Tuesday, January 29, 2013

More on heroes

In my last post I mentioned a number of outstanding individuals who are actively working to improve the world.  What impressed me the most was that for the most part, these modern day heroes were engaged in their various activities, not for fame and money, but because they truly believe that it is part and parcel to what it means to be human.  Don't get me wrong, I admire the efforts of men like Bill Gates who do tremendous good through their philanthropic donations, but to put your life, career, and financial stability on the line to do what is right, that is truly heroic.

To continue this line of thought, I have a few more names for you to consider.  I know I have mentioned many times that I read the Smithsonian magazine, but I may not have revealed that I also read the National Geographic.  January's edition of the Nat Geo featured a celebration of their 125th anniversary, and included multiple articles on why we, individually and collectively, explore.  And, of course, the articles included glimpses at some of today's explorers.  Like those in December's Smithsonian these people fly under the radar yet contribute to the knowledge of humankind while breaking the boundaries of their respective disciplines. 

From Cory Richards who achieved the first winter ascent of the 26,362 foot Gasherbrum II peak in Pakistan to Brian Skerry's photographs of rarely seen undersea creatures there are many unknown yet highly motivated and curious individuals who continue mankind's ongoing desire to go where no man has gone before.

Of course, most of us don't have the talent, motivation and/or resources to devote our lives to being the first, or the best, or the most daring.  Yet, if we assume that the meaning and purpose of our lives is to leave the world a better place than when we arrived, we don't have to do anything famous or be especially daring or courageous.

I recently was made aware of a college campus where the students have created a program to take the food that restaurants, diners, supermarkets, etc are about to throw away and get it into the hands of those who are hungry or without the means to purchase their own food.  I am not talking about old burgers which have been sitting under the heat lamp of your nearest fast food place, but real food that may be close to the end of its shelf life.  I also recently was told of a local retailer/food outlet that donates its close to expiration date food to our local food bank.  Considering the sober statistic that upwards of 40% of all food is wasted in this great country, simple programs that prevent food waste while battling hunger do not take large sums of money or a night on a mountaintop to be effective.

I turned 18 just after the mandatory draft ended in the United States, so this may sound a bit disingenuous, but I wonder if some type of volunteer requirement should be developed for all Americans, especially our young people.  I am not talking about Doctors Without Borders, but something much more locally based that reminds all of us that we were fortunate to have been born in this country and that part of that privilege is to give back.  Service at local elementary schools, nursing homes, food kitchens, hospitals, etc.   Perhaps as a requirement to graduate high school, or as a way to reduce student loan interest or principle, or, sorry fellow liberals, as a way to earn one's unemployment.  Frankly, I would prefer a tradition of volunteerism to be the driver of such a program, but sometimes traditions need a start, a gentle push, to begin.

To me, one of the most glaring hypocrisies of our American culture, is the deep seated belief that we are a Christian nation, while we seem to worship the dollar so extensively.  Each year, Forbes publishes a list of the most richest people on earth, with the only criteria being their actual or alleged net worth.  But is the world better off for those people having so much money?  Did they attain it through the invention of a computer, or by selling weapons of mass destruction?  Is the richest person on earth wealthy because of her intellect, or because she runs multi-national companies that move jobs from one country to another chasing after the cheapest labor?

Perhaps service to one's fellow man, even for only six months or a year, might temper that desire to be the richest man on earth, and light the fire within us to be the most selfless person on earth.

In the meantime, the next time you are walking to your car in a parking lot, or to your house or your workplace, and you see a plastic bottle in the street, or a plastic bag, or an empty pack of cigarettes, take a second, pick it up and throw it away.  Extend your concern for a clean house to a clean neighborhood, a clean city, a clean state.  Or better yet, the next time you see a someone struggling to reach the top shelf at the grocery store, or carry their bags to their car, or open a door with their hands full, lend a hand.  Volunteering, helping your fellow man, does not have to be via an organized group but can just be one human treating another humanely.

Volunteer, and be a better person.       

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Day After ParaNorman

I saw two movies recently that, while not similar in their plots, did have a linked thought that inspired me.

The first movie was The Day After Tomorrow.  This movie depicts a sudden climate shift which begins a new ice age.  The one scene which particularly interested me occurred just as the deadly winter storm begins to descend on New York City.  At this point in the movie, transportation via airplane and train has ceased, and most people are trying to move via car or foot although if you have ever been on Manhattan Island in rush hour, car traffic does not move very quickly.  Anyway, the scene in question involves what appears to be a Wall Street type who decides that perhaps a bus might get him to where he needs to go; unfortunately, the bus is out of service.  He bangs on the door and offers the driver $200 to put the bus into service.  The driver relents, and so the Wall Street guy has bought his way to safety.  Or so he thinks.  In the next scene a  huge tidal wave engulfs everything in its path, including the bus.

The second movie was ParaNorman.  It is a kid's movie, about a young boy who is different from his peers.  He can see and speak with dead people.  Or, more precisely, the dead people who are still on earth due to some unresolved issues or their own violent death.  At school, he is treated as a leper, getting daily messages on his locker about how he is different.  At home, since he has had an ongoing conversation with his dead grandmother, he is treated as a liability by his father.  After his dad says something particularly nasty to him, his mother tries to defend her husband's words by telling Norman that sometime people say and do things when they are afraid.  Normans responds with the obvious, "a father shouldn't be afraid of his son". 

But the more interesting scene occurs towards the end of the movie when Norman confronts the witch who has been loosed upon the town.  The witch, in this case, is a little girl who had been killed by the town elders 300 years ago for being different and who has cursed the town, and those that killed her.  Norman has decided that the only way to lift the curse is to talk to the girl.  He tells her that she cursed the town and those that killed her to get back at them, to cause them pain because they caused her pain.  The obviousness of this fact, that we often cause pain to those who hurt us, leads the little girl to ask Norman if he ever wanted to hurt all those bullies in his life.   Here is the cool part.  Norman, 9 year old Norman, says sure, he thought of getting back at them.  But what would that matter?  It wouldn't erase the memories of their cruelty, nor would it prevent them from being mean in the future.  Continuing the circle of meanness, or any cruel act, is never the answer to ending that behavior.  And, of course, since this is a movie for kids which requires a happy ending, Norman reminds her about the good people in her life, her mother in particular, and the happy times she shared with her.  The transformation from witch to little girl is complete, and she falls asleep, never to awaken, curse or torment, again.

How are these movies similar you ask?

Perhaps they are not, other than that both teach us a lesson about life.  In fact, there are hundreds of movies like these two, seasonal movies like It's a Wonderful Life and Scrooge.  Movies that we all cry over, nod our heads in understanding, perhaps even try to emulate, at least for a day or two.  Over and over again, we are exposed to the lessons which teach us that accumulating large sums of money cannot prevent bad things from happening, or delay our inevitable death.  Will not eliminate the fear we feel about unfortunate events or death.  Or the lesson that violence begets violence.  That killing to avenge killing leads to continued killing, not peace.  That hurting another who has hurt you belies the teachings of our moral and spiritual guidebooks.

We are all afraid, at times.  Sometimes we deal with our fear by ignoring it.  By immersing ourselves in the pursuit of money or fame rather than facing our fears.  Sometimes we project our fears onto scapegoats, the Jews in 1940 Germany, blacks in the 1960's, gays in the 1980's, muslims in the 2000's.
Sometimes we succumb to our fears by living in fear, questioning the motives of everyone around us, even the motives of our president.  And then we react to these fears by arming ourselves to the teeth, as if violence generated by good guys can eliminate our fears. 

Maybe my idea of happiness is off base.  A world inhabited by people who understand that love is far more important than money.  That peace is the absence of  war and violence.  That our family and friends are our most precious possessions.  Perhaps it is all just one more utopian idea that will never be realized because man is flawed, is afraid.  Perhaps, but should that prevent us from dreaming of and striving for such a world? 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Guns, and Roses

Happy New Year everyone!

Sorry that there has been such a gap since my last post.  Beginning with the time spent picking up and returning my son to college for the Thanksgiving holiday, followed by a week of visiting my dad at hospice which led to his sorrowful passing, then on to the Christmas holiday and its hustle and bustle, it has been impossible for me to spend any time at my computer.   And frankly, and despite the plethora of "events" that have occurred in the news recently, I have been less than motivated.  I think of my dad very often, and generally those thoughts are accompanied by misty eyes, and/or tears.  Additionally, I have been working a lot, as the nature of both my jobs equates to much extra work. 

For now, rather than trying to jam all my thoughts into one huge post, I thought I would focus on just two topics.

Guns, and Roses

Guns, of course, refers to the tragic massacre which occurred in Connecticut last month.  I am pleased to see that President Obama has indicated he will propose some new gun laws.  Perhaps, since he does not have the albatross of worrying about a future election around his neck, he will thumb his nose at the NRA and propose a law which might make a difference.  Clearly, it is time to return to a ban on assault weapons.  I know there will be difficulty in defining exactly what an assault weapon is, and there will be attempts by the gun lobby to water down any restriction, but for me, any automatic weapon that can fire multiple rounds per second should be outlawed.  There is really only one purpose for such a weapon, and it is to kill.  Let's hope some sanity will descend upon Washington and such a ban will pass within the next year.

As for roses, I just read about a number of them in the December Smithsonian magazine.


This issue features quick hitting articles under the umbrella phrase "Innovators Who are Rocking the World" each of whom received one of Smithsonian's 2012 American Ingenuity Awards.

To me, the most impressive is Pardis Sabeti.  She is a 36-year-old hyperkinetic physician and geneticist who has combined her studies of evolution and public health to reveal ways to understand the evolutionary nature of disease which may lead to new approaches to treat, and eradicate the worst of the infectious scourges that effect humanity.  And she plays in a rock n roll band!!! 

And oh, by the way, she was born in Tehran, Iran.  Keep that in mind when you hear closed minded people ranting about wanting their country back, ie, no one other than white people. 

Or perhaps you might be impressed by Jack Andraka.  All he did was develop a diagnostic test for one of the deadliest forms of cancer, pancreatic.  He did some of his research in the lab in his basement and the one at his high school.  Yes, high school, as Jack is only 16 and a sophomore in high school!

Or maybe you will enjoy reading about Elon Musk.  All he wants to do is change the course of humanity in the areas of energy and space exploration.  His Tesla electric car can travel 300 miles on a single charge, can accelerate from zero to sixty in 5.5 seconds and can seat five comfortably.  In the meantime, his company, SpaceX, has already launched multiple payloads into space to dock with the International Space Station (ISS), and is currently the only way the United States (military or otherwise) can access space and the ISS. 

You also might like learning about Behn Zeitlin's films, Bryan Sevenson's work with prisoners wrongly accused, Esperanza Spalding's music, Jim Anderson's work towards understanding the connection between climate change and the ozone layer, or Anne Kelly Knowles' work in historical geography.    

All innovators of our time, working today, now, to solve our problems, not just for Americans, but for all people of earth.  Truly roses among us.  And, while these people are famous in their fields, winners of various scientific and national grants to continue their work, they do so outside of "fame".  You won't see them of the cover of People Magazine, or on American Idol, or in Seaside Heights. 

Finally, and particularly for the researchers among them, they invariably plow their grants and scholarship money back into their research because they know that money is nice but working on and solving the problems of humanity, whether they be disease, climate change, or energy consumption, is the real purpose of life. 

Let's all try just a bit harder to make the world a better place like these fine people, and perhaps, at our memorial service, it will be said that the world was a better place for our having lived.  A more glorious tribute cannot be acheived.