Monday, June 26, 2017

Curious George, The Bible and Harry Potter: The Power of Books to Change the World

“Maybe reading was just a way to make her feel less alone, to keep her company. When you read something you are stopped, the moment is stayed, you can sometimes be there more fully than you can in your real life.”      
  --Helen Humphreys, “Coventry”

“Curious George Goes to the Hospital”: that’s the very first book I claimed as my own, the first volume of prose not read to me by an adult.  It was all mine to read: by myself, for myself.  A book! My book! In the mid 1960’s Children’s Hospital in Boston sent copies of that book by Margret and H.A. Rey, to boys and girls about to enter the hospital for surgery. The hope was that this story about an overly curious and mischievous monkey, who swallows a puzzle piece and needs to see the doctor, might soothe a child’s fears and worries. It worked.

Do you remember your very first book?

To me at five years old, “Curious George” was an absolute page turner, and made my overnight stay for a tonsillectomy much less anxious—that and all the ice cream I could eat.  That tome made my life better, fuller, richer, more fun, and confirmed me as a lifelong book reader, voracious book consumer, confirmed bibliophile. Some might say a book addict.  All the kids in my life know that at Christmas or on a birthday, chances are 100 percent that they will absolutely receive a book from Uncle John.  My home overflows with books: piled high on the nightstand, spilling off shelves, taking over whole rooms even. 

I am always in the middle of reading some book.

I’ve got books on my brain today because this week marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of one book that changed the state of reading for kids, and many adults too: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone”, by J.K. Rowling.  Two decades on, with 107 million copies sold, that story of a boy wizard and the magical world he inhabits, introduced a whole new generation of young people to the joy of reading.  Made reading cool again, in a way, brought reading back to a level of communal excitement not seen for a very long time.  Folks waited in midnight lines outside bookstores for the latest volume.  Middle school kids, parents too, cherished their dog-eared copies like dear old friends.    

Books do this. Change lives. Change the world.

Books have had this effect on humans since the publication of the very first book by ancient Egyptians in 2400 B.C.; maybe even “Curious George Goes to the Pyramids”—okay, probably not.  But there is something magical, mystical, even sacred about a book.  Just one book can empower the powerless, topple kings and kingdoms, spark revolutions, transform for the good so many lives.  Like the Bible, the first widely published book, in 1517; the Quran, the sacred text for Muslims, first organized into book form in 650 A.D.; or “Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book of Sayings”. In the 1950’s that slim volume of political wisdom united a new nation of 550 million people.  Researchers generally agree that these are the three most printed and read books in human history.

Granted, every few years we’ll read a story about the decline of book reading, even the death of book reading: as printed books shift to electronic formats, as folks seemingly eschew a heavy print book for a lightweight smartphone, as our attention spans shorten. “Who’s got time to read a whole book?” But as the author Mark Twain might opine, if he was still alive: “Reports of the death of book reading are highly exaggerated.” 

According to a 2016 Pew Forum poll, seventy-three percent of all Americans report reading at least one book in the last year and the typical reader has read four books in the previous twelve months.  Those numbers, while down slightly in the last decade, have held pretty steady. We may now get our book from Amazon and not the corner bookstore, and yet we humans do still read a lot, A LOT, of books.  Last year alone, more than 1.2 million new books were published around the globe, according to the United Nations.  And yes, I probably bought a fair chunk of those!

Because I love to read and I love books. 

Books keep us company: when I’m reading, I never feel alone.  Books expand our world and world view: where else can I travel to the four corners of the planet without ever leaving the comfort of my backyard Adirondack chair on a summer day? Books entertain us; make us into armchair detectives or bodice ripping romantics, science fiction rocket pilots or medieval slayers of dragons. Books reintroduce the past to us: remind us that many others came before us and so maybe we are really not “all that”. Books teach and illuminate, free minds to expand and souls to soar.  Books allow us to escape into realities we could only dream about. Books engage our brains like no other activity.  Books make us think, a noble ideal, especially in times when the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, can feel as if it is under attack.

So here’s some summer advice.  Find a good book, a comfy place to sit, get your favorite beverage and then sit back and read.  Read a book. A good book. Who knows where it will take you or how it might change you and even the world?  And if you’d like to read some Curious George, I can always lend you my copy.

Good reading.   

Monday, June 19, 2017

When Opinion Passes for Fact and Every One Is An Expert: HELP!!!!!

“No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.”
 –“The Death of Expertise”,Tom Nichols, 2017

Sometimes the smartest people are smart because they know what they don’t know. In part, that’s what makes them wise and intelligent. Sometimes the smartest people are smart because they are experts. They have worked and studied hard to school themselves in one area of science, craft, art or human endeavor.

But what happens when experts are no longer trusted or turned to for wisdom?  What happens when opinions trump facts? When the person who wins the argument is not the smartest but instead just the loudest or most insistent? 

This is what can happen: chaos, confusion and communal breakdown. 

Take childhood vaccinations against diseases like the measles. Two generations ago there was widespread public acceptance of the common and individual good created by vaccines. It never would have occurred to parents then to question the need for this medical care for their kids.  Medical experts like their family doctor recommended it.  Government experts in the Centers for Disease Control backed it. Pharmaceutical experts perfected the safe creation of the medicine. Vaccines worked and work, in large part, because every one agrees to both their efficacy and to opt in.

Until they don’t.    

Until increasing numbers of folks instead trusted just one medical “expert” who declared a link between autism and vaccinations, in a 1998 article in the British Medical Journal The Lancet. The study was written by a British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield.  Now 19 years later, this “scientific” study by an “expert” was long ago deemed false and based on shoddy research, and was rescinded by the medical journal that published it. Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine too. 

Argument over? Nope.

Google “autism and vaccines” and you get 235,000 results.  The first link is to an autism advocacy group that clearly refutes any causal link. But scroll down just eight stories and you can find a link declaring vaccines do cause autism.  Go even deeper in your search and you can find the two leading “experts” in the United States on this debunked theory: stand up comic Jim Carrey and former Playboy Bunny Jenny McCarthy.  I can’t make this stuff up.

And so today even though good science clearly, overwhelmingly, declares vaccines safe, large numbers of folks are still convinced otherwise. Out of fear. Out of ignorance. From mis-information, from false “expert” information.   And potentially all of us could pay the price for this public health nightmare.

Or how about climate change? Can we really trust the overwhelming majority of climate change scientists worldwide who say that climate change is actually real?  Maybe not.  I can find a study, an article, a blog piece, or an “expert” to tell me otherwise.  Thank goodness we pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, right? What do all those other nations and all their scientists and all their citizens know anyhow?! Maybe climate change is a hoax.  I read that somewhere.

Here’s the irony. In 2017, we have immediate access to more information and knowledge and facts and expertise than ever before in human history.  Our smartphone potentially makes us “smarter”, or at least more well informed, than all the generations that ever lived before us.  Or it can also make us imagine ourselves experts, when we really are not. In this age of information overload, pseudo-experts now abound in government, in culture, on Main Street, in the pulpit, even in academia.    

Thus we are tempted to first form an opinion and then find an “expert” to support our worldview, even when that “expert” is really no expert, and not all that smart either. When that “expert” is really just “expert” at being the rudest and most pontificating guy or girl in the room, able to shout down any one who disagrees.  Want some proof? Watch cable TV news for five minutes.

The hope is this: God gave us all a brain and not just to have an opinion on everything, but also to know both what we know and, what we don’t know.  So I thank God for the experts, the women and men I trust to go deep in their search for knowledge, not just to be right, but also to make this world both true and good. I thank God for the smart folk who know so much more than I ever will. I thank God both for the ability to question and the humility to sometimes accept truth as truth, even if it contradicts how I feel.

When it comes to figuring out what is true and what is false, I say we follow the sage advice of Detective Joe Friday, a 1960’s fictional gumshoe cop, who always began his investigation with the most important request of all. 

“Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.” 

Monday, June 12, 2017

You Almost Hit Me With Your Car: PLEASE Pay Attention

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”       --Mary Oliver

You almost hit me with your car. 

Okay: maybe it was not that close, a week ago last Tuesday night, when I rode my bicycle past your canary yellow Ford Mustang convertible, such a sweet car to cruise around in, on the first warm night of spring.  You were stuck in traffic.  I was pulling up beside you on a long straightaway.  One of the gifts of cycling is that in heavy traffic, bicycles can go faster than cars. 

I pulled up beside you and said, “Nice car!”  “Thanks!” you replied, with a smile, and then I zoomed onward and you waited for the light to change in the distance.  And then you finally caught up with me and I wondered if maybe you’d greet me with, “Nice bike!” or “Beautiful night for a ride!” but as you drove by, you never looked up, or out either. You just looked down at your phone, clutched in your right hand, your left hand casually draped over the steering wheel. 

Man, your eyes were locked on that screen: and not on me. Not on the road.  Not on the bright blue sky at dusk or the azalea bush in explosive pink bloom on the roadside.  Mesmerized by a glowing electronic talisman, you were not really there, driving.  You were somewhere else: lost in a text or a photo, or another “important” cyber message.

And I just wanted to say to you, “Pay attention: please.” 

Pay attention to me, so your 3,800 pound car doesn’t drift over into the shoulder and clip my 17 pound bicycle, splay me out on the road. Crack open my skull. Break my leg.  Scrape my skin raw.  I actually, really, wanted to yell at you, with full volume: “HEY! PAY ATTENTION!”  You see, as a cyclist, I don’t want to be a statistic, one of the more than 800 bicyclists in the United States who will die in 2017 on the roads, or 45,000 who will be injured. 

Cycling has always been risky, sharing byways and highways with steel behemoths whizzing along at 50 miles per hour, while I make my way on two wheels, pedaling at 13 miles per hour.  And yes, cyclists can be as clueless and stupid and rude as drivers.  Riding in packs and hogging the road. Drifting from side to side.  Ignoring traffic laws.  I get why so many folks just cannot stand bikers.

But since distracted driving is now the norm in our world, as drivers juggle their smart phones while also thinking they can simultaneously and safely drive, cycling is akin to “Death Race 2000”.  So along with drinking coffee and putting on make-up while you drive, and yelling at the kids in the backseat and feeling around on the floor for that dropped quarter, you are also using your phone. 

And most certainly, not paying attention.

Our lack of vehicular focus is taking a toll, and not just on cyclists.  In 2016, 399 people died in vehicle crashes in Massachusetts, a fifteen percent higher figure than 2014.  This two year spike is the highest increase in fifty-three years.  Deaths and injuries from accidents are up in thirty nine of the fifty states. Government and highway safety experts agree it is directly caused by distracted driving. 

When you or I so need to text a smiling emoji to a friend,  our eyes look down or look away for just a second and then…we crash.  The four wheeled machine we are supposed to be in control of is always capable of instantaneously hurting and killing another: your kid in the back seat, your neighbor on a bike, the guy you know from work, on his mountain bike, out for an after dinner ride. 

And then we’ll hear or read that he died because someone’s Facebook status needed updating. She died because she loved that Instagram post and just had to respond.  The toddler on the tricycle died because you were using an app to order a pizza. And you died, YOU: because you had to send just one more text.   Just one.

All for lack of paying attention.

So in these cycling months ahead, if you see some guy on a purple road bike with a lime green helmet and a day glow yellow shirt and you hear him yelling, “PAY ATTENTION!” that just may be me.  I do so not to be rude but to survive. Let’s share the road in care, civility and most importantly, with full attention.  I promise to watch out for you and I ask you to promise to watch out for me, too. 

And if you are behind the wheel of some hot rod or antique classic, a cherry red Mustang or jet black Porsche, watch for a thumbs up and my grateful smile too. 

See you on the road.  


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Paris, Power and the Fate of the Earth: Creation In The Balance

“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny…I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...”  --Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Life is a battle to be won, a zero sum game. I cannot triumph unless you lose. I cannot be first unless you are last.

Life is found in cooperation, mutually dependent relationships. I cannot survive unless you do too.  We either sink or swim together.

These two views of human life well sum up the greatest challenge of the human condition on planet earth, this amazing God made creation, spinning in space now for some 4.5 billion years, containing 7.5 billion people, give or take a few souls.  Look at earth from space and there are no boundaries between nations or peoples, just one breathtakingly beautiful globe, deep blue, set in a jet black backdrop of the universe.

But from the moment the first human beings decided to live in community: share a cave, go out on a hunt together, farm the land, and gather in villages and towns and cities and nations together: a tension has always existed.  A struggle between “me” and “thee”, “I” and “we”. Cooperation versus competition.  Sharing versus accumulation.  War or peace. We are all in this together or every man for himself. And sometimes in history, this tug of war for the soul of humans and humanity: it plays out so profoundly.

Last Friday the United States chose to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, to instead join with Nicaragua and Syria, and not be a signatory to the global effort to collectively fight climate change. This shift is about politics, the environment, ideology and economics.  But at a deeper level, it reflects an intentional choice to opt for the “life is a battle” scenario.  “America first” is the new name for this age old philosophy.  It’s summed up in one sentence from a May 30th Wall Street Journal article, by two government architects of this policy, H.R. McMaster and Gary D. Cohn. They wrote: “…the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

There it is.  The world is not a global community. 

It is now, apparently, every nation for itself.  It is sharp elbows and in your face diplomacy, go it alone, mano e mano and may the best country win.  As a lifelong student of humanity, I wasn’t surprised by this declaration.  History is littered with the wreckage from past times when humankind has turned in on itself, chosen to ignore enlightened self interest and cooperation, for unenlightened selfish interest and competition. 

So, what will it be humanity?  Will we ever somehow all find a way to get along?  Or are we instead doomed to eventual extinction, and not for some “natural” reason, but finally because we could not figure out how to share one common, abundant home? Discern how to live together in mutual respect, even peace.

As a person faith, I believe that all life is God given and God created, and so I sometimes wonder what the Creator might “think”, as we humans perpetually fight with each other over so many things, about everything, about seemingly anything, really. Not just natural resources, but religion and culture and ideology too. Does God weep at the chronic hardheadedness of our species?  Will God one day choose to just reboot the earth, decide that Rev. 1 isn’t working out, write some new code that’s not so chronically glitchy, and begin again. Earth Rev. 2?

Until that happens, we have to figure out how to live with each other, all riding along on just one whirling orb, on this third rock from the sun.  So call me stubborn or stupid or pollyannish or best of all, one who refuses to give up hope and faith in humanity.  With our nation’s decision, for now, about climate change, the stakes are so clear.  For that we can thank those who seek America first. 

I’m for an America first who takes its rightful place as a moral leader in the global community. I’m for an America first that’s a leader in creativity, technological innovation and political courage, a nation which stands with, and not against, the world. I’m for an America first that leads the way through goodness and not just naked raw power. 

Life as battle? Life as cooperation?  The earth asks.  What will be our answer?