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Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing, even if it’s for five minutes

17 Dec
Beanitos bus stop ad, photo by Alexandra Hanson-Harding

The writing process needs lots of fiber to keep things moving (from NYC bus kiosk, photographed with loving care and a sophisticated sense of humor by Alexandra H).

Hello friends,

I am writing from Starbucks, where I am taking my last chance to get a fancy drink for free after signing up for one of them there Starbucks cards the kids love so much these days. I don’t know why they want me to have a chai latte for free but it is giving me the opportunity to do what I sometimes do with my friends—write a five minute email. It’s not that I have too little to say, it’s that I have too much. So whatever comes out in that five minute is at least a down payment, if a rambling one, on the friendship. I have incredible friends and I feel the joy of them in my mind.

So what’s this got to do with you, the reader? I have a feeling that one of the things that makes it really hard for most people to develop a writing habit is that they don’t write enough actual words, so the cost of each word is way too high. To me, writing is like plumbing—you have to have a certain amount of flowing clean water wasted and going down the drain to keep the pipes moving and not to get, um, unsightly clogs. Or, maybe it’s like eating. You’ve got to have enough fiber—i.e.; stuff that doesn’t provide nutrition in itself but functions as Nature’s Broom. Just keep it moving. In other words, although of course different people have different writing processes, but for most professional or at least frequent writers I know, their writing flows because they just do a heck of a lot of it, and a lot of it is to crap. Of course, sooner or later, serious writers need to learn to edit. But very often they need a safe place to write. (As I sit here, a young woman is writing long Christmas cards. She shakes her wrist, she’s written so many. I look at her, a pretty 20-something black woman in a green woolen cap, I am filled with admiration. I feel like saying to her, “Your friends are lucky to have you.” Heck, maybe I will say you.
I started a new journal today. Again. I started one last week, and I lost it. The reason I started one last week was because I left the LAST one, almost completed, on the bus. It may be hard to believe, but the proprieter of 135 cannot lay her hands on every journal that she has ever written. I have left a few on the bus or god knows where else. You may wonder, isn’t that horrifying that somebody could know so many personal things about you? Yeah, it’s kind of a bummer, honestly, but I have to slap myself. I wrote to keep a record, but I also wrote to express my feelings, to find relief, to try to add up different parts of my life and make sense of them. I also drew, painted, doodled, thought of ideas that have no doubt been strengthened by the eye-hand connection. Maybe someone will find it and be amused. Maybe they will be disgusted. Maybe they’ll be inspired. Maybe it will be swept up and tossed out—the most likely scenario. It was a very small book only 4” by 6” with a black cover. It probably didn’t look like anything special from the outside. But it was practice for me.

Part of me hates that I have to start again. But I whisper to myself that Time’s Arrow moves only forward. What will happen if I don’t write start writing in a new journal book today because I mourn the loss of the last (2) journals? I’ll lose the good and bad of today. How I went Christmas shopping in the quaint little shops of Montclair. How I went to my memoir writing group and got to hear some of the hilarious family misadventures of my fellow group meetings. Best of all, how my son Jacob stayed up all night so he could cook my husband a chorizo and mozzarella omelet for breakfast and so he could make a test batch of latkes for me before I left for said memoir writing group. Okay, the staying up all night thing may not have been a direct result of wanting to make breakfast latkes. But I love his creative spirit, the hunger in his hands to create exquisite food. Of course, not everything has been perfect. I lost $30 of Christmas presents I just bought. I forgot to bring the present I made for the person who is leaving the group. My dawgs are barking from tromping around town. It’s getting dark and my art room is still in chaos. But I was excited and happy about being able to shop, and about thinking (probably too ambitiously) about all the things I want to make people I love for Christmas. No time like December 17 to get started, right?

Just a few little moments from December 17, 2014, the only December 17, 2014 I will ever have. Complete with doodles of trees, feathers, flowers, stars, leaves, and zigzags. Because writing is a long unfurling over time.

And now, half an hour of writing is passed. Time’s arrow is moving forward. Something is here that wasn’t here half an hour ago. Good? Not good? It doesn’t matter—it is all part of my great river of words that seek to move.

Writing prompt: What has happened to you this one precious day? Can you write something—anything—for five minutes? Or more if the spirit strikes?

135 Journals YA and Kid Book Club: Infestation, by Timothy J. Bradley

20 Aug



These lovely meat eating ants are brought to you by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, via Wikimedia Commons.


And you thought YOU had problems.


Imagine you’re trapped in a boiling hot reform school with a small group of miscreant kids and one brilliant bug scientist—and that you’re surrounded by mutant ants who are bigger than you are. Hungry ants. This is what Andy Greenwood, an orphan with a penchant for running away from foster homes faces in Infestation, the first in a series of books by Timothy J. Bradley.


This summer I have read a large and varied number of young adult and kid books. Some are deep, some are fantastical, some are so irritating I wanted to throw them against the wall. Except that they were in my Kindle.


Back to Andy. Andy gets in a cafeteria food fight, and he, his roommate, Pyro (yes, he loves to blow up things), gentle Hector, Joey the Thug, and two other boys, Reilly and Shields, are sent to windowless, prisonlike, Block Six. But, just like so many things in life, sometimes bad luck turns into good luck. And good luck turns to bad luck. A giant earthquake rips through the land, freeing them (good) yet unleashing monstrous ant creatures, some of which are 8 or 9 feet tall (possibly not so good). They meet up with Dr. Gerry Medford, a young scientist who was at the school studying its then normal sized ant problem already. When the boys and Dr. Gerry meet up, they manage to hide away and brainstorm. One suspects that Timothy Bradley lovvvvvvves bugs, because he definitely did his research. Gerry explains that these mutant ants are unlike anything he has seen in nature and why. As I, too, have long been intrigued by bugs—as a little girl I would often spend long periods watching ants purposefully carrying crumbs into their small, sandy anthills—I too was fascinated by Gerry’s musings on why these ants were different. For example, I knew that ants could not be giant-sized—their exoskeletons only work on a small scale. But I wasn’t sure why. Gerry explains how muscles attach the insect’s limbs to its exoskeleton, and if the bug were human sized, the muscles wouldn’t have the strength to carry the exoskeleton’s weight. Andy also asks about how he learned so much about bugs (reading lots of books helps kids learn about a subject, shockingly). Gerry’s passion helps them come up with ideas to battle the ants, but each kid contributes. The same qualities that made each kid trouble turn out to be useful skills in this life-and-death situation.

Do they get away? What will they try—and what solutions work and don’t work? You’ll have to read this action-packed for yourself, which shouldn’t be TOO hard as it is written at a fifth grade level. But don’t be surprised if you accidentaly find yourself ingesting a bit of knowledge about the strange and magical world of ants as you follow Andy and his adventures. And watch out for book number 2!


Writing prompt: What is something you loved as a kid that turned out to be useful to you as an adult?

135 Journals Art Corner: My First MultiMedia Art Journal. Part 1

19 Aug


Caption: Random page from Alexandra’s Art Journal, using collage, paint, yarn, glitter, and way too much Mod Podge. There is actually a picture of a girl with a caption that says, “It Stays With You,” and I hoped it would get across the idea of wonder. But it actually got across the idea of Shiny.

“Will your hands EVER be a normal color again?” Mr. Me asks as I use my fingers smush watercolor paint around the borders of a great classic formerly known as College Physics, circa 1957, that I found in a free book pile at a church in Montclair, NJ. (Now it is known as College Physics As Improved By Being Alexandra’s First Art Journal). No, I am not going to tell you EXACTLY what church because first, I forget its name, and second, I don’t want anyone else getting any big ideas in case another classic of this sort gets tossed out again. This book is amazing because it is written so beautifully and in such a measured way. As it so happens, I am very interested in physics. Not in the math equations—oh snore—but the big ideas. This book was published in 1957, the same year I was gestating in my mother’s womb. It was an amazing moment in science. On October 4 of that year, I, or rather, my mother’s Baby Bump, got a new nickname. That nickname was Sputnik. The small metal globe with its spikey antennae, a device that actually orbited the earth, sending signals back. What would that mean? It meant many things over the years, but the first thing it meant was that the Soviet Union had a message for the United States: Wake. Up. Something new was about to happen. And there I was, floating in utero just as Sputnik was floating in space. So I feel a deep kinship with Sputnik and all the scientific wonders that have flowered from that moment.


Now, you may wonder, why are YOU so interested in physics, Miss Alexandra? I do believe that you got a “Mercy D” in physics, and that you were taking physics at that snotty age when you thought you were above it all, and that science and math were like, all meaningless and shallow and dorky, while you were all art and poetry and bohemian magic (and scraping through high school with more than one Mercy D and Well Deserved F to show for it—I DID perk up in college, but that’s another story). Well, as I may or may not have mentioned, I have spent most of my long career writing for children. Some people think that is an easy job—just as somehow they think preschool teachers are actually preschoolers, and that they are more concerned with naps and playing at the sand table than in the development of young children and their awareness. Well, let people think what they want. I am in no position to judge. But I have and always have had a profound respect for those who write for children and teens. Because books for kids change their lives. I promise I will write more on that subject. But I want to thank the writers of fiction and nonfiction who gave my hungry, sad young mind the good food it needed to grow, and I am trying to return the favor as an adult.


ANYWAY, as I said, I have worked in publishing for about 175 years, most of them in publishing for young people. The last full-time regular job I had was one that definitely fed my hungry adult mind—working as an editor putting together books using material from a famous encyclopaedia. It was a great job because I literally got a “encyclopaedic” knowledge of many different subjects that would not be natural for me to read. And one of them was physics.


Okay, I can see that this post is getting to be like a town with many interesting streets down which one could wander. Let me just take one path for now. Suffice it to say, I am in awe of this book and yet I am trying to treat it as roughly and experimentally as I can. I am ripping out random pages, gluing others together, making collages that may or may not come together and have meaning. I’m writing with markers, drawing with tempera, acrylic, watercolor, I’m gessoing pages white, I’m using homemade stamps, and I’m looking forward to seeing what becomes of this collaboration between the authors, Robert T. Beyer and A. O. Williams, Jr., both of Brown University, and my still airy bohemian but humbled, science-loving self.


Writing Prompt: Is there some subject you have respect for that you despised as a child or teen?

10 Tips from One of My Fave Joints: The Rheumatologist’s Waiting Room

25 Mar

cervical spine x-ray

iii Cervical Spine, Beeyotches!
(By Dr Kien caoxuan[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the many fun things about going to my rheumatologist, besides the engaging wall charts of spines and horrible inflammatory diseases, is of course, Magazines. Woohoo! Just so y’alls don’t feel like you’re missing out, here are 10 handy tips—or Life Hacks, if you prefer—I learned at the office, although they say them more nicely than I do and with prettier pictures.

  1. When you’re traveling on a plane, wear silk. It will let you slip around more comfortably than a pair of jeans in a tight seat.
  2. Put your plastic wrap in the freezer and it will theoretically be less sticky when you take it out. Though, presumably, more frozen.
  3. Save Carbs for dinner. Some study from somewhere said so. (Though I just read another story that said save carbs for breakfast . . . and anyway, another that said, “If you’re just eating yogurt and berries for breakfast, you aren’t doing yourself any favors.” . . . and another saying oatmeal! Must eat Oatmeal!)
  4. Look at flowers in the morning. A study from HARVARD says it makes people full of pep all damn day long. (Until your soul is crushed just a little more by life of permanent internships in post-employment America . . . )
  5. Put a bell on your dog, cat, ferret, or Vietnamese pot bellied pig, because people are always tripping over their damned pets. However, don’t get mad if pet has full-blown psychotic episode, as I would if someone slapped equivalent of set of windchimes around my neck.
  6. Before you go to a mall, look at a map of the mall online. However, once you get there, beware of Mall Vortex Syndrome which, map or no map, will prevent you from finding an exit. You will never find one until you pay the magic price of eating a 750 calorie Cinnabon or buying some 75 buck wonderpillow from Hammacher Schlemmer. . [Bonus tip from me: before going to the mall, try to remember the color of your car, and remember to leave a lot of familiar looking crap in the backseat so you can recognize if it’s yours. Others have told me that finding their keys is an effective aid in car retrieval, but since the parking lot is so full of chirping car noises from the hordes of other car searchers pressing their keys, it’s like looking for your pup in a bat cave—yes, a baby bat is called a pup!)
  7. If you don’t want to spend your dough on those high-priced gift bags, you can wrap your presents in plastic wrap. Ice cold plastic wrap. [Question/bonus tip: Not sure why wrapping presents in see-through substance is good idea? Kinda takes away element of suspense, no? Might as well just leave them in the damn Kohl’s bag–whoever gets a present is lucky to get one anyway and you can just say in superior manner, “I love the environment.”]
  8. Cigarettes, as it so happens, are not that good for you. Because, bones.
  9. Just put on your gym clothes. After a while, you will feel so stupid that you are not at the gym, considering you’re wearing those infamous see-through yoga pants and all, that you might EVENTUALLY be inspired to go for a five minute walk.
  10. Flu can spread at least six feet, so stay at least that far away from the filth that is the rest of humanity. (Go Team Misanthrope)


Okay, thank you doctor’s office for the tipspiration! Otherwise, I would have to search long and hard on the internet for Life Tips, because Lord knows, it’s hard to find any there.


Writing Prompt: And what Life Hack would YOU care to share today?






How I started to learn the neighborhood of the brain

24 Oct

One of the ways I try to understand science is by using a technique I learned in high school, from my high school chemistry teacher. “If you don’t understand it, read it again.” So, in my senior year, when I was just about to fail chemistry, I would read that damned Chemistry book over and over. And slowly, my eyes would conquer one strange word (electrons? Molecules? Osmosis?) and then another. As it did, a kind of excitement began to grow. When the concepts began to come together, I started not just to know the words, but have the ideas start to sing their magic in my head. In the darkness of the universe, I began to see the ways molecules  were shaped, the attraction and repulsion of various tiny particles, and to feel a sense of intense wonder that a chair is not just a chair, but a collection of tiny moving parts in tension with each other.

There is a kind of singing in my head I can only get with that same kind of stubbornness when I read history or philosophy or other science as well. I was editing a book on the brain a few years ago and it made me crazy that all the different parts were described in words that I found highly inscrutable and hard to remember—rostral, ventral, contralateral, ipselateral, parietal, axial, caudal, . It made me crazy that “rostral” meant “toward the nose” What has THAT got to do with a brain, and especially a spinal column? But then, I slowly recalled that scientists don’t just study human brains, they study brains of all different creatures. If, for existence, you are describing a feature in a dog’s brain, thinking about a part toward the nose—which is so far in front of the brain, as opposed to something that is caudal—or toward the tail—makes perfect sense. (The word cauda means tail in Latin, and rostra is beak). Something that is caudal is closer to the end of the spine or the bottom of the feet.  But I still feel confused by “rostral” in terms of humans. Does it mean more toward the front of the brain or more toward the top of the brain? Is it the opposite of caudal or more descriptively close to the actual nasal cavity of our relatively flat faces? In some kinds of fish, the part of the brain that would be at the top in humans is at the side in their heads. Another pair it took me a long time to learn was Dorsal/Ventral.  Ventral means (more or less), toward the belly, or front, while dorsal means from the back, or spinal cord. But since, for example, in a dog, the spinal cord is at the top and the belly is at the bottom, ventral and dorsal are in a different place than they are in a walking human being.  (by the way, Real Scientists, feel free to correct me if I am wrong!)

When I was editing this book on brains, I left in these terms, but defined them as well as I could. I was swearing plenty as I did it. But again, at some point, I started again to hear the beginnings of that magical song of learning, of beginning on a journey to start to understand the neighborhood of the brain—a journey that I continue to find magical today.

Writing Spark: What do you know about your brain? 

Dudes! Ladies! Listen up: DO NOT GET A TATTOO!!!!!

20 Oct

First of all, my friends, if you already have a tattoo, I LOOOOOOVVVE it. It looks so good on YOU! Don’t change a thing! You’re adorable! Many of my dearest and most brilliant friends display examples the ancient art of tattooing. I appreciate its venerable past and that special combination of rebelliousness and search for beauty that it conjures up. . And I also know, my friends, that you are the owners of your bodies and the captains of your souls.

However, if you do not have a tattoo, and yes, I am speaking to a certain 18-year-old with purple hair and a lip ring who shall remain nameless, among others, DO NOT GET ONE. THEY ARE NOT SAFE.

Yes, there are awkward situations with tattoos and job interviews—perhaps less than there used to be, but nonetheless, moments when perhaps the strapless gown seems like a bad idea or perhaps the longsleeved shirt would be a wiser choice than the tank top even if it’s 110 degrees. Or those “I love Winona” Fails. Or, the really spiritual Hindu word—or so you think—that turns out to mean something very different. I know there are those who think it’s utterly implausible that anyone would EVER be judged on their looks, but anyone who has ever picked up a People Magazine and seen stars constantly being chided for either being too frumpy or too slutty might feel differently. Was Kate Middleton’s dress “too much”? Or “not enough.” It’s a fine line, young Padewan.

My main two problems with tattooing are as follows. One is serious, one is not. Naturally, I will go with the deeply unserious one first.

  1. 1.    Lack of master planning.

Tattooing often seems to go hand in hand with that lighthearted spirit of individuality that makes one so deeply alive to the moment and the excitement of getting Jesus on a skateboard dressed in an American flag and sunglasses emblazoned on one’s chest that one forgets that one might later want to turn to another, deeply unrelated theme. Perhaps you will go through an Incan phase later, or just want a delicate little rose on your left buttock cheek or a dragon—how could I leave out dragons? Or “In Memory of Hector” all across your back (seriously, one definitely gets an education on body art going to a Waterpark).  Or the rolling ship on the stomach, or the Yin and Yang symbol or what have you. Let’s face it, We Contain Multitudes. Who knows what might seem like a good idea once you’ve got Jesus in the American Flag taken care of. But the problem is, Fashionistas, and I hope you will appreciate the full horror of this sentence: Your. Outfit. Will. Not. Match.  Do I need to repeat this?

  1. Okay, there are three problems. Tattoos get real old, real fast

Look in your closet. Or better yet, look in your mother’s closet. Does she have some really old dresses with giant shoulderpads? Hello, 1980s. Guess what she can do? Stuff them in a bag and palm them off on Goodwill. And then buy new ones. But for you, fashion will always be frozen in 2012. Your outfit, the one you will always have on if you catch my drift,  the one that’s going to be slowly migrating south over the years and shriveling like a Granny Apple left on the windowsill for a month, will NEVER change. Groovy!

3. But let me get to the real problem: TATTOOS ARE NOT SAFE!!!

Yes, there are reputable tattooists. They use clean needles. They sanitize everything. You could eat off their chairs. Their hearts are as pure as a mountain spring and their talent is a divine wellspring. They aren’t the bad tattooists who spread HIV and Hepatitis C. But as sterilized as the best tattooists are, they cannot environment is, they cannot promise you that the ink is safe. Because the FDA does not regulate tattoo ink. That lathering of Ivory Soap that glides right off your skin with a splash of water has been tested on thousands of hapless lab rats. That ink you want to inject deep into your skin contains whatever the hell is lying around in the inkmaker’s den. Some of the substances found in tattoo ink include antifreeze, mercury, lead, car paint, and dirty water containing mold and bacteria. In fact,, a new outbreak of disease caused by a bacteria called nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM) has been linked to a recent outbreak from contaminated tattoo inks. According to the FDA, these bacteria can cause a number of dangerous organ infections, including lung disease, eye disease, and others. They’re hard to spot. You need a specialist who can understand the nature of the papules—yeah, you really want papules, right/ That sounds good—that are symptomatic of NTM infections.

That’s not the only problem. If you need an MRI, a tattoo that contains metal (sometimes used in eyelining, but possibly in other tattoos as well) can burn you as MRIs are magnetic. Many people get rashes—some of them that stay for years—from tattoos. And trying to remove tattoos is extremely expensive and stirs up carcinogens. So for the 50 percent of people who regret getting tattoos, there can be more danger in removing them than letting them lie.

So, my friends—especially that purple-haired one with the lip ring—get that Skateboarding Jesus if you must. But don’t do it without weighing not just the you of today, but the you of the rest of your whole life. Because that sucker is going to be with you for a long, long time.

Writing Spark: Best and worst tattoos ever?????? Would you get one? Do you have one? Are you glad you have it? Would you do it again???


Tattoo Ink–Related Infections — Awareness, Diagnosis, Reporting, and Prevention (New England Journal of Medicine)


The Dangerous Art of the Tattoo

Tattoo Inks Pose Health Risks

What Happened to the Japanese in World War II? The Rape of Nanjing (Part II)

16 Oct

Having been to Japan and loving the people there, having a longtime appreciation of Japanese culture, it hurts my heart to write about what the Japanese were like in World War II. But when I saw an exhibit at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine called “Hiroshima/Holocaust” I remember feeling deeply angered. There is no way that the slow, methodical gathering, looting, and mass murder of 6 million people could be compared to one (or two) big bombs against the other side in war. Frankly, U.S. firebombings of Japanese in Tokyo were also quite deadly, but far less is heard about them. According to this Day in History, starting March 9, 1945 the U.S. dropped 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs on Tokyo, killing between 80-130,000 thousand people. Meanwhile, about 145,000 were killed at Hiroshima, though later many died of cancer and other diseases. I can see the case for why unleashing nuclear power upon the world is potentially deeply evil. But although the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are victims whose suffering and death must be remembered with reverence and mercy, the lives of innocent people the Japanese killed should also be remembered with an equal reverence.

Let’s start with the Rape of Nanjing of December 1937.For a six-week period following the capture of this Chinese city, Japanese soldiers killed between 200-300 thousand people. Two Japanese newspapers announced a contest to “Kill 100 people using a sword.” Two soldiers were the finalists. According to oneof the papers, there was a headline. “”‘Incredible Record’ [in the Contest to] Behead 100 People—Mukai 106 – 105 Noda—Both 2nd Lieutenants Go Into Extra Innings”.

Extra innings. Nice.

And remember, this is 1937.

One of the reasons this event is called the Rape of Nanjing (Or Nanking) is not merely that huge numbers of civilians were massacred in this horror but because it was a time of actual mass rapes. Tens of thousands of women and girls of every age were raped repeatedly, then bayoneted in the vagina. Babies were ripped out of women’s abdomens. This horror was massive and widespread. I will quote one paragraph from because I simply cannot bear to use my own words to describe it more: :

“According to Roy Brooks in his book When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy over Apologies & Reparations for Human Injustice, “the Japanese turned murder into sport.” They rounded up tens of thousands of men and used them for bayonet practice or decapitation contests. Sometimes they simply sprayed gasoline on them and burned them alive. Some men were skinned alive, tortured to death with needles, or buried up to the waist in the soil, where they were ripped apart by German shepherds. The Chinese women suffered far worse. Many of them were mutilated horribly after being raped. The Japanese even forced fathers to rape their own daughters, . . . . The Japanese were equally brutal to the small children. Babies were tossed into the air and bayoneted as they came down. Some were thrown into vats of hot oil and water.”

I feel pain when I read about events like these. I am not saying that only Japanese people are responsible for atrocities such as these. But I do say that they own THIS atrocity, and that from what I have observed, they have not atoned for it. Not really. Somehow, many people around the world have twisted the story of what happened in World War II to make the Japanese the ultimate Asian victims of the war because of the dropping of the Atomic bombs. But if you ask me, “murder for sport”—looking at another human being in the face and killing them for fun—is worse. The pure evil, the SINFULNESS of it, is deeply repellent. And because of the lack of atonement, the lack of shame, the sorry bean-counting of certain Japanese historical revisionists who try to find ways to shrink the numbers of the dead, they own it far more than if they had been deeply, shamefully, humbly sorry for it. If you aren’t sorry for bad things you do, then you are endorsing them, just as much as you are endorsing any of the beautiful things you do. You are saying, this bad thing I did is just fine. Only by submitting to the pain of shame can you begin to give the apology that will begin to heal the pain you have caused. President Ronald Reagan was right when he signed legislation in 1988 apologizing for the WWII internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans, and it was right to pay $1.6 billion in reparations for our national wrong.

So when I think of the war crime of the Rape of Nanjing, do I think Japanese are worse than other people? Or that this generation should pay for the sins of its parents? No. But today’s children in Japan should be educated in what has been done in their name. The madness of Japan during wartime has been repeated by other countries as well. But one atrocity does not cancel out another. When 200,000 or more people die horrifying deaths, that is not the loss of a number of bodies. That is the loss of 200,000 individuals, each one a universe, each one precious and irreplaceable. And that specific act is the one that needs the apology.

Writing spark: Do you feel that atonement has power, or that it matters?

NOTE: Resources and references are below:

Web sites:


Brooks, Roy. When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy over Apologies & Reparations for Human Injustice. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997)\


I have seen this movie and it is excellent without being too graphic.

The Flowers of War (2011) directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale and Shigeo Kobayashi based on The 13 Women of Nanjing by Geling Yan

Jana Gana Mana

30 Sep

Yesterday, at Toastmasters, the Table Topics questions section, (at which the Table Topics Mistress can ask a question of anybody and it is that person’s responsibility  to figure out a two minute answer), the beautiful Monica, who looked lovelier than usual in an elegant salwar kameez, asked questions on the theme of India. As part of her presentation, she played India’s  national anthem, Jana Gana Mana. This anthem was first sung in 1911, was made India’s national anthem in 1950, and has now celebrated its hundredth birthday.

Something was tickling at the back of my mind as I heard the anthem. And then I remembered why. It’s because it was written by one of India’s greatest figures, Nobel Prize for Literature winner Rabindranath Tagore in the early part of the century. Tagore had one of those brains which try everything. He was an Indian nationalist (especially Bengali) when most of India was under British rule. He was interested in art and music (writing more than 2,230 songs), science, read widely of the Western classics, traveled and met with famous people all over the world, started a famous school, and did many other things.

But there is one small, ironic story I want to tell today about Jana Gana Mana. The words, in English (Thank you, Wikipidia ( are

Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,

Dispenser of India’s destiny.

Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab,

Sindh, Gujarat, and Maratha,

Of the  Dravida and  Orissa and Bengal;

It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,

mingles in the music of Jamuna and Ganges and is

chanted by the waves of the Indian Sea.

They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.

The saving of all people waits in thy hand,

Thou dispenser of India’s destiny.
 victory forever.

The story is that some people assumed that the “You” that Tagore was talking about was King George V of Great Britain. But Tagore was disgusted by that idea. According to the Wikipidia article, he wrote in a letter to a friend, “A certain high official in His Majesty’s service. . .  had requested that I write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor. The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana of that Bhagya Vidhata [ed. God of Destiny] of India who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India’s chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense.”

It would indeed be strange for a man whose entire life was devoted to Indian independence to call the British emperor “Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,
 Dispenser of India’s destiny.” Certainly King George V WAS the dispenser of India’s destiny—but not forever! And he most certainly was not the ruler of India’s minds!

Here is a longish recording of all five verses. But notice how beautiful it is. How so many national anthems seem indistinguishable, but the music of this one is deeply and truly Indian in nature.

And Jaya jaya jaya he, to my Indian friends, Victory—and peace—to your amazing land.


Prompt: Have you ever had anyone COMPLETELY misunderstand what you were trying to say?

India’s National Anthem in 39 individual voices.

Victoria’s Secret

27 Sep

Today I was listening to the BBC and the announcer was talking about a famous Victorian scientist, Albert Russel Wallace, who developed the theory of evolution at the same time Darwin did. Well, actually, he developed it later, but Darwin had been working out his theory for years, and Wallace discovered it in what the BBC called a “Eureka moment” while studying nature on some South Pacific island. Their two findings were published at the same time in a journal, but as deference was valued in Victorian society, Mr. Wallace always deferred thereafter to Mr. Darwin’s discovery in what might be called an excess of modesty (and one for which he was certainly not rewarded). If my recollection from working as a book editor on a volume about evolution, the history is even more convoluted than that, with hints that Erasmus Darwin, an earlier famous scientist who was C. Darwin’s grandfather, was starting to get inklings of this theory and that the general perception of evolution was developing through discussions among a number of scientifically-minded people. Of course, this knowledge has been, as my dear ex-boss Hope says, “composted.” We edited so many books so fast that one week it was microbiology, next week it was Europe Between 1500-1800, so vast amounts of knowledge would just be piled on top of others and only the fittest bits would survive. (hmm. . . .)

Anyway, one of the things that fascinates me about Albert Russell Wallace is of course that he is a Victorian. And the Victorians were far from the prissy, staid wrappers-of-piano-legs that we often consider them as. They were vigorous, exciting, often thrilling in their willingness to entertain new ideas. Another scientist that I admired greatly for his understanding of glacier science, among other things, is Louis Agassiz. But Agassiz was one of the last holdouts among respectable scientists against the idea of evolution. Someday I will write more about him.

Anyway, a little more about Albert Russel Wallace:

–born in 1823, eighth of nine children

–In 1845 he read Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers. This book made him think that evolution could be real—but did not explain why.

–In 1848, he and a friend went on a journey up the Amazon to collect animal specimens and try to figure out how evolution might work. He drew a map of the Rio Negro that was published by the Royal Geographical Society of London.

–In 1852, he returned to England, but the ship burned and sank, taking most of his collection and notes.

–In 1854, he started an eight years series of travels to Malaysia and Indonesia for eight years, collecting 110,00o insects, 7,500 shells, 8050 bird skins (I never think of birds having skin exactly, but I guess so) and a bunch of other stuff.  He wrote a very famous book called The Malay Archipelago.

–In 1856 he visited Charles Darwin and told him to publish quickly or someone would beat him to it (actually, he himself had written his “Sarawak Law” paper, which was getting close to the secret of evolution)—so it was an extraordinarily generous visit, in my opinion.

–In 1858, Wallace had his “eureka” moment in Indonesia when the idea of natural selection came to him. He wrote a detailed essay and sent it to Darwin.

–Darwin had actually already discovered the idea of natural selection, so he didn’t know what to do. So the Linnean Society’s journal published both Darwin’s and Wallace in its August 20 issue, with Darwin first. Darwin also quickly finished up On the Origin of Species.

Wallace continued to be an amazing collector and authority of the region. What he is most famous for now (and the BBC mentioned this), is the “Wallace Line.” This line is drawn between certain Southeast Asian Islands and it notes where Australian-type animals (such as marsupials) live on one side and Asian-style animals live on the other.

Wallace wrote 700 articles and 22 books. And when he returned to Britain, he was one of the most famous scientists of his day, and also had strongly humanitarian ideas as well.

So why should anyone care about Albert Russell Wallace? One reason is that as courageous and brilliant as Charles Darwin was (and he was), he didn’t come up with his ideas in a vacuum. As with every great idea or understanding, it comes partly from some kind of collective upwelling—from some kind of community of ideas. And secondly, I think that the kind of curiosity and hunger for knowledge that Wallace represented, his incredible diligence and thoroughness, is also worth celebrating. Because although he was celebrated in his day, he clearly did not do his work because he wanted to be famous. He did it because he had that very special drive in him that is beautifully impractical and magnificently human, just to learn something new.

For more information (I certainly got a lot here) check out

Prompt: What is one thing in the natural world you’d like to know more about?

Soren Kierkegaard and “crop rotation”

24 Sep

Listening to a podcast about Soren Kierkegaard from the BBC (How I love you, BBC). One of his ideas is of “crop rotation”—that is avoiding boredom by arbitrarily shifting your attitude in some way. One example the podcast gives is staring at a boar and paying attention until you find interest as beads of sweat appear on its nose. My boar-Q is not high enough to know if boars will stand there long enough until their noses sweat. Most of my boar knowledge comes from visiting Little Thing 1 in Siena, Italy, where he was studying Italian—and Italians—last semester (now he has a certain whatever you call je ne sais quois in Italian, so it was a great success, as Italians are amazing). Boar is a Tuscan specialty, so we had boar in many permutations. At some sausage shops, a boar’s hairy head was mounted behind the cash register. But there was no nose sweating). Alternately, he suggests—or one of his two characters who debate in the book, one representing an aesthetic, the other an ethically-based point of view—going to the third part of a play or only reading the second half of a book, just to shake things up.

Without actually reading Kierkegaard, I will presume to speak on the idea of “crop rotation.” I love that idea, especially as a form of meditation. I have in my own home a perfect example of a crop rotator and that would be my dear husband. He has a garden, and stands in that garden for hours. “I love finding little treasures in there.” Some years the crop is very abundant, sometimes not. Sometimes he comes inside with a tiny handful of broccoli which he carefully puts in the salad, or a handful of raspberries which he waits for me to eat with Greek yogurt—presumably waiting for sweat to appear on my nose. Watching him stand out there, dreamily eyeing his corn plants is a very sweet thing. I, too, notice, that if I go walking, my mind can slow down to notice tiny tender things of beauty I might not have seen otherwise—two old men talking about a dog, or flower petals drifting down, or a squirrel holding a cherry tomato in its agile little paws. So—Soren Kierkegaard, I can’t vouch for your whole philosophy, but this glimpse into it is making me smile.

Oh, and this makes me smile, too: I listened to the podcast again, and the author, Nigel Warburton (and Kierkegaard) were referring to bores, not boars. In that case, one can certainly get them to stay still long enough to see their nose sweat!!!!

Prompt: Why not try some “crop rotation” today. Look at something in a different way. What did you see?