Sunday, October 28, 2012

Global Classroom, Global Family, Global Community

Last week I read an article about online college classes. One of the true stories related in this article blew me away. I have to share it with you. It says so much about one of the versions of our future that I dream will come to fruition.

A company in the Silicon Valley called Udacity, co-founded by two former Stanford professors, has begun building a catalog of online college-level courses available for free, although not yet recognized for college credit. One of these classes is a college-level Physics 100 class. This basic Physics class is taught through the use of hundreds of short YouTube videos that are embedded in the Udacity website. Over 23,000 students in 125 countries worldwide were enrolled in this class in September 2012. One of these students was an 11-year-old girl in Pakistan named Khadijah Niazi.

Khadijah completed the Physics 100 course on September 17 and was in the middle of taking the final exam when a message appeared on her computer screen telling her that YouTube was no longer available. As it turned out, what rotten luck for her, the Pakistani government had just shut down access to YouTube in an effort to block the offensive anti-Muslim film trailer that had incited protests and violent incidents throughout the world. She and 215 other Pakistanis enrolled in the Physics course immediately lost access.

Khadijah posted a comment on the class discussion board about what had happened. In less than an hour, a classmate in Malaysia began posting detailed descriptions of the test questions in each of the test videos for Khadijah so that she could attempt to continue taking the exam using his descriptions. Meanwhile, a classmate in Portugal tried (unsuccessfully) to create a  way for Khadijah to view the videos without using YouTube. A 12-year-old classmate in England promised to seek help for Khadijah and he begged her not to write anything negative about her government online so that she would not get into trouble.

Later that same night, the Portuguese classmate successfully managed to download all the videos for the final exam to her computer and then uploaded them to an uncensored photo-sharing site where Khadijah could view them. It took the Portuguese woman four hours to download and then upload all the exam videos. The next day Khadijah accessed the videos and completed the final exam with high distinction, becoming the youngest girl ever to complete Udacity’s rigorous Physics 100 course. Khadijah immediately signed up for Udacity’s free online class in Computer Science, and the 12-year-old classmate in England began downloading the lesson videos for her. Khadijah aspires to attend either Oxford or Stanford in the future. I have no doubt that she will do it, too.

I don’t think I need to say more. This story speaks for itself. My gosh, I think that just knowing that this happened will help me sleep better at night. I love it. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Reprise of the Open Letter about Health

I had a very different blog post planned for today, but I have had such an astonishing response to last week’s post that I am writing again on the subject of keeping our health as we age. Although I had hoped that my words might have some positive impact, might have nudged some friends to wake up, I’m surprised and pleased by how much they were taken to heart (or taken to heart health, as it were). This reminds me that we are not always doing our friends a favor by not mentioning to them that they are letting their health deteriorate, just assuming that they know and that it’s a personal issue and we have no business speaking up about it. Surely we have no business nagging, haranguing, shaming. But perhaps we do have some business finding the words to compassionately express concern, show support, extend love.

To my delight, my words inspired people to hit the gym. Hard words to hear. Harder to take action. But it really happened. Small changes, that lead to bigger changes, that, step by step, turn around someone’s health and chances of living longer. I have had a couple of conversations with friends who know that my words were written with them in mind. They are well aware of the issues and the stakes. They just need motivation to make a change and they found some of it in my words. Hallelujah. Renews my belief in the power of words and also in the ability of people to change their lives. And change, transformation, has been much on my mind in recent months as I have been working furiously on the sequel to The Call to Shakabaz, in which change is a major theme. The title of the sequel is, in fact, Changing the Prophecy. I believe in the possibility of making changes, of thwarting seeming destiny and taking it all in a different direction.

So let me share a few thoughts that have surfaced several times for me this week as this discussion about health and aging continues to swirl around me. One thing I have said to several people is that I am battling this beast as well. I am not perfect. I struggle to eat less and maintain my exercise schedule. I am not putting myself out there as the model to measure against. Another thing is that there is no shame in being overweight. It is a challenge like any other and a lot of us must overcome it. Unfortunately, we have no way of hiding our challenge, it’s there for all to see. But that doesn’t mean we are not making an effort to deal with it. Weight control is extremely difficult and complex, and tied up with many deep psychological connections to food, sustenance, nurturing, and feeling well-cared-for. Finally, judgment does not belong in this equation. Support and encouragement matter here. This is about looking after the people we love and nurturing them with something other than high-calorie, salty, fatty food. So here I am, back to the ban on potato chips. This week, I feel more hopeful that my friends might go the distance with me down the road into old age.

If you have someone dear to you who needs to hear the words in last week’s open letter, please forward it to them. It could get someone started on the path to better health and longer life. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Open Letter to My Friends Who Are Letting the Aging Process Defeat Them

Dear Friend,

I am writing to you because I love you and I fear that you will not live many years longer if you don’t make the transition to a healthy aging lifestyle that will preserve your health. I see your health failing and it scares me. My friend Lil, who is 104 (or 103? -- I lost count at 100), says that the hardest thing about extended longevity is that your contemporaries are dead. I work hard at maintaining my health so that I can live a long time. Will you go the distance with me?

This letter is for you, my friend, and you know who you are. You are the one I love who fails to make the time to exercise, who can’t manage to stick to a diet, who is obese, and/or who is often short of breath. You are the one I love who can’t accept the truth about our aging bodies and the transition that we must make if we wish to preserve our health into old age.

You know what your health and wellness issues are. You know better than anyone, certainly better than I do, exactly how challenging it is for you to address those issues. There is nothing I can do to get you to change your habits. The change must come from within you. But I want you to know how I suffer when I see you succumb to overweight, inactivity, preventable illness. I want you to stay with me, to continue to travel this road with me. But it won’t happen if you keep sitting on the couch eating potato chips. Or bread, or pasta, or beef or bacon, or butter, ice cream, cake, cookies, or whatever happens to be your personal downfall. It won’t happen if you insist on sticking to your hectic schedule that has no place in it for the level and type of exercise that will protect your heart, your mind, and your body from deteriorating.

We all know people who lived to an advanced age despite their failure to make healthy lifestyle choices. But understand that those people are rare. The chances that you are one of them are slim. And we all know people who cared well for their bodies and died young anyway. They contracted cancer for unknown reasons or they were run over by a truck. Something happened. But please understand that if we don’t smoke, if we exercise, if we eat right, then we have a better chance of making it for the long haul. Our lives are ever subject to the whimsical wind of unknown fates. All we can do is make an effort to preserve our health. That’s what I’m asking of you.

My dear friend, please make an effort. For my sake and for all those who love you. Do the difficult thing and change your lifestyle. Make time for regular exercise. Sadly, wistfully, angrily, resentfully, however you need to feel about it, feel that way, but quit eating all that stuff you should no longer be eating. Go to a nutritionist and set up a plan. Then stick to it. Unfortunately, we need far less food as we age. So you need to go on a diet. For the rest of your life. Sorry. Don’t waste time hating it. Eat less and enjoy your smaller portion more. Eat the things you like that are OK for your health and let the others go. Look forward. If you look back you are lost. Look forward to a future with you and me in it together.

I love you, my friend. Now that I have put this out there, I will hold my peace, I won’t nag (friends are for support and encouragement, not nagging); I’ll pray for your success, your strength, your life. I will pray for you to grow old with me. We’ll laugh, we’ll sing, we’ll embrace. We won’t care anymore about potato chips because we have each other.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Closing the Summer Gardens

First weekend in October, time to close the summer gardens. The air smells like wood smoke and fallen leaves. The fruit from my trees is long gone, the last few apples tucked away in the refrigerator. The tomatoes are mostly green. The squash has stopped producing. Nights are cool. Soon there will be a frost. It’s time. It’s past time perhaps. I need to pull out the green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, and basil to make room for the kale, collards, and winter greens. Lovely and delicious in their own right, but not as abundantly splendid or juicy as summer’s garden yield. I’ll pick the last green tomatoes and leave them on the dining room table and they’ll ripen up, but they won’t taste the same as vine-ripened. Oh, how long it will be until next July when I taste my first homegrown ripe tomato again. I can hardly stand it.

The winter greens will be delicious when they get going, and autumn brings its own delights. Even so, closing the gardens in the fall is an admission that summer has ended, that the season has turned, and that the magnificent bounty of the garden’s peak is gone.

Kind of like life, huh? It’s hard to decide that it’s time to close the summer garden and move on to autumn. It was hard for me to decide it was time to leave the Ranch, where I raised my children. To leave the home of my parenting years and the richness of life with youngsters in the house. Time to move to the comforts of the Villa and an easier life, the life of an older woman, with grown children. I begin to see the time approaching when I must decide to close up the gardens for good here at the Villa, downsize and offload, say goodbye to my fruit trees, and make the move to a smaller place that’s easier to manage, perhaps even a rental unit with no gardens possible. To leave this home and move to a home more suited to an aging woman. Each of those transitions with sad goodbye to the season fading out while welcoming whatever joys the next season will bring. Conscious effort to look forward.

And always there is the decision about when it’s time to close the garden and move on to the next season.