Are facts dead? Say it isn’t so

“We’ve got to be nicer to each other. A little more humility; a little more good faith . . .”

facts

These were a few solutions to the condition of the country today offered recently by Author Tom Nichols, during a Commonwealth Club talk titled “Are Facts Dead?” Facts may not be hopelessly dead, but Nichols fears for their survival. (He’s talking about Facts here. Established knowledge. “Alternative facts” seem unendangered.) Nichols maintains that the proliferation of fact-slayers has a lot to do with the rise of narcissism and its corresponding I-know-more-than-you-do assumption.

Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and a CBS TV political analyst, is most recently the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Just to reinforce the fact that he falls into the category of expert himself, he is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion.

“The attack on expertise is part of the narcissistic trend,” he says; “but it’s also because people feel things are out of control. It becomes empowering to say ‘I don’t believe you’ – ‘I don’t believe the experts.’” Nichols readily admits that experts can be wrong. People like to point out ‘expert failure,’ to say, “Well, Thalidomide. Challenger.” You will never find an issue on which everyone was 100% right, he concedes, or a person who’s never made a mistake. But the denigration of experts and widespread refusal to accept known facts is a growing threat.

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols with Melissa Caen

Moderator Melissa Caen, a political and legal analyst, TV personality and no slouch with facts and expertise herself, asked about Nichols’ students, and whether the problem of expert-doubting often starts with (adult) students.

“I tell my students,” Nichols says, “’You’re here to form opinions, not to have your opinions confirmed.’ The best weapon they can have, the most important skill to develop, is critical thinking. Rigid, ideological thinkers are easy to manipulate; critical thinkers are hard to manipulate.” Nichols can wax indignant about teachers who say they learn more from their students than their students learn from them. “I tell them NO! If they’re not learning far more from you then you’re not doing your job.”

The quick acceptance of any absurdity because it’s been pronounced on a TV show or an internet site, along with the doubting of experts is in no way confined to students, though. Non-facts, “alternative facts” and outright lies are being repeated over and over again by public figures today – encouraging people of all ages to accept them as truth. And this, Nichols believes, presents a very real threat to our democracy.

The only people who can keep things on track, Nichols argues, “are the voters. Ordinary citizens.” And it will help if they let experts do their job of getting at the facts. A little critical thinking on all sides might still keep civilization afloat.being nice

Meanwhile, maybe we should also try to be nicer to each other.

The Joy of Unplugging

plug

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it,” my good buddy Annie Lamott famously said, “including you.”

Heeding Lamott’s excellent advice, this writer has recently unplugged from a bunch of things. Huffington Post’s blogger roster. The list of ushers at 10 AM church services. Automatic evites to a bunch of meetings & gatherings I don’t really, really need to attend every month. Happily, this means simultaneously unplugging from a zillion email lists. Email lists for activist groups like MoveOn, Indivisible, Stand Up San Francisco, etc etc etc etc are something to tackle another day.

Unplugging even extended to regular blogging on this esteemed franjohns.net. But it’s still a joy to post when something worth posting comes to mind and time can be found. It’s also a joy to hear from readers who still read. (Most of all the email from someone I’ve never met who asked when I would be posting again on franjohns.net. Thanks, and here you are!)

Unplugging, though, is tricky. Technology still confounds. Much of life in today’s world must remain plugged in and operational: computers, printers, TV remotes, modems, iPhones and assorted other too-smart devices, home security systems, garage doors, you name it. For technologically challenged people like yours truly, having the passcodes for all these plus a lifetime of data stored in a cloud in the ethersphere for safety’s sake is a source of great comfort. One does not ever want to unplug from The Cloud.plug.1

Meanwhile there are the wasted hours on phones tapping through menus that, should you get to an end, lead to a recording that says “We’re sorry, but the office is closed. Please call again tomorrow.” And the wasted hours on the computer tapping through Help links that eventually lead to articles you do not have time to read, written by frustrated others who had a similar issue but probably nothing to say about yours.

Every now and then, though, one encounters a simple solution to a simple problem. This occurred recently when my lovely Surface computer blinked confusedly at me and went blank. The horror.

I dearly love my Surface. But I am a certified geezer and technologically inept. I did know I simply needed to shut it totally off & restart it. With my old laptop I did this by unplugging, and  removing the battery. But my svelte little Surface has nothing so old school as a clunky, removable battery. I called the Microsoft number with fear and trepidation, figuring I’d be writing off the morning.Surface

Within two minutes I reached an utterly charming young man. “Hold the Start button down,” he advised. “Keep holding it. Now we’ll just talk for a little while. You think 30 seconds isn’t very long, and it’s hard to figure out just how long it is.” Whereupon we had a pleasant exchange of several sentences about the fog in San Francisco. “OK,” he said then, “We’ve actually been talking for just over a minute. If you need to do this another time, just keep an eye on your watch. If you hold the button down for 30 seconds it will shut completely down.” This is valuable information.

And lo, when I pushed the Start button again, all was well, It just wanted to unplug.

Don’t we all.

A Soft Spot for a Pillow

tired guy

Rejuvenation. Couldn’t we all use a little rejuvenation? It is not a subject on which I have spent a great deal of time; but recent events prompt this report.

Walking home from downtown one recent, hot San Francisco afternoon this writer happened to pass a Sutter Street storefront window featuring a sign: Rejuvenation Pillow. Who could resist?  The sidewalk was steamy, a homeless gentleman was asleep in an adjacent shady doorway, guarded by a small shaggy dog; and the usual cacophony of impatient taxis, Muni buses and wailing ambulances prevailed. I stepped inside, and into – Peace. I mean, a huge, cool, quiet room full of beds tastefully made up with coverlet corners tastefully turned back. I spotted a water jug on a shelf near the desk in back. Cool water! There was no one in the sales room at the time other than one serene young woman at the desk.

“Ummm,” I said into the tranquil air, “I’m wondering about the Rejuvenation Pillow.”

(Pillows are a widespread concern these days. The MyPillow people would have you believe their pillow is the answer to  prayer, which may or may not be the case, I haven’t tried it. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Nick Hoppe recently devoted an entire column to his pillow struggles – but then, who am I to snipe at pillow columns?)

“Certainly,” said a serene voice. “I’ll be happy to show you one.” Whereupon she produced a pillow and invited me to rest my head upon it. Bliss. Admittedly it was a hot day and I’d been walking a lot of uphill blocks and the place was cool and quiet; still, the pillow had to speak rejuvenation for itself. What follows is an unsolicited, unpaid paean to my new pillow.

Bear on pillow

Bear rejuvenating on pillow

The Rejuvenation Pillow is a product of New Mexico-based Sachi Organics, which gets ingredients from South Dakota, North Carolina and Texas to create the all-organic pillows shipped to California – good ol’ Made in USA. What enables it to rejuvenate is a filling of all-organic buckwheat hulls or millet hulls, encased in all-premium eco wool and covered in organic cotton sateen. What’s not to love about all this ecological refinement?

I chose the millet, partly because the serene saleslady said the buckwheat made a slightly rustling sound. The millet hulls are supremely silent. What they quietly do, within their eco wool-encased dual chamber design, is squish themselves around in the manner of your choosing, as if some drifting cloud paused to cushion your weary head. If you choose to shift or move a little, your agreeable pillow squishily moves as appropriate. After a few weeks of this, I am unabashedly in love with my pillow. Rejuvenated, you might say.

While there are possibly more important issues confronting mankind these days, most of them seem surrounded by bad news. Rejuvenation pillows? Nothing but good news. You’re welcome.

“Life’s Work” : A book of life for today

Dr. Willie Parker wants the moral high ground back.Willie in scrubs.full

That ground was seized 40 years ago, to his regret, by those who would deny women control of their reproductive destinies – “when ‘the antis’ adopted words and phrases like ‘pro-life’ and ‘culture of life.’” But Parker, a deeply committed Christian physician who has provided compassionate care – including abortions – to countless women, is out to retake the moral high ground of reproductive justice. With kindness, scientific truth, and scripture. Parker’s book Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice tells his personal story alongside the stories of real women needing to choose abortions and the men and women fighting to preserve their right to do so.

In a recent appearance before a group of residents and other medical/academics at the University of California San Francisco, Parker spoke of his life and work.Life's Work Both encountered a turning point, he explains, on hearing Martin Luther King’s famous last speech which included the biblical story of the good Samaritan. In that story: after others had passed by a man in need a Samaritan stops to help. Those who passed by, Dr. King said, worried, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Parker writes in Life’s Work that “What made the Good Samaritan good, in Dr. King’s interpretation, was that he reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” Immediately after hearing that, Parker writes, “Once I understood that the faithful approach to a woman in need is to help her and not to judge her or to impose upon her any restriction, penalty or shame, I had to change my life.”

Parker’s life-change led him from a good job as an ob/gyn in an idyllic Hawaiian locale to becoming an expert in abortion care – both the medical procedures and the many and complex needs of women he sees when providing care. His passion now is to keep that quality of care available, especially to poor and underserved women in parts of the U.S. where access is made more and more difficult by restrictive state laws. Which led him to talk of the politics of abortion.

Fran & Willie Parker 6.14.16

Dr. Parker with a fan

“President Trump has an agenda that marginalizes women,” he told his UCSF audience. “But he does not have a mandate. We have to do a deeper dive into engaging politically, and not legitimize what’s happening. It’s most important not to become disheartened – which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Parker, who grew up poor in Alabama, the descendant of slaves, says he “draws from the history of enslaved people” – in understanding the women he sees and their need to make their own, personal reproductive choices.

Some 60 years ago this writer, faced with a pregnancy resulting from workplace rape, was forced to seek out a back alley abortion. There was no Willie Parker to defend my choice, or to explain why it was morally and spiritually right. No one should be able to claim some moral superiority that supports sending women back to those dark ages, which is the direction we are headed. Now, though, there is a voice to be reckoned with. To quote Gloria Steinem re Life’s Work: I wish everyone in America would read this book.

Vicente Fox. Has. Opinions

Vicente Fox is not shy with his opinions.

Vicente Fox.1

Fox onstage

During a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club the former president of Mexico (2000-2006) shared his thoughts on border walls, immigration, the global economy and Donald Trump. None of these would be pleasing to Mr. Trump – nor would they come as any surprise, since the two men regularly tweet insults at each other.

In advance of a conversation with Commonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy, Fox strode onstage and entertained his audience – which seemed not to include many Trump supporters – with a 30-minute, statistics-filled, no-notes commentary on the world in general and U.S./Mexico relations in particular.

As to that latter, “After years of democracy, friendship and cooperation, your leader says ‘Wait a minute! We have to build a wall!’” This, Fox maintains, is a very bad idea. “You are perhaps shooting yourself with a gun in the foot. Attacking ourselves in a trade war? Crazy.” Fox suggests that successful relationships between neighbor countries are built on “love, compassion, diplomacy and democratic dialogue.” The trade war now seeming likely will benefit neither, he believes.Vicente Fox.2

And as to the wall? “It’s going to take 35 billion U.S. dollars to build the wall. With that $35 billion you can create 10 million jobs. China built a wall, at great sacrifice. Paid for it with their own money. To protect against the Mongols and the Manchu. What happened? China was invaded by the Mongols and the Manchu. Berlin? They built a wall to keep freedom out.” Fox is not enthusiastic about walls.

Immigration? “We don’t want any more invasions by gringos.” Fox suggests that the problem of illegal immigration into the U.S. might better be addressed by spending that $35 billion on “going to the heart of the problem, in Central America,” where desperate situations in more than a few countries are forcing desperate people to attempt to enter the U.S. through Mexico.

This writer lays no claim to expertise on Mexican politics or political history. (Two Mexican friends, when asked, allowed as how they felt Mr. Fox got very rich during his presidency but didn’t do a lot for their poor communities.) But former president Fox, movie-star handsome, charmingly funny and a man who thinks the world would be better off if women were in charge? What’s not to love?

Vicente Fox.3

With Commonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy

Fox, in his Commonwealth Club appearance, referred more than once to the Dalai Lama’s assertion that the world belongs to humanity. “That means all 8 billion of us,” he says. (A tiny exaggeration, though checking the world population clock is both fascinating and scary.) Among Fox’s strongest current opinions is that his non-friend Donald Trump spends too much time talking about withdrawing his country from the world, protecting its citizens, building walls, making America great. Fox suggested to his San Francisco audience that he had a response to this:

 

“I have decided to name myself – humbly – head of a shadow government representing the world,” Vicente Fox quips, “to say to your president  — — —  ‘What about us??’”

Worth thinking about.

 

 

Bridging the Poverty Gap

On a recent cross-country flight I sat one row ahead of a family I had first noticed in the gate area: a young mother with one child about four and a baby, none looking as though they’d had a bath, a new pair of shoes or a good night’s sleep in some time. They were one row behind me, and I was one row behind six rows of excited high school kids accompanied by several adults from Salinas, California, heading off for spring break. (It was not a quiet trip.)airplane interior

The child was hungry, the baby cried, and the mother looked helpless. Mother and child wore ill-fitting clothes and sandals not well suited to the 40-degree weather. The baby might have needed changing and the mother made me feel sad. In fact, the entire family made me feel sad. At what cost, I kept wondering, could they be flying all the way across the country, to find what relief?

It could have been my imagination, but it seemed as if everyone managed to make them invisible in a way more extreme than how we generally avoid noticing each other when strangers are in close quarters. It felt as if there were two parallel universes – the Regular People one degree removed from the First Class people, and the ignorable family.

airline snacksWhen the flight attendant came by with snacks I was grateful to be able to pass my caramel-filled wafer to the child. This was nothing magnanimous on my part; I’m gluten-intolerant and couldn’t eat it. But what balanced my sadness for the little family happened after we landed. As the exiting unfolded, a young man in an Ivy League college jacket wound up right behind the mother. She was struggling with baby, small child, huge diaper bag and a canvas bag retrieved from the luggage rack. “Here,” said the young man; “Let me help.” With that he slung his duffel bag onto his back, grabbed both diaper bag and canvas sack and smilingly sent mother and brood ahead of him down the aisle. When I passed them at the end of the jetway he was pulling something out of his duffel bag – presumably a snack of some sort – for the 4-year-old.

This flight ended in Washington D.C., where a lot of millionaires are working to cut their own taxes and eliminate funding for a variety of services to people like my fellow-traveling family.

The day after my arrival I had a joyous reunion with one of my best friends from long ago college days, whose daughter drove her several hours through stormy weather so we could visit. Her daughter’s name is Lisa.

Lisa and her husband Gary, it turns out, are moving to the unincorporated hamlet of Lucketts, Virginia. Four miles south of the Potomac River, Lucketts features trailer parks and very fancy new upscale homes, an old schoolhouse now on the National Registry of Historic Places, one gas station, and a stoplight at the intersection of Route 15 and Stumptown Road. Vineyards developing nearby partially explain the fancy new homes; according to Wikipedia, you can hear distant train whistles, and bluegrass music every Saturday night at the community center (former schoolhouse) from October to April. Lucketts manse

Lisa and Gary, who have already met with community members from both ends of the Lucketts economic spectrum, will live in an old (built in 1924) manse across the road from a recently-closed (built in 1885) Presbyterian church. They plan to hold open house – you’ll know you’re welcome to drop in if the porch light is on – at (well, almost) all hours. If it turns out that people get to know one another and eventually feel so inclined, they will reopen the church. Gary had a successful career in business before going into nonprofit work in search of something more meaningful; with their children now grown the couple see this as an exciting new chapter in life.Lucketts church

The point of these two stories – interrupted by an observation on our current political scene that is simply too pertinent to ignore – is not that all shabby travelers are poverty-stricken, or that you have to be very rich to wear a Yale jacket (though you might) or that all baby boomer couples should seek new career paths. The point is: while the rich get rich and the poor get poorer in this divided country, it’s going to take a lot of random acts of kindness to keep us together. And that, happily, they do occur.

Breast Cancer? Ask questions!

In honor of International Women’s Day (even if I didn’t quite get it finished in time,) this brief message is about a book recently re-issued by Dr. William H. Goodson III that should be in the hands of every woman with breast cancer, wanting to understand breast cancer or helping someone who is going through breast cancer.

Pink flower

It’s Your Body . . . ASK is a guidebook for talking with your doctor about breast cancer. I would’ve given anything to have had it when I had breast cancer, and a mastectomy, a dozen years ago. Maybe I would’ve made different decisions, maybe not. But the reality is this: most women, unless they have had medical training, would never think to ask a question like “What are the side effects of removing axillary nodes?” Personally, I didn’t think to ask about nodes at all. Other than considering the size of my cancer, in fact, questions I might have asked about its rate of growth, alternative treatments, follow-up therapies – – were mostly not discussed because I didn’t know to ask them.

This is a book that gives not just answers (it offers many answers about families, about hormone-based therapies and other issues) but more importantly: questions. If you, a breast cancer patient, know the questions, your doctor needs to give you the answers. What’s that lump about? What about these other pains and symptoms I have? What are all of my treatment options?

(I would say, here, Full disclosure: Dr, Goodson is a friend of mine. But it would be more braggadocio than disclosure. Bill Goodson and I shared a few discussion program podiums It's Your Bodyseveral years ago when his gripping novel about sexual violence against women, The Blue-Eyed Girl and my Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade were both newly released. I’m a writer. He’s a Senior Scientist at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute; a recognized leader in breast cancer care who has been (among other things) a Professor of Surgery at the University of California San Francisco and President of the San Francisco Medical Society, and is listed in The Best Doctors in America.)

Credentials aside, It’s Your Body . . . ASK is worth a look. It offers a pathway through turbulent times, which can be far less turbulent if you have some help in steering your own ship.

Check it out.