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Archive for the ‘Daily Life’ Category

We humans are intensely interested in what the future holds for us, particularly in how long we will live. Palmists, astrologers and others tout various ways of determining how many years we have ahead of us. Even though there is no scientific basis for such predictions, these forecasters thrive. There is one numerologist/ astrologist whose ubiquitous TV ads  claim that he has” half a million satisfied customers” in the U.S. I suppose that are always those who want to believe, who are desperate enough to think that someone can help them find what the future holds. As P.T. Barnum famously said,  ” There’s a sucker born every minute.”

As for myself, I remember what a friend of mine discovered when  he was working  temporarily as a morgue attendant. He knew a bit about palmistry and he ” read” the palms of several of the corpses, mainly those who had died young, in accidents. Many, many of them he told me had long tenar lines which are supposed to indicate the length of one’s life. And , yet, there they were in the morgue, well ahead of their time.

There is one story about the length of one’s life that I love. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov ( 1698- 1760) taught that each of us is born with a fixed number of words to speak.  This number varies from person to person and, when we have spoken our allotted number of words, we die. The words we speak are up to us, the number is not. The moral of the story is that since we do not know how many words we have left, we should be sparing with them; that, whenever we are about to speak, we should stop and ask ourselves” Are these words worth dying for?”

This is, of course, a teaching story , one intended to make us careful with our words. I wish though that I could tell it to a couple of my long-winded friends and convince them that it was true. Wonder if it would have any effect.

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I have been following with great interest the controversy caused by ” Fearless Girl”, a 50- inch high bronze statue of a little girl, standing in a defiant pose with her fists on her hips. The problem is not the with the statue itself but with its location : it has been placed just a few feet away from a 7000 pound, 11 foot high statue of a Charging Bull which has been there since December 1989. Both statues are located in Manhattan’s Financial District.

But perhaps a little background is necessary…

Charging Bull is the creation of an Italian artist Arturo di Modica who conceived the statue as a tribute to America’s rebound from the 1987 stock market crash. Spending        $ 320,000 of his own money, he created the statue and illegally plunked it down near Wall Street  in the middle of the night in December 1989. Because the statue did not have a permit, it was removed by the  N.Y.C. Parks Department. Because of public clamor, it was later brought back and installed at its present location in Bowling Green. It is very popular with tourists who often pose with it for souvenir photographs.

Fearless Girl is a creation of the sculptor Kristen Visbal, commissioned by State Street Global Advisors and installed last month in conjunction with International Womens Day. It is intended to support gender diversity and greater representation for women in leadership roles and on corporate boards. It was initially installed under a one month permit that has since been extended to one year. It too has become a great hit with tourists and office goers.

Arturo di Modica, the sculptor of Charging Bull, claims that the placing of Fearless Girl so close to his own statue and in juxtaposition to it violates his rights and changes the creative dynamic because she ( the Fearless Girl) appears to be ” attacking the bull”. His lawyer adds that the Bull ” no longer carries a positive optimistic message” and has been transformed into” a negative force and a threat”. Therefore, he argues, Fearless Girl should be removed and relocated elsewhere.

I used to work downtown for more than thirty years and I often walked past the Charging Bull and admired it. It is a powerful sculpture, projecting power, strength and optimism, but I never thought  it was spreading a message of ” Freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love.” as its creator claims. If anything, because of its location, I saw it as a symbol of capitalism ( as in ‘ the bull market”). Nothing wrong with that, capitalism has made this country what it is. I also have no doubt that the placing of the Fearless Girl statue was deliberate and intended to play off the sculpture of the bull. What I fail to see is how it violates the copyrights of the Bull since it is located perhaps 30 feet away. No one has a right to dictate what may or may not be placed close to the location of one’s  artwork. At least that’s my opinion. Let’s see how this dispute gets resolved.

Aside from that, I genuinely like the Fearless Girl Statue. Even if it does not lead to a greater role for women in Wall Street, it has already struck a chord with young girls many of whom love the feisty pose of the little girl and her fearless demeanor. That is what will be needed if women are to breach the overwhelmingly male bastions of Wall Street.

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At the library, I came across a book with the arresting title “ Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate” by Brad Warner. How could I resist it ? I didn’t and it was an interesting read. One passage that I found particularly striking was this:

” Those who hope for purity and righteousness always try and destroy that which disturbs them. They think the disturbance comes from outside themselves. This is a serious problem. Wars, suicide bombings and all sorts of nasty things start from the premise that we can destroy ” evil’ outside ourselves without dealing with the evil within.”

How true. The example that leaps to mind is the societies of the Middle East where men try to avoid temptation by forcing women to cover themselves from head to toe. It is a custom that is doomed to fail. One Western visitor noticed that in Kabul, young men hang around hoping for a glimpse of an ankle as women raise their chadors or burqas  when stepping over a high roadside curb. Enough said.

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(In a previous post, I had written how Denmark is judged one of the happiest countries in the world, year after year. Last year, in 2016, it was the happiest and this year , in 2017, it is third. I also mentioned  Hygge,( pronounced Hue-gah), the term that Danes use to describe their happy state of mind. It is a word that has no exact equivalent in the English language though ” cozy” comes closest. Hygge is best described in terms of examples: Sitting before a roaring fireplace while it snows outside. Curling up with a good book . Having dinner with family and friends. Enjoying coffee and cake with a loved one).

A Danish friend wrote to tell me of hyggelistic parties for example, a big birthday bash  in a rented hotel ballroom, where one is served the exact same food ( soup, pork roast and ice dessert) to be  enjoyed in the company of the same group of friends as the previous year. The prospect gave me pause. While I understand the comfort that one feels in the familiar, the prospect of attending such parties is not one that appeals to me. No matter how enjoyable an experience, it is not one I care to repeat ad infinitum.

Some thoughts on the subject …

In the nineteen seventies, time-shares were very popular in the U.S. For what seemed a bargain amount, families could spend a week (or two) at their choice of dream destinations. Hawaii, San Diego, Jamaica, Puerto Rico or wherever. However, the prospect of  staying  in the same furnished condo at the same time every year was one that never appealed to us. Why would we want to tie ourselves down, vacation wise, to the same place again and again when they were so many different destinations that we wanted to visit ? ( The time share companies did allow customers to trade their slots with other customers but it was a hassle and the transfer fees were not cheap). We never went in for a time share  and many of our friends who did later regretted their decision. The only  one who didn’t was a chap who lived  in Los Angeles and who purchased a time share at a resort very close to his home. The time share included use of the gym facilities year round  and he was able to enjoy them at less than it would have cost him to join a gym. Besides, during those two weeks every year, he was able to put up friends who were visiting Los Angeles if he didn’t have place for them at home. Smart.

Another example: We used to attend a community picnic at a nearby park on the first Saturday in August. We did it for perhaps fifteen years but each year it became less and less a pleasure. The same people, the same conversations, the same food. It soon began to pall. The picnic still is held in the same place every August but we haven’t been there for the last twenty years.

When it comes to restaurants, one very soon develops a list of favorites that one goes to again and again but even here we take care never to order the same dishes every time. Some of the dishes we order are tried and true favorites but each time we make sure to try something new. If it’s a flop, we won’t order it again but if it’s good it is added to our list of favorites. The same goes for the dinner parties we have at our home. Neither the menu nor the guest list is ever exactly the same.

Coziness is fine, familiarity is good… but, in my case,only up to a point.  After a while, the prospect of the new eclipses the charm of the tried and true. How is it with you?

 

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Last week, I  published a post ( The Happy Society) about the happiest countries in the world in 2016 as per a U.N poll. The top 5 countries in that poll were ( in order) Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Finland. Well, the 2017 poll results are out and it is not surprising that the same countries are at the top. The 2017 poll toppers are : Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Canada. The first four were in the top four spots last year, though the order was different, and Finland which was in fifth place is till in the Top 10 this year.

At the bottom of the list: Togo, a small West African country beset by lawlessness, large scale ivory poaching and corruption. Only slightly better than it are Burundi, Syria, Benin, and Rwanda, all of which suffer from civil war/genocide, power struggles, poverty and corruption.

To get back to the Swiss:Why are they so happy? One article gives 19 reasons, several of which seem to be facetious: the scenery, Swiss chocolate, Swiss cheese, coolest sportsman ( Roger Federer), high IQ ( most Nobel laureates/ capita) and trains that run on time. Others make more sense: Neutrality ( no fear of wars or invasion), true democracy ( even ordinary citizens can propose changes to the constitution; cantons have great autonomy), livable cities and multilingualism ( perhaps it instills a world view).However, the reason that stands out most ( to me) is universal healthcare which has resulted in one of the lowest obesity rates in the world and a sense of security. It is noteworthy that this is a feature of all the top countries on that list. Of all developed countries, the United States is the only one that does not have a single payer system that guarantees its citizens affordable healthcare.

Last year, the United States was 13th on the list; this year it has fallen one place to 14th. Among the reasons cited by poll respondents: rising income inequality, a drop in social support systems and a rise in mortality rates. How I wish our politicians ( Republicans and  Democrats) would open their eyes as to what is happening ! Unfortunately, our new administration seems to have a blinkered view and its initiatives bid fair to make the situation worse instead of better. How far will the U.S fall in the 2018 poll? We’ll have to wait and see.

P.S  It’s not that I like everything about Switzerland. For one thing the Swiss seem to live under a very restrictive set of rules. I was amused to learn that in Switzerland there is an ” approved” list of baby names, and that it is illegal to flush toilets after ten pm.

Ten pm – c’mon!

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Remember Sidney Poitier? The groundbreaking black actor who won an Oscar for Best actor for his role in the 1968 film ” Lilies of the Field” ?  He was handsome, charismatic, polished and urbane, effortlessly projecting an air of refinement and class. I recently read that, until he was ten years old, he never saw his face in a mirror, never knew what he looked like. His parents were Bahamian tomato farmers who had traveled to Miami to sell their crop when his mother went into premature labor. Sidney was born and immediately became an American citizen. He spent the first ten years of his life on Cat Island in the Bahamas, a sun-drenched Caribbean paradise without glass doors, windows or storefronts. Without man-made reflections, young Sidney had no idea what he looked like.

This anecdote started me thinking….

We look at ourselves in the mirror daily, many times daily. We know exactly what we look like or, at least, what we think we look like. We are familiar with our facial features even if we subconsciously alter our perceptions and think ourselves younger and better looking than we really are.

How do we appear to others? People meeting us for the first time assess us, our character, our personality by what they see in our faces. Their first impressions, based on their reading of our faces are, more often than not, correct and are borne out by continued interactions.

In fact, there are face-readers who claim to see our past, even our future from what they see on our visages. They are to be found mostly in India and China and usually combine face reading with palmistry and astrology. Now I can understand that they can read our past based on face-reading, the experiences of the past may have left their mark on our faces, but how can they possible foretell the future? I never believed this possible until the amazing experience of a friend of mine. My engineering colleague “Albert”, unhappy with his future prospects, decided to sign a three year contract to work in Saudi Arabia and make some real money. However, before he signed on the dotted line he decided to consult a face reader and I went with him to New York’s Chinatown. The face reader was an elderly man, poorly clad and unprepossessing, who had set up shop on the pavement. I was unimpressed by him and felt he was a charlatan. He looked long and carefully at Albert’s face before making his prediction; Albert translated his words for me as we walked back to the office. Apparently, after correctly telling Albert about some incidents that had already happened, the man said flatly that Albert would not be going to Saudi Arabia, that he would remain in New York for the  forseeable future. Albert was unconvinced and decided to go head with his plans. What next happened is still difficult for me to believe. That very night Albert got a call from Taiwan telling him that his father was desperately ill and was not expected to survive. Al immediately took compassionate leave and flew back to be at his father’s bedside. He remained there for the next three weeks as his father made a miraculous recovery but in that time Albert’s window to sign the contract expired. Just as the face reader had predicted, Al stayed on in New York for several years more.

We ordinary folk can’t be face readers, at least in the sense that we cannot predict the future. However, it may be instructive for us  to take a closer look at ourselves in the mirror. Tomorrow, when you look in the mirror, look a little deeper. Not just whether your hair is combed or if your lipstick is on just right. Look deeper, at the person behind the mask, under the skin. What do you see? What do you think others will see?

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Last year, Denmark was selected as the happiest country in the world ahead of Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. The United States was in 13th place, the U.K 23rd and Japan 53rd.

What is it that accounts for the Danes happiness? Well, it is not about having things. The Danes have a name for their condition ; it is hygge ( pronounced hue-gah). There is no easy one-word  definition of this term but it can be understood to mean creating an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy and enjoying the good things of life with good people. It also means building sanctuary and community and connecting to others whether they be family, friends the community or the earth itself.  And it stresses small pleasures over the pressure to be perfect.

The first part of the definition ( enjoying the good  things of life with good people) is not new and is not unique to the Danes. People in countries the world over are well aware that happiness does not lie in excessive materialism and that it is the small things in life that are important, particularly when enjoyed with other people. Some such pleasures: family get-togethers, tucking into delicious food in the company of good friends, tea served in fine china, curling up with a good book, and a summer afternoon at the beach. These are some of the things that give value and meaning to our every day lives, make us feel at home, generous and content.

It is the second part of the definition ( about living in a society that stresses the importance of community) that is unusual. Danes like living in a society that provides a solid social framework and emphasizes personal contentment instead of status. Some of the features of  Danish society  are trust, a supportive education system and affordable healthcare. I’m sure Danes grumble about the high taxes they pay but they also know what they get in return and are happy with the compact. It allows them to have a good work-life balance and creates a strong foundation for fulfillment.

I can’t help thinking of the United States and the situation we find ourselves in today. Here, we stress individual freedoms to the point where the feeling of community is being undercut. When I speak to older Americans, they longingly remember the sixties as a time when there was a sense of unity, when most of the country was middle class and there was a sense of optimism about the future. None of these are true today. Last year the U.S was 13th on the list of the happiest countries in the world; next year I fear that we will be lower. All we can do to enjoy is to remember hygge … enjoy the little pleasures of life, live completely in the present moment and nurture the relationships that are important to us.

 

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