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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 9, 2006

Judge by perception rather than precept

Sound judgment is based on experience.

Last week, our newspaper’s pages carried several tales of travel.

Kevin Hickey, a local professor who is hosting an African film series, told of his six-year trek across Europe and Africa — he rode his bike over 41,000 miles across 52 countries. He saw those countries and their people up close.

This is partly because he traveled by bicycle, which he said left him open to the world around him. Also, his funds were limited so he relied on the kindness of strangers to survive.

Hickey’s adventures, which took place nearly three decades ago when he was 23, have sustained him for a lifetime. The hardships he endured — for example, in being the first American to bike across the Sahara — left an indelible impression. He relied on strangers — the traffic traversing the desert — to supply him with the water that kept him alive.

Hickey distinguishes between travel and tourism. Tourists, he says, go out to enjoy themselves and relax while travelers go out to discover new places.

Today it may seem there are few places left to discover, few places that haven’t been charted and explored, visited and written about.

But it is the intimacy with which we can know those places that can make them still an adventure, still worth reporting about.

Last week, too, we wrote about a freshman at Guilderland High School who had toured China with the People to People Student Ambassador Program.

Paul Jones held spellbound a group of third-graders at Pine Bush Elementary, a school he once attended, as he showed them the photographs he had taken in China and displayed the treasures he had acquired.

The journey was not arduous and the sights he saw — such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, or the Terra Cotta Warriors — could probably all be described as tourist attractions. And yet, because he had seen them with his own eyes and appreciated the culture they exemplified, he could serve as an ambassador, spreading the word of what he had learned to others.

Zhou Ji, a teacher from China, had a longer commitment, traveling to this country spending half a school year at Pine Bush Elementary and the other half at Guilderland High School. He describes himself as a "peace lover" and is sharing himself and his culture with students here.

Both were sponsored by programs that were borne of world wars. I do not believe this is coincidence.

Zhou Ji is part of the American Field Service International program. The AFS slogan is: "Walk together, talk together, all ye people of the earth, then and only then shall we have peace."

The program was founded in 1914 by a volunteer ambulance corps during the first world war. The ambulance corps dealt with the bloody remains of battle — the helpless, the wounded, the dying, all without glory.

The People to People Student Ambassador Program that Jones was a part of was started after the second world war, with the goal of achieving understanding among citizens of all nations.

This is a tall order. But it is something to which Jones and Ji sound committed.

"May our two countries always experience peace and friendship," Ji said during a farewell student assembly at Pine Bush Elementary School last week.

If we truly understood and valued people in other countries, people with other cultures, would we make war on them" If we understood the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites, would we have invaded Iraq"

My own youthful travels taught me that, even when we journey, we bring ourselves with us. As a student of literature, an American woman, I spent months trekking through the Hebrides with only a soggy backpack and a journal for companions, retracing a journey made two centuries earlier by a Scotsman and an Englishman.

Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-Century man of letters, condemned those who judged by principle and precept rather than by perception.

Late in his life, he undertook this journey to the Scottish Hebrides at the urging of his faithful companion and biographer, the Scotsman, James Boswell. Each man wrote an account of his journey.

As a lexicographer, Johnson was always concerned with accuracy. He’d measure and pace to report what he saw on his journey with precision, but his views were not abstract.

"To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible if it were endeavored," writes Johnson, "and would be foolish if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings," he writes in his account, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

Although Johnson and Boswell physically saw the same things on their journey, they perceived them differently. The people of Iona, for example, are described by Johnson as "gross," and by Boswell as "industrious."

After recounting the island’s ancient history as a gateway to Christianity, Johnson writes, "But the fruitfulness of Iona is now its whole prosperity. The inhabitants are remarkably gross, and remarkably neglected: I know not if they are visited by any Minister.

"The Island, which was once the metropolis of learning and piety, has now no school for education, nor temple for worship, only two inhabitants that can speak English, and not one that can write or read."

To Johnson, it does not matter that the island is fruitful; materialism is not important. The larger concerns of piety and learning are neglected, so the inhabitants are judged as deficient. Johnson is concerned with faith, whereas Boswell, at times more modern, is concerned with productivity.

Boswell describes the same Ionians this way: "The people seemed to be more decently dressed than one usually finds those of their station in the isles...They sell about forty cattle and more than 150 bolls of barley, and what is remarkable, they brew a good deal of beer, which I could not find done in any of the other isles.

"I was told they imported nothing but salt and iron. Salt they might soon make. It is a very fertile island, and the people are industrious. They make their own woollen and linen webs, and indeed I suppose everything else...."

Johnson dismissed the island’s fruitfulness in one sentence whereas Boswell spent many detailing it. Boswell does not discuss any moral neglect. In his terms, because the people are "decently dressed," "industrious," and productive, they are seen not as gross, but as good. The descriptions differ with the judgment.

And so it is with all of us. Our prejudices shape our perceptions. Because we value, say, democracy, as Johnson did piety or Boswell did industriousness, we may assume our form of government can be imposed on another culture without understanding truly how that culture works.

Most of us cannot spare the time and funds for world travel, but each of us can reach a wider understanding by looking at films or reading novels or plays or ballads or laws or holy scriptures that come from different cultures.

We can open ourselves to listening and learning from those who have traveled or who come from other lands.

The principal of Pine Bush Elementary last week told us something wonderful about the third-graders at her school who are learning about three different cultures on three different continents — South America, Africa, and Asia.

"They’re very open-minded about learning the way other countries do things," she said. "They haven’t formed opinions that one way is better than another."

As we age, we choose what path to follow. Let us experience as much as we can of our world so that we will choose wisely.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

Look for the silver lining on a cloudy Valentine’s Day

By Jo E. Prout

Valentines, shmalentines. If you’re single, who needs the pressure of Valentine‘s Day"

You might have been happy to be single and unattached at Thanksgiving when you could eat to your heart‘s content. You may have been grateful to be single on Christmas when dealing with your mother was difficult enough without having to introduce a new beau. And New Year’s Eve" You had a great time out with friends, or you stayed in with a glass of wine.

But now, it’s Valentine’s Day, and everywhere you look you see married people, and babies, and maybe even chic couples with their ultrachic pets. You start to feel a tiny bit desperate.

You start to think about going to a singles dance, or placing an ad in the paper, or joining an on-line dating service, again. But do they work" Past experience for some says "no."

My friend" No luck at all with a dating service. A co-worker" Same deal.

But others have found these avenues helpful. An academic in Troy" Married after a quick stint on Match.com. A biologist in East Greenbush" Dating and happy after joining the same service.

"There are currently more than 8,000 members with profiles posted on Match.com within 30 miles of Albany," wrote Match.com spokeswoman Kathleen Roldan via e-mail. Roldan said that the dating website just celebrated its 10th anniversary. The website serves people across the world, she said.

"We know that more marriages and engagements result from Match.com than any other dating site, based on research conducted by WeddingChannel.com," Roldan said. "In a survey of their engaged or recently-married users, 12 percent said they met their fiancé or spouse on-line and more met on Match.com — more than twice the number of the next-ranked dating site."

If dating services are so successful, then why are there still so many unlucky singles" Well, based on no research at all, and guessing wildly, I would say that there are many unlucky singles becaus — everyone is so darned picky!

When you were in high school, and you wanted a date for the homecoming dance, did you make a list of all the traits your date needed to have in order for you to accept, or ask, a date" Well, probably at first, but when the deadline for buying tickets came down to the wire, No!

If you managed to snag a date for the dance, you rejoiced, ordered your dress or suit, and bought a corsage or boutonnière. (And then, some of you remembered to ask your parents if you could go.)

I know some reader is thinking that dating in your 30’s, or 40’s, or 50’s is very different than it was in high school. It sure is. You don’t need that hotel room after the dance because you have your own home. Bonus! Silver lining.

Do you ever read the personal ads" If you don’t, try it for laughs. All the old guys want young women who are stick thin, but curvaceous. All the women want men who have professions like law or medicine or accounting, and enough time to build a great physique.

Personally, I’d rather have a spouse who spends just enough time at the gym to keep his heart healthy, and no more. Since my free time is kind of limited, I’d like to spend a good chunk of it with my hubby, and I can’t do that if he’s obsessing about his pecs in a gym across town.

Men in ads and on dating websites seem to want women who are "athletic and toned." Okay, now, that’s thin, curvaceous, and athletically toned. I think smart or funny sometimes come in fourth and fifth, but back to my point.

Say a single guy has enough time to have a well-balanced life and he still makes it to the gym for those pecs. Why on earth does he expect his future wife to do the same" There are, I‘ll grant you, several out of every large sample of women who live for the open road under their sneakers, who can’t wait to bench press 200 pounds, and who dream of opening their own fitness gyms.

The rest of us like to shop. Or read, or volunteer, or watch TV, or countless other benign pastimes. What does that single guy care, anyway" He’s busy at the gym!

One of my friends says her future husband must love cats because she has three. For goodness sake, couldn’t he just tolerate them" Couldn’t the kitties live in the basement or, at least, stay out of the bedroom so future hubby could avoid allergy shots" Doesn’t the poor guy deserve some rest without wheezing"

On the other hand, I know some guys who just want a lady who will stick around and not fall apart over every little thing. But that leads to my husband’s observation: A fight is not a reason to break up. A fight, he says, is just a fight.

And that could be a secret that only married people can share with their single friends, because:

Married = fighting + resolution.

Or, in the case of long marriages:

Married = We already know how this one ends so let’s skip it.

Yeah, so, hubby and I fight; big deal. We’ve been a mostly happy couple for almost 20 years. I want my single friends to be as happy as we are, and I know that, this Valentine’s Day, some of them won’t be. But, they do have the upper hand for the holiday.

Their Valentine’s Day won’t be predictable, and, if they buy themselves chocolates, they‘ll get their favorite kind and they won‘t have to share. See" Silver lining.

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