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The Giving Tree

Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein

Maybe you had The Giving Tree read to you when you were a kid, or maybe you’ve read it to your children. Jo Page used to read it to her children when they were little, but she’s had some second thoughts. Here she is in her own words.

The last time my older daughter visited, she and her younger sister had a conversation about Shel Silverstein’s renowned book, The Giving Tree.

Whether you’re five, 45 or much older, you probably know The Giving Tree.

But if you’ve been living under a rock somewhere since it was published in 1964, here’s the plot: There’s a tree and a boy. The tree loves the boy very much and gives him whatever he needs to provide for his happiness: juicy apples, shade from the hot sun, branches on which to swing. As he grows he carves the initials of the girls he fancies on the bark of the tree. Eventually, of course, he grows—more or less—into adulthood and seeks to leave the tree. Only how will he, having no means by which he can survive without the tree?

So the tree offers to be chopped down so that the boy can make a boat and sail away. The boy, satisfied once more by the tree’s inventiveness and generosity, chops it down and sails away, leaving the tree a branchless, fruitless stump.

And many years pass.

In time, though, the boy comes back, no longer young but stooped with age and weary of life. The tree, in sadness, explains that she has nothing left that she can give him. The boy assures her: he needs little now. All he needs is a place to rest.

A stump can be a place of rest, she offers. Come, boy, come and rest.

Which is what the boy does. And the tree is happy.

I first read The Giving Tree when I was a teen-ager, fatherless, angry at my mother for her distracted passions, her vanity, her self-absorption. (Naturally I saw her with the total objectivity of an adolescent girl.)

So I loved the book. It made me feel sorry for myself. Why didn’t I have a giving tree for a mother? Why didn’t I have a mother who would put my needs ahead of hers? I would never be that kind of parent.

What kind of parent would I be? The kind who gave her daughters a copy of The Giving Tree, of course. The kind who read it to them in the regular rotation of the dozens of children’s books I read to them before bed.

But then, one day when I read it, it made my skin crawl.

This happened when my children were still very young; I hadn’t been made jaded or cynical by their adolescence. And I never wavered in my commitment to be anything other than the best of mothers to them. They were the loves of my life. However, this time when I read the book I saw a boy who really had remained a boy. I saw a one-sided relationship based on selfless giving that seemed to somehow endorse this as the ideal model for parenthood: the parent rightly fulfilling her role as a decimated stump.

As it happens, it’s been interpreted that way. Timothy P. Jackson, a former professor of religious studies at Stanford observed of it:

“Is it a sad tale? Well, it is sad in the same way that life is depressing. . . . The more you blame the boy, the more you have to fault human existence. The more you blame the tree, the more you have to fault the very idea of parenting. Should the tree’s giving be contingent on the boy’s gratitude? If it were, if fathers and mothers waited on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.”

I’m here to attest to the fact that there are some damn bad parents out there. I’m sure they’re doing their best and all that. Or maybe they’re not. But the point is more that if self-immolation is the best model of parenthood, what are our children learning? What are we learning about ourselves? Is Shel Silverstein positing that the best parenting is a kind of personal crucifixion in which our selfhood is poured out to our children’s benefit and at peril to our own?

Yet our children don’t remain young. They age, even if they don’t grow up. Do parents have a responsibility to enable their growth or to mainly meet their present needs? It’s not a black-and-white question.

And take note: I’m not endorsing any position. I’m not going to do that in print. Not about something as incendiary as how to be a good parent. Lots of people love The Giving Tree. I think my girls do (I decided not to listen to their conversation since I didn’t want to know how I measured up against the tree or even what they thought of the tree) though I’m not really sure why. Neither of them seemed inclined to follow the tree’s extreme—neurotic?—selflessness, for which I am grateful.

Maybe the point is that The Giving Tree is a parable; it doesn’t make transparent sense even in its apparent transparency. And just like Jesus’ parables, The Giving Tree makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We’d just as soon forget those kinds of stories. And aren’t those just the kind of ones we can’t?

—Jo Page


Google and Your Privacy

Google logoGoogle’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. At least that’s what it says when you click on About Google at the bottom of the Google page. As a corporation, Google is singular in having as it’s motto “Don’t be evil” — that’s actually what they said in the prospectus for their 2004  IPO, the Initial Public Offering of stock to the public.

And in Google’s 10-point philosophy, under the heading Our philosophy, point number 6 says: You can make money without doing evil. Google is a business. The revenue we generate is derived from offering search technology to companies and from the sale of advertising displayed on our site and on other sites across the web. (And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You can look up what Google has to say, but if we repeat it, you’ll get bored and move on, and we’re trying to make a point of our own, so please keep reading.)

Over the past several weeks, visitors to the Google search page have repeatedly been informed, “We’re changing our privacy policy and terms. This stuff matters.” Visitors are given a chance to click on Dismiss, or Learn more. If you click Learn more, Google will tell you, “We’re getting rid of over 60 different privacy policies across Google and replacing them with one that’s a lot shorter and easier to read. Our new policy covers multiple products and features, reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google.”

Who could object to that, right? And if you read the entire policy, which Google put there so you could read it, you’ll learn more details. From Google’s business point of view, the policy is certainly good because Google will have all the information about you in one place.  But for people who use Google, it’s not so good.  Because when you gather small bits of information about a person from a lot of different sources, and  put them into one big heap of information in one place all about that person, you know a lot more about that person than when the information is scattered. Yes, bringing all the scattered bits together does make a difference. It’s a lot easier to put a jigsaw puzzle together if you have all the pieces in one place.

Look at it this way, US intelligence agencies had sufficient information in different places about terrorists, but the agencies failed in their mission because the information was scattered and they “didn’t connect the dots.” Google’s new privacy policy allows them connect the dots about you.

If you’d really like to Learn more about privacy and Google, you might look at Knowledge @ Wharton, the research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Google’s new privacy policy is scheduled to go into effect on March 1st, but on the other side of the Atlantic the European Union authorities have asked Google to give them more time to investigate the effects of such a change. That’s a Good Idea.

Valentine’s Day

A couple of lovers in a snowstormValentine’s Day comes in the middle of February but a few snowflakes, or even  a blizzard, never stopped lovers from finding a way to get to where they wanted to get to.  We have no idea who the anonymous couple is, though we’re sure he’s handsome and she’s beautiful, and we hope they enjoyed each other’s company and are living happily ever after.  We have no idea who took the photo. It’s been floating around the web and landed here, among other places, and we thought it appropriate for today. And you gotta love those high heels.

You’re probably aware that there are a number of saints named Valentine on a variety of lists, and you probably know that no saint, with or without the name Valentine, began the tradition of sending love notes to the beloved, or red roses, or cards printed with fanciful red hearts, or heart-shaped candies, or heart-shaped red boxes of chocolates, or even heart-shaped strawberries dipped in chocolate. We know all that. Nonetheless, we looked into Catholic Online and came across a section called Saints Fun Facts and clicked on St. Valentine. We read the fun fact that St. Valentine was a kind-hearted Roman priest who “aided young Christians being persecuted by Claudius II and was imprisoned. While in custody, he converted 46 members of a guards family to Christianity. Upon discovering this, Claudius sentenced him to death.” Frankly, we didn’t find much fun in those facts at all, especially the sentenced-to-death part.

So,  to cheer us up,  we’ve decided to post just a few more anonymous photos of lovers kissing.  And please don’t destroy our cheer by telling us the photos are staged.  Of course they’re staged, but that’s not the point. The point is to get you to leave your computer and go kiss someone you care for. Below is a photo which replaces the snow with lots of yellow flowers. Winter or summer, clearly the season doesn’t matter.Kissing amid lots of yellow flowersNow scroll down for some acrobatic kisses. First, the bicycle kiss. And don’t try this unless you’re very experienced at riding a bicycle, good at judging distance and have fine reflexes. We admire how the young man has stamped his left foot on the front wheel, halting his bike at the last moment and causing it to rotate up, just as we admire the young woman raising up on tip-toe to meet him. Kiss on bicycle And, of course, the handstand at the beach kiss. We do like the couple pictured below — the serene welcome of the young woman and the exuberant display of  affection by the young man.  Indeed, there’s an exuberance about the kiss in both these photos and that’s a delight. Frankly, we have no idea how that young man got up into his handstand position and we haven’t figured out how he’s going to get down. Kissing on beach handstand


Debtors’ Prison & Ye Austerity Plan

Outside a Debtors' Prison in England
Outside a Debtors' Prison in England

You’ve probably heard of debtors’ prison, a prison where people who hadn’t paid their debts could be kept under lock and key until they paid their debt or got somebody else to pay for them. It was a dreadful system. Charles Dickens, whose father was housed in a debtors’ prison for a while, wrote eloquently about it.

We had similar prisons in this country until around 1831 when the United States government abolished imprisonment for debts owed to the federal government, and most states soon dropped the practice too. To imprison somebody for failing to pay a debt is fundamentally crazy – OK, let’s say it’s just fundamentally counterproductive – because it deprives the debtor of the ability to earn the money to pay off his or her debts.

What brings debtors’ prisons to mind in these paragraphs is the way debtor nations are treated these days. It’s called austerity. It’s equally counterproductive – or, in a simpler word, crazy.

A good example of the craziness is what’s happening to Greece. Greece has got some big, bad debts and hasn’t got the money to pay them. Now the grand institutions that can loan Greece money aren’t throwing the nation into debtor’s prison. But they are demanding ball-and-chain austerity. They won’t loan Greece anymore money unless that nation continues to fire thousands of state workers, cut the wages of thousands and thousands of others, drastically reduce workers’ benefits and slash their pensions.  Of course, when you do that to a nation, the entire economy declines, more and more people loose their jobs or have to take dramatic pay cuts. That’s what’s happening in Greece today.

As every taxpayer knows, the way a nation gets money to pay its debts is by taxing its citizens, the ones who are actually making money. But when the economy sinks and people earn much less or nothing at all, the tax revenue plunges. In other words, as the institutions that loan money to Greece insist on these austerity programs, the Greeks are less and less able to pay off their debts.

Republicans, who haven’t shown a deep grasp of economics over the past 100 years, are eager to have the United States immediately “put its fiscal house in order” and “cut the deficit.” This means slashing government payrolls and cutting or eliminating government programs – except those for sacred national defense, of course. But because we have a Democrat in the White House and because Democrats control Senate, Republican suitors haven’t been able to completely have their way with the economy.

Interestingly, the conservatives did win big in England and they immediately imposed an austerity budget on their fellow subjects. They believe it’s imperative that England immediately “put its fiscal house in order” and “cut the deficit.” As a result, the country has slid down and backward economically. But England, despite its grim stagnation, isn’t in the desperate situation that Greece is in. Greece is in the new version of debtors’ prison.



Forget 1984, Think 2015

Security cameraYou’re probably aware that as you drive through the city certain cameras, often mounted overhead at cross streets, record your car’s plate number and, in many instances, they record your face as well. And as you or park in a parking garage or enter a shop, security cameras continue to photograph you. And maybe you’re aware that if you walk with your cell phone on, your location is being pinpointed to within fifteen feet.

Maybe, like most people, you do feel a little uncomfortable about being kept under watch, but you shrug it off because you’re just one individual in a city of thousands or millions and they can’t keep track of every single one of us all the time. I mean, sure, they have the technology to listen to our phone conversations and the technology to photograph us as we move around, but how can they store that ocean of information? Besides, the cost of storing so much data would break the bank.

And you’re right. At least for three more years. But you do remember George Orwell’s 1984 and Big Brother. Back in 1984, it cost about $85,000 to store a gigabyte of data. Today it costs about five cents. That means it costs about 17 cents to store all the phone calls made by an individual over the course of a year. But the cost of storage is falling and by 2015 it will cost under 2 cents.

Cameras produce photos and photos have lots of pixels and that means a security camera generates a mountain of data. On the other hand, your phone, GPS and Wi-Fi connection give away your location but that information requires comparatively few ones and zeros. The data identifying the location of each of a million people every five minutes, 24 hours a day for a year, can be stored in 1,000 gigabytes. That would cost around $50 today.

It costs more to store all those pixels from all those cameras, but governments can afford it. In China,  a government “safety” project will use around 500,000 video cameras to keep watch in the city of Chongqing which has a population of 12 million — that’s one video camera for every 24 people.  Right now, it’s expensive to store that much high-quality video and they’ll have to use lower quality images. But in a few years, say by 2020, they’ll be able to store a year’s worth of high-quality video movies of every one of those 12 million people for about 25 cents per person.

These numbers come from a very interesting report produced by John Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies and in the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. He is also professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. You may want to read the full report ; you’ll find it well documented. Professor Villasenor’s report is phrased in terms of how much it would cost a repressive regime, such as that in Iran, to keep a close watch on each of its citizens. Fortunately, we live in an open society where such issues as government surveillance and individual privacy are vigorously debated. Or, maybe we should say, ought to be vigorously debated.

Women and Sex Addiction

Carnes, Patrick - sex addictioni
Dr. Patrick Carnes, Ph.D.

If you crave relief from politics and would like something  completely different, you might be interested in learning a little about sex addiction in women. We learned a lot from an interview in Canada’s National Post. Apparently, women are taking to sex in a big, big way.  In fact, according to Dr. Patrick Carnes, “We are seeing the biggest change in human sexuality maybe in the history of our species.”

 Wow! The biggest in the history of our species! Now that’s impressive. Dr. Carnes, Ph.D.,  ought to know what he’s talking about, because he’s a psychologist. He’s a specialist in sexual addiction and the executive director of the Gentle Path program at Pine Grove Behavioral Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Certainly the Internet has made pornography available and private, which maybe one of the greatest changes in pornography in the history of the human species. So it shouldn’t surprise us that, as Dr. Carnes says, “We’re seeing women getting into pornography in a way we’ve never seen before.” But sex addiction goes beyond mere fantasy. “Women are engaging in affairs, they’re engaging in sado-masochistic behavior,” he said. They are? Again?

If you’re beginning to think that sexual addiction must be an epidemic, you’re right. For sure, Dr. Carnes thinks it is. “We’re now at a place where we have an epidemic. Two thirds of our kids are watching pornography while they’re doing their homework.” Good grief!Two thirds! Is that possible? 

The image below is taken from Nymphs and Satyrs, painted by William-Adolphe Bougereau and exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1873. You’d never guess from this painting that the following year saw the first exhibit of Impressionist painters. There’s not much available to illustrate a post about women and sex addiction, so this will have to do.Bouguereau, William Adolphe 1825-1905 Nymphs and Satyr_(1873)


The Puritans Arrive at Plimouth

MayflowerThe best text we can find in regard to the Thanksgiving season is this perhaps familiar one written by Governor William Bradford in his history, Of Plimouth Plantation. The Puritans, or Pilgrims as they’re often called,  had a very hard time after reaching these shores.  Bradford’s wife Dorothy died while the Mayflower was at anchor in Provincetown Harbor, and by the end of the first winter half the colonists had perished. It was a season of death. William Bradford’s account, though written simply and intended merely as a record, reaches a spare beauty, the same beauty that we find in the Puritans’ plain, sparsely furnished meeting houses and churches.  Here is an excerpt describing their plight as they set foot in this land. The spelling follows the original.

But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considera the same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sumer being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world.

The painting of the Mayflower that we’ve posted above is an imaginative work by the 19th century painter William Halsall.  The painting is evocative, but wholly inaccurate.  The Mayflower was a frighteningly small ship about half the size of the grand vessel portrayed here.  To get a sense of how small it was, you might visit Plimouth Plantation  in Massachusetts and go aboard the replica of the  Mayflower that rides at anchor there. The image below is the opening page of William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation as written by is own hand. Plimouth Plantation by William BradfordOnce you gain familiarity with the old script, its spelling and its scribal patterns (“ye” is written with the e placed above the y, and the letters I and J are written alike)  you’ll be able to read Plimouth Plantation And first of the occasion and inducements thereunto; the which that I may truly unfould, I must begine at the very roote and rise of the same. The which I shall endevor to manefest in a plaine stile, with singuler regard unto the simple trueth in all things, at least as near as my slender judgmente can attaine the same.

Pirates and the Web

Screen-shot of site protesting censorsip legislationEver hear of STOPA or PROTECTIP?  Here’s what the initials in those strange acronyms stand for:  STOPA is the U. S. House of Representatives Stop Online Piracy Act,  and PROTECTIP is the U. S. Senate’s Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act. (With elephantine cleverness, the acronym says Protect IP,  meaning Protect Intellectual Property. )

Both blunderbluss bills aim to protect intellectual property — copyrights and the like — and both are directed against what the sponsors call “rogue” websites and “foreign pirates” who use the web to steal US intellectual property. That certainly a fine goal and supporters say the bills are necessary pieces of legislation, and actually, in the words of one legislator, “patriotic.”

At Critical Pages we’re strongly for protection of intellectual property rights. But we’re against these badly written pieces of misguided legislation.  The Motion Picture Association of America is for the bills, as is the Chamber of Commerce. On the other side, eBay and Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo, and Zynga are against it. Such bills would make business, domestic as well as foreign,  virtually impossible for sites that depend on user-generated material, sites such as YouTube or Tumblr. The Electric Frontier Foundation, an old and distinguished private watchdog group, is also against the bills.

As for you, while you’re surfing the web, it would put you in the position of a typical Internet user in China or Iran. Certain sites would be blocked because the government determined that they’re “rogue” sites belonging to “foreign pirates.” (more…)

Stop Slouching!

You know that your mood and your thoughts affect your posture. Now we’ve learned that changing your posture, even as briefly as a minute or two, can change your mood and your thinking in astonishing ways. And this change can be measured.

Harvard's Amy Cuddy
Harvard's Amy Cuddy

Researchers have reported remarkable changes in the hormone levels of 42 males and females when researchers placed those men and women in different poses for a bare minute per pose. Harvard’s Amy Cuddy, along with Dana R. Carney and Andy J. Yap (both of Columbia), first measured the hormone levels of their research subjects, then placed them  in two high-power or low-power poses for a minute per pose, then re-measured their hormone levels 17 minutes later. (Leaning back in your swivel chair with your feet on your desk, would be a high-power pose.  Sitting in a low chair with your  hands folded in your lap would be low-power.) A brief two minutes in high-power stances caused testosterone to rise; two minutes in low-power posture caused testosterone to decrease and cortisol, associated with stress, to rise.

Are you still slouching? Remember, this goes for women, too.  We bet Amy Cuddy doesn’t slouch.

The researchers also offered the men and women an opportunity to roll a die in order to double a two-dollar stake. Those who had been in high-power poses were more likely to gamble, in other words to take risks, a trait associated with dominant people. Indeed, the research subjects who had been placed in high-power stances reported feeling more powerful. (This didn’t work for us when we tried it, but  maybe that just says something about us.)

It’s been known for some time that expansive high-power postures that take up more space correlate with testosterone and cortisol levels in primates of both sexes. (And, yes, even you deep thinkers are primates when it comes to this.) The high-power individuals have higher levels of testosterone; the low-power people with their contractive postures, taking up less space, have lower testosterone levels and higher cortisol, meaning they are more subject to stress and more likely to succumb to diseases. And up until now it had been believed that primates who were at the top of the pack were there because they had been born with the right hormones for the job. Now it appears that getting into the high position, through whatever means, brings about the associated levels of testosterone and cortisol.

The research by Amy Cuddy, Dana Carney and Andy Yap, “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance,” was published in the influential journal Psychological Science. That was about a year ago. We’re slow readers and never got to it.  But we did get to the  very interesting profile of Assistant Professor Amy Cuddy, with an informative review of other research she’s done,  and that’s accessible online at  Harvard Magazine.  The photograph of Amy Cuddy was taken from the magazine’s cover story; we think her posture is neither high-power nor low-power, but  just friendly.

“Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”   — Steve Jobs

More Notes

The World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations, ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. This year, Finland is first, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, followed by Netherlands, Canada,New Zealand, Sweden, Australia. The United States, which has never been in the top ten, silpped down four places from last year and is now 18th. President Trump may make American Great Again, but apparently not happier.