The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Wednesday, December 31, 2003
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I’d like to write a richly reflective essay tonight, one that aptly summarizes the human condition as we find it this New Year’s Eve. But I’m not starting out much better than the old British monarchs who usually began their January 1 addresses by saying “another year has passed”.

Over the past year I read about scientific research that finds a deeply embedded instinct within humans toward tribal love and loyalty, and at the same time toward aggressive behavior against those outside the tribe. We just can’t seem to see and trust each other as one big tribe; somehow, either through genetics or via deeply seeded cultural / subconscious presumptions, it just seems right for us to show great love within a small circle of affiliates, but deep hatred and distrust for other those in other circles. That just seems to be our default programming.

But then again, humans are inherently innovative and able to change. We’re not locked into our default programs. If and when we see benefit, we make changes. There are times and places when we came away from the tribal warfare scenario. But when things go wrong, we so easily slide back into it. The whole Iraq war seems like a pretty good case of this, but if you want purer examples you can look to Africa or the Middle East, or just visit an American inner city where rival gangs fight for turf with automatic weapons.

I’m gonna do some talkin ’bout my own generation here. I’m part of the great white Baby Boom, part of the 60’s “peace” crowd (if not by much). I remember the free-floating hope that was in the air back when I was in high school. War and conflict were seen by us as terribly undesirable things. Patriotism and other forms of tribal identification were totally out of fashion. Collectivism was in, and money and greed were out (or so we thought). Love was in the air, at least in theory. We didn’t want to become soldiers of the Cold War and slaves to mortgage bankers like our parents were. We were going to go from happening to happening (like Woodstock), based on trust and openness and sharing and lack of avarice.

Obviously it was a vision made possible because of the wealth afforded to us by those we didn’t want to be like (i.e., our affluent suburban parents). Once we had to take on the responsibilities of finding reliable sources of income and of raising children in an uncertain world, it was amazing how quickly we lost our idealism and started reverting to the old tried and true paradigms, including large doses of aggressive competitiveness, tribal affiliation, and defense if not outright aggression against those without our tribe. Oh, sure, we tried to be a little more open-minded than past generations, but tough times brought on by oil shortages and recessions turned many former “peace children” into Ronald Reagan supporters by the mid-80s.

Today’s popular music is conspicuous (to me) by its lack of idealism. The charts seem heavily dominated by violent rap and sex themes. Rock music, no longer the king of pop as it was in my youth, has retreated lyrically into sarcasm and depression. A song about love and brotherhood wouldn’t have a chance (well, OK, there are occasional exceptions, although some of them are by Michael Jackson – and thus are not good counter-examples these days).

Just for laughs, I’m going to review a few lines from a song from the late 60’s called “Ray of Hope”, as written and recorded by the Rascals (once know as the Young Rascals, who had some pop hits in the mid-60s). Lets try this one:

This world can be a place that’s filled with harmony

First there’s a lot of things we’ve got to rearrange

Put an end to hate and lies

So peace can come and truth shall reign.

Ah yes, shades of Crosby, Stills and Nash, who once sang “we can change the world, rearrange the world”. You don’t hear that one much anymore. Let’s try another line:

There’s people who win without making fists

Oh yea, right, those are the ones who have expensive lawyers.

Next, how about some quaint phrasing?

It’s a gas just knowing what is yet to come

An ironic twist on Nazi genocide (or American industrial pollution, or air quality in Chinese cities)? No, people really took that seriously once.

As long as there is a ray of hope

Lord, I don’t mind going out and doing my work

Am I saying that there is no ray of hope left for 2004 and beyond? Well, no. I still go out and do my work, and that indeed reflects a deeply seeded if dimly felt belief that there is still hope for the human race. Unfortunately, we have taken after the chimps, our primal ancestors, by forming tribes of loyalty that constantly kill and pillage each other. But we can think and learn much faster than chimps can. Maybe one day we’ll finally learn that small tribes and big wars are not in fact the best ways to provide for our children. (One of the biggest stumbling blocks is that so much of our hallowed spiritual literature is steeped in those presumptions; somehow, people in mass will have to find the guts to turn away from the Bible and the Koran and the other great books when they speak of conquest against the heathen “outsiders”). Maybe someday that old academic chestnut, i.e. “it doesn’t have to be this way”, will finally get thru to us. Maybe “someday at Christmas”. OK, that’s a line from a pop tune from not too many years ago. OK, sometimes songs of peace still do make the airwaves. OK, so maybe there is yet a ray of hope then.

Happy New Year.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:40 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, December 29, 2003
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GRECO-ROMAN SCHOOL SPORT MEMORIES: I started elementary school right about the time when the technical rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union was reaching fever pitch. By 1958, Krushchev had the H-bomb and had put the first satellite in orbit. Schools throughout the nation responded by dropping most of their “classical” curriculum and substituting massive doses of math and science. If the western world was to remain free, it needed an army of technocrats. By contrast, before the Cold War had heated up, elementary and high school teachers sought to produce literate and historically aware citizens. There was much more emphasis on ancient literature and history, especially that from the Roman Empire and Classical Greece. By the mid 60s, you could graduate from high school knowing almost nothing about Socraties and the Illiad and the great Emperors (but you knew what a differential equation was and how nuclear fission worked).

Still, one remnant of classical schooling remained — in gym class. As with the Greeks and Romans, it was seen to be important to develop the bodies and character of youth through physical activity, especially for the boys (sexism intended – this was the mid 60s, remember). One of the great character-building games from those days was called “Bombardment“. It was a rather easy game to manage for the phys. ed. instructor, and thus was quite popular. You simply divided the boys up into two groups, told one group to stand on one side of the gymnasium, put the other on the opposite end, handed out some volleyballs, and told the kids to start throwing the balls at each other. Well, not quite as a free-for-all; you had to throw the ball at the opposite team. If you hit someone, they left the game. If a kid on the other team caught your throw, you were out. The objective was to see who would be the last kid standing. Shades of the Roman Gladiators.

Third or fourth graders really couldn’t do too much harm to each other that way, but by seventh and eighth grade those balls would zoom across the gym and could really pack a wallop. Weak kids like me usually stayed way in the back and let the bigger, more aggressive kids have all the fun. Unfortunately, such a strategy would just about always come back to haunt us. After 10 minutes or so, most of the big guys were “out”, and you had no one to hide behind. Unfortunately, there were usually one or two kids with railgun arms left on the other side, and you were now their sole target. Just to make their victory complete, they were going to try to nail you with the fastest throws they could muster. As with the Romans, there was no surrender. You had to fight to the end, even though your own throws were futile (the guys on the other side would intentionally fail to catch your soft tosses so as not to be deprived of the glory of watching the ball bounce off your shoulder or maybe your head at high speed and ricochet off into the bleachers while you stagger from the blow).

I finally got smart and found ways to get out of the game early. Instead of cowering by the mats way in the back of the gym, I’d run up front and pretend to try to catch a high-speed missile, in reality just letting it slap the palm of my hand. Hey, good enough, I’m out – that’s the rules. Sometimes the true gladiator-types would razz me for doing this, but hey, too bad. If you learn one thing from bombardment, it’s that it’s all about survival. Standing on the sidelines watching the remainder of the game was a rather pleasant means of survival for me.

I suppose that they don’t play bombardment anymore in school gym class; I’m sure there were some lawsuits about it. Kids these days can still develop their aggressive spirit in other ways, e.g. by playing video games, or by studying politics and business. But for us more pacific types, perhaps bombardment afforded a valuable lesson in how to survive in a world such as the Romans knew and that America inherited, i.e. a world of nominal concern for rules and laws but ultimate fealty to fighting and aggression. Yes, looking back, maybe there was some value to such a crude sport after all (other than giving the phys ed coach a rest).

Oh, by the way, here’s an address for an article saved from the Washington Post about it. It reminds me that bombardment had an official name: dodge ball.

http://www.drwoolard.com/peinnews/painful_playground.htm

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:03 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, December 25, 2003
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Ah yes, Christmas. Being brought up in the Christian – Catholic tradition, I’m quite familiar with the mythology behind the great Christian solstace festival. At bottom, it’s all about birth and death. The two great mysteries. Why the heck were we put here, and why the heck are we gonna die?

A lot of children ask their parents those questions. There aren’t really any good answers available. But the religions use their myths to provide beautiful answers, answers that at least make you feel good listening to them even thought they’re not really answers.

But let me digress from the abstract to the real for a moment. I spent the afternoon at my mother’s house today, had a Christmas dinner and then exchanged gifts. My mom is now in her early 80s, which for my family is equivalent to 100 or so (I know, for some families, you can still play racquetball if not lacrosse in your early 80s — but we don’t quite have those genetics). Every year she’s a little bit less with us, and this year it was quite noticable. A very bittersweet situation.

On my drive home in the dark, thinking about my mom, thinking about people my age who have bit the dust, my mind drifted back to the unanswerable childhood question: why do we have to die? I can’t quite deal with the real aspect of that question right now, so let me wander back over to the abstract side. The Zen masters think up all sorts of fancy koans as mental exercises to help their inner development, but that simple question has all of them beat; it’s the ultimate spiritual show-stopper. As convoluted as Christian mythology can be, it probably places more emphasis on death as a pivot point for spiritual growth than any of the other major religions.

So, even though I did not go into a church today to celebrate the birth of Christ as the savior from death, I tip my hat tonight to a faith system that brings its followers close to the dark voids of death while in search of ultimate life. If and when a better type of religion evolves upon this earth, it will need to recognize and utilize many of Christianity’s symbols and stories in its quest to advance the faithful in their search for a truer kind of God and a kinder and gentler form of life (even if it doesn’t teach those stories as infallible and inflexible truth — the ultimate pitfall of Christianity and most other major religions).

Well, I have a nasty cold, so I’m going to bed early. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:39 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, December 20, 2003
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GO BEAGLE: As you space-heads all know, there are a bunch of spacecraft on their way to Mars at the moment. Unfortunately, we Earthlings haven’t had much luck so far in sending stuff out to study the red planet. Two-thirds of all our Martian probes have either crashed or fizzled out or gone astray. Hopefully the current batch will do a bit better.

There was good news the other day when the Eurospace ship, the Mars Express, successfully shot off its landing component known as the Beagle 2. If somehow the two ships can evade the Martian jinx, the Mars Express will go into orbit and the Beagle will land on the surface of Mars on Christmas Day. If the thing still works at that point, it will study the Martian soil for signs of life — germs, really, not footprints of huge alien creatures.

I’m rooting for the “Beagle”. It was built and paid for by the British, and was thus named after the ship that Charles Darwin used to explore the various forms of life on the Pacific Islands. (Nonetheless, it’s still a cute name that makes you think of Snoopy in space). The British could really use a lift these days. It mustn’t be easy to be a formerly great empire. But then again, they have plenty of company nearby — Greece, Rome and Russia come to mind. Who knows, maybe someday the USA is going to be a second-rate nation and some other lands are going to set the world’s agenda — China, India, Brazil? Then we too are going to have to get used to being ignored and pushed around while we maintain our royal pretensions.

The Brits were once natural conquerors, but the 20th Century was rather cruel to them (some of people they conquered would say it was a just dessert). But if their “Beagle” can make it to Mars, maybe they can get their conquering spirit back and direct it towards the heavens. Wouldn’t that be great if all of the world’s people could somehow lose their interest in killing each other and re-direct their energies toward conquering the voids of outer space. Well, call me a techno-idealist; I suppose it ain’t gonna happen any time soon. But if the Beagle 2 somehow makes it on Christmas day (appropriately enough), perhaps it will be one more small step for men (and women), and one more giant leap for (hu)mankind.

WINTER SOLSTACE KOAN: I don’t really know any Zen koans, but I’ve heard that they are used as an exercise in taming the monkey mind. I may have thought one up at dinner tonite. It’s about death — something that you naturally think about at this time of year, when days are short and the winds are cold. My koan goes something like this: If everything must die, then death will someday be no more. You might object in that death is not a “thing” but a process or a principal. But then again, all processes die off and principals have their lifespans too. But what would it mean if death were somehow to be swallowed up by its own presumption? I’m not at all sure. Would it affirm the Christian myth, or would it just lead to some totally absolute Zen form of ultra-nothingness? Or some other possibility? Well, that’s the fun of a koan. You can chase the idea around all night long and never nail it down. At some point you just say “aw, hell”. And maybe then you’re one step closer to the “Mu” of the great Zenmasters!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:01 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
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I just read an article in the NY Times about Viagra’s appeal to younger men. It turns out that a lot of guys well under 50 are now popping the blue pill or its equivalent before a date. Most of these gentlemen never had any problem getting the motor revved up, so to speak. (Sorry, I could say “erectile dysfunction” here, but that ain’t much better than the usual lame euphamism). But it turns out that there’s a weapons race going on out there. Based on the standards set by “Sex in the City” (which admittedly I’ve never watched), young professional women are coming on strong in bed and are expecting marathon performances by their lovers. So as to remain competitive (and let’s face it, sexuality amidst young folk is mostly a raw competitive game, as it is with baboons and tigers), a lot of guys are turning to drugs. The doctors and pharmaceutical manufacturers aren’t complaining one bit; good for business, obviously.

The article cites a 40 year old male lawyer dating an aggressive female lawyer (you don’t see many unaggressive female lawyers) who told him on the third or fourth date that she couldn’t judge a man without first having sex with him. Obviously the guy had to get his drug fix before their next meeting.

Had I been on that date, I would have told her to judge not, that you might not be judged. Obviously I wouldn’t “get lucky” (another lame euphamism) with her anytime soon. The guy in question took his pill and supposedly got rave reviews from his new flame. She was on the phone telling all to her friends within an hour after the gymnastics concluded.

Arg. It sounds like the mating game has become a rough, competitive contact sport. Professional women have earned their sexual equality, but only by co-opting male aggressiveness (and taking it a few steps lower, in my opinion). And the media and the chemical industry are fully cooperating, and not incidently making much money in the process.

This does not seem to be a good time for civility amidst the sexes, for gentileness, for caring, for communicating, for understanding. To me, Viagra is just another sign of the decline of civilization and the coming on of a new dark age. The Roman Empire certainly would have loved that stuff. Like us, the Romans tasted of ideas and culture and commerce and reaped their enormous benefits. For a while they more-or-less kept their virtue, which helped them turn the envious barbarians away. But eventually they got spoiled by their riches and became barbarians themselves. Unfortunately, rich barbarians don’t play the game as well as poor barbarians do.

Here in 21st Century America, we are very rich (compared to the rest of the world), but in a thousand little ways we are becoming more and more barbaric. And at the same time we are seeing more examples of poor and angry barbarians ready to attack us. So far we are holding them off with our high-tech defenses. The Roman Empire didn’t go down right away either — wonder if they had a Department of Homeland Security? The ultimate question, however, is whether history will eventually repeat itself. Will the relentless poor barbarians of today have the same success (if you can call it that) as the Vandals and Visgoths and Franks and Lombards?

Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. Enjoy your Viagra, young Manhattanites. There are probably some pharmacies down near the World Trade Center site where you can pick it up after work.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:25 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, December 14, 2003
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The Panhandler Paradox. Panhandlers are a bit of a paradox for a suburban liberal roaming around in the big city. On the one hand, a bit of personal charity is a good thing. On the other, maybe the conservatives have a grain of truth when they say that too much kindness encourages sloth and abuse. Cruel to be kind, then, as they’ll mostly likely use your handout for drugs or alcohol. And yes, after a while panhandlers are a pain in the neck. In some sections of Manhattan, you can hardly walk a block without a shake-down or two. Compassion fatigue sets in rather quickly. Once in a while, they seem truly dangerous.

My comment, as one who has been panhandled quite frequently, is that panhandling is a variable situation and no one rule applies to all situations. You’ve just got to play it by ear. I’ve had some really beat looking men and women come up to me and ask for a dollar, and I’ve gladly given it to them. Often they give you something in return, perhaps a hearty “hey buddy, God bless”. On the opposite extreme is the young guy who seems perfectly healthy and capable, and he confronts you curtly in a somewhat threatening manner. If I give him something, and I usually do, it’s more out of fear than sympathy.

And then there are thousands of variations in between. There are young guys who mumble something about being hungry — doubtful, perhaps, but at least they’re trying to play the sympathy angle and not just assuming that you owe them. Then there are the con men, the guys who come on with a big greeting, talk to you a bit, want to know if they can help you with something. And you know it’s gonna take some green to get rid of them without things getting ugly.

Then there are the stupid ones, e.g., the lone young guy or woman who goes around asking for money on a crowded subway car or train station platform. Such a panhandler doesn’t quite read the psychology of the situation. Unless they’re posing an immediate threat (e.g., two or three of them and you’re alone on one end of a nearly empty subway car, the Bernie Getz scenario), a sudden sense of crowd loyalty develops. E.g, everyone in the crowd silently agrees that we’ve got this one outnumbered, so just keep saying no to him and he’ll go away. In such cases, reaching into your pocket and giving out something would be an act of disloyalty to the crowd; you might easily get some disapproving looks from your fellow riders. I’ve been on New York Subways where even disheveled women holding wrapped-up babies have received the crowd veto when asking for sympathy and change. New York subway riders are a tough bunch.

Many years ago, back in the mid-80s, I was standing outside of Union Station in Washington DC waiting for a friend to pick me up after a train ride from Jersey. A middle aged women asked me for money for diapers or something, so I gave her a quarter or two. She then walked off, but didn’t go too far. My friend was delayed by something or other, so I had the chance to observe this woman at work. She was definitely picking out her customers; she let several people pass by before approaching a target. (Thus I found out that I’m the type that panhandlers look for). I watched her make about 10 approaches over a 15 minute period, and about 50% of them were successful. I saw some dollar bills and some quarters, so I’d guess her average take was about 65 cents. She thus gained about $3.25 after a quarter hour. If she kept that pace up, she’d be making $13 an hour. Of course, she probably couldn’t maintain that pace. She’d have to stop for coffee and the bathroom now and then, and would have to change spots to avoid the police. Still, you might guess that she was making about $7 an hour overall. It doesn’t sound like much, but remember that this was tax-free. Was this a living wage? Well, combined with some other benefits (e.g. AFDC, Food Stamps, or even cheap-o city welfare), it would probably keep a person alive.

Bottom line is, sometimes I give something and sometimes I don’t. I remember when I was commuting to Manhattan, I’d often pass an old guy who panhandled from the same spot on 31st Street. He wasn’t aggressive; all he did was stand against the wall and call out in a grizzly voice, “spare a little change and your luck just might change”. About every 20 seconds. And actually, I liked his angle. Once in a blue moon I stopped to give him something. He graciously received any and all contributions, offering his personal thanks. I fondly remember him.

Yes, I am in favor of the police enforcing the panhandling laws. But only up to a point. As with all law enforcement, there is a question of balance. There are many people with real hard luck stories out there on the streets, and those of us who have been blessed with more fortunate economic circumstances probably benefit by coming face to face with them on occasion. Thus I usually keep a folded dollar in my pocket when in the city, ready to go at all times. I call it the alms dollar. I look at it as money already spent, money that doesn’t belong to me. But don’t polish my halo quite yet. This also serves my own self-defense purposes — I don’t want to be fumbling around with my wallet out on the street when confronted by a stranger. As with the panhandlers, my own life and motives are definitely a mixed bag.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:22 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, December 11, 2003
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I have an extremely annotated version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at home. It’s one of those books that I keep on a table and glance at now and then. In the midst of my occasional glancing I’m starting to see why that book was such a classic. In addition to describing the intricate doings of the Mediterranean world some 18 centuries ago, Gibbons interlaces the boring details with great insights about TWIG (The World In General). Here’s a quote that is very troubling to an eternal student like myself, but is nevertheless valuable as a reality fix:

the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

Yea, natural learners just learn; their teachers pretty much just go along for the ride. For everyone else, learning is a huge, distasteful struggle. Been like that since the days of the Roman Empire, probably well before. Yea, I guess that we eternal students are a fragile minority. It’s too bad. Hey world, you don’t know what you’re missing.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:11 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, December 7, 2003
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

Back when I was a young guy, I wanted to change the world. For the better — really. I wanted to live in a world that one could be proud of. Or at least a world moving in that direction.

So what did I do about this desire? Well, it’s a long story. Let’s just say that although I’m not exactly the next Mother Jones or Mother Teresa, I did get involved in some things here and there that seemed to be headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, they didn’t always turn out to really be headed in the right direction.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder what I could say to a young person who might also feel the desire to change the world and wants to make a difference? About the only thing that comes to mind is  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:26 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, December 5, 2003
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It’s December, a time when afternoons are short and evenings come on quickly, when nights are long and breezes blow in from the Arctic, when Main Streets and malls are decorated with glitter and twinkly lights, people are full of holiday cheer, and thoughts turn to — United Parcel Service. Why UPS, you ask? Well, UPS is very busy at this time of year delivering holiday gifts and things, and it hires lots of temporary employees. And I was one of them. In late 1975, while looking for a job after graduating college, I took an interview with the engineering department of UPS. They said they liked my academic credentials, but at UPS you need more than credentials. You first have to prove that you could cut it out there in the mean streets with an overloaded brown parcel truck. So they got me a job as a temporary driver for the holiday season. If I “made standard”, i.e. if I delivered enough packages per hour, they’d consider taking me on in management. I didn’t have any better offers at the time, so I signed up and put on the brown uniform.

This isn’t one of those stories with a happy ending (sorry, I don’t have too many of those). I was let go the day after Christmas. Didn’t “make standard”, thus no management job, back to unemployment. I just wasn’t cut out for package delivery. Not that I goofed off. But I just couldn’t remember the street layout in my assigned sector. Thus I spent too much time zig-zagging back and forth to get my loads delivered. I often came back in the evening with packages that I never got to. That isn’t looked at very favorably at UPS.

Still, it was a memorable 5 weeks in my life. And hey, that’s saying something. So much of life these days is just not memorable. Much time goes by without anything memorable happening, especially in your middle years. Or in my middle years, anyway. But I still remember my UPS days, the retail stores along Raritan Avenue, the factories along the Penn Central tracks, the Hispanic guy with the heavy accent who would say either “heavy” or “not heavy” before handing me a package (and once in a while he’d watch me brace when he said “heavy”, then handed me a flyweight package, followed up with a grin). And the Jewish guy who couldn’t sign for a package, so I scribbled something for him (with his permission). And the time I left behind my delivery log in some factory, but was able to recover it (and thus avoided getting fired immediately). And the night before Thanksgiving when I had to deliver melting turkeys to some really forsaken houses out in the middle of nowhere. Or the Catholic group home with the big old crates of Coca Cola bottles outside. Or the time the police stopped me when I was assigned a rented van (UPS used to rent extra vans during the Christmas rush). Or the lady who gave me a bag of pecans, or the other lady who gave me some hand lotion (it was usually the less affluent people who would give you a tip; the folk on the richer streets seldom even had a nice word for you). Or the candy factory. Or Jesse, the guy who was the shipping clerk at one of my warehouses, who I usually saw in the morning and sometimes again in the evening while delivering a package to his house. Yea, it still brings back smiles.

I will say one thing about being a UPS driver. It was truly a lesson in sociology and community dynamics. You can play Sim City (I still have the 2000 version) or take a class on urban planning, and you still won’t get the feel for a community that you get as a package delivery person. With UPS, you visit the rich ends of town, the poor side, the police stations, the schools, the stores, the gas stations, the hospitals, the offices — you encounter people in just about every walk of life, busy walking the walk that makes their town buzz. You see all the crazy little parts of human activity that come together in a community. You appreciate the complexity and diversity and interdependence of our species a bit more. It is certainly more interesting than an ant farm or a bee colony or connected prairie dog mounds — but somewhat like them in a way.

Well, there was sort of a happy ending. About five days after I was booted by UPS, I got a call from the federal government about a job. A month later I was on my way to Washington to start my career as a bureaucrat. I started writing reports and pushing forms around, and to this day I still do stuff like that. One could say that I’ve been stuck all my life in an office with no idea of what the real world is about. But actually I did get a close-up look at the real world. Perhaps I couldn’t live up to UPS’s productivity standard because my mind was too busy absorbing the goings on of a village called Highland Park, New Jersey, watching it prepare for a solstice holiday ritual. So, there’s nothing for me to feel all that bad about; but I do hope that all of those packages I never got around to delivering finally made their way to their intended receivers!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:23 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, November 30, 2003
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MUSICA: I’m old enough to remember the days when “rock and roll” was quite broadly defined, encompassing everything from Van Morrison to Van Halen. You could go back and forth between the different rock stations in your neighborhood and they’d all be playing pretty much the same mix, although it was a broad mix ranging from pre-disco to early metal, even James Taylor ballads. You could go to Boston or Atlanta or Omaha or Sacramento and you’d hear pretty much the same stuff. The world was a familiar place. You could even memorize the names of band members (Kiss was the last one that I did that for).

Today, the world of rock radio is much more fragmented and quickly changine. One station’s mix has very little to do with another’s. You get used to the bands on your favorite station, and then you find out that the other channels are playing totally different artists (and come back in three weeks and your favorite station will be doing the same). Forget about leaving the area. Admittedly, there is still some common ground. Aerosmith, ACDC, Bush, Creed, Eddie Vetter, Nickelback, Metallica (unfortunately), and maybe Godsmack seem to have served as national standards within recent memory. But Stain, Saliva, Buck Cherry, Puddle of Mud, the Hives, Stone Sour and Theory of a Dead Man may not be. I often read something in the Times entertainment section about some band that’s supposed to be the hot ticket in rock, and I’ve never heard of them (and never will). Or maybe I’ve heard of them but never heard their music on the airwaves, e.g. Nine Inch Nails.

And of course there’s all sorts of rock classifications these days, e.g. classic rock, metal, indie, alternative, industrial, etc., with radio stations specializing in one or two of them. Early on, back around 1988, the softer stuff like James Taylor and Eric Clapton and Sting and even U2 got kicked off the rock stations and into the “easy listening / adult contemporary” slot (guess that’s where Dave Matthews went too). Next, classic rock split off into its own specialty. So as a result of this process, most stations today have a very narrow focus, even if they play music from thousands of different bands. In a way, this is all very good; there’s now a lot of variety out there. But in a way it’s bad; not much that we can all agree on anymore.

Strangely enough, there’s sort of a counter-effect going on in the nostalgia arena. There are more and more stations specializing on “the 80s”, especially on the net (Club 977 is a good example — quite good in fact). These stations seem to have healed the breaches that developed back in the 80s between disco-dance and rock and pop-schlock (and new wave, whatever that was). On these 80s nostalgia stations, you now hear Donna Summers and Asia and the Pet Shop Boys and the Fixx and Duran Duran and the Go-Gos and Sammy Hagar and the Subdudes existing quite peaceably, just as the lion and the lamb in the Psalm. Time heals all wounds, I guess.

Lately I’ve been hearing a catchy little ditty called “Bad Day” from REM on the airwaves. REM – one of the last bands I saw in concert, before I got too old. So you know they go back. Actually, they were once considered the cutting edge of the “New Wave”. Now, like every old band, they spend their time putting out “Best Of” collections. But of course, they release a new song or two on them. Which is where “Bad Day” comes from. I like the song, but only yesterday did I figure out why. It’s pretty much a remake of “End of the World” (End of the World Part II, perhaps). It has the same mix of witty, cynical words being chanted by Michael Stipes as a fast-paced background melody whizzes by, with an occasional refrain to hold it together.

So what the heck. When I was a teenager, bands from two decades ago were considered museum pieces. We didn’t have time for Elvis. It’s nice to know that kids today still lend an ear to Alice Cooper and Bon Jovi. Yes, my generation is too old to rock and roll but too young to die, as Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull once sang. Who’s Ian Anderson and what is Jethro Tull? OK, well admittedly it didn’t all carry over to the present.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:19 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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