The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Saturday, March 29, 2003
Art & Entertainment ... Society ...

I read that Jackson Browne has been speaking out against the war lately. Hey, good to hear that Jackson is still out there, holding on and holding out. Wow, Jackson Browne was once my favorite singing artist. Jackson seemed like the man for all seasons; he could rock when he felt the urge, he could get a pop hit going when he needed the money, he could push the social conscience button without turning everyone off, and he could croon the pathos and bathos of lost love and days gone by. Yea, Jackson Browne was about as intense a popular musician as you could get back in the 70s and 80s. He was truly an INFJ’s singer and songwriter.

I only saw Jackson Browne once, back in 1978 when he made an appearance at a free and very-unplugged concert on the Mall in D.C at a pro-ecology event (I think they called it “Sun Day”). He had his young son with him (recall that Browne’s first wife died soon after the son was born and that Browne committed himself to being a good father, taking his son along with him on his tours, avoiding the usual rock star debauchery in order to be a good parent). The Jackson Browne myth, i.e. of a rock star with substance, appeared to have some substance to it.

Then one day I wrote him a letter, using an address for correspondence provided on one of his albums. How naive of me — another one of those lessons in real life. I opened my heart a bit in my letter, telling Mr. Browne how important his lyrics and his music were to me, how they related to my daily life, how they gave me hope. Well, after a few weeks, I got a reply. Reality fix: the letter was not from Jackson Browne himself, but from one of his p.r. people. And the tone of her letter was very Californian — i.e., she tried to be nice, she acknowledged my feelings, but ultimately there was nobody home.

In other words, always remember this: the more famous a person is, the more unreal that person is. What you are seeing, however edifying or appealing, is a carefully crafted image, one fashioned by a group of investors in order to make money. Who or what the person behind that image really is, who knows. One thing, however, is for certain: whoever that person really is, they are definitely too busy to interact in any depth with the great unwashed masses (other than a concert and an occasional autograph on the street). Their time is money. But admittedly, in the case of a Jackson Browne, perhaps they have a valuable message to broadcast to the world as well.

One side-note about the war, one that relates to Jackson Browne in a way: I recently saw one of those “send to everyone you know” e-mails about how smart the President and his advisors are and how dumb the anti-war celebrities are (question: why do so many people feel that their mission in life is to pass along these supposedly interesting e-mail messages on a regular basis to 50 or more of their friends?). The list of dummies included Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, Cher, Sean Penn, Ed Asner, Bono, and Larry Hagman (Larry Hagman!! Is he still around?). Jackson Browne didn’t make the list — probably because of his declining fame more than because of his solid credentials in foreign policy analysis (although Browne wouldn’t seem any more declining than Larry Hagman… ).

Getting back to this “patriotic” e-mail, and to some other things I’ve seen in the news recently and have overheard at work, it seems as though we are going back to the divisive postures that were last seen during the Vietnam war. I.e., both the protestors and the pro-war people are getting vehement; they are starting to take each other personally. That’s too bad. I hope that the anti-war people will try to make it clear that they aren’t trying to insult veterans, they aren’t trying to force people to become vegetarians or give up their SUVs (or listen to Jackson Browne music), and they aren’t condemning America or trying to make Saddam Hussein look like a hero. By the same token, I hope that the pro-war people will realize that protest and dissent is as American as apple pie. Our system works because we air our disagreements. Were we to adopt the viewpoint implied by that seemingly patriotic e-mail, i.e. that we should all silently support our leaders and assume they always know better than we do, than this just wouldn’t be America — it would be more like Iraq!

(And as to the notion that people with the highest levels of academic and career experience in politics and foreign policy analysis should be trusted to always make the right choices for our nation, let’s go back to the Vietnam days and pull out the resumes of Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson and General William Westmoreland; how could a dream team like that be wrong about America’s ability to achieve its objectives in Vietnam? And yet they were.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:54 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, March 25, 2003
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I’m not an historian by profession, nor do my hobby interests in world history run very deep. However, the current US-Iraqi war has inspired me with an historical question: what are the parallels, if any, with the Crusades of the Middle Ages? Is there any common ground between George W. Bush in 2003 and Pope Urban II in 1050-whatever?

I myself think there are some broad parallels, even some relevant ones. In both instances, the most powerful men of the Western world seek to impose a change in government in some highly strategic territory east of the Mediterranean. In the eleventh century, the Turks were threatening western access to the spiritual resources of the Holy Land. One millennium later, a blood-thirsty Mesopotamian despot threatens American access to the economic resources of the oil fields. In both instances, there were deep underlying differences in religious and philosophical outlooks, focusing around the ways of Islam (admittedly, Saddam Hussein is not recognized as a devout Muslim, but you can’t deny that Islam has something to do with the current situation). In both instances, the western leader decided to fight force with force, not for national survival but in the name of a belief.

Hmm. Unless you are a true pacifist (which I admire, even if I don’t have the guts to be one), you must admit that force sometimes has to be answered with force. But the most robust and legitimate cause for the use of responsive force is self-preservation. Unless you’re a pacifist, it’s hard to argue with that. But when higher level ideologies become involved, or when the issue focuses upon economic benefit, the waters become murkier. Was Urban the Second justified in using force projection in order to re-establish Christianity within the Middle East? And is President Bush today justified in using American military might without world support in order to encourage representative government and free-market capitalism in that region?

Admittedly, it will be a better world without Saddam Hussein in power. But the medicine that Mr. Bush has administered seems almost as bad as the disease, given its rending of multilateral security relationships and institutions built up over the past 50 years. And perhaps the ideals of democracy, human liberty and economic freedom become tarnished when enforced too vigorously at the point of a gun. Let me ask this, quite rhetorically: just how successful in the end were the Crusades in promoting within the Levant a system of spiritual thought that had originated there? And can our current military ventures be any more successful in transplanting a system of philosophical and economic thought that is more remote in origin?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:17 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, March 20, 2003
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Here’s something on the lighter side, with a side-order of sociology and relevance. At work, I sit near a couple of women who don’t have enough to do. They spend most of the day sharing the details of their middle-aged suburban lives with anyone within earshot, somewhat like bloggers without an Internet connection.

Today, one of them was describing the perils of her live-in boyfriend, who sustained a nasty cut to the head after a slip in the bathroom yesterday morning. He went to work but started bleeding profusely at dinner, so they shared a harrowing evening in the local emergency room. After being patched up and released from the hospital, my office mate drove her man home, grilling him along the way. “Why didn’t you get help earlier”, she asked. His reply: “No one wants to hear about my problems.” To which she rejoined: “Oh, shut up!”

OK, let me make it clear where I’m coming from here. I’m a guy and I understand what the wounded housemate was saying. I found his girlfriend’s reply to be mildly ironic and unintentionally humorous, of the “you can’t make this stuff up” genre. However, many of you female types out there probably understand and sympathize with the woman here. OK, that’s cool. But let’s drop back for a quick lesson in how men are socialized, and thus why we do stuff like that.

As children, boys are taught (in hundreds of little ways) that being tough and stoic is good. It’s one of those sociological things that you usually don’t notice until someone points it out. As you might have learned in Sociology 101, most sociological things have a reason behind them, and it doesn’t take a look much farther than the current headlines to figure out the reason for a man’s reticence in sharing his emotions. Obviously, since time immemorial, human society has seen the need for boys to prepare for war. And going to war requires that the biggest emotional crisis, i.e. the urge for self-preservation, be put on hold.

So, women of the world, next time you feel perplexed about your man’s emotional dryness, take a look at the evening news. You’ll see rather quickly why society brought him up to be that way. Regrettably, war is still a huge part of our daily lives.

P.S. Back around Christmas, a bunch of the ladies at work were marveling at a candle holder with a sound chip in it that played a jazzy, sultry saxiphone version of “Oh Danny Boy”. They were joking amidst themselves about the romantic moods that could be cast with this unique little gift. I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, wondering if I were the only one to appreciate the irony that “Danny Boy” is a father’s lament at sending his son off to war.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:14 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, March 17, 2003
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ON THE EVE OF WAR: The thing about living in the United States is, sooner or later you start to believe all the superlatives about it, and you set a high standard of expectation regarding how it conducts its affairs. Sure, no nation in the world lives up to such lofty standards. But nonetheless, it’s still a disappointment when the good old U.S. of A. also fails to do so.

That pretty much sums up my feelings tonight about the upcoming invasion of Iraq. Sure, Saddam Hussein is a major bad guy who has killed many people and has violated all kinds of human rights. And yes, left to his own devices, he would continue to do a lot of harm. In an interdependent world such as we live in today, you can’t ignore such a man and hope he will go away. President Clinton probably ignored Iraq a bit too much; Clinton pretty much looked the other way when Iraq decided to terminate the UN inspection program. I’ll give George W. ultimate credit for giving the world a reality fix. Had we continued to ignore Saddam, he would have had some more nasty surprises up his sleeve for us.

But how you stop a nasty man of power also counts for something. Saddam Hussein is not simply a local phenomenon. What we do with Iraq and how we do it will influence our relations with all of the Islamic world. Iraq is an international problem, and requires an international solution. But international diplomacy is not one of President Bush’s strong points. (As the New York Times said in its March 18 editorial, “this war crowns a period of terrible diplomatic failure, Washington’s worst in at least a generation”.)

Gulf War II puts the US in a “might makes right” position. Instead of nurturing respect for our ideas about freedom and human rights and economic liberty, George W. Bush is now demanding world-wide respect at the point of a gun. I.e., we’re bigger and stronger than anyone else, so we’re gonna handle the situation our way.

Well, if this war works in the short run, it will work in the longer run. If the upcoming war in Iraq is over quickly, if there are no terrorist incidents at home, if oil prices calm down, if the federal deficit isn’t too badly inflated by the cost of the war, and more significantly, if Iraq can be put back together into a stable, self-governing nation, then the world will go along with us, however grudgingly. Nothing succeeds like success.

That’s what Mr. Bush seems to be betting on tonight. Perhaps for now, it’s a reasonable bet. But in the long run, might is a fickle thing. Sure, the world is not a place where liberty and human idealism run the show — not anytime soon, not in a world of such harshness, inequality and misunderstanding. But you’d hope that we could at least move towards a paradigm of shared economic interest. War isn’t a good way of promoting business, and thus should not become a preferred foreign policy option. It’s sad that such a business-savvy President like George W. Bush doesn’t seem to appreciate that. And let’s not even get into Mr. Bush’s admiration for the words and acts of Jesus.

As an eternal student with a conscience, I’d prefer to “study war no more”. But that doesn’t seem possible tonight. I just hope that the world will somehow learn, sooner or later, that lone-wolf warfare — and warfare in general — is not the preferred method to settle its problems.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:22 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, March 15, 2003
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BLOG FAITH: I was thinking the other day about atheists and believers. At first, they seem as different as night and day. And yet, the most intense atheists and the most intense believers might have more in common than one would think. The path between them could be called the Bridge of Discomfort. Very often, believers who take their faith seriously go through deep periods of doubt and discomfort about God. And all but the most simple-minded atheists are uncomfortable too. Uncomfortable, certainly, with the notions of God as commonly expressed in our churches, but with the idea of an absolute nothingness also. Arguably, both groups are tending towards the grey zone of agnosticism, admitting that we just don’t know. But agnosticism is a cop out. Of course we don’t know; God isn’t a science. Perhaps the best thing to say is that we are uncomfortable. From discomfort comes response, from response comes movement, and from movement comes journey.

Personally, I’m looking for a church of the uncomfortable. I’d much rather hang out with an uncomfortable atheist than a comfortable Christian (or Jew or Moslem or Hindu or whatever). But personally, once again, I still find grounds for faith. Even if those grounds are not always very comfortable in this world of pain and trouble.

SIDENOTE: I recently looked at Everclear’s web site ( after hearing a catchy little tune that they recently put out, “Volvo Driving Soccer Mom“. At present, the site has a really neat video-like splash page showing the band in concert with the words to ‘Volvo Mom’ rolling across the screen. (For you non-rock and roll fans, ‘Volvo Mom’ is a young man’s lament that female porno film stars eventually turn into suburban soccer moms. I think this is a part of the current male trend towards neo-chauvinistic parody, exemplified by the Man Show on Comedy Central. Hey, I don’t have cable, I just read about it in the social trends column in Atlantic Monthly).

Anyway, when you get inside Everclear’s site, you see that they offer some MP3 downloads from their concerts. So I recently listened to a song called “Why I Don’t Believe In God“. Hmm, talk about discomfort. Before you even hear the lyrics, you know this wasn’t one of Everclear’s better efforts. Perhaps rock is a good vehicle for neo-male chauvinism (perhaps rock has always been a matter of male chauvinism, e.g. what would a band like the Crue be without it), but it hasn’t done so well with atheism yet. By contrast, on the side of faith, there’s Peter Gabriel’s “Salisbury Hill” and maybe Rod Stewart’s cover of “People Get Ready”. I could be wrong on this, being more of a scientist than an artist, but true artistic inspiration seems to live more easily with themes of faith than with non-belief. I can’t think of many great paintings or sculptures inspired by atheistic notions, whereby there are countless works that express at least a yearning for a greater power. I wouldn’t call that clear-cut evidence for the existence of God, but it is something to think about :^| in the midst of one’s discomfort.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:42 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, March 12, 2003
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It seems that Sylvester Stallone is going to make another Rocky movie (this one will be number 6). I remember being caught up in the magic of the first Rocky movie back in 1977. What a great concept: some ordinary slob on the fast track to permanent loser-dom suddenly gets a shot at the highest level of achievement in his field (i.e., Rocky Balboa gets to fight the heavyweight champion). His inner spirit suddenly comes to life, the fires within him burn bright once more, and he surprises everyone by showing that he can indeed fight the best.

I’m now at an age and a point in life where I’ve fallen into the miasma that Rocky Balboa seemed doomed to. Long ago I hoped that my intellectual talents would have allowed me to participate within the inner sanctums of national and international policy formation. OK, so I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale Law School (try Rutgers-Newark) and I only got a 1350 on my SATs. Once upon a time I believed that given the chance, I would respond like Rocky and come to think and act like Washington’s “best and brightest” (while holding on to that same gritty blue-collar charm that Stallone gave to Rocky).

Well, that chance never came. Life ain’t the movies. The people who make it to the top in just about every field, be it politics or academia or policy analysis or sports or music, are extremely good at what they do. And those that don’t make it usually aren’t as good (although they probably have other human virtues that our leaders often fail at, e.g. Bill Clinton and his inability to resist the lure of dizzy young female interns, or pro baseball players who become drunks and junkies). Still, you’ve got to believe that there are plenty of people out there who “could have been a contender” in their chosen field, had they been given the chance and the inspiration. Back in 1977, there were plenty of “Baby Boomers” like me who watched Rocky I and felt a thrill, a sense of hope that something like that could happen to us. Watching Rocky VI in 2003, we’ll feel the pang of melancholy in knowning that it probably won’t.

But then again, you never know. Hope springs eternal in the hearts of men (and women). I may not be packing my bags for Washington anytime soon, but there may yet come a chance to do some good and have some fun doing it. Maybe this blog has something to do with that. The best of both worlds could yet have its day.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:41 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, March 8, 2003
Personal Reflections ... Philosophy ...

Last September, I came across an old paperback copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, and started combing through it again after 20 years. While following Pirsig once more across the badlands and into the Rockies on his motorcycle journey to the West Coast, I realized that Pirsig was the quintessential “eternal student”, a man who seemed interested in learning more about everything. Of course, Zen and the Art didn’t become a best seller simply by telling of the unquenchable intellectual curiosity of a middle-aged guy from Minnesota. Pirsig put his motorcycle trip and his life story into a higher philosophical context with his mystical search for the meaning of “quality”.

It stuck me that Pirsig is truly an American original; nothing like him has come down the literary pike since the publication of Zen and the Art back in the late 70s. He managed to tie together science, the history of civilization, computers, academia, critical thought, philosophy, eastern spirituality, and Americana all within one nice little story, via a series of “chautauquas” or mini-lectures. He put it into a human context by including his neighbors and his son on the journey, and by visiting some of the places and people of his past along the way. Pirsig at first sounds like the prototype for the 21st century human, the technologist and philosopher with a heart.

After my re-read of Zen and the Art, I wanted to find out just what became of Pirsig  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:10 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, March 6, 2003
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I’ve just started reading “Disarmed and Dangerous”, a book about the Berrigan brothers. On first glance, the Berrigans seem so 60’s, so idealistic, so far out removed from the realities of daily life today in America. But then I read about the guy who got arrested the other day in a mall near Albany, NY for wearing a T-shirt (which he bought right there in the mall) saying “Give Peace A Chance”. Supposedly he wasn’t causing a disturbance; he was in the food court having a meal with his son. Security came over and told him to remove the shirt or get off the property. Being a lawyer, he said no to both. So he got arrested for trespassing, just like Daniel and Phillip Berrigan used to do as part of their anti-war protests.

I want to thank that guy for making a stand. I myself am not much on brave gestures like that, and I generally disfavor unlawful or even uncooperative activity of any sort. But the pendulum here in America has swung too far towards gestapo mentality these days. The Berrigans clearly didn’t have a legal defense in most of their protests, they were in it purely for the moral gesture. But in the mall incident, hopefully a judge will rule that a place of business can no more discriminate against a non-obtrusive, non-threatening expression of political opinion on the part of one of its customers under our civil rights laws than it can on grounds of race or sex or religious affiliation (ah, yes, the First Amendment and the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution). But if it can, well, you can always boycott the place. It’s called the Crossgates Mall, in case you live near there.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:54 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, March 4, 2003
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I’ve been reading the Koran a bit lately. Yes indeed, the holy book of Islam has all sorts of nasty stuff regarding women and violence, and it makes some negative comments about Jews and Christians. But most of the Koran consists of an exortation to faith, with rewards promised for fidelity and warnings of personal punishment for transgression. Towards the end of the Koran there are some personal stories, but most of it is a direct sales pitch for belief and personal righteousness. There’s also some ancient social regulation stuff in it similar to Mosaic Law in the Torah, e.g. don’t eat this, make sure that you clean yourself if you do that, etc. And here and there are some higher-level philosophic thoughts, even beautiful prayers. So, like the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian New Testament, the Koran is a mixed bag. You can make of it what you will.

I just read an obscure passage in the OT Book of Nahum, i.e “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful, the Lord takes vengenance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies”. And then there are the “imprecatory petitions” in the Psalms, e.g. “Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call your name… let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known amoung the nations before our eyes” (Psalm 79), or “awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil” (Psalm 59). And of course, women don’t do so well in certain parts of the Bible. So, the Judeo-Christian portrait of God isn’t always an enlightened, ‘turn the other cheek’ affair either. I could imagine a Jewish rabbi reading Nahum to a group of Israeli soldiers getting ready for an attack on a Palestinian stronghold, or a Christian priest in Bosnia fueling the ethnic hatreds of that torn land with the nasty Psalms.

With regard to criticizing the Koran, I think that Christians should stick to Jesus’ philosophy: i.e., let those who are without sin throw the first stones, and let those who aren’t hold their fire. Perhaps that idea should also apply to sharp words, and to knives, and to guns, and to rifles, and to howitzers, and to M-1 tanks, and to stealth bombers, and to Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, and …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, March 1, 2003
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Tribute to The Ace: I was thinking the other day about what it would take to make me feel that my life was pretty much OK, despite all the apparent failures and let-downs. After a while, I concluded that if you can find your own style and inner-most visions, even if they are not terribly popular, even if they never made you rich or famous or important, you will feel OK about life if you stick with them.

This reminded me of the following quote: “First be true to yourself, then you cannot be untrue to anyone else”. Admittedly, this is a paraphrase of the original Shakespeare line. But you get the idea. The first half of the quote sounds like a typical 1990s free-enterprise slogan, right up there with “the one with the most toys wins”. But the second part puts it into context. This isn’t about greed. It’s about personal authenticity. All of us are unique creatures living in a very socially oriented environment, and we all have to decide to what degree we are going to follow our own inner callings and to what degree we are going to follow the crowd. We can’t just do as each and every one of us would please. But still, if a person decides to base all of her or his major life decisions upon the judgement of others, they lose something very precious, i.e. their authenticity.

I could be wrong about this, but authenticity seems in short supply these days. There seems to be so much pressure, however unspoken, to go along with the crowd. On the surface, there seems to be enormous diversity in opinion, fashion, lifestyle, career tracks, religious belief, etc. here in America. And yet, when you look closer, diversity becomes mostly a function of novelty. Thus, it’s refreshing when you meet someone who over time learns to live life on their own most authentic terms, even if it hurts.

I had an uncle like that. My Uncle Bruno. He died about four years ago, and I helped to clean out his apartment and did the paperwork to settle his estate. It was while I was looking through one of his scrapbooks that I discovered the Shakespeare quote about being true to one’s self. I guess it was something he felt worth remembering, as he wrote it in bold letters on the inside cover page.

Uncle Bruno was a bachelor who grew up as the fourth child in a Polish immigrant family in a cold water flat in Dundee, an industrial section of Passaic, NJ. His parents (my grandparents) worked all their lives in the knitting mills and dyeing factories (with some interruption for layoffs and strikes during the Great Depression). Uncle Bruno was blessed with a good brain and a strong body, and after serving in the Merchant Marines and in the US Navy during WW2 he went to college on the GI Bill, the first member of my family to do so. He graduated with an electrical engineering degree and joined the world of education and cutting-edge technology (for the 50s and 60s, anyway). And he became something of a bon vivant, although a manly one. He used after-shave and smoked Luckys and lit them with a steel Zippo lighter. He drove a Pontiac, and vacationed annually in Florida. His friends called him “the Ace”. He had girlfriends and would hardly let a Friday or Saturday night pass without a visit to a nice restaurant and perhaps a dance club. He lifted weights and read books. Relative to the rest of my family he was on the cutting edge, a true man about town, the most worldly and sophisticated guy we had ever seen.

As kids, we admired Uncle Bruno’s coolness, and yet were a little afraid of him. He wasn’t always amused by our childishness. He would sometimes give us lectures about getting ourselves together, about the opportunities out there in the world for guys who learn a bit of sophistication and polish (Polish polish?). We would sometimes see him with his friends, total strangers to us.

Uncle Bruno was following his inner callings, and at the time they were being amply acknowledged and rewarded by the world. He was well received by everyone, including us kids (even if we had some reservations about him, we were bought off by his thoughtful Christmas gifts and birthday presents). You could tell that down inside, despite the worldliness and air of success, he was a sentimental guy. He still lived at home with his parents, and still went to mass at the same Catholic parish where his mother and father went after coming to the US around 1915 (from the “Oster Reich”, as western Poland was known under German occupation). He seldom missed the various Christmas gatherings and Communion parties and birthday celebrations that brought the family together.

Somewhere just past his mid-point in life, the sands of fortune changed for Uncle Bruno. His parents (my grandparents) got sick and needed a lot of care. Meanwhile, the aerospace firm where he was moving up the ranks had lost most of its defense and space contracts, due to the 1968 election of Richard Nixon (the firm was tied too closely to the Johnson Democrats). So, Uncle Bruno was soon unemployed and living off of his savings, taking care of his weakening parents full-time. The man who was at home ordering up a whiskey sour on a 707 flight to Miami was now a home care attendant, changing soiled undergarments and other such unpleasantries. Uncle Bruno was just not going to let his parents go to a nursing home, despite the 7 or 8 years of continuing sickness and weakness that they went through. His sentimental nature overcome his attractive worldly side, and he paid the price.

Because of Uncle Bruno, my grandparents died at home with a fair amount of dignity. But after it was over, there was no going back to the days of glory. Uncle Bruno was diagnosed with diabetes, and his body never regained its youthful vigor and strength. He got back into the working world thanks to an opening in the State Transportation Department, but it was not on the level of importance and responsibility as before, being mostly testing and technical work (versus engineering design). His days of travel and fashionable socializing were coming to an end. He took up with a woman from a troubled family, and offered himself as a resource and mentor to them, especially to her children and grandchildren. His nurturing side, the side we only glimpsed at when I was a child, became the dominating theme in his life.

Uncle Bruno died at age 72, alone in a cold-water flat just a mile or so from where he grew up. Despite the wide range of social contacts that he once had, only about 12 people attended his funeral on a cold and snowy January morning (yes, at that same church in Passaic). That’s what his life was leading him toward, and that’s where he went without any sign of complaint. When he was young, strong and successful, he had lots of friends. When he was older, weaker and mostly devoted to a small family of ne’er do wells, people that I myself wrote off as a bunch of losers, he didn’t attract all that much interest anymore. I guess that’s the way life goes.

I saw Uncle Bruno around most of my life, and usually knew what he was up to, but was never all that close to him. I can’t say we ever had a heart-to-heart conversation, or even a personal conversation lasting more than a few sentences. I was able to help him with some legal problems in his last few years, and that was nice. But we never really connected. It was only after he died, when I had to go through his apartment and sift through his life’s accumulations, when I really got to know “Uncle Ace”. I saw his pictures, his camera equipment, his books, his records, his hobby stuff (guitars, model trains, electrical stuff, painting sets, etc.), his bills and his memories (he had kept every Christmas and birthday card he received since the early 1960s). I think that my brother and I managed to distribute his small estate (not quite worth $60,000) fairly, as he would have liked. He didn’t write a will, so I guess that he just trusted that we would wrap up his affairs in a neat and orderly fashion, as we mostly did.

Unto thine own self first be true. My uncle clearly stayed true to himself right up to the end. And in doing so, a lot of people were the better for it. Including myself, although ironically it was only after his death when Uncle Bruno got through to me. I remember during the clean-up noticing that Uncle Bruno had kept a traditional Catholic crucifix up above all the rubble in his apartment, high in a corner of the kitchen. I suppose that meant that he gave some regard to Christian notion of life after death. And why not. Perhaps the man who is most true to his real self need not let death get in the way.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:04 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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