I used to be a news junkie, and now I’m not. There’s just too much “news,” and most of it’s bad. Some days I feel like I’m hovering at the edge of a precipice, and if I read one more story about a genocide, homicide, suicide, kidnapping, molestation, torture, or war, I’ll just sink into a depression from which I will not be able to pull myself. And as I get older, the news of bad events reads strikingly the same. Politicians are corrupt? Murderers aren’t caught? These stories aren’t news, they’re business as usual. The only things that change are the names. Although I sometimes feel guilty about it, now I read headlines and sometimes a full story. I don’t read everything. I look for good news and kindness.
So I was pleased to run across this lifehacker post the other day: ”How Positive Thoughts Build Skills, Boost Health, and Improve Work.” Even the headline cheered me up. James Clear, the author, describes how fear, anger, and other negative emotions limit your range of choices: If you see the tiger leap at you, your only thought is to run away. One choice.
But he describes a new study in which subjects examined images that evoked a range of emotions. Afterwards, each participant was asked to fill in the sentence, “I would like to….” The participants who’d seen positive images had a significantly greater number of goals than those who’d seen negative images or even neutral images.
Even better, the study demonstrates how doing things that make you happy builds skillsets that–even when the happy stimulus goes away–stay with you. So being happy helps you down the road even in times when you are not conspicuously happy, because you have more resources. Negative emotions build only one skillset–the ability to run away from the tiger.
The post suggests three ways to get happy: meditate, play, and write three times a week about something that makes you happy. Seems simple enough. I’m going to try it. Because the news sure doesn’t look like it’s going to improve.
Today, in the aftermath of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I was thinking about “peacetime” first responders and the medical personnel who risk their lives every day during war. For some reason, I remembered reading one of those orange, cloth-covered hardback biographies that were published for children (at least, when I was a child) about Edith Cavell. Wasn’t she a nurse?
I looked her up. Indeed, born in 1865, Edith Cavell, a vicar’s daughter, trained to be a nurse at the age of 40 and went to work as the matron of a newly established nursing school in Brussels, where she launched the nursing journal L’infirmière. By 1911, she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.
In November 1914, after the Germans occupied Brussels, Cavell began helping wounded soldiers out of occupied Belgium to neutral Holland. Prince Reginald de Croy furnished the British, French, and Belgian soldiers with false papers and got them to Cavell (among others) in Brussels. Cavell treated them and, with her collaborators, gave them enough money to get to Holland.
These actions violated German military law. Apparently aware of the danger, she is quoted to have said, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” She was arrested in 1915 and charged with treason for harboring Allied soldiers. She admitted that she had been instrumental in conveying about 60 British and 15 French soldiers and about 100 French and Belgians of military age to the frontier and had sheltered most of them in her house.
As a combatant nation, the British government said they could do nothing to help her. The United States, however, applied diplomatic pressure and other nations joined a plea for clemency. Baron von der Lancken, the German civil governor, stated that Cavell should be pardoned because she had helped save so many lives, German as well as Allied.
Of the 27 collaborators who faced trial, five were condemned to death. Three were later reprieved and two were executed. One was Edith Cavell. The night before her execution, she told the Anglican chaplain who visited her, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Edith Cavell is remembered for her duty, skill, and courage, as are all first responders, medics, doctors, and nurses who comfort and care for the wounded, wherever they fall.
I’ve always liked American history, especially colonial history. The American war of colonial independence, otherwise known as the Revolutionary War, is a true David and Goliath story. On one side, the colonists: outnumbered, outgunned. On the other side, the British: world rulers. Start the smackdown!
The colonists’ desire to divest themselves from British rule did not develop swiftly. Ultimately it was fueled by the publication of political pamphlets, the most influential of which was Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine and published in January of 1776. In the first three months Common Sense sold 120,000 copies, an astonishing number. To compare: In 1776, the colonial population was 2.5 million. In today’s numbers, Common Sense would have sold 15 million copies in three months. By year’s end (1776, that is), 500,000 copies of Common Sense were sold–that means that 20 percent of the entire colonial population, including children and the many adults who couldn’t read, had bought a copy. That’s 60 million copies in today’s numbers. Compare those stats to the sales of 50 Shades of Grey, today’s blockbuster. The most recent numbers I could find report that 16 million copies of the Grey series have sold in the United States. And that’s the fastest-selling book in publishing history. And its sales records don’t hold a candle to Common Sense.
The rhetoric of Common Sense helped to sway the general population (by the middle of May 1776, eight colonies had decided that they would support independence), although many representatives to the Continental Congress were already persuaded. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia had put out a resolution for independence, a committee was formed, Thomas Jefferson was asked to write the draft, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin edited it, and the Continental Congress voted to adopt the Lee resolution of independence on July 2, 1776 with 12 of the 13 colonies supporting it (New York abstained). At the time, John Adams wrote in a letter that for many years in the future, Americans would be celebrating July 2 as their independence day. But in fact, July 4–the day the Declaration’s wording was approved–became Independence Day. New York approved the action on July 9, and the document itself was signed on August 2, 1776.
And that declaration set off a whole lot of fireworks in Great Britain. Following is the text of the document that summarized the political philosophy of John Locke and the Continental philosophers and listed the colonial grievances against the King: [drum role, please]
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States: For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury: For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies: For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments: For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
I went to a play this week, A Doctor in Spite of Himself. It was hilarious. It poked fun at the medical profession and how health care is delivered. It poked fun of the rich. It poked fun at politicians. It poked fun at itself and the audience. I haven’t laughed that hard at a play since I don’t know when. And Moliere wrote it in 1666. Which just shows you that great writing never grows old.
This production went from Seattle to New Haven to Berkeley, where I saw it. Check it out if you’re in the neighborhood! Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.
I missed wishing everyone a happy Valentine’s Day, so I looked up holidays for February 15. Check it out! Some good ones. First off, Susan B. Anthony’s birthday.
Susan B. Anthony was born to Quaker parents with long activist traditions on February 15, 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts. She campaigned for the abolition of slavery, women’s right to their own property and earnings, and women’s labor organizations. In 1900, Anthony persuaded the University of Rochester to admit women. She was a tireless supporter of women’s suffrage and was arrested in 1872 for voting, but legal maneuvering meant that her case never went to the Supreme Court. Women did not win the vote until fourteen years after her death.
Also celebrated on February 15: Galileo’s birthday. Born in 1564 (or so), Galileo was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. His achievements include improvements to the telescope; his astronomical observations advanced the Copernican theory that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun, the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean moons in his honour), and the analysis of sunspots. The Inquisition tried him for heresy and found him guilty, and he spent the rest of his life imprisoned in his house.
John Sutter was born on February 15, 1803, in Baden, Germany, came to the United States, and settled in California. He qualified for a land grant and was given 48,000 acres to farm. He established a town, set up a trading fort, and propered—until 1848, when James Marshall saw gold in his stream, launching the gold rush. Squatters came by the thousands, destroying his crops and butchering his herds. By 1852, the town was devastated and Sutter was bankrupt.
Yeah, not the way Ray Milland lost it in the 1945 movie. In the movie, Milland goes on a four-day bender and sees how he screwed up his life. Generally speaking, a right jolly film and a mention just in time for this year’s Oscar season. For those who want to know, The Lost Weekend was based on a semi-autobiographical novel written by Charles R. Jackson and won four golden statues: for best actor Milland, director Billy Wilder, best picture, and best screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett). In the movie, the Ray Milland character is also a writer, and he pawns his typewriter (1945, remember) for a drink.
My lost weekend was not exactly lost, certainly not this way, just sort of misplaced. I wanted to work on my own book, but my characters are stuck in a car half-way across Nevada. What are they supposed to do now?
So instead I worked on other people’s books. And it was a very productive time, peaceful and sometimes needing a bit of a push, like hatching an egg, I suppose. I felt happy. Except I just don’t know how to get those people out of the car and out of Nevada.
While I was sick last fall and then over the holiday break I caught up on old TV shows. Well, “catching up” is the nice way to put it. I was glued to the set. One of my all-time favorites: Perry Mason. This show has run seemingly continuously with different actors from the 1930s (in movies back then, starring first Warren William and then Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods), and then in the 1960s TV series with Raymond Burr playing Perry, and then the 1970s, with Monte Markham, then back to Raymond Burr in the 1980s and 1990s again.
The show often featured well-known guest stars (Bette Davis, Jackie Coogan, Dick Clarke, Cloris Leachman, Fay Wray, and many others), which is always fun. Another thing I like about the show is that although all the lead actors are attractive, most of the supporting cast is…not necessarily. Maybe the casting falls into stereotypes sometimes. You’ve got a Rancher, an Insurance Agent, a Shopkeeper, a Businessman, a Housewife. They all look like people you might know. Usually none of them is anything remarkable in the looks department.
Only when the plot calls for a “pretty girl” (you can practically hear them call Central Casting: “Hey, Joe! We need a looker on the set!”) do you actually get a conventionally attractive young woman on the screen. And she might be a Good Girl or a Bad Girl, but her looks often have something to do with the plot. The character’s looks often helped propel her into the action for one reason or another, good or bad.
This is also true for another show I watched: Police Story, which originally ran for six years from 1973 through 1978 and starred at least briefly at least every working actor in Hollywood. In the case of Police Story, it’s less about pretty girls than good-looking guys: some of them are, but plenty of them–maybe most of them–aren’t. The show is gritty. Watching these tough, tired guys at work, you feel like you’re watching real cops, which is not something I think when I watch the current batch of police shows.
Perry Mason was a character that the lawyer and crime writer Erle Stanley Gardner created. Gardner wrote many books before the movies or TV ever beckoned. Police Story was created by Joseph Wambaugh, a 14-year veteran of the Los Angeles police department, who wrote crime fiction and nonfiction before he became involved with television and wrote 95 episodes for the show and consulted on its development.
Perhaps it was a consequence of my feverish flu, but I’ve been wondering why these old shows didn’t employ more drop-dead handsome actors. Hollywood certainly had plenty of them. Today, you can’t turn on the tube without finding zillions of shows full of people who, despite their many professional acting talents, could also win beauty pageants by the score. Some of these new shows I like to watch, because the writing is good and the acting is fun. But many times I find these shows really depressing. Whose lives look like that? Who knows these people? It seems like the producers look for two or five pretty faces and think, Let’s put on a show! And the story can come afterwards.
Maybe I like Perry Mason and Police Story so much because with these shows, the writing came first. The writers created those characters, and those characters didn’t have to be gorgeous to get you to watch. They just had to be interesting.