Archive for January, 2009

While we recover from the fallout of New York’s Senate appointment, while we try to change channels faster than Illinois Governor Ron Blagojevich can appear on them, while we wait for the President’s new cabinet appointees (and the Senator from Minnesota) to be confirmed and seated, while we curse the snow and sleet, the higher property taxes, the cuts in service and mid-winter misery in general, let us now stop to sing the praises of science.

I wasn’t a science kid. I didn’t watch Mr. Wizard on Saturday mornings or beg my folks for a home chemistry set. I preferred language and music to theorems and equations. A generally good student, my only truly bad grade was in freshman college earth science. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I began to realize just how much I value the process by which science and scientists seek to learn what is true.

“The scientific method is something all of us use all of the time. In fact, engaging in the basic activities that make up the scientific method — being curious, asking questions, seeking answers — is a natural part of being human.” So says the author of an article on the subject on a wonderful site called “How Stuff Works.”  Put in such accessible terms, it makes sense. Yet in the last decade, science has been regarded in certain circles as an authoritarian, unyielding,  unfeeling practice that stubbornly asserts it has incontrovertible answers to everything. One reason may be related to a widespread misunderstanding about the word “theory”.  As Wikipedia  points out,  “In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation… In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time.”  By mixing up the two meanings and by ignoring the process by which scientific theories are developed, it’s easy to decide science is guesswork dressed up to look like fact.

The fact is , good science – like good thinking – is open-minded. Sure, we might say we know something for certain, based on provable and testable information; for example, we’re pretty sure the world is round at this point. But the value of science isn’t in its insistence it has every answer, only that it has a method for looking and a willingness to reconsider earlier positions. As Dennis Overbye pointed out in the Science section of yesterday’s New York Times,“Science is not a monument of received Truth but something people do to look for truth.” Overbye went on to point out the parallels between science and democracy, both of them “willing to embrace debate and respect one another…”

How cool is that?

I doubt I’ll ever memorize the periodic tables or the geological ages of the earth but I have taken to reading more articles about earth science, life sciences and physical sciences. I’m interested in whether science finds a cure for cancer or arthritis or whether certain foods can positively alter brain chemistry, especially in the dead of winter. Mostly, though, I say hooray for President Obama’s promise to restore science to its rightful place. I certainly want to support debate, discussion, and inquiry – in short, any process that celebrates the pursuit of answers rather than the certainty anyone has them all.

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Research shows our brain plays tricks on us. Our memories are faulty; not only that, we often feel certain about things that turn out not to be true.  These brain quirks make for faux-pas and awkward moments. Best-selling author and theologist Neale Walsch had to own up to appropriating someone else’s heartwarming story of a spiritual experience as his own. Closer to home, we may know someone who “remembers” marching on Washington, attending Woodstock, watching the Twin Towers fall or, soon enough, seeing the U.S Airways plane land in the Hudson River.

I planned to be at this historic, emotional, long-overdue and endlessly hyped Inaugural. True, I was having doubts about massive crowds, wind chills, Jumbo-trons and porta-potties. I wasn’t sure I was going, but I reserved the right to change my mind at the last minute. I had a standing invitation to stay at a buddy’s house, a few scattered events I could attend and a full tank of gas. I had still considered heading to brave natural and human elements  – until my encounter with a patch of ice (see previous post) ended my dreams of connecting to a part of history.

Not so fast.

This new President is all about being connected.  I’m always getting e-mails and text messages from Team Obama, of  which I’m apparently a member.  Like the campaign, the Inaugural invites participation. There’s something to be said for the virtual involvement allowed by YouTube, Facebook, mybarack.com and CNN on-line. And there’s always television.

So Saturday I watched the Inaugural train make its way from Philadelphia and listened to Obama’s latest YouTube chat. Sunday I had front-row seats at the concert on the Mall; I even danced with Michelle to Stevie Wonder. Monday, I logged onto U.S.A. Service to register my service act – I’ll be volunteering at a woman’s shelter. The political action group Emily’s List invited me to send a personal congratulatory note to the President and Vice-President-elect. I even found some local public events I might attend in place of the Inaugural Balls for which I never had a shot at securing a ticket (although, ever the optimist, I had lined up an escort).

Today, the day of the Inaugural itself, I signed onto Facebook, turned on the TV and poured the first of several cups of coffee. My girlfriend Donna was sending live updates from the Mall via her Blackberry (side note: I say let the President keep his Blackberry). On NBC, Ann Curry noted American flags were everywhere, signifying hope, in her view. We’re back to America as a symbol of hope; I nearly wept. On the TV and computer screens, I saw old people, lots of young people (excellent!), lots of different kinds of people. It looked like a block party or maybe a rock concert. I wished for a minute I was there, and I wished my dad was alive. All normal feelings; I let them wash over me.  I was safe and warm and a witness. So…I posted a picture to Huffington Post of me, my cast and my computer. I exchanged e-mails with far-flung friends and comments with far-flung strangers, stopping to rest my good hand. I watched the procession of dignitaries, enjoyed the musical performances (the quartet was sublime; Aretha was, sorry to say, not at her best), considered the invocations and benedictions to be decent enough, experienced the swearing-in (did this really happen?), absorbed the Speech, which was amazing in its depth and breadth (but did we expect less?), saw the parade, and hung out virtually with millions of people from all over the world. I saw it all, heard it all, felt it all.  I could even have attended a live reception in my hometown but to tell, the truth, I was pretty tired after the day’s activities and excitement. Besides, I had to see the doctor about getting a new cast.

I wasn’t physically in DC for the Inauguration of the 44th President and I won’t remember that I was, but, in a way that is absolutely appropriate to this new, globally connected era, I was there.

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Thank Goodness

‘Tis indeed the winter of our discontent. It’s freezing cold. The days still seem too short. Bills are due.  Quarterly taxes and property taxes are due (at least mine are). Income is stagnant or going south. You aren’t headed south, however, especially if you happen to slip on the damned ice and break your wrist, which I did.

So now I’ve got six weeks in a cast, trying to eke out assignments one-handed and cursing the Fates for my latest bout with bad luck. Except I’m not going to do that.  Yes, my wrist hurts – actually, all of me hurts. No, I can’t drive or do most of the things I’d planned. But I am resolved not to drive myself or my sainted sister who is helping me while she’s attending graduate school full time crazy. Instead, I’m going to play a little game I made up called “thank goodness” (or “thank god” for those less easily offended).  It involves coming up with a list of things that could be worse  before which you can say “thank goodness”.  I know, but give me a break; I’m supporting a sling and a cast around a neck with two herniated disks. Whoops, I’d better start playing!

Thank goodness:

  • I broke my left wrist, since I’m right-handed
  • I live in a place where neighbors rushed out to help when I yelled and even walked my dog
  • I had a cell phone and could call my sister, who lives nearby
  • I have health insurance

See how it works? It’s tricky for someone in my position who might prefer throwing herself a pity party, but it’s definitely worth the effort in terms of overall mental and physical health. Best of all, it can be applied to any situation. For example, thank goodness:

  • I didn’t end up scoring any Inaugural invitations, since I wouldn’t have been able to go
  • The Inauguration is actually, finally going to take place and last November wasn’t a dream
  • The pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 knew how to land on water
  • There may– may — be a cease-fire in Gaza
  • Patrick Swayze appears to have beaten back his pneumonia attack

 Of course, somewhere in the bowels of February, when it seems spring will never come, President Obama will never get a handle on our domestic and foreign policy messes and my cast will never come off, I may have trouble playing my little game. I only hope I can come up with something like “thank goodness I’ve learned to type with one hand.”

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I’ve always gone out of my way to see all sides of an argument, even if I might favor one side. After all, the best way to win over one’s enemies (or so I believe) is to try to understand why they think as they do and then persuade them to your way of thinking.

Then again, I might have a different idea of what it means to argue. I believe the purpose is to persuade, while others might think the purpose is to win.

War is the ultimate argument – over geography or politics, over belief or self-determination, over control or freedom. War can be calculating or passionate, based on an attempt to address ancient grievances or modern entitlements. The goal of warfare in all cases is to win, which is what makes attempting to find solutions to war’s argument so frustrating.

In the case of the ongoing Middle East crisis, as we always refer to Israel’s battles with its unhappy neighbors, what is left to say? War and threat of war seem to be permanent conditions in that part of the world. The arguments concerning this latest outburst of violence tragically echo the recriminations of fighting boys – “He started it!” “No, he did!” But this isn’t just about power or control; those may be desired outcomes but they mask the larger goal, which seems to be destruction of the other.

Every analysis I’ve ever seen posits that Israelis see themselves as always and evermore in danger of being targeted for extinction. Nearly everything they do seems to derive from their understanding of and belief in the constant threat of annihilation. This is not to excuse every action the government and its army takes, only to try and understand it.

Likewise, Palestinians see themselves as always and evermore in danger of remaining as refugees, without rights, without opportunities and without a homeland, pushed around by a small country with a large and powerful friend. Many have been raised to believe it is uniquely Israel that stands in the way of their liberation  and so Israel must be destroyed, which, of course, confirms Israel’s worst fears. Again, not justifiable nor even perfectly logical except perhaps as a means of trying to see it with another’s eyes. Each side  feels defensive, even when on the offensive.

It seems so absurd the cycle can’t be broken – agree to a two-state solution and agree Israel has a right to exist  – but how?  There’s a trust issue involved and who’s supposed to go first when so much is at stake? There are those with political reasons to support continued instability in the region and mostly there is, among the rest of the population on both sides, all that fear.

Fear doesn’t resolve an argument; it escalates it. There may be a military victory here and a political or public relations triumph there but there won’t be a winner until what becomes more important than the fear is the absence of it.

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