Friday, October 18, 2013

City of Contrasts, Country of Unity

A delegate from Moldova, in a conversation we shared on the bus one evening, used the word contrasts to describe Johannesburg. That word turned out to be, in fact, the most accurate description of the impression I had gotten from Jo’burg as well as an idea that was confirmed again and again as more observations were made about the city. Johannesburg is a city where men with expensive suits and brand new Jaguars, Lamborghinis, and Mercedes drive by beggars and poor children on almost every street. Johannesburg is a city where the downtown Sandton City is as polished and clean as downtown Miami but you drive away from the Sandton Convention Centre in the wrong direction and start to see trash lying around in the fields, houses that look like shacks, people that look homeless, and most despairing of all – children that look abandoned. Speaking to school kids in Johannesburg, I one day listened to horror stories about what’s happening to their classmates that are making horrible choices and are referred to as “devil worshippers”, only to watch other kids running around the fountains and sharing their interests and talents in sports, music, and poetry the next day. But here’s the deal: these are a type of contrasts that to some degree or extent can be seen in every big city. Meanwhile, what struck me most about not only Johannesburg but South Africa in general is how strongly united the people were. I’ve never seen such devotion to one’s country in any other nation. I could be talking to a South African about the weather or their beautiful wildlife and receive a response that would make anybody want to stay in South Africa forever. Yet I could also ask them tough questions about the high rates of violent crime and youth unemployment in South Africa and a representative of the Ministry of the Police Force would take the time out of his busy schedule to be present in person, and not only openly admit those awful numbers but also respond by laying out the essence of the National Development Plan that is currently being brought up for popular discussion, information being spread so that the areas truly in need of help and development are properly reached. In the words, actions, and achievements of some South African youth activists, I’ve seen so much passion, hard work, education and energy that could build a whole new county in the middle of a windy, waterless desert if need be. Seeing this kind of potential, and given their hearts lie in education reform as of right now, we can expect to see even further improvements as a result of South Africa’s battle against unemployment and crime in the near future.

I am immensely inspired by the South African spirit for development and the paths the people are carving for themselves. I have to admit, other nations could learn more from South Africa about unity and passion for change than South Africa could from them. I certainly did.

48 hours vs. Flu

Most of us get a cold at least once a year. Since flu season is in full bloom, I thought I’d share a special routine I implement whenever I start feeling a cold coming. Usually this kind of an infection starts at the throat and slowly spreads through the nasal passages, and might even get further complications such as a fever and a cough. The first 48 hours (starting from the sore throat/stuffy nose stage) are very important because this is the time to help your immune system as much as you can in its fight against the infection. Below is a detailed description of the above-mentioned routine:

-hot tea with honey and lemon to soothe the throat;
-mustard bath or a salt bath (pour some iodized salt or powdered mustard into a small tub of hot water; soak feet in this water for 30 minutes; and remember: slight prickling sensation=okay, burning sensation=second degree burns);
-eat some raw onion – this should temporarily sterilize the throat and the nasal passages of any bacteria (Note: People with stomach problems can replace the onion by rinsing their throat  with warm water with salt);
-crackers and chicken noodle soup;
-drink more hot tea;
-layer up; wrap yourself in blankets and sweat;
-after about 30 minutes of sweating, change into dry clothes, drink more honey tea and sweat some more;
-at night, sleep for at least 10 hours;
-in the morning, take a steaming hot shower (loosens the mucus);
-after the shower, dry up and dress quicker than usual as to not let your body get cold;
-dress comfortably and again, layer up;
-eat a healthy meal (this means it should include protein – low-fat meat such as chicken for example – and vegetables/salad) every 4 hours; snack on fruit in between;
-drink plenty of water;
-always keep your feet dry and warm;
-Optional medicine for a cold without any fever/cough: antibiotics for 5-10 days (will need a prescription);
-Required medicine for complicated cases:
·      If you feel a bad cough developing, take antibiotics for the first 5 days and only then start taking the cough-specific over-the-counter syrups, gel capsules, etc. Taking the cough stuff too early would be useless anyway because, well there’s not much phlegm build yet to have to get rid of. Also, take it easy on the cough suppressants – I personally believe those do more harm than good: I’d rather cough more frequently but for fewer days rather than cough rarely and have to cough for a month.
·      If you have a fever and/or a headache, immediately take something with paracetamol in it and try to sweat as much as you can by resting under lots of blankets and drinking hot liquids in double your daily intake.

At the end of the initial 48 hours against the flu, when my immune system should be fighting with the aftermath of the infection on its own, I find it helpful to take some time to get life back flowing through my body by doing an intense 1-hr workout plus 30 minutes of stretching/yoga.

P.S. Disclaimer: I am not a doctor but am merely sharing my own experiences and research.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Physical to Mental

Ever since I learned to cook, I’ve always found the process of cooking kind of relaxing. I could compare it to what one might feel while running: your body’s on full alert and in full motion but your brain gets a chance to disconnect itself for a little bit and do some major shuffling and re-shelving of ideas. You get a chance to look at your actions, no matter the past, present or future, and employ objective rather than subjective judgment.

One of the things I have missed the most while living in the dorms was having my own kitchen. Before college, kitchen was a place to which I could come exhausted from school and work and troubled with the day’s interactions but from which in a matter of an hour I could leave refreshed. And it had nothing to do with food at all. Perhaps my rather conservative upbringing has influenced me more than I realize, but the times I’ve felt clear-headed and impartial enough to make the most important decisions had something to do with me cleaning, sorting, and cooking things, and, in some cases, running long distances. All of these activities made me busy just enough to think in terms of facts and logic but not deep enough to think about feelings, so in a way, this prevented emotions from interfering with my decision-making.

What if, on some subconscious level, mechanical-type physical activity encourages not just any stress-free thinking but a specific mental process that corresponds directly to a certain task at hand, which, in case with cleaning the house, for example, would unintentionally be cleaning our mind of unnecessary and irrelevant factors, so to speak? If this were true, then it would make sense that the process of sorting physical items would lead us to sort ideas into categories in our heads, therefore making conclusions easier to reach. Cooking food could be envisioned as a process of putting together right amounts of ingredients to create a dish to serve one’s tastes – relating to how we take into account as many factors as possible when reaching resolutions and compromises. Distance-running, on the other hand, would be responsible for our mind’s ability to not only carefully select routes but also develop patience and endurance when having come across obstacles and rough patches in life through which there is no other choice but to “run through”. Though the connections drawn above are only hypothetical, I can’t help but wonder how much of the physical activity we think we complete with a certain degree of automaticity, such as walking, driving, folding laundry or putting on make-up, might have more influence on our minds than we realize? 


Sometimes, to keep one's mind away from getting trapped among life's routinely thoughts and worries brought by daily events, it can be fascinating to try and think about the way humans operate as a whole. What habits have been developed, what patterns. One of those patterns is a perpetual need to "flock together" (with some exceptions, of course). We create groups intentionally, unintentionally, and we even create groups when we’re trying not to create groups. It’s kind of an endless circle that humankind might never be able to break out of. Sometimes a small portion of people realizes what’s happening and tries to avoid separatism and favoritism, but eventually they either exhaust their resources and retire or achieve only small results, insignificant in the big picture. Because once you turn into a group with a common cause, you’re destined to start rejecting people that do not fit into your group. Which is still, as I recall, an event of separating people. The sole definition of the word group makes this inevitable, since a group is a limited entity by definition. Despite the cons, being in a group makes one feel more comfortable. It might even make one feel more powerful. Really, it’s easier to break one man than seven. In fact, I believe groups have more pros than cons. Imagine a world as one group where no one would ever be excluded…it would just be one giant blob of people, absolute chaos. Groups are actually a way to put people in certain directions, put everything in order, make sure all bases are covered. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

On Mill’s On Liberty

John Stuart Mill was ahead of the time in which he lived by his ideas and understanding of the main concepts of democracy. He contests a common misconception that democracy is the ultimate solution for liberty by highlighting a clear problem – tyranny of the majority. Such events in history that dramatically affected our lives as women’s rights movement were inspired by his works. Mill is a strong opponent of paternalism, tyranny of the majority, but on the other hand, a supporter of rights, liberty and one’s sovereignty over one’s own life, as long as harm is not caused to others. His center principle is the liberty principle. In his essay, he tries to define the cases in which limitations can be placed over society or an individual. While reading On Liberty, one might assume that his main goal in this work is to introduce the harm principle, whereas he introduces the harm principle only in order to set a limit on which rules society can impose on individuals. Another curious topic he touches is the role of rules and customs in our lives. We have greater liberty living by rules and regulations because they maximize utility, and by custom, because it simply works, while society can exercise power over a citizen, but only to prevent harm. When is it legitimate to coerce individuals to do or not to do something? When can individuals choose not to follow the society?

First, what are rules? Rules are principles and regulations governing our actions and conduct. There is a set of basic rules that we should follow to make our lives easier as well as others’. “Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” (p. 12) Rules are connected to society’s and individual’s interests, where everyone makes sacrifices in their behavior to allow the most amount of good for the most amount of people.  Certain interests can be identified as “core interests”, which are to be protected by the society using rights – socially constructed rules that help us benefit our society. One citizen’s right is somebody else’s duty. Examples of our rights are: liberty of opinion and belief, liberty of tastes and pursuits, and liberty of combination among individuals. One liberty that Mill pays a lot of attention to is sovereignty over our own lives. In the beginning of his essay, Mill identifies harm as a setback to someone else’s interest, whereas, in the last half of it, he gives more complications to his definition. Now he identifies harm as a violation of one’s rights, direct interests, and liberties. He is now stating that society ought not to interfere with one’s self-regarding acts. Mill would say that no matter how foolish one’s choices might be, you cannot impede them, as long as it’s only themselves that they are harming. Though he does offer two exceptions - children, due to their immaturity and, therefore, inability to engage all of their faculties to make their own decisions, and barbarians, due to their incapacity of being lead to development by method of conviction, persuasion or compulsion. “Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.” (p. 10) In addition, this is the only case where Mill justifies paternalism – telling somebody what he or she must do. Mill generally does not believe in paternalism – humans are individual, and must decide for themselves what is good or bad. This leads his concern about the rules that society imposes on citizens: in his opinion, they should never interfere with one’s self-determination. Another one of his concerns about rules is that to require not to harm is less clear than to require to do something in order to protect oneself from harm. However, we can be forced to take actions not to harm others just as much as we can be forced to take actions to keep harm away from them. He leaves the concern to be solved by the society, which has to determine what stage of harm is to be protected against. Mill’s last concern about society’s rules is that the liberty to do things collectively leads to small harms on the way, which ties back to pleasing the majority. Shortly, in last chapter he brings up live examples from which we can make a conclusion that sometimes allowing harm will provide benefit to society’s interests in general.

On the other hand, customs have a very significant meaning in our lives. We use them because they work, and we benefit from them. The stereotype is, customs are practices so long established that they have a force of law. Mill would not necessarily agree with this definition, because he strongly encourages individuals to come up with new ideas and listen to those who have them. He sees benefit in forming your own opinion, even if it is against traditions and customs of the society. Developing our plan for ourselves certainly has several benefits. First, we employ all of our senses and abilities, thus, we develop. Second, we provide the world with different opinions, experiments and experiences, so long as we do not injure others. Third, by expressing our opinion, we might be right and benefit the society, while, if we are wrong, we benefit the society as much as we would if we were right. Pages 56 and 57, in Mill, consist, “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the living forces which make it a living thing.” Mill’s concern regarding customs is that one’s certainty would make one assume that one has a right to coerce others to follow oneself, which is why he sees pursuing your own interests and freedom to choose actions, whatever they are, without injuring others, as a best plan, opposed to being forced.

No matter how strong Mill’s statements and principles are, he still leaves us a lot of room for development of his ideas. Plus, all of us interpret his ideas in a way that is enhanced for our own lives. Customs are a very big part of our lives, but we must not forget how they were formed and make our own judgments. Without customs and rules, it would be more difficult to live in pursuit of our own interests, without harming others. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

In the Middle

Recently, in the process of writing I had to talk about genders and I recall stopping for a good five minutes only to contemplate whether assuming that there are two genders is politically correct or not. Google-ing it didn’t help either, and I never really got an answer to my question as to whether the transgender counts as a separate, third gender, I just had to go with my gut and say, two genders it is. Anyway, it only occurred to me now that the whole thing was unusual. The fact that there are only two genders should have been like an axiom to me, something as solid as the fact that the sun rises in the morning and sets at night, or the fact that if you throw a ball up in the air, gravity will pull it down. Now, if it were my mother or father writing, they wouldn’t even have given the thought another second. Perhaps, the thought wouldn’t even have occurred to them at all. And that, I think is one of the places where lies one of the biggest differences between our generations. Our fathers and mothers are a generation of black-and-white, where nobody would hardly ever need to think twice about an issue. In their world, there are no if’s. In their world, one is either rich or poor, smart or stupid, male or female, native or foreign, etc. We, on the other hand, are a generation that has been taught to accept, to adapt, to eradicate discrimination, and avoid assuming things about others without learning facts of their individual backgrounds. When we were in high school, most of our persuasive speeches were on defending rights of minority groups; in college most of our visiting lecturers come from a minority background. There are many times we have to think about whether what we say might offend somebody in the room. In short, we are slower to jump to conclusions about a stranger than our parents, but we are also not entirely non-judging, so we’re sort of a generation of in-the-middlers.   

On Chivalry

Feminism is definitely a topic that inspires a wide variety of opinions from both men and women. The most frequent one I’ve heard lately on the male side is, “You ladies want the society to treat both genders equally though you always complain that chivalry is dying!” Whether this is correct or wrong depends on how we define chivalry. If chivalry portrays women as weak and in need of help from men who, in turn, are portrayed as superior to the other gender, then I could see why the point is being made about eliminating this kind of behavior among other things.

Personally, I see chivalry as social etiquette rather than indication of inequality. And when it comes to etiquette, respect is the key word, not superiority. For example, men opening doors for women is a sign of respect or admiration (one could even say endearment), not a statement saying, “You are probably not strong enough to pull this door, so I’ll do it for you”. Men do it because they want to, and I believe women should respond accordingly. There have been numerous times I’ve witnessed females ignoring doors held for them and proceeding to open an adjacent door for themselves.

On the other hand, chivalry is part of a frequently depicted in novels and romantic movies process called courting. Since the purpose of courting is to win a woman over, some women might feel as if they are a trophy of sorts, an object as opposed to a one-of-a-kind human being. Meanwhile, chivalry has been one of the ways through which a man would declare interest in a woman. By attending to her needs and treating her as someone with a certain degree of fragility, in no way is his goal to belittle, but rather to deliver a message through behavior as opposed to words. And that message shouldn’t be perceived as, “You are fragile and weak, so let me take care of you,” but rather a plain: “Notice me, for these are my qualities: I am caring, attentive, protecting, etc.”

Many struggle to understand that we often and sometimes unintentionally compare things that ought not be compared. I believe males and females fall into this category. An idea that was thoroughly integrated into my judgment at age of fifteen due to a particular turn of life, a simple phrase, “Not better, not worse – just different” is one that serves perfectly to what I am trying to express here. Perhaps men and women are so different on various levels that it is not entirely possible to compare one group to the other? If you can’t compare one to another, then how would you distinguish them equal? What if, in the process of calling others to cease stereotyping (assigning generalized roles to) people according to their gender and taking measures to create absolute equality in all aspects of life, we are doing exactly what we’re fighting against? That is, try and assign a certain behavior to individuals, no matter how universal or neutral. Now, whether opportunities are provided equal for both is another question and I agree in every respect that no one should be limited to what he/she might desire to endeavor. This is a concern of justice and is a valid concern to tend to. But should it matter to the society how “masculine” or “feminine”, strong or weak each individual act, so long as all is fair, legal and harm-free?