Grown-up Topics

The Intersection of Invention and Culture: Part 1 and 2 of 3

Invention and the Intersection of Culture

Part I The Question

In the early 80’s, I was a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. As a full- time student, I was poor, and when someone offered me some extra work for pay, I jumped on it. Here was the work: Teach a 10-year-old Japanese boy to speak English.

A colleague whose spouse was a medical researcher was the source of the unusual request. A scientist from Japan was visiting UA for a year to work on some specific research. The scientist spoke reasonable English. The family took an apartment not far from where I lived, and so twice a week, I was well paid to have a 1-hour language session with a delightful young man, about 10 years old..

His mother spoke no English and had to negotiate supermarkets, packages, mail, gas bills and other stores with no English skills, so often I helped her as well.

It’s important to note there were three children in this family, my student and two younger boys. There was no talk of tutoring the younger ones. Apparently, an oldest son in birth order comes with unapologetic privileges. Oh, and did I mention I do not speak Japanese?

I did however belong to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, a sect based in Japan. I knew plenty of Japanese speakers. I knew some Japanese words. Moreover, as a literacy and language student, I understood the principles of language learning. The field of English and a Second Language or English as a Foreign Language was not yet a reality. So, I had to figure out how to teach my student. The opportunity to apply what I knew was delicious.

I organized our sessions around play, and words that went with each situation. I started with school supplies and routines as he was attending a local school. Some days we worked outside with a ball or other sports equipment. Toy cars and toy soldiers were helpful. Sessions went well.

The Mom was trying out things she found in grocery stores. One day, she pulled me aside with a problem. She had an empty box of Jell-O in her hand. If you travel, you have learned Jell-O is a uniquely American food. So, the Mom pointed to the picture on the box, and the bowl of runny fluid in her refrigerator, noticing the picture and reality did not match. It was clear she had been sitting with her Japanese-English Dictionary translating every word of the instructions. But she could not find the meaning of the word Refrigerate, the last instruction.

How can I explain refrigerate? I mimed opening the door, putting in the bowl, pointing to a clock on the wall, showing the passing of a few hours, then opening the fridge door. I could see in her face she understood. Whew!

So, my visits continued twice a week for one school year. In the spring, the family invited me to dinner. I was allowed to bring along a Japanese friend for dinner and translation. Dinner was lovely. The Mom gave me a parting gift – a Christmas ornament made of colorful thread wound around a ball.

But the most interesting part of the dinner was the conversation with the Dad/scientist. He had lots to say. He said he’d assumed his children would be bored in American schools. He was led to believe his children would be far more advanced in math and science that U.S. children. He was still in some disbelief that this was not the case. Clearly, he’d given the topic some thought.

“My children know lots of operations and equations and formulas,” he began. But they never learned the thinking that goes with these math concepts. Here, they learned so much.” He was effusive about all this, animated in the saying of it. He continued. “I think in Japan, our students are taught to look for answers. I think in the US, students are taught to look for questions.”

I was just taking all this in, realizing the incredible compliment to Tucson Unified Schools when he said something even more stunning and which has stayed with me to this day, and has driven much of my thinking about learning.

“Have you noticed that in my country we never invent anything? We take other people’s ideas and might make it smaller or better or cheaper. But we never have a new idea! Why IS that?”

At that time, I did not know how to respond. Even now, I cannot prove his statement that there are no inventions that have come out of Japan. But what a wonderful question.

Part II

Investigating the Question

During my 30 years in higher education, I still thought about the scientist’s question: Why does his country of Japan never have a new idea? (his assertion, not mine). A few times, I tried to engage science education faculty to investigate this with me further. They all loved the idea, but had their own lines of inquiry keeping them busy.

So, I did what professors do, I assigned a graduate assistant to work on this some. I directed him to create a figure of the major inventions of the 20th century, and to add columns for the year of the invention, the name of the inventor, the birthplace of the inventor, and the country in which the inventor was living when the invention was made.

The 20th century was a busy time. Lots of inventions. We limited inventions to “major” inventions – in other words things we have all hear of, things that changed life broadly, and internationally, not just in a particular region.

In this way that data can be terribly exciting, I sat down with the Grad Assistant and looked at the figure. Would it surprise anyone that nearly all the major inventions come out of the United States? Many originate in the armed forced with applications for war or security (like fax machines, GPS). The famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology gets credits for several. Our own Kent State University (I was teaching there) gets credit for liquid crystals. Germany gets credit for the car (Mr. Benz was the inventor), although it became more developed and available under the ingenuity of American factories and markets; Italy gets credit for the radio, although their invention did not transmit speech (An American innovation accomplished that). Russia had some wartime thing like a periscope with a different name.

So, the big question then becomes “WHY?” Why are most inventions American? By the way, many inventors were foreign born, but did their big inventing after arriving in the U.S. So, why is that????

Kent State University had a project going via our international center (The Gerald Read Center for International and Intercultural Education located in the College of Education, Health and Human Services).  They were helping some Turks create a school in Turkey with an American take on curriculum and some other things. I was one of the faculty sent over to talk about American education and why creating such a school might be a good idea.

I used the figure of the Inventions of the 20th Century in my presentation. I left it on the screen long enough for potential parents to digest it. One of them noticed and said aloud, “There is no Muslim based country on the list.” Hmm. Hadn’t thought about that. There are no “developing countries” on the list.

Again -the big question….WHY NOT?

Oh, I don’t know how to post the figure here, but I will try in the 3rd part of this post, “Thinking about the question.”

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On Journaling….

I always liked this photo my brother took of me at 15.  All my journals are displayed on my coffee table.

When I was 15 years old, and a teenager, I felt strongly that grown-ups did not understand me. I resolved to make sure I understood teenagers, and some of the aches of growing up, so that I would be a good teacher and mother someday. So I decided to keep a journal  – to remember.

Journaling wasn’t so popular in 1967. It was difficult to find something other than a school notebook to write in. But, in a stationery store, there were blank black books called “records.” The paper was lined, they came in sizes, and so I used my allowance or babysitting money to buy one. We were vacationing in Vermont at the time at a home my parents and grandparents jointly owned. Here is exactly what I wrote back then.

August 24, 1967 (age 15) Stannard, Vermont

This book is my teenage journal. Let the purpose of this book be remembered as a memory of that “precious period of frustration” which we call adolescence. Here I shall record that which I learn as well as that which I treasure. This way, I hope, all that I learn may be permanent.

Today I realized it was important to record this period of my life so that I may never display ignorance to someone I love. Teenagers are a distinct breed. They are all occupied in finding themselves and their way of life. However peculiar this process may seem, it must never be disturbed without marring their future, breeding some resentment.

Too many parents try to live their children’s lives. If I can’t live my own life, and believe me I will, then it is hardly worthwhile. I don’t want to just survive or vegetate. I want to live. I want to fulfill my life with exciting things worth remembering. Parents often blindly deprive their children of learning by doing rather than teaching.

Odd. I wrote this in 1967. Now I am 67 years old. I hardly know the girl who was me. But, I can find her in the pages of the many journals I kept then, and throughout my life (so far).

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The Intersection of Culture and Invention Part III

I’ve been an educator since 1973. In that time, I taught elementary children, middle school students, and teachers. Mostly teachers. Once I was in higher education, the opportunities to experience and visit different countries and cultures fed my intense curiosity about peoples of the world.

I visited 50 countries (so far). But, moreover, I visited schools in many parts of the US, but also Canada, Thailand, the Bahamas, Denmark, Sweden, China, Taiwan, Kenya, South Africa, Cuba, Italy, India, Turkey, Jamaica, Barbados, Australia, and New Zealand (so far).

Additionally, over the years, and enjoying working with international colleagues and students, I have made friendships or have mentored folks from Japan, Taiwan, Trinidad, Korea, the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, India, South Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Ecuador, Brazil, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.

All these experiences inform what I am about to say.

How we raise our children and young people, both in homes and in schools, matters greatly. I don’t mean just what they learn, but how they learn it. And, how the curriculum and instruction reflect the deepest and underlying values of a culture.

If you sit all your children in rows, and they are wearing the same thing (uniforms), and their hair is cut the same way, and you teach them the same things, and test the exactly the same way, and discourage dissent, disagreement, or “standing out,” then what are the chances of having a new idea? An inventive thought?

Many schools around the world believe strongly in uniforms. It’s said that it ‘equalizes” the children, economically and socially. Chuckle if you must, because it does not work. In the Bahamas, children wore the same uniform, but then they were seated by their test scores from one corner of the room all the way to the other.

I feel certain in any setting the children know their hierarchy, whether it is economic or academic. When I was in 7th grade in a large urban junior high school, we were tracked academically, using test scores. The administration had scrambled the 16 section numbers to hide the hierarchy. We’d all figured it out by the end of day 1.

If you think, in the name of fairness or equity, all children need the same lessons at the same time in the same way, then where is the room for creative thinking? Questioning? The room for invention?

If you think all students need to read the same books or stories, chosen by some “other” authority, then where is the space and the attention to “grand” conversations – one in which readers see the mirrors of themselves, and find their identities in what they read?

If the most important thing in your culture is tradition, and honoring the past, and honoring the ancestors, and fitting in, then isn’t too much emphasis on tradition an antidote to invention? Can you want something your ancestors never had? Does it dishonor them? Does it violate some dearly held ideas? Can you have a new, radical, revolutionary idea (I don’t mean like a war, but more like a cellphone or a computer)?

One summer, colleagues and I had a short conference in Denmark. The Danes were wonderful hosts and I think we loved every minute of getting to know them. We were housed in a type of school building where students board. We ate our meals in the sort of cafeteria where students ate.

We came from a long session, hungry, to find a wonderful buffet of meats, cheese, and breads. We were all Americans or Canadians. We took a plate and picked things we liked and went to a table and made ourselves sandwiches.

We were not the only folks staying in the facility and eating there. Some were local. The Danes stared at us. We didn’t know why.

Later, we learned from an American who had lived overseas, that we were not supposed to make sandwiches. We were supposed to eat those things separately, AND in a pre-determined sequence. She showed us a Danish child’s lunch box, with individual trays stacked inside a box, each for the correct part of the meal. Of course, we didn’t know.

If you have to eat your meals in a certain order and there are rules attached to how you eat (other than manners), how does this influence thinking? Invention?

Let’s mention China. I greatly respect the many Chinese colleagues I came to know in my career. We know many world inventions came from China, like silk making and gunpowder.

BUT, all those were very long ago. What sort of inventions are coming out of China since the “cultural revolution” and under Communism. What happens when during a political event, your academic elite are …..missing? How does that influence national and cultural thinking for the next century?

I believe there are indeed intersections of culture and invention. I think under closer examination, one would find that the countries with lots of inventions value diverse thinking. Value new ideas. Value positive changes. These are expressed in their systems of education. These shape the people their children become.

I would dearly love an academic conversation on this topic. It’s been on my mind for decades!

Grown-up Topics

Ode to an Ipad

Much is made lately about how much time we spend on devices. It’s not the time which is the issue, but what we are doing with the time. Here’s what I used my ipad for yesterday.

  • I took a French lesson. The new word I learned was “Jour de ferie” or “holiday” in English. (there should be accents on those E’s). I use Duolingo. It’s the best free app I have found for implementing good practices concerning language learning.
  • I spoke with my French friend, Marga, in the French territory of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. In addition to sharing about our day, we reviewed some words in French and English for us both to learn. We find the video connection is of a better quality on facebook than on skype.
  • I listened to the Dutch National Anthem. I had never heard it before. I wanted to know more about it, as the novel I am writing is set in Amsterdam during World War II.
  • I did not fully understand the meaning of the stately anthem and so I looked up its origin and learned how it commemorates Dutch independence in the 1500’s from Spain.
  • I watched a TV show on Amazon Prime, and listened to music on itunes while I exercised.
  • I used an APP called “Whistle” to track where my dog was multiple times all day, and ensure she was in a safe place, not too far from home. and on the move unharmed.
  • I sent a Happy Birthday message to my husband at work. I checked to ensure the restaurant I was taking him to for his birthday was open, as it was Tuesday.
  • I transferred funds in bank accounts to make my estimated quarterly tax payments.
  • I paid a credit card bill. The day before I paid three bills on APPS.
  • I checked my calendar multiple times.
  • I played my favorite word game twice.
  • I took a scanned picture of a document and sent it to someone.
  • I checked an APP to see if a recent robocall was a scam or fraud.
  • I read a news item of interest on the CBC.
  • I read and responded to email several times.
  • I sent a photo to someone.
  • I texted my husband to see how his day was going and send him a kiss.
  • I set an alarm to remind me of something.
  • Yes, I played a silly game I like called Sims Free Play 4 – it’s a virtual reality game, so I have a village and people and they have jobs and houses and children and hobbies. This may not be the best use of my time, I admit.
  • I fell asleep listening to ocean sounds on “Relax Melodies.:

So, all in all, I use my ipad to be productive. I still talked to three people live on a phone the old fashioned way.

I love my ipad.

p.s. You can do most of these things on a smart phone as well, but the ipad is easier to see and maneuver with more space.

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Meeting my first boy beta reader!

Friday, the Grandmother of my first boy “Beta Reader” brought both her grandsons to my house for lemonade and cookies. We sat and chatted about books on my screened-in porch. The boy on the left, age 9, read Henry From Now On and declared it “heartwarming,” and that he had to read it in just 2 days because it was so good. He was eager to see a portrait on my wall of the real “Betty” in the story, and some real life pictures of the main character Henkie later in life. It was a pleasure meeting both the boys!

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More on “Women Rowing North”(by Mary Pipher)

I finished the book a few weeks ago. I must admit that near the end, I believed I was hearing the same messages over and over. I was somewhat frustrated with the case studies, and grew weary of some of the people in them who seemed stuck.

But, let me tell you what’s happening here. A group of women I know who have been getting together for ages once a month for drinks and dinner and now reading Women Rowing North together. Some are over 90. They are taking it slow. This past month, they gave themselves no reading assignments because they had so much to talk about.

So, here’s what’s happening in my county. As part of Aging Well in Waldo County, I lead the Social Isolation committee. One of my targets was to organize the county librarians, let them exchange ideas about senior programming, maybe come up with some new ideas. These librarians are an impressive group. Their libraries are poorly funded. Two county libraries are entirely run by volunteers. They do much with so little.

So me and my grants committee has written and received two grants, both of which help libraries. One grant is specific to funding social isolation remedies. So, we ordered 7 copies of Women Rowing North (and I gave them my copy to make 8). The set will circulate around the county, a month in each, and let groups form over the book. Looking forward to seeing how this goes.

As I said in the last post, women needed this book!

Grown-up Topics

Thinking about “Women Rowing North”

Okay, so I was not rowing north, but I am at a lake IN the north!

It seems all the women my age and older are reading “Women Rowing North.” Thanks Mary Pipher. We need this book. Everything I read makes me want to write. I find myself saying “me, too” lots to the glimpses of my past.

These thoughts are concerning the first three chapters.

Just a few weeks ago, I perused old photos of the 60’s and 70’s. I found one of my good friend Martha and her toddler daughter taken during the year we all lived together. Martha and I were both local teachers – me in grade 6, her in special ed. Our salaries were so dismal that neither of us could support a home and pay its bills and still eat. So she closed down her house, farther from our commonn workplace, and she moved in to mine with her toddler Laura, one dog, and one cat. Then I too had a cat. With our pooled expenses, we could pay for heat and electric, eat, and go out once a week to Bangor for something a little fun (assuming we each only had one drink).

But I scanned the old snapshot and sent it to Martha. We had the same reaction. That was another lifetime, it seemed. Almost different people when we look back on our lives then. We baked bread, shopped at the coop, wore Earth shoes, and made yogurt. We tried to grow vegetables in poor clay soil on a very small plot. A teacher’s schedule is grueling. For all the months of the autumn, we never saw our home in daylight except weekends, as we left before sunrise and arrived home after sunset.

We had so little compared to what we have now. What we mostly had was each other for emotional support. We both had crises during that time of one sort or another, and plenty of changes. We both had divorces. I got laid off in an economic downturn. Then our time together ended when she moved on to home of her own closer to work; I moved on to graduate school.

Now her little girl is grown with a husband, two children, and a Ph.D. in psychology, and her two adopted children are also parents. All our own parents are gone, with excruciating last years of serial crises that only ended with deaths. Another time. We were different people. We were slim, pretty, and my legs were grand (they have since turned into tree stumps).

Thinking about the older woman loss of power discussed in an early chapter. Yes, there are times since retirement 6 years ago that I have been treated with disrespect, as if I was not the intelligent capable person I still am. Don’t they know who they are talking to? That was what I kept thinking. Do I tell them I am a retired professor, that I have traveled in over 50 countries, co-authored 8 books? Why do I need to even think these thoughts?

On the other hand, I live in the “oldest” state in the U.S. (Maine). I am surrounded often by people in my age group. Yes, we talk about slopping up our shirts when we eat, feeling tired, needing more exercise, and aching knees. But older women run this area.

Maine just elected our first women governor ever. She’s strong, dedicated, smart, and over 70. She’s kicking ass. I met her the night before election at a call center. About 7 of us were staffing the phones, and she just sat down to chat. We didn’t talk politics. We talked about what books we were all reading. Imagine, a governor who reads! She was elected the next day (another thing older women do around here, they run the elections, run for office, run someone else’s campaign, and start needed nonprofits!)

In Maine, counties are governed by a panel of elected commissioners. Our first commissioner runs the county for all intensive purposes. She’s also the treasurer for 5 organizations. She has health issues, a handicapped plate for her car, and some adult children still living at home. She’s almost 80,

So, what I do here in my spare time is run an all-volunteer county organization related to the livable communities movement, championed by AARP. “Aging Well in Waldo County” was not in my retirement plans. But a group of us have worked now for a few years and our county has been designated “Age-Friendly.” We still have so much work to do. Being all older folks, our work is complicated and sometimes compormised by our own age related issues. The majority of us are women. One of the early attendees/leader in this organization has moved on to the State legislature. We are all busy, each in our own way, trying to make life better for mature people, inside and outside this organization.

For now, I embrace my graying hair and even the wrinkles. I do mourn the loss of my waistline (and green tea does NOT melt bellyfat; neither does 100 situps a day). Memories are my friends, but gravity is not.

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Just Stuff

Just Stuff- WERU Esoterica

Just Stuff

 

By this time of life, people my age have already said goodbye to all members of the older generation in their families. That’s true for me and most of my friends. We all have tales of woe cleaning up after the life of parents, aunts, and uncles. Every single thing must be liquidated, assigned, sold, placed, or donated.  Of course, generally we are all doing all this while grieving for whomever has passed on. And those belongings can be a mine field of emotions and memories. And, fortunately, a few laughs.

My mother passed first. She’d had Alzheimer’s, and her remaining belongings were just as odd and bizarre as some of the things she would do and say during those last years. Like the time I visited her during the evening in the nursing home and found her sitting in the lobby near the entrance.

“Oh, I am so glad you are here,” she began, unable to recall my name, but certain I was familiar. “Have I missed my train?”

“No, Mom. You have plenty of time. I’ll check the schedule.”

“Good,” she said, relieved of her agitation.

After she passed, I sent all her clothes to a thrift store. But cleaning out her drawers and closet was difficult. I tossed pantyhose with runs, stained cosmetic bags, rusty hairpins, and the pink rubber rollers she had once used on my hair when I was small. There were pens that had been out of ink for decades, broken pencils, brochures, dirty tissues and stretched out headbands. But most amusing was an entire drawer full of prostheses for her left breast following a mastectomy when she was 70. Medicare provided a new prosthesis every two years. She lived to her late 80’s. So there was an entire drawer of fake boobs.

“Why don’t you use them, Mom?” I’d asked her once before Alzheimer’s had entirely set in.

“Oh, they’re too hot,” she replied, explaining it was easier to stuff the empty bra cup with a sock. “And I don’t want to wear them out,” she’d added. “Besides, I’m over 70, what do I need two breasts for?”

My father passed a few months after Mom. Then it was important to vacate his two- bedroom apartment before the end of a month, or we’d be charged another month’s rent. I found a Mom with 6 adopted kids that could use all the furniture.  Little stuff like dishes and knick-knacks all went to the thrift store which supported a local hospital.

Dad had a lifelong love of books. He’d culled books when he’d left his last house. But not enough. He was adamant that the remaining books were valuable, and that I should get a good price for them. He thought he had something very precious because he had every book Jack London had ever written.

A kind man, a specialist in antiquarian books, graciously agreed to peruse Dad’s collection. After half an hour, he pronounced that the books were still good for reading, but that they had no monetary value.

Most of us are not privy to the romantic side of our parents. I always knew my folks had a strong love story. But I got a good laugh when I found a stack of vintage Playboy magazines in Dad’s closet.

The process of cleaning out someone’s stuff is tedious and dreadful. But what I learned is that in the end, it’s all just stuff. Just stuff. What someone values has little to do with money.

Now, I try to look at my home this way. Everything I have, everything I will have by the time I die, it’s just stuff. My stuff. Stuff that means something to me, and probably not to anyone else. I will try to remember not to collect so much stuff.  Because, in the end, it’s just stuff.

W.C.  Kasten

low light photography of books
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