Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Change and courage





















It does, doesn't it? When you think about it, change is scary. So yes, moving out of your comfort zone requires courage. Here's to all of us who are in that boat, riding the waves of change. The water can sometimes be choppy, and sometimes we don't really know where we're going. But we manage and the waters eventually become calmer. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

What I won't miss about working in academic research science

I recently published a post 'What I will miss about working as an academic research scientist' (A New Yorker in Oslo: What I will miss about working as an academic research scientist (paulamdeangelis.blogspot.com). There are some things that I won’t miss about academic research, and now I can write about them. As long as I did academic research I never felt I had the freedom to really write the truth about this arena, at least the arena I've experienced here in Norway.

I won't miss the arrogance and elitism that exist in the academic workplace. Too many research leaders (mostly men but also one or two women) used their leadership positions to disparage other researchers (including PhD students and postdocs who worked for them and for whom they developed a dislike) in an effort to make themselves look much better than they actually were. Several actually thought they were extraordinary researchers, and they were not. Truth be told, they were and are middle-of-the-road researchers with grant funding and a few good papers under their belts, nothing more. They were preoccupied with prestige, power, control, and money. If they had all these things they were automatically better than the others who didn't have these things, and that viewpoint was supported all the way to the top of university hospital leadership. This is probably not ground-breaking news to those who've worked in academia for years. My point in commenting on it is the following: how research leadership behaves and what they allow in terms of bad or questionable behavior sets the tone for the workplace--pleasant and productive, or unpleasant and ultimately unproductive (or unwillingly productive). You cannot have it both ways. Arrogance and elitism do not lead to healthy research production. They lead to demotivation and inertia in those who have to suffer with them; the ones who often suffer most are the scientists in untenured positions. Arrogance and elitism were allowed (or at least not discouraged) in my former workplace, to the detriment of the careers of many younger scientists and colleagues. I know that because the latter often came to my office over the years to get support and to share their feelings of despair and demotivation. Most of them left academia when they were still young enough to start over somewhere else, usually in the private sector where they ended up not only feeling more at home but where they were able to create successful careers. 

I won't miss the conformity/lack of intellectual diversity that characterize a lot of academic workplaces. I could list up several areas, among them immunotherapy, that would guaranteed get you a lot of grant funding, but at what cost? It stands to reason that not everyone can work in this field, and why would they want to? Researchers are at heart an independent bunch; they like to have the intellectual freedom to study what they want (within the guidelines of their institutions, of course). But it is that intellectual freedom that is important, or at least was important. Nowadays you are likely to be told by research leadership that your area of interest is not worth pursuing; you should pursue an area that will net you the most money. I have no problems with their advice or suggestions, but it is very unrealistic to expect that all medical research scientists would want to work in the field of immunotherapy. You don't just snap your fingers and poof--now I know all there is to know about immunotherapy and patient treatment when for years your research interests tended toward basic science (non-patient-related) questions. Conformity and intellectual freedom are a poor match. But since conformity leads to money, and academic research is now big business, it stands to reason that conformity rules. Some of the scientists I most enjoyed talking to and collaborating with were non-conformists (like me) who believed in what they were doing and struggled along. It must be said that up until around 2006, it was still possible to get a basic research project funded. Nowadays it is a rare occurrence.

I won't miss the frequent lack of interest in informing employees of what was going on in the department, in dealing with pressing problems, or in the research that employees were doing. One leader had the habit of shrugging his shoulders whenever problems that needed to be addressed and discussed were brought up. They weren't his problem. 'I really don't care, do you?' That type of attitude, which essentially says to others--F*** off and don't bother me. Even those leaders who did listen did very little about the problems at hand. And just to be clear, there is a big difference between running to a leader with every minute problem versus talking to them about one or two select issues. Very few people did the former. It wouldn't have mattered one way or another; the response would have been the same--lack of interest. It was demoralizing, because nothing ever gets solved with that attitude. 

I won't miss the indecisiveness, procrastination, non-committal leadership, and inertia of academia, the countless meetings about the same problem or issue that could have been solved with clear-cut decisions but rarely were. Some leaders were deathly afraid of making a decision that could turn out down the road to be a mistake, so they didn't make any decisions at all. Fear leads to indecisiveness and procrastination. Indecisiveness and procrastination help no one, and simply contribute to the inertia that a workplace becomes mired in over time. My motto was 'Just do it' (to paraphrase Nike). That doesn't mean that I was impulsive or proactive without good and well-researched reasons for acting. It means that I was ready and able to make a decision and to stick to it after I reviewed the facts. I was not afraid to be wrong, because if your decision proves to be the wrong one you admit that and move on. But if you remain non-committal you won't (ever) make a mistake. But you won't take a risk either, and that is necessary in order for an institution to move forward. For all the incessant talking about change and the necessity for it, there was very little actual change. I discovered that most people simply liked to talk rather than act. That wasn't me. Perhaps I too would have found a better fit in the private sector. 

And finally, I won't miss feeling old. I’m three weeks into retirement and I don’t feel old anymore. The last few years in academia made me feel old—no longer professionally relevant, no longer competitive, no longer in the game. I’ve written about the reasons why in my ‘Publish or languish’ post (A New Yorker in Oslo: Publish or languish (paulamdeangelis.blogspot.com). If you don’t get grant funding, you’re just ‘hanging on in quiet desperation’ until retirement. Some hang on until they’re sixty-seven; others until they’re seventy-two. I was simply not interested in doing either. I retired early. Older scientists are not really respected anymore (if they ever were). I don't know if my viewpoints can be extrapolated to other countries, but I'm guessing that they can (if the limited Netflix series The Chair gives a good indication of what goes on at top universities in the USA these days). In that series, the leadership of the English literature department wants to get rid of its older professors. It doesn’t prove to be an easy task, but it must be rather dismaying to know that your workplace would prefer that you retire or quit. But that’s all part of the game; best not to take it too seriously. Best to leave when the going is good, when you still have your health, when life is still an adventure. Because life is an adventure, and work is not the only thing in life that defines us. The fun part will be discovering and rediscovering the parts of us that have been hidden all these years. I’m looking forward to that.


Sunday, September 19, 2021

My laugh for the day

If you need a good laugh, here are some recent comic strips from two of my favorites--Pearls Before Swine and Non Sequitur: 


Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis




Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller 




Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Publish or languish

"Hanging on in quiet desperation", to paraphrase Pink Floyd. That about sums up remaining in academia as an older scientist (over sixty) in some workplaces and universities. At my former workplace, there were many older scientists who were deemed unproductive by research leadership. That may have been true for one or two older scientists, but by and large the majority of older scientists were just as productive and had just as much motivation to do research, publish, and mentor PhD and Masters students as scientists half their age. But they seldom got the chance because research funding dried up and no matter how relevant they tried to make their grant applications, they were rejected. It often started when they were in their mid- to late-fifties and just continued. My question is why any older scientist in his or her right mind would want to hang around languishing in a workplace that no longer wants them or considers them productive? To languish is to be 'forced to remain in an unpleasant place or situation'. That describes the daily life of many older scientists. Of course I understand that not all cannot retire in their fifties (although I know teachers and civil servants who did just that, with good pensions to support them). 

So what's an older scientist to do in an academic workplace that no longer values him or her? He or she can hang on in quiet desperation and 'hope' for more grant funding after having written grant application after grant application ad nauseam. Good luck with that. 'Hope springs eternal', as Alexander Pope said. Or the older scientist can hope for some good will from research leadership, but I would say don't hold your breath. From what I've seen and heard during the past decade, some of the research leaders did nothing but badmouth the older scientists they deemed unproductive. They disparaged them or poked fun at them; I know because I sat in on some of the leader meetings and was witness to their behavior. Of course not all research leaders were like this. But as karma would have it, one of those types of leaders in my former workplace is now having problems getting funding for his research; he's reached that crucial age when it all changes. And so it goes. Since he was one of those leaders who actively disparaged his peers, I am very glad to hear that he is now having problems of his own. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy as we say in America.

Publish or languish. That is the choice for many older tenured scientists. It becomes a catch-22 situation after a while. If you no longer obtain funding for your research, you cannot attract students nor will you be able to get technical help. You will end up working alone in the lab, and it goes without saying that your research production will slow down, you will publish much less, and that will go a long way toward ensuring that you do not remain in the running for grant funding. And so it goes. No grant funding, no students and no help, thus no publications and no grant funding. 

Do I have ready answers to this problem? I do not. I merely present it. It used to be publish or perish, but nowadays it's publish or languish because so many older scientists hang onto their tenured positions with every ounce of strength they've got. Some who should have more self-insight refuse to acknowledge that their time in the sun is over. For some it's an identity problem; they simply cannot see themselves doing anything else other than research. They've lived and breathed research their entire lives. My advice to academic scientists who are approaching that crucial age when it all changes, is to take a good long hard look around them, around their workplace. See if older scientists are valued or if they are just pushed to the side and ignored. See if there is subtle pressure on them to retire early. Just see how they're treated, because guaranteed, once you reach their age, that is how you yourself will be treated. 

 

Friday, September 3, 2021

Daily outrage as interpreted by Wiley Miller

Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller is one of my favorite comic strips. I thought this comic from a few days ago was rather apt, since the people who need to be outraged on a daily basis get excellent help from the media--newspapers, cable news, television news, online news. Take your pick. 




What I will miss about working as an academic research scientist

This past Monday was my last day as a full-time employee at my university hospital. I can now call myself 'retired'. Not out to pasture 😀, just retired from the job I've been doing for the past thirty years. My department hosted a small and very nice retirement party for me on Monday afternoon; most of the attendees were current and former research group members, department leaders, research technicians, and collaborators. The reactions from co-workers and colleagues to the news of my retirement have been mixed; all of them wish me well, some understand why I'm leaving now, some wonder if I'm retiring too soon and if I will be bored, one woman said right out loud how lucky I was to be retiring. I am glad I decided to retire now. I look forward to a new chapter in my life and to the freedom to put some of my ideas into action. 

There were several talks given about me and my contributions to the department over the years. Those who held the talks were those who have known me the longest. They know what I have accomplished as an academic research scientist. They also know how much help and support I've given others. I was described as having integrity and as someone who believes in fairness/fair play. Those are very true statements; I abhor nepotism, borderline corruption, rewards given to those who do not deserve them. The list is long. I was also described as a driving force by my former boss, who talked about how I brought new techniques into the lab and performed some work (published in 2007) that virtually no one else in the world had done before. Those were nice words to hear. He also described me as someone who can say no, and that is also true; I am not just a yes-person. I have my own opinions and thoughts; I respect what others have to say but if I firmly believe in what I want or in what I think is best for a project or a group, I am hard to dissuade. 

But it is the people I have worked with over the years that I will miss the most. Projects come and go, grant funding came and went, prestige disappears, but what matters the most is how you have treated those who worked for you and with you. It always surprises me how so few people really understand that. People remember how they were treated; I will always remember how well I was treated by the three men (the triumvirate--Frank, Zbigniew and Myron) I worked for at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. My co-workers here in Oslo described me as 'raus'. In English it means 'willing to share and to give a lot, to give without the expectation of anything in return, not miserly'. That was also good to hear, because it's true. I know some leaders who are miserly; by hanging onto their knowledge they hang onto the control they have over others, because it is mostly control and power that they want. God forbid someone under them should 'challenge' their knowledge. But being a miser costs, because misers are not good leaders, and those who work for misers remember their utter selfishness and egoism. I learned 'raushet' from working for others who were 'rause', the men I worked for at Memorial. They gave of their expertise, patience, and knowledge, willingly. They wanted us to succeed. They wanted us to shine. They wanted us to 'outgrow' them. Those are good leaders, and those are the leaders I remember, not the miserly ones, not the rude ones, not the ones who never give of their time willingly. I've met far too many of the latter. 

We scientists would have published very little of our work without the competence and expertise of the research technicians who have worked in our groups over the years. So they are the people I will miss the most. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with them and to publish articles together. I will miss doing research--the intellectual freedom to pursue an idea and to see where it leads. There is almost nothing that comes close to that feeling of freedom when it all works out. But science the way I enjoyed doing it has changed. I commented on that change in my speech at the end of the party; science is big business now--big money and big research groups. It wasn't always that way, and I prefer the days when research groups were small and money didn't rule. I said that to my audience. Because that is true too. Small is nice. Small allows you to care about the projects and the people involved. I'm grateful for a career that allowed me to do that. 


Friday, August 27, 2021

Ends and beginnings





















And that's exactly how I feel right now, a few days away from my official retirement date. I am at the end of something--a long career in science, and it feels like an ending, as well it should. It will be emotionally tough to say goodbye to many of my colleagues and collaborators. But I know I will stay in touch with many of them, because we already see each other socially outside of work. So right now it's just to get through the next few days.

Because this time in my life also feels like the beginning of something new, and that feeling is a good one to have right now. I look forward to this new phase in my life, to the opportunities, possibilities and unknown positive challenges of the future. I look forward to more time to write, to garden, to travel and be together with friends and family. I look forward to time to myself, to reflect on what has been and to write about it. But I mostly want to live in the present and not be overly-nostalgic for what was. Because in truth, we can never go back to what was and there's no point in wasting much time and mental energy on missing what once was. One can say that certain aspects of the past were very nice and that we have some wonderful memories to look back on. But I'm excited and eager to make new memories together with the people I love. 


Monday, August 23, 2021

The less pleasant underside of nature

There are a lot of spider webs in the garden this year, many more than I remember from last year. There must be a lot of insects out and about, judging by the number and placement of the webs. But I cannot remember that spiders spun webs in the raspberry bushes before. I came upon one of them yesterday, and noticed that there was a honeybee trapped in the web; the spider was close by. I decided to try to free the bee, but I took a photo of the spider and the bee before I wrecked the web trying to free the bee. As it turned out, the bee was stone dead, and nothing I tried could revive it. I didn't feel too bad about destroying the web because I felt it was for a good cause. I am partial to honeybees because they are hard workers and they don't bother you if you don't bother them. The same is true of spiders, and I usually don't destroy their webs or bother them in any way. So this was an unusual situation. 

While I was digging up potatoes yesterday, I came across a pile of what looked like small translucent pearls. I've seen them once before in the strawberry patch, a few years ago. They are rather pretty, but the slimy underside is that these are slug eggs, and not just any slug, but the brown Iberia slug (Spanish slug) that is a major pest in many gardens. From my online searches, I found that slug eggs are translucent when newly-laid and become more opaque over time. I also read that young adult slugs lay fewer eggs than older adult slugs. Our community garden board encourages us to get rid of them, so I did. I'm sure there are other piles of eggs placed around the garden; this particular pile was almost in plain view, which is a bit odd. In one of the eggs at the bottom left of the photo I took you can see a brownish line; I wonder if that is a baby slug forming. 

There is an underside to nature that isn't always pretty or pleasant. That underside is part of the entire picture--the positive and the negative, the light and the dark, the beauty and the ugliness, the predators and the prey, the plants and the slugs that eat them. That dichotomy is part of nature and part of life. 

The spider and the honeybee


Iberia slug eggs



Little lies

We are told and we tell ourselves little lies in order to live in this world and in our ambition-fueled society. Those little lies enable us to carry on through our adult lives. They begin when we are students and young adults, usually started by those older and more experienced than us. When I was in college and starting out in the work world, they sounded something like this: study hard and you'll go far, or having a career is very important, or the work you're doing is important, or we need your expertise and knowledge, or you're a valuable asset to our workplace. They're nice little lies, definitely with a core of truth to them, but the danger is when you start to believe them wholeheartedly. Because it's not always true that if you study hard you'll go far, or that having a career is very important, or that you're a valuable asset to your workplace (because no one is indispensable, which you'll find it if they need to fire employees).  I could list up many examples of where the 'lies' don't reflect reality despite the best of intentions, high motivation, and hard work. Sometimes life gets in the way, sometimes workplace leaders get in the way, and sometimes we ourselves get in our own way. Or sometimes a combination of all three. 

I was reminded of how much we want to believe the little lies when I was in conversation with a co-worker today. I have never really understood him or how he views his work life, but I've always made time to talk to him. He is a perpetual procrastinator, a dreamer of sorts whose ambitions are way too big for his personality, and a person who claims to have self-insight but who nonetheless believes the lies he tells himself. In his case, those lies extend to his view of himself as essential to his workplace. I know employees much older than him who think the same way. They have inflated views of their own importance and they believe those views, often propped up by others. They talk the talk--that they're going to do this and that, that they're going to take a positive approach to their jobs (when they've spent years being demotivated), that they're going to 'ordne opp' (sort it out) as the Norwegians say. Ok, I think, perhaps this time it will happen. But it never does. In a few months, the demotivation and procrastination have returned. I believe that demotivation and procrastination drive some people. They need to talk about feeling demotivated in order to feel relevant, in order to perhaps feel something. When you are unsure of your relevance to your workplace, you can feel demotivated, especially when you are not recognized for your contribution. Likewise, you can feel motivated when you are recognized for your hard work. The problem is that many employees feel demotivated, which tells me that many employees are unsure of their relevance to their workplaces. The reality is that most of us are dispensable. Modern workplaces are too big, and most employees are merely very small fish in very big ponds. Some employees never get used to that. If you do get used to it, you eventually lose the ability to become demotivated. You understand your little place in the scheme of things, you find your niche somewhere, and you join the ranks of the faceless anonymous employees who were once looking for recognition but who realized after some years that they will never get that in a huge workplace. You understand that very few people, if any, are truly relevant to their workplaces. You can always be replaced. Leaders shift jobs every three or four years--starting over at a new workplace and hellbent on making their mark. Middle managers shift jobs as well, as do their employees, advisers and assistants. 

Today, I could see through the veil of little lies. I realized I am tired of the lies, of listening to the same old spiel--the motivational spiel that we hear from leaders and co-workers. My soul is tired, tired of hearing about fake ambitions and competition that leads nowhere, tired of the elitism and egoism of academia. I am tired of vague and non-committal leaders and of employees who won't stand up for fair treatment of other employees. I've opened my mouth time and again over the years with regard to the latter, but much less so during the past few years. More and more, it began to feel pointless, as did so many other things I could have complained about. Some things change, but mostly, workplace behavior and certain workplace environments do not. I became pragmatic over the years; I said very little to co-workers, but set about making small goals for myself and fulfilling them. While the others were talking 'big', I was thinking small and working small. I prefer small. And in that way, I fulfilled my modest ambitions. I realized that my ambitions have always been modest. That was probably a problem for some leaders, but not for me, because I understood that I don't have what it takes to talk 'big'. I leave the big talk over to others with sky-high ambitions. But now I know that the big talk can merely be more lies to convince others and themselves of their importance. I wonder sometimes if they can see through their own lies. I do know that I'm not likely to get an honest answer to that question. 


Saturday, August 21, 2021

Reflections on listening to others

My post yesterday about how we listen to others got me thinking about how I listen to others. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I think I listened to understand but also to reply. That was probably because I was a fairly introspective teenager, so if someone actually did converse with me and I listened to him or her, I felt bound to give some sort of reply. To not do so would have seemed impolite or even ignorant. As I've gotten older, I've had no problem joining or initiating conversations with others, thanks to the work world, so that the give and take between us has led to some really good and interesting conversations that have enriched my mind and soul. I've listened to understand what people were trying to impart to me, and I've replied as was warranted. You figure that out as you go along and it mostly works out. Learning how to listen well is an art, likewise learning how and when to reply. It takes a lifetime to hone those skills.

We live in a society that values the snappy reply, the quick reply, the sarcastic retort--funny funny ha ha. Sometimes it can be funny to a certain point. But past that point, the snappy replies and sarcastic retorts destroy conversations and listening skills, because while we should be listening, we are thinking up a snappy reply and how to be funny. We don't take what the other person is saying, seriously. And we should. Because if someone really does want to talk seriously with us, we owe it to that person to at least try to be a good listener. Being a good listener is not as valued as being a quick replier. And that shoves most conversations to the surface, where they stay because there is no willingness to go deeper than superficial. Good conversations require the willingness to be patient, to spend time with another person, to be ok with occasional silence (or sometimes tears). It means trying to be empathetic and kind, as well as pragmatic and proactive when necessary. You figure it with the person you are conversing with, but you can't figure it out without time and the willingness to give that person some of your time. 

In my workplace, I have listened to many people over the years who have knocked on my door and asked if I have a few minutes to spare. Those minutes sometimes became an hour. Most of the time they came into my office, closed the door, and shared something with me that was confidential and serious. They did so because they knew they could trust me not to gossip or spread stories. I never abused that trust. Likewise, I've also shared confidential information with some few people and I could trust that they would keep it that way. We listened to each other and helped each other by trying to understand difficult work situations, problematic life situations--all those things. We offered a shoulder to lean on or to cry on. Life moved us on, problems ceased, work situations changed--nothing remained the same. But sometimes it was good to talk about those things, to get it out in the open, to face the fears and move on. Feeling understood by another is not to be underestimated. It gives us self-confidence and the motivation to continue to deal with life. 

Those who do not listen well to others have specific character traits and ways of conversing that identify them as bad listeners. They rarely ask questions of those they talk to, they are not interested in learning about the lives of others. They are mostly interested in talking about themselves and their lives. They often interrupt others when they are talking. They destroy the flow of conversations. They are dismissive of the problems and pain of others. In short, they are not very empathetic people. We all know people like this. They have shown me that in order to be a good listener, you need to have empathy for others, you need to want to try to understand what others are saying to you, and you need to give of your time. You must be willing to set aside your own ego in order to be there for others. Good friends do this all the time. They are the true blessings in this life. 

 

Friday, August 20, 2021

How do we listen to others?

 


A new phase of my life

I’ve been thinking about how we freely change our lives, and how sometimes life forces us to change. The two are often intertwined. I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s best to make necessary changes freely, rather than be forced to make them. But not all people would agree on that. Sometimes people wait too long to make changes they should have made years previously. It’s hard to say why they waited; fear perhaps, or inertia—just going along with the flow. Sometimes people need to be told when to make a change, and for many, that’s just fine. They’re not so concerned with the why. They end up not having to deal with the angst and indecision that can accompany working toward making necessary changes freely, because angst and indecision are part of that scenario. I’ve known several people who were forced to make changes they didn’t want to make, and they were resentful about it. It would have been better to have suffered through the angst and indecision of working toward making the changes freely. But they were not those types of people. They survived the changes, but the resentment lingered. My point is that if you freely choose change, you will not resent having to make the change. You may regret the change somewhere down the road, but you won’t have resentment.

I moved to Norway over thirty years ago and changed my life dramatically. I planned the move well, so that when I arrived here, I had a job waiting for me. That was the most important factor for my relocating to Norway, having a job that was compatible with my science background. Looking back on that time, I remember the thoughts and feelings involved. Was I making the right decision? Would I be able to find a job compatible with my expertise? Would I be able to tackle a new country, culture, and language? Would I be able to travel back to NY often to visit family and friends? Would I be too dependent on my future husband for all my social interactions? And so on. I did not move to Norway for political refuge; I moved here so that my husband and I could have the opportunity to develop a long-term relationship with both of us in one place. A long-distance relationship where both parties are separated by an ocean is not an optimal experience after a while. My choice to move here made things easier for my husband, and since I did not have children, I could prioritize my husband’s priorities. I don’t regret that at all. But now that I have chosen to retire early, I want to prioritize other things, among them being able to travel to NY more frequently in order to spend time with my close friends. Life is short and we don’t have enough time to do all the things we might want to do anyway, so it’s best to prioritize as best we can and live accordingly. We cannot predict the future, nor how long our lives will be. A number of co-workers have asked me why I am retiring early, and some have wondered if I regret my decision (already?). I give them the reasons above and state unequivocally that I do not regret making the decision. I’ve had ample time since I gave notice to ‘feel my way’ forward, and it feels fine. I move into the unknown, but it’s ok. The unknown is a part of life. Sometimes you need to hop out into it, and see what happens. Retirement to me is simply a new phase of my life. I look forward to exploring it.

 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Grateful for the friends who didn't make life a competition

My favorite line--the friends who didn't make life a competition, but rather a grand adventure that became better together. I'm so grateful for my closest friends, because we have shared some wonderful adventures together, and have not wasted our lives competing with each other. We care about each other and love each other, and always have each other's backs. I consider myself blessed to have such friends in my life. 





Monday, August 2, 2021

Quotes from C.S. Lewis' book Mere Christianity

  • It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.
  • When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall.
  • The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first - wanting to be the centre - wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race. Some people think the fall of man had something to do with sex, but that is a mistake...what Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they 'could be like Gods' - could set up on their own as if they had created themselves - be their own masters - invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come...the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.
  • The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility...According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.
  • The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.
  • For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.
  • It is better to forget about yourself altogether.
  • The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self--all your wishes and precautions--to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call "ourselves," to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be "good.
  • All that we call human history--money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery--[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.
  • The world does not consist of 100 percent Christians and 100 percent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so.
  • What can you ever really know of other people's souls — of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole of creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him.
  • Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything -- God and our friends and ourselves included -- as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred.
  • When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.
  • Ceasing to be 'in love' need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense - love as distinct from 'being in love' - is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be 'in love' with someone else. 'Being in love' first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise.
  • If people do not believe in permanent marriage, it is perhaps better that they should live together unmarried than that they should make vows they do not mean to keep. It is true that by living together without marriage they will be guilty (in Christian eyes) of fornication. But one fault is not mended by adding another; unchastity is not improved by adding perjury. The idea that 'being in love' is the only reason for remaining married really leaves no room for marriage as a contract or promise at all. If love is the whole thing, then the promise can add nothing; and if it adds nothing, then it should not be made.
  • But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away "blindly" so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ's and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters. Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.


Sunday, August 1, 2021

Why C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite writers

I read many of his books when I was in my twenties and can recommend them (the last two are science fiction):

  • The Screwtape Letters
  • Surprised by Joy
  • Miracles
  • A Grief Observed
  • The Problem of Pain
  • Mere Christianity
  • The Great Divorce
  • The Four Loves
  • Out of the Silent Planet
  • Perelandra

He is a spiritual writer without necessarily identifying with any one religion, which I like. He chronicled his 'conversion' from atheism to Christianity in Surprised by Joy and Mere Christianity. Whatever I write about his books here cannot do them justice. Each book he wrote is its own treasure and there is much to discover in each of them. They will change your life it you let them. 

I leave you with this quote that I found online today. Typical Lewis--he makes you think. Plato thought in much the same way--that all things exist as 'Forms' in an abstract state. In the case of human beings, they acquire a body at birth. I don't pretend to understand his philosophy, but I find it fascinating.  






Saturday, July 31, 2021

Our summer mini-vacations in Norway at classic and historical hotels

We did mini-vacations in Norway this summer, much like last summer. The pandemic curtailed plans to travel abroad for many people, at least up until mid-July when the quarantine rules for those returning to Norway from trips abroad were relaxed. Until that point, returnees were forced to quarantine at quarantine hotels for ten days, regardless of vaccination status, which was not appealing. 

We decided to check out the classic/historical hotels here in Norway, within a decent driving distance of Oslo. Hotel Refsnes Gods is one of the classic hotels: Hotell Refsnes Gods by Classic Norway Hotels | Moss | Norway - Classic Norway It is about an hour's drive from Oslo, on an island called Jeløy in the Oslo fjord near the city of Moss. It is a beautiful island and an even more beautiful old hotel. We spent a weekend there; it was actually a delayed 30th wedding anniversary celebration, because our anniversary is in May, but the hotel was closed due to the major lockdown that Norway experienced from February until June. We had lovely warm weather that weekend, so we walked around the area near the hotel, and went down to the fjord. Whenever I visit these old hotels, I always wonder what it would have been like to have experienced being there a hundred or more years ago, when modern technology as we know it did not exist. I'm glad that these old hotels have been restored and that they are open to the public to enjoy. Refsnes Gods is well-worth visiting, both for the ambience and the food (the restaurant dinner was very good). 

Another hotel that we recently visited was the historical Hoel Gård on the Nes peninsula in Hedmark, on the banks of Lake Mjøsa: Hoel Gård at Nes - Historic hotels in Norway (dehistoriske.com). We can highly recommend this beautiful hotel for its lovely buildings, beautiful surroundings, very good food and very good service; it has been described as a 'pearl on Lake Mjøsa' located in 'Norway's Tuscany'. The estate on which it is located is lovely; large areas of it are utilized as a farm with its own production of chicken, grains, and potatoes, so that the restaurant at the hotel can truthfully boast that is is 'farm to table' since the produce is used in the restaurant. The grounds as I said are well-kept and lovely, with small flower gardens here and there. Again we had very nice weather for the days that we spent there. We stayed two nights in the 'Lukk Døren' ('close the door') room at the manor house, and one night in a charming little pavilion (summer house) called the 'bridal suite'. There were no televisions in any of the guest rooms, and that added to the feeling of being away from it all--a welcome feeling. There was a road leading down to the lake that was lined with trees on both sides, which bent over toward each other at the tops, forming an arbour of sorts. We walked down that road several times, joined by a pair of cute sparrow-like birds (lark sparrows?) that hopped in front of us as we walked, totally unafraid and very curious. Otherwise, outside the bridal suite were many wagtails; if you've never seen them strut about, you're in for a treat--they're very cute. 

Lake Mjøsa is Norway's largest lake, and as luck would have it, there is an old paddle steamship called Skibladner that makes regular tours back and forth between Gjøvik and Lillehammer, with stops at Brumunddal, Hamar and also at Nes (Hoel Gård--but only on Sundays). This info is from the Skibladner website (Velkommen til Skibladner -- verdens eldste hjuldamper i drift): 

'The world's oldest preserved paddle steamer in timetabled service, with live steam engines, paddle wheels and a speed of 12 knots. Skibladner is the pride of Norway's inland, and one of Norway's best-loved tourist attractions'

We were at the hotel from Monday to Thursday, so we did not experience watching the ship dock at the hotel's large pier. But we did experience eating lunch onboard in the ship's restaurant--good food and a pleasant atmosphere. Just being on the boat was enough for me; I love traveling on these old-time ships. 

Here are some photos of the hotels and of Skibladner. Enjoy!

Refsnes Gods hotel 

the Oslo fjord

sunset viewed from our Refsnes Gods hotel room patio looking out over the grounds and the fjord

the manor house at Hoel Gård 


restaurant seating outdoors at Hoel Gård on a lovely summer night 

tree-lined road leading down to Lake Mjøsa and the pier/beach


the bridal suite at Hoel Gård

at the pier and beach with views of the porters' houses at Hoel Gård that can be rented

view of the manor house from the bridal suite

beautiful Lake Mjøsa 

Skibladner


July garden update

We've had exceptionally warm weather for most of July, and it's done wonders for the garden. I call the last week in June/first two weeks in July the magic time in the garden. It's as though nature waves its special wand during this time and suddenly everything is transformed--the garden grows by leaps and bounds. I forget that from year to year; that nature takes care of itself for the most part. There have been years where the growth hasn't been so spectacular during this time; this year is not one of them. I imagine that the addition of new soil to the vegetable beds also helped, because I've never seen the potato plants grow so high as they've done this year. They have also formed berries, which I've never really seen before. This means that sexual reproduction is involved due to pollination; from what I've read online, most potatoes reproduce asexually from tubers, which are clones. So it's cool to see this aspect of their reproduction. I will harvest some of the potato berries after six weeks or so and try growing some potatoes from seeds next year. 

Otherwise, the zucchini plants are producing zucchinis already, and the pumpkin and butternut squash plants show some developing fruit. The tomato plants are growing well and tomatoes are starting to develop. The cucumber plants have already produced two long cucumbers that taste very good. The bean plants are also thriving, but I don't see any beans hanging on them as of yet. 

I bought a fair amount of perennials this year so that I don't have to fill in the empty spots in the garden with annual flowers each year. Some of the perennials I've bought are Coreopsis lanceolata (tickseed), Delphinium 'Magic Fountains' (larkspur), burgundy Gaillardia aristata (Great Blanket flower), Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife), Leucanthemum 'Banana Cream' (Shasta daisy), and columbine (akeleie in Norwegian). I've also gotten some perennials from my neighbor gardeners--Phlox and Polemonium (Jacob's ladder). All of them are growing happily. My forsythia bushes are growing, as are the potentilla (cinquefoil) bushes. The gladiolas are fairly tall now and some have started to flower, and the sunflowers have grown tall and have flowered. I planted the wild meadow seeds that I ordered online under the red currant bush where nothing usually grows; they took and the meadow flowers look so pretty. The pachysandra also are thriving; you know that from how they spread out. They like the shade, and are about the only plants that have done well under the krossved tree. 

We didn't have many red currants or strawberries this year, but we do have many black currants as well as raspberries and gooseberries. This is the first year that the black raspberry plant (Rubus coreanus) is producing fruit; it is so good. The blackberry bushes are also starting to produce fruit. If you look quickly at black raspberries, they can be confused with blackberries, but they are not the same. It's been interesting to learn about the differences between them. 

It rained heavily the past few days and that is always a bit tough on those plants/flowers that need support. After our four-day vacation I came back to the garden to find the sunflowers slightly bent over, and the tall tomentose goldquelle laciniata (a type of coneflower) that I have planted along the fence, completely bent over. Getting them to stand up straight again took some time and I had to attach them to the fence with strong wire in order to keep them that way. 

Keeping the names of all the flowers straight is not easy, especially since I need to know both the Norwegian and English names because I speak with both Norwegians and non-Norwegians about garden-related things. It's easier with the vegetables: potato and tomato are the same words in Norwegian, zucchini is referred to as sommer squash (summer squash). Pumpkin is gresskar, butternut squash is butternut squash. Beans are bønner. There are different varieties of all of them, but the basic name remains the same. 

Here are some photos of the garden as of this past week. 

Phlox flowers 


Coreopsis lanceolata (tickseed)


Leucanthemum 'Banana Cream' (Shasta daisy)


burgundy Gaillardia aristata


butternut squash developing


sunflowers happily growing near the compost bin


how the back side of the greenhouse looks now after all the plantings


a view of the greenhouse front and back


cherry tomato plants and potato plants in the foreground


summer aster to the right and pumpkin plants in front of it in the foreground


the birdbath area surrounded by flowers, a rose bush, a bamboo plant and rhododendron


the main flower garden with rose mallows, lavender, peonies, Japanese maple tree, polemonium


wild meadow flowers (I planted the seeds under the red currant bush where nothing usually grows) 


pachysandra spreading out under the krossved tree (nothing else will grow there due to the shade) 






Summer days in July

It is still summer in Oslo, in fact, it's been quite a warm summer from mid-June until now. My garden is thriving; we've already eaten zucchinis and cucumbers that grew quickly in the summer heat. We will have a bumper crop of tomatoes this year--both regular and cherry tomatoes. Whenever I am away from the garden for a few days, as I was now while we vacationed in Hedmark, and then come back to the garden, I am always in awe of just how much growth can occur in the space of a few days. Yesterday was the first day I was back in the garden after having been away since Monday. There were gooseberries and raspberries to pick, and the blueberries are also starting to ripen. I still have a formidable job of berry-picking ahead of me. The two gooseberry bushes alone are weighed down by the sheer numbers of berries on them. As I was picking raspberries, I was competing for each berry with the honeybees, who are now sucking the nectar out of the raspberries. They did that last year as well, but there were very few of them. This year it's as though all the worker bees descended on the raspberry patch. 

Today is the last day of July, and next week it will be back to work for most of us. I will finish out the month of August and then I am free forever of the work world. But that is another story for another time. Today I want to share with you Mary Oliver's beautiful poem The Summer Day. The feelings and thoughts she describes in her poem are about where I am in life at present--willing to immerse myself in the nature around me, willing to abandon myself to the awe and wonder of it all. A garden is God's manifestation of a miracle in nature; how a pollinated flower produces a long hanging cucumber is a mystery and a miracle at the same time. I never cease to be amazed by the power and beauty of nature. I have said it before, but it's worth repeating--it is no surprise to me that paradise is described as the garden of Eden. Paradise for me would have to be a garden. 


The Summer Day 


Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?


Thursday, July 29, 2021

The melancholy of the intangible

I read a quote recently that resonated with me--something to the effect of 'you can miss a place or a time in your life without necessarily wanting to return to it'. It got me thinking about the intangibles of life in more general terms, about those places we cannot really reach inside ourselves and that they are the places we can never really explain or truly define. We remember them, but how does one define memories? What are they really? They represent something very important to us, but we cannot reach them, cannot touch them, cannot call them up all the time at will. Sometimes they are triggered by a smell, a room, a touch, a word. They point to places inside ourselves that are intangible, and it is often those places that make us melancholy, perhaps for how life 'used to be' or for some other feeling that tugs at our souls for attention. The melancholy comes from our minds and souls, comes from that part of us that is spiritual and not material. The spiritual is another intangible. I have often written in this blog about how my life used to be--as a child, or a young adult, or an employee starting out in the work world. I understand after having reread those posts that I write with a certain melancholy, an intangible feeling of sadness or even grief, that really has to do with my soul's acknowledgment that time on earth is passing and that there is nothing I can do about that. Even if I told you that I miss certain times from the past, I could not return to them even if I wanted to, because the laws of physics deem that impossible. I can of course return to them in the realm of imagination. That is the stuff of novels and dreams, and the basis for much of science fiction. The ideas of time travel, parallel worlds or non-linear time appeal to me; I find science fiction oddly comforting. 

I have just finished reading Joan Didion's collection of California essays entitled Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Her writing is tinged with a melancholy that I can understand, especially when she writes about the Sacramento of her youth (where she grew up) and modern Sacramento. They are not the same and never could be. She knows that. But still. My favorite essay is the one where she writes about saying goodbye to New York City after having spent eight years there. Goodbye to All That captures so many of the reasons why young people come to New York City and why many of them never leave even though they should, because their dreams are gone and/or they are wasted and wasting time (their lives). I could understand her reasons for being there and for wanting to leave. I could relate to her talking about the wondrousness of the city, seen for the first time, walking down the city streets, stopping in to a small shop for a snack--all those things. I remember liking the city because I could be anonymous there; I could start over as many times as I liked, and no one was there to tell me not to do that. But of course there are only so many times one can start over, and only so many years that one wishes to remain anonymous in order to start over. She writes about the city being a city for the young, not for the old. That is because the dreamers come to the city, wanting to be successful, wanting to live out their dreams of becoming famous writers or actors. But the same could be said of Los Angeles and Hollywood; many waiters have waited tables there for years, waiting for their big break in Hollywood that will never come to pass. Many stay 'too long at the fair', as Didion describes it. I could relate to her absolute weariness of going to parties and hearing the same things said over and over again by the same people; at some point, you must act on the weariness or go crazy. You cannot listen to the pipe dreams of others for too long. You cannot listen to the bullshit for too long. If you do, you will be mired in the mud of inertia, and it will drag you under. You will become cynical. You can grow old in the city and never realize that until one day you wake up and it smacks you in the face--the realization that you are midway through life and that you have to do something with your 'one wild and precious life' as Mary Oliver writes. In Didion's case, she seemed to have had a nervous breakdown of sorts. But at the same time, she married her boyfriend; he took her back to California, her home state. It seemed to help her, as both he and she became successful writers. I like her fragility, her humility, her ability to insert herself quietly into the lives around her in order to observe and write about them. She was not aggressive in her dealings with people. But she is tough and unflinching in how she writes about their lives and about herself and her approaches to life--she is not afraid to write about her melancholy, about crying at the strangest of times and not knowing why, about being weary, about being human. Her essays are essays about the ironic, contradictory, messed-up lives around her (including her own) that constitute humanity. She writes about the melancholy of life, the melancholy of the intangible, in a way that makes me want to read more of her work.