Archive for October, 2016

Book groups and “the good old days”

October 8, 2016

imagesI’m in two book groups. One, for about 25 years, originated among PSC co-workers. (The story goes that it began with two guys expecting two gals at a restaurant; the gals didn’t show; but the book was discussed anyway, and it grew from there). We meet monthly, reading serious fiction and non-fiction; talk about the book for an hour or more amid appetizers; then have dinner. It’s very convivial. And filling.

The other one is the Capital District Humanist Society’s. We read non-fiction books and discuss them intensively, page by page, for two hours, twice a month. We’ve been known to take a year on one book. No food.

unknownThe PSC group in particular has led me into very rewarding books I’d otherwise have missed. Though not all our selections have been winners. We often look back with bemusement on clunkers like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (which I still think was highly interesting).

imagesAnd we seem to have a thing for “lifeboat” books: Unbroken, In the Heart of the Sea, The Life of Pi, Ahab’s Wife, Dead Wake, etc. Not to mention Three Men in a Boat.

Recently we read Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations, and before that, Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord, historical novels about the mystic saint Hildegard of Bingen and King David respectively. Both made me really glad to live in modernity. If you doubt progress, read these books.

It’s natural to wonder how I’d have behaved in those past times. Hopefully not like the typical men portrayed. But you can’t graft modern sensibility, even hypothetically, onto long-ago people. Folks acted as they did because that was their world. Though each book did include at least one man we’d call good, they were truly exceptions.

Hildegard lived in 1100’s Germany. At age eight she was sent to accompany 14-year-old Jutta as monastery “anchorites.” I didn’t know what that meant. Neither did little Hildegard. But on the trip, her blood froze when someone used the words “walled in.”

unknown-1That was literal. Jutta and Hildegard were immured in a small bare chamber and the entrance was bricked up. There was one window. A “hatch” delivered food. And if that weren’t awful enough, they were clothed in “hair shirts” – intentionally crafted to lacerate the skin.

“Saintly” Jutta, of noble birth. was there supposedly because being mad she was unmarriageable. Actually it was because she was no virgin – raped by her brother. But if not mad to start with, Jutta soon embarked on a project to starve and torture herself to death.

It took thirty years.*

When Hildegard at last emerged into daylight, amazingly she was not mad too. But by then she’d acquired some fellow inmates who formed the core of an abbey of nuns Hildegard went on to establish; something of a fairy tale after her ghastly beginnings.

images-1If that story was ghastly, King David’s was worse. So blood-soaked, so full of human evil. (It too includes a royal brother-sister rape. Indeed, more than just rape.) Brooks’s novel hews quite close to the Bible’s detailed account. The only saving grace is that that was mostly if not entirely fiction. But the way its authors imagined a “hero” shows the barbarity of their minds and their world. Remarkable that people today consider this a “holy” book.

* An Afterward notes a different account saying the “enclosure” began six years later.

 

Simultaneous pleasures

October 5, 2016
Me

Me

It is sunny, the sky a vivid blue. It’s in the seventies, with a gentle breeze. The warmth, modulated periodically by caresses of air, feels delicious on my body.

I’m relaxing in my lounge chair, leaning back lazily, upon a soft cushion. I have another little cushion to hug the small of my back.

images-1Now add lunch. Some sweet grapes, crunchy tortilla chips, and my favorite iced “sparkling water beverage.”

And now add a good book, to engage the mind while I eat. unknownOr else paper and pen to scribble out something like this, another pleasure. Is it sensory overload?

What does it mean to truly experience something? I try to attend to pleasures; to be fully present to them; when I’m eating something, to be sure I’m really tasting it, without my mind being elsewhere.

But one’s mind is always elsewhere, at least partially. It’s not even a unitary phenomenon, the mind is always doing many things at once. unknown-1And while we think we can multi-task, studies have shown we’re better when focusing on one thing at a time. Trying to do two things at once means neither gets done as well.

So is it possible to enjoy all these different pleasures simultaneously, or does my consciousness actually flit flightily back and forth among them? Do I really fully taste the grapes while my mind is engaged with what I’m reading? And am I still really feeling the Sun’s warmth?

And maybe add some music . . . and suppose further still that what I’m reading is erotically arousing . . . .

Pakistan: shooting polio doctors

October 2, 2016

images-1Dr. Zakaullah Khan was shot dead on September 11 in Pakistan. He was a leading figure in the push for polio vaccination. A huge global effort has nearly eradicated polio. Pakistan is one of only three countries where the disease still ravages children. In all three, this is thanks to the efforts of Islamist militants who deem vaccination a Western plot. They’ve killed about 80 Pakistani polio workers.

I’ve written of Pakistan as “the f**ked-up country.” Many nations (even America) do some things wrong. But if we’re giving awards for that, you could hardly beat a country that tries to exterminate not disease but disease fighters.

Some fatalists see such human follies as inescapable facts of life. But I’m a believer in free will, not fate, I see humanity as having choices, and responsibility for the choices made. America is a product of choices, and so is Pakistan. In fact, its very existence resulted from a choice.

Jinnah

Jinnah

Until 1947, Pakistan (and Bangladesh) were simply part of India. Nobody thought of them as separate. But as India’s independence was being negotiated, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of its Muslims, insisted on a separate Muslim state. There was no mass Muslim groundswell for this; maybe it was just that Jinnah fancied himself president of a country. The Brits didn’t much care; and Jinnah made himself such a pain-in-the-rear that India’s Hindu leaders gave in rather than have his stroppiness derail independence.

Fatalists also invest big historical events with inevitability. I again lean more to the view that individuals, and their actions, matter. Pakistan’s creation was a perfect example; there was nothing inevitable about it.

It was catastrophic from the start. Violence erupted among Muslims and Hindus sorting themselves between the two new countries. Estimates range up to two million killed. Another three million died in the ghastly 1971 war when Bangladesh broke free from the disaster that was Pakistan. Not that Bangladesh has done much better.

Meantime, a couple hundred million Muslims chose to remain in India. A smart choice because, for all its poverty and other troubles, India is a far more decent country than Pakistan. Far more democratic and peaceable, making progress. There have been some conflicts, even violence, between Indian Muslims and the Hindu majority – but nothing like the vicious animosity (several wars fought) between India and Pakistan.

Imagine . . .

Imagine . . .

But imagine a world in which Jinnah – and hence Pakistan – never existed. All those millions would not have been killed, none of those wars fought. India would long have been the world’s most populous country. There’s no reason to think it would be any less democratic – indeed, absent the conflict with Pakistan, Indians would have felt far more secure and confident. Without refuge in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban would have been beaten long ago. There might not even have been an Afghan Taliban – and hence no 9/11. A very different and probably better world.

We also hear much babble about arbitrary international borders, implying ethnically homogeneous nations are best, to avoid internal conflict. What rubbish. America is the most ethnically mixed country ever, and works pretty well – its polyglot diversity a strength, not a weakness. India likewise exemplifies this, with its large Muslim minority. That minority would have been much larger had Pakistan not been hived off – probably a good thing. I’d bet India’s Hindus and Muslims, more numerically equal, with the necessity of sharing a nation being even more acute, would have done even better at learning to live together.

images-2And I’m pretty sure no polio doctors would be getting shot.