Category: Philosophy

Let’s Talk

I’m no technophobe or Luddite, but I admit to longing for the sound of a human voice. A real human’s voice.

I use text and e-mail, but regard them as information tools. When I converse, I want to talk. I don’t need to talk long, but I prefer to hear someone’s reaction, tune into the subtleties of tone and rhythm. I particularly resent endless backing and forthing by text to iron out details of a meeting, plan or idea, which could be settled in one minute on the phone.

Before you protest, I understand texting can be done when you’re otherwise engaged — in a meeting, on a date, during a meal or at work. But such multitasking comes with its own perils.

And has everyone missed the irony that at a time when we are talking to each other less and less, we are being bombarded by devices offering to talk to us or allow us to talk to them? Truth be told, half the time when I’m texting I use the voice feature to speed up the process.

In the grand scheme my current pet peeve may be small potatoes. Studies seem to indicate babies, animals and children do not thrive if deprived of physical, tactile and real world interactions.  I can’t help but suspect the same holds true for adults.

A Truce

This has been a tough week. The news is filled with conflict — the fight against Ebola, the war on ISIS and, for us here in Florida, Fangate  (the conflict over a floor fan).  As a respite from all this, I offer this image: my two dogs, rivals in all things, but able to enjoy a quiet moment together.

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Whenever I see the image of the Ebola virus, I hear the theme from Jaws in my head.






If you think about it, that ubiquitous photo  does have  a predatory aquatic quality to it.

But I doubt that’s why my mind relates the two.  I’m waiting for Time Magazine to annoint this “The Summer of the Ebola Virus.”  In 2001 the world, particularly the media, seemed to be convinced that suddenly sharks had begun preying on innocent swimmers worldwide. Shark attacks were front page news, experts debated why this was happening and how we might protect ourselves. Only thing was, there was no particular upsurge in shark attacks that year. In fact the year before there had been more attacks and more fatalities.

This particular “crisis” is just as skewed. Don’t get me wrong Ebola is serious. It’s a very infectious and deadly disease. But let’s put some things in perspective. With the exception of health workers who were brought back after contracting Ebola while working in West Africa, there have been two cases of Ebola in the U.S.  Thomas Duncan, who is the first Ebola victim to die in the U.S., contracted the disease in Liberia and traveled here before realizing he had been infected. And now one of the nurses who cared for him has become the first person in the U.S. to contract Ebola on American soil. This is troubling. But both these cases happened in one city, Dallas. The U.S. has over 317 million people and is 3 million square miles (that’s just the contiguous U.S.) I don’t think we need to head for the bunkers yet.

I live in Miami. A young woman yesterday called me concerned about whether she should take her child to the hospital because he might contract Ebola. She seemed to feel that Ebola was everywhere. I explained how Ebola is transmitted and why she should not worry at this point. But it got me thinking. How many mothers or fathers will wait or refuse to get medical help for a sick child because they fear Ebola? How many flu victims will be shunned and demonized because people worry they have Ebola?

The Ebola story is important and  has to be reported. But the constant speculation, fear mongering and 24/7 focus on the U.S. Ebola victims is doing a disservice not only to people here, but to the thousands of victims in Africa. Because ironically, about a month ago I saw a letter to the editor complaining about the U.S. sending troops to help with the Ebola virus. The gist of the letter was that it was a waste of American taxpayer money. This latest outbreak could have been greatly reduced if resources and people had been directed to the problem earlier.

When all this calms down, I hope the lesson we take away is that what happens in Africa, Asia, anywhere is no longer just “their” problem. Terrorism, disease, even wars now travel throughout the world. When we help, and I don’t mean send troops and guns, but resources and practical assistance, we’re doing this for our own benefit as well as the benefit of those at the other end.






Issues of citizenship, nationality and belonging have been in the news recently. The great ‘immigration debate’ rages as Americans try to wrestle with exactly when someone becomes “American”. But these questions are not just abstract legal issues or economic ones. They represent an essential component of how we define who we are. For the vast majority of people in the world, this poses no problem. But for some of us  – and our numbers are growing — questions arise.
Citizenship is a legal term, it refers to a country within which you, as a citizen, have certain rights and for whom the government has certain responsibilities. You can have, as do  I and many I know, dual, triple or even quadruple citizenship. You can get citizenship through birth, from your parents, from your spouse or through legal means such as naturalization. Citizenship is conferred differently by different countries. In some, it’s fairly difficult to attain. In others, quite easy.

Nationality is less precise. According to my American Heritage Dictionary, nationality is “the status of belonging to a particular nation by origin, birth or naturalization.” or “a people having common origins or traditions”. But what nationality are you if you’re born one place, of parents of another country and grew up yet somewhere else? Nationality can be defined by others. The Chinese government reserves the right to claim as Chinese nationals all ethnic Chinese from any community anywhere in the world, regardless of how long it has been since any family member has ever set foot in China. A friend of mine who was of Japanese descent – several generations ago – found it very difficult when she visited Japan because she found that there was an expectation that despite her foreign ‘citizenship’, upbringing etc. that she would continue to be fully and completely ‘Japanese’ including how she walked, talked and moved. She told me she grew tired of being criticized for how she stood while waiting for a subway.

For me, questions such as “Where are you from?” Or “What are you?” always provoked a feeling of discomfort. Where was I from? I was born in Brazil, spent little time in the U.S. growing up so certainly I didn’t feel as if I was from the U.S. But did that make me ‘Brazilian’? Not really. My parents were from the United States, I received a largely U.S. style education, and spent much of my adult life representing the U.S. overseas. So I must be ‘American’.

I spent only four years of my first 18 in the U.S., the rest I was in Guatemala, Cuba and Brazil. When I was a teenager I was so rabidly, wholeheartedly and fanatically Brazilian, that my American parents, fearing I would lose my American identity entirely, insisted in my returning to the U.S. to go to college. When they moved to Tunisia during my college years, I ended up with no family or roots to return to in Brazil, so I settled into life in the U.S. Ironically because I wanted to get back overseas, I ended up becoming an American foreign service officer and took as my job ‘explaining America’ to the rest of the world But I never relinquished my Brazilian citizenship and I always maintained a brazilian heart.

My latest ‘identity crisis’ was triggered by  the World Cup. The World Cup tested my national loyalties. I have now lived and worked in so many countries – in North America, South America, Africa and the Far East – that I have emotional ties to them all. When Spain faced Tunisia, who should I root for? When the U.S. faced Ghana? (Sorry, but I just had to root for the Africans on this one). What about when Brazil faced Ghana? How I envied those friends whose loyalties were clear.
But then I remembered two important points. First, while it may be confusing and at times lonely feeling no strong sense of belonging to one place, I get such great joy from feeling connected to so many places.  As the World Cup went on those who rooted so passionately for one team, lost so much after their team was eliminated. But I just kept finding a new team to which I had an emotional attachment.

Secondly my sense of belonging in the U.S. as a whole may be tenuous at times, but I do very much feel a part of Miami.  After all, Miami is  the community version of me. So many loyalties, so many identities, so many citizenships. I could hardly have found a more appropriate place to live.

And finally as I fret about my multiple identities I can’t help but be aware of the millions of refugees that don’t have any — no citizenship, no nationality, no home. So now I’ll stop worrying about my crisis of too many identities and  focus on ways — however small — I can help those who have lost all  of theirs.

This is an absolutely fascinating talk. I’m sure many of you have already seen/heard it. But for those who haven’t, it’s very thought-provoking. (BTW – I only beat the chimps once.)


I rarely read comments following a news story, but recently I happened to scroll down after reading about an incident of bullying and was shocked at the vitriolic, mean-spirited exchanges.

I expected hate aimed at the bullies, although I’m never sure how much good that does. In this case, more rage was directed at how people were reacting (having rallies of support, planning better training in schools), how various groups raised their children and finally at the various communities themselves within the larger metropolitan area. I finally stopped reading as the discussion degenerated into name-calling and arguing points ad absurdum.

What I found ironic was that while decrying the intolerance/ ignorance/hypocrisy of the parents/communities/authorities, the commentators displayed those very same qualities.

And why shouldn’t they? The religious and the secular, the liberal and the conservative, we’ve all become so accustomed to hearing and considering only those opinions we agree with, that the very concept of exchanging ideas has become alien.

I admit it, I’m liberal, but I put great stock in politeness, civility and moderation. I can, and do, react strongly at times to someone’s behavior — be it their words or their actions — but try my best to focus on the behavior itself and not use it to judge the an individual’s worth or humanity.

After all, I’m no saint. There are times when in my head I draw sweeping, stereotypical and embarrassing conclusions. And as I work hard to make sure those thoughts don’t contaminate the universe, they serve to remind me of my own need to practice what I preach.

So feel free to disagree with what I say, but please don’t assume it encompasses everything I am or aspire to be.

Every once in a while I push myself to do something I’ve just been too chicken to try. A while ago I decided to skydive. I had gotten a pilot’s license (small single-engine planes) while I was living in Kenya. But I when skydiving came up, I would assert that I saw “no reason to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.”

Truth is I have a terror of falling and was sure I wouldn’t even make it out of the plane, much less survive the actual skydive (I’m not the most graceful or athletic). But one day a friend was talking about her skydiving experience and I found myself wondering if I dared.1916437_1190578448020_6490572_n

Before I could talk myself out of it, I called a small skydiving company in South Miami and booked myself a dive (tandem, of course).

I decided to make the trip down alone just in case I chickened out or made a total ass of myself. It was a perfect morning — bright blue sky, not too hot, not too cold.

As I crawled in the small, rickety, old plane that was piloted by a young man who I doubted was out of high school, I figured I had a better chance of dying from the plane falling apart than from the dive.

1916437_1190578488021_2487389_nWhen I got over the shock of flying with an open side door (I was sitting right next to it), the hard part turned out to be getting my legs to swing out in preparation for the drop. My head kept saying move, the legs were adamant that they wanted to stay right where they were. But eventually we were all set. 1916437_1190578688026_5500300_n (1)

Then my instructor and I were out the door free falling. What a sensation.

After a minute or so the chute opened. And we drifted peacefully over open countryside. There was no sound, no distraction, no fear. Just gentle rocking.


I had worried about the landing. But my instructor guided us in so carefully I barely felt my butt meet the ground.

The result: An amazing experience, truly the thrill of a lifetime.

I am addicted to traveling. I admit it. I jump at the chance to take a road trip. I yearn to revisit old haunts or set off on new adventures. I love big cities, untamed wilderness, dry deserts and frozen tundra.  

Of course these days the act of traveling — of getting from point A to point B — is often an exercise in endurance and superhuman patience. And I have been known to sit in an airport and swear I’ll never travel again.

But I could never give up marveling as I watch men haggle over a squirming sheep —  “See the thick hair.” “Ah, but look at the poor teeth.” Acting out a scene that hasn’t changed in hundreds, maybe thousands of years, except for that cell phone the buyer is using to check in with his boss.

I have too much fun losing myself in the mazes of souks and bazaars. Where spicy aromas and brilliant colors mix with electrical supplies, dishwashing liquid and paper goods.

And I get such joy catching a glimpse of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket as I drive through the south (really how great a name is that).

Traveling reminds me just how enchanting what others consider mundane can be. And conversely how exciting my everyday life may seem to others.

And that helps me appreciate my life just a bit more, even when I’m not traveling.


One reason I love travel is that it not only exposes me to the rich tapestry of different cultures and their unique approaches to life, beauty, time, etc., but it also reminds me of how much we share. And not all of what we share is the good stuff.

It is extremely embarrassing to me that despite all the time I spent living and working in Taiwan, traveling in Japan and mainland China, studying spoken Chinese, I still find it very difficult to distinguish between not only different individual Chinese (unless I know them well), but the various ethnic groups as well.

But during my tenure in Taiwan I learned that this failing is not, as I assumed, a simple reflection of my Euro-centricity, but that Chinese suffer from a similar issue when distinguishing between those of us of European origin.

My boss in Taiwan was married to a Swiss-American. She and I were similar in height and weight. But I at the time had dark auburn hair and a ruddy complexion with freckles. My boss’ wife had porcelain white skin and pale blond hair. To our Western colleagues we were very distinct. But after two years and multiple meetings — both official and social — the mayor of the city where I served could not tell the difference between us.

Towards the end of my stay, I commented on this fact to my assistant, someone whom I saw daily. “You’d think he’d at least notice we have different color hair.” I said.

Now here’s the kicker. “You do?” She answered.

That’s when I realized that Westerners filter certain characteristics when they look at someone. We automatically consider hair color, skin color, eye color. We then move on to type of hair — straight or curly, and other distinguishing features. Chinese use othere differences: shape of face, width of cheeks, and other facial structures. After all, there’s no point in noticing hair color — always black, eye color — always dark, type of hair — always straight. Similarly we generally won’t notice shape of face, width of cheeks, etc.

Not sure what the lesson in all this is, but I’ve learned to be less judgmental of myself (and others) in this regard and to humbly realize that I’m only as individual as the person looking at me notices.


Much is made of the fact that dogs teach owners about unconditional love. But they also can teach us about unconditional self acceptance.

I have two dogs. Marlena is brown, young, strong, beautiful and timid. Charlie is a small, blond, funny looking, feisty and 14-years old



Marlena who is something of a galloping galoot doesn’t regret that she isn’t smaller, blonder, more agile. She revels in her strength, her speed, her energy. And she sees her inability to be a lapdog as my problem not hers.




While Charlie struts his long hair and interesting looks down the middle of the sidewalk confident that he is perfection, king of his universe, totally unfazed by his size and quite happy that he is able to commandeer any lap in the vicinity.

My dogs learn, change and grow, but they don’t compare themselves to other dogs.

I, on the other hand, have spent far too much of my life wishing I were as thin as, or as pretty as, or as organized as …. you get the picture.

Whose smarter?