Thursday, February 17, 2005

39. Stability shouldn't be unstable

Nature works through systems of cycles and subsequent states of equilibrium. Chemistry is built upon the stability of its elements; biology is built upon the recycling of energy through the food chain. The process of energy transfer is what supports life on this planet. Similarly, ecology works through species equilibrium. Prey and predators must achieve levels of equilibrium or else the survival of both species will be threatened. Essentially all systems on this planet are cyclical in nature- each working towards states of equilibrium, otherwise known as stability. For humans, agriculture brought a degree of stability, the end of the need for the changing environments of nomadic life- of hunting and gathering.

The theory of human stability states that humans, individually, strive to be in a state of stability. When not in a state of stability, humans endure feelings of, sometimes severe, discomfort that may be either physical or emotional. Subsequently, in times of instability, humans will act accordingly, even violently, often irrationally, to relieve themselves of that discomfort.

For example, when humans are hungry they are in a state of physical discomfort. They desire to eat, following which will quickly return them to a state of stability. Even when not hungry, just the threat of being hungry will invoke feelings of instability. Consider any national threat such as September 11 or the blackout, when individuals immediately, and sometimes fiercely, react by buying water, canned foods- whatever they feel necessary to help them survive the potential danger.

Similarly, under stress, the human body reacts to defend itself from the immediate threat of discomfort, uneasiness or fear. Physiologically, the body reacts and chemicals such as adrenaline are released- at the expense of other systems, such as the immune system (individuals under stress are far more susceptible to illnesses and diseases than those who are not). As an immediate relief to stress, individuals seek comfort through food, cigarettes or alcohol- whatever relives them of their personal anxiety or instability.

The issue is more obvious in matters of the heart. When a relationship ends, one or both partners often enter into a difficult state of instability (in this case, instability is best described as that feeling in the pit of one's stomach). A new relationship or getting back together best relives this feeling- and is why rebound relationships and reconciliations are so popular. Our second president, John Adams, gracefully noted upon the subject that, "A heart agitated with the remains of a former passion is most susceptible to a new one." Conversely, it may be "instability" that is responsible for the "crimes of passion." Revenge, as we will see and despite its consequences, is a powerful tool in the fight against instability.

On a larger scale, religion offers, for many, a sense of stability to their lives. It brings comfort in not only the death of a family member, but also their own life. The thought of an afterlife relieves the anxiety of one's own mortality. For some, this belief brings hope, purpose and a much more peaceful life. The ability to fall back on one's religious beliefs offers considerable stability to both personal crisis and the meaning of life. It provides an explanation when seemingly there are none, and in this way turns away one of our greatest senses of instability while, at the same time, providing us a "rĂ¡ison d'tere."

Since the adoption of human stability, however, nothing challenges our sense of stability more than fear. So comfortable have humans become that fear seems to perpetuate an emotional and almost unreasonable effect on the population. Consider again September 11. The country sat motionlessly glued to their television sets and then, in my opinion, overreacted not to the horrific event itself but to the consequences, fears and emotions of the incident. The country looked to return to stability through revenge, "We must find and kill the terrorists," leaders proclaimed. Then, with revenge seemingly in hand, the next step toward stability is the assurance that this sort of thing will never happen again. With this, Americans adopted The Patriot Act, and created the Department of Homeland Security.

Our government, many will argue, was quick to capitalize on the principle of instability. Understanding this principle, the administration used the fear of the people to fight, what the majority now feel (steadily around 52-54%), was an unjustified war. The country, shivering at the thought of being attacked from those with weapons of mass destruction, approved the invasion of a country that never attacked us, and that has yet to show any evidence of those weapons of mass destruction. Finally, the White House successfully used the fear of the American people as part of the campaign to win four more years- as polled Americans often recited "safety" as a significant factor in their voting decision.

Statistically, the fear of terrorism is unfounded. If the government really cared about protecting this country and its citizens from harm, from the actual causes of death, it would bomb the tobacco fields, level the fast food restaurants and encourage individuals to work out rather than sit in front of the television fretting over the current national security level (orange is what again?) or watching the latest "special report." However, as we have seen, fear, as a measure of instability, can be used to persuade what would otherwise be regarded as an irrational or unfounded agenda. Ask the question, would Americans have approved an invasion of Iraq prior to September 11, given the same claims of weapons of mass destruction?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

38. Offer students these classes

In the movie "Good Will Hunting," Will (Matt Damon) walks into his new therapist's office (Robin Williams), looks at his collection of books and comments, "All these books, but nobody reads the right books." When asked what the "right" books are, Will replies, "I don't know, whatever blows your hair back." I think he means that the right books are those that challenge your mind, beliefs and biases.

I think of that scene whenever I consider high school curriculums. How do students get the best education possible? I do not know but I think all classes should do one of two things, 1) be of practical use in the future or 2) make one think and challenge his or her preconceived notions. The pursuit of intellectualism is the journey of reasoning without emotion and the understanding of relationships and differences.

Not that anybody asked, but here are five classes I would like to see considered by high school curriculums. Perhaps some are currently offered, though probably not required- and certainly none were available when I was in high school.

1) Personal Finance. Each day the class would begin with a pledge not to use credit cards for items of life-style or luxury. In this class, students will learn how to buy a car, a house and save for retirement. They will learn the aspects of compound and simple interest, as well as fixed rates, adjustable rates and points. Illusionary expectations of becoming rich will be studied and realistically applied (at least statistically speaking). The realties and impact of bankruptcy and foreclosures will be examined. Since wealth is a factor of time and money, the sooner individuals learn about personal finance the greater the chance of financial success. Too many kids move out, buy a new car, sign up for a credit card or two and enroll in a few college classes on their minimum wage job.

2) Human Origins. It is time to lay the cards out on the table. Science and each major religion will have the opportunity to present their views on human origins. Not only would this give each student a background in each of the major philosophical viewpoints, but it might also provide an understanding and tolerance of the others. Each discipline will be given both the time to present the history and meaning of its belief or understanding, in addition to the time to debate other viewpoints. It is time to confront this ever-increasing and dividing social issue. Science refuses to teach religion (Intelligent Design, Creationism) in its classes, and churches do not teach evolution in Sunday school.

3) Race, Ethnics, and Minority Issues. The focus of this class is several-fold. Students will study the plight of minorities in this country from African-Americans and Native Americans to women and homosexuals (with this one, I'm sure I've added to the home-schooling craze). They will read books by the likes of Dick Gregory and Fredrick Douglas. Again, issues will be confronted before the narrow-mindedness of prejudice sets in. Students will also study the Constitution and its amendments related to the freedom of speech and religion.

4) Philosophy. The focus of this class will be thought and discussion. Philosophers will include Socrates, Plato, Hume, Thoreau, Marx, and Kant- just to name a few. Conversation will include governments, politics, religion and revolution. In this class, there will be no tests, just a grade of satisfactory /unsatisfactory for participating in discussions and presenting written ideas. There will be more questions than answers.

5) Discovery Class. In this class, each student will prepare two papers/presentations. One subject will be completely of his or her choosing and the other will be of random selection. Students will be encouraged (and selected) to research topics from Aristotle to automobiles. The focus would be the far-reaching effect of each topic. For example, a paper/presentation on automobiles must consider history, technology, business practices, market share, global influence, labor, politics/lobbying, natural resources, etc. Students will experience the effect that their subject has across a spectrum of disciplines.

Honorable Mention: Geography. We study geography in our younger years, but adult testing of world geography is embarrassing. Global economics, travel, and the Internet keeps making the world a smaller and smaller place. Location, culture, language and currency will be studied.

The "no child left behind" act is a highly controversial program. Those I have spoken to, have not endorsed the program, with responses ranging from, "the program is a joke" to "I feel like my hands are tied." Students feel the pressure of having to pass standardized tests and teachers feel as though they have to teach according to those (and only those) standards. Learning and discovery, to some extent, have gone the way of memorizing and test taking skills. Perhaps these classes will spice things up a bit.

Thursday, February 3, 2005

37. It's a dog-gone runaround

My wife and I, on two occasions now, have "rescued" dogs, that is, we pick up a stray or neglected dog, nurse them back to health, give them their shots and then have them neutered or spayed (to prevent additional unwanted or uncared for animals). After they are healthy, we try to find them a good home.

Our first endeavor went off without a hitch. The dog, we named Foster, was a Dalmatian that wandered to my place of employment so hungry that he was eating cigarette butts outside the front doors. The veterinarian visit indicated heartworm, which we had treated. He was adopted shortly after neutering to a family that had just lost a Dalmatian. The family has been wonderful, even recently calling us to update us on his latest veterinarian visit and welcoming us to visit again, whenever we pleased.

Unfortunately, our second endeavor did not quite follow this script. The dog, we will call Spike, was noticeably neglected. We asked if we could have the dog, and the owners, who obviously did not want the dog, were more than happy to relieve themselves of his burden. We took the same approach. We took him to the veterinarian for his shots and a checkup. Shortly thereafter, he returned to be neutered after which he was ready for adoption.

We ran an advertisement that did not bring a response until the last day. A couple was interested and came to see Spike. The man seemed to fall in love with the dog, often recalling stories of his childhood dog and jumping on the floor to play with him. They asked if we would take less than our $100 asking price. We set the price at $100 not because we want to recover a portion of cost, but rather to ensure that the new owners are serious about taking in a new dog. We agreed to $50, simply because he seemed to fall in love with the dog. Our request has been that if things do not work out with the dog that the dog is returned for a full refund. We do not want the owners to feel trapped, and we do not want the dog to be passed around from home to home.

That night, the couple called and said that Spike had scared their young child and asked if they could bring him back. It was Friday night, and we agreed that we would get Spike back on Sunday, as Saturday did not work out for either of us.

On Saturday, we put another advertisement in the paper, anticipating his return Sunday morning. That Sunday morning we received several calls about the dog. We explained that we were anticipating his return shortly. We did not hear from the couple (they were supposed to call us), until finally late Sunday evening I called them. Suddenly, things were working out with the young child and now they wanted to keep him. We said that was fine and notified the inquirers that Spike was no longer available.

Several days later, the bank called to inform me that the couple's check has returned with insufficient funds. Here is where the story goes bad. I called the couple, told them of the apparent error and asked them to make amends. We understand that those things happen, and were happy to work things out with them.

When we contacted the couple, they asked if they could bring out the money, though danced around when exactly they could come. We offered to come get the money whenever it was convenient, since we wanted to see how Spike was doing. Without going into extensive detail, as soon as we mentioned that we wanted to see Spike, communication broke down. Instantly, we began to grow very concerned about Spike's well being- why were we not permitted to see him?

The worst of images began circumventing in our heads. My theory was that he ran away and that they did not want to tell us. My wife was literally sick for a week with worry. They offered every excuse imaginable as to why we could not see him. Once they said they would not be home, although we drove past their residence to verify that they were indeed home. We even offered at one point to disregard the bounced check if we could just see him, and in desperation, we offered $200 to buy him back. They refused both offers.

After receipt of our certified letter, to our relief, they agreed on a time when we could come over to get payment and see Spike. We visited, received our money and saw Spike, who seemed to be reasonably healthy and happy. We knew something was wrong; that they were lying about something, but legally we could not do anything- for they did make good on their debt. As it turned out, they were convincing deceivers, even if our skepticism knew better.

Earlier this week (three months later), a different couple called and told us they had Spike, and that were getting ready to move and needed to "get rid of him." They said that they got our number from the veterinarian bill. They said they wanted the $150 they had paid for him. They seemed incredulous when we told them that we had only sold him for $50.

Apparently, the "real" story, for whatever that is worth, is that the original couple was not permitted to have another dog (they told us they did not have a dog). That Saturday, they had talked to this couple, and sold Spike to them for $150. Thus, when I called that Sunday, they had already sold Spike for a considerable profit. When the check bounced and we wanted to see Spike, they put us off until they could coordinate Spike's visit with ours. When we arrived they put on an Academy Award winning performance- stories of Spike dressing up for Halloween, how attached their son had become to him, etc., etc. Spike played his part as well, jumping around the house as though he owned it and comfortably playing with their child. When my wife said we would rather have the dog back, the couple pleaded that we not do "that" to their child.

Today we purchased our rescued dog from this second couple, which for all we know may have been a part of an elaborate extortion scheme. Perhaps they even split the $100 profit. It is hard to know whom to trust after an experience like that. However, and most importantly to us, this poor dog is now on his fifth home in less than six months- looking for his sixth and final home.