Kindness

Kindness has been neglected as a societal virtue in recent years. A popular catch-phrase tells us to practice random acts of kindness. While there’s nothing wrong with indulging in random acts of kindness, it’s also easy because it doesn’t require you to be kind all the time; you can just be kind when you feel like it. It is much more difficult to attempt to be kind most of the time.

Religions tell us to practice compassion, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But compassion and love have their roots in the ordinary care and respect we should show for others. We begin by caring for and respecting those closest to us: our households, our families, our children and parents. This includes care for our physical selves: parents provide food for their children to eat; members of households share in day-to-day tasks. Kindness begins with such physical needs, but it extends to a sense of respect for each other as humans. A sense of respect requires us to attempt to understand others: what are they thinking and feeling? — or if not to understand, then at least to appreciate.

Care and respect should be mutual: when care and respect are given, but not in turn received, it becomes difficult to keep on caring and respecting. Random kindness in intimate relationships does not suffice; kindness should permeate households, families, and the relations between parents and children. Indeed, kindness should originate within one’s self; if you regulate yourself with kindness, then you are more likely to be kind in your household. When those in your household are kind to each other, you will more likely be kind to others; your entire household will practice consistent acts of kindness.

Some people assume that kindness means things like cutting out paper hearts and giving them to people; or, when you’re stopped at a tollbooth, paying the toll of the vehicle behind you in line. But these acts, while well-intentioned, are not particularly kind. Kindness strengthens the web of interdependence that exists between us all, and that requires consistency in thought and word and deed. Thoughts and words do matter. I wish that all supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties would understand this. When supporters of the Democratic party refer to supporters of the Republicans as “Repugs” on their social media accounts, that is not consistent with kindness, and no number of random acts of kindness can really make up for it. When Republicans make similar comments about Democrats, once again, they are being unkind.

Unkindness weakens the bonds between us, the bonds which make us human. Unkindness makes us less than human. The Non-conformist minister Isaac Watts, who late in supposedly owned a pew in a Unitarian chapel, wrote in a poem for children:

Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ’tis their nature too.

To bark and bite and growl and fight makes us less than human. While I feel Isaac Watts maligns dogs, bears, and lions — they too can show care and respect to their offspring, and sometimes to larger groups — it is true that their social relationships do not extend as far as those of humans. Bears are fairly solitary, lions less so, and dogs are pack animals, and none of these species is as social as humankind. In a globalized world, you or I can connect with thousands, even millions of other people. In our widespread human connections, we can bark and bite and growl and fight, or we can be kind. Growling and fighting break human connections and lead to dissolution of society.

Confucius taught: “Recompense injury with justice, and kindness with kindess.” Kindness begets more kindness, crowding out injury, and helping justice to grow and flourish. Kindness, consistently cultivated — first for ourselves, then for our families and households, then more and more widely, eventually for all humankind — strengthens human bonds, and makes it possible for compassion and love to take root as well, and to shoot upwards towards the sun, and to flower, and to set fruit that will nourish us and allow each of us to thrive and grow ourselves.

Obligatory moon landing post

Fifty years ago today I was eight years old, and it was a summer day in Concord, Massachusetts. I have vague memories of watching the moon landing on our black-and-white television set. But did we watch it while it was happening, or did we watch it on the news later on? I think we watched on the news later in the day.

What I do remember is that it was a big topic of conversation among kids my age. Kids in my neighborhood also talked about how we were going to have to leave Alcott school and go to a new school in the fall. We probably also talked about the new split in the American League between the East and West divisions, and my hero Jim Longborn was still pitching for the Red Sox. But the moon landing had the biggest impact on my imagination, by far.

In fact, it would be hard to overestimate the impact the moon landing had on my imagination. I was so sure there would be regular travel to the moon by the year 2000. When I studied physics in college and understood how much energy it takes to lift humans out of earth’s gravity well, regular travel to the moon began to seem far less probable.

These days I am far more cynical. Before I get excited about moon travel, I want to know where the energy is going to come from, and what the carbon footprint of moon travel will be. These days, I’m more interested in how we might reduce carbon in the atmosphere, to lessen the impact of global climate change. Which means that I’m far more interested in the Trillion Tree Campaign that perhaps “could capture 25% of global annual carbon emissions.” I guess you could say that self interest has prompted a greater interest in ecological science than in astronomy or astrophysics.

Memories

A few years before he died, my father sent me an outline of a talk he gave about his memories of serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the Second World War. On this seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, here’s an excerpt from that outline, focusing on D-Day:

“Robert Harper: WW 2, My Personal Story

“December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor attack during my senior year in high school…
February 1943: Received draft notice.
March 1943: Inducted into the Army Air Corp….
April 1943 to Sept 1943: Trained at Radio School at Scott Field, IL, as Radio Operator Mechanic.
October 1943: Assigned to 437th Troop Carrier Group, Fort Bragg, NC. Part of 53rd TC Wing….

February 1944 to March 1945: Stationed at Ramsbury airfield in England. Part of 9th TC Command, assigned from 9th AF to First Allied Airborne Army. I operated High Frequency DF Station to Communicate with and give radio bearings to radio operators on C47 aircraft during supply, evacuation, and airborne invasion missions. Each plane had a Command Radio used by the pilots within range of 50 miles. For longer distances a CW Morse code radio was used by the radio operator on the plane. The airbase HFDF station had been installed by the RAF and was quite accurate. (The American HFDF station we were issued when we moved to France looked more sophisticated but had poor accuracy.)…

Memories:
On D Day counting the planes returning from a mission to see how many were lost. The 437th flew 3 missions that day — twice towing gliders — once dropping paratroopers at St. Mer Iglese. There were many missions in the following days….
Listening to the rasping sound of approaching V-1 bombs waiting for them to either stop or keep going.
A 3 day leave spent in Edinburgh, with a stop in London where a V-2 rocket landed one block away.
Seeing walking wounded brought in by plane after Montgomery’s attempt to take a Rhine bridge….
The courage of the flight crews who knew that one rifle bullet could send a C47 down in flames.
The gross stupidity of the higher commands whose mistakes were compensated for by troops who won in spite of the odds….

Summary
I was incredibly lucky during that war. I did my assigned job, never heard a shot fired in anger, lost some friends, acquired a distaste for the military and war.”

The above is just an outline; presumably Dad added more details during the actual talk. One of the last conversations I had with Dad, a couple of days before he completely lost the ability to speak, was about the Second World War. At that time he said that even though he’d never heard a shot fired in anger, he thought he probably had some level of post-traumatic stress disorder from his service during the war. I tried to ask him then what events might have triggered PTSD, but he had lost enough control over his words that he was no longer able to tell me. It is unfortunate that he waited a little too long to talk about some things, but his generation talked very little about what they experienced during that war.

Bob Harper, 1943

My father’s brother died last night; one of my cousins called me today to let me know. This was not unexpected: my uncle had been in hospice care for a couple of months. He went into skilled nursing a week ago. On Thursday, he was insisting he had to get back to his apartment, so he could use his computer and printer. He was entirely coherent, albeit frustrated, and said, “I have things I have to do.” I am not clear what things he had to do; he was a chemist by profession, an expert on raising fish by way of avocation, and had many other interests besides. In any case, he wasn’t strong enough to return to his apartment, and so those things will remain undone.

My cousin asked me if I knew anyone else who should be notified, but I couldn’t think of anyone. We talked it over, but both of us were sure the last of our fathers’ cousins had died a couple of years ago. “That means you’re the oldest male in the family now,” I said to my cousin, but he had already figured that out.

Speaking for myself, I don’t have any interest in taking on the responsibilities of the oldest generation. I have too many things to do. I fully intend to shirk any oldest generation duties that come my way. That’s pretty much the way my uncle and my father carried on after their parents had died, and I see no reason to do anything differently.

14th birthday

14 years ago yesterday, on February 22, 2005, I published my first blog post. I didn’t tell anyone about my blog, but within a couple of days it had been found by the other Unitarian Universalist bloggers. There were maybe 40 explicitly Unitarian Universalist bloggers in 2005. Not many of those people are still writing UU blogs: Scott Wells and Vicky Weinstein are the only ones who come to mind.

This has been the most difficult year I’ve had since I started this blog. I developed a pulmonary embolism in mid-February, 2018, which didn’t get diagnosed until mid-April. That illness left me with little energy, and for much of the past twelve months about all I’ve been doing is sleeping and going to work (trust me, a pulmonary embolism is not something you ever want to have). As a result, I haven’t been putting much energy into this blog.

Another thing that made it hard for me to write blog posts: the reality of my father’s death finally sank in sometime in the last year. Since 2005, I’ve been writing blog posts primarily with my dad in mind. Mind you, he became incapable of reading in November, 2014 (he died in April, 2016), so the reality is that he hasn’t been reading this blog for nearly three years. Yeah, I know I’m a little slow on the uptake here. But I only recently figured out that I’m no longer sure who it is I’m writing for.

An interesting moment in my blogging year came in early August after my post Boomers, step away from the power structure. I heard from a number of UU Millennials that they were so pleased that a Baby Boomer named something that they’ve been seeing for quite some time: that we Baby Boomers are clinging to power within Unitarian Universalism. I also got some very thoughtful replies from Gen-Xers generally agreeing with me, but also offering nuanced critiques. And I also received a number of very vituperative replies from my fellow Boomers telling me what a jerk I was for saying that (and a couple that accused me of being — gasp! — a Millennial); a few Boomers got so out of hand that I had to remove the post and ban a couple of people from ever commenting on this blog again.

One of the interesting things about blogging these days is that I no longer expect many comments; my best posts these days are longer, more thoughtful pieces where I try to present well-researched information that will be of interest over the long term. Here are some examples of such longer posts from the past year:

Deities of non-binary gender, posted in January, is probably going to turn into an ongoing series; I’m curious about the many deities around the world with what we Westerners would call non-binary gender (although other cultures have different terminology), and I want to do some more research on the topic. In Decline, or… I proposed that demographics and finances are the two biggest challenges facing UUism today: money is tight, we’re too damn white; this is a theme I probably be returning to. In October, I posted a retelling of a classic Buddhist story, The Tale of the Dhak Tree, which is better known in the West in the form of the blind men who argue about what an elephant is; this is part of a multi-year series of stories for kids from various religious traditions. September saw a post on Global vs. local atheisms in which I point out that a concept in Indian philosophy has relevance to us today. In July, I outlined the Principles behind Sunday school Ecojustice Class, for anyone thinking of adding ecojustice (which is different from upper middle class environmentalism) to their religious education programs.

So happy 14th birthday to this blog. I’m looking forward to another year of long thoughtful posts, along with the usual mix of polemics and fluff and fun. I hope you’ll keep on reading what I write!

Boomer challenges

Most of us who are Baby Boomers are all too aware of the major challenges facing our generation. (Some Boomers are insulated from these challenges, particularly among the socio-economic elites — but that’s always been true for most of the challenges facing humanity, and the elites constitute a small percentage of Boomers anyway, so we can ignore them.)

I’d like to look at three areas where we face major challenges: finances, jobs, and spiritual matters.

Financial challenges first. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of the wave of economic conservatism that swept the United States, employer-managed pensions disappeared and were replaced with 401(k) plans. The Boomer generation, particularly the tail-end Boomers like me, are the ones who are the guinea pigs for this radical experiment in economics. And the experiment, to be quite frank, is going badly.

Younger generations, you will want to pay attention to what happens to the Boomers, because you’re stuck in the same flawed retirement system.

I’ve been reading Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Retirement Life, a 2016 book by Elizabeth White that describes in some detail how badly off the Boomer generation is. Continue reading “Boomer challenges”

Poriferan

We like to go to the Foster City Laundromat, and while the laundry is in the machines, we walk across the street, over the levee, and walk along the edge of San Francisco Bay. There’s a great view of the San Mateo bridge to the north, and the Hayward hills on the eastern side of the Bay, but I usually wind up looking at the mudflats, and the long ridge of piled-up seashells making a sort of beach along the edge of the mud.

Usually there are some dead Poriferans, or sponges, washed up on the seashells. These Poriferans are about four to six inches long, and have many branches. Most of them are a dull brown color, but in some of them you’ll see a tinge of reddish-orange in the inner branches — like the one in the photo below:

I believe these are Red Beard Sponges, Clathria prolifera, an invasive exotic from the North Atlantic that was first reported in San Francisco Bay in the 1940s, according to the Marine Science Institute in Redwood City. Red Beard Sponges are the only red sponges in our area with finger-like branches, and “when Clathria prolifera dries out … it generally turns brown,” according to Andrew N. Cohen (The Exotics Guide: Non-native Marine Species of the North American Pacific Coast. Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions, Richmond, CA, and San Francisco Estuary Institute, Oakland, CA. Revised September 2011, online here).

Because these sponges are invasive exotics, and because the ones washed up on the shore are already dead, I felt it was fine to bring one sample home with me. There I was able to take a reasonably good close-up of the surface of the organism; the porous texture of the organism makes it obvious why this phylum of organisms is called Porifera.

I continue to be amazed at the wild diversity of life forms on this planet: Poriferans, animals which don’t have mouths and which remain rooted in place like plants for most of their lives — and Cnidarians like transparent Moon Jellyfish and bright blue Vellela vellela; arthropods from vicious predators like dragonflies to migratory pollinators like Monarch butterflies, crustaceans including large lobsters and tiny sand crabs — molluscs from Banana Slugs to octopuses, several different phyla of worms — and recently I’ve been reading about Bryozoans, or “moss animals,” colonial invertebrates which I’d never heard of before, yet which are apparently quite common and may be mistaken for seaweed.

Recovery

A follow-up post to Illness.

A big recovery milestone: on Monday, they had me stop taking anti-coagulants. I say “they” because whoever called to tell me to stop wasn’t from my primary care physician’s office, it was some person from the health plan’s anti-coagulant group. Every time someone has called about the anticoagulant drug, it’s someone different; they all seem to be reading from a script, and I imagine these people sitting there in a windowless office wearing headphones making call after call after call: “Hi this is So-and-so from Kaiser mumblety-mumble anti-coagulant mumblety, and I want to confirm that you have stopped taking your mumble-bumble.”

I was glad to confirm that I had stopped taking the anti-coagulant on schedule. And I was glad to be no longer taking that drug. Some of the fog cleared out of my head within twelve hours of taking the last pill, and suddenly I only needed nine or ten hours of sleep each night, instead of eleven hours of sleep plus an hour or two nap; I have suddenly gained two or three hours of waking time. It’s a good thing, too, because vacation ended on Sunday, and with the end of vacation I needed all my energy and all my waking hours to go to work and come home and recover enough to go to sleep and get up the next morning to do it all again.

It continues to astonish me the extent to which my energy has been sapped by this illness. Yesterday, I started organizing our tiny storage room, something that has never gotten done after we moved in November. I worked away for a couple of hours, and it wasn’t particularly strenuous work, and suddenly I was done. I had to sit down. Part of the problem, Carol pointed out, is that I’ve lost a lot of muscle tone — I just didn’t have the energy to exercise. I lost five or ten pounds, and it’s not like I had a lot of extra body mass before I got ill.

Mostly I’m writing this to remind myself that I have indeed been ill — not really ill, it’s not like I had cancer or major surgery — but ill enough to affect most aspects of life, ill enough that it’s going to take a long time to get back to normal.

Oddly enough, I don’t feel this illness is a waste of time. I certainly have lost a lot of time to sleep and lack of energy. But it has been good to slow down. I tend to work fifty or so hours at my job, and another ten or twenty on projects that relate to work but that aren’t part of my actual job, and then another ten or twenty hours on hobbies and volunteer activities that sometimes feel like jobs. Because I cut back on everything, and because I haven’t had a lot of energy, I actually have had time to sit out in our tiny little back yard and just stare into space.

It’s been a very long time since I spent any amount of time doing nothing, and it turns out to be quite enjoyable. While I can’t recommend developing a pulmonary embolism, I certainly can recommend doing nothing.