The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Thursday, July 31, 2003
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I was out walking through town the other day, past some expensive new homes on the other side of a hill. They weren’t exactly mansions; a two-earner professional couple could possibly swing such a place with today’s low mortgage rates. I gather that families that buy such houses become quite attached to them. I myself have never owned real estate, but from what I’ve been told, ownership gives people a strong sense of connection to their homestead. And I guess that’s good in a lot of ways. But as for me, I like the idea of home being a movable concept, something not tied to any one structure or plot of land. That notion jibes well with the fact that we aren’t permanent residents of this planet. If we’re lucky, we get 70 or 80 years here, but they go by pretty quickly. I’m still holding out hope that we are citizens of a larger reality, something that transcends the space-time universe that we know of. I’m still thinking that our bittersweet years here are mainly a preparation course for something bigger and better.

I once read an article about some groovy Jesuit priest who had his own apartment somewhere and slept every night on a couch; he didn’t have a regular bed. That was his style. And actually, that sounds like my kind of style (although I have a regular bed but not a couch!). That priest seems to be the kind of guy who doesn’t put too much effort into making a nest for himself here in this realm, as he believes that his true home is somewhere else. You would have hoped that all priests and all spiritual seekers would have been like that. But in reality, there ain’t all that many like that. Oh well, too bad. Wrong planet I’m on, I guess. But it ain’t gonna be forever, for better and for worse.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:43 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, July 27, 2003
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Two more observations about why people are happy or not in this world. First thought: unfortunately, a lot actually does depend upon your body and how it looks. Certain jobs and certain situations in life — actually, quite a few — do indeed require a certain look. Let’s face it, there are certain cultural notions defining beauty or handsomeness, and there are certain jobs that require it. Certain combinations of body height, girth, shoulder width, muscle angularity or skin curves, facial shape, angles of the chin, tone of voice, behavior of the eyes, etc. make a lot of difference in how people judge you. It ain’t really fair when you think about it, but that’s how it is.

Cultural norms are powerful thing, right or wrong. Certain women just aren’t going to get jobs as entertainers or clothing models or airline stewards, even if they are intelligent, well mannered and poised. Certain guys just aren’t going to be CEOs or submarine commanders or the President of the United States. For example, compare George W. Bush with VP Cheney. Bush has the leadership look and Cheney doesn’t (even though I personally don’t have much confidence in either of them as leaders). Rumsfeld has the look, but Wolfowitz generally doesn’t. And yes, Bill Clinton had the look, but as to Al Gore …. just a bit too stocky. Perhaps Gore felt deeply called to leadership, but the importance of looks ultimately betrayed him (he was beat by a guy with a stonger chin line and a trimmer build). So, Al Gore isn’t going to be quite as happy with his life as he might have been had he a more dynamic looking body (“dynamic” according to our cultural notions). And if you don’t have the look, you may have to struggle harder for happiness in 21st Century America.

Second observation: Money. The great disequalizer. For better and for worse, our society and our economy decides what talents and abilities are less important and more important to it, and rewards everyone approximately. So, those people who are called to be file clerks, i.e. good organizers, are generally not going to get the same money and recognition as those who are called to be CEOs or trial attorneys. (And people who feel called to help the poor by becoming social workers are asking to become poor themselves, given the salary levels in the social work field). Then throw in the “look” factor, as discussed above, and things get really uneven. A dumpy looking guy who is good at organizing papers and information is, if lucky, going to get a steady $40,000 a year in some dumpy government bureaucracy, while an extroverted guy with a jaunty build and strong cheekbones and a Clinton-esque hairline who is pretty good at public speaking is going to become a trial lawyer making $250,000 a year. It just happens.

Why should one guy be worth $40,000 and little public recognition, and the other guy gets $250,000 and probably gets quoted in the papers and even makes the TV news? Who is happier? Hate to say it, but the lawyer dude is probably having a better time. He may well have too many toys (fancy car, big house, trophy wife, all sorts of high-tech gadgets) that ultimately don’t make him happy, but the challenge of his job and the recognition that he gets keeps him pumped. He probably “gives something back” by taking on volunteer cases for poor people or counseling seniors with legal questions, and that helps make him feel good. Life probably has given him the better hand of cards.

You might be tempted to say that “smartness” and intelligence justifies the way that things are. People with higher IQs generally do better then “dummies”. True enough, but the closer you look at what “intelligence” is, the fuzzier it becomes. I really think there are different kinds of intelligence, e.g. abstract intelligence, social intelligence, practical intelligence(Al Gore has much abstract intelligence, GWB has more social and practial), body intelligence (needed by sports stars and performers), etc. I still think, quite idealistically, that just about everyone is smart in some way, but that society rewards certain ways of being smart much differently than others. So it’s still not fair.

What’s the bottom line here? How can even the losers get lucky sometime and enjoy life? How can people who land in prison or are outcasts or drunks or drug addicts turn it around? Well, I haven’t figured that one out. But one thing I can say: when you realize just how arbitrary life and culture can be in deciding who is valuable and who isn’t, you realize that even if get the short end of the stick, it doesn’t really mean that you’re not worthy. If you can keep on believing in yourself even when the world around you doesn’t, you still have something going, an inner flame burning deep inside. With some people, the world stokes their inner fires; with others, it pours water on it. But even if so, don’t let the world blow it out.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:09 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, July 24, 2003
Personal Reflections ...

The pursuit of happiness. That’s the theme for my “chatauqua” today.

(For those regular readers of this blog, God bless all 2 or 3 of you, you know that my writing style is similar in certain ways to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig’s technique in ZAMM was to weave back and forth between the travelogue and a series of reflections on … well, on life in general. All things considered. He called his essays “chatauquas”, based on the intellectual road shows of the 19th century, which do in fact have something to do with the modern-day Chatauqua Institute in New York State.)

Based upon what I’ve observed during my fifty years here on earth, I think that some people are pretty happy with their lives, and some just aren’t. I mean that on a long-term basis; some people reach the age of 60, 70, maybe even 80 or 90 and keep on feeling good about things. Life generally makes sense to them, despite its many rough spots. By contrast, other people go through life unhappy all of the time. Things just don’t ever come together for them, and even when it does, things soon fall apart. It’s just one struggle to the next. And then they die, usually in an ugly way (very possibly from alcohol abuse or violence or cancer, or sometimes even suicide; being unhappy all the time takes its toll).

So what is the difference between these two types of people and the lives they lead? (Those of you who are students may be pondering that question, or some take-off on it, in your psychology and philosophy classes). Unfortunately, I don’t have any great insights about this. Human happiness obviously involves both genetic factors and the environment, i.e. nature and nurture. To some degree, happiness is influenced by the balance of chemicals in the brain. And yet, you are tempted to conclude that it’s the unhappy person’s own fault they are so unhappy; they just seem so negative about everything, and they pass up opportunities to be happy. On the other side of the coin, a lot of unhappy people are the victims of bad breaks, things that really were beyond their control.

Life in general certainly isn’t an equal opportunity employer. Some people do get mostly good breaks while others get mostly bad ones; the majority of people seem to get a 50-50 mix (or close). That’s pretty much what you’d expect from a random distribution, a “roll of the dice” system. Even then, you sometimes see people who got mostly good breaks who are unhappy, and people who got mostly bad breaks who still find joy in life. For example, go into a housing project in the core of most any American city and you’ll see a lot of unhappy people who die of drugs, AIDS, shootings, booze, preventable diseases, etc. And yet, you also see people who are happy — poor but happy.

The analogy that I use is that we are all plant seedlings who are put into a pot of soil by some cosmic gardener. There are thousands of different plant seedlings available to this mystical gardener, and there are hundreds of different types of soil mix available to him (or her). The great gardnerer doesn’t really seem to be sure just what kind of soil is best for each seedling (unless she or he really does, but has some greater purpose in mind).

So, some seedlings grow up well and live a long time. Even when the “Big G” gardner doesn’t properly water the plant and keeps it out of the light, it still keeps on growing and renewing itself. But at the same time, a lot of plants just don’t get the right kind of soil for them, and struggle to grow and keep from wilting. With some light and water, they survive. But when things get bad they don’t last.

I don’t know for sure, but it seems to me that some people just find the right place to be, a place where their talents are appreciated by those around them, and likewise, their weaknesses aren’t such a big deal. I know some people like that. They are well liked, generous people who work hard and help others whenever they can. They believe in the idea of “give to live, share to care”. They often gain public attention and are admired for their contributions. These people just seem to have it all; friends, family, admiration, accomplishment, financial success, and satisfaction at having helped others along the way. Sometimes people like that aren’t for real, but very often they are. They are just people who found the right potting soil.

And I also know people on the other end. They also want to give of themselves and share with others, but their talents and temperaments (which can be increasingly be measured and classified by Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, etc.) just aren’t what the world around them seems to appreciate. They are, in fact, being asked by their environment to give what comes hardest to them, where their weaknesses are. E.g., the artist is asked to be a nurse; the nurse is asked to be a file clerk; the file clerk is asked to be a leader; the leader is asked to be an analyst; the introvert is asked to extrovert, and the extrovert is put in solitary confinement. They don’t do so well, and obviously aren’t admired and rewarded by people around them. They then get discouraged and do even worse, which can spiral them downward into a life of confusion and failure (neurosis, as the shrinks say). Or, if by some fluke they do make good despite their weaknesses, they still feel like a failure in life deep down inside. You sometimes hear about rich and famous people who never were happy, despite all their success.

Some people can break out of their situations and eventually find a place where they shine. It’s as if the plants in my “cosmic garden” analogy have the ability to get up and find another pot where the soil is more to their liking. But fate isn’t always so kind to people stuck in a dead end, and they get discouraged, cranky, and anti-social, then become drunks, junkies or criminals. Or, if they are till nice at heart, they just keep it all inside and get sick and quietly die (a slower and more subtle form of suicide). Quiet desperation, as the British say.

And a lot of us struggle somewhere in the middle. That’s pretty much where I am right now. I’m definitely not in the right pot of dirt, but I haven’t given up yet on finding a better one (although the day is getting late). I’m withering a little, but I’m still alive.

If you’re still young and in college, you have plenty of time to find a place where you can live a good life, where your needs are reasonably taken care of while you contribute to the good of others. There probably is such a place somewhere like that for you. For some, finding it will be easy. But for others, it won’t. And I sympathize with the latter faction. Life is going to be a tough journey for you. But hang in there and keep the faith. The great cosmic gardener planted you and made you sprout, so she or he must have the right kind of soil for you someplace.

PS, You can find out more about the chatauqua idea at

www.univie.ac.at/Anglistik/easyrider/data/zen_and_the_art_of_motorcycle_ma.htm

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, July 18, 2003
Philosophy ... Society ...

Last summer I got interested once again in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and its author Robert Maynard Pirsig. I dug up my dusty old copy of “ZAMM” and gave it a good second read. I then did a Google on Pirsig as to find out what ever became of him. I found out about his second book, “Lila”, which I hadn’t noticed when it came out back in the early 90s. Lila wasn’t quite the hit that ZAMM was. Anyway, I got hold of Lila and read that one too. In between all that, I read various commentary about Pirsig and various reactions to his ideas.

Robert Pirsig sure struck a nerve back in the early 80s with a whole lot of people. Just about everyone who took the literary motorcycle journey with Pirsig in ZAMM said “wow, that was deep; quality, Zen, ancient Greeks, Montana, madness, computers and socket wrenches. It must all mean something and probably relates to my life somehow”.

For those few people who bought Lila and read the follow-up to ZAMM, the reaction was a bit of a head-scratcher. Yes, the ancient Greeks were still there,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:52 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
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Just a random thought or two for a mid-summers night. The other afternoon I was at my mother’s house, doing my laundry, and I found some old “all about” books that I had as a kid. I picked up the one about police and firemen and saw the following quote: “Police and fire fighters are BIG STRONG MEN”. Ah yes, the pre-feminist era.

Here’s another recollection from those days. For some odd reason I was reading a reprint of a magazine story written in the 1940s not long ago, and I noticed that the “voice of the story” directly addresses the reader every few paragraphs using the term “mister”. E.g., “You better believe that joint was hopping, mister”. I guess that the writer didn’t anticipate much of a female audience.

Well, I suppose that it’s best those days are behind us. However, you gotta admit, the “mister” device in the article is rather bracing and insistent. It reminds me of Thunderbirds and Old Spice after-shave and Lucky Strikes and metal Zippo lighters. (Oh yea, speaking of Luckys, I remember a line from one of their old ads: “Lucky seperates the men from the boys, but not from the girls”. Definitely pre-feminist).

Finally, I’ve discovered StarLogo, a non-sexist computer simulation program made available as freeware by MIT. More on that soon!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:39 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, July 13, 2003
Outer Space ...

NEVER AS GOOD AS THE FIRST TIME: In a few months, the first manned Chinese spaceflight will blast off. Two or three Chinese astronauts will make a few orbits in a small capsule not unlike the Soyuz or the old Mercury vehicle, and will then drop back in the usual ballistic re-entry. The Chinese are basically re-doing what the US and the Soviets did fourty years ago. Thus, there won’t be much contribution to the overall science of spaceflight. But politically, it will make a billion Chinese people feel good. Before too long, India may do the same thing.

Well, let them have their fun, I suppose. It’s just too bad about all of the time and energy that they used to re-invent the space capsule; it could have been better used in a partnership with a more advanced space program. Maybe the Chinese should have teamed up with Russia to bring back the Buran, the Soviet space shuttle that only made one space trip back in the late 80s (without anyone aboard). The Buran supposedly had some design features that were better than our Space Shuttle, e.g. more cargo room and jet engines for controlled landings. Unfortunately, one of the Burans was destroyed in a building collapse, and the other was sold to some guy who took it to Australia for display, then basically abandoned it.

I hope that the Chinese get a taste of the space euphoria that America had in the early 60s. There was a hit song on the pop radio stations back then called “Telstar“, which basically summed up the excitement. (Actually, two versions; the original by The Tornados and the popular cover by The Ventures). Sometimes you still hear “Telstar” used in a video clip of a rocket blast off. Yes, I hope there will be a pop-hit variation of Telstar in China. Let the Great Kingdom of the East enjoy it, because after they’ve spun their guys around the globe a few times, they’re gonna face the same problem that we now have regarding space: i.e., what next? what for? and how the heck are we gonna pay for it?

(The real Telstar satellite had an ironic ending, as it was accidently destroyed by the effect of a nuclear bomb test here on earth. Also the guy who wrote the song, Joe Meek, committed suicide. Perhaps those were signs of the troubles to come for the overall US space program).

LOST FUTURE: When I was a kid, we expected that by the time we grew up there would be dime-a-dozen wheel-shaped space stations in orbit, a couple of colonies up on the moon, some Mars visits, and at least one or two manned missions to Jupiter under way (recall the movie 2000 A Space Odyssey). But getting people off the planet and keeping them alive in space turned out to be much more expensive than we thought, and unlike computers and other high-tech stuff, the price for spacetravel has not tumbled significantly over the past few decades (back in the 50s, they thought that atomic energy was going to make everything possible, but that sure flopped). So for the time being, the Chinese, the Indians, and whoever else can shoot people up in a tin can to about 150 miles and keep them there for a few hours, but that’s about as far as they’ll get. Until we find some revolutionary new source of portable energy, e.g. cold fusion or anti-matter containment, we’re pretty much stuck in an orbital holding pattern.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:09 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, July 8, 2003
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SOME TOUGH CHICKS: I was thinking the other day about the women in my place of work. Not for purposes of dating or falling in love, though. I’m pretty much a “highly sensitive person”, and given that my employer represents the people within the criminal justice system (as in the second half hour of Law and Order), the environment is anything but highly sensitive. The clerical types are mostly old hens who have been there forever. The female assistant prosecutors are often rudely good-looking babes, but you know they would cut your tounge out in a second for any good reason (just like any good trial attorney). And the investigators are generally atheletic, hip young chicks with gun holsters hanging over their backsides. Yes, quite an interesting fashion statement.

I occasionally deal with some of the female prosecutors, and they are generally brusque, no-nonsense, get-to-the-point women. There are some new ones who still have an aura of “sweetness”, but you know that they won’t last (or the sweetness will turn sour). A woman needs a tough edge to keep the steady flow of assault and homicide suspects moving before cynical and uncooperative old judges. So hey, I sure ain’t looking for an understanding and sensitive soul mate amidst that crowd.

But then again, I do take my hat off to those tough birds who make a career out of prosecution. For men, winning a case is usually an ego thing. But from what I’ve heard, women prosecutors get a lot of their inspiration by identifying with the victim. They really want to prove to the family who lost someone in a gang shooting or whose apartment was ransacked in a burglary or whose daughter was raped on the way home from the bus stop that the government still cares. The police will hopefully get the guy (most criminals are guys), medical people can stop the bleeding (if it’s not a homicide), the social workers can help with the trauma, but only the prosecutor can keep the perpetrator off the street and make law-abiding people feel a bit safer. So yea, even though I wouldn’t want to take any of them home with me, I offer the professional female prosecutors in my office a tribute. I’ve seen you in action, and I’m glad you’re out there.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:14 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, July 5, 2003
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RACIAL MATTERS / RACE MATTERS: I was watching the Rev. Al Sharpton on TV the other day, and he said that America needs to have new discussions on race. On the face of it, I agree with that statement. Discussions, when carried out respectfully and open-mindedly, are always good things. Rev. Sharpton is not quite the firebrand that he used to be, but he is still a politician, and politicians of every race have a way of twisting words around. If this new discussion on race is going to be led by those who irresponsibly stir up passions to their advantage, then I think we should forget about it. However, if this discussion were to be led by teachers and ministers and honest leaders (and Rev. Sharpton does qualify on those grounds), and were to allow sincere and thoughtful exchange of facts and ideas, with plenty of listening as well as talking, then I would enthusiastically join in.

Why do we still need a discussion on race? Well, the debts of slavery and Jim Crow are not completely settled yet. The sins of past generations still haunt us, through the continuing lack of opportunity and achievement experienced by many people of color. And unfortunately, there are still various strains of classic white-against-black racism in our daily life, although you have to look harder for it (unless you’re a black man being pulled over by the police on a country road late at night). I’ve lived in a small, privately owned apartment building for the past 15 years in a town with a significant African-American population, and yet my landlord has successfully kept the building mostly white (although an Asian-African woman lived here for a while). There are subtle but effective ways of doing that, I gather.

But, assuming that this discussion starts by casting whites as an affluent race owing an historic debt to underpriviledged blacks (a social reality that isn’t quite as absolute as it used to be, given the increasing number of affluent blacks and poor whites, and given the fast-growing Hispanic populations), and assuming that it is indeed an open discussion, then the representatives of the black cultures will also need to listen to the concerns held by many whites.

One such concern may be this: since the 1960s, the government and other non-profit agencies have redistributed a lot of resources to poor urban and rural communities where many blacks live, in order to create jobs, housing and education. And there have been a lot of positive results from that. But there are still many living in those areas who don’t seem to be responding, who seem to maintain their bad habits (crime, drug abuse, irresponsible parenting) in the face of offered opportunity. Is the overall black community doing all it can to encourage and support its most needy element in using what is available to them, and helping them pull on their own bootstraps a little harder? Or are the tax monies for poverty aid along with the lost opportunities related to affirmative action being increasingly wasted (thus explaining why they are increasingly being cut back)?

To be honest, I’m uncomfortable with the opposing points of this hypothetical discussion. But they could be entry portals for an honest discussion, so long as they aren’t clinged to. If passions are driven and exploited, a discussion on race can get very ugly. If calmness, reason and open-mindedness prevail, there could be real progress away from stereotypes and toward mutual understanding. So yes, let’s have the discussion suggested by Rev. Sharpton, but let’s keep it respectful and open-minded with a willingness on both sides to step away from entrenched positions and move towards the middle-ground of reason and enlightenment.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:30 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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