A Little Dirt on Dirty

A recent assignments in my writing course was a discussion of the writer/editor relationship. We were given information on the writer Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, the editor who made him famous. Carver was known for his short stories (none of which I’ve read) but when I dug a little deeper — meaning, checked his Wiki entry — I discovered he was part of the “dirty realism” movement in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.  He wrote about the dispossessed, about people who lived “on the edge.” Now, how the adjective “dirty” applies to this subgroup is beyond me; maybe it simply reflects the difficulty in keeping old stuff looking spanking-clean, or maybe more.

I was curious about dirty, and its origin — spoiler alert! — isn’t pretty. This word arose from an Old English and Proto-Germanic root, dritan, that means “to void excrement.” Yes, it’s all about poop. Imagine that. All these years, and I never knew. Now you might be closing your browser now, deciding this is something you don’t want to dive into (sorry!), but it really does make sense, doesn’t it?

Think of all the concepts we apply to the word “dirty.” We speak of dirty tricks, dirty money, and people doing someone else’s dirty work. We teach our children about dirty words, tell them not to give out dirty looks, and warn about dirty old men. Dirty has some very horrific connotations.

But in some ways, it’s also gotten an undeserved bad rap. I’m an allergist, and have a lot of respect for the theory that keeping little kids too clean may promote the development of allergic conditions like hay fever, eczema, and asthma. With this in mind — and knowing their father already had two in this trifecta —  I took my children’s cleanliness with a healthy grain of salt. They bathed and had clean clothes, sure, but they also ate food that fell on the floor, ran around barefoot, and never used hand sanitizer. So far, they’ve escaped their father’s curse (at least, in terms of allergies).

Here’s another thing about poop: we exaggerate its ugliness; we apply deleterious properties to it, and then proceed to amplify them. The result? It scares the s&#* out of approaching it rationally. It’s a normal part of being alive. We — regarding ourselves as the most highly developed species on the planet — have succeeded in making dirty a national disgrace. It might serve us to swing the pendulum back again. Let us not forget that animal waste serves us all by performing the thankless task of fertilization. When added to soil, it renders it more productive. It’s more about creation than transformation: poop uses its castoff, useless status to make something entirely new.

Speaking about soil, I’m reminded of the fertile, rich soil in my home state of Pennsylvania and how generous it was in providing food, shade, and beauty for our family. In 1941, Hans Jenny, a pedologist (soil scientist), published his seminal book, “Factors of Soil Formation.” He described five elements responsible for the soils we have today: parent material; organisms; climate; relief (landscape position); and time. Perhaps we could use this framework to address the “dirty” in our lives today.

The importance of good parenting is a no-brainer. But parents today face daunting challenges; things like income inequality, inadequate health care access, gun control, the rapid pace of technology, and climate change can make raising a child more difficult than ever. Next, Jenny defines soil organisms as “a complete biological community.” What kind of communities exist for children today? When teachers are underpaid, and recess is an anachronism, or when there’s a cop in every school despite what seems like a bullying epidemic, how fertile will this soil be?

Regarding climate, he notes its importance on “both large and small scales.” When compassion, respect, generosity, and other human virtues are missing from the largest and most powerful institutions in the land, what can we expect?  Moving on to relief (landscape position), Jenny speaks of profound differences produced by only a few feet of elevation, and the importance of the fact that water runs downhill. Children, by definition, look up to learn from us. What do we teach them when the lowest among us ends up with all the s&#* that flowed down from higher ups in the workplace, or the bureaucracies that govern them? How does it serve our future to treat our daughters like sex object beginning in kindergarten, or to assume they can’t excel in science or math?

His last element, time, is the one we perhaps take least seriously. We make instant decisions, we seek immediate gratification. We forget we need time to properly shape our future and invest in succeeding generations, time to deliberate, and to heal from our wounds, so many of which seem self-inflicted these days. Paradoxically, it feels as if we’re running out of time, which makes our search for solutions all the more frantic.

I abhor harmful, dirty behavior as much as anybody else, but at the same time, I try to visualize the seeds of hope and change that can flourish in its troubling wake should we choose to plant them.




About ‘Directed Attention Fatigue’

I started blogging over five years ago. My first efforts appeared in an online local paper, and I wrote an early post — about the word unnecessary — after the Newtown school tragedy (republished here later; see December 2014 archives). At that time, I discovered that “need” arose from Dutch and German roots that mean — among other things — calamity, adversity, and danger.

This past week, a clearly psychotic person one-upped Newtown in a big way, reminding me of that old post, where I also wrote about the danger of our complacency, of our habit of assuming that “somebody else will do it.” As a nation, we lack consensus on exactly what “it” is. I have my own thoughts (for example, to do what Australia, UK, and other Western nations did and just get rid of these nasty guns), but people like me are always shouted down by vague, ambiguous arguments about the Second Amendment. We forget that the amendment regards arms-bearing citizens as part of a “well-regulated” militia.

Regulate is a first cousin to another word that surfaced for me when reflecting on gun violence: direction. I think about our lack of direction, and about the absence of any leader powerful enough to bring about change for the good. Regulate and direct have a common PIE root, *reg-, which means to move in a straight line, lead, or rule. We don’t lack for rulers — aka greedy power mongers — but their leadership only stirs the already-overflowing pot of antagonism and strife.

Direction gives us more to think about. The Latin root, dirigo, reprises the straight line theme, but the core verb, rego, is more expansive. The translations include: to keep from going wrong; and, to set right. Also: morally right; correct; just; virtuous; noble; and good. Why is it that so many people like me, who use these principles for our daily compass, can’t seem to gain any traction?

I explored the concept of “thankless exhaustion” a few years ago after my sister-in-law mentioned it in our discussion of women and depression (see February 2016 archives). This week I discovered a piece on moral exhaustion by author/playwright John Biguenet. In the essay, “Questions, Not Answers,” he writes that “depravity has drained morality of all meaning.” He also writes about “directed attention fatigue,” which results from overuse of our attention inhibition mechanisms. In other words, we feel so threatened that our brain can no longer block the vigilance that renders us fearful and frozen.

This happened to my friend Kimberly a few days after the Las Vegas event. She and her husband Larry were at McDonald’s when they noticed a tall dark stranger (yes!) wandering around without food. She made a quiet remark about a “potential terrorist,” when an unmarked white van pulled up alongside the building. She described her urge to run, to escape. I told her that — at times like these — I’m grateful to be someone who’s always been oblivious to the obvious. I wonder how I would have fared in a Nazi-occupied country during WWII.

Biguenet also writes that his fatigue stems in large part from “living in a society in which one cannot take for granted any moral imperatives,” and that his attention is “directed not to unattended packages (or strangers in McDonald’s), but to unintended consequences when individuals seek to amplify their resentments and frustrations through bombs, assault, weapons, or demagogues.”

He describes our current culture as “a period of moral erosion, in which the cult of unrestrained individualism refuses to subordinate itself to shared standards of morality.” He doesn’t give us what we all want: the answers; he concludes simply by stating that the task of the writer (or playwright) is to “hold up a mirror in which audiences can see their own faces and judge themselves in the stark light literature casts upon our lives.”

Despite my disappointment at not finding even a hint of an answer, I appreciated Biguenet’s point that plays and literature provide points for reflection. But how much serious reading goes on these days, and what exactly do people read? As a scientist, I’m trained to question everything, but I’m approaching a point where I don’t believe anything.

The conflict that punctuates our waking days is even found in the origin of “answer,” a combination of the PIE root *ant-, before, and swerian, to swear or affirm. Originally, it was meant to convey a “sworn statement rebutting a charge.” A word we rely on for direction was born from a sense of dissension and untruth. I’m almost sorry I looked.

We are left to forge our own path, to move forward with a sense of direction we assemble from our own sources, using sandbags from knowledge and experience to build a bulwark against moral erosion. We start anew each morning, resigned to doing our best, hoping that, someday, the answers appear.

Here’s a link to Biguinet’s essay: https://view.publitas.com/dramatists-guild/the-september-issue-1/page/118

The Foods of Bangladesh

photo by Nurun Nahar

You’re probably thinking, Has she gone bonkers? I’d like to introduce my first ever guest blogger. You may recall that I’m a literacy volunteer. For the past two months, my new student and I have been working on this essay about the food of her home country. I hope you reading this as much as I did crafting it with the author, Nurun Nahar, aka Nupur. She’s a US citizen with an Associate’s degree from a local community college. Her dream is to return to school soon to complete a Bachelor’s. We welcome your comments and feedback (pun intended)!

Food is an integral part of any culture. People can become familiar with a culture very easily by learning the eating habits of that particular community. Food is also a very important part of many occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, Eid etc. A festival or a carnival is incomplete without food. Personally, I am a food addict, a critic, and explorer like Andrew Zimmern (Note: Not really, I wish I could explore like him. I loved his shows, which made me more interested in knowing the food of different countries). I love trying different cuisines. However, my home food is still my favorite. In Bangladesh, we call our native food “Desi food.” As a Bangladeshi, I am very proud of my cuisine.

The Bangladeshi phrase “Mache Vate Bangali” indicates the fact that fish and rice are staples of our daily diet. We also eat lots of vegetables. We frequently eat boiled rice, fried fish and alur vorta (mashed potatoes). I believe we eat the same things as people of other cultures do, but the preparation and the methods of cooking are unique. Our national fish is called “ilish” which tastes almost like salmon. In my culture, on the first day of the Bengali New Year, we celebrate by eating a very special food called “Panta Ilish.” It is mainly boiled rice which has been soaked overnight that we eat in the morning with the fried ilish. We also eat a lot of dried fish, which is very popular.

Bangladesh is a country of six seasons: summer, monsoon, autumn, late autumn, winter and spring. Every season has its own characteristic, so the foods we eat change according to the time of year. People depend on the seasonal products, especially in villages. During the summer-time, people grow vegetables such as spinach, tomatoes, squash, green chilies, and so on. We also grow fruits like mangoes, litchis, watermelons, cantaloupe, etc. We commonly eat vegetable curry with fish in the summer. I also love eating raw green mangoes with salt and chili flakes.

The rainy season is my favorite of all. Rain gives us relief from the dusty hot summer. When it is raining outside, it is rare to find a home without someone cooking khichure and mangsho. Khichure (a lentils and rice dish) and mangsho (chicken or beef) is a must-have dish because it is our tradition to cook this comfort food while we are trapped inside. My childhood memories are very connected to rain. During a heavy rainfall it was hard for me to stop myself from going outside and having fun in the rain. I found a calmness and peace inside myself despite the heavy thunder and rain. This is the season for fruit, like guava, pineapple, and pommel, as well as fragrant flowers like kadam, kamini, jui, lotus, etc. The beauty of the rainy season is indescribable. I have many happy memories about this time of the year in Bangladesh.

During the seasons of autumn and late autumn people harvest rice. Traditionally, we celebrate a festival called “Nobanno Utshav” right after we finish harvesting all the crops. The word “nobanno” means new crop and “utshav” means festival. In my country, we can’t have a festival without food. For “Nobanno Utshav”, the village women make rotis (tortillas), payesh (rice pudding), polau (fragrant rice), spicy chicken curry and so many other varieties of food.

Throughout the winter season, it is very common to make pithas (cakes), and we celebrate a festival called “Pitha Utshav”. We make a lot of dessert items such as roshmalai (a form of cheesecake), pati shapta (a kind of crepe), misty doi (sweet curd), and rice pudding. The signature item that we eat in the morning is called “Vapa Pitha”. It is a steamed rice flour cake made with khejurer gur  (jiggery, or date palm sugar) and coconut. We also eat seasonal vegetables like cauliflower, green beans, radishes, bitter melons, and kakrol (spiny gourd).

Spring is called the queen of all seasons. It is the season of colors, and symbolizes youth and life. Spring refreshes nature, decorating her with new buds, leaves and flowers. It is the perfect season for weddings, picnics and so many other outdoors activities. This is the time when people come closer to nature, and spend time enjoying views of the green countryside. This season is very short, and we spend less time on specific foods and more time outdoors. At weddings or other functions, we love to eat korma  (a mildly spiced chicken curry dish with curd or yogurt), rejala (beef curry), and borhani (a drink of sour curd and spices). Spring brings joy and happiness, and food doubles our happiness during this time.

Street food has become the newest sensation with people of all ages all over the world. As in other countries, street food has taken a place in our Bangladeshi cuisine. I loved eating snacks like jhalmuri (crispy puffed rice, boiled potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and spices), chotpoti (boiled chickpeas, potatoes, onion, and spices), and somucha (a fried pastry filled with potatoes and spices) from the street vendors. The streets of Bangladesh are crowded all year long with people enjoying free time with family and friends.

Food is part and parcel of life. The change of seasons has a big impact on foods that we eat. Foods are also essential for our celebrations. Bengali cuisine has so many varieties of food that people all over the world can love and enjoy.

Helping Nupur with this essay broadened my vocabulary . My favorite new word is “jiggery,” a liquid sugar from the date palm tree.

When Contempt Rules the Day

Two weeks ago, I was back in Pennsylvania judging a local Junior Miss pageant. Sharon – an old patient of mine, now a friend – has been running it for many years, and asked me to return. I came back home with a wicked cold, and didn’t hear back from her until a few days later. Her news: she’d been to the local emergency room for severe and disturbing numbness, saying it felt like the left side of her body was locked in a vise of unfeeling. She had a slight migraine, too. They did a CT scan of her head, found nothing acute, and sent her home. She has terrible insurance; we both knew the whole thing was basically going to come out of her pocket.

We kept in constant touch since. She went back to the ER again with the same complaints, and I told her she needed an MRI. She pretty much had to ask for it herself. It showed nonspecific old damage and possible “small vessel disease,” and once again she was discharged. Together, via texts and phone calls, we’ve been trying to figure this out. No, I’m not her doctor any more, but I’m exquisitely familiar with her history, and I don’t like the way things are playing out. It goes without saying that neither does she.

She now has bills for two CT scans, one MRI, two ER visits, blood tests, and the opinions of four physicians (two ER docs and two hospitalists), and is still in limbo. I suggested a few more leads (tests for Lyme and B12 deficiency), conditions I exhumed from my doctor memory, but which anyone could figure out by entering left-side-body-numb-causes? into Google.  I knew that the “small vessel” issue could also portend premature dementia.

When she saw a local neurologist, he neither performed nor suggested an assessment of cognitive brain functions, nor did he mention Lyme or B12. I found an online screening she could take in fifteen minutes, and – luckily – the results came out fine. The way she was treated – like a second-class medical citizen – brought up painful memories of what I observed many times when I practiced: the un- or under-insured are ignored, neglected, or handled dismissively. I experienced it myself during for the two years I didn’t have insurance. I felt what can only be called a contempt for – and anger at – those health care “professionals” who perpetuate this practice. The reaction is second nature to me.

Contempt’s root is the Latin verb temno, meaning to scorn or despise. I don’t regret the fact that Sharon has to consult a faraway friend to discover what she needed for her symptoms, I despise it! I despise the fact that my profession has lost track of its very purpose – to heal the sick and suffering, without harm – in its toxic surrender to the siren call of profit. I despise the fact that people’s complaints, especially those relating to brain health issues and addiction, are all too often treated superficially, and that the focus is on a quick appraisal and diagnosis, followed by an even quicker decision on what exactly should be done.

The irony of my own rising contempt is that Sharon was a recipient of some as well, her “providers” returning it in kind by showing “disregard for something that should be taken into account (her history and complaints),” one of but several of the word’s definitions. The others – a feeling that a person is beneath consideration, and the offense of being disrespectful of a lawful operation – seem applicable to almost all of the body politic issues today: racism; addiction; income inequality; climate change; the Antifa movement; and – last but not least – massive political corruption and stagnation. The polarized movements – whatever the cause – are all fueled by a frank disregard for the viewpoints of others, and disrespect for lawful operations is rampant.

I search for rational leadership in vain. My frustration takes me again and again to the dictionary, where I find antonyms for contempt, that include: esteem; honor; love; regard; care; admiration; and approval. We don’t hear much of these on the nightly news. I’m still waiting for that Puppy Channel to appear on my cable station options. How much easier would it be to start each morning with a vigorous dose of baby labradoodle under our belts?

As for Sharon, as of right now she’s going to sit tight and see if she can get some Lyme and B12 levels done. During all of this action, her primary care people sat themselves tight on the sidelines, letting things play out while Sharon did most of the legwork. There’s a good chance  her numbness will just dissipate over time, and that in retrospect we’ll attribute it to that illustrious medical catch-all term: an unknown virus.

On the Latin dictionary website where I found temno, there was a citation stating that its deeper etymology is tam-, to cut. In considering all the contemptible behaviors above, all I can think is, It’s about time we cut this out.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to one of many available screen tests for brain function: www.foodforthebrain.org 

Canada Geese: The Message of Antagonism

A few mornings ago, I left the apartment and found a surprise outside: Canada geese, meandering on the grass and through the parking lot, regally upright or down low amidst the weeds, making their way slowly to some unknown destination. Of course, it’s migration time; it’s typical to see them this time of year. But for once, they were really up close and personal.

My favorite things about geese? While migrating long distances, they never leave a slow or sick member behind. If one can’t stay with the formation, a buddy descends with him in an act of avian altruism. When the leader of the V tires, she simply drops back into the pack to rest, and another bird takes over. To me, they represent social collaboration at its best.

Their facile adaptation to human-developed environments has resulted in behaviors that put them on the “pest species” list though. Their naughty habits include begging for food, crop depredation, and creating messy areas of droppings. But something else popped out at me while reviewing their Wiki entry: the agonistic behavior of males. In terms of social behavior, this refers to combat, and with geese it’s about defending your nesting grounds, or snagging the best breeding partner.

Oh yeah, I thought, that’s a variation of an old familiar word. The physiology and pharmacology of medicine are built on agonist/antagonist theory. But, like so many English words, the meanings morph with variations in form. An agonist, medically, is “a substance that initiates a physiologic response when combined with a receptor.” Let’s think adrenaline, a chemical in all of us that sits on something called the beta receptor in cells.

Adrenaline, a beta agonist, causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxes certain smooth muscles, like those in small airways of the lung. Beta antagonists are chemicals that block the receptor and negate the effects of adrenaline. Hence, persons with high blood pressure often take what laymen call a “beta blocker.” My asthmatic patients couldn’t live without an albuterol rescue inhaler. Albuterol is a beta agonist, which opens up airways by relaxing the muscles. Simplistically, the agonist makes something happen, and the antagonist prevents it from happening.

All these words derive from the Greek agonistes, meaning a rival combatant, a competitor, or opponent. Agonia, the “a struggle for victory” in Greek, gave us the English words agony and anguish, which refers to suffering, often in “mental” form. In the game of life, competition is often the battle of the opposites.

We encounter agonist/antagonist issues in our lives every day. In the grand scheme of things, each of is a little missile of cosmic adrenaline, manufactured to wander until we latch onto a receptor in order to get something done. Our receptors, like those at the cellular level, can take many forms. One might be that special project at work, another the hands-on help our kids need with homework, and yet another the urge to just get out and talk a walk. When functioning properly, the whole system gets the right things done at both the right time and in the right amount. In Utopia, or perhaps the biologic condition of homeostasis, all is right with the world.

Well, we all know the agonies that result when the system is out of whack. Antagonism is defined as “active hostility or opposition.” We face our antagonists – internal or otherwise –daily, and often. Antagonists prevent us from latching onto the receptor circumstances that make us happy. At times, they can overwhelm even the strongest. It’s easy to rationalize the battle when our opponent is a terminal disease, or a natural disaster, or maybe an unforeseen accident. But what about a perpetrator that’s not so easy to identify? What happens when it’s a recurring negative thought, or when a causal encounter with something intensely pleasurable hijacks our very lives? What does one do when their good-agonist intentions lose sight of their true receptor, and go rogue? How do we find a blocker for this new, harmful receptor that seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and that we’re inexorably drawn to?

Of course, there’s no easy answer. But I truly believe that creativity and resilience can keep us afloat until the circumstances of a new receptor arise. The PIE root of the agony word group is *ag-, which means to drive, draw out, or move. The Greek word agon is a mass of people, traditionally referring to those who gather to watch a game or contest. Think Monday night football here in the US. Now, once that happens, we have the power of the collective. How can we harness this, and what do we want to achieve?

I know what I envision in the world of brain health issues and addiction, but we each have goals based on good-agonist outcomes. Besides the words above, the PIE root today also gave rise to these: castigate; ambiguous; demagogue; purge; and counteract. And also these: interact; strategy; transaction; agile; mitigate; and – perhaps the most important – action. The choice is up to you.











The Limbo of Hurricane Harvey

We’ve had a week or more to digest all the stories and hype surrounding Hurricane Harvey. I don’t mean to disparage the impact of event; I’m talking about the hyperbolic repetition of words like hero, devastation, and homeless. We don’t need the media to remind us that these things accompany a storm of this proportion. Their overuse causes the the words to lose significance due to the predictable desensitization that ensues. What we’re dealing with is a natural catastrophe with massive ramifications.

The almost-eponymous Greek root, katstrophe, means an overturning, or a sudden end, and this is exactly what happened to the creatures and structures – living or otherwise – unlucky enough to be in Harvey’s path. Katastrophe itself derives from kata, down, + strephein, to wind or turn. The irony of applying the word catastrophe to a huge mass of rain-filled clouds turning and winding their way from the coast inland cannot be understated.

I’m lucky I live inland here in Connecticut, and don’t have to worry about these things. We don’t know where all the hurricane victims will be on any given day, but we know that thousands upon thousands will find themselves in a kind of limbo. That reminded me that – before Harvey – I told my friend Nancy that I was in limbo with respect to certain goals I was trying to reach, but which I’d put on the proverbial back burner. Now, getting out of my limbo is looking a lot easier than dealing with the aftereffects of a hurricane.

Limbo’s root is said to be the Latin limbus, meaning a border, hem, or edge, often ornamental. There’s debate over its relation to the Sanskrit lambate meaning “hanging down limply,” and whether it has connotations of twisting around, which also brings a hurricane to mind. As Harvey’s victims make their way through the bureaucratic maze of recovery resources, they may find themselves in what seems like a never-ending limbo.

This situation is analogous to when people encounter a brain health crisis like overdose, or a suicide attempt. The initial catastrophe sets off all kinds of bells and whistles as first responders whisk the person away (hopefully) to the safer, higher ground of a medical facility. After measures for acute stabilization are in place, they enter the limbo of a “mental health system” known for denials of service, prohibitive costs, and recurrent ball-dropping. Harvey’s victims will soon encounter these too, from insurance companies, and from local, state, and federal officials. And we all know that the poorest of these – the persons with the least reserve of resources – will suffer the most.

The brain health ramifications of this natural catastrophe will not only affect people who already suffer, but will result in previously unaffected persons needing help to keep from “going over the edge.” It’s one thing to see the outpouring of basic supplies, but it’s another to think of sustaining this help long-term. And, just like when ninety percent of long-term facilities for people with profound brain health issues were closed, Harvey will create a new layer of disenfranchised who will never truly recover their pre-hurricane status. The finger-pointing will go on for decades. What will happen to them?

A ramification is defined as a consequence of an action or event, one described as “unwelcome.” Ramify’s root – the Latin ramus, meaning branch – derives from the PIE root *wrad-, meaning root or branch, which brings up the images of wind-whipped trees bending in the hurricane. Some, saved by their roots, will survive, while more fragile and superficial specimens succumb. And for the human victims, those endowed (either intrinsically or otherwise) with a deeply-rooted resilience will get through the catastrophe a lot easier than the many who have less of this strength.

In the Catholic tradition of my childhood, limbo was a place where little unbaptized babies who died went so that they wouldn’t have to burn in hell. Limbo was also the place where Old Testament patriarchs stayed. They – also unbaptized – were somehow deemed good enough to avoid the fires of hell. Although rumor holds that the powers-that-be in Rome “closed limbo” in 2007, this may not necessarily be true. Why religious intellectuals would spend time today debating this theoretical issue is beyond my comprehension. I’m reminded of the fatuous debate over climate change that led to poor regional planning. This affects real humans, not dead infants or long-dead Bible heroes.

I want us to think more about trees as we move forward to address climate change, as well as the burden of suffering from brain health conditions and addiction. In both arenas, it’s no longer possible to institute a quick fix that will make everything better in a generation. If we can’t see the forest, we need to at least think like one: in terms of tens, hundreds or thousands of years. We need to do what they do best: grow intentionally; provide for all components; feed each other from below ground up; and use diversity to flourish, and for mutual support during rough times. I can’t wait for all the extra oxygen we’ll have.






Innocence: The Antidote for Corruption?

At the post office this week to send a package, I had a discussion about sun exposure with the foreign lady behind the counter. I wrongly assumed she was from India – she was actually Pakistani. We had time for a brief discussion about politics, and agreed that both of our systems were riddled with corruption. It’s pay-to-play in both countries, and we lamented our mutual powerlessness.

Corrupt politicians, corrupt institutions, corrupt business practices, corrupt computer files. It seems like – no matter where we turn – corruption is always right around the corner. It’s defined as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery,” as well as “the process by which something. . . is changed from (the original) to . . . (something) erroneous or debased.” Its synonyms include horrible words like dishonest, unethical, amoral, untrustworthy, and of course, sleazy.

Corrupt’s origin is the Latin verb corrumpo, which means to ruin, waste, or make worse, as well as to seduce and mislead. We can all relate easily to these words. And I’m going to make a connection to another word that came up this week: adulterate. The word was a source of confusion at a pop-up market this weekend when a potential customer pulled the word genuine. Its definition included “unadulterated,” and she hadn’t a clue what that meant. So, I explained it to her. Later, when I explored its etymology, I found that the Latin root adulterare meant to falsify, or to corrupt.

It turns out that the adult- Latin root took three paths to contemporary English that seem pretty darn incongruous. We have adulterate, meaning to make inferior by some means, and we have adultery, the act of sexual intercourse with a non-married partner, and we have adult, a fully grown or developed person. I have neither the time nor the resources to determine exactly how these three concepts unfolded, but at the same time, I can also see a thread that runs through the idea of two adults – married to others – committing adultery and thus adulterating (and corrupting) their unions. Now there’s a stretch!

Well, what’s the point? When I ponder these terms, I keep going back to the innocence and naiveté of childhood. Although adulthood brings all the tools we need for a productive life, (things like experience, the capability to make good decisions, restraint, good judgment, etc.), not to mention the ability to make new versions of ourselves, this comes with the apparent fading of many childhood virtues. It seems impossible at times to bring them back into daily consciousness.

Now, usually I try an original riff for another four hundred words or so, but for whatever reason I seem to have run out of steam. In googling how to recapture your childhood though, I came across some ideas on a UK Buzzfeed site, and pass my favorites on to you here:

  1. Moo at cows when you pass them in car.
  2. Enter rooms like you’re a SWAT team leader (somewhat unfeminine, though).
  3. Really avoid the cracks on the pavement when you walk down the street.
  4. Go up the stairs on your hands and knees making gorilla noises.
  5. Only eat chicken nuggets that are shaped like dinosaurs.
  6. Play video games in a pillow fort.
  7. Make your way around your home by galloping like a horse.
  8. Slide across the floor in your socks.
  9. Eat breakfast for dinner.
  10. Sing along to Disney movies at the top of your voice.
  11. Color in a coloring book (preferably NOT an adult one!).
  12. Wash your hair with kids’ shampoo.

I can truly say that I haven’t done any of these things in years, probably decades, except for having breakfast for dinner one day last week. I’m sure you can make your own list. Another obvious option is to find some kids to join with, and just do what they’re doing! I also find a profound sense of peace in blowing bubbles (when I was a kid, we begged our parents to buy us “bubble juice” at the local five and dime).

These ways to recreate the sense of childhood represent good old unadulterated fun! Many are free, and involve physical movement, and even some exertion. There was another list of thirty that I found, but most of them involved changing the ways we think. It was like a CBT* homework assignment! Leave it up to our friends across the pond to give us a more fundamental approach.

So many of us deal with high levels of hardship and angst every day. I couldn’t come up with a simple way to move corruption and adulteration to a higher plane, and so defaulted to the magic of a google search. I’ll leave you with the helpful etymology of innocence: the root is the Latin innocentem, from in, not + nocere, harm. It’s time to try harder to stop harming each other, and ourselves.

*Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Here’s the link to annotated list above, along with gifs:

https://www.buzzfeed.com/robynwilder/im-rubber-youre-glue?utm_term=.jtklrdLR9 – .qm53x1Ze2

The Sankofa Bird Takes a Sentimental Journey

I’ve gone back to school – again! – and am taking classes in a writing program. One assignment is to complete an in-depth analysis of a memoir written over a half-century ago: Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy. Now, I didn’t think I’d enjoy a coming-of-age story written by a white guy who would be in his eighties today. But I was wrong. The story of his sad childhood affected me deeply, as they always do. Describing himself at age eleven, he writes, “Like most children I was antisentimental and quick to hear false notes.” For whatever reason, that sentence pulled me up short.

What exactly did he mean by antisentimental? And what is the difference between sentimental and sensitive? And how does an antisemtimental constitution make it easy to “hear false notes?” Was I a sentimental child, or a sensitive one? Did this set me up for an adulthood of depression?

I remember shedding real tears during episodes of the original “Lassie” TV show when a character was threatened or hurt. My father and sisters would ridicule me, but my mom always came to my defense, telling them to leave me alone, that I was just “melancholy.”  This never failed to prompt the same response from my father: “Yeah, she’s melancholy all right. She has a head like a melon and a face like a collie.”

This statement embedded itself in my psyche over the years. I still remember sitting on the living room floor after he said it, wondering if I’d wake up in the morning looking like some freakish chimera. It didn’t help that at school they called me Helen-Helen-Watermelon, or that I seemed to cry most during a show about a collie dog.

Sentimental is defined as “dealing with (or prone to) feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.”  And sensitive, as “quick to respond to slight changes, signals, or influences” as well as “a quick and delicate appreciation of others’ feelings.”  Both words – as well as sentient – derive from the Latin verb sentio, which means to discern by the senses, as well as to feel, perceive, observe, or notice. Frank Conroy could hear false notes, which demonstrates his sensitivity, but his antisentimental nature precluded feelings of sadness and nostalgia which those notes might evoke in someone like me. Or so he said. I don’t believe it.

But the PIE root of sentio is *sent-, means “to go.” This gave rise to German, Irish, and Welsh words that mean “to strive after, to travel” and the noun “way.” The basic concept is about finding one’s way. Tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia do take us on a journey, if we’re brave enough to board the train. (And then there’s sensible, which jumped the tracks and headed for another destination.)

Conroy must have become more sentimental in adulthood; nostalgia had to arise as he wrote the memoir. Nostalgia’s root is the Greek algos, meaning pain, grief or distress (and is related to a suffix I used all the time in medicine – algia – as in myalgia, cephalgia, etc.), along with nostos, meaning escape, return, or reach home. Another word signifying a journey. The PIE root of nostos, *nes-, means to return safely home, and gave rise to German and Gothic words that mean to recover, and to heal.

It’s all about that universal angst, that feeling of wanting to be safely home, wherever that may be. I think we need more sentimentalizing, more productive and reflective nostalgia, given the polarizing feelings and behaviors that dominate our culture today. Although part of the healing from brain health issues like depression does involve letting go of the past, we still need to look back and take what serves us from it. We need to pack it along for the ride.

Over the weekend I heard a radio piece about the Sankofa bird, a mythical creature of the Ghanaian Akan people that represents taking what is good from the past and using it for positive progress now. The bird’s feet are moving forward, but the head faces back to pluck an egg off its back. In the Twi language, Sankofa translates as “Go back and get it,” being derived from three elements: san – to return; ko – to go; and fa – to fetch. It’s a reminder to retrieve lost or forgotten wisdom from the past to use now, and in future times.

Our ongoing addictions to the newest thing, the latest craze, make us lose track of the egg on our back – that embryo of knowledge, that kernel of sense – that can be incubated, hatched, and used for the common good. At my lowest, I was consumed by failures and losses, and that egg was totally invisible to me. Now, I look back and remember what got me through the tough times. I mine my past for eggy-gems. Then I turn my mind to the future, and try to move one foot forward again.
















A Tennyson Poem, Revisited

I don’t come from a military family. My Uncle Carl – the youngest son on the Evrard side – was an enlisted man in the Air Force, and some of my cousin Betsy’s daughters went to the Naval Academy, but that’s about it. My dad tried to enlist in the Army in World War II but was rejected because of a hernia. He told me they didn’t have time to get him into fighting shape. He was drafted after the war, when they fixed the hernia and sent him around the country to dismantle barracks. He was good enough to serve then, after all those other lives were lost.

Thus, there’s little family legacy or culture that I can tap into to handle the fact that my daughter Morgaine (aka Squeaky) is living in Guam, the Pacific island in the crosshairs of the lethal weaponry of a North Korean tyrant. I’ve been in touch with Squeaky by phone. She sounds very Katy Winters: calm, cool, and protected. Her equanimity is even more amazing, given that my son-in-law is in Seattle with his Coast Guard crew. (Their boat is in dry dock.) She’s going through this international crisis all by herself.

An old high school classmate texted me this weekend, unaware of Squeaky’s precarious situation. We’ve only recently reconnected after all these years, primarily to discuss the brain health issues of one of her children, and she was shocked to find out what happened to me, the class valedictorian. “Hope all is reasonable,” she wrote (I admire her concise style, which is not in my constitution). Reasonable, I thought, not a word we use a lot these days. I only wish. . .

Reason’s verb root is the Latin reor, which means to reckon or calculate. This verb gave rise to the noun ratio, without which mathematics and physics couldn’t exist. There’s a distinct feeling of calculation and computation, nothing knee-jerk about it. But reor can also mean believe, think, suppose, imagine, or deem, words that veer suddenly from the comforting arena of facts and figures, equations and certainties. Why has this part of reason taken over? Why is there so much bullshit rhetoric flying that I can’t rely on anything to assess the real risk to my daughter?

We all want answers to life’s burning questions, but now – if you can’t discover them by empirical, scientific, or logical means – we’re fine with just making them up. You know, the whole “alternative facts” paradigm. Why do people get addicted? What causes bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.? Should we force people with serious brain health conditions to be medicated? Who should pay for health care, and how?

Never mind that these questions involve complex issues that require investigation, discourse, and compromise, and that there is no “single best answer.” Never mind that trying to do the most good for all while harming the least was a supposed founding principle of our country. We can just make up the answer and go from there. What’s important is how we feel about it. Facts can just go by the wayside.

My daughter’s r stance of resigned acceptance, shared by her friends on the naval base as well as her Chamorro co-workers, reminded me of Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” When I recalled those famous lines – Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do & die, – that he wrote about the soldiers in the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, I went back and revisited the poem. This battle was a suicidal charge by British Calvary during the Crimean War, and 257 of the 637 men involved were killed or wounded. In the full stanza, the preceding lines include: “. . . tho’ the soldier knew  Some one had blunder’d.”

Someone had blundered. Yup, Squeaky and the people of the Micronesian archipelago know – deep in their hearts – that their fate rests heavily on reasonable, rational decisions. One big boo-boo and it could be game over. Words like haywire, crazy, absurd, and preposterous come to mind when I consider the power players involved, but I won’t bother to look to the etymologies for deeper meanings. The current definitions speak volumes and are totally apropos here.

Blunder’s root has to do with blindness though (see February 2, 2015 Archives), and I’m sure you can imagine my daughter and her friends closing not just their eyes, but plenty of other senses, as they go about their day trying to ignore the albatross around their necks. Just like the rest of us here on the mainland, as we look at statistics on deaths of despair and opioid overdoses, shaking our heads and waiting for someone or something to save us. We envision Walter Cronkite arising from his grave, but won’t hold our breath waiting for him.

As our mothers would say, there’s simply no reason for the type of polarizing, destructive behaviors that permeate the American culture today. I return to the dictionary for guidance: Reasonable (adjective), Having sound judgment; fair and sensible, as much as is appropriate or fair; moderate; fairly good, and finally, average. To my daughter and all of us struggling today, I echo the wish of my old high school classmate: Hope all is reasonable. . .

For a very long read by Kurt Andersen that includes some thoughts on reason, go here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/how-america-lost-its-mind/534231/