Let’s talk about Roman TP

Life is rich and complex. Just as you think you have a handle on things you realize how little you know. For example, ancient Romans didn’t have toilet paper. Never thought about that, did you?

The classical pillars of western society used tersoria instead. I’ll let you dig up the details in Stephen Nash’s article at realclearscience.com, What Did Ancient Romans Do Without Toilet Paper?  I won’t spoil the surprise, other than to say you will never again look at a corncob with the same detachment. While you are there, check out the “Urine-Urout All-Natural Laundromat” to see what they did with Number One.

Bishop points out that TP is a relatively recent innovation, first introduced in the US in 1857. As any international traveler can attest, that roll out is still a work in progress.

While we are on the subject of unmentionables, let’s talk about Thomas Crapper. As we all know, Crapper invented the flush toilet in a major advancement of sanitary science. As a reward for his humanitarian effort history equated his name with that substance he was working to eradicate.

Not quite. According to the infallible Wikipedia, Crapper didn’t invent the toilet. John Harington gets that credit for his work in 1596. Joseph Bramah and George Jennings both got patents a hundred or so years later. And then came Crapper.

So he didn’t invent the thing, but he was an advocate for sanitary plumbing and had the first bathroom fittings showroom. (I can imagine passersby slowing for a quick glance inside. A bit like passing Victoria’s Secret in the mall.) And he stamped his name on everything, which led to his downfall in the common urban legend about people “going to the crapper.” In fact, the word and its meaning apparently predates TC by centuries but who cares? The crapper story is much more interesting.

And then there’s the well-known Zen koan: “What is Buddha?” “A dry shit stick.” Apparently you are supposed to say this with a straight face. Google for details. As for me, I’ve got to go take a Harington and rinse my tersorium.

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I Decided Not to be a Father. Not Everyone is Happy With That.

The decision to be childless raises passions. It also bestows unique responsibility.

Celebration of fatherhood has ancient, international roots but didn’t become a recognized US holiday until 1972. Supporters had been advocating a holiday to honor fatherhood as early as 1908, but ran into difficulties due to the success of Mother’s Day (established as a US holiday in 1914). Mother’s Day has become known as the forerunner of the so-called Hallmark Holidays focused on profits over sentiments. Early Father’s Day sponsors made a tactical mistake by tying their proposed holiday closely to Mother’s Day. Congress already had one over commercialized juggernaut on its hands and resisted creating another.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father_Knows_Best#/media/File:Father_Knows_Best_cast_photo_1962.JPGOf course, the Dark Side won. So now the third Sunday in June is set aside to let the male gentry of the land burn meat in their backyards and have their offspring shower them with expensive gifts ranking high on the testosterone scale.

What will I get for Father’s Day? Nothing. I like burnt food as much as the next guy and am well endowed with the male gene that triggers drool over tools and well-crafted machinery. What I am missing is offspring. My wife and I chose not to have children, which makes us pariahs in the eyes of many.

Childless

When people learn of our childless state, their reactions proceed through three well-defined stages. The first I call the “Wink-wink, nudge-nudge” stage. When we were first married, people would insist on adding the word “yet” when I said we didn’t have children. “Don’t worry, you will,” they said with a wink and a smirk. These are the same goons who paw at pregnant women’s bellies without permission. In their world, having children was nothing more than lacking the intelligence to exercise birth control. At my current age “yet” is much less likely, so I don’t have to deal with this stage much. (Not to mention that my wife’s medical history puts parenting on the Immaculate Conception side of things.)

The next stage is the “You poor things” stage. Assuming we were doing everything right, God must be punishing us. That we were clueless of our transgressions was unimportant. The delirious joy of parenthood was being withheld. Have we considered adopting? At this point, I explain that we deliberately chose not have children and that decision applies to adoption, as well. That’s when the shit hit’s the fan.

“You are the spawn of the Devil!” Welcome to stage three. We obviously have all the children we need — pickled in glass jars in the pantry. We are dangerous dysfunctional elements that society should watch, placed on the same lists as other sexual deviants. The Pope agrees. He said choosing not to have children is a selfish act. He also went off on some tangent conflating children and pets but, being a selfish SOB, I didn’t take the time to work out the details.

What hell’s going on? I’m minding my own business, trying to schlump through my life, and total strangers (including the Pope) are attacking me.

I know why. People are confusing my decisions with theirs. If my decision not to have children is right, then their decision to conceive must be wrong. In their eyes I am attacking their families and the momma bear comes out on her hind legs.

Perfectly understandable. And completely wrong. Decisions like these are not binary, only right or wrong. What is right for some is not right for others. The decision of one does not reflect on the decisions of others. Some people are parenting material and should have large broods. And others… are not. That’s a decision we all have to consider on our own.

Responsibility

Once you get beyond the torch and pitchfork crowd, you can find an extensive and rich discussion of the motivations and consequences of the decision not to parent. The titles reveal the tensions that hover around the choice.

There are also websites devoted to the decision. (If you value your life, don’t even think of joining the debate about the proper label: “childless” vs “childfree.”)

Most of the public debate on childbearing choices has focused on women’s decisions, rightly so. Such decisions, though, should be made jointly as my wife and I did. We certainly didn’t set out to make a grand societal statement when we got married. We were simply too poor to start a family then. I was in graduate school, living below the poverty level. I had seen classmates drop out of school to care for their family and knew I would do the same. So we waited. And the longer we waited, the more comfortable we felt with our decision. Nothing more evil or dastardly than that. We chose to live the lives we wanted.

The Pope, though, may have a point. Life is a gift and gifts should not be squandered. You should live your life as if you were going to be called to account for your days, a philosophy that works well for atheists and believers alike. If you are not willing to contribute to overpopulation, at least make your life rich enough to withstand inspection. Show what a life of careful and deliberate choice can be. Taking a road less traveled puts you in the spotlight, so use your notoriety as a platform to show the value of your choice.

After all, everyone is watching. And looking for those jars in your pantry.

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Three Billion Robocalls

I remember when getting a phone call was rare enough to be an event. A long distance call was on the order of a telegram, a momentous message dealing with birth, death, or disgruntled authors. (Dorothy Parker, on her honeymoon, in reply to her editor’s request about a manuscript: “Too fucking busy, and vice versa.”) Getting a call was special, something to savor.

No longer.

I don’t answer my landline phone anymore. Half the time, I don’t even bother to check the caller ID. I empty my answering machine periodically, deleting messages unheard. I only answer my cell if I know the caller. Ninety-nine percent of my calls are spam, unwanted calls from people I don’t want to talk to.

Alexis Madrigal, at The Atlantic, looked at this phenomenon, the death of the phone call. He looked at several contributing factors, such as the multiple avenues now available for communicating. The most compelling statement, though, was a chart at the end of the piece. The chart shows that there were 3.4 billion robocalls in April 2018.

Billions. In a single month. The number is growing. Enough said.

We can rail against the black souls of those behind the calls, comment on the failure (again) of Congress to do anything useful, hope for technological fixes, or bemoan the passing of an age. Or we can simply acknowledge that others have once again soiled another part of our lives and then move on.

What do you think? Don’t call. Use carrier pigeon instead.

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Three Tips to Keep Slogging Along (A Toastmaster’s Talk)

PixabayWe can survive life’s challenges by following three key points.

I stand before you tonight a failure, a walking, talking example of all the ways you can mess up your life. In fact, I have failed at everything I ever tried. Don’t believe me? Consider this.

As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut, wanted to blast off into space where I would float weightless while drinking Tang breakfast drink and munching on Space Food Sticks. But there was a problem. I’m afraid of heights. Honest to God truth: I was willing to strap myself to an oversized firecracker, but I lacked the courage to ride the elevator to the top of the flight tower. So I decided to be an astronomer instead. If I couldn’t travel to the stars, I could at least study them and revel in their beauty. But there was a problem. I couldn’t afford to attend a university with an astronomy program. So I decided to be a laser physicist instead, but there was a problem. I got sidetracked on a cool atomic physics program. So I decided…

That’s pretty much my career in a nutshell. I few years back I decided to move from Alabama to Albuquerque, but the program didn’t work out. So I changed careers instead, but that didn’t work out. So I decided…

See what I mean? I’m a failure. I’ve spent my entire life being knocked off course, knocked down, knocked off track to Failure Land.

If you’ve been paying attention, you may notice a discrepancy in my narrative. It’s obvious, isn’t it? You can’t spend a lifetime getting knocked down without getting up after every failure. You can’t keep failing if you stay down. It turns out there is one thing I’m very good at.

I’m a survivor.

And so are you. We’re all survivors in some fashion. It’s a requirement to keep breathing. Some people float above adversity, untouched by the challenges of their lives. The rest of us, though, slog along down below, beset by challenge after challenge after challenge. I’m going to share with you three key points that will help you keep slogging along, that will help you survive what life throws at you.

Be prepared. Anticipate problems.

PixabayHave you ever played dodge ball? You know, that sadistic form of torture that passes for physical education in gyms across America. Ever played dodge ball with your eyes closed? Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? Just stand there with your eyes closed and let brutes take aim at you. You’ve got no chance of dodging the ball if you don’t see it coming.

That’s true of life, as well. As they say in football, you need to keep your head on a swivel, look in all directions for trouble. I’m always looking down the road, straining to see trouble that may be on the horizon. That doesn’t mean I’m paranoid, or afraid to leave my house in the morning. It does mean I’m alert and prepared when one of life’s red dodge balls comes screaming into view.

I mentioned earlier that I moved from Alabama to Albuquerque a few years back. I knew for at least five years before then I was on the wrong career path. I was a “soft-money” researcher at a university, essentially a one-person business headed for bankruptcy. I projected my declining revenue stream and penciled in a drop dead date. Then I got to work. I did my homework, thought about the career I wanted, where I wanted to live, who I wanted to associate with. I examined my abilities and weaknesses with brutal, clear-eyed vision. I took a Dale Carnegie course to mitigate some of the weaknesses I identified. I joined Toastmasters to further improve skills I knew I would need. I tried a few alternate career paths, noting what worked and what didn’t. When my opportunity arrived to change careers and move across the country, I seized it without hesitation.

Be a Boy Scout. Be prepared so you can act quickly when the time comes.

Pivot and move out.

PixabaySince coming to Albuquerque, my career has been an adventure. I’ve had half a dozen different job titles (and still counting) as one effort after another failed to pan out. I could have sat in a corner and cried about my bad luck, but I didn’t have time. I had work to do.

Like many LinkedIn members, my profile contains recommendations from my colleagues. Many of my co-workers praised my ability to land in a new situation and make immediate contributions. Some people describe this as hitting the ground running, but I disagree. Hitting the ground running sounds like a good way to fall flat on your face. Better to land on your feet, take stock of the situation, and then move out.

It’s the moving out part that is important. Move with boldness. Life’s challenges are not met with timidity. For example, when I changed careers and moved out west, I didn’t want to take half measures. My employer brought me to Albuquerque for four days to find housing. They were thinking of renting an apartment. I was thinking of buying a house. I had a signed contract before I returned to Alabama. And I sold my Alabama house the next week.

Once you’ve decided, act boldly and decisively. Don’t look back. Always look forward.

Depend on others.

PixabayI’ve been saying “I” a lot, haven’t I? Like I single-handedly conquered the world. One lesson I’ve learned is that doing anything single-handedly is a prescription for failure. I’ve had a support network the whole way. People who warned me of coming changes, who gave me useful advice, and (more than once) helped me find my next job. (It seems there’s always a next job.)

You don’t have to be an outgoing, back slapping, networking fool to take advantage of the help of others. Being an ordinary fool is good enough. I admit I’m handicapped in my ability to build support networks. Whether your circle of friends/colleagues/acquaintances is large or small, though, there is always someone who can help you. Be alert to these possibilities and don’t be afraid to reach out for help. It’s hard, very hard, to face life alone.

 

I lied to you earlier. I don’t consider myself a failure, even though I never rode a rocket into space. (I did work with NASA in various roles for twenty years, though. Pretty neat stuff.) We can’t always reach our goals. That’s life. What’s important is to have goals to reach for. And to keep making new goals as needed. Remember these key points.

First, be like a Boy Scout and be prepared for whatever life throws at you. Don’t be complacent and assume good times will continue. Look for trouble before it looks for you.

Next, when it is time to act, pivot hard in a new direction and boldly move out. Don’t look back. The rest of your life is before you, not behind you.

Finally, don’t try to conquer the world on your own. Every superhero has a sidekick. Even Don Quixote had Sancho Panza. Don’t be afraid to depend on others. They are your super power.

Do these three things and you can be a failure. Just like me.

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Remember

Make today your monument. Tomorrow is too late.

Memorial Day is here, set aside to remember those Americans who have died in military service. First instituted to honor Union dead from the Civil War (inspired by Southern homage to their own), it grew to embrace the fallen from all conflicts.

Memorial Day is also the unofficial start of summer in the US. We celebrate with outdoor activities: picnics, swimming, trips to the beach, barbecues. The hot dog and hamburger march arm in arm into summer, our seasonal national cuisine. For the fashion conscious it’s okay to appear in public wearing white, even for shoes, after Memorial Day.

Sadly, most of us celebrate Memorial Day for its cultural significance rather than for its stated purpose. Continue reading

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The Silurian Hypothesis

What if we weren’t the first civilization on Earth? How would we know? The answer is important for searching for life out in the cosmos. It also challenges our assumptions about the emergence of intelligence here.

Scientists have recently asked an interesting question for a change. If there had been an industrial civilization on Earth long before mankind, how would we know? The question is a serious one as it affects how we might look for evidence of civilizations on other planets. The work, by Gavin Schmidt (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies) and Adam Frank (University of Rochester), has been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Astrobiology

It’s called The Silurian Hypothesis after an episode of Doctor Who, so we know these guys are serious. The popular press has had a field day with the idea, complete with cover images of dinosaurs driving cars, pushing prams down the street, and otherwise enjoying a day in their own urban jungle. Before getting your dander up about a waste of taxpayer’s money, note this key statement from the paper: “No funding has been provided nor sought for this study.” These guys may be smart after all.

I hope so, because this is a problem I’ve been gnawing on for some time. Continue reading

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Remember your mother today. The economy is counting on it.

We should honor those we love, not out of convention, but out of conviction

Mother’s Day is the opportunity to ambush our mother with burnt breakfast in bed, assault her with smelly carnations, and force her to stand in line for hours for a table in an overcrowded restaurant. (It’s also an opportunity for her to review her life choices.)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/79/Anna_jarvis.jpg

Anna Jarvis. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

There are holidays around the world honoring motherhood. The US holiday is the result of Anna Jarvis, who first held a memorial for her mother in 1908, and then began a campaign to make Mother’s Day an official holiday. Congress rejected her first efforts but finally succumbed in 1914 after all the states had enacted local versions of the holiday. Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation declaring the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honor mothers. That’s why refusing to abuse your mother on Mother’s Day is now a Federal crime, or at least a national frowning offense. Continue reading

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Complete possession

Complete possession is proved only by giving. All you are unable to give possesses you. – André Gide

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No, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. It’s Underdog Day.

Three ways to score underdog victories

Despite four years of first year Spanish in high school (think about it), I’m as ignorant of our southern neighbor as any other American. Like most of my fellow citizens, I assumed that Cinco De Mayo was the Mexican equivalent of our Fourth of July, a major national holiday celebrating Mexican Independence.

Wrong.

Mexican Independence Day is September 16 and dates from 1810, almost 50 years before the Battle of Puebla which Cinco de Mayo celebrates. Cinco de Mayo is a big deal in the Mexican state of Puebla–for obvious reasons–with parades, speeches, reenactments, and similar hullabaloo. But it is not that big a deal elsewhere in the country. Leave it to the gringos to seize a minor holiday as an excuse for inappropriate stereotypes and alcohol abuse.

So what’s the big deal? Continue reading

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Do every act

Do every act of your life as if it were your last. – Marcus Aurelius

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