I have no degree in economics or finance, and certainly don't have the answers to our complex employment problems. But here are some observations that I think raise important questions.

  • In Switzerland, wages are high and even so-called menial jobs are respected. HOWEVER, there is a high level of automation. The Swiss shake their heads in bemusement that we would pay someone to collect highway tolls or parking lot fees. They can't afford to pay good wages for low-skilled jobs.
  • In Switzerland, college tuition is low and heavily subsidized. HOWEVER, only a small percentage of the population attends college. The educational system also includes an excellent vocational program in cooperation with the business community.
  • It makes no sense to push for imitation of another country's system ("We should make college free and guarantee everyone a living wage!") without considering what makes the good thing possible ("Are we willing to completely restructure our educational system, drastically restrict who can attend college, and eliminate low-skill jobs? If not, how can we, in practice, make it work?").
  • I'm a firm believer in the philosophy that education is valuable in and of itself, irrespective of the economic value it can confer.  But how can we in good conscience encourage young people to take on boatloads of debt to acquire college degrees for which there are few or no jobs that will enable them to pay off that debt? 
  • Unemployment is very high in The Gambia. Since long before the current refugee crisis, young Gambian men have been taking the "back door" into Europe, entering illegally and hoping to establish themselves, undetected, because they see no hope at home. The Gambia doesn't need more direct aid nearly so much as it needs an economy and a culture that support entrepreneurship, ambition, and job-creation.
  • Low-skill, low-wage jobs in the United States, like working at McDonald's, used to be a way for teenagers to get some work experience and earn a little pocket-money. Apparently, they are now increasingly being held by people who are trying to make a living and perhaps even support a family. No wonder they want more money!  But how did we get into this situation—where responsible adults are taking unskilled, part-time, teen-age jobs—and how do we get out of it? Certainly not by flooding the workforce with more unskilled labor, which brings me to...
  • I'm frequently told that we need a large supply of foreign workers to take on jobs "that Americans don't want to do." My immediate reaction is that if Americans don't want to do the jobs, then the wages are too low. Raise the pay, and Americans will find the jobs more attractive. But as long as there continues to be a good supply of people eager to take the low-salaried jobs, the pay will stay at unattractive levels.
  • I'm also told that paying a decent wage to workers, instead of relying on what amounts to a slave-labor force, will drive food prices sky-high, with, say, tomatoes costing $40/pound. First of all, I'm pretty sure that's nonsense:  As mentioned above, the Swiss all enjoy good wages, and yes, the cost of living is high, but nothing like that scale. And second, isn't it better to pay more for our goods than to enjoy a discount based on slave labor? The American South tried the "our economy will fall apart without slaves" argument before the Civil War, and look how well it worked out for them.
  • One reason it is so difficult for the Gambian economy to grow is that there is no culture of saving or investment. If you have money that you don't need immediately, right now, in this moment, you are expected to give it to members of your family. Even distant relatives, from the truly needy to the plainly indolent, have a claim on you. There is little appreciation of the value of accumulating money for the purpose of acquiring the equipment or supplies needed to start a business, or for getting a better price by purchasing in bulk, or of pouring money back into a business to help it grow. If you have money now, you spend it now, or someone else will spend it for you.
  • I worry that this "spend it all now" attitude has infected America, from the poorest welfare recipient to the largest corporations. The poor man who refuses to sacrifice today for the sake of his children and his future cheats himself and his family, but the corporate managers and stockholders who prize short-term gain over long-term stability and growth have the power to cheat millions of families—and maybe destroy a nation.  And those in between cheat on both ends, by depriving their own families and by not investing wisely in economic growth.

As promised: no answers.  But questions worth considering.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, May 2, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Edit
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altThe Lion of Saint Mark: A Tale of Venice in the 14th Century by G. A. Henty (Preston-Speed, 2000; originally published 1889)

When we decided to make a visit to Venice, Porter reviewed the appropriate lectures from our Great Courses Guide to Essential Italy and studied Rick Steves' website and Venice travel guide thoroughly.

Me?  I read G. A. Henty's The Lion of St. Mark.

Because Henty's works are primarily about young men and written with an audience of boys in mind, they devote more print to battle scenes than I would prefer; nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure novel set in historical Venice. The story was fun, I liked the characters, and the historical setting seems reasonably accurate based on what I learned from our time there. Now that I've actually walked through the setting, I'm re-reading the story and enjoying it even more.

Henty's books have been republished, and I had a hardcover copy to read. But The Lion of St. Mark is also available as a free Kindle book.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Edit
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I'm glad I discovered Kids Mode on my mobile phone: On my last visit Vivienne managed to change my display to greyscale. Kids Mode is somewhat protective.

Our grandkids are very good about taking "no" for an answer, but the question is frequent: Grandma, may I use your phone?

Joseph (5) wants to play PEAK brain-training games. Vivienne (4) is frustrated that most of the PEAK games are still beyond her but loves to watch videos, look at pictures, and use the Kids' Mode camera, sound recorder, and other features. Daniel (2) has but one desire: to watch the two videos I made of pictures of the U.S. states flashing by in sync with an excerpt from the song, Fifty Nifty United States. (Daniel is obsessed with states and loves to sing along, ending with a resounding, "WY-OMING!") Ellie (10 months) is too young to have a favorite app, but figures anything her siblings want so badly must be a good thing, and goes after the phone every chance she gets. My Samsung Galaxy S5 is supposed to be water resistant, but I'm not inclined to test it against saliva and her sharp little teeth. Her turn will come soon enough.

I'm not really complaining. The phone is an amazing educational tool and I so enjoy watching the kids learn. Hopefully they will recover quickly from any bad media-related habits, since Grandma's phone is only available when Grandma is around. I'll have to be careful, however. Eagle-eyed Vivienne watches closely as I enter the PIN that restores full control over the phone, and she's probably now beyond just changing the color of the screen. There are some games she'd really like to purchase....

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at 9:34 am | Edit
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We visited so many churches in Venice (Italy, not Florida), and each one had to be seen twice: first as a museum, because everywhere you turn there's a famous work of art, and then as a church. From the art to the architecture to the acoustics, each of these ancient, monumental buildings is a soul-expanding experience.

The Frari Church affected me the most. It's stunningly beautiful, with glorious arches and windows and columns, and famous artwork everywhere. Titian worshipped here!  And here is he buried, as is Monteverdi, and Canova's heart. (Canova is spread around a bit.)  Titian's Assumption of the Virgin is the high altarpiece.

But it was a side chapel that captured me. It was open for private prayer, so I walked in and knelt, alone. I have no idea how much time I spent there, but it was long enough to gain an unsought appreciation for the value of icons, and pictures, and other physical representations of people and events—so important for conveying information in times when the written word meant nothing to most people. It was not information that was given to me, however, but an environment conducive to meditation, thought, and listening. It's easy to talk too much when I pray, as if I expect the experience to be a one-sided conversation. This was something entirely different, and when I stepped out of the chapel and walked back into the nave it was as if I had been altogether elsewhere—I mentally tripped over a threshold. I'm sure I was gone only a few minutes, but the feeling of time suspended was intense.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 29, 2016 at 10:33 pm | Edit
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Swiss yards tend to be small because land is precious and the population is dense.  Even so, they come up with some very clever and often beautiful ways of not mowing lawns.  Here are some of the creative yards I've found within a short walk of Janet's house.  (Click to enlarge)

Cascades of beauty.

alt (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 29, 2016 at 4:47 pm | Edit
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A few days ago, in a conversation about childrearing and discipline, I was reminded that it's as important to remember where we were and how far we've progressed as it is to see where we are and how far we have yet to go.

That idea came to mind again as I began to read a Facebook post by someone whose church affiliation I thought I knew. "Wow," I thought. "That's an amazing statement that must have come from some deep soul-searching. I wonder if it reflects the thoughts of the church in general, or if she'll feel some heat because of it."

Then it occurred to me that I was probably wrong, and that she was not from Church A, but was instead a member of Church B. Suddenly the post was no longer a brave and bold attempt at understanding and radical inclusiveness, but a reiteration of words and attitudes one hears daily from "the other side."

It's possible that I have met this person, but I certainly don't know her. I'm not sure of her church affiliation. My comments are no judgement of her; she is just the trigger, not the subject of my ruminations. But I was startled by the change in my own reaction.

I believe it was C. S. Lewis who spoke of a man standing on a path in the middle of a hill, who may be going up, or going down; it's impossible to judge without knowing where the man came from. That's what happened to me. It was the same words. It was the same writer. But she fell in an instant from brave, compassionate thinker to mindless conformist as my view of her background shifted.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 28, 2016 at 10:00 pm | Edit
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If you think restroom privacy is being threatened in the U.S., you should consider this sign from Venice....

alt

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 28, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Edit
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Along with much of the rest of the world, I mourn the unexpected loss of a wonderful musician.

About the musician born Prince Rogers Nelson I feel nothing more than normal sorrow due at the death of any human being. His heyday was after my time (I was too busy raising babies to care about the music scene) and I don't like his style of music anyway.

But nine days earlier the world lost another amazing musician:  my own cousin Mike. He was two years younger than me, but the shock and sorrow of his death is far more than just a sharp reminder of my own mortality.

We were not particularly close as children, growing up as we did half a continent (and for two years, half a world) apart, in a day when communication and travel were far more difficult than they are now. But I was deeply moved when in later years he attended Janet's Eastman School recital, and—thanks to Facebook—we had recently begun to become reacquainted.

Mike was one of my favorite sorts of Facebook friends:  an example of how people who differ markedly in political leanings, social attitudes, and lifestyle can still express their views freely while listening to one another and respecting each other's humanity. Much as I love having friends who agree with me, disagreeing with respect is such an important (and famously lacking) skill that in some ways I appreciate that even more. Except for the use of the term enemy (opponent would perhaps have served my purpose better), I'm reminded of a quote from C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle:  "Has not one of the poets said that a noble friend is the best gift and a noble enemy the next best?"

But Mike and I did not have nearly enough time to enjoy and explore that relationship. We had barely begun. I had no time to appreciate properly his musicianship, much less his heart of compassion for the lonely, the weary, the down-and-out.

Truthfully, much of Mike's music is a bit too dark for me, and it's not the style I generally prefer to listen to—though far, far closer to my own taste than the music of Prince!—but that doesn't stop me from recognizing and appreciating his considerable talent and skill.

Here's one of his songs, the best of the recordings I could find on YouTube:

You can learn a lot more about Mike's music at http://www.mcubedmusic.com/ and http://michaelmclaughlinmusic.com/. At the first link you can hear songs from his album, Part of the Plan. The second features his newest album, just recently released: Spare Me Some Humanity. The latter makes me grieve all the more that his career was cut short, because I love the increasing influence of world music on his compositions. At this site you can hear more from Spare Me Some Humanity, but alas only brief excerpts of each piece.

Of course my cousin was much more than his music ... but his music is easier to write about.

Rest in peace, Mike.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 27, 2016 at 10:34 pm | Edit
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An Earth Day thought from George MacDonald in 1875 (from his novel, Malcolm):

Myriads of such rains had, with age long inevitableness, crumbled away the strong fortress till its threatful mass had sunk to an abject heap. Thus all devouring Death—nay, nay! it is all sheltering, all restoring mother Nature, receiving again into her mighty matrix the stuff worn out in the fashioning toil of her wasteful, greedy, and slatternly children. In her genial bosom, the exhausted gathers life, the effete becomes generant, the disintegrate returns to resting and capable form. The rolling oscillating globe dips it for an aeon in growing sea, lifts it from the sinking waters of its thousand year bath to the furnace of the sun, remodels and remoulds, turns ashes into flowers, and divides mephitis into diamonds and breath. The races of men shift and hover like shadows over her surface, while, as a woman dries her garment before the household flame, she turns it, by portions, now to and now from the sun heart of fire. Oh joy that all the hideous lacerations and vile gatherings of refuse which the worshippers of mammon disfigure the earth withal, scoring the tale of their coming dismay on the visage of their mother, shall one day lie fathoms deep under the blessed ocean, to be cleansed and remade into holy because lovely forms! May the ghosts of the men who mar the earth, turning her sweet rivers into channels of filth, and her living air into irrespirable vapours and pestilences, haunt the desolations they have made, until they loathe the work of their hands, and turn from themselves with a divine repudiation!

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 22, 2016 at 6:11 am | Edit
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Although our choir director might think me heretical, I'm not much of a fan of Broadway shows.  It's not that I don't like musicals; I loved playing in the orchestra pit of the Rosemont Rollicks community theater back in the 70's, and have even enjoyed watching the occasional live performance or movie version.  But I don't go out of my way to see them, and I can't imagine why people would pay outrageous prices to attend a show in New York City.

Maybe that's because whenever I've been in town, I've spent as much time as possible at the New York Public Library.  It's the same with Boston, where I'd skip most of the other sights to have more time at the New England Historic Genealogical Society's library on Newbury Street.  Crazy, I know.

Be that as it may, an Occasional CEO post about entrepreneurship has against all odds made me excited about a new Broadway show.  I'll be happy to wait for a production that is less expensive and closer to home, or on video.  But I want to see "Hamilton."  Check out the opening number (NSFG - language).

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, April 5, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Edit
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How far should we go in an effort to understand someone else's pain?  Although the Catholic Church strongly discourages the practice, in the Philippines there are people who even experience some aspects of crucifixion on Good Friday. I think we can all agree that's going too far.

Part of the raison d'être of the arts is to show us worlds outside of our own, to help us enter into other people's experiences. Eugene O'Neill's semi-autobiographical drama Long Day's Journey into Night provides the audience with an intimate and painful glimpse into the lives of a highly dysfunctional family of New London, Connecticut in the early 20th century. Why someone would want to enter into that experience is beyond me, but apparently the American literary world has more in common with the Philippines than I thought.

Recently we had the opportunity to attend the Mad Cow Theatre's production of O'Neill's masterpiece. I have to acknowledge its masterpiece status: it's considered O'Neill's best work and won both a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best play. Any English teacher would assure me of its literary significance. And the local newspaper critic loved this performance. Porter and the friends who were with us thought it was great, too. I realize I stand alone here, but I'm still struggling to find something redeeming about the play.

Oh, the evening was great!  A delicious lasagne dinner, good company, good conversation. Being with friends even made the 45-minute wait to get out of the parking garage almost pleasant. But the show?  Not so much.

As I've said many times in the past, as far as I'm concerned a good book (movie, play) is one that inspires me to be a better person. Strike one against O'Neill's magnum opus. Mostly what it inspired me to do was to run screaming from the room, though that was too impolite to be possible.

I have nothing against the actors, who as far as I could tell did a fine job. Mad Cow actors usually do. But the play was a Presbyterian sermon on steroids. You know what I mean:  A Presbyterian sermon usually makes a good point, but takes three times as long as necessary to say it. Long Day's Journey into Night is a four hour play, with two intermissions, and it says the same things over and over and over and.... The first hour was more than enough. Strike two.

I realize I'm more sensitive to some things than most people, from shirt tags and wrinkles in my socks to the smell of mildew to suspense and horror in movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest made me want to vomit and it took months before I managed to suppress the memory of some scenes. I've learned that there are some (many) productions I'm just better off not viewing. Long Day's Journey into Night turns out to be one of them. Fortunately, the horror is verbal, not visual, so I'm not having to repress images. I've also gotten better, since the Cuckoo's Nest days, at protecting myself during the event. When the onslaught of anger, black thoughts, verbal abuse, and insane repetition became too much to handle, I simply blanked it out as much as possible: I closed my eyes, focused my thoughts on something else, and sometimes even fell into the oblivion of sleep. Those episodes were short, but necessary. How can I explain why?  The anger and hurtful words were like a physical assault. If you've ever experienced Restless Legs Syndrome, imagine that same feeling over your entire body. As I said, running from the room screaming was not an option, so I took the next best course of action. :)  It was the third and final strike.

Believe it or not, I'm glad I attended the show, but for some of my readers I highly recommend that if you want to experience this apparently important literary work, you do not attend a live performance, but either read the play or see a film version, where you can stop at any point and take time to process what you've seen—or abandon the effort altogether. You know who you are.

One of our daughters, being an avid and quick reader, would finish her assigned high school English books well ahead of the progress of the class, so that by the time the exam was given, several weeks had passed. Usually she would take some time to skim the book again before the test, to freshen the events in her mind. When the assignment was Lord of the Flies, however, she stated fiercely, "Mom, I will fail the exam before I will open that horrible book again."

She, at least, will understand. (And she aced the test anyway.)

When I complained that Long Day's Journey into Night was unrealistic, more than one person in our party assured me that it resonated well with their own experiences, making me all the more grateful that I grew up in a family where people did not scream, swear, and demean one another. I'm sure it's important that I know of this pain that hides in other people's lives, but this experience was a little too Filipino-Good-Friday for me.

It's not that I want my stories to be all sweetness and light, without complexity or ambiguity. Far from it. But they must always have hope.

Art without hope is failure.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 1, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Edit
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altCure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant (Crown Publishers, 2016)

Jo Marchant is a scientist and a skeptic when it comes to alternative medicine, but could not deny the anecdotal evidence of its successes. In Cure she documents the efforts of researchers to figure out just what is going on with that, and concludes that the interaction of our minds and our bodies is a lot more complicated than we currently understand.

The placebo effect, and its evil twin, the nocebo effect, turn out to be much more powerful than initially believed, creating observable, measurable changes in our brains, and there are several ways to trick our minds into healing our bodies, some of them bordering on the absurd:  people can be healed by placebo pills even when they know they are placebos, even when they know the capsules they are swallowing are filled with nothing but air.

Hypnosis is fighting its way back from its circus sideshow beginnings and proving to be a powerful tool, especially in pain relief and autoimmune disorders. Meditation, too, is shedding its spiritual roots and looks promising for physical as well as mental problems. So does biofeedback. Virtual Reality therapy can apparently do a better job of controlling acute and chronic pain than high doses of addictive drugs.

As medical practitioners are pressed more and more to cut the time they spend with patients, evidence is mounting that health outcomes are greatly improved by listening, caring, reassurance, and ditching the traditional doctor-patient relationship for one in which the patient is considered a full partner in his health care. Family, friends, and social support also have a tremendous impact on health.

Cure is a fascinating book with two important drawbacks. The first one, the author recognizes:  acknowledging the power of the mind to affect the body may lead people—and/or their caregivers—to believe that their real, physical illnesses are "all in their heads"—or worse, that it's their own fault if they don't get well. Marchant hastens to explain that the mind-body interaction is a whole lot more complicated than that. I was reminded of the advice given by a pastor to the woman who reported that people were telling her she could throw away her cane if only she had enough faith. "Next time they tell you that," he advised, "Whack them over the head with your cane and say to them that it only hurts because their faith isn't good enough."

The second problem I doubt Marchant sees herself.  But the only section that disappointed me is where she tackled the possible effect of prayer on healing, and abandoned her otherwise balanced and open-minded approach. It shows through clearly that she didn't want to find any consequence of prayer that couldn't be chalked up to the placebo effect or a supportive social situation. Even worse, as is true of many researchers she treats "prayer" as if it were an abstract force independent of the particular faith of the pray-er and of whatever entity is on the receiving end of the prayer. As if the cause of a prayer's effect must be solely inside the person praying, so that there can be no difference whether one prays to Allah, Jesus, Thor, or the kitchen sink. With this weakness in methodology, it would have been better to skip the section on prayer entirely.

Here are a few quotes that stood out:

Big pills tend to be more effective [as placebos] than small ones. ... Two pills at once work better than one. A pill with a recognizable brand name stamped across the front is more effective than one without. Colored pills tend to work better than white ones, although which color is best depends upon the effect that you are trying to create. Blue tends to help sleep, whereas red is good for relieving pain. Green pills work best for anxiety. The type of intervention matters too: the more dramatic the treatment, the bigger the placebo effect. In general, surgery is better than injections, which are better than capsules, which are better than pills. There are cultural differences.... [A]lthough blue tablets generally make good placebo sleeping pills, they tend to have the opposite effect on Italian men.

[T]he placebo effect has a dark side. The mind might have salutary effects on the body, but it can create negative symptoms too. The official term for this phenomenon is the "nocebo effect" ... and it hasn't been much studied because of ethical concerns. ... Nocebo effects are even one explanation for the power of voodoo curses. ... [M]ost of the side effects we suffer when we take medicines are not due directly to the drugs at all, but to the nocebo effect. ... Italian researchers followed 96 men.... Some did not know what drug they were taking, whereas others were told about the drug and that it might cause erectile dysfunction. The percentage of patients in each group who subsequently suffered this side effect was 3.1% and 31.2%.

When we were prescribed Malarone as an anti-malarial, we deliberately did not read about the side effects, although I packed the information sheet just in case one of us started having weird symptoms. I guess that was a good idea.

[P]erhaps the most fundamental lesson from research on placebos [is] the importance of the doctor-patient encounter. If an empathetic healer makes us feel cared for and secure, rather than under threat, this alone can trigger significant biological changes that ease our symptoms.

Unfortunately, despite the public health disaster being wrought by prescription painkillers, there is relatively little research interest in non-pharmacological methods to help people deal with pain.... [P]art of the reason for the lack of enthusiasm is economic. Pain relief is a billion-dollar market, and drug companies have no incentive to fund trials that would reduce patients' dependence on their products.... And neither have medical insurers, because if medical costs come down, so do their profits. ... [T]here's no intervening industry that has the interest in pushing it.

That could be about to change, however. In March 2014, Facebook bought a little-known California startup called Oculus for $9 billion. The company specializes in VR [virtual reality] gaming and has just developed a headset called Oculus Rift, similar in size and shape to a scuba mask. Whereas the VR equipment [used with stunning success for pain relief] costs tens of thousands of dollars, Oculus sells its headsets for just $350 each. That promises to bring virtual reality within reach of ordinary consumers, who will be able to run wireless masks from their tablets or smartphones. ... Developments like this mean that people will soon be able to use virtual reality pain relief ... at home. It also means that virtual worlds are about to get much more sophisticated ... as video game companies throw resources at developing software to go with the new headsets. As well as better games ... that could lead to better pain therapies.... [W]e might soon see pain relief trials funded not by drug companies, but by the gaming industry.

Randomized trials comparing planned home and hospital births are almost impossible to do, because it's not practical or ethical to force women to give birth in a particular place. But there are plenty of large, observational trials.... These studies compare women who choose hospital birth with those who try to deliver at home (regardless of whether they have their babies there or end up transferring to hospital for pain relief or medical intervention). It turns out that simply by choosing home birth, women are less likely to require drugs to induce or speed up labor or relieve pain; less likely to be cut open or to tear; and less likely to need a C-section or instrumental delivery. Their babies are born in better shape and are more likely to breastfeed. ... It seems that when you replace easy access to technology with caring for a woman's emotional state, she and her baby fare much better—not just mentally but physically too. ... [T]he reassurance of someone we trust is not a trivial luxury. The right words can be powerful enough to replace aggressive medical intervention and transform physical outcomes.

All too often when we receive medical treatment, our mental state is seen as a secondary concern, and our role as a patient doesn't go much beyond signing consent forms and requesting pain-relieving drugs. ... The three projects described [in Chapter 7]—midwives supporting women during childbirth; radiologists changing how they talk to patients; and doctors discussing difficult questions with the terminally ill—instead give patients an active role to play. These might seem like commonsense interventions, but they all embody a fundamental (and for our medical system, revolutionary) shift in what it means to care for someone. Medicine becomes not an all-powerful doctor dishing out treatments to a passive recipient, but a partnership between equal human beings. This principle is at the heart of many of the other cases we've seen so far, too.... Instead of medicating their way out of problems with ever-greater doses of drugs and interventions, these medical professionals are harnessing their patients' psychological resources as a critical component of their care. They're doing this for adults and children; for chronic complaints and for emergencies; from birth until death. This approach provides a better experience for patients. It costs less. And it improves physical outcomes. Patients suffer fewer complications, recover faster and live longer.

[E]xperiences of social exclusion or rejection—such as being shunned in a game, receiving negative social feedback, or viewing images of deceased loved ones—activate exactly the same regions of the brain as when we are in physical pain.

The impact of loneliness ... depends not on how many physical contacts we have but how isolated we feel. You might have only one or two close friends, but if you feel satisfied and supported there's no need to worry about effects on your health, [researcher John] Cacioppo tells me. "But if you're sitting there feeling threatened by others, feeling as if you are alone in the world, that's probably a reason to take steps."

The most resilient kids were brought up by firm, vigilant parents.... But crucially, these parents were also affectionate, communicative and highly engaged in the children's lives. ... These kids knew where the boundaries were, and that there would be sanctions for bad behavior. But they also knew this was because their parents loved and cared about them.

I'm not sure why we needed a study to tell us that one.

Western medicine is (rightly) underpinned by science and trial evidence, and to many policy-makers and funders, physical interventions just "feel" more scientific than mind-body approaches do. Bioelectronics researcher Kevin Tracey is now enjoying millions of dollars of private and public funding to pursue his idea of stimulating the nervous system with electricity, even though as I write this, his largest published human study is in eight people. Gastroenterologist Peter Whorwell, by contrast, can't persuade local funding agencies to pay for his [Irritable Bowel Syndrome] patients to receive gut-focused hypnotherapy despite decades of positive trials in hundreds of patients.

At the heart of almost all the pathways I've learned about is one guiding principle: if we feel safe, cared for and in control—in a critical moment during injury or disease, or generally throughout our lives—we do better. We feel less pain, less fatigue, less sickness. Our immune system works with us instead of against us. Our bodies ease off on emergency defenses and can focus on repair and growth.

[R]ather than putting our faith in mystical rituals and practices, the science described in this book shows that in many situations, we have the capacity to influence our own health by harnessing the power of the (conscious and unconscious) mind. If you feel that alternative remedies work for you, I don't see any need to abandon them, especially when conventional medicine does not yet provide all of the same elements. But be critical of the advice that you may be offered by alternative therapists. And give your brain and body some credit. It's not necessarily the potions or needles or hand waving that make you feel better. Consider the possibility that these are just a clever way of pushing your buttons, enabling you to influence your own physiology in a way tha teases your symptoms and protects you from disease.

Or as Michael Pollen famously said, "Be the kind of person who takes supplements—then skip the supplements."

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, March 20, 2016 at 8:25 pm | Edit
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I like Michael Hyatt's take on our political situation.

If there’s one thing that stands out in the ongoing presidential election, it’s the sheer nastiness. As a leader, I wouldn’t hire any of the present candidates for my business. I wouldn’t want to work for any of them either.

Why not?  Rampant disrespect.

  1. Disrespect among the candidates. Candidates set the tone, and the tone is terrible. Arguments about policy and ideas have taken a backseat to the pettiest of personal attacks. And who am I kidding? Policy debates aren’t in the backseat. They’re being dragged from the bumper.
  2. Disrespect among supporters. Following the tone set by candidates, supporters have joined in. They’ve goaded candidates to further extremes of badmouthing and mudslinging, even verbally and physically mistreated fellow voters.

  3. Disrespect for the American people in general. As far as I am concerned, this is the most important. Leadership is service. You can’t lead people you don’t respect. All you can do is boss and railroad.

None of us is served by these tactics. It encourages the worst and deprives us of statesmanship in a time when we need it most.

We can't change our candidates, not from the top down. But we can change ourselves and our responses. We can show the politicians how it's done. Let's lead from the bottom up, showing grace, civility, and respect to those we disagree with.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, March 15, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Edit
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Do you remember Kathy's friend B. who met us at the airport in Banjul?  He's also a math major who sometimes comes to her for tutoring.  I'm certain that Kathy and I arrived at this plan independently, even though we were both math majors and roommates at the University of Rochester, but it turns out we each sweeten our tutoring sessions with cookies.  We even have a particular kind designated as "math cookies"!

Having enjoyed Kathy's math cookies when we visited, I thought it would be a good idea to send B. a package of my own math cookies.  You know, to see whose work best.  :)  But apparently our cookies are doomed to avoid that head-to-head contest.

I knew it would cost much more than the cookies are worth to mail them to the Gambia.  But for years I've been mailing care packages to college students and Hallowe'en candy and other trinkets to our Swiss grandchildren; I don't mind occasionally paying more in postage than the value of the items sent.  But the cost to send the wonderful Priority Mail Large Video Box is now $33.95!  Sadly, this is still the least expensive way to send cookies, by a considerable margin.  And that's not just because it's more expensive to mail something to Africa; the cost to send the box to Switzerland is exactly the same.  When I wrote about it in November of 2011, I could use that box to send up to four pounds of goodies overseas for $13.25.  

This is crazy. What else has gone up over 150% in less than five years?  Are you making 150% more than you did in 2011?  Does gas cost 150% more? Bread? Houses? Anything?  Apparently the IRS is not the only Federal agency to have a grudge against ex-pats.

So dear B. will not be getting his cookies, unless I can persuade Kathy to use precious luggage space to bring some home with her next time she visits the U.S.  Even dearer grandchildren will also suffer from this USPS outrage, I'm afraid.  It's still cheaper to mail packages than to visit in person—but a lot less fun.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, March 14, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Edit
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It's no accident that Aesop's Fables have been popular for millennia.  Great truths revealed in brief, memorable stories are powerful.  I have some modern-day favorites of my own.

The Million-Dollar Child

For a number of years, we attended the same church as Pat and Patsy Morley.  I wish I had known Patsy better, because this story from her husband, as told in his book, The Man in the Mirror, shows her wisdom and strength.

When our two children were toddlers, I was uptight about new scratches showing up on our coffee table. This was a real point of contention with my  wife, who could not care less about such matters. Finally, she said, “You leave my children alone! I’ll not have you ruin a million-dollar child over a $300 table!” Wow! It finally connected. I was more interested in a $300 table than the emotional welfare of my kids. I asked Patsy to forgive me...

The Daffodil Principle

A friend introduced me to the daffodil story, told by Jaroldeen Asplund Edwards, which is too long to reproduce here.  Here's an excerpt that gives the gist of this remarkable, true testimony to the power of small actions done repeatedly over time.

Before me lay the most glorious sight. It looked as though someone had taken a great vat of gold and poured it down over the mountain peak and slopes. The flowers were planted in majestic, swirling patterns—great ribbons and swaths of deep orange, white, lemon yellow, salmon pink, saffron, and butter yellow. Each different-colored variety was planted as a group so that it swirled and flowed like its own river with its own unique hue. There were five acres of flowers. ... We walked up to the house. On the patio, we saw a poster. "Answers to the Questions I Know You Are Asking" was the headline.

The first answer was a simple one."50,000 bulbs," it read. The second answer was, "One at a time, by one woman. Two hands, two feet, and very little brain." The third answer was, "Began in 1958."

The Ruby Ring

The story of the ruby ring came to me from a friend just the other day.  It is her story, or rather her grandparents', and true both in fact and in its powerful message.

My grandmother rarely asked for anything for herself, but for whatever reason she wanted a ruby ring.  My grandfather talked about it for years but kept putting off buying it.

When he finally was ready to give her one, she said, "Sorry, too late.  My hands are old looking and I don't want it anymore." 

Now, when you hear me referring to a "ruby ring" situation, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Do you have any modern Aesop-wisdom to add to this collection?

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, March 13, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Edit
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