Saturday, July 31, 2021

My Floppy Eyelids

By Madeleine Kando

My left eye is irritated. I wanted to make sure it is not a sign that I am slowly turning blind, so I paid an emergency visit to the eye doctor, before I embark on a month long trip to Hawaii.

She was short and masked. She asked for my age, although it said it right there, on my chart. She probably wanted to make sure that my porch lights were still on at my age.

She looked over the notes that her assistant just jotted down before her majesty walked in.

‘You should drink more’ she said. ‘I already drink too much’, I thought. ‘Look at the bags under my eyes’. She meant water of course, that substance I detest with a vengeance. Unless I am in the middle of the desert of course, which is never.

‘I drink a lot of tea, some coffee and orange juice’, I said in a defensive tone. ‘Coffee and tea don’t count’ she said.’

She started to type vigorously, so she wouldn’t have to make eye contact. I am sure, in her profession, limiting eye contact with the hundreds of eye balls that roll into her office every day is essential. Until she is stuck to them like a siamese twin during the exam. Safer to type and talk to the screen.

‘You are dehydrated. Drinking is good for you. Stops wrinkles. 6 cups a day, at least.’

A long telegraph style conversation followed:

‘Do you have pets?’
‘Yes, I have a cat.’
‘Where does he sleep?’
‘I have had my cat for 10 years.’
She repeated curtly:‘Where does he sleep?’
‘She sleeps where she wants’, I said cheekily.
‘Do you wear make-up?’
‘You shouldn’t come to an exam with make-up on’.
‘Who do you see?'
‘Xcuse me?'
‘Who is your regular eye doctor?'
‘I don’t remember her name’.
She reads on the chart. ‘Dr. Rankin’.
(Inaudibly)‘So why do you ask me?’
‘Why do you take doxycycline?’
‘Never heard of it.’ 
'It says here you take doxycycline.’
‘Does it go by another name?’
‘Is it related to tick bites?’
‘I only took it once. For a tick bite’.
‘Do you have dry mouth in the morning?’ 
‘That’s because you don’t drink enough.’ 
‘Could it be because of my medication?' 
… silence …
‘It’s important that you drink at least 12 ½ cups a day. Tea doesn’t count.’

She wheels her stool adroitly to that insanely complicated piece of equipment called a phoropter and taps on the chin rest. For some reason, she has decided to switch from speaking to gesturing. The previous eyeballs must have belonged to a midget, so I have to hunch over to follow her command. Her finger points up, I look up. She taps impatiently to the left of the lens, I look left. Her finger points down, I look down.

She opens my eye vigorously, pulls on my eye lid and (gasp) folds it over. She then presses on my eye lids with great force. She makes a shooing gesture, as if I was a fly, meaning I can sit back.

‘You have occular rosacea. Very common with people who don’t drink enough.’ I want to ask her how much she drinks and how many times a day she has to pee, but then she says:

‘You also suffer from floppy eyelids. When you sleep your lids flop and let stuff in that irritates your eyes. You should massage and use warm compress.’

I am speechless. How can they be floppy? Do they flop about like dog ears in the wind? Or is it a misnomer, like so many other medical terms ? Floppy usually means that something is so flexible that it flops about, like a flag in the wind. Should I do eye lid strengthening exercises?

‘And chia.’ She said, without interruption.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

On Language… Yet Again

I have a thought which I want to convey to my Dutch husband. English is my language of choice, but then he asks me to write my thought in Dutch. I grew up in Holland, so you would think it wouldn't be such a difficult task. I find myself grappling for words, trying to construct logical sentences that mirrors what I think. I feel like an arthritic contortionist. It doesn't meet my expectations but that's the best I can do. 'I could say this a lot better in English, you know' I tell him.

But is language in general the best conduit for the multi-dimensionality of our mental world? I have to transpose something that is happening on multiple levels into one linear dimension. A thought is not just verbal, it has colors, a shape, a smell, a taste, speed and much more.

Wouldn’t it be truer to reality if we had a means of communication that includes all these dimensions in one package? I know what you are going to say: ‘that’s why we have art, music, dance, mathematics, etc.’ But aren’t those also limited by their own range? Can I do justice to quantum mechanics when I express it in music? Can I express the beauty of a sunrise using mathematics?

Couldn’t all these forms of expression be rolled into one super-language. This reminds me of ‘More than Human’, a science fiction story by Theodore Sturgeon. Even though Sturgeon’s story is about several ‘freaks’ (with telepathic, telekinetic and superhuman intelligence) that join forces to create a ‘Gestalt’, i.e. the next evolutionary step in mankind, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to artificially create a ‘language’ that would do more justice to our multi-dimensional ability to form thoughts.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Isle of Wight Music Festival,1970

 In the summer of 1970, I was twenty-nine. My life was going in the right direction. I had received my PhD from the University of Minnesota the previous year and I was in my second year as an assistant professor at Cal State. 

I had also become a US citizen a year earlier. I was ecstatic. I had waited ten years to be naturalized. Before that, I was a stateless United Nations refugee, ever since my family fled from Hungary during my early childhood. My legal status was a monumental pain. It made international travel almost impossible. My family and I had settled in Holland, but even a foray into neighboring Belgium required a visa and other paperwork. I had been admitted to the US on a Fulbright student visa after waiting five years, followed by another five years on a green card. 

To celebrate my new status and all the things it made possible, I went back to Europe for the summer. I had not seen my family in five years. 

By then, my sister Juliette had moved from Amsterdam to London, so after seeing my mother in Holland I went to Juliette in England. Madeleine, my other sister, was also visiting there. 

As it so happens, the Isle of Wight Music Festival was scheduled to take place between August 26 and 31 of that year, and my brother-in-law Iain had secured tickets for the four of us. 

So we grabbed our sleeping bags, a tent and some supplies, drove down to Portsmouth, crossed over to the Isle of Wight and made our way to the festival site. The 1970 Isle of Wight festival turned out to be a Woodstock repeat a year later, a Woodstock on steroids. It became the largest rock festival of all times, with an estimated attendance of 700,000. It was a surrealistic experience. 

It took nearly a day just to get in and settle down on the grass somewhere in the middle of the field. The seven hundred thousand other hippies around us could only be described as an OCEAN of people. The population was almost as large as San Francisco’s. It temporarily increased the Isle of Wight ‘s population sixfold. The field was a rolling hill, so that you couldn’t see the end of the crowd. It literally stretched to the horizon. The stage was half a mile away and you needed binoculars to recognize the musicians, although loudspeakers broadcast their sounds loud and clear to the farthest corners of the enclosure.  Read more...

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Leaving: A Bittersweet Affair

By Madeleine Kando

Leaving has played a constant role in my life. I got my first taste of leaving when I was four, when my parents left Hungary, the country where I was born, to settle in Paris.

Back then, I already considered leaving a place as something positive, like a soldier who adds stars to his uniform. The more places you leave, the higher you rise in the ranks. It was exciting and my age safeguarded me from seeing the risks that are always attached to leaving the familiar.

In a poem ‘le Rondel de l’adieu’, French poet Edmond Haraucourt writes the famous phrase ‘partir c’est mourir un peu’ (leaving is dying a little). It best describes the true meaning of farewell. Each time we say farewell, it is as if we die a little.

For me, even leaving on vacation feels a bit like dying. My old self is dying to make room for my new, yet undiscovered self. The thought of going shopping for a new self always brings a smile to my face, even at my age.

After moving from Hungary to France in my toddler years and from France to Holland when I was 11, I gave a much-needed new self another go when I turned 18. I lived in England for a while and I liked my new English self a lot, but like a run-away train, I couldn’t stop. Off to Spain I went.

The Mediterranean Madeleine didn’t appeal to me all that much, since I couldn’t really chop off some of my height, so my Spanish self never really took shape..

So, you see, I already had a lot of practice leaving. But compared to my previous little hops from one European country to another, moving to the New World felt like jumping off a high cliff, not knowing whether I would land on my two feet or my derriere.

Friday, July 16, 2021

The Madness of Anti-Vaxxers

I have to write about Covid again. I have to say the obvious.

Anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the past few weeks should already know this: The pandemic is gaining steam again. We are blowing it. And this time, there is no excuse. It’s not the virus. It’s those people who are not vaccinated who are causing this.
All the numbers are going in the wrong direction again. I’ll spare you the exact figures, you can check them out yourself. But here is a summary of the sad story: Daily number of infections worldwide: rising again Daily number of deaths worldwide: rising again Daily number of infections in the US: rising again Daily number of deaths in the US: rising again Daily number of infections in California:: rising again Daily number of deaths in California: rising again Daily number of infections in Sacramento: rising again Daily number of deaths in Sacramento: rising again  We all know about the new, more virulent variant(s), etc.
But here is the thing: Variant or no variant, we HAVE THE SOLUTION IN HAND, but some people refuse to use it! What lunacy is this? 

Six months ago, we started a massive vaccination campaign which promised the speedy end of the pandemic. And then, for some unfathomable reason, half the population began to drag its feet, dilly-dallying or outright refusing to take the vaccine.
HALF the population remains unvaccinated! That is, only 48.4% of the population has been fully vaccinated, while 55.9% has received one dose. The daily number of vaccinations has declined by 80% over the past three months!  Read more...

Friday, July 9, 2021

In Defense of Abortion

Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson

For most of history abortion was regarded as a necessary evil, but not as an illegal act. The old philosophers believed that a fetus does not begin to have ‘life’ until the 4th month of pregnancy and even the Old Testament refers to the fetus as ‘property’, but not necessarily ‘endowed with the sanctity of life’.

In the Western world, abortion was accepted if it was carried out before ‘quickening’, i.e. once the fetus moved in the womb. Until then it was regarded as part of the mother, so an abortion was not considered unethical. It was performed by trained midwives who specialized in female anatomy.

By 1880, the Church and the medical establishment decided that abortions should be illegal. Under the pretext that it was unsafe (which it was not, since midwives were highly skilled practitioners), they pushed for legislation that would criminalize abortion under any circumstance, except to save the mother’s life.

Thus, for an entire century (until Roe vs. Wade (1973), women had to turn to illegal means. The mortality rate jumped up and figures from the late 1920s show that some 15,000 women a year died from illegal abortion procedures. (Abortion in American History)

These days, the topic of abortion has become so politicized that it is almost impossible to say anything sensible about it without rousing the ire of anyone with an opposing view. The debate is mostly fueled by the question of how ‘moral’ it is to have or perform an abortion. Does that mean that we have become more moral as human beings? Or is the whole morality argument a smoke-screen for less lofty motivations?

The Pro-abortion argument goes like this: 1) making abortions laws more restrictive has terrible consequences for women (illegal abortions), and 2) denying access to abortion is to deprive a woman’s right to control her own body.

The Anti-abortion arguments are: 1) A fetus is a human being and has the right to life. Therefore abortion is murder, regardless of the consequences of restricting its access. 2) Mere ownership of your body does not give you the right to kill an innocent person inside your body. Read more...

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Somogy Döröcske: My Escape From Hell

I was born in Budapest at the beginning of World War Two, and I spent my first seven years in Hungary. 

By the end of the war, much of Budapest was reduced to rubble - like Dresden and other cities. The battle for Hungary’s capital between the Soviet Red Army and the Germans lasted from December 1944 to February 1945, and it cost 100,000 lives, including those of some of my relatives.. 

My parents had been good patriots in the struggle against the Nazis, so the post-war government rewarded them. And guess what the reward was? A “farm” of some sort, way out in the boondocks! 

My mom and dad knew less about farming than most Americans know about Hungarian poetry - Nothing. My mother was a photographer and my father was a painter. They were through-and-through urban intellectuals who could probably not distinguish between a horse and a mule. 

But bureaucracies being what they are, plus the end-of-war pandemonium, resulted in this surrealistic scenario: The government allocated a farm to my parents. 

Instead of politely turning down the offer, my parents accepted. They assumed, rightly, that we might be safer in the countryside, and also less likely to starve to death. 
And the countryside it was - with a vengeance! The “farm” consisted of a small vineyard plus an enclosure with two pigs. 

The village was called Somogy Döröcske. It was so small and tucked away in the most backward part of rural Hungary that it wasn’t on any map available at that time. It is somewhere halfway between Budapest and the Croatian border. I recently Googled it. Today, it has a population of 133. Wikipedia says that in the early 18th century the area was listed as “uninhabited,” and later owned by a noble family. 
My parents, my sisters Madeleine and Juliette and I moved there in the summer of 1946. I was five and a half.

Somogy Döröcske is located at the edge of the great Eastern European plain called the Alföld. The summers are long, hot and muggy. Fields of maize and green beans stretch to the horizon in all directions. Flocks of cranes fly in formation in the cloudless skies, and one can see in the distance those unique Eastern European landmarks: Wells, topped by long, slanted wooden arms sticking skyward, each with a a bucket dangling from the top. 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Thomas Nagel: Is the Mind just a Piece of Flesh?

I just reread a classic: Thomas Nagel’s 1979 anthology Mortal Questions. This book consists of fourteen amazing articles by that author. Each raises a fundamental philosophical issue. Nagel’s fourteen articles can be bunched into two major areas, plus a couple of other disparate topics: 1. Articles 11, 12, 13 and 14 are about the Mind and Consciousness. 2. Articles 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 are about Morality, Ethics, Values and Judgment. 3. Article 1 is about Death and article 2 is about the Absurd. 

Some may say that much of what Nagel (and all other philosophers) write(s) is just so much verbiage. That in the end, nothing they write makes any difference. Such an accusation applies to someone such as Nagel a fortiori, as his writing is extremely convoluted and esoteric, peppered with expressions such as Sub specie aeternitatis (meaning: “what is universally and eternally true"). But I have chosen to take this in stride, and to join his game. I enjoy it. Who knows, some of you may do so as well. 

Nagel’s Preface: Labels and Philosophical Schools 

Nagel is classified as belonging to the school of Analytic Philosophy. This is the dominant orientation in the Anglo world. Its adherents include Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. It emphasizes language, as well as math and science. It is distinct from continental European orientations such as Existentialism and Phenomenology. 

I first thought that Nagel might be labeled a “phenomenologist,” because his central preoccupation is Consciousness, which he describes as subjective experience. However, I was wrong. Phenomenology, founded by the German Edmund Husserl, is a method for the investigation of phenomena as consciously experienced. It is an epistemology, a theory of knowledge. Nagel’s quest is ontological and metaphysical: He asks questions about the fundamental nature of reality, for example the relationship between mind and matter.  Read more...