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Cultural differences are very real, and play an important role in education, the workplace, and in relationships.

I came across several articles this past week about these differences dealing with education and other areas.

The ones that most intrigued me look at the differences between the cultures of the East and West.

Two big concepts seem to explain many of the differences: individualism and collectivism.

Individualism is the tendency of the West and it favors the individual, self-promotion and self-worth.

People in the East are more likely to embrace collectivism where individuals are part of a group and the needs of the group come before the individual.

Of course, these are generalizations which often are both accurate and stereotypical.

American saying: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Japanese proverb: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

Some of the differences I found listed are questionable, maybe even insulting. Do Westerners really believe that there must be one special person in the world just for them? Do. Easterners make a lasting commitment and not give up when their relationship hits a rocky patch?

However, when it comes to education, I do see differences. I taught for many years in a town that had a large Eastern population. My Western students and their families value individual achievement, natural ability and thinking for yourself. .When students fail, the school or a teacher can be blamed.

I can recall several parent conferences with Eastern parents who made it clear that they believed that every student is equal and has the same chance of academic success. Success comes from hard work. They couldn’t understand when we would say that we thought a student was not “an A student” and that if it meant having to study six hours every night, their child could be that “A” student.

I suppose our cultures have given us certain traits and beliefs, but that doesn’t mean each of us can’t be individuals when that works and part of the group when that works.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley – image from Literary Witches

It is Halloween month and so I expect to see at least a few Frankenstein decorations and costumes. I’m sure that Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) would not be amused. This is also the 200th anniversary of her novel.

She intended her novel to be more than just fodder for horror films and costumes. The book’s 1831 full title – Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus – hints at that intention.

Some of her themes are as relevant, perhaps more relevant, today. The novel asks many questions about science and social responsibility. It was truly science fiction as she used many ideas that she had heard at lectures she frequently attended.

The novel is often dismissed as something much lighter because of the subsequent adaptations of it in other forms. We usually forget that “Frankenstein” is the doctor performing the experiments, not the “monster” he creates and regrets having brought to life.

We forget that her title, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, alludes to Greek mythology.  Prometheus was a Titan, a trickster figure who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. But Shelley’s allusion is to the credit he is given for creating man from clay. This god is then closest to the God of monotheism – and Dr. Frankenstein is being a modern-day god. (It is also no coincidence that the monster fears fire more than anything.)

In one introduction to the novel, Mary Shelley wrote:

Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before… Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

I had to look up her reference to Columbus’ egg. The term is used to describe a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. The expression refers to an apocryphal story in which Christopher Columbus, having been told that discovering the Americas was inevitable and no great accomplishment, challenges his critics to make an egg stand on its tip. After his challengers give up, Columbus does it himself by tapping the egg on the table to flatten its tip. The story is often alluded to when discussing creativity.

The novel often comes up in conversations about cloning, test tube babies, genetic engineering, end of life and even artificial intelligence. Those instances would please Mary.


add friend button

I read this post on Why Making New Friends Gets More Difficult as You Grow Older and had to stop and consider whether I felt it was true for myself.

Some of the reasons given are pretty depressing.

“As you grow more mature, your morals and standards start to change and solidify. As a young adult, you may have been more flexible and open-minded about some things, but time has worn grooves into your soul.”  Grooves in my soul sounds really bad. Am I less flexible in my views than when I was 22?

I believe my friend-making changed when I stopped being a student and started being an employee. Though I met many more people in my working years than in my student years, the vast majority (probably 90%) of them are better described as acquaintances than friends.

Another article states that “Marriage changes a lot, but kids change everything,” and I would agree with that when it comes to making new friends. Like my working life, getting married and having kids opened up many new vectors to meeting people. Some of them have remained true friends. Most have dropped down on the friend scale. Some people I socialized with a lot when our kids shared mutual activities (school and sports especially), have disappeared from my life now that my children are adults away on their own. Were they really ever friends?  Yes, they were. But friendships, like all relationships, change, evolve, devolve.

The author of that first article says that “Social media is ruining making friends.” I think social media has tried to redefine “friend” (as used on Facebook) to mean someone who we have a very thin virtual relationship with. I have “Facebook friends” that I have never met, never will meet and that I only connect with through an interest. Might we be real life friends if we met in person? Possibly.

A good example is the list of people on Facebook that are listed as my friends because of poetry. A very few of them are people know and see and talk with about poetry (and other topics) regularly. There is a larger group within that list of poets that I have met or at least heard read their poetry in person. I doubt that many of them would recognize me or know my name if we were in a social situation. And there are an even larger group of poetry people who I have never met and will likely never meet in real life. Friends? No.

I prefer when social networks use terms like “follow.” I follow some celebrities on Instagram because I like seeing their images, but we have no friendship at all – and that is fine.

The author of that article is 43, so I have a few decades on her, but I certainly hope this is not true of me.

“Maybe, as we grow older, we just get rusty at making new friends. Think about it. Many of us get married and have children, and for decades of our lives, we see our children as our best friends. No, we don’t tell them this, but we hold this feeling in our hearts, now don’t we… Well, when our children leave the nest, we are left with our mate, or we are left alone. When this happens, we have forgotten how to socialize correctly.”

I haven’t sat down to make a list of who I would consider actual friends versus acquaintances or any other label. It would probably be somewhat painful. I do know that my closest friends tend to be ones I have known for the most years and with whom I still have face-to-face contact, even if that part only happens once a year. I can’t think of any “virtual friend” that would make the Friend list. And that has less to do with me getting older than it has to do with the world getting older.

I hate lists. I particularly had “to-do” lists. I make lists all the time, and I always have a to-do list near my desk.

Lists have been around for  long time. Leonardo da Vinci made lists of things and things to do. George Washington made lists. Fictional characters like Jay Gatsby made lists.

Lists must have some appeal. The horribly-named and just plain horrible online “content” known as the “listicle” seems to get lots of views. “10 Ways to _____” or “The 7 Best _____” or “The 5 Things You Need To Do This Weekend” seem to promise a fast way to better your life. Maybe it is part of the same movement that makes slide presentations full of short bulleted lists so popular. Here are all the answers in an easy to digest package.

I consider the writer and scholar Umberto Eco to be a wise man. He said that “The list is the origin of culture,” when he gave a Der Spiegel interview. He had just curated an exhibition on the history of the list at the Louvre.

That certainly elevates my “Things To Do This Week” notepad writing to a new level.

da Vinci list

Leonardo’s to do list

Eco can explain why we make lists, and I believe him. Leonardo’s lists certainly have taken on importance over the centuries. The lists of inventors and thinkers, such as Thomas Edison’s ambitious to do list, give us another way of considering their creativity and the way their mind planned.

Edison list

One of Edison’s notebook lists

In a book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. , Umberto Eco says that lists are the way we put order to chaos. I know that as I grow older I rely more on lists – shopping, projects around the house, tasks for work lists – than I did before. (Though I have been making lists since my teen years, some of which are in journals from that time.) They do help with he memory. Sometimes. I have been known to scribble on a list something like “Call Harry” and then the next day looked at it and wonder why I needed to call Harry. Was there some specific thing I wanted to tell him, or was it just that I thought it was time to chat?

Lists can be hopeful. Just this week, I made a list of garden ideas for next spring. I guess I plan to be alive in six months.

Lists can be depressing. I occasionally find lists of things I wanted to do from a year or more ago and realize I haven’t done many or any of the things on it. What have I been doing with my life?

I have a love/hate relationship with my lists. But when I finish typing this sentence and hit “publish,” I can cross something off this week’s list, and that I find quite satisfying.


Flamel home

The home of the Flamels in Paris.

Nicholas Flamel was born outside Paris in 1300. Though he family was poor, he received a good education.

For a time, he worked as a scrivener copying texts, writing letters, and selling manuscripts, he also wrote some poetry.

He married late in life an intelligent and attractive widow named Perenelle. Like Nicholas, his wife supposedly had explored alchemy, the science of the age.

The most interesting part of Flamel’s life may not have been part of his life. We can find out about his marriage contract and his will by seeing them in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The legends are much more interesting.

That story says that Flamel came to own an odd book via a two florins purchase he made from someone who came to his bookstall in need of money. The manuscript volume was bound in worked copper and it was engraved with curious symbols and characters. It had only twenty-one leaves/pages that were not paper but made of young tree bark and written/inscribed with a sharp stylus.

It was illustrated on some pages with serpents. The serpents are swallowing swords, crucified on a cross, and trailing from a bubbling fountain in the middle of a treeless desert. It is said that this was the Book of Abraham the Jew, but it was not a religious text. It is supposed to contain a complete exposition on the art of transmuting base metals to gold – alchemy.

To use the book as an alchemist, you would also need to create the “philosopher’s stone” (AKA the Sorcerer’s Stone) Using the stone and book one could distill the Elixir of Life which can give eternal life.

The only historical evidence we can point to for this possible ownership is that the Flamels did become suddenly rich at one point. They had no children and used the money to help the poor, establishing low-income housing, free hospitals, and endowing Catholic churches to do good works.


We believe the couple lived quiet scholarly lives studying and writing about alchemy. Perenelle and then Nicholas died while they were in their eighties and were buried in the Cemetery of the Innocents. Nicholas designed their tombstone which has the Sun above a key, a book, Christ, St. Peter, St. Paul. and curious engravings. The tombstone was located in the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, but is now at the Cluny Museum in Paris.

Obtaining the book is the first part of the legend. The next part comes shortly after Nicholas’s death, when their tomb was opened by vandals. Were they searching for the philosopher’s stone, gold, or the book? Well, not only did they not find those things, but they did not find the bodies of the Flamels.

Amongst devotees of the Flamels’ work, it was said that Nicholas and Perenelle had distilled the Elixir of Life and had staged their own deaths. They then took the book and stone and went on to the rest of their eternal life.

What I had not heard before was a story recounted by Garrison Keillor on his Writers’ Almanac podcast recently. An 18th-century archaeologist working in Turkey met a “philosopher” who seemed able to speak almost every known language and also knew a very detailed history of the Flamels. He did not claim to be Nicholas, but told the archaeologist that Nicholas and Perenelle were in fact still alive.

This philosopher said that after they left France the couple went to India and there sought out adepts and mystics with abilities that exceeded the known science.

So, how did I meet Nicholas? Like millions of others, I met he and his wife as friends of Albus Dumbledore, wizard and headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

In the tales of Harry Potter, the Flamels live on. In the first book, Harry Potter and the The Sorcerer’s Stone (British title: The Philosopher’s Stone), Nicholas is 690 years old.

The couple lives in Devon, England. Their immortality continues through infusions of the Elixir of Life (in this version, one drink is not give eternal life – it is more of a Fountain of Youth). In the Potter version, their Philosopher’s Stone had to be destroyed to keep it from the dark wizard Voldemort. They made enough Elixir to set their affairs in order. Flamel and his wife were assumed to have died when the Elixir ran out. Harry thought this was terrible, but Dumbledore told him that their deaths would be like “going to bed after a very, very long day.”

But did they die? That is fiction. What about the real Flamels? Nicholas created a Philosopher’s Stone once. Might he have created another?

We don’t even have to pass through the equinox’s tilt into autumn before people start searching and finding a post I wrote here about signs in nature that might predict the winter to come. We want to know about things before they happen.

But weather is really difficult to predict too far in advance. All of us have watched or read a weather report at night for what tomorrow will be, and then found the actual day to be quite different. Maybe that is why some people seem to trust old weather lore that looks at nature for predictions.

People have been observing changes with insects, animals, birds, plants, the Moon and the stars and trying to connect that to the weather world around them. The problem with most predictions about weather, politics, the end of the world or anything is that we rarely go back months or years later to check on the predictions.

You can look back at the older posts and follow the instructions and do your own predicting. Just be sure to write it down and then check back when spring arrives. Did the predictions come true?

Did the black bands on a woolly bear caterpillar prove to be accurate?

What about those squirrels – gathering food early, bushy tails?

I did not notice any ant hills that were particularly high in July. So, winter should not be snowy. And yet, the first week in August was unusually warm, and that should mean that the coming winter will be snowy and long. Should we believe the ants?

The leaves have barely started to fall here. When leaves fall early, fall and Winter will be mild, but if they fall late,winter will be severe. Start falling leaves!

You can at least pay attention to what is happening in October:
– Much rain in October, much wind in December.
– A warm October means a cold February.
– Full Moon in October without frost, then no frost until November’s Full Moon.

And check the skins of corn (husks), apples and onions. The thicker they are, the tougher the winter. Do you notice a pattern here? When things in nature toughen up, they are getting ready for a tough winter.

Pay attention.

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