suggests that as well.  String theory posits ten dimensions; we only experience three (or four, if we include time).   Holographic theories even see the reality we experience as a kind of projection from elsewhere.   To answer the question “why is there a reality” or “why is there something and not nothing,” we have to change our perspective.

It’s like the old joke “A cowboy rode into town on Friday, stayed three days, and left on Friday, how is that possible?”  If you get fixated on Friday as a day, then you’ve got an impossible dilemma.   You might try creative answers (he rode in on Friday but didn’t stay there and rode around for the next four days before actually staying), but that gets silly.   The only way to answer that question clearly is to recognize that the frame of reference is wrong.   Friday is not a day, but the name of the Cowboy’s horse.   Suddenly it makes perfect sense – and is far more parsimonious than some contorted explanation.   We need to think outside our three dimensional box.

We try to understand the world as having to fit into reality as we experience it.   Either we throw up our hands and say “it’s meaningless, we just live, die and that’s it” or we find some belief to hold on to, or choose to have faith in teachings proclaiming themselves to be the answer.

In religion the God concept emerges as the point of mystery, the source of a reality we cannot grasp.   The Tawhid in Islam is a concept that God is one — perfect, incomprehensible and indivisible.    Hindus have the Brahman, the supreme and universal spirit from which the universe emerged.   It is the source of the material world, but its essence can only be known from inner meditation.   Both would be consistent with the idea of a holographic multiverse.  Even the Christian God is often put in impersonal terms — the Word, the Alpha and Omega, the Spirit.    Yet while Christians do personalize God, Muslims see God’s nature as so incomprehensible to the human mind that it is forbidden to try to make an image of it, or give it human traits (God cannot be angry, jealous or sad — such petty human emotions would be beneath God and in fact to attribute them to God is extremely disrespectful.)   For Hindus, despite starting from a similar point, anything goes in describing God.   Brahman encompasses all so God can take a multitude of forms.  Hindus appear extremely polytheistic, but ultimately there is only one Brahman.

If  the source of reality is outside not only of space time, but of our capacity to even reflect on the nature of its existence, a God or Spirit concept is a shorthand for an unknowable (and least through material inquiry) source of reality.   In this view there is one key difference between science and religion.  In science the source of our world is likely impersonal, a force of nature that can be explained and studied (or perhaps not, if we don’t have access to it in our three dimensional space-time world).  In religion there is a sense of will or consciousness that not only constructs our world but gives our spirit life.   In such a view the nature of reality is consciousness, not just material cause and effect.   Consciousness would have some immaterial connection to that larger reality that cannot be measured or understood through science or investigating the nature of material/three dimensional reality.    This “spirit” thus is key to both self-discovery and understanding the nature of our world.

In that sense scientists are looking to math as the abstract key to transcend the limits of our capacity to make sense of explaining the origin of material reality.   The hope is that we can find a way to test it or see into a “larger reality.”   Religion and spirituality represent a similar effort, but one done through internal reflection and meditation, hoping that access to a ‘hidden reality’ or other dimensions can be achieved through exploration of the mind and consciousness.

If the consciousness/spirit theory is correct, the good news is that life is probably unending and expansive.   This existence is only a part of what we are, and we will likely never cease to exist.   In fact, if consciousness projects reality, we are probably all part of some greater unity.  As in Plato’s allegory of the cave we are living in a world of illusions, shadows on the wall, and mistaking it for reality.   But if reality is just impersonal forces of nature, then we may be condemned to never truly understand it; our capacities are too limited.   Just as a cat will never understand general relativity, we cannot perceive beyond our horizons.

So I for one will continue to explore thoughts, consciousness, dreams and intuition on the possibility that perhaps that’s a key to understanding a world larger than this one.   If I’m right, a journey inward may yield rewards and lessons.  If I’m wrong, well, as long as I have some fun and treat this effort playfully,  no harm done.

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Reality

A short blog entry tonight, reflecting on life in general.

Yesterday morning my two sons (8 and 5) were bored and we decided to get on our mud boots and take a hike.  It was glorious!   Our backyard opens right into the woods and trails leading to a river (which by mid-summer becomes more like a creek).   Most of the trails are still covered with snow, but the melting streams of water heading down to the river, the animal tracks, and my sons’ joy in exploring nature was exhilarating.   We were out nearly two hours before trekking back home.

I’ve also been reading Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality.  You can find a good review by clicking here. The book is about the possibility of multiple universes (or a “multiverse,”) which is a very active field in theoretical physics.   It further removes humans from the center of reality, but also poses some paradoxes and quandries that I find thoroughly enjoyable.  It also puts life in context — the political and personal dramas of the day are real, but ultimately part of something far greater.

My own favorite is the idea of the holographic multiverse.   To be honest, I like it because it fits my own philosophy on the nature of reality almost like a glove.  It has parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave, and empiricist philosophers like Bishop Berkeley (who had a Star Trek character named after him).   Given the apparent ‘nothingness’ of reality once you dig down deep into subatomic particles, and the paradoxes and apparent contradictions of quantum physics, this kind of theory has the potential to clear that up.   Reality’s paradoxes and contradictions come from the fact we take the experience of reality, which is an illusion interpreted by our senses, as being the nature of reality.

I could speculate more on what this might mean (and will likely do so in future blog entries), but at base it convinces me that it is too easy to get caught up in the “stuff” of the world or the “common sense” of the culture we are born into.  We can get hypnotized to follow a myriad of suggestions thrown our way about what the world is, what we ought to do, what is normal, and what life is all about.   Maybe the key in life is to look for what has meaning beyond the external stuff of the world.   Connections with people, concern for the emotional state of others, putting spirit and soul ahead of power and goals.

And somehow, on a warm spring day as the snow melts, kids laugh and we witness nature shifting to a new season, I can’t help but think that despite all the insanity, pain and hatred in the world, we can enjoy a very beautiful and meaningful existence.

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Free Will?

In my Honors course we’re reading Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, one of my favorite books.  It raises questions about the nature of freedom and life in the modern world, essentially arguing that the enlightenment goal of human liberation is far more difficult to achieve than the enlightenment philosophers believed.

The problem comes from the fact humans are, by nature, not completely discrete separate individuals.   Humans have individual identity, but also rely on “primary bonds” connecting the individual to both nature and community.    How we think, our psychological well being, and our sense of security of self relies on these bonds.   Up until the time of the enlightenment this was not problematic.  Humans lived with, relied on and were connected to both nature and community.

Enlightenment thinkers, however, took as their mission human liberation.  Humans have been tied down by religion, tradition, irrational cultural norms and wealthy leaders for too long, they argued.  Humans should be free to use reason and rational thought to make their own choices, freely acting in the world, responsible for the lives they lead.   In theory this sounds great, but human liberation in these terms also meant destroying the bonds of community and nature that are so important in providing meaning to human life.

Simply, the enlightenment’s quest for liberation over simplified the task by thinking all that was necessary was to break free of constraints on liberty.  They didn’t recognize the psychological impact of that move, and how breaking these bonds actually creates real hardship for individuals.    Yet Fromm and others from the Frankfurt school don’t want to reject the enlightenment project.  Human liberation is still the goal.  But “freedom from constraint” is not enough to achieve it.   Unless we can find a way to replace or compensate for the loss of those bonds (nature and community), the psychological cost of “freedom from constraint” is so high that it often creates negative personal and social consequences.   Fromm’s focus was the rise of Nazism, as the fascists provided an apparent answer to those psychological dilemmas — ultimately a false answer.

I’ve already discussed how identity is not just individual, but also a social construct.   This leads to at least three problems associated with the nature of modern freedom.

First, our actions, driven by subconscious drives spurred by the alienation and anxiety caused by having our bonds with nature and community broken, create a system that in some ways is above us, a new kind of God.   We conform to the system, and what gets defined as normal and acceptable gets taken as natural and true; we lose our critical insight, we think that the world as we experience — our “common sense” — is valid.   Other ideas (or cultures) are thus strange and bizarre.  As with hypnosis society’s suggestions can form the way we think, what our preferences are, and even our core values.   We think we are free rational choosing individuals, but can become (in varying degrees) conforming automatons, programmed by a society created by those who came before us.

Second, we construct our own “magic helpers” as Fromm calls them, to place our faith in and to find meaning from.   This doesn’t have to be a religion, but can be an ideology or principle.   If you use an abstract set of principles or an ideology to make decisions and determine life’s meaning, you’ve counteracted the impact of freedom by creating a new “truth/God” to adhere to.   Unlike the original bonds of nature and community, this truth is abstract and subjective (even if one thinks the principles are universal and objective).   It can lead to extremes, and exert itself as an authoritarian personality.   My principle is right, all others should adhere to it or they are wrong, and thus need to be stopped!   I will follow my party, leader, nation, religion, or whatever authority I now hold high, wherever it leads!  This is the core cause of fascism, as well as religious and ideological extremism.

Finally, we are easily manipulated by those who possess wealth and power to think a certain way.  Just as the system’s “common sense” can program us, marketers, political leaders, media outlets and others can actively construct a world view.   For instance, Fox viewers in a recent poll are twice as likely as others to fear Sharia law.  Now, there is absolutely no threat that sharia law could be imposed in the US for a variety of reasons.  But over 40% of Fox viewers fear it because that media outlet has people on who paint it as a real threat.    That statistic alone shows how powerful the media can be in shaping opinions!   The manipulation is often subtle.  Most marketing is NOT directed at affecting your rational choice — giving information to help you decide what to buy.   Rather, the goal is to tug at your emotions and get you to feel a certain way.  When you drive buy McDonalds with your family the emotions generated by the feel good family commercials for McDonalds, hardly mentioning the food at all, can create a certain “will” to choose to eat there with the family.    They know that, marketers admit that is what they go for, and yet most people believe their choices to be rational and objective.

The solution — re-establish bonds with nature and with community (others) — seems simple enough.  Indeed the rise of social media seems to come from that desire to have community.   But the bonds need to be positive (they help us have security and a sense of wholeness) rather than negative (driven by anxiety and insecurity).   That’s what is difficult.   The modern world can be cold and isolating, our consumer culture defines value in material terms, and success by the money you make and the products you own.    With unnatural and even manipulative bonds being offered (such as ‘branding’ – identifying with a brand name) it’s easy to get lost in a culture in which the freedom to define yourself is a herculean task.

In my next post, I want to address possibilities along those lines.   We can’t go back to pre-modern communal structures and cultural authority.  Indeed, I would not want to go back there.   I am an individualist, I want to be liberated, not manipulated or forced to follow traditional cultural norms.  Yet I am a human, and as John Donne noted, “no man is an island.”   I am not fully human if disconnected form nature or others around me.   The key both for individual peace of mind as well as for having a stable society is to find a way to have healthy “natural” bonds replace those destroyed by modernism.

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Volcanic Ash?

In May I’m part of a travel course to some of my favorite world cities: Vienna, Munich and Berlin.   Yet even as we send payments for train tickets, air fare, and prepay for rooms in the hostels, the headlines scream about how travel to and throughout Europe is threatened by…a volcano.   I’ve planned and executed six travel courses before — five to Italy, one to Germany.   Some took place during January, when I had real concerns about snow storms preventing us from reaching Boston for the flight.  I never thought we’d need to be concerned about a volcano!

The volcano, located near Iceland, is called Eyjafjallajokull and has been erupting on and off since March.   Due to winds and the height of the ash most flights from Europe to the US and within Europe were canceled last weekend.  British Airways estimates loses at $25 – $30 million a day, with some believing the airline industry as a whole is losing $200 million a day.   Due to winds there have been some openings, and tomorrow a wind shift might clear some of the major airports which have been closed (like Charles De Gaulle in Paris, and the London airports), but no one knows how long the erruption will last, and how much ash will yet be spewed into the atmosphere.   Some ash has hit the east coast of North America, canceling even some far eastern Canadian domestic flights.

The US estimates there are 40,000 US citizens stranded in Great Britain alone, but all over Europe the impact has been felt.  President Obama even had to cancel his planned attendance at the funeral for the Polish President who was killed in a plane crash caused by a more usual suspect: horrible fog.   Most world leaders ended up missing that funeral, though the Russian President made it — which was important symbolically.

The Financial Times reports that the danger has been exaggerated by flawed computer models.   Test flights by European airlines through areas off limits to passenger travel have not shown damage to engines, making many believe that the European authorities were too quick to make extensive travel bans.    Yet without clear knowledge of what is safe and not safe, officials tend towards caution.   What would be the response if they eased up travel and one or more planes crashed? As bad as missing a trip would be, I certainly don’t want to risk having the engines fail on the plane!

What is interesting about this is how nature — a volcano located in the north Atlantic — can cause so much havoc in our globalized world economy.   Airlines, already dealing with rising oil prices, run quite literally on a tight schedule.  It used to be that customer service meant it made sense to have more flight seats open than people flying in order to assure people would find a schedule suiting them.   Over the years increased competition and higher costs have led to models that try to assure that as many flights as possible are booked full.   That means fewer flights — and more headaches trying to help tens of thousands of passengers get to where they want to go once the skies actually clear.

Not only does this affect airlines and tourism, but also shipping.   Companies are used to the capacity to send things overnight to and from Europe, and while freight generally is sent by ship, important documents and urgently needed materials go by air.   Individual travelers are also being hurt, especially those who can ill afford an extra week or so in foreign parts.   They not only lose income from lost work, but have to pay for hotels and food.    If this continues, who knows the long term consequences.

Yet this kind of event also should bring some perspective.   When we do the travel courses, we tell students one thing: don’t get frustrated or angry when things go wrong.   Travel is always like that, a flight is canceled, a museum closed when you expect it to be open, a train is late, etc.  So many times I’ve been in airports and seen business people and tourists angry, shouting at airline workers because their plans have been thrown asunder by mechanical problems or nature.   That only increases the level of frustration, and doesn’t solve the problem.   Watching that, I’ve made a point to be as understanding and friendly as possible in all circumstances — something which came in handy during our last trip.

When things go wrong traveling, you just have to go with it.  Tell yourself you’ll have a story, realize it’s a unique experience, and recognize that in most cases the inconveniences and problems are small when looked at in perspective.   Find fun in the situation if possible, joke, and know that things will get better.    I think sometimes people react to the stress of plans going awry with the instinctive human response we had back when saber tooth tigers attacked — adrenaline, worry, anger!   It’s important to take a minute, get perspective, and recognize that all the complaining and anger in the world won’t change the situation.

As we tell students, if you are good at travel, you’ll likely be good at life.   That capacity to roll with the changes when things go awry is the best way to reduce or avoid stress, and to stay alert for new, unexpected opportunities.    Most of the time the things that drive people crazy are ridiculously unimportant, no matter what it seems like at the time.    This “ash event” is forcing more people to confront the fact that the world doesn’t always adhere to our plans and hopes — and that’s OK.   We make it work out anyway.

So next month if we’re at the airport in Boston and are informed that our British Airways flight to Vienna via London has been canceled due to volcanic ash we’ll just have to figure something out.  Still, I really am looking forward to a Melange with Sachertorte, and strolling the grounds of Schloss Schoenbrunn.

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Avatar: Best Movie Ever?

This was a good movie weekend.  On New Year’s Day we took the kids to see The Frog and the Princess.  It was a wonderful Disney children’s film, with a positive message, good music, and fun.  Nothing  political or controversial, just one of the better Disney films.  But yesterday we (sans kids)  braved a significant snow storm (20 or so inches) to see Avatar.   It was worth it.

I was skeptical at first.  I have never liked 3-D movies or other-worldly ‘fantasy’ films.   Lord of the Rings was utterly forgettable to me.   However, the 3-D effects were so woven into the story that you could literally forget you had the glasses on.  It didn’t have the gimmicky 3D tricks; instead, I felt transported into the beautiful, exotic, and intriguing world of Pandora.   The beauty of the film cannot be understated – James Cameron created a world that was both delightful and exotic, I would watch it again for that alone.

The story, however, was both timely and powerful.   Spoiler alert: do not read further if you do not want to know details of the movie. Pandora appears to be a moon of Jupiter, able to support life.  It is 2154, and the earth is in dire straights.  From the dialogue one hears that there have been wars in Nigeria, Venezuela and elsewhere, as apparently there has been a fight for oil and resources.  Pandora has a vastly sought after mineral, oddly named Unobtanium, which will earn the corporation mining it huge amounts of money — and perhaps save the earth from an energy crisis that will cause collapse.   A private corporation with hired “security” — mostly former military people — are there to protect the mining operation.  Alas, a primitive native tribe lives right where the mining is supposed to occur.  They refuse to leave, as the Earth folk have nothing of value to them.

This could be Dances With Wolves meets Star Wars.   As a sop to the scientists, there is an effort to reach out to the natives and bribe them to leave their hometree (a huge mega-tree).   To make communication easier “Avatars” are created, genetically engineered bodies which allow the humans to take the form of the natives, transferring brain functions from their own body (held in a coffin like chamber) to the Avatar.   The hero, an ex-marine there only because his scientist twin brother was killed and the Avatar is built around an individual’s genetic code, is to provide security for the scientists.   On his first mission he gets separated and lost, only to be rescued by a native who has a sign not to kill this “dream walker.”

I won’t go into much more detail.  The hero Jake (who in his human body has lost the use of his legs)  learns the ways of the natives and realizes that attacking them would be an act of evil.  Yet before he realized this, he had given very helpful information to the military.   The Navi accept him, and after learning their language and ways, initiate him into their clan.  But the military is ready to strike, and he has to somehow defeat a high tech military power.   The messages that stick out to me, however, go beyond the plot:

1) We killed our mother.   In a poignant scene of prayer at the spirit-tree, Jake in his Navi body asks for help in defeating the Earth forces.   He realizes that Pandora is a web of life, and in describing the forces about to attack he says “we killed our mother.”  We separated ourselves from nature and from our connections to each other, replacing it with cold, rational, materialist greed.    From the corporate geek heading the operation to the military Colonel who sees the Navi as not much more than blue monkeys, it’s clear who is evil and who is good.   This was reminiscent of Dances with Wolves, but more poignant in that it looked much like the US in Iraq or Afghanistan, not some past incident we can look back on and say, “well, that was a past generation.”

2) The value of life.   The Navi are discounted by the Earth people because they lack technology.   The Navi live off the land, and by all accounts are primitive.   Yet they value all life in a deep, spiritual way.   Their beliefs are laughed at — such silly naive creatures, believing in a deity!   When the hero and the scientists try to stop the military they are derided as tree huggers, and monkey lovers.  Think about how we in the US (and Europe during colonial times) looked at other peoples.   Towel heads.   Primitives.   Different.  Savage.  Their lives are worth less than ours because we have  better technology and material wealth.   We think nothing of wars to secure our “way of life.”   How many times have people privately admitted that to protect our “way of life” (read: material prosperity) it is worth wars that kill countless innocents and destroy cultures overseas.  By abstracting others into something sub-human because they aren’t like us, we rationalize evil.    They are different.   We need their unobtanium (or oil) and thus we can intervene and even destroy their culture.

3.  How does it feel to betray your race?   The Colonel asks that question as he confronts Jake as Navi.   Jake did betray his race — he is condemning earth to more problems by protecting the Navi.   A higher good exists than loyalty to race — or nation.  Just as Germans who worked against the Nazis in WWII were indeed traitors to their country, they were nonetheless doing what is right.   There is no dishonor in treason if your country is engaged in evil, and you are standing for a higher principle.    When the Navi are victorious the audience cheered.   When the film ended there was applause — rare these days in movie theaters.   The film caused people to root against what was clearly an American military operation in favor of a strange and exotic native race.  In a vivid and simple manner the film portrayed an undeniable truth: good and evil do not depend on nation or race.

The moral of the film is a time honored one of myths throughout history.   The intriguing relationships and interactions also fit the model of a mythic good vs. evil story, much like Star Wars.  I left the theater with emotions I’ve only experienced a couple times.   When I watched Star Wars in 1977, I left feeling like I had seen something amazing — a movie unlike any I had seen before.    When on January 17, 1991 I watched Dances With Wolves, the day after Operation Desert Storm began in Iraq, I felt I had seen a film with one of the most powerful moral messages imaginable, perfect for that time.     This was a mix of both.   The beauty of Pandora, the suspense in a nonetheless predictable story line, the powerful moral message, brought home in a way where there was a clear sense of good and evil, transcending nationalism, moral relativism, and self-interest, all make this one of the best movies of all time.

And now, as we see our environmental problems grow, increasing wars over resources, a tendency to put “stuff” over people, and a loss of connection with nature and the spiritual side of life, this movie is very timely.    In our western haste to declare our individualism, we forget that no one is truly an autonomous independent individual, we are all connected, our capacities, opportunities and core beliefs come from our culture and environment.   As a culture, we seem to have fogotten that.   I’m sure the right wing will mock it’s environmental message and how it gets audiences to root against the US military (albeit more a private Blackwater type group) during a so-called “time of war” here.   But as in the film, our wars now are wars are imperialistic, as we arrogantly try to alter other cultures for our own benefit.

Yesterday President Obama and his family saw the film while on vacation in Hawaii.  I can only hope that he ponders the moral of the film as he decides how to handle the military and economic problems facing us.   We don’t need a better military plan or new economic stimulus.   We need a sense of spiritual renewal.  Jimmy Carter called for that, but we never acted on it.   A movie is only entertainment, but it also reflects and impacts our culture.   I hope it makes people think a little about the hear and now, even as they enjoy a story about a mythical future.

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The Way Halloween Should Be

Living out of town a few miles, it’s necessary to head into town to go trick or treating.   We met up with a few other families, and made our way through the streets of Farmington, Maine, criss-crossing the street to hit every house with a light on.   The town was full of trick or treaters.  Families had to stock up on mass amounts of candy in order to serve all the kids that prowled the streets…robots, ninjas, hippies, zombies, skeletons, ghosts, witches…the sidewalks were so full of kids and parents making the rounds that it was sometimes like a traffic jam.   We ran into friends, people were laughing, having side conversations, and the spirit of community was intense.   This is how trick or treating was meant to be.   One house even had a tub full of apples kids could grab or bob for.   None of us had even a passing concern that a razor blade would be in one (unlike my parents when I was growing up).

Halloween is holiday numero uno in our family.   We have our annual halloween party every year (this year it was on October 25), usually with 20-30 children and just as many parents.  Our spooky woods in the back yard were elaborately decorated.  Not only did we go out there in the afternoon to play and have a scavanger hunt with some games, but the highlight was going back there after dark.   The play house, a small log cabin, had a laughing witch, a spider that descended from the ceiling, and numerous little decorations.  The kids would ring the scary doorbell, go in (only four or five could comfortably fit at a time), and then go through the spiderweb netting down the exit slide.    Watching all the kids laugh and have fun (and ingest lots of sugar — that’s part of the holiday spirit) was fantastic.

We start decorating for Halloween in early September.   The kids started getting excited, talking about what they were going to be, and of course planning the party.   This year was the third annual party since Ryan was 4 and Dana 1.   Our Halloween decorations even outnumber the Christmas ones.    For the last month and a half we’ve been playing Halloween songs (Wee sing for Halloween, Kidsbop Halloween, etc.)   We made a conscious choice to make Halloween the “big holiday” for the kids, and so far it’s paid off.

The reason has nothing to do with religion.  Some Christians eschew Halloween because of all the pagan symbols (I think they take that too seriously).   Wiccans, of course, see it as the most important Holiday.   For us, it’s a mix of a few things.  First, we love autumn, and with our back woods play area, it’s beautiful even in late fall.    Second, Christmas is about family, and our family is far away.   Many Christmases we spend either alone with the kids, or going to friends.  We play the Christmas carols, and talk about the spirit of the season, which is first and foremost LOVE.

But if not family, Christmas for most people is about religion and a church community.   We have neither.  I have strong spiritual beliefs and want my children to learn about all major religions and respect them, but I can’t with good conscience make them become part of one.   Thus, Christmas is usually not the kind of social season for us that is for others.    Since the university is on break, many of our friends travel, though it’s been hard for us to afford to get out to South Dakota.  For me I think Christmas is personally much more meaningful than Halloween, since I experience Christmas as a time to reflect on the power of love and connections between us all, but so far the kids are too young to really understand that with much depth.

Halloween, on the other hand, also has a sense of ritual and community.   It’s fun.  A few places go all out with haunted walks, and there are, of course, spooky hay rides and a place we didn’t get to this year, a massive corn maze.  But walking with friends on crowded streets full of laughing children on a warm full moon night, that’s priceless.  When he saw the full moon, Ryan was beside himself, “Daddy, look,” he said eyes wide open with excitement, “It’s Halloween and we have a full moon!!!!  Oh man, this is the best day of my life.”  (That would make it about the 100th ‘best day of my life’ he’s had this year, but who’s counting?)

This weekend we also mowed the yard to mulch the leaves, raked the back woods play area, cleaned the garage so the cars can fit there in winter, and it felt like we were getting everything ready for the onslaught.  The leaves are almost all fallen, though still beautiful on the ground — and who cannot help but love the smell of fallen leaves.    The grass is still pretty green, but within weeks all will be covered with snow.   We played on the swings and took down the Halloween decorations, realizing that this is the time of the year when the summer growth gives way to the stark and cold beauty of winter.   Late fall has an eerie beauty, Halloween is the perfect holiday to celebrate that.

To top it off, the Vikings beat the Packers 38 – 26 in an exciting game which puts the Vikes clearly atop the NFC North.   “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

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Autumn in Paradise

Last spring I took some photos of the trails near our house and promised more later in the year.   Today was a beautiful autumn day, so we took a stroll from our backyard into the woods.   Yesterday I was talking to a friend’s mom who lives in Florida, and she said that Rangeley, Maine was listed in their local paper as one of the top five places in the country for leaf peeping.   We were just there on Saturday doing just that, but really, our backyard is just as good.

First, here’s a couple photos of our back yard play area — built this year thanks to Uncle Sasha — for the boys (oh, and if you click that last link, rest assured that all the piles of loam, rock and sand have been used, grass is growing, and you wouldn’t even know we had the massive drainage project):

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You can see the swings, the play house, the benches in the back are for the fire pit, and the teeter tooter is there.  The sandboxes aren’t visible here, they are on the other side of the swings.   We’re having a big Halloween party here, and plan to have our “haunted woods” prepared.   Here’s a close up of the house, you can see that a yellow slide comes out the other side so the kids can exit in style:

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The boys having run

The boys having fun

And now, some pictures of autumn, a bit past peak, from the trails leading from our backyard:

Wilson stream from the path

Wilson stream from the path

Dana on the path of fallen leaves

Dana on the path of fallen leaves

These trails go on for miles

These trails go on for miles

A short rest

After a short rest, back to the hike!

Some foilage on the hill across the way

Some foilage on the hill across the way

Autumn is definitely my favorite season, and we’ve had mostly perfect weather since September.   Time to take a break from all the stuff going on in the world and simply enjoy nature.

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