Commensalism

It would be nice to remember that the majority of us are civilized.

I love stumbling upon a word I’ve never heard before, especially when it’s one that is apropos to our current reality. Commensalism is such a word. We all need to practice commensalism more often.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this word has been around since at least the late 14th century, and it means, basically, the act of eating at the same table. The mere thought of it makes me feel cozy. Some of my most delightful experiences in life have occurred while dining with someone.

The dictionary then expanded upon the definition. Once scientists got ahold of the word around 1870, it became slightly more complicated. At that point a commensal was, “one of two animals or plants which live together but neither at the expense of the other”.

But then if you look at modern medical dictionary definitions, it becomes “1. living on or within another organism, and deriving benefit without harming or benefiting the host individual. 2. a parasitic organism that causes no harm to the host.”’

It’s almost as if commensalism has become more selfish over time. That would be a shame. But I refuse to comply. I’ll stick with the “eating at the same table” definition.

Even if it has been around for centuries, this word couldn’t be more timely. Now, more than ever, we need all the benefits that humans derive from social dining. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more of a challenge.

Let’s start by focusing on families in all their many shapes, colors, and sizes. Families don’t sit down to a meal together as often as they used to. Few of us can say we live like the Waltons in this day and age. Our world is so fast-paced that it’s hard to coordinate these get togethers. Kids have a variety of extracurricular activities. Both parents are often working. Even when people do sit at the same table, they are often eating different things, and their noses are buried in their smart phones.

But according to this article, eating with your family gives you the opportunity to touch base and really talk about what’s going on. It promotes bonding, and causes children to feel more confident, because this communal act demonstrates that someone cares about them. Some studies show that eating together results in a healthier diet that includes fruits and vegetables, and it may also play a part in reducing obesity. There is also a strong link between family dinners and improved academic performance. In addition, the experience allows children to adopt the social skills that their parents are modeling at the table. People are also more apt to open up to one another when they can look down at their food when they need a break from looking each other in the eye.

But I would argue that dining with people, whether you are related to them or not, has a broader social impact. In a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, it is important that we remember how to talk to people who have different opinions than our own. It’s much harder to be rude to someone when you are face to face with them rather than interacting anonymously online.

The more people you dine with, the more you will learn. Everyone has a story. Everyone has unique insights and experiences. Dining with others reminds us all that there is more than one way to live.

I particularly enjoy dining with people from other countries. If you find the opportunity to do so when you travel, I guarantee that it will be one of the most memorable and satisfying elements of your trip. It’s really hard to hate a group once you have broken bread with some of its members. I still maintain that all Americans should be required to spend time in foreign countries. If we did, we wouldn’t have such an annoying sense of exceptionalism and such an overwhelming feeling of xenophobia.

You often hear that only 10 percent of Americans have passports, but according to this article, that hasn’t been true since 1994. Now that figure is 40 percent, and that’s largely due to the fact that after 9/11, we stopped being able to enter Canada and Mexico without passports. Millennials also have a great influence on this trend, because that generation would much rather put their money into experiences than things. I’m sure this pandemic has flattened the upward curve considerably, but now that so many people believe (rightly or wrongly) that the worst of COVID is over, they’re anxious to get out in the world and do things they haven’t been able to do in years. And the growth of social media has introduced more people to more places than ever before, so the travel bug is becoming a bit of a pandemic of its own.

I genuinely believe that Commensalism is the primary recipe for world peace. Diplomats shouldn’t face one another over stark expanses of an empty table. They should have meals together. Talking about food is a great ice breaker.

If Putin had ever made it a habit to sit down with Ukrainians, if only to compare and contrast Borscht recipes, I think he would have a much harder time ordering them to be shot in the head en masse. His isolation is the very bedrock of this heinous war.

Let’s all embrace commensalism. Only good things can come from it, and the world would become a much more pleasant place. It would be nice to get back to the belief that the majority of us are civilized, wouldn’t it?

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The Depth and Breadth of a Virtual Life

When you meet someone in a virtual world, you really, really meet them.

It’s rare that a news article brings tears to my eyes, but My disabled son – ‘the nobleman, the philanderer, the detective’ did just that. It’s about a young man named Mats Steen, who spent most of his life bound to a wheelchair, until his death, all too soon, at age 25.

His family expected a quiet, uneventful funeral, but an amazing thing happened. Friends started coming out of the woodwork, expressing their condolences. Some flew from other countries to attend his funeral. But how did the homebound Mats have so many loyal and loving friends?

The answer to that is World of Warcraft. He had been spending much of the last decade of his life in that virtual world, not just playing games, but forming relationships. And these people, to this very day, remember Mats, and speak of him often. There is even a memorial to him in there, where candles remain forever lit. Mats touched many lives from that wheelchair of his.

People who don’t spend time in virtual worlds don’t understand them at all. As a long-time resident of the virtual world of Second Life, I do. All too well.

These places aren’t games, where you fight with cartoons, all alone. There are people behind these avatars. Living, breathing people, whose personalities shine through. In Second Life in particular, the gaming aspect is practically nonexistent. It’s a social place, where you can attend live concerts, go dancing, explore wonderful alternate worlds, build outlandish and beautiful houses, go to church, meet people, make friends, fall in love… you name it, it’s possible.

For another interesting insight about what virtual worlds feel like, check out season 3, episode 4 of the series Black Mirror. It’s called San Junipero. You can find it on Netflix. It’s well worth the watch.

When you meet someone in a virtual world, you really, really meet them. Because avatars are the great equalizers. All of them are good looking and young and strong and healthy. What sets you apart is how you communicate and how you treat people. And that truth about you rises to the surface immediately. Liars don’t last long in virtual worlds, even though they are capable of doing a great deal of emotional damage during their short stays.

What I love about these places is that they expand your horizons. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can run and dance. If you’re agoraphobic, you can explore the world. If you’re unhappy with the way you look, you can look different. No one is poor or rich or tall or short. You aren’t judged by the external stuff. All of those things are stripped away.

I have made many friends in Second Life. There has been a lot of love in there for me. I’ve learned a lot about myself and others. I’ve learned the value of trust. Being there has given me the confidence to be an artist.

I’ve also had people I care about very much in cyberspace simply disappear. It’s heartbreaking, not knowing if someone is alive or dead. It’s cruel, depriving someone of closure, if that’s intentional. But there’s no way to know for sure.

I’m really glad that Mats was able to make lemonade out of the lemons of his life. He created his virtual life from scratch, as one does, and it sounds like he surrounded himself with lots of wonderful, amazing people, just as I have in Second Life. That, to me, is a life well-lived. May he rest in peace, knowing he still lives on in the hearts of so many.

(Thanks Jen, for introducing me to that amazing article!)

Virtual Me
The virtual me, standing in front of one of my fractals, with one of my fractals around my neck as well.

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Coupledom

Who knew?

Buy one, get one free. Everybody knows that’s a screamin’ deal. That is, if you want two. But who doesn’t want two? Two is always better than one!

Similarly, good things come to those who pair up, it seems. The second we got married, my husband’s auto insurance rates went way down. As did our health insurance rates.

And of course, we now have two incomes to pay for one set of utilities, one mortgage, one wifi bill, etc., etc., etc.

One family AAA membership costs less than two individual ones. The same can be said of the family plan for one’s phone. And hey, now we can shop at Costco! (I didn’t do that when I was single because the portion sizes were way too big for one person.)

And then there’s the social aspect of coupledom. Suddenly you have twice as many friends, and twice as many opportunities to have fun. You have twice as much family, too, which fortunately is turning out to be a wonderful thing in my case. (Your results may vary.)

You don’t really think of the implications of all this when you’re single. The world is really set up for us to go two by two, as if it’s one big Noah’s Ark. When you get married, you give yourself an instant raise, and you join a much wider support system.

I hope I’m not turning into one of those obnoxious people who try to force relationships upon everyone. I’m just pointing out that it’s really a completely different world on so many levels. Who knew?

king penguins

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When the Love Spell is Broken

Love is like a drug. When you’re deep in it, especially in the early stages, it’s hard to see flaws. Red flags just look like a pretty splash of color in your world. You want to bask in the fact that you seem to have found evidence of perfection, and that perfect person, against all odds, thinks that you’re pretty darned amazing, too. Such bliss.

It’s a heady feeling, that perfect love. The problem is, it’s pure fiction. Everyone has flaws. It’s a rare person who doesn’t have the scales fall from dazzled eyes at least once in his or her romantic life. It’s profoundly discouraging to discover that the prince you’ve been kissing has been a frog all along and you’ve just refused to see it.

I think the reason we try to cling to the fantasy for as long as we can is that we’ve been raised to believe that true success means we must be part of a couple. It’s as if those of us who don’t go around two-by-two have somehow failed at life, and should be ashamed. What a steaming pile of horse manure. In modern times, one can do quite well on one’s own.

Yes, it can be lonely. We are social animals. But it’s possible to be social without being joined at the hip. I think it would be easier for many of us if we didn’t have so much societal pressure to take paths in life that we are unable or unwilling to walk down.

But if you insist, know this: True and enduring love is not ignoring someone’s flaws. Neither is it settling for the intolerable. It’s finding someone whose flaws you can see clearly and live with and still maintain a modicum of self-respect as well as respect for the other person. I understand that that picture isn’t quite as pretty, but it’s a heck of a lot more realistic.

flawed

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Go Ahead. Ask.

I’ve moved to Seattle, the most liberal city in the entire United States, and yet I’m finding that from a social standpoint, folks around here are pretty conservative. That makes it hard to make friends. And for the first time in my life I feel kind of pushy. Little ol’ me.

Here’s a prime example of the difference between Seattle and Florida: Whenever I’m at work on a hot summer afternoon, I have to go out and measure the gaps on my drawbridge. We do this because metal expands when it gets hot. If you try to open a drawbridge that has expanded too far, it can jam. That’s not very good for the structure. So you have to keep track of these things.

Here in Seattle, when I’m crouched down on the sidewalk, tape measure in hand, and writing on a clip board, pedestrians eye me curiously. But they never ask what I’m doing. On the other hand, when I did the same thing in Florida, child, please, people would be all up in my business. “What on earth are you doin’, girl?”

But here’s the thing. I liked it when people did that. I’m proud of my job. I enjoy talking about it. I like giving people information that they didn’t previously know. I’ve met a lot of really fascinating people that way.

As a general rule, people like being put in a position of expertise. It’s a comfortable place to be. And it shows that you’re interested in them. It’s a great way to break the ice with someone.

So if you’re curious about something someone is doing, go ahead. Ask. The worst that could happen is they’ll say it’s none of your business. Or you might just learn a thing or two and make a new friend.

i-have-no-idea-what-im-doing-dog

Beware of Defective Germ Plasm

I just read the most disturbing thing ever. Actually, I just skimmed it because it made me too sick to read it all the way through. It’s a report entitled Committee to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means of Cutting Off the Defective Germ Plasm in the American Population. This report was published in 1914 when eugenics was in its heyday. Hitler would have loved this document. Actually, I bet he read it.

Basically, this document is a justification for involuntary sterilization of the “less desirable” members of our population, and it was taken quite seriously at the time. It was based on a series of studies done by a group called the American Breeders Association. In the introduction it states, “It is the purpose of the committee to investigate all phases of the problem of cutting off the supply of defectives… The committee will therefore study the facts in reference to the numbers of and the rate and manner of increase of the socially inadequate. It will strive to analyze the factors of heredity and environment in the production of the social unfitness observed. It will report first-hand facts concerning the drag that these classes entail upon the general welfare, and will review the first-hand studies in human heredity that have been made by careful study of the problem. And finally the committee will point out what appears as a result of study to be “the best practical means,” so far as the innate traits are a factor, of purging the blood of the American people of the handicapping and deteriorating influences of these anti-social classes.”

If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, you have no soul. This committee “studied” several “groups of degenerates” including “The Feeble-minded Class,” “The Pauper Class,” “The Inebriate Class,” “The Criminalistic Class,” “The Epileptic Class,” “The Insane Class,” and “The Deformed Class”. Reading this positively gave me the chills.

The remedies they investigated, but, thank God, didn’t uniformly advocate to remove these supposed social blights included “Life Segregation,” “Sterilization,” “Restrictive Marriage Laws and Customs,” “Systems of Matings Purporting to Remove Defective Traits,” “Polygamy,” and “Euthanasia”. Here’s what they had to say about Polygamy.

“In animal breeding polygamy or the “pure sire method” has been one of the most potent agencies in rapid advancement and, could the essential biological principles of polygamy be applied to mankind, we should expect these same biological values to accrue. An eugenical program that advocates polygamy must be doomed to failure because it strikes at one of our most priceless heritages so laboriously wrought through centuries of moral struggle. It would be buying a biological benefit at vastly too great a moral cost. A eugenics program to be effective must and can be based upon an enhanced sense of monogamy, and of the sacredness of love and marital fidelity. If any serious students of the modern eugenical studies advocate polygamy, it is unknown to the members of this investigating committee, although many uninformed critics of the eugenics program unhesitatingly complain that eugenics proposes “to apply the methods of the stud farm to mankind.”

Whew. That’s a load off. Apparently they had some kind of moral compass, anyway. But here’s what this completely insane mindset did to our country in the first half of the 20th century. According to Wikipedia, “The United States was the first country to concertedly undertake compulsory sterilization programs for the purpose of eugenics.” Apparently many people were sterilized against their will or without their knowledge during other medical procedures. This was particularly true of African American and Native American women. It also happened in prisons. “In the end, over 65,000 individuals were sterilized in 33 states under state compulsory sterilization programs in the United States.”

For the most part, sterilization laws are off the books, although Bill Bryson states in his book “One Summer” that 20 states still have them on the books in one form or another. If that’s true, that’s rather terrifying. I was unable to find any further evidence of this, however. The Wikipedia article states that 27 states had these laws on the books until 1956. “After World War II, public opinion towards eugenics and sterilization programs became more negative in the light of the connection with the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany, though a significant number of sterilizations continued in a few states until the late 1960s. The Oregon Board of Eugenics, later renamed the Board of Social Protection, existed until 1983, with the last forcible sterilization occurring in 1981.”

But lest we think that sanity finally has been restored throughout the land, contemplate this. California did way more sterilizations than any other state, and the most chilling sentence of all in the Wikipedia article was the following: “148 female prisoners in two California institutions were sterilized between 2006 and 2010 in a supposedly voluntary program, but voluntary consent cannot be given while under duress.”

I never wanted children, but the thought that someone might decide that I should be forced to have an operation that would alter my body’s natural function, whether I liked it or not, seems like the ultimate violation. The fact that this was ever considered a good idea by anyone, the fact that committees were formed and papers were written and men in suits and ties were drawing conclusions that would cause these atrocities to occur is horrifying. And the fact that the victims of these procedures have never been compensated, and in most cases have never been acknowledged, tells you a lot about the rotten core of our political process.

eugenics_tree_logo2

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Hibernation

I admit it. I’m an introvert. People don’t energize me, they drain me. I’m not someone who looks forward to parties and large gatherings.

It’s not that I don’t like people. Quite the contrary. I have several dear friends. I just prefer to interact with them one on one, and I agree with Ben Franklin that fish and visitors stink after three days. I’m quite happy to see them go after a certain length of time, but that doesn’t mean I love them any less.

It is much easier to be social and an introvert in the modern era. I can keep in touch via e-mail and facebook and text messages, and I can write this blog. Then, when I want to have some “me time”, all I have to do is log off. It’s the electronic equivalent of “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

I am glad I have my dogs. It’s nice to have a heartbeat in the house, someone who is happy to see me when I come home. But I’m fairly certain that if they suddenly were endowed with the ability to speak, or if they stopped feeling the need to sleep 18 hours a day, I’d probably be setting them up in their own bachelor pad on the opposite side of town. Oh, I’d call and chat daily, but I wouldn’t want to spoon with them as much as I do now.

Katherine Hepburn had a good point when she said a happy marriage would be one where the spouses were to “live nearby and visit often.” Unfortunately it would be hard to find someone who would be willing to agree to that, which is probably one of the many reasons I’ve never been married.

I actually enjoy my own company. I can entertain myself for hours on end. Some of my fondest memories of vacations have been the ones where I’ve rented a cabin in the middle of nowhere, and stayed there for a week, just me and my dogs, a good pair of hiking boots and a stack of books. Bliss.

Perhaps I was a bear in another life. The thought of crawling into a den and hibernating for months on end appeals to me greatly. But in this life I’ll just have to settle for hot baths and curling up in bed with a good book.

bear

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