The Continued Rise of Anti-Intellectualism

I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true. Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter*

BizarroAnti-intellectualism Is Killing America, says the headline in this recent Psychology Today story. The subtitle reads: Social dysfunction can be traced to the abandonment of reason.

I wrote about anti-intellectualism as the new elitism back in late 2013. Since then, it seem the trend has not only increased dramatically, but the backlash against it has grown. However, the opposition trying to restore reason is neither organized nor has the same sort of shiny baubles to attract adherents the anti-intellectual side has. Cold reason cannot compete for attention against the Kardashian derriere or UFOs on Ceres.

The article’s author, David Niose, wrote:

America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance…

I read that the same hour I read a press release that starts, “James Van Praagh Opens His New School of Mystical Arts.” It opens:

Talking to Heaven has just been brought closer to home. After thirty-five years of talking to the dead on television, radio, and through live demonstrations, New York Times bestselling author, psychic medium and spiritual teacher James Van Praagh is making dreams come true for his students and fans. In May of 2015, Van Praagh launched The James Van Praagh School of Mystical Arts, an online academy where students can tap into their psychic, intuitive, healing and mediumistic abilities, and be personally guided and mentored by the popular medium.

Clearly when this sort of egregious claptrap garners any uncritical attention, the anti-intellectual side is winning. And if anyone is daft enough to shell out $1,600 USD for an eight-week course on fairy dust, they have already lost their ability to think critically and clearly. Or perhaps they never had it – the skills of logic and reason are, apparently not taught in public school.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ax_VuNTcZw]

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Fishy Thoughts

Nat PostCanadians, the headline reads, now have shorter attention span than goldfish thanks to portable devices. The story in today’s National Post underscores a growing problem that is fuelled by technology: our dwindling attention spans.

The Microsoft study of 2,000 Canadians found our collective attention span has dwindled to a mere eight seconds, down from an already embarrassing 12 seconds a similar study found back in the year 2000.

Goldfish have an average nine second attention span.

Eight seconds! How can you read a newspaper article, let alone a novel, with such a short attention span? How can you write or create anything of consequence with your mind flitting about like that?

The Ottawa Citizen quoted from the report:

“Canadians with more digital lifestyles (those who consume more media, are multi-screeners, social media enthusiasts, or earlier adopters of technology) struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed.”

Which explains why distracted driving – drivers on cell phones or texting at the wheel – is fast growing to be the number one cause of accidents and fatalities. Yet every day I walk my dogs or when we walk downtown, I see someone talking on the cell phone or texting while driving. Every day.

It also explains why many people fall for conspiracy theories, religious cults, advertising scams or the diaphanous piffle of local bloggers: they don’t have the attention span required to do the critical analysis of what is presented. They’re thinking less because they’re too easily distracted by the …. oooh! shiny!

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Robocalls from Real Robots

“mmm…buzzz…. click…. This is your friendly….buzzz…. automated calling device…click…hummmm… reminding you that….mmmm….buzzz…..click… there are only three days left to…. zzzzz…. take advantage of the Black Friday sales at…. mmmm…. buzzzz….. your…. zzzz… Collingwood…..insert box store name…. mmmm…buzzz…. click….thank you…”

Solenoid RobotsWell, maybe robotic telemarketers won’t sound like the solenoid robots on Roger Ramjet, but within the decade, most telemarketers will be machines, not humans. So when they interrupt your dinner to tell you you’ve won a free cruise, shouting at them and slamming down the phone won’t hurt their feelings at all. Mmmmm….buzz…. click…

Of course, a lot of this work is already automated, but according to a recent report called Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace, half of today’s current workforce will be replaced by robots or some form of automation in 2025, telemarketers being at the top of the list for outplacement by machines. Repeat: half of the current workforce.

(Now, I have to admit I was puzzled as to why CBRE, an international real estate firm, would commission such a report. But regardless of the source, the report is fascinating, if perhaps a bit Pollyanna-ish in its conclusions about this upcoming revolution in the workplace…. especially when it quietly suggests on page nine another recession is coming… )*

Reporting on the report, the New Zealand Herald noted,

…experts now believe that almost 50 per cent of occupations existing today will be completely redundant by 2025 as artificial intelligence continues to transform businesses… A 2014 report by Pew Research found 52 per cent of experts in artificial and robotics were optimistic about the future and believed there would still be enough jobs in the next few decades… The optimists envisioned “a future in which robots and digital agents do not displace more jobs than they create,” according to Aaron Smith, the report’s co-author.

Rather to the contrary, Stephen Hawking is reported in a BBC story warning that,

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk warned that artificial intelligence potentially could be “more dangerous than nukes. Yes, yes, we all immediately think of Terminator’s Skynet AI and the robots.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CN__WyMfEKw]

But when it comes to telemarketers, I think I’d rather have Skynet. And Bell Canada’s customer “service” reps? Forget the robots and just replace them all with cement roadblocks… that’s what they are, after all… mmmm…. buzzzz…. click….

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Reading music and music theory

reading musicI write about reading a lot, because I read a lot of books. There are other kinds of reading – other languages, too – that I don’t write much about. Reading music is one of them. It’s a different language; a symbolic language with its own grammar, punctuation and rules. As far as reading music goes, I’m semi-illiterate.

I’ve been playing music – guitar mostly – since the Beatles had Ticket To Ride on the hit parade, back in the days of AM radio and 45 RPM singles. But I’m self-taught: no classes or schooling, just a lot of practice and playing. And as a result, my knowledge of musical theory is weak. I know more about the technical structures of a Shakespearean play than I do of a sonata or a pop song. I can read HTML and CSS code with consummate ease, but struggle with a musical score.

What I do know has been cobbled together over the years from playing, listening, asking and some reading. Mostly absorbed by osmosis rather than dedicated effort.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand music reasonably well, but more on a visceral level than an academic one. And I understand some musical theory – well, bits and bats of it – partly because you get to know about it – even if you don’t always have the technical vocabulary – by playing and jamming. Like playing 12-bar blues. You soon learn the rhythms, the patterns, the chord changes – even if you can’t confidently talk about I-IV-V patterns.

I play a lot of chords and can finger them on several stringed instruments – but while I can hear one and tell if it’s a major, minor or seventh, maybe a diminished or augmented, I can’t really tell you the theory behind why that is. My passion for making music far outruns either my talent to do so or my technical understanding of it.

So, what with organizing and running a local ukulele group, and focusing more on music than ever before, I think it’s time to buckle down and learn more about music in a scholarly way. I need to be able to speak about it confidently in front of the group.

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More reasons to read

Brain and readingOn the Inside Higher Ed website, Joshua Kim recently asked the question,

When do you find the time and energy to read books?

That surprised me. What energy does reading take? It’s not like running, or swimming or playing sports.

Sitting down in a comfortable chair, cat on the lap, cup of tea at hand, and a small stack of books within easy reach. Some energy to set yourself up for an hour to two’s reading, but hardly any expended to do the actual reading. Well, maybe a little to move the facial muscles into a smile at the sheer satisfaction one gets from such activity.

And at night; tucked in, dog and cats on the bed snuggled up, cup of Ovaltine on the bedside table, small stack of books within easy reach – a quiet hour or so reading before lights out. Winding down from the day gently. No energy wasted at all.*

Putting a book into each bookstand kept on the counter when we have lunch together, on the weekends. Both of us enjoying a peaceful midday break, reading while we eat. No energy at all.

Taking out a paperback to read on the subway or bus during your commute; reading it in the doctor’s office waiting room; sitting on the front porch in the summer evening sun with a glass of wine and a book: effortless.

Reading is not simply something you learn at school, then neglect for the rest of your life – like algebra or Latin. It’s a skill that you use daily, and to use it well, you have to keep sharp and exercised, like a muscle. As a Northwestern University study found, there’s a difference in being a good and a poor reader:

What makes a good reader? First, you have to know how to read the words on a page and understand them — but there’s a higher-level step to reading comprehension. You have to tie together the words over time, maintaining their order and meaning in your memory, so that you can understand phrases, sentences, paragraphs and extended texts.

I would argue that reading more heightens those comprehension skills, just like exercise improves coordination and muscle quality.

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Marcus Aurelius

Marcus AureliusI continue to be profoundly moved by the wisdom of the classical authors. It’s often hard to accept that some of them were writing two or more millennia ago: many seem so contemporary they could have been written this century.

Of late – within the past year or so – I’ve been reading Lucretius, Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Elder*… and more recently Marcus Aurelius.

I’ve had a couple of versions of his Meditations (written ca. 167 CE) kicking around on my bookshelf for decades. I’ve dipped into it many times before today, but never really read it for more than some pithy, salient, quotable lines. These translations have all been 19th century ones. This week I started reading a more recent Penguin edition (trans. Maxwell Staniforth, 1964) and was duly impressed and delighted at how much crisper and clearer it reads than the somewhat florid, older ones. So much so that I recently ordered an even more modern translation from Amazon (George Hays, Modern Library, 2003) and started on it, too.

In part my hesitation in the past to read more of the classics has been due to the rather dense prose that many of my translations offered – most of them being published originally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great in their day, they see archaic and stilted today. The newer, modernized translations make these works much more approachable.

For example, here’s the George Long (1862, reprinted in the Harvard Classics series, 1909) translation of the opening of Book XII:

ALL those things at which thou wishest to arrive by a circuitous road, thou canst have now, if thou dost not refuse them to thyself. And this means, if thou wilt take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice.

And here is an 18th century translation by Hutcheson and Moor:

All you desire to obtain by so many windings, you may have at once, if you don’t envy yourself [so great an happiness.] That is to say, if you quit the thoughts of what is past, and commit what is future to providence; and set yourself to regulate well your present conduct, according to the rules of holiness and justice.

Compare these with the 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Books):

All the blessings which you pray to obtain hereafter could be yours today, if you did not deny them to yourself. You have only to be done with the past altogether, commit the future to providence, and simply seek to direct the present hour aright into paths of holiness and justice.

Here’s the 2003 Hays’ translation:

Everything you’re trying tor each – by taking the long way around – you could have right now, this moment. If only you’d stop thwarting your own attempts. if only you’d let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present towards reverence and justice.

I’ve also tended to shy away from reading too much of Meditations in part because he also deals with divinity and soul – and I tend more towards the moral and ethical, the philosophic rather than spiritual, writers. But reading through his book now, the Hays’ translation in particular, I find his spirituality less cloying than I had initially.

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What’s in a missing word?

HoraceThere’s a line in one of Horace’s epistles that really caught my eye. In Latin it reads:

Utque sacerdotis fugitiuus liba recuso,
pane egeo iam mellitis potiore placentis
Horace: Epistles, Book I, X

No, I can’t translate it.* However, I was reading David Ferry’s 2001 translation and he renders it like this:

I’m like that slave who ran away because
They fed him honey cakes and he longed for bread.

That appealled to me both for my recent passion for making bread, but also for its philosophic – almost Buddhist – intent.

Ferry gives us both the Latin and English, and I struggle to match the original with the English version. And in doing so, something about his translation bothered me. Something missing.

Wikipedia tells us that Horace’s (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) epistle X is about:

The Advantages of Country Life – (Addressed to Aristius Fuscus, to whom Ode I.22 is also addressed). This epistle begins with Horace contrasting his own love of the country with his friend’s fondness for the town; then follows the praise of Nature; and finally the poet dwells on the superior happiness that moderate means and contentment afford, compared with riches and ambition.

Fine. I understand: Horace is saying he prefers the plain life of the country, not the honey-cake life of the city. He doesn’t need the luxuries and the excesses to be content.

Ferry isn’t a literal translator: more of a poetic one. He’s been acclaimed for that, and criticized for it, too, but I like his work. Many English renditions of Latin poetry come across as stilted and forced, while I find Ferry’s work much smoother and reads more naturally (some call it “approachable”). (Read here how other English-speaking poets have variously tackled Horace)

Still, one Latin word in the original stuck out as missing in translation: sacerdotis.

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Reading: A Canadian tragedy… or not?

World Reading Map
The map above might show the making of a serious tragedy for Western and especially Canadian culture. It indicates in colour which nations read the most. Yellow is the second lowest group. Canada is coloured yellow.

TV zombiesIn this survey, Canada ranks 10th – from the bottom! Twenty countries above us have populations which, on the average, read more per week than we do. That surprises and shocks me. And it disappoints me no end.

I’m not only a voracious reader, I’m passionate about books, language, reading and writing, and have been on the library board for 20 years actively helping it grow and develop. Is it a futile task?

I don’t believe so. In fact, I’ve seen the library grow more and more into a vital community resource in the past two decades. It has more users, more books and more reads than ever. That flies in the face of what the map suggests.

The map showed up on Facebook via Gizmodo, The stats come from the NOP World Culture Score (TM) Index (press release here). They’re scary – but are they accurate? They’re certainly not recent: the data were collected between December 2004 and February 2005.

Here are the 30 countries, ranked by the number of hours people there read every week:

  1. India — 10 hours, 42 minutes
  2. Thailand — 9:24
  3. China — 8:00
  4. Philippines — 7:36
  5. Egypt — 7:30
  6. Czech Republic — 7:24
  7. Russia — 7:06
  8. Sweden — 6:54
  9. France — 6:54
  10. Hungary — 6:48
  11. Saudi Arabia — 6:48
  12. Hong Kong — 6:42
  13. Poland — 6:30
  14. Venezuela — 6:24
  15. South Africa — 6:18
  16. Australia — 6:18
  17. Indonesia — 6:00
  18. Argentina — 5:54
  19. Turkey — 5:54
  20. Spain — 5:48
  21. Canada — 5:48
  22. Germany — 5:42
  23. USA — 5:42
  24. Italy — 5:36
  25. Mexico — 5:30
  26. U.K. — 5:18
  27. Brazil — 5:12
  28. Taiwan — 5:00
  29. Japan — 4:06
  30. Korea — 3:06

Canada is listed well below the global average of 6.5 hours a week. Five-point-four-eight hours translates into a mere 49 minutes a day, on average. Are we losing our minds to TV?

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Lucretius and the Renaissance

WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things – De Rerum Natura –  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

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Amo, Amas, Amat…. and what?

Wheelock's LatinMy well-thumbed copy of Eugene Ehrlich’s book, Amo, Amas, Amat and More, is dated 1985. It’s amusingly subtitled “How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others.”

It’s still in print, it seems, or was as recently as 2006. I’ve read my copy on and off for the past 25-plus years, but have not been able to effectively astonish anyone with my grasp of Latin.

Possibly the reason for this is that my grasp of Latin is small. Very small. I had a single year of Latin classes in high school; lessons mostly relegated to the dustbin of my mind along with solving quadratic equations. The rest I’ve scrounged from other books and sources. It’s less a grasp than a smattering of random bits.

I’d like it to be better. As in to actually be able to read and understand at least elementary Latin, not merely recognize that the words on the page are in Latin. Which is, at present, Greek to me (if you’ll pardon the inexecrable joke…). And certainly better able to write it than cutting-and-pasting the inevitable Lorem ipsum placeholder into a draft design project.

So last week I took the plunge and ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, from Amazon with the intention of teaching myself. And hope not get too distracted by other books, baking, computer games, politics, pets and Friday housework… ooh, a new ukulele….

My learning accomplishments in Latin to date include reading the first 40 or so pages (mostly introduction and pronunciation basics) and memorizing the present tense verb conjugations of two -are and -ere verbs in Lesson One. Which means I’m about a hundred years of effort from having enough Latin in my grey matter to astonish anyone other than my dogs.

Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant… plus the imperative: lauda and laudate. Impressed yet? Yeah, so were my dogs. But it’s one small step further along this path than last week. A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet, as Lao Tzu wrote. This is my early footing, then.

I dug my Ehrlich off the shelf this morning, along with a couple of aged Latin dictionaries and every book about Latin I could find in my collection. It’s a fairly thin lot. But I need some extra help as struggle through Wheelock’s Latin on my own – a lot more than I currently have on the shelves.

I need at least one collection of Latin verbs nicely conjugated for my enjoyment, plus grammar guides, workbooks, and some better dictionaries. And maybe some source material (interlinear translations would be nice), like the one I have for the Canterbury Tales).

Ka-ching, the Amazon.ca cash register is singing (hinc illae lacrimae…) (okay, I had to dig that one out of a file of Latin phrases…)

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Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day

Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

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The Eyes Have It

Age-related macular degenerationThis summer my mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration. There is no cure. It is irreversible. It simply progresses. Science has some hope for future cures, and has some treatments to slow the progress, but a cure likely won’t come soon enough for her.

At 93, one expects that the body will fail, that organs and parts won’t work as well, will lose efficiency, will fail. But this is particularly tough on her. It was clear during our visit today that this diagnosis troubles her.

My parents were both voracious readers, and they passed along a love for books, reading and learning to me from an early age. Reading mattered, reading was important in our family. They shared that with me, it was part of our family DNA.

My father passed away eight years ago and my mother, in her nursing home, still reads every day. She reads for entertainment, for company, for relaxation, for amusement, and for learning. Or rather, she did, until this summer when the problem manifest itself and her reading was curtailed.

Now she struggles to read. She has to use a bright lamp over the book, and has taken to large-print books to still be able to read. But it’s a temporary solution as the AMD spreads inexorably.

She does crossword puzzles too, to keep her mind sharp. They’re harder to do now, because she can’t see the page as clearly. AMD affects the centre of the retina, spreading outwards.

She can see her TV screen if she sits up close, but the laptop screen is that small amount too distant, and besides, she can’t make out the keyboard very clearly. It was hard enough trying to peck out email messages with one hand. Now the computer sits unused.

Losing her ability to read easily is a blow to someone who has lived a tough life, suffering medical problems that have left her wheelchair-bound for the last decade. She certainly didn’t need any more complications.

Yet, despite all her trials and tribulations, her mind is still as sharp as a tack and her memory is remarkable – better than mine. She can recall details of her life, of her childhood right up to recent events, with astounding clarity. I envy that.

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