Character: Defined

Just what is a character?

Are you one?

Are you also a hero?

A person?

An individual?

What about a self?

A soul?

Are you a soul? Or do you HAVE a soul?

What about the person sitting next to you?

What about Pollyanna? Is she a character? A person? I think she’s an example of one of the intermediate forms known as a FIGURE.















A FIGURE is a “character” meant to emulated. Pollyanna is disgustingly optimistic in cases, but if we look beyond the surface, her father had taught her how to do this. Her optimism was not presented as “natural.”

Yesterday, Karen Bota, founder of the Mid-Michigan Word Gatherers, organized a FREE writing conference. I had offered to share my gleanings from my recent readings inspired by Amelie O. Rorty’s article “A Literary Postscript: Characters, Selves, Persons, and Individuals” in the academic philosophy conference proceedings she edited.

If you would like a copy of my slide show, please download it by clicking on this link.


After the writing conference yesterday, a few of us went to hear / see Bob Dylan. Why do people go to rock / folk concerts anyway? For most people it’s to have a more vivid experience of the songs we love than can be obtained through a recording. Bob Dylan doesn’t really care about that. He’s going to put on the show he wants to, how he wants to, and decades of fan disapproval (documented if you look around) aren’t going to pressure him into “pandering to his audience” and playing even a single song from his early career in the way we listened to it then.

One of the articles I found about one of the songs he played said that Bob Dylan is the last word in the artistic Modernist movement. After contemplating this, I see that modernism carries with it the idea of the character, which is much more modern than a hero. Characters have more choice of action, even if they obviously don’t have total free will, than heroes. Even as Joseph Campbell notoriously told us that “We are all the heroes of our own lives,” I have never liked the idea that humans NEED heroes. Why can’t we agree to build a society where superhuman features are not a necessary prerequisite for getting a reasonably happy and productive life?

Another aspect of the Modernist movement is that endings are ambiguous. That is a reflection of life in modern times. In the old days, every story of every person didn’t have a neat, tidy end. But the stories that were thought to be worthwhile to preserve were those which did. This morning, I see that the ambiguous story ending is simply another aspect of intellectual honesty, which allows the stories of everyone to be told, up to the present moment, whether it feeds our need for certainty (usually not) or helps us to gain maturity by learning to tolerate ambiguity.

The way we tell our stories influences how we see ourselves as humans, and the way we see ourselves as humans influences how we tell our stories.

Over time, this self-reflection from story to person and back again morphs, and morphs again. We are able to see new possibilities of how to approach our own lives.

The stories we told ourselves in prehistoric and early historic times tended to have a clean ending with a lesson that most listeners would agree on. People lived in the collective consciousness and didn’t see themselves and each other as individuals whose lives were influenced by decisions they made. People saw themselves as stepping into pre-made roles in their groups, and doing what was to be done.

Trump: A Man of Integrity?

What does it mean to be a person of integrity?

Many people think that a person of integrity is one who is honest and truthful, doesn’t steal, cheat or lie. But this is not the real definition of integrity. Integrity means whole.

I recently saw a quote to the effect that the person’s words, actions, thoughts, were consistent. I agree with this definition.  Sometimes I find a person of integrity to be a jerk, but that’s simply my opinion of the person, which I arrived at using my own moral and ethical standards.

I was having a discussion with someone and said that by this definition, Donald Trump is a man of integrity. He is who he is. He is not deep or thoughtful, but according to New Yorker staff writer David Owen, who was speaking with Terry Gross on the NPR program Fresh Air, on April 13 (the anniversary of the Titanic disaster), Trump behaved the same way when Owen met him for an interview for Golf Digest, as he behaves now, as president. Terry Gross asked:

How did the man that you golfed with compare with the president you’re watching on TV?

And Owen answered “Very much the same.” You can find the exchange in the transcript of the interview, about half way down, at the link above.

I don’t know if Owen is right, but at least he has spent time with the President. I have not. So I have to leave the possibility open that Trump is who he says he is. That is what  a lot of people who voted for him said they wanted.

That does not mean I like his value system. In the end, most of us feel friendlier toward people with whom we share the top levels of our value hierarchies.

Hiring a Saint

“I took the liberty,” Dharmendra said, “of asking a saint to come with us.” I must have looked a little confused. “A saint?” I asked. “Yes, he’s a saint. I asked him to come so he can do a ritual for your mom.”

We were on our way to a thousand year old temple in the Kumaun  (click for some maps), a division of the State of Uttarakhand, on the Indian side of the borders of Tibet and Nepal. I had already traveled twice to the Kumaun, and always found myself wishing I used some type of prescription tranquilizer as the taxi travels along the narrow roads, along the edges of nearly vertical mountain slopes. Dharmendra has been my guide all three times. We’ve never actually gone to the peaks of any of the tallest Himalayan mountains. Only the foothills. But the views are fantastic.

During the last trip to India, in 2008, which was a birthday gift from my parents, my mother, who was born in West Virginia, and could not wait to move away to a big city, but who always loved mountains, turned to me at one point, and said “I see why you wanted to come back.”

My mother was quite an impressive woman. She passed the CPA exam in 1956, and the Maryland and DC bars in 1967. There were not very many women lawyers at that time. In any case, she certainly impressed Dharmendra on that trip. He informed me that MAYBE my mother was as good as packing suitcases as he was. But he seemed to acknowledge that she was going to get what she thought was her due, and he learned some skills in that vein from her. I had gotten the news that she had fallen, and was unlikely to survive, a few days before I was to leave Chennai and head to north India, for the “vacation” part of my trip to the sub-continent. There was nothing I could do for my mother at that point, by going home right away. So I continued my trip, with modifications in case I had to cut the trip short, which I did.

An Indian engineering colleague had a question for me at the time I was planning the 2008 trip. “Is it wise to use Dharmendra’s services? Is he accredited by the Government of India?” I said no, but I couldn’t let myself worry. Dharmendra’s tour guide service is no ordinary tour guide service.

Dharmendra is going to give his clients an experience to remember. It’s never mediocre. Apparently, as I found out on this trip, it includes the services of a saint to pray for your mother’s soul, should the need arise. Dharmendra arranged for me to do what he would have done had it been his own mother near death.

Swami Shivachaitanyananda, I found out the next day, really is considered a saint.

Swami Shivachaitanyananda at Shangrila Resort, holding a children’s book in English, that someone had left behind. The Swami doesn’t read English.

After spending twenty years in a cave, he decided to rejoin society. He loves to talk. Making up for lost time, he’s extremely cheerful and active for 70. He is a self appointed concrete inspector. If he sees the wrong mix of sand and cement, he complains to the authorities. Apparently, a large construction in Rishakesh was redone after the contractors were caught cheating by the Swami.

His materials engineering skills don’t interfere with his regular swami activities. He taught me a few Vedic mantras on the way to the mountain temple. He was impressed with my Sanskrit pronunciation, which I had learned at the beginning of my trip at a chanting yoga retreat.

After driving for 5 hours, to get to the town with the nearby temple, we got out of the car, bought around 150 pounds of rice, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, etc., and called the temple priest to send down people to carry the food up the 3.5 km switch backed, gravel, rock, and tree root covered, steep path. I only had to carry myself and my purse. The taxi driver carried my sleeping bag and knapsack, along with his own stuff. As I looked up, and reminded my dear friend and tour guide that there was a reason I brought a cane with me, and that there was a difference between 3.5 km horizontal and 3.5 km vertical, he assured me it wasn’t strictly vertical. I made it. Slowly. The Swami beat me. Easily. Here’s the view from the “guest house,” at the 3.5 km mark. A mere half km from the top of the mountain, where the actual temple is. It was worth it.

Hopefully there will be a photo of the guest house itself in a later post, but for now I will say that we took the room that did not smell like burned plastic. The rest of the amenities? A concrete floor and a metal door, and two small windows with metal shutters. They were nice. They gave the spoiled American 3 extra blankets.

The resident priest made dinner for us. The most delicious dahl (spiced lentils) I have ever had. Dharmendra claimed it was because it was cooked on a wood fire. Despite the hot meal, I had never really warmed up after breaking into a sweat on the hike up. The mountain air was cold.

“No, Dharmendra,” I said. “Narendra (our driver) is not sleeping in a different room. He’s sleeping with us, to add his hot breath and heat radiations to the three of us.”

I asked if I had been snoring when we all woke up, and an affirmative answer let me realize that I did probably sleep for a few hours. Morning light at 7 meant time for me to eat the chapati that the priest had made specially for me so I could take my pain meds before walking up the last half km to the temple.

The last part of the climb to a mountain temple is reliably steeper than the rest. Getting to a mountain top temple is most of the prayer. As one of my companions on the earlier part of the trip, the yoga retreat, said, “The Indians With Disabilities Act has two words: Tough Shit.”

But with the cane, I made it. And the Swami performed the healing ritual for my mom. It turns out that she started breathing on her own, right around that time.

Never underestimate the power of prayer, whether it is from your own tradition or not.

Ultimately, as I already knew would be the case, my mom did not survive. But because she was breathing on her own, they were able to remove the ventilator mask, and my dad got to see her face, and kiss her face, and that meant a lot to him at the time.

Seeing her face, he was able to see that “she” was gone from the physical shell that had housed his wife of 59.5 years. It was still hard to let her go, but I think easier than it would have been otherwise.

Back at the guest house, the priest and Dharmendra had a little disagreement. Turns out that the Swami really is considered a saint, and the priest did not think that we should pay if we brought the Swami with us to bless his facility. Dharmendra had to clandestinely leave the money to pay for our accommodations.

Back at the bottom of the trail, as we got in back in the car, Dharmendra told me “Now you realize you are stronger than you thought you were.”

Dharmendra at

Miraculously, my arthritis pain was greatly reduced the day I got off the plane in India. Still, after two years of severe inflammation, my fitness condition wasn’t great. Back in the US for a month now, the arthritis pain continues at a much lower level than it was before I left. Maybe this is part of why old people go south for the winter. And probably why this wasn’t my last trip to India, even though I had said before I left that it was my bucket trip.

It was supposed to be MY bucket trip, not my  mom’s.






Spiritually Attached to India

“She won’t like it here,” the good professor wrote. “Westerners never do. There’s no room service, and the food in the cafeteria is all South Indian style.”

“She’s spiritually attached to India. She speaks fluent Hindi. This isn’t her first trip. She’ll be fine.”

My soon to be friend Shankar nailed it. I had never thought about it in exactly those words though. I’m spiritually attached to India. It would be my third trip to the subcontinent. The fluent Hindi was a bit of an exaggeration. I had pretty darn good tourist Hindi, maybe a thousand words. Grammatical mistakes in most of my sentences, but I was usually understood, then corrected, proving that they understood what I was trying to say. (My most used sentence on the hair-raising ride on the 1.5 lane wide roads on the sides of the “foothills” of the Himalayas, was -after correction- Nicche na dekko!!- “Don’t look down!”

Scary Road on the way to Rudraprayag


sometimes followed by “But Look Down- it’s beautiful!”)

Shankar was correct, but he humored the professor, and asked me if I agreed that the accommodation planned, without room service, would be ok. I assured him that it would, and was very happy to have this new idea of spiritual attachment, and to have had someone who never met me in person realize it was true. I can’t really explain it; maybe I had a past life or three in India.

Really, my main concern about hotels in Asia is that the mattresses  are so hard. Difficult on my arthritic joints. But I had resolved to just take extra pain killer, when I needed it. This was my bucket trip. I was acting on my desire to teach a failure analysis class in India, before the onset of my ultimate, inevitable deterioration. The mattress at the University guesthouse was unlikely to be harder, I reasoned,  than the one at the rural Christian monastery where I was going to be spending the first week and a half in India on the upcoming trip. And the food was unlikely to be more difficult to enjoy than what the monks and nuns ate. And anyway, I had just returned from Japan, where I became convinced that the more expensive the hotel, the harder the mattress.

If I really hated sambar, rasaam, and idly, I probably wouldn’t go to south India. But I had learned to eat, if not love, the first two items, spicy soups, back in the mid 1970’s, when my South Indian ex-boyfriend moved to a town near my parents, who really liked him more than any other boyfriend I had before or after, and proceeded to teach my mother how to do South Indian cooking. I learned to more or less enjoy idly, a somewhat bland lentil flour based sponge, used to sop up the sambar, on my first trip to India, where they served it at the Hindu monastery (ashram) that hosted the meditation retreat that I was attending in 2001.

So I just had to deal with the reality of the hospitality that my hosts, for what was becoming a four day speaking tour in Chennai, were able to provide. I had offered to teach a two day seminar, give a dinner talk to my fellow members of our international engineering society, and a lecture to the engineering students at the local university.  I ended up also giving a longer version of the dinner talk at two private companies, and another presentation to some eleventh graders, entitled “Is a Career in Materials Engineering Right for Me?” I wasn’t charging a speaking or teaching fee, but I thought it was reasonable to ask them to cover my expenses for the four days that I’d be visiting them. They agreed, but were concerned about the budget. It all worked out. I was back to normal food after buying myself four days of temptations at the Radisson Blu buffets.

Back home after a month in India, I feel more spiritually attached to the people and place than ever. After twenty years of trying to get traction exploring new ideas of how engineers can embrace critical and creative thinking, or what I’ve started to call “cultivating clarity,” I am lucky to have developed a small group of local, American people, who appreciate my creative approach to critical thinking. But each of the two Indian companies that invited me to the give the “Thinking Skill Optimization” talk had 85+ people attend. And they participated. And their managers thanked me in unique ways that allowed me to see that they were also paying attention. My new friend Prasad told me “You have gotten pretty close to giving a method for developing intuition.”

Yes, that’s right. And it was very interesting to me that someone who lives in the land of the longest lasting collective consciousness, the very source of intuition, understood that to be a major part of my approach. Of course many engineers would not be attracted to a class on developing their intuition, and even if they were, I imagine they’d have a hard time convincing their bosses to cover the costs to attend. It sure is useful to have a way to calibrate intuition though. When effective, it’s a lot faster and easier than calculations and analysis.

Thinking about it further, I am just realizing how unusual it was that both managers attended the training with their employees. How often does that happen in the USA? Most American managers think that the only thing they need to know how to do is balance a budget.

I think there is more to the success of the contribution of Indian industry to the global economy than low wages.

Fake News and the First Amendment

Fake news is very hard to distinguish       from the real thing, and we have to     balance actions against fake news with    First Amendment rights.

REALLY? Is that true, I wondered, as I listened to NPR’s talk show version of CNN style hyper news, “On Point,” hosted by Tom Ashcroft, from WBUR.

This topic is perhaps more important now than it was when I first posted this. I’ve added some new links at the bottom of the post, and will try to keep this updated.

The event that precipitated the show was the “Pizzagate” scandal. A man, acting on his own to investigate the completely false accusations of Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of the basement of a Washington, DC area family pizza restaurant, (if she was so tired and weak from the campaign activities, I wondered how would she find time to run a sex ring??? And oh, by the way, according to CNN, the pizza place has NO basement)  fired an assault rifle in a room crowded with families enjoying their pizzas.

Thus, we have entered a new age, where fake news not only influences people’s opinions about who to vote for, or what to think, but starts chains of actions that have a lethal potential. Of course, there might be those out there who think that it should be a capital offense (benefiting from vigilante action, and needing no criminal proceedings) to eat in a pizza parlor that is owned by someone who donated money to the Democrats. But assuming for now that most Americans have not gone that far, what other lessons might we look for in Pizzagate and it’s origins?

What was surprising to me was the juxta-position of the First Amendment with the right to publish fake news.

But what is the First Amendment FOR EXACTLY? Is it to protect liars and libelers? That was never my impression from my civics classes in school. I thought it was to protect the expression of opinions about how we SHOULD live. Even the Nazis have a right to to assemble and speak and try to convince the rest of the country that we should kill or oppress all those they don’t like. That is protected speech. However, we do have laws against libel and slander, and that is much of what fake news is.

Here is what says (red is Shona’s highlight)

Freedom of Speech. This freedom entitles American citizens to say what they think, provided they do not intentionally hurt someone else’s reputation by making false accusations. Neither may they make irresponsible statements deliberately harmful to others, such as yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. There are many issues about which Americans disagree, from child-rearing practices to baseball teams to Presidential candidates. Freedom of speech enables people to state their opinions openly to try to convince others to change their minds.

The First Amendment also gives you the right to disagree with what others say without fear of punishment by the government authorities….

Freedom of the Press. This freedom makes it possible for Americans to keep informed about what is going on in government. It helps them to be responsible citizens. Reporters and editors can criticize the government without the risk of punishment, provided they do not deliberately tell lies. Newspapers, magazines, and books, as well as television and movie scripts, do not have to be submitted for government inspection before they are published. This censorship would violate the First Amendment.

Back to Shona’s thoughts now… What I can’t figure out is why the journalism and philosophy professors, the journalist, and the host of the show could not see that the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the individual going about their business as a free citizen. The idea of the First Amendment is not and never was to protect liars whose goal is to interfere with the democratic process, or to intentionally harm law abiding citizens they do not like. In other words, we don’t have the right to help God punish those who we don’t like, for something they did not do.

My understanding of the First Amendment was in line with what wrote. Now maybe some would consider this a “dumbing down” of the First Amendment. All parents teach their kids not to lie, since they don’t want their kids lying to THEM about household matters. But the God of the Hebrew Bible did not make a commandment against lying. That God knows that lies have a valid purpose in life. The God of the Hebrew Bible prohibited BEARING FALSE WITNESS. This is  a specific TYPE of lying, that would undermine the foundations of a just society. Bearing false witness in a court proceeding before a judge is a crime in American law as well. We call it perjury, and if we bear false witness we can be held in “contempt of court,” since the court proceedings include swearing that the witness will tell the truth.

I understand that becoming a public figure widens the opening for allowed criticism. However, outright lies that harm an individual’s reputation should not be protected “speech,” whether they are a public or private person.

Currently, if someone slanders or libels an individual, the individual is responsible for bringing the legal action against the perpetrator. Maybe this should change. If someone physically or psychologically harms or kills an individual, the STATE (the government) takes the action against the alleged perpetrator. If I am killed, my family members do not have to sue the alleged murderer in order for the murderer to be brought before the justice system. There are problems with this system, as the OJ Simpson trial showed, and the victims’ families did end up having to go to civil court to get some justice… But there will always be times where individual justice fails in the interest of having a “neutral justice system.”

Maybe it is time to rethink the way libel and slander laws operate. When the target is a public figure, a political figure, maybe it is of interest to all of the people to know the truth, and the State (Government) should represent THE PEOPLE in an action against the liars.

I just keep scratching my head about why the two professors and the journalist could not come up with this “angle” on how to slow the tsunami of fake news while protecting the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not there to protect liars. It’s there to protect the ignorant. And we are all ignorant of a lot of things, even if we are experts in others.

NEW LINK: Check out this interesting editorial about how fake news is used by those in search of power.

The Sacred Media: Another new link to some thoughts about freedom of the press, from a fellow writer of Mid-Michigan Word Gatherers.

Another link to how to tell fact from opinion. A well done video.


I took the NaNoWriMo Challenge

Just About 108,000 Words Later, Space for Meaty Ideas

I first wrote the story of Star Fool and Silver Wing for National Novel Writing Month ( in 2012. It took a lot of editing.

It’s been fun and frustrating at the same time. I’ve learned a lot about creative writing styles, and decided that I’m going to write the way I want to write at least some of the time. I LIKE old books and I like reading what the action was rather than having to read a description of a situation and figure out what it looks like. Most description of action is hard for me to see in my mind anyway. I have a cognitive dis-function in that area. That’s why I’d rather read than see a movie. I miss stuff in movies. My story doesn’t have much of that type of physical action. It’s more an exploration of ideas.

Hope you enjoy!


I’m starting a new novel now that Knomo is done

It took a lot of restarts to get The Convolution of Knomo Choicius to its almost finished state. I still have to get an artist to the cover. I may tweak a few more things based on my beta readers comments. At one point, I lost heart, thinking there was so much work to get it to the point that people would read it, that it was easier to give up and start afresh with all the new knowledge of creative writing that I have. So I got this idea…

A crazy idea about a winged and armed species living on another planet. They have an advanced spiritual practice. Homo Saps and Knomos arrive and things change!

Here’s the beginning of the first chapter…

Moses of Kosbar


You might as well call me Moses. That’s what my mother did. She had quite a sense of humor. You see, I was a girl.

Moses isn’t my formal given name. But that’s another story. Mom wanted me to aim high and she thought calling me Moses would remind me of my duty to my people.

Of course, in the old days, we did not call ourselves people. In our language, it’s a different word. But ever since you Homo Saps arrived on our planet, we’ve adopted a fair number of your words, and people is one of them.

Anyway, going back to the story that I was asked to record, the time was four hundred of our “years” after a renegade group of homo saps took us away from the rest of the autochthonous people of Kosbar. That’s part of why mom called me Moses. She said it was now time for freedom and being reunited with our Magenta, Cyan, and Yellow family members, and resuming our duties and dietary habits so we could reclaim our place as the Blue Seers. Same number of years after which Moses appeared to liberate the Israelites from Egypt. Of course the Israelites originally went voluntarily to Egypt, and that was not the case of our removal from the homeland.

We were essentially forced into bondage when some Homo Saps snuck onto the grounds of our campground during our annual nature festival, while we slept. They dispersed a drug in the air to deepen our sleep, tied our hands behind our backs, clipped the feathers on our wings, loaded us into wagons and carried us away. This was all for our own good, those who were on the scene were told, when they awakened in what was essentially a prison compound. Now we would no longer be kept in the dark unless ordered by the Yellows to perform some out of doors task. We would be free to see the sunlight all day, and freed to do what we wanted. What they didn’t understand is that we were not treated like mushrooms against our will by our own people. We Blue Seers were those who successfully went through a rigorous application, training, and apprenticeship process. We Blue Seers came from all three of the other color groups, and did not turn Blue until we changed our diets to accord with the teachings of The Great Merwogon.

We tried to explain, but the Saps didn’t listen, even when the offspring turned out to be of all of the other three colors, and even when the original Blues reverted to Yellow, Cyan, and Magenta.

Our arms were free to move, but with our wing feathers clipped, we had no way to escape. We eventually found out that we had been transported to a different continent, which was an island. The plants were different enough that it wasn’t obvious how to recreate our spirituality supporting diet and get our powers back.

So now, here we were. Four hundred years or five generations after our ancestors were first brought to the far continent. The Saps claimed we could go when we wanted, but the fact was that we had no idea where home was, or how to find out. Four hundred years after the kidnaping, they no longer clipped our wings. Maybe if we had our Blue Seer powers, we could attempt to go. Practically speaking, four generations after all those who knew the techniques to become a Blue Seer had passed on, it was highly unlikely. How good do you think a soufflé would turn out, when made by someone who had never seen an egg beater?