IS MARRIAGE OBSOLETE?

In the middle of the last century most women postponed pregnancy until they were married. This was true whether they were rich or poor, college educated or not or belonged to different ethnic groups. During those years the coupling of reproduction and marriage was the rule. Single women avoided pregnancy despite the fact that the choice of contraceptives was very limited. I have discussed this social tendency with a number of women who were young at that time. Did they have sex? Of course they did! Many recalled the anxiety they would experience that they might inadvertently become pregnant. Social stigma was significant. When an unmarried woman became pregnant they often would send her away to live with a relative. After delivery the child was put up for adoption. I certainly am not advocating that we return to the puritan times of the scarlet letter. I am merely reporting on an earlier era that regarded marriage as a social responsibility  and the optimal environment to raise children.

At present the majority of births amongst women less than thirty occur outside of wedlock. Stigma has been removed.  Words such as, “bastard” or “Illegitimate” have all but disappeared from the language.   Film magazines frequently carry feature articles of unwed movie stars proudly showing their new progeny.  Often young women see such starlets as role models to be emulated. If they can have a baby why can’t I have a baby too? Girls from dysfunctional families, limited intellectual ability and minimal education are especially prone to become unmarried mothers. If these present trends continue  single motherhood might become the new norm. This might be the biggest social upheaval of our times. It also may not bode well for society. I will make further comments on this subject in my next blog.

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MUSINGS

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A PAEN TO PAGANISM

There seems to be a continuous battle between the comedian John Stewart and the Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilley. Their latest flap involves what Mr O’Reilley perceives as a war that liberals are waging against Christmas. One of his primary arguments involves a movement to supplant the name “Christmas Trees”, with a more politically correct term, “Holiday Trees.” Those who support this proposed new terminology feel that it is a better reflection of our multicultural society. However, Mr O’Reilley equates this movement to a secularization of a holy day, an effort to take Christ out of a celebration that bears his name. The dispute over the naming a fir tree is puzzling. Christmas trees were not associated with Christian celebrations until the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Their significance in worship seems to be more closely linked to the pre-Christian Nordic Yule celebrations.

Perhaps it remains difficult for the faithful to come to grips that Christmas has deep pagan roots with an overlay of Christian belief. Certainly no scholar accepts the idea that Christ was born on December twenty fifth. Shepherds certainly would never tend their flocks outdoors on a cold winter night. There is no evidence that the early Church revered or celebrated this date. In later times, the Puritans actually banned its celebration because of the tendency for drunken revelry. Solstice celebrations, on the other hand, were common throughout the pagan world. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at the time we now celebrate Christmas. Our birth date of Christ closely corresponds to celebration of the birth of the Persian God, Mithra. In order to proselytize pagans early Christians discarded many Jewish practices and adopted those of the Roman world. The Jewish Sabbath was changed to the day of the sun (Sunday). Dietary restrictions were lifted. Circumcision was not required. Christian celebrations were made to harmonize with Roman holidays. New converts were able to continue the celebration of Saturnalia.

Because pagans seemed to have more fun than Christians, it is my wish that each of us revel in our pagan heritage. Let’s celebrate the birthdays of Christ and Saturn and Mithra during this holiday season. Believe in Santa Claus and enjoy the pagan origins of Christmas trees. I would also encourage each of you to follow the biblical injunction, “Eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry heart”.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO YOU AND YOUR KIN.

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‘TIS THE SEASON

The season has arrived for us to share our merriment. The easiest way to do this is to send a Christmas card with a few family photos. My family insists on continuing our recent tradition of emailing a family progress report. I have been selected to create some appropriate words. I realize that these comments will soon join the holiday wrappings and ribbons in the fire place or in the garbage can. Hopefully they will be read before reaching that final destination.

My sincere wish is to amuse my readers and share landmark events. I assure you that this missive does not achieve that goal. In Shakespeare’s words, I have much ado about nothing to report. Don’t feel sorry for us! A year without big events is a gift. Usually Christmas letters deal with travel. Fortunately we have travelled widely while we were young and vigorous. Hence, we have little urge to continue that diversion which has become so much more difficult “these days.” I realize that a year of quiet contentment might seem dull to some of you, but we relish it.

(VERN!! WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT QUIET. WITH A HOUSE BEING BUILT BY HEATHER AND TOM 100 YARDS FROM OUR FRONT DOOR, AND 3 LITTLE ONES TRACKING IN MUD, DOING HOMEWORK, PLAYING, SCREAMING, SLEEPOVERS, MESS, MEALS FOR 7 EVERY DAY!!!! THAT AINT QUIET….HMMMMM!!!!!! AND DRIVING TO MILL VALLEY AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE TO ENTER MORE CHAOS IN VICTORIA AND LEE’S HOUSE WHICH IS BEING REMODELED SO ALL 5 ARE LIVING IN 3 ROOMS… AND WITH US, ALL 7! WHERE IS THE QUIET?)

(I feel better now… so OK BACK TO VERN)…..

However, the flow of our lives is rich and satisfying. Wonderful friends and multiple pursuits such as art events, movies and many social functions make this possible. (OK I agree!!)

We represent the bygone days and live within a world of wonderful memories..

(WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT VERN. WE ARE STILL MAKING LOTS OF MEMORIES! WE HAVE NO TIME TO SIT AND THINK ABOUT THE PAST!!….., OK GO ON….)

As Scott Fitzgerald said, “and so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” In contrast, the children and grandchildren hold the future in their hands. It is a true pleasure to watch the younger generation morphing into genuine human beings. I will not bore you with their brilliance or abilities. However, I must take full credit for their genetic endowment. How could they be otherwise with such capable grandparents?

I also must take credit for this non-informative news letter. Please regard the medium as the message. It signifies that we are thinking of you and treasure our friendships. May the blessings of the season be with you and continue throughout the new year.

HO HO HO

(OK VERN, THAT IS VERY NICE!!)

“Edited” by Marsha, humbly
octogenarian-xmas

And Vern, how could you put this deer here, you know I fight with them eating the roses and agapantha, rhaphiolepsis, even eating the avocado tree leaves…. hmmm……Oh well, I submit.
Peace and love from Marsha too… ooxom

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GOD IS LOVE?

A dear family friend works as a public defender. At times she shares anecdotes about the people she has to represent. Many appear to be miscreants who wreak much havoc upon the social order. At times I jokingly state that there is a solution for these kinds of people. We should shoot them all and let God sort it out. After all, God has vast experience in destroying those who disagree him. In biblical times, not only did God punish the sinner but punished their progeny. The iniquities of the fathers were to be inflicted upon the children unto the third or fourth generation. The curses imposed upon Adam and Eve applied to their offspring in perpetuity. Nor was it rare for innocents to suffer the punishments meted out by an angry deity. Because of the intransigence of Pharaoh, God chose to destroy every first born child in Egypt. This was not his first use of mass destruction. After creation, the world had become very wicked. God’s solution to the problem was to create a great flood and eliminate the the whole human race with the exception of Noah’s family. God’s awesome power to exterminate was also turned against the Egyptian hoards pursuing the children of Israel. At a later date he visited the angel of death upon the invading Assyrians. For those who worshiped the Golden Calf God commanded, “slay every man his brother (who worshiped the idol), and every man his companion and every man his neighbor”. Directing his wrath against the Canaanites he instructed the Israelites to kill every man, woman, child and animal in the conquered villages. This harshness against those who disobey him is seen in the Levitical laws and continues to the very end of the Bible. In the book of Revelation the wicked are eternally damned to exquisite suffering in a Lake of Fire.

At times, the Old Testament God seems capricious and petty. He should have known that a woman could not resist the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt because of her desire to see what was happening. A man who tried to prevent the Ark of the Covenant from falling was struck dead for touching the holy object. When a group of boys were mocking the prophet Elisha God sent two female bears to punish the unruly youngsters and devour them. I’m writing these musings with some trepidation. Hopefully they are not blasphemous. Last week we might have had a bad omen come to our house. A real live black bear visited our patio in the middle of the night.

As a child I sang the words “keep looking up, thy God is still the same today”. I was also taught that the Supreme Being is the same yesterday, today and forever. If the deity continues to persist in his destructive rage toward the errant I should be seriously concerned. The bottomless pit and the inferno await me. However my theologic friends assure me that the vengeful God of antiquity has morphed into a loving, kindly old man with a long white beard. Yet, I continue to have apprehension about a deity that demanded blood sacrifice. We are told that he so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to suffer a bloody, anguishing death. Such love fails to gain my confidence. With all of his omnipotent abilities could he not have created some sweet oblivious antidote to accomplish the same goal? I’ll allow the theologians to deal with that question. Or did the bloodshed and mayhem so frequently attributed to him never happen? Are these tales merely the myths and legends of a superstitious desert people? Many believers regard them as historical realities and absolute truths. Should we? If so, what does it tell us about the nature of a God who fails to adhere to his own commandment, “thou shalt not kill”?

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VIVE LA DIFFERENCE

Recently there has been discussion about whether to allow women golfers to compete in the US open. As in many other athletic events the PGA has been the exclusive domaine of males. In the field of professional sports this is not unusual. It is accepted that most competitive athletic competitions have separate leagues and separate events for men and for women due to differences in body mechanics, physical strength and motor skills. How different it is if we suggest that each gender may have different brain functions and capacities or that such disparities might result in different abilities and career choices. Several years ago Larry Summers of Harvard suggested just that! He proposed that brain differences between the sexes may result in fewer women succeeding in science and math careers. His comments caused a fire storm and may have contributed to his resignation as dean. His comments were seen as denigrating toward women and definitely not politically correct. As just another body organ, has the brain resisted the innate gender differences that evolved in other organ systems? Why is this idea so threatening to some feminists? Allow me to make some comments that might shed some light on the subject.

Poor men! As the weaker sex we tend to die at an earlier age than women. Our gender is heavily under-represented in retirement homes which are heavily populated by widows. Throughout life males manifest more problems in some areas than do females. The autistic spectrum of disorders afflict males to a much greater extent than females. The frontal lobes of the brain are the seat of rational behavior and sensible choices. These structures mature more slowly in boys resulting in greater risk taking and poorer judgement. When combined with the normal testosterone poisoning of male adolescence the result is often lethal. Violent deaths are much more common in males throughout life. Furthermore males tend to be disadvantaged in the realm of language. Little girls tend to speak earlier, have greater ability to learn phonics and develop greater verbal fluency. The language centers of the female brain contain more neurons than the same areas in males. Neuronal connections between the two hemispheres of the brain (the corpus callosum) are considerably smaller in males than in females. Also in females the size of the two brain hemispheres are roughly equal whereas in males the right hemisphere is significantly larger than the other. Some neuroscientists suggest that with equal size hemispheres females have more bilateral brain involvement in tasking. Males might primarily use one side of the brain for certain goals and the other side for other endeavors. This might result in females seemingly being better in multitasking. On the bright side we can point out certain advantages that males have on the high side of the spectrum. Despite the existence of more mentally impaired males there are also more males on the brilliant side of the spectrum. Studies involving thousands of people from childhood to adulthood indicate that there are more males in the genius category than females. Many of these choose science or mathematics as careers. In contrast, females in the genius category more often chose administrative positions. Statistically women placed higher priorities in having close relationships and part time careers. On the other hand more men expressed interest in having full time careers which are of a creative or inventive nature.

I could bore my readers about other brain differences between men and women involving structures such as the amygdala, the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex. I will refrain. Suffice it to say that differences appear to exist in how these structures are interconnected in men and women. I would like to suggest that many of the biological drives in men and women evolved to meet the needs of each gender and their roles in fulfilling them. The genetic advantages of a good hunter evolved somewhat differently from that of a woman functioning as a mother and gatherer.

I believe it is important to acknowledge that there are differences and to celebrate them rather than deny them. Also it is important to recognize that the similarities between men and women are vastly more common than any differences that might exist.

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WHEN PAIN AND ANGUISH WRING THE BROW

I have arrived at an age where discussion of physical problems creeps into many social conversations. Whereas younger men tend to obsess about sports, women and sex, geezers tend to frequently focus upon aches and pains. I have observed that many of my wife’s friends have similar conversations about their bodily discomforts. The aging process introduces a spectrum of physical discomforts, especially arthritic and skeletal pain. However, other organs are not immune to the pangs of of the flesh. I jokingly refer to the discussions of elderly people as “organ recitals”. When multiple foci of pain are involved, I call the syndrome “migratory misery”.

Allow me to digress and share an experience of my younger life. While helicopter skiing in Canada a mini-avalanche pushed me into a tree well. I found myself upside down with my skis caught in the branches above me. The other skiers had continued on their way and left me all alone in the forest. I was frightened. Adrenaline surged. With great difficulty I struggled to release my ski bindings, managed to crawl out of the tree well, put on my skis and schuss down the mountain. You might might say, so what! What I failed to mention is that I had impaled my chest on a broken branch, fracturing several ribs and puncturing a lung. I was solely focused upon survival and remarkably unaware of pain until I reached the helicopter pad. Only then did I became aware that I was seriously injured and felt the exquisite pain of fractured ribs. I then became dependent on help.

Allow me to continue to ramble. As a physiologist I was involved in a project studying congestive heart failure which required doing open chest surgery on dogs. I was always surprised that several hours after surgery the animals were normally active and demonstrated few signs of incapacity or discomfort. This behavior was in sharp contrast to the many post-operative patients that I have seen. Possibly lower animals have a nervous system less sensitive than that of a human. I would like to propose another explanation. During my ski accident the need for survival distracted me from experiencing pain. The moment I reached the helicopter pad my status changed. I assumed the role of patient and behaved as a patient should. As I coughed up blood I began an internal conversation about my damaged internal organs. How badly was I hurt? Would my lung re-expand? The pain free skier rapidly transformed into an invalid. My preoccupation with my body focused upon my injuries and accentuated my pain. I feel reasonably certain that my canine friends did not tell themselves a story about their tissue damage or their pain. They seemed to overlook any discomfort they were experiencing.

As a physician I have been particularly interested in how differently people respond to their pain. Illustrated by the previous anecdotes, even the most acute pain can be blocked by or modified by ones mental state. Historically, Western physicians were amazed by the work a Dr. James Esdale in British India. This surgeon performed major surgery on patients, using only hypnosis as the anesthetic. His work reinforced the concept that pain can be greatly altered by ones mental state. The examples I have given are extreme portrayals of this phenomenon. However, how we relate to pain pain plays an important role in our day to day lives. We cannot avoid it. It is a necessary biologic phenomenon. Also, it is a highly subjective experience. If and when it becomes chronic it assumes a different nature from the sharp pangs of an acute trauma. At times the pain experience establishes automatic neuronal circuits that persist long after healing is completed. Such chronic pain syndromes are extremely difficult to eradicate. Persistent severe pain such as cancer leads to suffering. Intense pain engulfs the patient. In such situations the patient literally becomes his pain. Pain is his only identity. As the aging Sigmund Freud so eloquently stated, “I’m just a small island of consciousness floating upon a sea of pain”.

I have no idea who night read these comments or if my musings have any significance. I suspect that most readers are well into adulthood and recognize the tendency of their elders to kvetch about their malfunctions. Rest assured that it will happen to you if you live long enough. Because this is not a common topic of discussion amongst the young, I might have prompted them into thinking about this facet of their future. In the early decades of life it is almost impossible to visualize oneself as aged, wrinkled and bent. Aging is Mother Nature’s cruel joke upon us. Aches and pains are a part of her caprice. On the bright side I would like to assure my readers that many elders are able to lead rich and full lives despite their minor maladies.

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IT’S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL

Allow me to make some disjointed and rambling comments on how our world is shrinking. Our global interconnectedness is truly miraculous and far exceeds the wildest dreams of my childhood. In the era of sailing ships intercontinental messages would take weeks to be delivered. In my childhood, overseas telephone calls were all but nonexistent. Now my wife does frequent and instantaneous communications with her South African cousins or to our friends in Australia. The phenomenon is so commonplace that we have become jaded and cease to think of it as extraordinary. Tragically our connectedness often fails to foster true relationships.

Paralleling our ability to communicate electronically is the ability to rapidly access remote corners of our globe. During my rural childhood it was rare for anyone to venture long distances from their homes. Little did I dream that as an adult I would have the good fortune to visit all of the continents on earth (including Antarctica). During such junkets we have unexpectedly run into people we knew from California on the sidewalks of Rome, the slopes of mount Kilimanjaro and at events of the Olympic games. The most rare encounter occurred in Africa. Through the good graces of our friend Bill we were guests at the Leaky research facilities on Lake Turkana. Tourists were prohibited from visiting this area so as not to disturb the excavations of prehominid fossils. Here the desert terrain suffers an arid bareness reminiscent of the face of the moon. My daughter continued to carp about the heat and dust and questioned the sanity of anyone who would want to work here. Arriving at the site she looked down on a young man who was busily excavating. A moment transpired during which my daughter could have been saying, “Dr. Livingstone I presume”. She actually addressed the youth by his given name. He in turn looked up with surprise and simply said, “Hi Victoria”. As old college friends they renewed their acquaintance in one of the most remote and desolate sites on the earth.

Modern communications and modern travel are significant blessings of our era. The opportunity of observing different peoples and cultures expands our vistas and might even be transformational. For me our shrinking world recalls a biblical verse, “If you take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, there will I be with you.” The verse seems to indicate that although we are able change our geographic location we cannot escape our roots or cultural identity. No matter where we are our values and conscience always tag along. We observe exotic peoples through the eyes of an American. This does not detract from enjoying the experience. I treasure memories of sharing a hut with cannibals on the Sepic river or encountering Tibetans who had never seen a Caucasian person. Yet, whenever I return from visiting the third world I want to bow down and kiss the American soil.

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AMBIVALENCE

As a child I had the misfortune of contracting whooping cough as well as the whole spectrum of childhood contagious diseases. Thanks to modern medicine and public health measures these maladies have all but disappeared. Yet, in certain parts of the the country they are making a resurgence. Parents are reluctant to immunize their children for fear the vaccines will cause autism. This fear persists despite a mass of scientific. evidence that it is unfounded. Often these parents are of upper socioeconomic status. They prefer to deliver their babies without using modern methods of pain relief. Whereas they often reject scientifically proven remedies they are enamored with unproven herbal remedies and holistic medicine. The effectiveness of their potions is often based upon anecdotes. Their arguments could defend the effectiveness of blood letting. I am frequently surprised how little is known about the scientific method or the use of double blind studies. Lack of knowledge leads to gullibility.

Perhaps there is a natural tendency to mistrust science and scientists. As a group they possess the power of special knowledge. This power can be used for great good or great evil. From an early age our children are exposed to the idea of the evil scientist. A favorite children’s program features a notorious Doctor Doofenschmirtz who is evil and reeks havoc. This idea of the evil doctor is frequently repeated in movies, television and science fiction. The grandaddy of them all is Frankenstein. A well meaning scientist inadvertently unleashes a monster. At present genetically altered foods sometimes bear the label of Frankenfoods to emphasize the dangers of nutrients artificially created by scientists. Science has presented us with destructive inventions such as dynamite, poison gas, atomic bombs, germ warfare and napalm. Hopefully the positive effects of medical and scientific discoveries far outweigh their negative and destructive aspects.

Allow me some parenthetical thoughts. I have been observing ads on television for products that are touted to improve life or remove suffering. Almost an equal number are sponsored by law firms encouraging patients to sue for some bad therapeutic result. One message emphasizes the wonders of doctors and scientific medical progress. The other revives the image of the evil doctor who causes pain and should be punished. Perhaps these ads reflect our ambivalent feelings toward doctors.

From childhood on we become aware that doctors have license to inflict pain. They hold the power of life or death in their hands.They speak an arcane language which enhances their mystery and magic. We resent that they cannot communicate in simple, plain English. We consult with them because we are in distress and feel vulnerable. Many patients want to bond with their doctor. I have heard many women say that they truly love their physician. However, if a doctor has to deliver bad news perhaps we experience a childish wish for our doctor to be omnipotent. When he isn’t, we feel disappointment and disillusionment.

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THEY FLASH ACROSS THE INNER EYE

Some quotations seem to choose us. Surreptitiously they slink into to the memory and remain without apparent effort to retain them. Most likely they glom on to something important in the unconscious. For me, a poem by Wordsworth represents such an entity. I don’t remember ever having made an effort to memorize it. Yet, it has remained with me for many years.

And oft’ when on my couch I lie
in vacant or pensive mood.
They flash across that inner eye
which is the bliss of solitude.

The poet tells of a specific memory. In verse he recalls a past event where he found himself amidst a field of daffodils. The recalled experience thrilled him. In memory he was actually reliving the past with all of its attendant emotions. In describing his experience the poet seems to be delivering a broader message. He is extolling the power that memory has to enrich and define us.

The labyrinths of memory create and shape who we are. Of trillions of events that we experience only a very few are captured for subsequent recall. Those that are retained re-enforce our identity. Unlike the precision of a photo, memories are edited and fashioned to conform to the image we have of ourselves. The process begins at a very early age. Psychologists have determined that many, if not most, of very early childhood memories are pure creations of the neurologically immature mind. They call them screen memories. At the other end of the life spectrum aging people construct their memories to portray themselves in a more heroic light. Their fish stories become more exaggerated. A little imagination often augments the adventures of the past. In their narrative elderly persons display a need to make their stay on this planet more meaningful. At times the very process of recall seems defective. As a psychiatrist I have often heard family members narrate a family occurrence with versions so disparate that they hardly seemed to be talking about the same event.

I hear young people complain that grandpa only talks about the past. Often this is true. For many geezers little is happening in the present. This is especially true of physically active types of events. In contrast, a rich trove of treasure awaits to be excavated from their past. As I indicated in a previous blog my infirmities have forced me to be more sedentary and those exciting things like scuba, hiking etc are past. However, through books, television, movies and my computer I can engage in a very active life vicariously. In memory I can be on the Grand Canal or under the Bridge of Sighs. Mementos of native artifacts transport me to jungles of New Guinea or to the high Veldt of Africa.

Recently I experienced a memory so vivid that it bordered upon deja-vu. The actual event occurred when mount Pinatubo was erupting in the Philippines. Volcanic ash in the upper atmosphere transformed the sunset into a pool of blood. I can still remember the elation of catching an eighty pound catfish. Also the intense stench resides in my memory. Approximately thirty yards away lay the massive carcass of a rotting Hippo. However, the remains of the dead animal were barely visible. Covering almost every inch of the hippo’s surface were dozens of slithering crocodiles ripping and tearing on the decaying flesh. The rouge of the dying sun cast an infernal hue on the scene. In a sense it seemed reminiscent of Dante’s inferno.

At times I question my memories, especially when they seem extraordinary and unusual. I question whether I am exaggerating in my minds eye. Just a few days ago I watched a nature program. The television production dealt with a dead hippo. Indeed, swarming and writhing over the carcass were dozens of feasting reptiles. Viewing the program unleashed a flood of memories. In reality I have thousands of stories that transport me to former times. They are a source of great amusement.

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