Friday, December 24, 2010

New Year thoughts

Christmas and the New year are for many people a time for reflection, a moment to look at their lives and consider whether they are where they wish to be yet the dates themselves are merely arbitrary since the dating system we use is so flawed. This became apparent at the Millennium when it was realised that we were probably celebrating the wrong year. Since there are many different calendars in daily use in the world, it means that there are many ends of year dates so why do we attach so much importance to it?  When younger I would become quite emotional as the minutes counted down to the New Year.  
But New Year’s Eve 2010 was different.  I don’t know why, I just didn’t seem to have any enthusiasm for it, after all the end of a year is really no different than any other day. Dates and times are artificially applied by us to nature that knows no such divisions. Different cultures and religions have different calendars, and as I was in a country where for most people, the day to day fight against poverty and disease is a more immediate concern than the date on the calendar. 
Memories of past celebrations flickered in and out of my mind, crowding out the present but not providing enough detail for me to remember exactly what or where they had happened. So many year ends had passed usually celebrated at home or in someone else’s home but none stood out as being special at that time.  
I didn’t miss the traditional counting out of the last fading seconds- five, four, three, two, one and then the shout, as if the whole world was howling out for something new, something clean and fresh to wipe away the failures and disappointments of the previous year. It was in such confusion that I went to bed and slept through the transition from one decade to the next
It was only on the following day when I was in the gym walking on the cross trainer that I thought again about New Year’s Eve.  By now I was aware of the discomfort in my legs, the increased breathing and the perspiration tickling my ears and face. To counteract the discomfort, as I often did I take my mind away from the immediate present into an imaginary world and it was at that point, that I began to recall the New Year’s of the past. 
The Champs Elysee in Paris; a frenzied crowd six to eight deep walking along the pavement on either side, arm in arm singing and laughing towards or away from the Arc de Triomphe.  The central dual carriageway, at least eight lanes wide each of which was solid with traffic hardly moving; the cacophony of their hooters, mingling with the raised voices of the crowd as the New Year approached.  And then again that countdown, the ringing of church bells the noise of car hooters joining together in a riotous reverberation of joy, relief, and unspoken wishes.  It seemed to go on and on and suddenly it was quiet and the traffic began to move and the people made their way home to face the New Year with hopes and dreams yet unfulfilled.
And then another memory, so sharp and clear, the deck of the Peninsula & Oriental steam ship Himalaya, which had just passed through the Suez Canal and was steaming down the red Sea. An unlikely place to celebrate New Year’s Eve but that is where I found myself one year, the ship’s doctor en route for Australia
. The ship had been decked out in Christmas trappings which were still present as the New Year approached.  A special dinner had been arranged and I was seated at my table with some eight to 10 guests, a mixture of ages, some immigrating to Australia, others returning home after a period of study in Europe, but all excited and most slightly inebriated.  The dining room with brightly let the sparkling drapes bright lights candles well polished cutlery and white china.  The waiters and waitresses dressed in black bow ties made the occasion a very formal and correct experience.  Every table had a bottle of champagne, copious chocolates for desert and a central arrangement of flowers.  There was a background of excited conversation which stopped as the captain stood up to speak.  A stocky grey-haired man with an obvious Northern Ireland accent greeted everyone, wished them a happy New Year and invited them to take a glass of champagne with him.  I watched and listened not believing not understanding how I was there. 
It had an air of unreality about it and for a moment I thanked my lucky stars that I was having this opportunity. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world. Such was my feeling of elation and happiness, and as the hour approached the same now familiar countdown and the shouts of happy New Year. At that moment I felt strangely alone as couple turned to each other to hug and kiss. I stood watching, a voyeur at a party when suddenly a young woman at my table sensed my aloneness and swept me up in her arms kissing my soundly on the lips. We laughed together and the New Year had arrived.
Some years had passed and I found myself in Baltimore, the capital of Maryland, the most northerly Southern states of the USA. I was married with one daughter and a son on the way. The New Year seemed to creep up on me without warning, suddenly it was there and I wasn’t prepared for it. I was attached to a very dynamic Department at the Johns Hopkins Hospital , an enormous collection of Departments that had grown like topsy over the years . It was a very confusing place to navigate when I first arrived. But I soon got the knack, learning to go to the fifth floor in one block in order to cross over to another as they didn’t all connect at every level!! We were living in a small apartment in Park Heights, a better part of town with lovely neighbours who gave us all sorts of things that we needed when we first arrived.
We were reminded by an invitation from our neighbours to a New Year eve party in their apartment next door. It was another example of the extraordinary hospitality that we met in America wherever we went. When we knocked on their door we were warmly received and we found ourselves in the company of a large extended family with the ages ranging from Grandma at 91, to her great, great granddaughter who was asleep on her copious lap. It was a riotous evening with much laughter and vastly excessive food which we were encourage to eat far beyond our needs. 
Then as Big Ben rang out, even in the heart of America, those ringing tones have a special meaning, the family began the united countdown and then at midnight , the hugs and kisses; it was a wonderfully warm family occasion.
I remember a very different New Year, celebrated in Marseilles with Diana’s school friend Claudine from her days at the Lycee in Paris. In that very special French way we ate into the New Year, just the four adults and our children , we each had a boy and a girl of roughly the same age. She had prepared a gargantuan feast of about 15 courses each beautifully presented and enjoyed with the appropriate wine. We were still eating when the chimes rang out, we stopped held hands and wished each other a happy New year. Then in turn we went round and hugged and kissed each other as only the French can do.
One year we were in Israel, in the northern town of Afula. I was a working as a surgeon in the local hospital.  We had made some wonderful friends with fellow surgeons Art and Ruth Abelson and Igal and Rutta Rubenstein. Art and Ruth’s children were grown up and not able to be with us but the Rubenstein’s four were in full cry. Tall slim and good looking they were the central attraction of the evening. Stories, games and laughter were enjoyed by all. New Year is not a Jewish holiday but any excuse for a party and we were game. Another memorable count down and shouts and whoops of joy as the New Year was welcomed in.Sadly Art and Igal have died but the memory of them is still as strong.
And as i write this, 2011 is looming close and another year end is upon us. How different this one is, now living much of the year in Mombasa, Kenya,:  the colours, smells, sounds and the warmth are so special to this part of the world. I will share it with my new African family and join in the games and fun with the children whose ages range from 12 to 2. 
Happy New year to you all

Why Religion?

Why religion
I was listening to the BBC religious programme at 7.30 this morning when one of the speakers talked about Jewish atheism.  He said he did not believe in God but that did not prevent him from praying.  To ignore this paradox as he saw it, he had re-written the traditional prayers without altering  their meaning but omitting any reference to an all-powerful God.  To the questioner, this seemed to be a paradox because how can you pray without recognizing a God.  The speaker said that there was no need to identify a hierarchical figure, an all-powerful overwhelming deity to whom we should pay homage, rather he suggested that the prayer should deal with the issues which troubled and challenged the supplicant and this did not need to include a god.
I found this argument very attractive as I have had great difficulty in accepting a god who while being described as loving and caring seems to stand by and allow terrible pain and suffering.  The religious accept this as God's will and are grateful for any mercies that he showers upon them.  For my part that is a fallacious argument as it seems to contradict the evidence all around us.  That the world of nature is beautiful, exciting and miraculous is unquestionable but I see no reason for there to be an overwhelming powerful deity controlling and deciding what does and doesn't happen.  I suppose in a way I am drawn to the concept of the Gaia or World Force that is in everyone and everywhere and that influences everything that happens in the world with the universal interaction of living and inanimate objects.
I've often wanted to pray but have been inhibited because of my inability to accept an all-powerful God.  This new idea of Jewish atheism makes me feel that I can now pray to a universal power without a hierarchy to inhibit me.  When asked whether there was any contradiction between being an atheist and a Jew, the speaker replied that someone who was born of a Jewish mother was Jewish whether he believed in God or Judaism.  Current thinking would now include someone born of a Jewish father.
Did God give up on the world a long time ago? This is the thinking of many, disenchanted with the world and the people and I am inclined to agree with them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why Blog?

I suppose you have noticed as I have that a number of well respected publications employ well paid writers to pontificate about anything no matter how trivial as long as it is thought to be clever, witty, erudite and compelling. Two such articles came to my notice today, that is I read them having found them by flicking over the pages of the October Spectator.
The first by someone who calls herself Dot Wordsworth , a not so clever nom de plume, I surmise, wrote about a new word that she had coined to describe her slothful ( or idle, work shy, indolent) husband. It was lol-poop. She apparently found it in a 17th C book that she had ‘inexplicably over looked’ in her reading. How many of us could make the same claim I wondered. She then goes on to explore the source of the word no doubt with the help of one or more research assistants, who you guessed, are members of her family currently highly educated but yet not gainfully employed,  thus ‘keeping it in the family’
She offers a number of possible sources and in the process tells us about  liripoop a word that trips lightly off the tongue and is I am sure in regular usage in the popular press. It turns out to mean --the elongated tail of an academics gown- of course you knew that. 
In the end of this piece she confesses that despite the erudition of those who have tried to identify its source, no certain origin was found.                 
        The other article to which my attention was drawn was written by Hugo Rifkind, a name that suggests some connection with a well known UK political figure. Nepotism you may ask -who knows? Certainly the piece falls into the category of nonsense. Entitled -‘All I ask for is coherence of abuse’ he goes on to itemize features of his life - Such things as his ownership of an Oyster card, a bicycle etc. Are you making any sense of this?   Objects that separate him from the less well off, and that he should be ashamed of-
He cant resist the question of University fees, commenting that is it the rich or  the poor who will be penalised?  The piece is written during the recent successful rescue of the Chilean miners. He tells us proudly that he once went down a mine so have I, so what?  He found to his surprise that it was hot. Didn’t he do Earth sciences at school? The nearer you get to the centre the hotter it gets.  
The final parody is when he attempts to show that there are worse thing that can happens to us than being buried underground for more than two weeks without any contact and or any hope of rescue. It is difficult to imagine anything worse. The uncertainty itself would be almost unbearable.
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