Monthly Archives: July 2015

Altruism and Aliens

It may be a little early in my blog game to talk about my spiritual beliefs. What is that old cliché? “Don’t discuss politics or religion in polite company”? Or is it on a first date?  Either way, it’s kind of a silly cliché.  People wear their politics and their spirituality on their sleeves — and literally on their skin sometimes, thanks to tattoos — these days.  I’ve already shared my first political rant, so maybe religion – or, in my case, spirituality, as opposed to any organized religion (which is another discussion for another day) – is up for discourse.

Recently I read an article about an extra credit question a psychology professor at the University of Maryland had included on a final exam. [Jenna Birch, “Why People Are Obsessing Over This Psych Professor’s Tricky Extra Credit Question”, 7/18/2015, Yahoo! Health, https://www.yahoo.com/health/why-people-are-obsessing-over-this-psych-124426709647.html%5D. The students were asked to choose between getting two extra-credit points or six extra-credit points, but there was a catch: If more than 10% of the class chose the six-point option, then NO ONE would get any points. Evidently, this is a tried-and-true illustration of a psychology concept called the “tragedy of the commons”, which is “basically a dilemma between doing what’s good for you as an individual versus doing what’s best for the group,” according to the professor, Dylan Selterman, PhD.

My natural inclination, without much consideration, would be to go for the two points: Benefit everyone, sacrifice nothing. I’m still getting two extra points and now so is everyone else. But as one of my favorite political pundits, Bill Maher, frequently says, “People are selfish and greedy.” I wonder how many of the students in Professor Salterman’s class went around the room in their minds, saying, “Nah, that guy’s a dick, he’s only looking out for himself, he won’t opt for the two points.” If at least 91% of them had said to themselves instead, “Hey, I want everyone to get the two points, and I’m sure my fellow classmates feel the same,” then everyone would have won with two bonus points! But clearly the students don’t do that. According to Professor Selterman, since 2008, only a single group of his students has received the extra credit.

There’s another, stickier inquiry that is sometimes used in these studies (which was also cited in Ms. Birch’s article). This one involves a desert island and a boat that is too small to carry all of the stranded folk, so someone needs to be left behind. My personal analysis of the situation would be to ask a series of questions among the entire group. The first question: Does anyone want to stay? [An aside: This query could lead into a discussion about suicide, but we’ll save that for another day, too, especially since I recently lost someone I liked very much to what is at least for now being considered a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Something like that makes one think about more serious matters. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell from the outside when someone has just given up on life.] If there were no takers on the “Who is all right with staying behind and, in all likelihood, perishing in short order?” option, the next question to be considered by the group would be if there is someone old or infirm who might not survive the trip or live much longer after arriving at their destination and who would be willing to “sacrifice” themselves. If still no takers, I guess it would have to boil down to a random “draw straws” exercise, although there should probably be some folks — those with vital skills, like doctors or a boat captain – who are exempted from the draw because they are absolutely necessary for the journey to be completed with all the travelers intact. That’s how I’d figure it out.

I wonder what that would tell the psych professor about me? I suspect he would say that I fall into a “group first” mentality. Frankly, I think humans have to start thinking that way or we’re doomed as a species. Maybe that was the “original experiment” set out here on planet Earth, by whatever intelligence originally “programmed” our DNA: How long will it take these incredible inventions called human beings (or homo sapiens sapiens, to use the taxonomic term) to destroy themselves and their perfect, symbiotic planetary home?  Each individual is only around for about 100 years, at best, and we’re designed to reproduce and sustain the species, so doesn’t it stand to reason that we’re also designed to do things during our 100-year life spans that don’t benefit us individually (because we’ll be gone in short order, a dust mote on the timeline of modern history) but rather benefit our children, and our children’s children, and all future generations? Why else would we be here?

It was recently announced that Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner were teaming up on an initiative called “Breakthough Listen” to scan the galaxies and star systems closest to earth to possibly pick up some evidence of other civilizations, in whatever form, and then use the supercomputer universe here on Earth to decipher all of the gathered data. At some point in the near future, a “Breakthrough Message” component will be added, which will feature an international competition offering million-dollar prizes for people of all ilks to come up with potential messages to send out (and methods for sending them) into the universe.

Stephen Hawking undoubtedly possesses one of the most brilliant minds ever known, and he is convinced that there must be some intelligence that shares this universe with us (“There is no bigger question,” Hawking says) and that, in all likelihood, shares something else with us as well. Perhaps that “something else” is our DNA. Perhaps they are even the source of the programming of the DNA of every living thing that has grown and developed on Earth. But Hawking warns: “A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead. If so, they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.” [Sarah McBride and Ben Hirschler, “UPDATE 1:-The $100 million question: are we alone in the cosmos?”, Reuters, 7/20/2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/20/space-milner-idUSL1N1000NV20150720%5D

It’s all incredibly mind-boggling. Far be it for me to disagree with Stephen Hawking, but I can’t believe that we were just created to be “bacteria”. Humans have been given such gifts, and are such amazing pieces of biological equipment, we must have some deeper purpose than just to destroy ourselves.

It troubles me to my core how people get so wrapped up in their own lives, thinking only of themselves – or, even worse, investing so much time (and money!) into the lives of so-called celebrities (especially those, like the Kardashians, who are famous merely for being famous and who have created an industry of self-centeredness). Perhaps those egotistical preoccupations with ourselves and other selfish people could be considered an “escape” from the daily drudgery of our working lives (which constitutes, admittedly, a small individual sacrifice on behalf of a greater good in support of our own personal families, but doesn’t often extend beyond the four walls of our own homes).  It’s also a distraction from the kind of impossible-to-answer questions that neither our most brilliant scientists nor our various theologies can adequately address. It’s true – reading People magazine and following the “Blind Gossip” website (both of which I confess to doing on occasion) can sometimes be a welcome respite from the deeper (and often more disturbing) questions of life.

But if all it takes to make the world a better place, and perhaps prolong the homo sapiens life span on Earth, is for each person to pause for a moment to think about the “other” guy and how one’s actions might benefit or harm him — to think about the “group” rather than the “individual” – why can’t we do that? It really seems so simple.

Things I Don’t Get

I watched the movie “Boyhood” last night. I enjoyed it, but it was a tad slow and maybe could have been 15 minutes shorter. The performances and writing were excellent, though, and the conceit of using the same actors over a 12-year period aging in real time is cool and completely transparent in the movie. It actually succeeds in making the film’s events more believable and true-to-life.

Which leads me to a pet peeve of mine in casting for films and TV shows: two blue-eyed parents will only infrequently have a non-blue-eyed child. There just aren’t any dominant genes to go around or otherwise one of the parents would have brown (or at least hazel) eyes. In high school biology we all learned about the Punnett Square:

B b
b Bb bb
b Bb bb

50% chance of Brown, 50% chance of blue

b b
b bb bb
b bb bb

100% chance of blue, 0% chance of Brown

In fact, I actually thought it was impossible until I decided to do a little research to see if my beef was justified. Evidently, it is not uncommon for blue-eyed parents to have a brown-eyed child, because, as with most explanations, the Punnett Square is too simplistic. There are other eye-color genes that come into play that regulate the intensity of the recessive (blue-eyed) and dominant (brown- or green-eyed) genes. But judging by TV and movie casting, you’d think it was a sure thing. “Boyhood” featured one such actress, who also happens to be the director Richard Linklater’s daughter. She was very good, but she definitely had brown eyes (not just dark gray) and both her movie parents were clearly blue-eyed.

I guess the intention of casting directors is to find the best actor, regardless of eye color. But it seems a small enough thing to fix with contacts these days (or even CGI some blue eyes in there), especially for a movie like “Boyhood” that strives for authenticity.

I could probably fill a couple of blog posts with things that I just don’t get, ranging from the picayune (like eye color in movies) to meaning-of-life deep (like the nature of good and evil). For example, I’ve been seeing these commercials of Regular Joes (and Joannes) discussing how important it is for them to be Uber drivers, and how Mayor diBlasio is preventing them from doing so to protect the rights of the rich taxi medallion owners. They talk about how Uber is creating jobs in NYC so more people can support their families, as well as providing transportation to underserved populations in underserved neighborhoods. It seems simple enough, and I don’t comprehend the conflict: Why can Uber and the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (with the support of their ally, Mayor diBlasio) coexist?  Why can’t the two entities reach some kind of compromise so that Uber cars are limited in Manhattan proper, where yellow cabs are plentiful, but they can operate much more widely in the outer boroughs, where yellow cabs admittedly don’t want to go? The two car services can share the airports: text ahead for Uber, yellow cabs on demand on site. There are plenty of fares to go around. New York City is a big place with lots of people who need transporting. Seriously — solve this, people!!

But there’s one thing that’s been going on recently that baffles me beyond belief, and that is how people – anyone! – could have respect for the idiot millionaire Donald Trump and want him to be our representative on the world stage. He’s an ignorant hypocrite whose only interest is himself and his money, and the only thing he’s good at is jobbing the system to line his pockets. He’s very good at that. But that has very little to do – in fact, nothing to do – with statecraft.

I can’t believe that there are enough people in this country who would seriously vote for Donald Trump as president. And what will we do from mid-August until then end of “Democalypse 2016” without Jon Stewart to punch holes in The Donald and keep us sane? I can’t say I entirely understand why he would want to leave now, at the top of his game, in the midst of what is proving to be a Jabberwocky of a presidential election, although I do realize that he’s been doing it for many years and probably feels he has more to give to make the world a better place. Hopefully his voice of reason will never be quashed, even if he is leaving his daily platform. I wish lots of luck to Jon and his family in their endeavors to establish a sanctuary for rescued farm (and presumably all) animals in New Jersey. The Stewarts were inspired in part by Farm Sanctuary, whose president and cofounder, Gene Baur, appeared on The Daily Show last April, but I’m sure he was also motivated in no small part by the idiocy of New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s feelings about keeping pigs in containment pens. (Do I sense a little self-loathing there, Mr. Christie??) (By the way, Baur’s book, Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food, is next on my reading list, so I fully expect I’ll have more to say about it in a future blog post.) But of course Jon Stewart would put his money where his mouth is. I confess – I have a huge crush on Jon Stewart. I will miss him desperately!

One final note, speaking of folks who rescue animals (and this I most certainly DO get!): Kudos to Linda Vetrano and Vanessa Vetrano Vaccaro (shockingly, NOT RELATED, but they somehow found each other) of Posh Pets Rescue for saving TEN cats and dogs from Animal Care and Control in Manhattan today, including a little pup who isn’t able to walk. My heroes!!

Viajes

Sent my kid off to Costa Rica on her own early Monday morning. Well, she’s not actually on her own; she’s there on the Osa Peninsula for two weeks with an organization called DANTA: Association for Conservation of the Tropics doing a field work course for college credit – sort of a Field Study 101 for anyone who might want to (as she believes she does) work in the field of environmental conservation.

She and I have been fortunate to do some touristy traveling throughout her nearly 20 years. One benefit of having a lawyer’s salary is being able to afford (sort of) extensive vacations (not necessarily “expensive” vacations, but of course one has a tendency to overspend even the best-planned budgets).  We’ve been to Hawaii, Belize, Ireland, London, Denmark and Sweden (see last week’s post for our impressions of Scandinavia), Istanbul (which was a very cool 5-day stay for a friend’s exotic wedding) and, most recently, to Amsterdam and Greece (Santorini and Naxos, in particular, but we also had an interesting encounter with Kobe Bryant and a scarab beetle at the Parthenon in Athens).  But this is the first time that she has traveled without me for such a long time, and to such a distant and remote location. I have every confidence that she will revel in her once-in-a-lifetime adventure, so much so that it probably won’t end up being once-in-a-lifetime after all. But it also puts me in mind of my own youthful travels as an exchange student to Chile in the summer between 10th and 11th grade, when I was just 15.

It was actually not summer in Chile, which meant it was the school year, so essentially I attended school for 12 months straight.  As a school-a-holic [see my 5/20/15 post, “College Dreams”], I did not mind terribly. After all, school is where all the kids are! I attended 11th grade at the Windsor School with the daughter of my host family. It also rained practically every day during the Southern Hemisphere winter, so boots and an umbrella were part of the daily uniform.

English School, Valdivia, Chile 1975

I was probably a bit too young to be away for three months on my own, even if I was living with a lovely family of six (parents and four kids – three girls and a boy). They had a house in the city of Valdivia, one of the largest cities in southern Chile, and also a farm in Futrono, in the Andes Mountains, where we went for a couple of school vacations and where I (very precariously) rode a horse for the first time

The trip was very formative in many ways, not all of which I can get to in this post. But a few things stood out: the machine guns, the music (of course) and the kindness and friendship of people with whom I have COMPLETELY lost touch, which I regret more than I can say. I also had a serious problem keeping in touch with my parents back in the States while I was there, which made them so worried that they actually called the American Embassy in the capital of Santiago to track me down. Of course, this was before email and cell phones, so actual letters – on onion-skin blue airmail paper – took over a week to arrive. And even then you never knew who would be reading your mail before it got to its destination. In fact, one large package from one of my friends at home was actually opened and inspected by the local post office, and I had to appear and explain why there were so many tiny little notes and cards and drawings in one oversized envelope. It’s actually not unlike what my daughter is going through now, being in a place where access to cell phone service and email are limited. In lieu of letters, though, we are able to follow the entire group on a Facebook page.

Which brings me back to the machine guns: It was 1975, and Salvador Allende, the Marxist Chilean president, had been deposed (and killed?) back in 1973 by a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet.  Pinochet and the other four of the “Five Generals” were in power in what was, unapologetically, a military dictatorship. I’m frankly surprised, in retrospect, that the Open Door Exchange Program that sponsored our trip was even allowed to send children there. But there we were. Our group consisted of 8 girls from all over the country (not unlike my daughter’s group, which consists of 9 women and one very outnumbered man). Michelle “Mickey” Smith, a sweet kid from Ohio, went with me to Valdivia, so at least we had each other to marvel and commiserate with when trying to speak and understand Spanish got too exhausting. There were also a few American Field Service students that we would see around town and at parties (more on those in a moment), who tended to be older. One guy, whose name was Phil, was the elder statesman. He even had a BEARD.

For teenagers in Valdivia, the barefoot (and, frankly, bratty) beggarchildren and the young machine-gun toting security forces stationed on practically every corner were just background noise to the much more vital and important party scene, all chaste kisses and dirty dancing and pretty boys and girls on a constant prowl. We drank pisco con pop and listened to the Bee Gees, Cat Stevens, Barry Manilow (the “Mandy” sing-along was the highlight of every gathering), way too much Neil Diamond and John Lennon’s “Mind Games” on an endless loop. The kids knew every word to every song, even if they didn’t understand what they were actually singing. There was a great music show called “Musica Libre” that we watched every afternoon on the black-and-white TV, which featured gorgeous creatures lip-synching to popular songs. One I actually memorized that I can almost remember word-for-word today forty (!) years later went something like this:

“El amor no es solo una canción

Que está sin condición

Y entregar el corazon,

Y recordar con la pasión

Por lo que nace un gran amor

No solo es una canción.”

(Despite an extensive Google search, I have been unable to identify this song so I have no idea if those are the words, but that’s what I was singing!!)

But the absolute best part of martial law for teenagers? A 2 a.m. curfew. Ergo, if a party was still in full swing at 2 a.m., and the parents of the party’s host were in the right frame of mind, the party would become an all-nighter because no one could leave till the curfew was lifted in the morning. I don’t recall that ever happening when I was there but the tantalizing possibility surrounded the end of every party.

I still have the journal [“diario de mi viaje”] that I diligently kept when I was there, in three little composition notebooks [cuadernos], and some photos (including one of me looking EXTREMELY uncomfortable on a gorgeous horse wearing a fantastic brimmed hat that my host “brother” Vicente gave me that I kept for years afterward and was broken-hearted to finally lose in college).

Nan on a Horse

I’ve been inspired now to read through the journals, although the girlish script has either faded or bled through the tissue-thin pages. From a brief flip-through, however, I was quick to note that I was horrifically boy-obsessed –more than the average girl, I would have to admit, and definitely more than the average Chilean girl, but that’s another story for another day.

I have so many fond memories of my time in Valdivia. I wish there was some way, in this age of technological interconnectedness, to find some of the folks I knew when I was there. There were so many really fantastic people: my favorite boyfriend, Marcelo Prochelle, whose family had a huge yellow house with a giant “P” on it overlooking the Rio Calle Calle that flowed through the center of the city; Quena da Bove, whose family was originally supposed to host me but, despite the arrangements falling through, still became a sweet friend; and my host family, Mr. and Mrs. Perez Rosales, who sheltered my wild, boy-crazy ass for three months, younger brother Vicente and younger sister Carmen Gloria (or “Cayoya” for short), and especially my beloved “sister” Maria Alejandra Perez Rosales. I would love to know what she’s been doing all these years! She was always so brilliant and funny. I imagine that she’s a high-powered lawyer or maybe even a writer. But what I hope most of all is that she and her family have had – and continue to have! – a wonderful life. I will be forever grateful to them for opening their home to me.

Nan & Ale

Hopefully my daughter will also have some lifelong memories from her trip to Costa Rica, but in her case, it will certainly be easier to stay in contact with any special people she meets in her travels. But who knows? In addition to being inspired to read my travel journals from 1975, maybe I’ll actually use 2015 technology to track down some of my former companions!

How Swede It Is

I’ve always had an affinity for Swedish things. My Scandophilia (a word?) is second only to my Anglophilia when it comes to music, and some of my favorite hockey players through the years have also been Swedes. The New York Rangers were among the first to import Swedes into their lineup in the Seventies, with Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg. Borje Salming, who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was probably the first big-name Swede in the NHL and the first named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but Nilsson and Hedberg were part of that first wave of smooth, highly-skilled Swedes that started in earnest in about 1978. (Hedberg is currently the head European scout for the Rangers.) The second wave, in the ‘80s, brought one of my absolute favorite Rangers of all time, Jan Erixon, whose son Tim – who was actually born in New York when Jan was a Ranger – was also a Ranger for a very brief time and is now with the Penguins. Of course, since 2005 we have been blessed to have the King, Henrik Lundqvist, on our roster. His teammates joke that he’s “The Most Interesting Man in the World” (referencing the over-the-top Dos XX spokes-icon). Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy tends to add a “[SWOON]” when writing about some typically superlative Lundqvist activity, be it a mind-bending save or a striking black-and-white photo spread of Henrik in his underwear shilling for his brand Bread and Boxers. The man is an amazing athlete, a humanitarian, and singularly gorgeous (although he is Henrik’s identical twin, Joel Lundqvist somehow lacks his brother’s sparkle). Even Mike Milbury, who rarely has a nice word to say about anyone, is always gushing about Henrik’s good looks and also his prodigious talent.

But handsome and skilled hockey players aren’t the only bounties from Sweden. After the UK and (arguably) the US, my favorite music comes from north of 50 degrees latitude. From the grandparents of Swedish pop music, Abba, and Blue Swede (with jaw-droppingly stunning lead singer Björn Skifs [what a name!], who informed my taste in men for many, many years despite favoring Robin Hood-esque doublets and stretch pants) in the 1970s, to the glamorous Roxette in the 1990s (whose enduring ballad “Listen to your Heart” was covered by Belgian dance group DHT as recently as 2005), to the ubiquitous Ace of Base’s “The Sign” in the ‘90s, to the current crop of fantastic Swedes, Danes and Norwegians (more on those in a minute) that appear prominently on Passport Approved’s weekly playlists, Scandinavian performers have been at the forefront of producing charming, catchy and eminently listenable pop music. And even though they’re not Scandinavian, let’s throw in Finns and Icelanders (is that what you call folks from Iceland?) for good measure.

My beloved Passport Approved features Scandinavian artists prominently on its weekly playlists. A sampling of recent artists, all of which are worth checking out  (if you CAN, that is, given the unavailability of certain music from unsigned artists, as I complained about in my 6/2 blog post [“Great Expectations”]): Matt Cronert, Mathias Melo and Ruh from Sweden; the duo Alfred Hall from Norway; Goblins and JJ (who has a unique deep, resonant voice that touches you to your soul and is currently unavailable for download on U.S. iTunes) from Denmark; ruby-throated Katéa from Finland (check out the anthemic “That Ain’t Love” for an intro to her work, which, as I discovered today, actually IS currently available for download on iTunes); and Kaleo, whose “All the Pretty Girls” is reminiscent of Bon Iver but carries a shimmery Icelandic sheen. Twenty-two-year-old Ásgeir is another impressive Icelandic artist; the lyrics to the songs on his recent album In the Silence were written by his father, an Icelandic poet, and translated into English with the help of American ex-pat songwriter John Grant.

My friend Carl is a Swedish lawyer but I think he would much rather be a DJ, following in the shoes of top (Swedish) DJs and producers like Tiesto, Avicii, Teddybears and Swedish House Mafia. He always shares music with me via Spotify but I treasure the Swedish pop and rock collections he made for me when we discovered our shared love of music. They feature artists like Tough Alliance, Kent, the Mary Onettes and Olle Ljungström (I actually bought one of his CDs in Carl’s favorite record store when I was in Stockholm), as well as Swedish performers who’ve made some inroads into the North American music scene, like Peter, Bjorn and John, the Caesars, Jens Lekman, Lykke Li, the Hives, the Shout Out Louds and El Perro del Mar.

One of my all-time favorite Swedish bands is the Sounds, whose song “Living in America” has the complete opposite message of James Browns’ “Living in America” (or any patriotic country songs with a similar name), sort of more along the lines of Black 47’s “Livin’ in America”, where young folks from other nations may appreciate the USA for certain things but are glad to NOT be American. It was recently used as the theme song for a very silly sitcom called “Welcome to Sweden”, which was executive produced by Amy Poehler as a vehicle for her wide-eyed brother Greg, a former lawyer who moved to Sweden to live with his girlfriend, and features classy Swedish actress Lena Olin and her impressive cheekbones. I believe it’s coming back to American TV this month. I confess I thought it tried a little too hard to be funny, but maybe it will find its footing in Season Two. A lot of it is in Swedish with English subtitles, and it’s actually shown in Sweden with Swedish subtitles for the English-language parts, although most Swedish folks speak English quite well. In fact, when we visited Sweden, we had no problem watching a marathon of the UK version of “Jackass” on TV.

My dream vacation to Scandinavia (well, we never made it to Norway, but Denmark and Sweden, anyway) became a reality in the summer of 2009, and it was made even better by an opportunity to visit my friend Carl and his family. He was kind enough to let us stay in his centrally located apartment in the city, and then entertained us at his family’s vacation home on an island in the Archipelago, an idyllic grouping of green, untamed islands off the eastern coast only accessible by boat.

All in all, our trip to Denmark and Sweden was probably the best vacation I ever had. It was as I’d always imagined it would be: the people were good-looking, the systems worked, there was natural and manmade beauty at every turn. Even the weather cooperated (it was the first two weeks of July, after all, which are probably the best two weeks of the year weather-wise), and the sunsets were breathtaking, even though it never got completely dark at night.

I have found the Swedish people I have met to be exceedingly polite, unpretentiously bright and very droll, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t also find many of them to be extremely attractive! When we were on the train from Gothenburg to Stockholm, there was a derailment and everyone had to get off the train and wait for a new one to come. Coming from New York, I was so impressed by how calm and even-tempered the local residents were when faced with this travel inconvenience. No one lost their temper, or yelled, or threw things like they probably would in NYC. Folks were eager to help the non-Swedish speakers when the explanations and instructions came over the loudspeakers. Even Swedish dogs – which are allowed everywhere – seem to be happy and well-behaved!

Sweden has so much more to offer than IKEA and little savory meatballs!