The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, April 27, 2003
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SIDEBAR: I was looking at a list of the largest American corporations and what they own these days. It turns out that Philip Morris (now called the Altria Group) owns Tombstone Pizza. Does anyone else find it ironic that a corporation that has promoted tobacco use for the past 150 years or so takes out ads asking “what do you want on your tombstone”? If that weren’t enough, PM/Altria also makes “Life Savers” ….

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:11 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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I read an article the other day saying that the movie Antoine Fisher had inspired a lot of male viewers to cry. I didn’t catch Antoine Fisher in the theater, so I can’t comment directly on that; fact is, I’ve hardly been to the movies at all in the past 6 years. I used to patronize the box office a lot, but after a while the films started blurring together on me. After reading the reviews of Antoine Fisher, however, I regret that I missed it. It sounds as though it would have met my heightened criteria for paying $10 or more for two hours of visual entertainment in a darkened chamber.

Back when I did get out to the flicks a lot, I don’t ever recall being driven to tears. The article on the Fisher film said that Field of Dreams was also considered a “guy cry”. I didn’t know that. It didn’t have that effect on me. (I guess that I’m just not tuned into baseball mysticism). And I suspect that even though Antoine Fisher would have been an edifying experience for me, I would have left the theater dry-eyed.

I’m not saying that as a brag. I don’t consider myself to be a “tough guy”. Actually, I think of myself as a highly sensitive fellow. Maybe even too sensitive and emotionally vulnerable at times. But there’s something about crying that I find rather irresponsible. I’m not saying that people should deny their emotions and the power that they have over our lives. I willingly admit that I express many emotions throughout the course of a day, some rather sublime, some very childish, most quite ordinary.

But the act of crying seems so self-indulgent to me, so inwardly focused. I personally prefer an emotive expression that can be shared in public without overwhelming everyone. One of my favorite emotional stylings can be seen on the CBS series “The Guardian”. Simon Baker is generally a wooden actor, but when he has to share some bad news with one of his pro bono clients, he does a great job of lowering his eyes, looking down at the floor and pursing his lips in a regretful fashion. Baker does that “sorry, but I just don’t know what to say here” look so incredibly well.

The article said that the emotional hot button that Antoine Fisher pushes with men is the subject of paternal relationships. If I recall correctly, Antoine Fisher himself never knew his father, who was shot and killed before Antoine was born (the Fisher story is quite real, and is in many ways even more interesting than the movie; Fisher fought his way out of a low-income, high-crime urban ghetto into a responsible job as a guard at a West Coast movie studio; he wrote up his life story while on lookout, and got it into the hands of the right people after learning that they passed by his guard booth every day). In the film, Fisher goes through some intense therapy scenes with a US Navy shrink played by Denzel Washington (who also directed the film). Obviously, a lot of the intensity focuses on Fisher’s lost father.

I myself have some unsettled issues about my own father, who died when I was in college. Looking back, I wonder sometimes if we could have settled the things that seperated us back then and moved on towards a closer relationship as I progressed through my 20s and 30s. On the night that he died, I told him in the intensive care unit that I loved him, something that I had never said to him before. Did I really feel what you might call “love” for him at that point, and did he share that emotion? He looked rather confused and distressed when I said it, as if he knew that he was in big trouble if I was saying something like that! It wasn’t quite what you’d call a Hollywood moment. But then again, at least it said that I would have liked us to have gotten along better, had we been given the time.

But to be honest, I don’t feel much need to shed any more tears over it. What happened happened; I said about as much as I could have given the circumstances. I learned from it, and I think that’s about what my father would have wanted. He was the kind of guy who, after you did something wrong, was more interested in knowing if you had learned your lesson, than wanting to whip your behind in retribution. His emphasis on practical learning is probably an important foundation of my own “eternal student” life philosophy.

But hey, I agree that there are times for emotional intensity. I’ll admit that I have cried a small handful of times during my adult life. But it was mainly at night. Thus, I strongly agree with the lyrics of that Gerry and the Pacemakers tune from the mid-60s: “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”. (Or the end of a movie, for that matter.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:21 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, April 25, 2003
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I was browsing around in a bookstore the other day, and I heard some intense young men discussing history. At one point they spoke of the Cold War and how Ronald Reagan vanquished the Soviet Union by starting a military spending war that eventually bankrupted the Commies. One of the young men pointed out that this nearly bankrupted the US too, and that we’re still paying the price.

Later on in the day, I thought about that. As a person with training in economics (boring, I know), I realize that military spending is generally an economic deadweight, as it does not promote long-run economic growth as do infrastructural improvements such as better roads, more education, better health care, and increased scientific research. I wonder just how much economic betterment was lost because of Reagan’s “spend them into the ground” military policy of the 80s, and the Soviet response to it? But let’s not single out Ronny and the Ruskies. Let’s look at the big picture. Just how much economic potential is lost because of world-wide military spending? What would happen if all of the economic muscle devoted to tanks and canons and jet fighters could be devoted to more schools, more roads, more energy-saving innovations and more high-speed railways on a world-wide basis?

What if growth and economic opportunity increased to the point that all nations and all villages reaped at least some share of the benefits, even the most destitute areas in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia? If everyone on the globe could learn to share the pie by playing nice, wouldn’t there then be less reason for all of the guns and bombs?

Hey, I’m not trying to be Pollyanna here. I know that it ain’t going to happen anytime soon. Since 1900 or so, the US has played an activist role in world politics because it’s good for the economy. The US wouldn’t be nearly as wealthy without access to world oil and gas reserves. It depends almost exclusively on foreign sources for strategic materials such as bauxite, platinum, tin, cobalt, potash and tungsten. And as consumers, we have developed tastes for high-quality electronic goods, diamonds and coffee — just about all imported.

If the US weren’t as willing to exert military muscle and financial intervention in world politics — i.e., if it avoided the hard ball and played fair all the time — we clearly wouldn’t have the luxuries currently available to many Americans (including myself). And despite our strength, we sometimes blithely ignore local tragedy in order to continue doing business. For example, in the Congo, the US bows to local ethnic warriors who have killed over 3 million people in the past 5 years, in order to maintain access to gold, diamonds and coltan (an essential material in cell phones). Saddam Hussein was a bloody killer, but not quite THAT bloody. However, unlike the Congolese warriors and their coltan, Saddam wouldn’t cooperate with his oil (nor with Kuwaiti oil and Saudi oil, stinker that he was). So Saddam got the 3rd Infantry, and the Congolese still go about their bloody business.

Nevertheless, I wonder. Americans are terribly innovative. If tomorrow the President were to say that the US was going to absolutely respect human rights, work for environmental sustainability and promote economic justice throughout the world, and was going to fully support the UN and avoid unilateral intervention, and was furthermore going to stop doing business with all purveyors of genocide, the US economy would clearly be in for a fall. But given 5 or 10 years, I really wonder if we wouldn’t be just as well off, given our nation’s tremendous ability to innovate, to make better use of what we get locally, and to make wiser use of what we could still get from abroad. But given all the vested interests involved, I doubt if that is going to ever happen.

The thing that scares me is that America continues to mix “one-world” technology like the Internet with its own version of tribal economic mentality. Al Qaeda has proven that any one tribe can rain death and destruction down onto any other tribe anywhere in the world. Within a decade, just about every nation and every trans-national movement like Al Qaeda (which are made possible because of the Internet) will have lightweight nuclear or biological missiles that can reach New York, Hong Kong, London, Jerusalem, Tokyo, New Delhi, you choose it, from hidden mobile launch sites such as old freighter ships. (Missile defense? extremely expensive, partly effective; as with a mosquito net, anything less than 100% can make you miserable).

Is our human race locked into some tragic set of circumstances that will soon squander every bit of progress made since the “dawn of civilization”? Are we involved in some kind of huge board game with 6 billion players and rising, organized into 250 or so “teams” (nations, ethnic tribes, transnational corporations, revolutionary movements), all which act according to a similar mix of self-interest and quest for betterment, all making generally intelligent choices, but where all of these choices combine to foment an unforeseen and unintentionally tragic outcome? And if that’s the case, as I increasingly suspect it is, then let me ask: is it too late to change it, perhaps by reducing our American thirst for a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and at the same time sharing our wonderful technologies so as to help others leave their poverty and backwardness behind?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:19 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, April 20, 2003
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For you Christians, it’s Easter Sunday. For you Jewish folk, it’s a day or two after Passover. For Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and atheists and agnostics and whatever — well, it’s a nice Spring day here in the Northern Hemisphere. And that’s still a sacred thing.

I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, so I suppose that qualifies me as a Christian (although some Christians here in the USA might not agree with that!). Despite the fact that I’m not tied to the myths and dogmas of any one religion anymore, I still feel the tidal surge upon the spirit that an important Christian holiday causes. But I’m going to celebrate it in a Buddhist manner, by recalling a lesson the Buddha gave to his followers by just holding a flower up in front of them. I just went outside with my cheap-o digital camera and took a snapshot of a flowering plant in front of the house. In the spirit of that Buddhist lesson, let me share the picture here with you, and say no more.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:41 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, April 18, 2003
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This being Good Friday, I’m pondering the various artistic depictions that have been made of Jesus’ last supper and crucifixion, especially the cinematic ones. Perhaps the most melodramatic depictions are those old Italian and Spanish movies, with all the contorted faces and dark shadows and droning music, meant to be shown to sobbing old ladies wearing lots of black. Yea, nobody does the Passion like those southern Europeans.

But I’m an existentialist American, and I’d like something a bit more cynical. So I’m imagining my own cinematic depiction of Jesus at Gethsemane, based around the lyrics to a song called “Bother” by Stone Sour. From what I’m told, Bother was used to good advantage in the movie Spiderman to depict a moody young superhero having his moment of doubt; not being a cool young guy, I didn’t see Spiderman.

(Hmm, now, that’s an interesting thought: cartoon superheros as modern day Jesus Christs. Or Jesus Christ as a cartoon superhero.)

In my movie, we would not see a Jesus who already had his flight booked to Paradise. Nope, the Jesus who would voice the lines to “Bother” would be pretty burned out and disgusted about things. He wouldn’t be particularly pleased with God the Father either. Jesus traded a skilled career and a suburban home for the poverty of an itinerant preacher, so as to enlighten humankind and save the lot of Israel. And now here they were, about to repay him by handing him over to the Romans. And God couldn’t even spare an angel or two to stem the tide. The refrain to the song would obviously come when a disciple took a sword to the slave of the high priest: “you don’t need to bother, I don’t need to be”.

Next, some Good Friday reflections on Newark, New Jersey. I work there and I commute by train sometimes. The rail line goes through an abandoned station in one of Newark’s many low-income neighborhoods, and I’ve been noticing some of the sights there lately. On the old eastbound platform is a dead dog. On the westbound platform is a smashed up computer monitor, which some kids probably threw from the embankment above the tracks. Somehow, this makes me think of the refrain to a song by Sponge: “in a world of human wreckage”.

Then just a bit further up the line, the train passes the Garden Spires high-rise apartment complex. Over the past two weeks at Garden Spires, a one-month old baby was drowned in a bucket of water and bleach, and a two year old boy fell to his death from a 17th floor window.

Earlier this week, an advocacy group released a report on child well being in Newark. According to this report, 4% of all New Jersey children under the age of 15 live in Newark. However, 13% of the children from that age group who die each year came from Newark. In other words, a child in Newark is three times more likely to die before reaching the age of 15 than the average child in the state of New Jersey. Makes you think about Faheem Williams and the thousands of other kids who go to grisly endings in Newark. Talk about a world of human wreckage.

Perhaps every Friday in Newark is Good Friday.

Anyway, here’s a link to the Stone Sour lyrics: BOTHER
As to Sponge, try this: PLOWED

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:34 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Religion ... Society ...

So it’s Holy Week for Christians, and Passover time for the Jews. The Muslims don’t have much going on right now; their lunar-oriented New Year holiday was in March, and they don’t seem to have another holy day scheduled until May. Nonetheless, I’ve been celebrating the week by pondering what you might get if you mixed equal parts of Christianity and Islamic doctrine together. (Admittedly, if you didn’t filter out the political aspects, what you’d get is a deadly explosion).

Islam sticks by a radical monotheism, and criticizes Christianity for its emphasis on the God-identity of Jesus. Well, personally, I’m ready to cede that point to the Muslims. After some fairly extensive study of the historical roots of Christianity, I have come to conclude that the concept of a Triune God is a hangover from Greco-Roman antiquity.

Next, Islam sees Muhammad as the ultimate prophet; he is not the son of God, but his voice speaks the truest of words on the subject of Allah. OK, I’m gonna give some and take some on that one. I’m ready to agree that over the course of history, a few rare individuals have somehow spoken to the nature of the Divine and the Ultimate better than the billions of other folk who have inhabited the planet. And Muhammad was no doubt one of those rare people. But I’m not going along with the theory that Muhammad should be listened to in an exclusive fashion. Personally, I think that the Islamic view of Muhammad, i.e. as an extraordinary human prophet, can be applied with good effect to Jesus. So, if we get out the theological kryptonite and take away Jesus’ Trinitarian powers, then who’s the better man: Jesus or Muhammad? Which of the two speak the more powerful truths about the Lord?

Well, I myself am partial to Jesus, but not without conceding some points to Muhammad. According to the picture presented in the Bible, Jesus was a complete ascetic. He wasn’t married, didn’t have any kids, and didn’t even have a sex life. That basically sets him apart from 99.9% of the human race. It could be that Jesus did in fact have some romantic and sexual experience during the unwritten phases of his life, but even so, he didn’t make his mark on history as a family man. By contrast, Muhammad did have a wife — more than one, actually — and kids. He could arguably relate better to the everyday life experience of most people. Elevating a family man to the rank of ultimate prophet of God seems to say that family life isn’t so bad, and can in fact be the bedrock of sacredness. Catholic Christianity, by contrast, is still struggling with the idea that family life and sexuality, although capable of being sacred with the Church’s help, still comes in second to celibacy and self-denial, when spiritual attainment is the issue.

(Let me make it clear that I’m not naively suggesting that Islam is less hung up than Christianity with regard to sex. But the problem of Islam and sex is more a function of desert-induced scarcity and cruelty, than a problem relating to foundational religious concepts.)

What I can’t get comfortable about with Muhammad is the fact that he was a warrior during varying phases of his prophetic life. Yes, I can accept that he was a righteous warrior. But in the end, it was still war that he was waging. And war, however righteous, is still hell. Jesus, by contrast, was the man who told his disciples to put away their swords when the Big Boys finally came to dispose of him. Jesus’ final offering to his Father in Heaven was the gift of peace, even at the price of his life. To everyone who says that radical peace like that is a futile, impractical gesture, one would have to ask: did Jesus not change the world for the better?

So, could Islam move away from the role that war and conquest played in Muhammad’s life, a role that unfortunately has been used over the course of human history by some Muslim factions to justify bloodletting in the name of religious intolerance? (Not that Christianity has been innocent of that either). And can Christianity somehow move away from its deification of Jesus, and then from its over-glorification of denying the body’s needs and pleasures? (Not that Islam has been any more healthy than Christianity in this regard). And finally, can both sides move away from the notion that because their chief prophets are male means that women are spiritually inferior? Both sides have a long way to go on that issue.

Unfortunately, the Koran too often envisions a return to the world of the Old Testament, with its tribal warfare and blood feuds. On the other hand, the Holy Book of Islam correctly protests the New Testament’s deviation from strict monotheism and its over-reliance upon apocalypse and asceticism. Muhammad rightly presumed that the human race needs to find its holiness within the routines of daily life, and not on a mountaintop awaiting the end of the world.

What I’m saying here, perhaps naively given this planet’s political realities, is this: wouldn’t it be wonderful if the followers of Jesus and the followers of Muhammad could interact in a bold yet positive way leading to a higher synthesis of who or what God or Allah is, and how we humans can best relate to the Ultimate? And while we’re at it, shouldn’t the discussion be opened to others beside the men from Nazareth and Mecca? The Buddha certainly has powerful things to offer, and lets not forget about Moses, a family man himself. (And yes, female voices would have to be added too). This discussion would require some incredible levels of maturity, open-mindedness, and security about who we are and where our next meals (and our oil) are coming from.

Well, it probably ain’t gonna happen in my lifetime. But I can dream, can’t I?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:00 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, April 12, 2003
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The older you get, the more you realize that life ain’t easy and the world ain’t always a wonderful place. One of the things that makes life worth living nonetheless is when you discover some unsung little corner where good things are happening, mostly unnoticed by the world at large. Such places are hard to find, but I think that I just discovered an example, right in my hometown. It’s a mini-planetarium located inside of one of our middle schools. Recall that a planetarium is a domed shaped theater where you see what the night sky should look like but doesn’t due to pollution and haze and too many lights (unless you’re out in the Arizona desert). They show you the planets and the Milky Way and the Moon and the constellations, the Big Dipper, Andromeda, Orion, all that stuff, right from the comfort of a movie-theater seat. You usually find them in big city museums, not in local middle schools.

I’m long past middle-school age and I grew up in another town, so I didn’t discover the local planetarium as an 8th grader. I’m not a parent either, so I didn’t hear any kids talking about it. Nope, I’m just a middle-aged guy who still likes to learn, so I signed up for an astronomy course offered by the town’s evening adult school. That finally brought me to it, after living in this town for 15 years. Even after I signed up for the course, it still took a bit of trial and error to actually find this planetarium. The adult school bulletin gave the address for the middle school, but when I got there for the first class, all the doors seemed locked. Next day I called up the school and found out just where the planetarium is — it turned out to be in the back, at the far corner of the parking lot. OK, so I missed the first week’s session, but there were still three more to go.

On the following Wednesday night, I joined a small group of fellow adult learners on an in-progress guided tour of the heavens courtesy of Mr. Miller, the school’s planetarium instructor. Mr. Miller works mostly with the middle school students by day, but had agreed to open his theater of the stars to adult learners for an evening session. And I’m glad that he did.

It’s nice to know that our town’s youth have access to their own planetarium and to an inspired instructor like Mr. Miller. He’s one of those showman teachers who would not impress you much if you saw him standing in line at the supermarket checkout, but who revs himself up with enthusiasm and knowledge when placed in front of a group of students. The man clearly has a passion for the world of astronomy and science, and knows a lot of tricks to share his knowledge with his audience.

One technique is an obvious one, i.e. “here, see for yourself”. So, during the third session, we went outside with binoculars and a telescope, and looked at Orion and the Big Dipper. Using the scope, we were able to see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn in all their glory. On another night, he had us hold a sheet of plastic and he rolled various objects, some like softballs, some more like marbles, to help us conceptualize the modern-physics views of space topography in keeping with Einsteinian relativity principles and the bending of light by gravity. (What he was demonstrating was that space is not exactly defined by straight lines, but gets twisted around a bit due to the effect of mass and gravity on light beams; he demonstrated the effect of a black hole by severely twisting and distorting a part of the plastic “reality” sheet). And at the final class, he had us make crude spectroscopes out of juice drink cartons, to show how astronomers analyze the light from the stars as to find out just what they are made of and how they are moving (red shift, etc.).

A lot of people didn’t enjoy most of their science classes in high school and college, because science can be a bit abstract. (Unfortunately, science has to be abstract, in order to progress). But maybe once or twice, if you were lucky, you ran across a teacher with so much enthusiasm for the subject that you just couldn’t help but get interested yourself, which increased your willingness to slog through the boring stuff (endless textbook chapters and tough math problems for homework) in order to share a few peaks of enlightenment with your teacher. Or if not, perhaps you watched those introductory science TV shows, like “Mister Science” or “Bill Nye the Science Guy”. Well, it’s nice to know that in some obscure corner of one of our local schools, there’s a guy something like that, in a little cave with a light projection machine getting kids interested in becoming astronauts or astrophysicists someday. And even occasionally making some adult school students regret that they didn’t go that route.

Oh, you might ask, how do I know that the kids actually like him? Well, some of the adults in the class had kids at that school, and two of them attended some of our classes. In other words, these kids actually gave up a bit of their precious after-school time to hang out some more in Mr. Miller’s planetarium. I could see that he had a good rapport with them. One final bit of evidence: Mr. Miller’s own web site, which is obviously set up for the benefit of his students. Let me share his “see for yourself” technique, and give you a LINK to it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:44 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, April 6, 2003
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... Politics ...

I’m glad that the war in Iraq is going well (to the degree that you can say that any war “goes well”). Hopefully the killing will soon be over. I went on record as a naysayer, someone who warned of dire consequences if our nation went to war alone in Iraq. It looks as if I am being proved wrong. Mr. Bush and his people were right; the US military was ready to do the job, while Saddam Hussein and his military cronies were a lot weaker and stupider than I had imagined. And I’m glad to be wrong here, if it means that lives have been saved.

But I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out what this war was about. Being someone of liberal sentiment, it’s tempting to accept the theory that the war was all about oil; i.e., that rich Americans like President Bush long to get even richer by exploiting the black gold which lies beneath the sands and hills of Iraq (and the major US construction companies won’t do too badly either in gaining contracts for the rebuilding of Baghdad and Basra; e.g., Bechtel, Fluor, and VP Cheney’s beloved Halliburton).

But there’s another side of me that looks twice before jumping into comfortable liberal smugness. I’d like to know what Mr. Bush and company were really thinking and give it a fair hearing, but I don’t think that I (or most anyone else) have had that opportunity. The reasons for the war that they have offered have been quite lame; the liberal line almost wins by default. And yet I know that the President and company aren’t stupid. The problem, I think, is that they’re lazy; they are dealing with complex truths that don’t come across well in a 30-second spin, so they stick to the sound bites, even if bogus. In doing so, they rob our nation of the opportunity for an important debate about where we go from here.

Let’s have a look at what Washington has been feeding us (and which a whole lot of Americans have been swallowing). As to terrorism, Saddam Hussein did not plan nine-eleven, and is not even friends with the people who did. Sure, he has offered al Qaeda some support; mostly because of his fear of becoming one of their victims if he didn’t. But then again, a lot of other nations are currently supporting terrorism, and we’re not invading them. If the rationale were to follow up on Afghanistan by going after other international supporters of al Qaeda, we’d have invaded Yemen and Saudi Arabia instead.

As to weapons of mass destruction: sure, Saddam had ’em and has used ’em. But so far, Iraq’s lame military response to our occupation indicates that its military resources were in pretty bad shape. Saddam presented a continuing threat regarding chemical and biological weapons, but given the pathetic status of his military, the problem was probably being contained quite well by the UN trade sanctions and weapons inspection program. If the question was truly one regarding weapons of mass destruction (and the ability to use them), our troops would now be slogging it out in the hills of North Korea.

As to protecting the UN’s honor given the disrespect shown to it over the years by Iraq, how much honor did we leave it with after refusing to put a major regime change action before the Security Council? Mr. Bush has shot a much bigger hole in the UN’s side than Saddam ever did. It’s pretty clear now that our diplomatic efforts since last fall were mostly window dressing. Back in 1991, when we really needed UN support to kick a still-powerful Iraqi military out of Kuwait, the President and Secretary of State were busy commuting back and forth across the Atlantic as to gain European unity and Arab support. This time, they stayed in the office and made a few calls. It was obviously a rather half-hearted effort, just enough to build an excuse that “we tried”.

No, I think that the issue behind what Mr. Bush and company did in Iraq comes down to oil. Let’s face it: there are lots of other nasty dictators out there whom the US has lived with (and are still living with). A lot of pro-war people compare Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, thus linking our military action in Iraq with our involvement in WW2. OK, think about this: Hitler killed 6 million people and we went after him. Stalin killed 20 million people, but we decided to live with him. If Saddam Hussein was in Rwanda or Uganda (like Idi Amin, remember him?), gassing obscure tribal villages, he’d have gotten mostly a big yawn along the Potomac. But Saddam Hussein was sitting on top of the world’s second largest usable reserve of oil, and once had an army powerful enough to take down his neighbors, who in fact had the number one oil reserve. The guy truly had a knife on our economic jugular. But his knife eventually turned to rust, so we pushed him away and shook him and his nation down for the loot in their own pockets. It would be funny, if real people weren’t dying.

A lot of liberals seem to get this far in their analysis and then stop, ready to proclaim moral victory. But wait a minute. What if Hussein had been able to disrupt our oil flow, or had made us pay dearly for it? Sorry, trendy liberals, but you’re gonna have to do better than to mumble something about banning SUVs and promoting renewable energy. You’re probably not going to be getting your own kids to their next soccer practice sessions on wind power. Our way of life is extremely dependent upon oil. Without a reliable supply of it, the standard of living that we’ve become accustomed to here in the US could fall off very quickly — we saw that in the 1970s following the OPEC embargos. Americans were very unhappy until Ronald Reagan and a whole lot of lucky breaks in the 80s made them smile again.

The reality is this: domestic oil production is crashing (and trashing the fragile environments in Alaska to get a few more drops won’t help), and even our neighbors (Mexico and Canada) can’t slake our thirst for the stuff. Sure, there are lots of other places in the world where new oil is being found; but just because you find oil someplace doesn’t mean that it will reach your gas tank. You need stable governments and pipelines and tanker terminals and computers and refineries and other stuff to make that happen. There may be plenty of oil in Venezuela and Nigeria, but as we’ve seen, the system for getting it out and turning it into something usable doesn’t always work right.

At the same time, US demand for oil grows and grows, despite conservation efforts and alternative energy research. Part of this reality is due to general population growth, but a large part is due to higher living expectations. Lots of people now expect to live in bigger houses, drive bigger cars (read SUVs), have jobs in places that you can only get to by car (i.e., de-urbanization and suburban sprawl), and never be anywhere where there isn’t air conditioning. (Little story: back in the 60’s when I was growing up, a car with an air conditioner was a real novelty; sweating in July was just what you did. By contrast, in 1998, I bought a new car and didn’t want an air conditioner, but the salesman at first refused to sell me such a car! After some yelling and unpleasantries he finally relented, but the next year, air conditioners became standard equipment on the car I bought).

The American way of life today takes lots of energy, mostly in the form of oil (oil is about the most versatile way of delivering usable energy where it’s needed). Technology is finally showing some hope of replacing oil with something just as versatile, i.e. hydrogen, but it will take 25 to 30 years until it becomes economically tenable and our infrastructure can adapt to it. So, for the next two or three decades, the US will remain extremely dependent upon Middle Eastern oil. The Gulf region is the place with the biggest reserves and the most established system for getting it out of the ground and shipped to us.

Up to now, we’ve been pretty lucky in that the main oil producing states in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait) have been politically stable. Sure, there was the shake-up in Iran and the problem of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but other world-wide oil sources came on line and we didn’t have an oil shortages because of them. But over the past few years, we’ve seen a new threat to our main sugar daddies in the sand: al Qaeda.

And you thought al Qaeda only blew up buildings. Sorry, folks, but Osama Bin Laden ultimately has much bigger fish to fry than a World Trade Center here and a disco in Bali there. Like Mr. Bush, he’s also going for regime change, but his two biggest targets are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: oil and the bomb. The House of Saud is officially pro-US, but it tries to play both sides by quietly bribing al Qaeda with “charitable contributions”. The bottom line is that the Saudi princes are running scared these days. They’ve been living high off the profits from the oil they sell us while ignoring the poverty of their own people. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has been rabble rousing lately in their back yards amidst the unwashed masses. They’re just a few riots and explosions away from an Islamic fundamentalist version of St. Petersburg in October, 1917.

What then? Perhaps a new Saudi government that will ratchet back oil production and drive the price per barrel up to $100. Gas lines return to the USA, fights break out as Excursions and Suburbans jockey for position at $5-a-gallon pumps that are closing early for the day. Thermostats are turned down to 65 degrees in January, double-digit inflation returns followed by recession and double-digit unemployment. Americans become very unhappy and depressed, seeing their standard of living going down after years and years of continual improvement.

That may never happen, but it’s worth worrying about. And when you worry a lot, the rational thing to do is to take out some insurance. Which here means trying to secure a pro-American government on top of a huge and presently under-utilized oil field in the Middle East, one that could just about make up for Saudi oil reductions if need be. Saddam Hussein basically was just what the insurance broker ordered. His regime was a rotting piece of fruit just waiting to drop; most knowledgeable Middle Eastern observers agree that sooner or later there would have been a coup against him. If the US didn’t come in and shake the tree, sooner or later someone else would have. Perhaps it would have been the Iranians, through their ties to the Shiite majority in Iraq just across their border. Perhaps it would have been al Qaeda, through their affiliation with Sunnis tired of Baath Party rule. Or just some pro-nationalist Republican Guard generals. Who knows.

Mr. Bush appears to have stolen their thunder here. If he can take it the rest of the way and establish a stable pro-American government that will allow full development and use of Iraq’s prodigious oil resources, then suburban Americas can sleep tonight in their 4,500 square foot homes assured that for the foreseeable future they can get their kids to Saturday soccer practice in the air-conditioned comfort of their Grand Cherokees (and have jobs to drive to on Monday in glass box office buildings near remote Interstate intersections). There won’t be any Octobrist riots along the curving streets of exurban America due to cold, hunger and unemployment.

Bottom line: this war was about oil, though not in quite the way that the liberal naysayers would have it; and it was also about al Qaeda, but not in the way that Mr. Bush explained it. The war was arguably justified in that it will help prevent wrenching social and economic disruptions here in America. But it will have a very high cost in terms of the effectiveness of the UN and our relationships with Europe and the Arab world. And, let’s not forget, many people lost their lives or were severely injured.

I’d like to say that the war was avoidable, but I know that my own lifestyle and quest for security (e.g., driving to work most days, although I am taking the train a bit more lately) contributes to the need for what happened. I just hope that we will be fair to the people of Iraq and try to ameliorate their poverty, and that we will do so more and more throughout the world (even if that means no tax cut, and even higher taxes, if fairly administered). Poverty is the ultimate root of all security threats. Maybe we could also try to live more simply here in the US, read fewer luxuries, somewhat smaller cars, somewhat smaller houses, jobs closer to home, etc. while at the same time pushing our technologies and infrastructures to free us from our extreme dependency upon oil. Bottom line here, can we see where we are and what happened, and try to do something to avoid repeating it in the future?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:31 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, April 4, 2003
Uncategorized ...

THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS: Did you ever look at somebody’s personal web site and say to yourself, wow, this guy really has a crazy mix of interests? Maybe something like Roger Maris baseball cards and 19th century ballet arrangements and occult symbols taken from the pyramids and the history of the James Knox Polk presidency? I was recently thinking about my own web site, and it struck me that I’m also presenting a rather eclectic mix of information. That made me think about my life and about the things that have captured my fancy over the years, and I concluded that they represent an even crazier mix. It’s hard to see the connections sometimes. If I could figure out how everything related, maybe I could figure myself out. But right now I can’t. Just when I thought I had myself figured out, back to the drawing board.

Anyway, here’s a list of some of my favorite things. See if you can make any more sense of it than I can:

  • Vegetarian food and cooking
  • Taoism
  • Red Wine
  • Non-fiction books
  • Modern physics
  • Collecting stamps
  • Railroads and trains, esp. from the 1950 – 1980 years
  • Space exploration
  • Meditation
  • Book Stores and Libraries
  • Growing Herbs (oregano, basil, parsley, etc.)
  • Rainy, foggy nights
  • Photography
  • Microbrewed Beer
  • Preventative Health Practices (including exercise)
  • Looking at stars
  • Aircraft carriers
  • Spring flowers
  • Theology
  • Uncrowded public places
  • Computer programming and web page composing
  • The historical aspects of Jesus of Nazareth and his brother James
  • Social justice efforts, esp. urban poverty outreach
  • Myers-Briggs temperament analysis
  • Critical thinking, in general
  • Politics (from afar; I’m not running for office!)
  • Monks and monasteries
  • Fighter jets
  • Peace and harmony, cultural diversity
  • Systems and how they work
  • Ecology and environmental preservation
  • Hiking
  • Old buildings and neighborhoods
  • The Ashcan school, esp. John Sloan paintings
  • Rock music
  • Mornings and sunrises
  • Histories of empires and wars
  • Sleeping late
  • Economics
  • Comfortable clothes (the older the better)
  • Most anything that’s intelligent and wise (not that empires and wars and politics and rock music and sleeping late always fit that category!)

Oh yea, and learning (that’s why I’m the eternal student).

Well, what can I say. That’s just me.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:53 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, April 1, 2003
Uncategorized ...

“What I wear is pants. What I do is live.”

Thomas Merton, Day of a Stranger

Now tell me that quote wasn’t made for a Dockers advertisement. The problem is, Merton was a Trappist monk, and the Trappists own the copyright to everything he wrote. The Trappist (Cistercian) Order would never allow that great Catholic spiritualist’s words to be used in such a tinseltown manner. Or would they? Maybe there’s a deal waiting to be made.

Here’s my idea: Dockers puts out a full-page spread in some trendy youth magazines featuring a photo of Merton (in his work pants, obviously, not in his monastic robes). The quote is placed in the upper corner of the ad, and a little bio is given just below the pic; maybe “Thomas Merton, 1915-1968, Cistercian Monk, Priest, Poet, Author, Peace Activist”. Then on the lower right side, in discreet lettering, “Dockers … nice pants”.

Dockers comes out looking good for putting out a soft-sell, public service type ad, and the Trappists get to market the thoughts and writings of Thomas Merton to a new generation, one that otherwise might never have heard of him. The ad helps to sell pants, religion, and Merton’s books (which the Trappists still make money off of) to the younger crowd all at the same time. It’s a slam-dunk win-win.

Hey, just an idea. Not that I’m endorsing Dockers here. I never owned a pair of them in my life (showing my age here). As to Merton, well, I AM endorsing him; I own plenty of his books. Regarding the subject of advertisement design, this isn’t the first off-beat idea for an ad or a video that I’ve had. But I keep my day job, because my ideas are generally very off-beat. Oh well, maybe in another life …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:14 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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