Monday, June 27, 2011

Life's little mysteries

O.K., here's a physics problem for you. I have a small coffee percolator that my mother bought once when she came to visit and discovered I did not have a coffee pot (this was during the time when Micheal and I were separated, since Micheal was as heavy a coffee drinker as my mother, and when we were together there was always a coffee pot in the house). Anyway, I've kept it over the years, even though I didn't drink coffee, for any visitors who might.

In the past year I have become a coffee drinker, despite the fact that I fear it doesn't really agree with my insides. I discovered it worked better than anything else, including my old standbys, a diet coke and a candy bar, at making me wake up when all I want to do is put my head down and go to sleep. So sometimes I buy coffee at the Dunkin Donuts on the way to work, or sometimes I'll stop at Slates Bakery, around the corner from the library in Hallowell, and get a cup there. And when I'm feeling frugal and can make myself do it, I make a pot at home.

Which takes me to the problem, although it isn't really a problem. More a minor annoyance, and a mystery. I put the five cups of water in the thing, the five tablespoons of coffee in the filter, set it on the stove, turn on the heat...and in a minute or two the whole thing is rattling like we're in the middle of an earthquake. I have to hold onto the handle for about five minutes, until just before it starts perking, or the shaking and rattling will drive me crazy. A short time before it starts perking, it stops shaking.

So why does it do this? I don't remember ever seeing another percolator heating up on top of a stove do this. I've thought, maybe it's that the cold bottom of the pot meets the heated burner, and until the former heats up to match the latter, it shakes. But that still doesn't tell me why. And besides, one puts cold sauce pans onto burners that are initially hotter than they are all the time, and the pans do not shake, rattle and roll. I would very much appreciate an explanation! Thanks.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

From a member of the Camp tribe

I watched a few minutes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s PBS show, Faces of America, in which the family trees of various famous people -- e.g. Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Yo-Yo Ma -- are examined. As I already knew from being a librarian who has helped many people with their genealogical research, listening to other peoples' family history can be a bore. A detail or two that's interesting, maybe, but for the most part people marrying so and so, moving to so and so, having these children, one of whom died young, etc.

But even if one finds other people's family history boring, that of one's own family tends to fascinate, or at the very least, raise some curiosity (anybody famous? Anybody notorious? Any scandals?) And why is that? Indeed, this very question was asked...actually don't remember if it was on Faces of America or some other recently-seen PBS pro-gram...and the woman who responded said she thought it was because people wanted to connect. To find out who they are, where they belong. And they very much want to belong to something. And as she was speaking the thought that sprang to my mind was, "Our tribe. We want to know what tribe we belong to, and we want to know what it was like." (We know what it's like now, at least that part of it represented by our immediate extended family, with all the hopeless siblings, black-sheep cousins and weird uncles.)

Tribalism does indeed run deep in the human species. That is quite apparent in places like Yemen, where the various tribes are currently vying for power, as indeed they have been doing for some time. Our own Indian tribes cling to their heritage, and one of the problems the white man encountered, in trying to get Indians to assimilate into the white culture, was that most Indian tribes do not hold with the kind of individual competiveness encouraged by the white culture; they do not want to differentiate themselves from the other members of their tribe. (This is not true in sports, but there it is a matter of our-tribe-against-your tribe, more than an individual shining.)

I mused some time ago [Note of Nov. 6, 2010] about the mystery of fan hysteria over sports teams, the extreme identification with ones local team, even if it isn't made up of local folk. I even suggested then that it might be a form of tribalism, and I am more and more inclined to think it is. We need groups to identify with, to which we feel we belong. For most of us our immediate families are our basic tribe, even if we can't stand our relatives. As Ally McGraw's character said in Love Story, "Home is where when you go there, they have to let you in." Then come alma maters, school and local sports teams. For some people their state is a larger tribe to which they belong, Texans being the example par excellence of this mind-set. In England the multitude of private clubs served the tribal instinct well. And for most Americans, their country is their ultimate tribe, the one you sure as heck had better be loyal to. I confess that, as un-nationalistic as I tend to be, I feel very harshly toward Bradley Manning, and do feel he betrayed his country in leaking all the confidential information he (allegedly) leaked to Wikileaks. Public protests are one thing, putting people in danger is quite another.

But to get back to family trees. Most of the people who are very serious about genealogy are getting on in years (go on, Melody, say elderly). And why is this? When you are young you have lots of tribes to belong to, as suggested by the above list. But as you get older your children, if you have any, grow up, move away, are less a part of your life than they used to be. Friends die, as do parents, siblings. School and sports allegiances fade. If you have retired, you are no longer a part of whatever occupational tribe you once be-longed to, and identified with. So who are you? Well, you are the end product of all those marriages, all those off-spring, all those moves farther and farther west. And not only are those dead ancestors members of your tribe, but so, too, are all the third cousins once removed you discover who are researching another branch of your family.

You are a part of something bigger than your lowly, lonely self.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How do we make this more fair, and why should we?

Yes, I'm back, to talk about fairness. The concept of. I was lying in bed resting my eyes after squirting them with fake tears (my latest physical malady is excessively dry eyes which has me "abrading" the cornea just by opening my eyelids in the morning), and I got to thinking about the recent complaint of my friend who was diagnosed with a form of leukemia last fall about how unfair it was that here she had this fatal disease and there weren't some compensating joys in her life (at that particular moment) to offset this very negative fact. Of course, as we all know (as, indeed, Pat knows) life is not fair. In fact, it is so unfair that I can't help wondering how humans ever came up with the concept of fairness in the first place.

Fatalists don't expect fairness from life or the world in general. What will be will be. In countries where life has been extremely hard for most of the people for many generations, fatalism runs deep. This was even more so the case in the past. But even in such places, and times, there tends to be a strong tradition of revenge for wrongs committed against one by ones fellow man. You kill a member of my family, I kill a member of yours. This to them is justice, and what is justice, but fairness?

Citizens of the industrialized nations in general, and America in particular, expect to be able to change the world to suit them -- because they've seen it happen -- so fatalism has less of a hold. And in these places the idea that there should be fairness in human exchange is very strong. Even as people acknowledge that the happenings of the world -- natural catastrophes, the myriad illness that can befall humans, wars, economic crashes -- can fall upon people in an apparently random and indifferent fashion, they insist that to the extent that we have control over things there should be fairness.

I think about the two major political parties here in the U.S. Since presumably we all share this sense that things should be fair, it seems like the definition of what's fair is the issue. For Republicans what's fair is both individuals and corporate entities being able to keep most of the money they earn -- in other words, to be as free as possible from onerous taxation. Likewise from even more onerous regulation, since that fetters the freedom to run their lives or their businesses as they see fit, a concept that is even more sacrosanct to Republicans than that of fairness.

Whereas for the typical Democrat what's fair is that 1) everyone should contribute to the common weal, because we are all in this together, and that 2) everyone should contribute according to what they have. You make less money, you pay lower taxes; you make a huge amount of money, you pay higher taxes. And as for regulation: history has shown that people (and even more than individual people, businesses) will often not do what they should do unless forced to by law, because usually doing what they should do involves a reduction in profit, e.g., shorter work days for employees, a minimum wage, having to make the workplace safe. The Democrat tends to think that being able to do whatever you damn well please -- to hell with the environment, or those who are less advantaged, through no fault of their own -- is not the fairest way for society to be run. And yes, I know, I sound biased, and of course I am.

Interestingly, right now Americans of both persuasions, Republican and Democrat, are feeling very angry indeed because of the unfairness of so many rich corporations paying no federal income tax at all, while we lowly common folk struggle to pay our taxes. On top of the fact that a number of the large corporations that contributed to the economic downturn, that has cost so many people their jobs and their savings, have been making huge profits over the past year, and their people are getting the same kind of big bonuses as before. Uh, uh, we're all thinking; this is not fair.

Where did we get this idea?