The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Friday, October 31, 2003
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A new female gang was discovered recently on the streets of East Orange. They call themselves the “FBI”. Catchy little acronym, eh? You might wonder just how these young women justify those initials. OK, here goes: Female Bitches In Charge.

That’s street language, all right. Light years away from the world of the grammatician, who would point out that “female bitches” is redundant, and “in charge” is a phrase consisting of two very independent words. A hyphen just wouldn’t work here. Thus, the acronym would more properly be BIC.

Of course, people who join street gangs do not earn their meals by making precise use of written and spoken language. They live in a world where brute force and sexual exchange are the language of government and commerce.

Does that mean that a gang member is necessarily less moral than a lawyer, businessman or senator, i.e. the people who command our world through the spoken and written word? I’ve seen a lot of deception and raw aggression asserted through the precise application of the mother tongue by highly educated and civilized people. Perhaps their means aren’t considered criminal, but their ends are hurtful none the less. Does that mean that I’d rather live in the world of Bloods, Crips and now the FBI? No, but mainly because I don’t play their game very well, whereby I can more or less survive against the word gangsters.

So long as we have Enrons and security firms giving bogus advice and sales strategies built around alluring advertisements aimed at getting the fast buck and politicians willing to say anything for the vote and businesses that poison our land and sea and skies, I would not tell a gang member in jail that my world is humanly superior to his (or hers, in the case of the FBI). Until my comfortable techno-suburban world becomes more honestly concerned about the streets where the gang bangers hail from, more willing to make some honest sacrifices to help people like them, and less tied to the unspoken official motto of the 21st Century (Screw You, I’ve Got Mine – and don’t think that charities aren’t some of the most enthusiastic practitioners of that), I’d say that we “mainstream” law-abiding Americans have nothing to be smug about.

You say that perhaps I should form a gang called the Bleeding Heart Liberals? The BHL, that is? Not bad, but not quite as catchy as “FBI” (although in a presumptuous mood, we could twist it around to “bleeding HEArt LibERalS”, i.e. HEALERS).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:47 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, October 27, 2003
Current Affairs ... Society ...

SEX IS OVERRATED. You’ve heard that one before; it’s the “contrarian” mantra. Not that it’s altogether false. I’ve been through a marriage and a couple of other relationships in my life, and like everything else in life, there are many disappointments. For most young guys, though, that idea would come as a surprise, even a shock. I can’t speak for young women, having not been one, but I can say that a young fellow’s mind and body are full of hormones that convince him that sex is the biggest show on earth. To tell a young dude that some day he’s gonna look back on his sexual escapades and say, hmmmm, there were good days and bad, it just wouldn’t make any sense to him. At the age of 18 and maybe even 23, sex is like trumpets blowing in his ears and klieg lights flashing in his eyes.

I think that the following statement is closer to the truth: Sex is overly depended upon. Depended upon for what? For meaning in life. What is the meaning of life? Some say “chocolate”. But here in America, the most honest answer would seem to be sex (with chocolate perhaps a close second; both depend upon complex brain chemistry as part of their lure). I was in Target today buying some windshield wiper blades, and at the check out line I was looking at the magazine rack. The word “sex” appears quite frequently upon the magazine covers. And even when it doesn’t it still does, via all the flesh and muscles and T&A; displayed in rotogravure color.

Side point: I also noticed in Target that the women’s clothes section is much bigger than the men’s. Interesting commentary upon the mating habits of our species. With birds and certain animals, it’s the male that is bright and colorful, whereby the female is mostly brown and gray. With humans, it’s the female that takes on the plumage.

The Target check out line is not necessarily the bellwether of American cultural trends, but with regard to sex, you don’t need to look much farther for confirmation. Popular music is full of it, advertisements lure you with it, and television shows and movies can’t give you enough of it, at least on an innuendo basis. If you want the hard-core stuff, you used to have to venture into an underworld of dark little corner stores in the wrong part of town; but today all you need is an Internet connection and a credit card. I read somewhere that Google classifies and counts the search requests you sent it (maybe not all of them, but a representative sample anyway), and that sex is by far the leading category.

Cultural wisdom seems to say that sex is our primary reason for living. Mother Nature appears to say the same thing. Just as with rats and mice and roaches and pigeons and other successful species, the critters that have a lot of sex have a lot of progeny. But wait, we’re humans, not rats or mice or roaches or pigeons — that’s the knee-jerk response to such a comparison. So maybe that knee-jerk is saying that sex isn’t our primary reason for being after all?

The ancient Greek writers had some interesting views regarding sex. Yea, they get a bad rap these days for being misogynistic child molesters. For whatever reason, a lot of educated Greek men looked at 13 year old boys with lust back in 400 BCE. But most of them knew it was wrong. When they were good, those Greeks from the old days were very good, very wise. With regard to sex in general, they knew that sex was ultimately a mental quality and was not really tied to body features, shapes and textures. And they knew that if sex was about being human, and if being human was about being related, then sex was ultimately about human relations. They had the good sense to ponder the question of whether sex was the reason for the relationship, or was the relationship the reason for sex.

Again, when you’re guy in your teens or twenties, it seems obvious that maintaining a relationship with a woman — which, as you soon find out, isn’t so easy (and I’m sure this applies vice versa) — is mainly what you do as the price of sex. No young guy will say that out loud, for fear of getting cut off from the sweet pleasures; but put a bunch of guys together with some beer, and the topic inevitably turns to the struggle of keeping the woman in their lives satisfied.

The educated Greeks who wrote those wise and witty books and plays in ancient Athens were a little more idealistic about male-female relationships, however. They felt that it was possible for men and women to relate on the basis of character and values, to agree regarding their innermost values and visions. They believed that sex is more of a side-dish, and not the main course. I never read Homer’s Odyssey, but supposedly the story of Penelope and Odysseus exposes this viewpoint. The two of them are really made for one another. Fate separates them and they both have no idea where the other has gone; but since they are soul-mates, they never give up hope and thus never fool around on the side. They are re-united under dangerous and uncertain circumstances in a manner that exposes their one-mindedness. Only after that happens do they get to do the horizontal bop. The sex follows the romance and virtue. Modern American mythology (TV shows, movies, novels) is usually are set up the other way around.

From what I can tell, sex sometimes leads to a temporary state of mental transcendence (“when it’s good”, as they say). For a few seconds, the world seems to drop away, including all the interesting frills and flesh that seemed so exciting just a few minutes ago. You seem to be floating in a bodiless world where everything is all right. It’s something like music (again, good music, not the crummy stuff). Time doesn’t seem to matter; nothing is moving because everything is moving. Very nice. But then time comes back and the vision ends. You’re back where you started, back in the real world all sweaty and disheveled; it’s time to clean up and do whatever you’ve got to do to get along with whomever you might be with (you want to avoid that insect stuff where the female kills the male after mating).

I’m told that this transcendent sensation is basically what you’re shooting for when you shoot heroin. I can say from experience that in meditation you can also approach such a mental state (but it ain’t easy or reliable). And there are other non-sexual experiences, however rare, that bring people to the edge of transcendence, e.g. moments of great accomplishment and achievement, moments of fulfillment.

Back to sex …. when you’re young and full of hormones, it’s generally easy to achieve this level of transcendence. You might not even need someone else to participate, not at first anyway. Even after you get beyond that stage, however, you still don’t need to know all that much about whomever you convince to rub flesh with you. Love is nice, but lust is the main event. However, as you get into your 30s and 40s, the hormones start to recede. Mother Nature is leaving you on the side of the road; after the age of 30 or so, you’re not as good a prospect for getting a woman pregnant and then helping raise and protect the offspring as a 20 year old is. So, it just ain’t as much fun anymore, and you spend increasing amounts of time watching football versus chasing a member of the opposite sex around.

If you’re lucky, you eventually find out that love is important after all. For some odd reason, being in love is in an aphrodisiac. Even if the person you love isn’t quite as soft and curvy and attractive as it once took to turn you on, that person will still be sexy to you if you can somehow find reasons to love that person. (The biggest problem here in America is that most guys fall in love based on a woman’s initial sexiness; eventually that initial sexiness fades away with age, and then what have you got left?)

The human mind is a very flexible thing. It is programmed by nature to make you feel sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex whose bodies signal good reproductive qualities: i.e., youth, curvy hips for easy child delivery, and large breasts for good nutrition. (For now, let’s not consider the 4% or so who are programmed to be gay). Those are the mind’s default settings. But like a computer, the default settings can be changed. Even if a woman is no longer young and curvy and soft and thin and unwrinkled, she can still turn a guy on if she and that guy are soul-mates. After 20 years apart, Odysseus had the right to look at Penelope and say, hey babe, you’ve changed … you ain’t the fox that I once knew. But love and passion were still there after all, because the two of them saw the world in the same way.

Moral of the story: Sex may not be overrated, but it is over-depended upon. Here in the US, we depend upon sex as the reason for marriage and ultimately for life. Homer seemed to know that set-up wouldn’t work. There are other reasons for life, and they should be the ultimate reasons for marriage — and sex. Only if marriage is based on those reasons, and not on sex, will the sex remain good for the long haul. Yea, that’s one of those Zen-like paradoxes.

And just what are those “other reasons for life”? Well, they vary from person to person. For some people it’s science. You read about those wonderful lifelong marriages between scientists, where husband and wife were partners in their research (e.g., the Curies). For some, it’s art (yea, I know that artists are temperamental and marriages between writers or actors or painters or musicians often don’t do well; but you have some examples like Paul Newman). For many, it’s homemaking; the man likes to fix up the house and the woman likes to decorate; their lovely home is their mutual creation. And also childrearing; a tough project, but when it goes right, I suspect that it becomes the glue that keeps a lot of marriages together. And you do hear about those humanitarian-instinct couples, e.g. who go in the Peace Corps together.

Bottom line: Opposites may attract, but ultimately, birds of a feather stick together. If marriage is going to work over the long haul, then the couple has to believe in the same ultimate values and life goals. Looks are important, as is “liking the same things.” But both of these things are overwhelmed by the question of values and directions in life. Finding a soul-mate ain’t easy; believe me, I know. And it’s awfully hard sometimes to decide who is on the same wavelength with you on the “soulmate” level. If everyone waited until they were sure of that before getting married, there would be far fewer divorces, but there would also be far fewer marriages! Still, I think that people need to get away from the illusion that sex will make marriage and life alright (and that Viagra will keep things going once you hit 45), and put more focus on finding whatever it was that Homer envisioned between Penelope and Odysseus.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:40 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, October 25, 2003
Society ...

Back in the 1960s, domestic poverty was a hot political topic. In the 2000s, it’s not. Compassion fatigue at work, I guess. Nonetheless, urban poverty is still there, even if the politicians and the press are tired of it.

One thing from the inner cities that still gets some attention, other than rap music, is the street gang problem. Here in Essex County (Newark, NJ area), we recently had an interesting gang incident. A ghetto kid held up a local grocery and was unlucky enough to still be there when the police arrived. The kid got a little stupid and tried to rough up one of the cops. Had he stayed calm, he would have been out on bail. But, because of his disrespect, the charges got jacked up to second degree. So the kid was gonna be stuck in the county jail for a while.

Here in Essex, we have two county jails; basically one for the Bloods and one for the Crips. That’s not how it was planned, but that’s how it works out these days. Well, the kid in question was put in the Bloods jail, but after a week he told the corrections officers that he was uncomfortable because he was really a Crip. So, he got a bus ride out to the Crips jail. Within an hour of his arrival, a greeting committee rejected his credentials and told him that he’d have to be initiated into the Crips right then and there. I.e., three minutes of pure gang brutality. He agreed and the beating got under way. Unfortunately, after it was over, he was dead. Moral of the story: if you’re gonna pledge a street gang, don’t wait until you’re in prison. Get it done on the street where maybe some of your initiators haven’t been in jail yet and aren’t quite as tough and nasty.

Yes, sorry, that’s a bit cynical of me. The real point here is that the inner cities remain a fault line in the American Dream. Yea, people out there in their Hummers and McMansions don’t seem to be very worried, given that urban folk don’t appear to be doing any rioting these days. That tiff out in Los Angeles in ‘92 turned out to be an isolated incident after all. Ravaging hordes of urban poor aren’t looting and pillaging the suburbs, thank goodness. But the most desperate and dangerous faction, i.e. young men in the 15 to 25 age group, are increasingly turning to street gangs in order to give social and economic meaning to their lives.

Government reports estimate that the total gang population in the U.S. went from around 100,000 in 1980 to over 800,000 in the late 1990s. These studies say that gang membership and activity levels stabilized after 1995, but haven’t really gone down since then. A preliminary survey showed somewhat increased activity in 2002 (when the economy got worse). The number of gangs and gang members has gone down somewhat outside of the major cities, but appears to still be growing within them.

If we assume the number of gang members nationwide to be around 800,000, and about 66% of them are in cities of over 25,000 population (as per a recent government report), then about 530,000 urban males are presently gang members. The US Census indicates that there are about 6 million males between the ages of 15 and 24 in the central cities. So, it’s not far from the mark to say that an average of one in ten young men in the cities are gang members. In the poorest neighborhoods, that number is probably a lot higher. Maybe one in three, perhaps every other young guy in some places.

Scary stuff. There are various projects and programs to keep kids from joining street gangs, and our law enforcement agencies are working hard to bust them when they go over the line — and going over the line with drugs and violence is basically what the gangs are about. (Yes, I know that gang members talk about “love”, but I’ll pick money over love as the main incentive any day — for anything!). Unfortunately, all of the government and foundation-funded programs started thus far are just a spit in the wind. The gang problem hugely outweighs any effect that a nice group of social workers can have by giving presentations to eighth graders, or even what our police and prosecutors and prisons can do on the law enforcement end.

The gang phenomenon basically represents the outcasts of our American society and economy getting organized. So far, they’re not into any political or quasi-religious stuff; their efforts seem mostly aimed at making a living, not unlike the Cosa Nostra of old. Interestingly enough, they are getting more technologically sophisticated; in New Jersey, the Conrail Boyz were experts at using radios and night vision scopes to break into railroad train cars filled with high-value electronics, cigarettes, and other fence-able items. The State busted them a little while ago, but another generation of Boyz seem to have sprung up in place of the original crew. Once the idea is out there, it’s hard to stamp out.

So far, politics and perverted religion and terrorism is not a gang thing (although the Five Percenters are getting into a quasi-Islamic fundamentalist thing these days). But what if at some point they take a page from Hamas and Al Qaeda, after things continue to get worse in their neighborhoods and schools, after they become even more convinced that they have no role to play in our economic and social institutions … not a pretty thought.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:13 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, October 18, 2003
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This blog is more and more becoming the ramblings of a guy crossing the threshold into old age. That guy is me, unfortunately. I’ve already gotten some junk mail from the good old AARP. Those address databases are darn good, had my 50th birthday pegged.

Well, I haven’t joined the AARP yet. I’ve got bigger problems to deal with right now. One of them is my home computer. Actually I shouldn’t complain; the thing has been pretty good. It’s a Dell Dimension P3 tower from the class of 2000. Windows 98 SE has been good to me. SE might have had a second meaning, i.e. “Stable Edition”.

Nonetheless, I had a growing hardware problem. My burner and the Adaptec Easy CD application seemed to be losing it. My CD “coaster” supply was starting to get out of control. Thus, it was finally time to act. I did some research, took a deep breath, and decided it was time to replace the burner. No turning back.

So last night I went over to the local CompUSA to get a Sony 52X CDRW (sorry, I don’t think the Dimension could do DVDs). And it was the usual store crap, the box is behind a locked glass cabinet so you’ve got to go searching for the sales staff. You finally find some unimpressive guy, and he tells you that he doesn’t have the keys, you’ve got to find the manager; “I think he’s over there by the monitors”. Well, you find the manager and of course he’s busy with someone else. So you wait, wait, wait, while he takes his sweet time. Finally you ask him if you can buy a burner, and he reluctantly agrees, like he’s doing you some major favor. I mean, if these stores need to keep stuff locked away, why can’t they just have a desk where you go to get the high-price stuff. Guess that would be too easy.

Anyway, I wake up this morning and realize that the day of reckoning has come. I finally have to take the cover off my computer. Actually, I did that once at work, trying to attach an SCSI scanner drive to an obnoxious Compaq that gave me nothing but trouble (but hey, it was the company’s, not mine). The drive didn’t take and the tech support guys had to come in. They later told me that they couldn’t get it to work either. So I didn’t kill anything, but I didn’t get anything done that time either.

Well, I looked over the instructions after breakfast and realized that they weren’t written for “starting-to-get-old” people who perhaps haven’t done stuff like changing hardware components before. I was on my own. I started unplugging cables and fiddling with a pull-back tab on the top, finally getting the cover off without anything snapping or flying off into the void. When that happens, you get a sickening feeling in the stomach and a strong sense that things aren’t ever going to be the same, i.e., it’s gonna cost you to have someone fix what you just broke. Anyway, there it all was, the burner, the floppy drive, the power supply, the motherboard, the hard drive, lots of wires … and lots of dust! (Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return … ) Darn, this thing really needed a spring cleaning, even though it’s autumn. There were cobwebs down near the bottom; I saw a spider running along over the motherboard!

Then came the main event. The surgery was about to begin. I started shaking a bit and had to take a few deep breaths. Told myself, don’t rush anything and don’t force anything, as my Dad used to tell me as a kid (when I used to force everything I touched, with predictable results). So I used a light touch to jiggle the connectors around and nothing seemed to happen. But finally some things did happen. The old box came out and the new box went in. Connectors were plugged back in, the cover went back on, and cables were reconnected. Now came the real moment of truth. Time to boot up and face the consequences of plug and pray.

Will miracles never cease…. The system recognized the component. I put a data CD in, and lo and behold, Windows Explorer let me open a file on it. Next, an audio disk. I’ll be darned, I still have music! And now, time to put in the burning software. I wish it was Roxio or Nero, but Sony gives you B’s Recorder, whatever the heck that is. Well, I guess it ain’t that bad. It seems to work, although not without some typical modern software sleaziness. First, the drag and drop program only works with CDRW’s, whereby the good old Roxio-Adaptec Direct CD let you do it with regular CD-R’s. Growl. Second, “B” has a CD ripper that lets you save to MP3 … sounds like a nice bonus, except when you find out that you can only do it for 20 songs, then you’ve gotta pay to get the upgrade. Yea, right, well maybe I’ll just rip to WAV and use my CoolEdit 2000 to convert to MP3 (darn that was a good, reasonably priced application … curses on Adobe for killing it).

So, it looks like I got thru an adventure in PC-land in one piece (so far, anyway …). The new burner is supposedly 52X, but they really don’t think you should go over 40X. And actually, the new software seems to go thru more steps than the old Adaptec, so the process of burning may actually now be slower! But if it stops all the coaster production and gives me nice CD burns that I can still use in five years (should I live that long), it will have been worth it.

Speaking about being older but wiser, I’ve also decided to start using decent CDs. I once lost about 40 hours of work once on a Memorex CD that went bad, and saw some other ones corrupt on me at the wrong time. I just got a spindle of TDKs rated for 52X, figuring that if I run them at 40X it will more likely give me an accurate, stable burn. No more buying the cheap stuff (which was maybe why my old burner went south). Well, actually, maybe I’ll still use the cheap stuff for transfer purposes, e.g. when you want to give someone some a few pix or files on a disk and you don’t expect to get it back. But as to archiving stuff (so as to keep your hard drive from clogging up), stick to the good CDs.

Hey, when you get my age, you realize that you aren’t going to be remembered very long after you’re gone. So it’s important to put your thoughts and creations on good CDs, as form of digital legacy. At least then you can live and die with the hope that something that you did will be of interest to someone in the future, and will be available on a readable disk. Perhaps Verbatim will soon advertise its CDs in the AARP magazine, calling them “Data After-Life Plus”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:07 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
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THE PROBLEM WITH MONKS AND MONASTERIES, PART 2: This is a follow-up to my last entry on Monday. Again, be warned that it’s a yawner, unless you’re a semi-religious introvert like me.

I have visited several monasteries and had even considered joining one. Admittedly I was influenced by those current-day writers who have rediscovered monasticism and have glorified monks as 21st Century gurus (e.g., Kathleen Norris’ “Dakota” and “Cloister Walk”, and Frank Lentriccia’s “Edge of Night”). These writers were drawn by the strange medieval beauty of the monastic ceremonies. I myself have experienced the feeling you get from standing in a circle in a dank, dark basement chapel at 4 in the morning holding flickering candles and chanting verses from the Psalms. There is something to it, something that overcomes the insult to the body of being up in the pre-dawn chill.

But after watching monks live their daily lives, I decided against making a career out of it. I now think that monasticism is an idea whose time has gone. Why should a modern American or European voluntarily give up the many possibilities for human enrichment that our society offers? E.g., travel, education, career achievement, art, culture, public service, and yes, romance and sexuality? I’ll be the first to admit that society has very distorted guidelines about what “the good life” means, tainted by materialism, politics and sexual immaturity. But to deny all these possibilities for a life of severe simplicity, strict authority and repetitive worship seems to be throwing out many babies with the dirty bathwater.

Monasticism has been protected and preserved mostly by the Catholic Church, because many of the Church’s social ideals stem from the medieval world where monasticism reigned supreme. I suggest that it’s time for the Catholics and Orthodox to take monasticism off life support and let it die a natural death. The days of Cluny are long gone, although the Vatican still deals with its flock as if they weren’t.

However, there is something to be preserved from the monastic legacy. Being a monk for life was NOT something that Jesus would have recommended. However, Jesus did recognize the value of getting away from it all for a while, i.e the forty days in the desert. Monasticism as a permanent vow makes no sense at all; but a year or two of a disciplined, ascetic life of prayer, away from the over-stimulation of modern society, would probably do wonders for most of us. (And a week or two retreat every now and then is a good thing too). Monasticism is not in itself an authentic life, but it could well be part of an authentic life’s formation. And not just for priests or nuns or other gurus, but for everyone.

And I’m not just talking about Catholics here either, although they and the Orthodox are most heavily invested in the monastic tradition. This idea works just as well for Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Moslems and Buddhists (interesting that the Buddhists have their own form of monasticism).

All the major religions should make it possible for adults to “drop out” of their lives for a year or two when the time seems right, as a means of spiritual realization and inner formation. Two good years of manual work and regular chanting and getting up at 3 am and not watching TV or using the net or seeing hyped-up images of sexy strangers everywhere you look would do a lot of good. It would help put life in perspective and deepen one’s faith in this crazy universe. And you’d be doing it with others, building community and friendships that could last the rest of your life. The churches would never have a better chance to help people make the basic decisions that would help them to become better people.

Sounds great. Where do I sign up?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:23 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, October 13, 2003
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THE PROBLEM WITH MONKS AND MONASTERIES, PART I: This one is probably not going to make the high priority list of the Google gods (nor the Yahoo gods, nor the Netscape Search gods, nor the AOL Search gods, etc.). But hey, the world has a lot of stuff that bores the heck out of most people, but someone had to care about it or else it wouldn’t be there to bore the rest of the crowd. So here’s my shout out on a real thriller …. the problem with monks and monasteries.

(No, this rant is not about the sexual abuse crisis within the priesthood. That seems to be a problem mostly for parish priests. Which is not to say that monks don’t have their sexual problems, or that some of the Benedictines who run high schools and colleges haven’t done some bad things with their students. But I have nothing to add to that topic, since thankfully I wasn’t a victim of it. I want to consider some of the overall problems with the idea of being a monk. So no, this ain’t about sex — although in a way it is. Sex is one topic you can never really get away from.)

I’m not much into religion these days but I’m still interested in monks and monasteries. I secretly hope that a religion will emerge someday that I can believe in and that believes in what I do. Monastic mysticism will hopefully be a part of that religion. Monks represent the quiet, introverted side of religion. They go about seeking a mystical oneness with God in a quiet and humble manner — in theory, anyway. Being a born introvert and a wanna-be mystic, that appeals to me. But as to there actually being monks and monasteries in this new religion, well…

Christian monks and monasteries go way back to the Third Century. The idea of heading out into the desert to live a life of prayer and silence didn’t exactly come from Jesus — he kept his desert retreat down to six weeks. Still, by the end of the Third Century, many Christians felt that isolation was a great way to follow Jesus. So, the idea took off — remember that Christian were still being persecuted by the Romans at that point, and the desert was perhaps a safer place to be. Not that monks and hermits were ever really mainstream — even at the peak of their popularity during the Middle Ages, monks were probably never more than 10% of the Christian population. So it was a fringe group, but a highly favored one. Monks took a vow to be unquestionably obedient to their abbots and to the church. Because of the sacrifices that monks made, i.e. no sex, no personal property, and no luxuries, the Pope and his bishops got to like them. Monks were seen as being the spiritual Marine Corps. Church leaders started saying that they were closer to God and to Heaven than the average village slob and wench who got married and raised kids.

If you studied the Middle Ages in any detail, you know that there were thousands of monasteries in Europe around Y1K, each with hundreds of monks in residence. Just about every river valley had one. Today, there are maybe a hundred or two in Europe (somewhat more if you count the Orthodox ones), perhaps another hundred or less in the USA, and maybe another hundred throughout the rest of the world. Each of them has perhaps 20 to 50 monks, mostly old men. And even that represents a revival; between 1750 and 1850, the monastic movement was thought to have been wiped out by the Reformation and the various revolutions going on in Europe.

So why was monasticism once such a hot ticket, and why did it die off in modern times? The answer to the second part is easy: sex. It just ain’t easy these days to live without it. When you’re fed properly, your body is programmed to reproduce; the urge is very strong. Back in the Middle Ages, people generally weren’t fed properly. Aside from sex, another issue is self-autonomy … who wants to be the servant of some sexually frustrated old abbot? Or even worse, some unfrustrated old abbot … (see, you just can’t get away from the topic of sex).

My hunch is that giving up sex and personal independence wasn’t such a crazy thing when you consider what the options were in the Middle Ages. Living on your own as a peasant with a plot of land or as a tradesman in some village, it wasn’t too hard to die young from some plague or some bandits or some invading army plundering the land. You really had to struggle to get through the winter; if you lived, you were going to be cold and miserable most of the time. By comparison, the monks didn’t have it so bad. Strangely enough, monasteries were one of the few “economic engines” of the Middle Ages. They were organized as miniature collectives with strong leadership such that they cleared land and farmed crops and practiced crafts more efficiently than anyone else. Many monasteries came to own a lot of land and became rich, despite their theoretical devotion to poverty. So, in return for a pledge to do as told and not to have sex (which wasn’t always enforced anyway), a monk had a lot more access to food, warmth, shelter and security than the average peasant.

But of course, times eventually changed. Along came the Renaissance and monasteries were no longer the only way to get rich. Also the Protestants came along and exposed the spiritual hypocrisy of wealthy and powerful monks. Then came the Enlightenment and its revolutions, and the monks were picked clean and told to go back to their native villages (if they weren’t beheaded or burnt at the stake).

And yet, monasticism somehow survived, although on a much smaller scale. Monasteries managed to take root within America after 1850. In the 1950s and 1960s, monasticism gained a popular spokesman, the writer Thomas Merton (a Trappist monk from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky; Merton died in 1968). Merton’s books attracted a lot of men to the “holy life” of the cloister, and by 1960 monasteries seemed to be making a comeback. But along with Merton, the spiritual appeal of monasticism got swept away in the social turbulence of the late 60s. Today, most of the monasteries barely hold on. Few young men in the US or Europe want to give up so much in exchange for an ancient and uncertain path to inner fulfillment. (However, monasteries in Africa and South America are supposedly doing better — that’s not surprising, given that conditions in those places are often similar to Europe in the Middle Ages).

To be Continued … yawn.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:02 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, October 10, 2003
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THE GOOGLE GODS: Just a note of thanks to the gods of Google. You have looked down upon my humble little abode on the World Wide Web and decided to allow me a few bits of space on your world wide servers. OK, so most of my pages don’t make your high priority list. But hey, I’m not complaining. I acknowledge your power. Once or twice I wrote something that got your attention and you moved one of my pages into the spotlight. The hits came fast and furious — well, sort of, anyway — until you lost interest and sent me back to the minor leagues. Well, what the heck. That’s the way it is these days — one day famous, the next day forgotten. (And hey, no offense either to MSN, Yahoo, AOLSearch, etc.).

THE JESUS DIET: I still can’t believe the diets that people are eating these days. The big thing now is to scuttle the carbs and gorge on fats and proteins. You know, Atkins, South Beach, all that stuff. To be honest, it all seems rather crude to me. Lots of meat, no grains or veggies — the breakfast of killers. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times. Aggression is in the air today. The summer of love is long gone and forgotten. The idea is to fight and kill for your chance to own a McMansion, drive a Hummer, and leave behind three or four nasty little inheritors of your assertive genes. Arnold Schwarzenegger is your new Caesar. Diets that make you feel mellow, peaceful and humble are not in vogue at present.

Personally, I still like mellowness and peacefulness. I eat plenty of bread and other carbs, some vegetable protein, and very little fat. I’ve maintained 130 pounds for the past 20 years. And as you might guess, I don’t own a McMansion (nor any other sort of real estate), don’t have a track record of on-going career achievement, don’t have a Hummer nor any other sort of SUV, and don’t have any kids. So call me a loser; I guess that all those carbs have made me lazy and sleepy. I mostly slept through the 1990s, and the 00’s haven’t shown me much reason for waking up either.

I suppose that my own high-carb, low-fat diet ain’t gonna be selling many copies anytime soon. It does keep you skinny, but people today want to be skinny and successful. Well, have fun. I’m gonna keep on breaking my daily bread every noontime and sunset. If a certain food was important enough for Jesus to have mentioned in his credo, it’s good enough for me. (And yes, I do bake my own sometimes — a religious experience in itself … see pic below).

 

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:33 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, October 5, 2003
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We’re going through a big management shake-up where I work, and it make me think about the nature of evil. Yea, evil. Just what is evil? I guess we know it when we see it or experience it. Unfortunately, we don’t see it as clearly when we’re a part of it.

Is evil really a primary force of the metaphysical universe, or is a side effect of something else? Way back in ancient Persia the Zoroastrians saw the metaphysical realm as being governed by a good god and an evil god who were in constant battle. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Devil was given his due as the prince of evil. But as a fallen angel, the Devil was of a lesser rank than God. The Devil was given a realm called hell, but with moral strength we could avoid that place.

The Christian religious philosophers emphasize evil as a side effect of free will. The Buddhists see the world as inherently evil, or sort-of anyway. Actually, anything you say about Buddhism has to be prefaced with the phrase “sort-of”. It’s hard to pin them down. But they don’t seem very optimistic about finding happiness in this world or through any experiences available in this world; annihilation of desire and world-consciousness seems to be their recommended path to Nirvana.

The secular philosophers also ruminated on the idea of evil. Plato and Aristotle pondered the existence of evil in the human character, Nietzsche went beyond good and evil (where that was, who the heck knows), and others tried to integrate the dark side of humanity into a sophisticated theory of everything.

In the world of folk legend, there are many different evil spirits out there. Some of them do nasty things in a direct if ghostly way, e.g. poltergeists, while others act as corrupting agents in the souls of men and women. That’s the kind of evil spirit that interests me. Not the Linda Blair version, the devil spirit that turns children into yellow-eyed monsters (who needs a devil to turn kids into monsters anyway?). I’m thinking more about social factors that make regular people capable of doing terrible things (domestic violence, child molesting, selling drugs, torture, murder, etc.).

In the New Testament, Jesus certainly seemed to believe that people got infected with evil spirits. He was able to call those spirits out of people, being an exorcist extraordinaire. Just what did those spirits do to people? In the Gospels, they seemed to make people rather sick and unsociable, but not necessarily dangerous. The idea behind New Testament demonology was that people are essentially healthy and good, but they sometimes get infected by something foreign. With proper attention, though, they can be ridded of the foreign influence and brought back to health.

Interestingly, Jesus didn’t see evil spirits within the context of criminology. The people who came to him for help didn’t seem to be liars, cheaters, robbers, murders or rapists. So, we can’t quite use the New Testament as the basis for a theory of criminal evil. But my gut feeling is that evil is some kind of accumulation of bad karma that overtakes a potentially good person and turns him or her into a criminal. Everyone has some evil in them, everyone has done bad things and hurt others. But some people just live in extremely bad circumstances, and wind up being corrupted to the point of being dangerous to society.

Like Jesus, though, I’d like to think that everyone is still potentially good in nature, and no matter how much bad they do, you shouldn’t lose faith that the evil in them can somehow be pulled out (even if we don’t quite always know how). That is why I’m against the death penalty.

As to my own work situation, amidst the people who are sworn to fight crime, there’s a sub-criminal form of evil going on. Because of all the uncertainty and fear caused by a new management situation, many people are going around “stabbing” others in the back through innuendo and blame passing. I’ve already had some of the mud splashed at me; I’m an easy scapegoat target. Well, hopefully the situation will calm down and the mud will stop flying. But if not, I’m tempted to show up there one morning with holy water and perform an exorcism.

Or at least play a Charlie Daniels CD, i.e. “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:57 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, October 3, 2003
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OK, so it’s October now and it’s starting to get cold again and dark earlier. Summer is over. It’s a good time to think about times of taking.

The October Atlantic Magazine has an interesting fiction piece about a guy who BASE jumps off the Gateway Arch in St. Louis during the night. He gets into a relationship with a college girl who wants to become a BASE jumper in order to deal with her fears. Toward the end of the story when the relationship is falling apart, the guy concludes “it’s a time when things are taken away”. He’s having a big thought about life right then. Zen-man that he is, he realizes that things run in streaks. Sometimes life gives us plenty of good things, and sometimes the good things are taken from us whether we like it or not.

What kinds of things? Friends, lovers, money, jobs, cars, favorite hangouts, our good times, our health, eventually our lives. The theory here is that there’s some sort of cosmic force at work, something much bigger than all of us, something that variously gives and takes from us throughout the course of our lives.

Here are a few manifestations of this theory. In this past week’s West Wing (TV show), President Bartlet / Martin Sheen was reunited with his daughter Zoey after she was kidnapped by terrorists. Bartlet had temporarily given up his office during the crisis (to John Goodman, for Pete’s sake!), but he was now back in command. In his “I’m back” speech to the nation, he used the old line about God giving and God taking away. Furthermore, there’s the Old Testament book of Ecclesiates, saying there is a time to seek and a time to lose (recall the lyrics of the 1960s Byrds song “Turn Turn Turn”). So, the idea has been around for awhile.

I think this is a good way of looking at life. You might as well accept that there are times of ecstasy when much is given to you, and there are painful times when much that you value is taken away. Perhaps all that you value will be snatched away … nothing is secure. And when the time of taking comes, there isn’t much you can do to stop it. All you’ve got at that point is damage control, and hopefully some faith. Faith that the times of giving will come back someday, somehow, if your faith can persevere. But no, it sure ain’t easy or fun.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:12 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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