Some Things That Happen…

For the First Time/Seem to Be Happening Again.
~ Where Or When, Rodgers and Hart

Skepticism is a service I could offer. Maybe I could put it on a t-shirt in my next life as a t-shirt artist. Seriously, I earned it early and honestly, a divergent path when I was about 12, reading The Diary of a Young Girl. School assignment or not, Anne’s journal and her terrible fate riveted me. How could it be, I remember asking my agnostic, worldly father, that the Pope who my Catholic faith preached was “infallible,” had done nothing to save Anne Frank and the other Jews of Europe? He looked at me, then away with sadness in his eyes: “It’s complicated.” For him, personally, at the time it was indeed. My mother was a devout Catholic and he had promised to let her raise me as one. He went on to say that a lot of good people could not, or would not, see what was happening in Hitler’s Germany until it was too late to save millions of people. Yes, we won that war, but it was, he said, “a very dark time.”

We are in a dark time now, for some of the same reasons: good people choosing to avert their eyes to and shirk responsibility for what is happening to our planetary home. The most egregious example of this is the forthcoming series of ‘debates’ — if it even deserves the term — where Democratic presidential hopefuls barely mention climate breakdown so widely reported in mainstream media. I have no words to describe the failures in this regard of the other party which, according to California Governor, Gavin Newsom, is finished.

I will support and vote for a candidate who runs against this incumbency, but I am deeply skeptical any candidate has enough street cred for the coming climate emergency in real time. I worry that, as Katrina made evident in New Orleans, it will again be people who have the least to begin with, who suffer the most. As climate impacts multiply, it will be those who can’t afford nutritious food, reliable shelter, medical care, let alone property insurance, secure neighborhoods, escape strategies, or the luxury of climigration (if it comes to that) who will take the hit first and hardest.

Blue Marble

This is front of mind because in my last Zoom class in Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, we spent a lot of time talking about the appropriate humility and openness we must bring to our work with marginalized population groups. Think about it: for indigenous peoples, extinction isn’t exactly a new concept. As facilitators, we’ll need to listen deeply, put in the time to build relationships and trust before we can offer anything else. I am hopeful that, as an immigrant and person of mixed-race, I might have a helpful perspective.

There will always be those who say our current predicament is too complicated to understand. Actually, it is very simple: unwittingly perhaps but more willfully now (despite warnings), we have built a global civilization that, as Joanna Macy puts it, has made of the earth our ‘supply house and sewer.’ This is, as one of my grandsons wisely put it, ‘not a partisan problem’ we face. We got here together and if we are able to turn back from the brink, it will take all of us. May it be so.

Prayer for Future Beings

You live inside us, beings of the future.

In the spiral ribbons of our cells, you are here.  In our rage for the burning forests, the poisoned fields, the oil-drowned seals, you are here.  You beat in our hearts through late-night meetings.  You accompany us to clear-cuts and toxic dumps and the halls of the lawmakers.  It is you who drive our dogged labors to save what is left.

O you who will walk this Earth when we are gone, stir us awake.  Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world.  Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat.  Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick.  Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims, that we may honor the life that links us.

You have as yet no faces we can see, no names we can say.  But we need only hold you in our mind, and you teach us patience.  You attune us to measures of time where healing can happen, where soil and souls can mend.  You reveal courage within us we had not suspected, love we had not owned.

O you who come after, help us remember: we are your ancestors.  Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.

Adaptation (ad·ap·ta·tion)

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

Noun / Biology. a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.

Whether we recognize it or not, adaptation isn’t a choice for living things; it’s an evolutionary mandate. It is how all life forms — humans very much included – have survived and thrived over the millennia. When, for whatever reason, this process is disrupted (dinosaurs meet asteroid), life ends for those that cannot adapt to the changed circumstances. If adaptation is a successful strategy for continuing, extinction brings it to a halt.

We are in the Sixth Extinction now (see abstract of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book by that name), a culmination of decades of business as usual in the face of louder and more alarming warnings from the scientific community about greenhouse gases, resource depletion (oil, soil, water, forests), and biodiversity loss. Lately, the headlines are starting to catch up with the conclusions of peer-reviewed papers while emboldening the denialist camp (One Million Species Face Extinction). We are, the majority of scientists say, on the brink of societal collapse caused by us.

It is cold comfort indeed to learn that collapse is already occurring in our lifetime, just unevenly distributed. Says Vinay Gupta, software engineer, disaster consultant, global resilience guru, aka, The Man Whose Job It Is to Constantly Imagine the Collapse of Humanity In Order to Save It: “Collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee.”

When you bring to mind the existential struggle of the people of the Marshall Islands and Bangladesh or how sea level rise is redrawing the map of Louisiana (Elizabeth Kolbert: Louisiania’s Disappearing Coast) or watch how prolonged rain and flooding in the Midwest is threatening farmers’ livelihood and our food security (PBS News Hour), surviving to pick coffee for pennies sounds almost bearable.  Of course, coffee (along with chocolate, wines and many other climate sensitive foods) is on the endangered list. Sorry.

Starving for some good (well, somewhat better) news? Check out Leonardo DiCaprio’s HBO documentary Fire on Ice. It follows the trajectory of the previous Years of Living Dangerously documentary series by James Cameron (Avatar) in that it offers a raft of technology solutions. I have two reactions to these approaches 1. Apparently, we are capable of entertaining the most extreme ‘techno-fixes,’ while the real driver of biosphere destruction, that is, corporate capitalism and its bunkmate, consumption, get a free pass, and 2. Even if these solutions manage to keep us below the ‘safe’ PPM level of atmospheric CO2, the best time to have implemented them is, as is said of tree planting, 20 years ago. Further, I fear that films like these tend to do just the opposite of what Greta Thunberg and young people are demanding: urgency, even panic, both of which are commensurate with the facts and timelines.

OK, I’ll be 78 this year and Buddhist teachings about impermanence resonate with me. I am less concerned for my personal survival in an age of climate disruption than for those who will live more deeply into its unfolding, including my own beloveds. My adaptation so far is light on practical details, though relocation from South Florida seems sensible, and more about adapting in a spiritual sense and helping others to do the same. I’ve signed up for an online training in facilitation of Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects. More on that in a future post.

Going Deeper
New Climate Debate: How to Adapt to the End of the World

What To Do About Predictions of Imminent Food Collapse

Indies and Underdogs

I once lived over a bookstore. I know what you’re thinking, but this was in Manhattan and on the 11th Floor of the building that housed Barnes & Noble, then more famous as an academic book center that would buy back your books and sell you new ones. I doubt it had a cafe then (’88-90), or much motivation or room to permit private work nooks. But it was one of the greatest of indoor common spaces open late in the city to share with students of all ages, representing every race and culture. Melting Pot Manhattan.

B&N College division still operates nearly 800 stores at universities across the country. But the Barnes and Noble branch you may still have in your community if you’re lucky, is getting hammered by Amazon’s online advantage. But then again, who isn’t in the world of retail? True, the ‘big box’ discounter trend is nothing new. Sam Walton launched his first discount store in 1962. But Internet shopping, an answer to our addiction to convenience and speed, is the obvious accelerator. Driven by any darkened strip malls or once-thriving downtowns lately? I have, even in an upscale neighboring town. (Confession: although I’ve quit Prime and vowed only to use Amazon to read the free samples of books, then buy them used elsewhere, I do occasionally falter.)

That said, if you’re as hungry for any bit of good news these days as I am, you might be pleased to learn that independent book stores are making a comeback.  The Book Cellar in Lake Worth just south of me, is the perfect example of what an independent establishment can do for a community, beyond featuring books and hosting authors the old-fashioned way. With its cafe offering coffee, wine and light fare, including many vegan and gluten-free choices, this cozy, friendly corner spot on busy Lake Avenue has become a meeting place for a number of organizations. As long as you reserve in advance and use their food service, there’s no charge for the space. How many little mom-and-pop coffee houses and taverns in Philadelphia served as launch pads for the designers of the American Revolution? You might well ask.

BookCellarI’ve hosted a meeting at The Book Cellar with my spoken word troupe and Emergency Medical Assistance, preparing for last year’s show of monologues on abortion. The Palm Beach County Chapter of Women’s March meets there regularly, and so does the Jazz on J Street group, well-known for its encouragement of young performers. The Book Cellar is open late, so you can stop in after a movie at yet another local indie favorite, the Stonzek Cinema, now the only screen in my area you can find good indie films. These include well-made international films that remind you there’s a much bigger world out there. One of their bravest choices in subject matter for 2018 was First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke, about a pastor confronting not only his own dark night of the soul, but religious extremism, corporate domination, and environmental apocalypse. Maybe it was too dark to make the cut at Oscar time, though early reviewers were predicting ‘Best Picture.’

OK, eye-rolls for my nostalgia for little book stores or for Saunders Hardware in my New Jersey hometown (especially after a frustrating search at Home Depot). Or when I fondly recall the barber who cut my little boy’s hair; or the laundry that always remembered you liked light starch in the dress shirts; or the shoe or jewelry repair places. Does anyone fix anything, any more? We are not better off today with the homogenized culture that has overtaken us like a tsunami, or with social media becoming a license to mislead and inflame. Already, we’ve become less interesting and interested; less engaged with each other, socially and politically, and in real-time; less open-minded, more tribal, risk-averse, fearful. Not to mention grammar-challenged. But the bigger question is, what will happen as we become increasingly afraid to speak up or challenge authority; when the hand that feeds (houses, clothes, and entertains) us, holds a big stick? Or a gun?

Granted, compared to the challenges we as a species will be facing in the next decade(s) on a hotter planet, to push back against Big Box World and switch our allegiance to the small farmer, artisan and craftsperson, family-owned business and so on, is a drop in the ocean. But maybe it could improve our lives and our communities in ways that count but can’t necessarily be accounted for. That’s worth the candle.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

 

oldyoung
(Photo credit: Ralphiesportal.me)

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

Perhaps it brings to mind a cherished elder in your life – grandparent, family member, teacher, mentor – as it does for me. Specifically, the bond I formed with my maternal grandmother, Daw Thant, a Burmese woman born in a small village in Northern Burma, who came to live with us when I was 16 and she about 58 (I know, that barely qualifies as an elder these days!)

Adding a fourth generation to our household wasn’t as much of a stretch as you might think. Burmese live in multigenerational households as a matter of course; besides this, even families of modest means like ours, had live-in servants. Ours included, for instance a driver, a gardener, and a maid. Two were married with small children. We also had a Hindu cook who lived elsewhere but was on call every weekday. This made for a lot of people of different ages, with different needs, all sharing if not the same roof, the same compound and accountable to the heads of household. The difference was, the arrival of my grandmother introduced an elder in residence, someone whose mere presence added a certain gravitas to our sometime chaotic household.

Granny moved into a small porch-like space on our second floor. With windows on three sides, it was the breeziest and coolest room in the house. She had arrived with a small suitcase and one cloth bundle as if this might be a short visit when, in fact, she had come to stay. She unpacked quickly. One shelf held all her neatly folded clothing. Another became a shrine, with tiny clay Buddha figure on a cloth napkin and an offering plate that would hold fruit or sweets — the little ones were fed these treats at the end of the day.

Because I had no memory of my grandmother, I had been anxious about how this reorganization of our family could cramp my new-found autonomy: a driver’s license and very little adult surveillance beyond a weeknight curfew. I needn’t have worried. Granny had no interest in policing me. She proved to be adoring, funny, kind, mellow in temperament (perhaps there was more than tobacco in those fat cheroots she smoked). She was patient with my struggles to communicate with her in what was for me a second language. We became the best of friends. But there was more.

She let me into a secret: the power of meditation. She had a twice-daily sitting practice that she never skipped, even when unwell (a rare occurrence). Decades later, as contemplative practices like yoga and meditation have taken root in my own life, I better understand how the practices of her Buddhist faith could have supported her through a difficult life of multiple partners and precarious finances; long separations from her two, boarding-schooled daughters; shortages of every kind during wartime; the foreign occupation of her country. She became a masseuse, an expert seamstress, and an advisor on home remedies for everything from hiccups, the common cold, headaches and sore muscles, an infected insect bite, to an unwanted pregnancy (the maid’s). Granny was equanimity and resilience personified.

Though our culture accorded my grandmother a certain status, I never heard or saw her pull rank. She was equally comfortable with my parents’ guests as she was chatting over a cup of tea with one of the servants, sometimes taking a meal with them. She became the reliable adult presence at home, the company I most sought after school, even though conversing in multi-tonal Burmese was always a challenge for me.

This photo is the future, according to Marc Freedman, author How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, and CEO and president of Encore.org, based in San Francisco. What if ‘forever’ signified more than the current craze among the wealthiest to extend their life span decades, via any means possible? What if we embraced a new role for ourselves as we age, as allies and advocates for the young? What might this look like? An example I love: Project Spring-Winter in Singapore that combines a nursing home with a childcare center for children between two months and 6 years. Read this excerpt from the book and hear Freedman’s TED Talk on this subject here. Sign me up.

Encore (also the title of an earlier book by Marc Freedman) is an organization (motto: Second Acts for the Greater Good), a multi-part movement, and a hub of information and innovation for those of us who aspire to age well by using our experience to solve social problems. The Purpose Prize, created more than 10 years ago to recognize outstanding older social entrepreneurs, is another Encore initiative. Now, with Gen2Gen Encore seeks to “mobilize 1 million adults 50+ to stand up for — and with — young people today.” All of this is worth your time. But with Gen2Gen, I’m sensing game-changer.

More ideas to ponder:

Dutch Students Cohabit with Elders

Volunteer to Cuddle

Neonatal Cuddling

Toddlers and Seniors: Institute for Family Studies

Non-Familial Intergenerational Interactions

https://transitiontales.wordpress.com/category/cohousing/

On Being an Elder

When I was growing up in the multicultural circumstances any child of a diplomat or military brat may find familiar, I often encountered the idea that I should show respect to my ‘elders and betters,’ with better meaning of higher social status than my own, e.g. the elders of a tribe, society, or a congregation. I found this hard to swallow given the tipsy hijinks and other questionable behavior I witnessed among the grownups, including those I loved. It has taken a lifetime to help me realize that becoming an elder worthy of respect isn’t a given. Rather, it is something earned, through a patient pursuit of perspective, insight, understanding, and wisdom. “With all thy getting, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4, King James version, and banner for Forbes editorials since the magazine was founded) 

The Carters at Habitat

I aspire to evolve into that kind of elder since, according to the Social Security Administration, my age places me squarely in the elderly cohort. But the irony is that today (with some obvious exceptions), some of the best models for Elder-hood are found outside my peer group, in the Millennials, already shaking up the status quo as freshman members of the new Congress, and the teenaged activists: Greta Thunberg on climate, the Parkland kids on gun reform. I can’t imagine one of them coming up to me after a poetry reading, as one 70-something did, suggesting that what was missing was ‘more uplifting’ material. Apparently my selection of poems on climate had rankled. Good, I thought, though smiling and toasting him with my cup of coffee, it wasn’t mere entertainment

My generation, and the Boomers that followed us, have a lot to answer for to our children and grandchildren about the squandered opportunities to address global warming when smaller, incremental lifestyle adjustments might have arrested, or at least mitigated, the threat. “‘I don’t want to speak too disparagingly of my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world but opted for the Home Shopping Network instead),” wrote Stephen King. We’ve been kicking the can down the road, voting in people who created policy that reflected and protected our shortsighted views, and voting out of office those who would install solar panels on public buildings. We’ve been partying as if tomorrow would never come, as if it were always “50 or 75 years out,” (Andrew Wheeler, new EPA head), and many of us still are.

I hate to take my generation to task (actually, I’m OK with that), but it’s hard to decide which view is more dangerous: that of flat-out climate change Denialists like Wheeler and the president who hired him; those who think individual behavior change is too limited to matter so why bother; or the ‘we-got-this’ group who are banking on a technological fix to cool an overheating planet. But I do know the young, who have a far larger stake in the future than we do, are not wasting their time bickering among themselves, assigning blame, or sitting still. And they know how to communicate quickly and effectively via social media to get things moving. 

For those of us who have retired our marching shoes, there is still plenty we can to to support the children who are cutting school as a way of demanding action on climate, or the arts activists staging public ‘die-in’s’ to protest Big Pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic (to cite current forms of activism widely reported). We can write a generous check. Offer a bed, a shower, a ride, encouragement and/or meal to activists and poll workers. Help get out the vote. Vote for, and stay in touch with, the members of congress who show some spine on climate crisis, gun reform, corporate greed, and other issues that threaten our future as a nation and a species. Many of us have the financial clout to support companies who are committed to reducing their carbon impact and reject those who don’t by shopping elsewhere. We can also shop less, and more mindfully to help contain runaway consumerism. And we can, by our example, instruct those who follow. 

If you have other ideas about how to embrace the role of Elder in these challenging times, consider the comment box your welcome mat.  

From the Ukraine, With Love

My friend, Henry, brought me a crock of sour dough bread starter, aka ‘mother,’ the other day, along with instructions on its care and feeding. He also brought a recipe for a Rustic Loaf, and directed me to a You Tube video that featured Julia Child, looking remarkably lively, and Nancy Silverton, who has seized the French Chef baton as regards sour dough bread making.

I watched the 11-minute video start to finish, then baulked at the recommended technique for forming of the loaf – all that parchment paper and dough flipping — and the constant spraying the oven necessary to produce the characteristic crisp crust. I’m basically someone who will always choose a simpler method if its available, and not just in the kitchen. We’re talking bread here, not Baked Alaska or the great American novel. Bread, no matter how perfect, is quickly eaten and soon forgotten. Or so I said to myself, as I rummaged for another recipe.

SourdoughBut not so fast. The fact is, the arrival of Henry’s starter in my house has revived fond memories of my mother’s way with sour dough and how it all came about. It seems that my mother, a Burma-born immigrant and self-taught cook, became fast friends with a Ukrainian-Canadian[1] (I suspect they were members of the same curling club). The friend shared a sour dough starter she had nurtured for decades, along with instructions on how to keep it going. If the starter hadn’t actually landed in Canada with the friend, then the family recipe certainly had. In other words, it goes back.

Mom stored hers in glass jars and took such good care of it, it lived there happily for decades, through daily feedings, transfers to clean jars, and used often to bake bread, rolls, biscuits and so on. Knowing her enthusiasm and generosity, it was probably shared widely with other friends.

Whenever my parents visited us from their home in Edmonton, Mom would ‘import’ – smuggle, actually – a small quantity of Ukrainian ‘mother’ in an airtight glass jar wrapped in underwear and tucked into her carryon bag. Never mind that my father looked askance at this unlawful practice. In those pre-TSA days, the chance this affable grandmother would be questioned, let alone searched, at the U.S. Canadian border, was nil.

Once we got home, Mom would transfer the starter to a glass bowl and beat in equal parts of unbleached flour and whole milk to ‘feed’ it and let it recover from its long journey. Then, having recovered from her own travels, she would produce the first batch of biscuits. In the next days, she took over the kitchen, turning our breads for the family and eventually, our neighbors, with a breathtaking command of her materials and technique. “And when did you say your Mom was visiting …” (Bob and Sally next door.)

If you let it, sour dough starter can take over your kitchen, if not your life, very much like an exotic pet, which is what Henry calls his. I haven’t given mine a name, yet. The starter goes to sleep in the refrigerator (and suspended animation in freezer, according to Mom) and is quickly revived with a feeding. You need to smell and taste it to make sure it is thriving before proceeding with a recipe.

Like all fermentation processes, sour dough starter depends on the capture of wild yeast that is all around us – a process common to the making of beer, wine, yogurt, sauerkraut, and cheeses. In the Julia Child video, Nancy Silverton demonstrated this yeast-capture technique using a bunch of grapes placed in a bundle of cheesecloth, lightly mashed with a wooden mallet, then placed into a batter of room temperature flour and water. As this mix starts to ferment, you see tiny bubbles forming in the batter. It seems magical, but it’s basic food chemistry. For a newbie to sour dough, this is a bit like witnessing a birth.

A regular practice of making anything at home these days is a declaration of independence from the dominant culture. Beyond that, I’m pleased to be a miniscule contributor to the growing interest in the microbiome, the vast collection of microorganisms that essentially colonize every body, contributing to health and/or disease. We literally, as Walt Whitman put it, ‘contain multitudes.’

It’s a good thought to hold in your mind while you’re kneading a batch of sour dough bread. I froze a cupful of Henry’s starter, in case I managed to kill off the sample (it happens). So far, I’ve made two traditional loaves (one for the freezer), and last night, I made whole wheat sour dough pita to go with the labneh – a yogurt cheese, dressed with olive oil and Zaatar, a Lebanese spice mix. Here’s the pita recipe in case you want to follow me down this delightful rabbit hole.

As I shaped the springy, risen dough into lemon-sized portions, then pressed and rolled them into pita to be cooked in an iron skillet, I could almost sense my mother at my side, beaming.

[1] Canada, it turns out, has the world’s third-largest population beside Ukraine itself and Russia.

Further reading:

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life Ed Yong

The Art of Eating, M.F.K. Fisher (available at your public library)

 

 

 

 

 

Fast Fashion, Landfill Forever

Outside my front door right now are three bags of perfectly good, wearable clothing, my latest donation to the Vietnam Vets. Do I feel slightly virtuous about recycling what we no longer need? Well, I used to until I realized that far more of my discards than I realized were winding up in landfill. Only about 20% of clothing discards is recycled, and countries like India and China are swamped even so. The remaining 80%  goes directly to landfill. Cotton degrades in 1-5 months. Nylon: 30-40 years. Rubber-based products, never.

Of course, that is not the focus of Marie Kondo, the declutter and organizing coach whose new Netflix show has single-handedly caused a surge in donations to Goodwill, Salvation Army and Hospice thrift shops. But maybe she could be paying more attention to what causes all those over-stuffed closets and drawers in the first place.

The Guardian addressed the front end of this worsening problem with an opinion piece well worth our attention:  How to cure the shopping addiction that’s destroying our planet. Heavy-handed? Well, maybe not. Dig a little deeper and up pops this quote from a BBC piece: “The environmental footprint of today’s fashion industry is extraordinary, making it one of the top five most polluting industries on earth, up there with the petrochemical industry.” This covers the whole process of textile production and the making of clothing, not just what happens in landfills. Fast fashion, the mix of demand-creation aimed typically at the young, and the response of retailers needing to ‘refresh’ their collections as often as every two weeks with inexpensive clothing  — much of which is manufactured in sweat shop conditions (another story) — is a significant part of the problem with The Fashion Industry, one it can no longer ignore (see Sustain Your Style).

OK, we get it. Apart from turning toward thrift stores to replenish our wardrobes, what can we do? The three R’s of how to minimize one’s stuff in general works perfectly for one’s clothing: Reuse — go shopping in your closet, or in the closet of a same-size friend, for that upcoming gala. Host a clothing swap for fun or charity. Or rent your next formal wear, like guys have done forever. Ditto, specialized gear for sports. Repair: one of the gifts my mother gave me that I most appreciate, is a love of sewing, both by hand and with an electric sewing machine. I can now speak hemming in two languages, and have become G-Ma go-to when jeans or Scout uniforms need shortening.

Recycle comes in last now that we realize the true cost to the planet. So what about a new slant on Refresh? This could be anything from altering your existing clothing in good condition so they fit you better — some cleaners offer this service for a fee —  or shortening or lengthening pants or shirt sleeves yourself. You can dye, or tie-dye, those tees that are so wonderfully soft with wear. Or, if slashed. distressed jeans are your thing (not mine), you could work magic with some sharp scissors applied in strategic places.

JacketsSince my spouse branched out creatively with a collection of weirdly wonderful masks (available as wall art or on t-shirts, cushions, mugs, totes, etc. from FineArtsAmerica), I got excited about putting versions of his original images on our old denim jackets.  Your local art supplier will sell you a medium to convert acrylics so that they can be painted directly on fabric. Now it occurs to me that jeans or cloth sneakers could also be perfect for this kind of customization. Wear your art! Here’s a bunch more ideas for DIY wardrobe hacks at Etsy  Who knows, your next side hustle could be a line of repurposed clothing.

Read more:

Top Apps in swap and trade

Remake — turning fashion into a force for good.

Worn Again new resources

Love: Engine of Survival

Love’s the only engine of survival – Leonard Cohen, The Future

60 Minutes is almost always interesting, and occasionally infuriating. But Sunday, January 13, 2019, it rose to heights that resonate specifically with my interest in the mysteries of the consciousness and cognition, and how love and compassion seem to endure in the worst of times.

First, the interview between Scott Pelley and Kai-Fu Lee, an American-educated Chinese billionaire venture capitalist who believes AI (artificial intelligence) will “change the world more than anything in the history of mankind. More than electricity.” And, this veteran of Silicon Valley, also believes China is moving more quickly in this field, and in unexpected ways, that his former colleagues have yet to recognize.

As you might intuit, jobs of the future – or rather which ones will be made redundant by AI – got a lot of play. According to Kai-Fu Lee, some 40% of jobs, both blue and white collar, will be “displaceable” in 15 years, yes, even some service jobs. One caveat (maybe): “… in some sense there is the human wisdom that always overcomes … technology revolutions.”

2-hearts-1-heart-consciousnessAs Axios (a favorite news source in my household) puts it: Go Deeper. For an understanding of what China is accomplishing with AI, enter its classrooms. Using facial and emotional intelligence technology delivered via handheld tablet, AI is giving teachers instant feedback about their best and brightest students, and also which students need extra help and support.

And here’s what really got me: this is not an elite private school advantage. Kai-Fu Lee’s pet project is to project gifted teachers into some of the poorest classrooms in the country. Given the mess of public education in the US, that should send a chill down the spine of every administrator, teacher and parent in the country. Not to mention our political and corporate leadership.

And BTW, China’s youth is even more wired than their age cohort in the rest of the world, and no one there seems particularly upset about the loss of privacy. Are we Americans being seduced into placing our attention on things of questionable value? And to what end? Thoughts? Your comments might inspire a future post.

But it was the conclusion of the AI segment that convinced me this was the most valuable 12 minutes I have spent with a screen of any size in recent memory. The exchange (slightly abbreviated):

Pelley: When will we know that a machine can actually think like a human?

Kai-Fu Lee: … not within the next 30 years. Possibly never…I believe in the sanctity of our soul…a lot of love and compassion that is not explainable in terms of neural networks and computation algorithms. And I current see no way of solving them.

Pelley: We may just be more than our bits?

Kai-Fu Lee: We may.

Lastly, to my original point about the mysteries of cognition and the power of love, I urge you to stick around for the final 60 Minutes segment, A Different Kind of Vision, Leslie Stahl’s report on how Chris Downey, an architect who lost his sight to a brain tumor, has returned to his work – “I’m a kid again. I’m relearning so much of architecture…about what I had been missing” — and to a favorite family activity: playing baseball with his son.

Read more:
The ‘Oracle of A.I.’: These 4 kinds of jobs will not be replaced by robots

60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll: Artificial Intelligence

 

Crossfire

For some time, Mondays have been my day to write without distraction or interruption. My practice is to write something every day, even if it’s a note in the margin of a book, a few lines, or a paragraph in longhand. I got into the habit of keeping a journal in a poetry workshop decades ago. It began with an assignment for Lawrence Raab’s poetry class at Bread Loaf Summer Session, 1979. We were to keep our notebooks handy and jot down whatever caught our attention; sights, sounds — a bit of overheard conversation was my favorite — anything that could conceivably serve as material for a poem.  I kept at it throughout my 6 week session and I may have written one or two poems I considered worthy of reading in public, that is, to the assembled student body. I still write poetry in spurts, then let the well refill for a while. But journaling stuck.

The latter half of the Bread Loaf notebook, stained with coffee cup rings and ink blots, was an account of the confusion and pain of my collapsing marriage, trying to support my children through the breakup, while trying complete my degree on time.

Nowadays, I use the journal to keep sane in an insane time, to express gratitude for a privileged life that I deserve no more than anyone else, and yes, to document thoughts, feelings and ideas for further development. Blog posts, say, or maybe even poems. But today, inspiration for this post came from the dark side, a startling reminder of how close and interconnected we are, with our often trivial First World ‘problems’ (shopping for eyewear that fits and flatters) to a world where life-shattering violence, most of it from guns, has helped turn one metropolitan hospital into a nationally-recognized triage center.

Connecting the dots: my spouse is a volunteer with a state-wide mentoring program that pairs him with high school students who are designated at risk. Perhaps their families are untraditional in some way — a single parent household typically — coupled with financial need. Many students represent the immigrant community, and are bilingual and multi-cultural. The program’s goal is to help qualifying students escape the cycle of poverty through higconnect dotsher education, and some 24,000 children have been served to date in all 67 counties.

Mentees accepted into the program who graduate high school are awarded two years of paid tuition to any Florida institution of higher learning that accepts them. Obviously, good grades are a must for those who aspire to the more prestigious schools like University of Central Florida or UF Gainesville. For even those who manage just to graduate, there is the fine community college option at no cost to them. These students also get the academic help they need, but the role of volunteer mentors like my spouse is to support and encourage their students to complete their high school education. A sort of motivational coach.

His current student, the second American-born of Haitian descent he has mentored, is a star, both academically and athletically, who already displays a keen interest in and aptitude for business. He maintained the grades for a top-rated school and has already been accepted by the university of his choice.  He’s also mature, personable, and it would appear that he has been able to rise above the family and financial challenges of his earlier life.

So today, while I was at my desk pounding the keys as usual, the two met in the lunch period as is their practice.  I fully expect my spouse to return ebullient from these regular meetings, eager to bring me up to date on his student with whom he has forged a strong relationship. But I could see immediately his mood was different as soon as he walked in. Turns out, his student would be leaving school early today to visit the family of a neighborhood friend who was gunned down last night. Beyond that detail, he didn’t want to talk about it. What I want to know is, how will this ambitious, smart 18-year-old live with these memories. How will we?

Lin-Manuel Who?

Hamilton is playing at the Broward Center for the Arts and there are still a few tickets left as of today, Balcony Row M for $159. Of course, in New York City, the ‘cheap seats’ are going for $438, and Orchestra? If you have to ask …

Flashback to the summer of 2015. We’re in New York City —  in a borrowed apartment on the Upper West Side — when it was suggested to us that we get into an early morning line at the Richard Rogers Theater to score a couple of tickets at deep discount. Hamilton had opened at the Public Theater to critical acclaim, and now the Broadway run was just starting. Maybe I’d been away from the big city and annual theater subscriptions for too long. I just remember thinking something like Hamilton, Schamilton. Lin-Manuel who? For a grandson who had committed the Hamilton lyrics to heart, this may have been the moment he realized these grandparents were just human after all.

It’s human to regret the roads not taken, and perhaps there is an evolutionary purpose for wondering what might have been. Will having blown it with Hamilton be a regret I’ll carry to my grave? Not likely. For one thing, the movie will be here soon enough, and I’ll be able to hear and understand those rap lyrics better than I could in Row M. For another, the missteps and stumbles of life are a chance to re-do, re-set, carry on better.

We have lived for nearly a decade in a well-maintained townhouse community, remarkable for the reticence of its residents. True, a certain percentage of us are seasonal and others are in the 9-5 workforce. Whatever the reason, most residents keep to themselves, hidden by garages and patio walls. Just as co-housing is designed for connection and interaction, ours seems organized to keep people apart. As we learned last Fall, even if the HOA rules don’t forbid canvassing, such activity is unusual and not warmly received in our community. With a relatively small number of families with children, even Halloween here is pretty muted.

A young family in the next townhouse to ours was expecting their second child. We were on friendly terms with Lauren and Eric largely because our paths regularly crossed. They were often outside, playing on the grassy area with their little girl and puppy, while our routine includes daily walking or biking. We were the nonconformists, you might say. Eric worked from home, and you’d see him heading off for a run when Lauren came home for lunch from her nearby job. When Lauren’s pregnancy became evident, I made a mental note of her due date so I could bake some blueberry muffins and stop in when their new baby came home. No doubt I was remembering my New Jersey neighborhood, where every life event, even the sad ones,  occasioned an outpouring of baked goods and casseroles. Like an extremely inclusive church or temple.

The happy day arrived. Eric and Lauren’s home was swarming with grandparents and visitors, balloons and covered dishes, and somehow the moment for that extra measure of neighborliness passed. We spent more of that Summer away, and the next thing I knew, their baby boy was taking his first steps. And then, just as swiftly, their home was on the market and they were moving out of the area. To a larger place with a yard, they said. I wasn’t surprised, just sad for what might have been.

These days, I’m conscious of making an effort to greet and make eye contact with neighbors or the people I pass on my exercise route, whether regulars or not. Husky, right? Beautiful dog! Hey, great shot. Winter at last! Terrific haircut.

A quiet 40-something single man replaced the family next door with the trio of noisy dogs, and Italian-speaking nonna whose spaghetti sauce wafted into my kitchen (the silver lining). Our new neighbor apologized in advance for the ruckus of his renovations (which were extensive). In short order, we met his parents, exchanged coffee cakes, and stood chatting in each other’s space. I don’t want to overstate this, but it feels as if I took the right fork this time.