To Fly or Not to Fly

When I read the tragic news about another crash of a Boeing Max 737 jetliner, this time in Ethiopia, and how the pilots fought the programming and the automatic controls to keep the plane in the air, I remembered a sci-fi movie I watched about a coming war between man and machines.  This movie might have been a “flight” of some screen writer’s imagination except that the imminent astrophysicist Stephen Hawking worried about the peril of intelligent machines. Hawking believed AI or artificial intelligence had the potential to threaten mankind.  Still, I doubt he ever considered malevolent autopilots becoming a problem.

Nervous flyers might be hesitant to fly after hearing about the Max 737 crashes.  I get it.  I’m not a fan of flying either.  I’ve fought irrational fears of flying for several years.  In fact, one time I boarded a one-hour flight to Portland, Oregon, and in a martini fog (acquired at the airport bar trying to bolster my courage) I staggered up from my aisle seat and blew alcohol fumes into the stewardess’s face when I begged, “Miz?  Hey miz?  I wanna get off the plane.  Can I?  Pleeze?”

There are other, more rational reasons to reconsider flying as your form of transportation, which have nothing to do with machines running amok or phobias.  According to the amount of CO2 spewed by one jumbo jet traveling a distance of 400 miles is the same as 336 cars driving that same distance.

So, the approximately 20,000 flights taking place daily across our planet emit a tremendous amount of destructive greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

That’s why, despite having largely conquered my flying phobia, I decided on a recent trip to New York City to fly one way—and take the train home.

I felt very good about taking the train back from NYC—noble even. After all, rail transportation accounts for only 2% of total transportation greenhouse gases.  I could rest easy riding the rails—and I did.  I took numerous naps in my deluxe sleeper, lulled by the gentle rocking of the train on the tracks.  Due to the research I’d done I knew taking the train meant my carbon “shoe” was a modest size 2 instead of a clown flipper size 14.  I was relaxed until our train slowed down coming into the Philadelphia rail yard.  Then I blinked my eyelids open and gazed out the window to see dozens of CSX rail cars loaded with coal.

The thing about taking a train is that you share tracks and rail yards with other trains, especially freight trains.  Coal is primarily moved by freight trains.  For some reason, pure black carbon in the form of coal seems much more threatening to me than the nebulous greenhouse gases blown out of a jumbo jet.  Our train passed one coal car after another in Pittsburg, Chicago, Omaha, Denver, and Salt Lake.  I finally stopped seeing coal cars when the train dropped me off in the middle of the night at a lonely passenger shelter in Elko, Nevada.

Traveling green can be challenging no matter what form of transportation you choose to take.

The good news about flying is, there are ways to go greener. Check the airplane statistics when you book.  Many jets now use biofuels.  Also, most major airlines offer carbon credits you can purchase to support various green initiatives.  Of course, if you really want to lessen your carbon footprint, nothing beats staying home.  But then you’d miss out on a chance to see the Statue of Liberty and who wants to do that?

image credit: airplane

Sex and Power

Last night I watched The Favourite, a drama based on actual historical occurrences, and one of the movies nominated for best picture in the Oscar race this year.  It was, on the surface, a weird film. The weirdness had to do with: the fantastical costumes of the 17th century, (men in long, curly wigs with red beauty patches on their cheeks); the recreation of Lordly aristocrats (they seemed to enjoy pummeling a bewigged nude man with apples); and an instance of ballroom dancing (whereby a Lord twirled his partner around his waist aka Dancing with the Stars and then proceeded to crawdad-walk the length of the ballroom).  The fascination of the film though was its theme:  the limits of sex to gain power or to comfort.

Every advertiser knows the power of sex:  sex sells.  You may be reading this blog because you saw the word “sex” in the title.

Frankly, when I was a much younger woman, I, like many women, used my sex appeal to influence.

As a twenty-something living on an isolated desert farm, I dreamed of becoming a journalist and writing for a newspaper.  Without any experience or education in journalism, I wrote seven newspaper columns about a city girl’s life on the farm.  When I marched into the newsroom of our local newspaper with my columns in hand, I had on my prettiest dress and most charming smile. The city news desk editor took notice (I could tell).  He may have liked what I wrote, but I also think he was influenced by what he saw.  A week later I got a call telling me the newspaper was interested in publishing my work.

In the movie, The Favourite, Queen Anne of Great Britain is horribly depressed.  She’s lost her husband and endured 17 failed pregnancies. What is a queen’s value in the 1700’s if not to produce an heir (or even, in Great Britain today—consider how overjoyed everyone is that Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton, has been reliably fertile).

Queen Anne is easy pickings for the machinations of her assistant, Lady Sarah, and her chamber maid, Abigail, who both vie for Anne’s favor in the hope of gaining power.  They coddle Anne and respond to her every whim, including providing sex.  Ironically, considering Anne’s barren condition, sex appears to be the most effective manipulation.

I was both fascinated and repulsed watching Queen Anne try to comfort herself by eating cake until she vomited into the vomit bucket, or quietly sob as she participated in yet another meaningless sexual experience.

It was like watching someone with an appendix attack try to staunch the pain by riding a roller coaster.  Thrills are not going to solve Anne’s problem.  Sadly, in the film Queen Anne never overcomes her depression, and the aristocratic women prostituting themselves for her end up trapped in that role.  Here’s a movie (or a piece of history) I would gladly rewrite.  In my ending Queen Anne would find something she obviously and desperately needed: a genuine friend.  This person would ask nothing of her—and give nothing to her—except real love.  I’d call it a fairy-tale ending.

Image credit:  The Favourite

The Problem with Home Schooling

I talked with a woman about her adult son who was struggling to get through college—at the age of 27.  Maybe she was talking to me because she knew I had a doctorate in Education and had taught at the college-level for several years. She insisted that her son’s problem had nothing to do with his intelligence or work ethic.

“Then what do you think is wrong?”  I asked her.

“Oh, I just don’t know!” she sighed.  “I guess it could have something to do with home-schooling him.  I mean I gave him independence and let him work on projects at his own pace.  Isn’t that the way it should be?  Encourage children to engage in what interests them for as long as they want?”

“So you’re telling me maybe part of the reason he’s failing his college class is that he isn’t ‘timely’ or ‘efficient?’”  She didn’t respond to my question, perhaps because finding the cause of her son’s college problems didn’t solve them.

I felt her pain, but knew her primary reason for home-schooling had little to do with independence or having her child work at his own pace, and more to do with making sure he had a Christian-based education.  I squelched the urge to lecture her on a significant issue related to home schooling often tucked under the label “socialization.”

Most parents interpret socialization to mean having their children interact with other children so they can learn social skills; but the word has a much broader context.

Socialization also includes peer review, learning how to meet expectations of others whether in a college classroom setting, or with an employer at a job.  Ideally, it would be wonderful to operate independent of other people’s values and time tables.  But life isn’t like that.

Horace Mann in 1838 understood the benefits of having children leave the shelter of their homes to mix with a variety of other children in a less managed and protected environment: the public school classroom.  Mann, considered the father of the American public education system, had a list of life skills he thought children should be taught including: promptness in attendance and the ability to “organize the time accorded.”

In his day though, Mann was most concerned about the disparity between children’s education in the upper and lower classes.  His objective was to see that all children were educated equally in a democratic society.  He believed religious institutions by their very nature, were exclusive, and served only to further segregate and fragment our population.  By advocating that education for American children be universal, nonsectarian (not defined by religious or political groups), and free, Mann hoped to support fairness and the ideas America was founded on.  He fought for the establishment of a tax-supported, public education system for elementary-aged students.

I realize there are several good reasons parents home-school their children.

Some would argue religious and/or moral education should be a part of a child’s everyday educational experience.  Other parents have children who must be schooled in a more protected, familiar environment due to emotional/behavioral issues.  And today, on-line education in the comfort of a child’s own living room is often more convenient, time-saving, and cost-effective.

But with our culture wars, our polarized political spectrum, and attempts made by the current Department of Education to entrench these divisions even deeper by using tax dollars to support sectarian private and for-profit charter schools, public education seems an answer.

Public education is a glue like none other that binds and holds our democracy together, despite our many different religious, ethnic, and cultural identities.

My husband tells a story about riding the school bus in the 1960’s with Ernie (whose blue jeans were often patched), the Arellano kids (whose parents were born in Mexico), and the daughters of the biggest and richest landowner in the valley.  Everyone rode the same bus and went to the same school.  He says it was great.  In our attempts to protect and nurture our children, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they eventually must live in the broader culture.  Horace Mann understood this fact and I for one, am grateful he did.