The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Sunday, November 30, 2003
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MUSICA: I’m old enough to remember the days when “rock and roll” was quite broadly defined, encompassing everything from Van Morrison to Van Halen. You could go back and forth between the different rock stations in your neighborhood and they’d all be playing pretty much the same mix, although it was a broad mix ranging from pre-disco to early metal, even James Taylor ballads. You could go to Boston or Atlanta or Omaha or Sacramento and you’d hear pretty much the same stuff. The world was a familiar place. You could even memorize the names of band members (Kiss was the last one that I did that for).

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

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

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

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

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

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:19 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, November 27, 2003
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So, I’ve lived to see my fiftieth Thanksgiving. And I suppose that I should be thankful for that. Thanksgiving is obviously meant to be a day for giving thanks. Ironically, it comes during the later part of the autumn season here in North America, a melancholy time when another cold, dark winter is setting in. If you really wanted to feel thankful on Thanksgiving, late April or early May would probably have been a better time for it.

I agree that there is need for thankfulness, given that people don’t fully appreciate the gifts and possibilities of human life, i.e. of love, beauty, art, accomplishment, intelligence, collaboration, understanding and wisdom. On the other side of the coin, being human is not an unmixed blessing. There’s still a lot of pain attached to each and every life, lots of disappointment, lots of sickness, lots of stupidity, lots of misunderstanding, lots of fear, lots of weakness, lots of loneliness, lots of anger and lots of hate. We have the brains to define an ideal of human civilization, but we aren’t able to live up to it. So, there are a lot of things about living that are NOT to be thankful for.

In sum, being a human in the year 2003 is a mixed bag. Maybe it’s getting better over the years, and maybe it’s not. There were two articles in the NY Times that recently explored both sides of the issue. On the pessimistic side, there was an article on Nov. 25th in the Science section about our genetic similarities with chimpanzees, who have made warfare a natural part of life. Male chimps have the inbred urge to band together, mark off territory, defend it, and try to expand it by raiding other male gangs who have similarly marked off their own boundaries. Scientific observations have proven that these chimps are not playing; if one chimp “army” is stronger than the other, it will kill as many enemy chimps as possible, and even wipe out a neighboring colony if possible. It seems to be a genetic thing.

The big question is, do humans have a similar genetic set-up? As the Rolling Stones song goes, are we all “Monkey Men”? Another Times article, on Nov. 11, seemed to argue that we aren’t. Sure, there are a lot of similarities between our propensity to war and that of the chimp, and we do share 98% of a chimp’s genetics. But there is a chance that we are just victims of misunderstandings and circumstances, and that we can yet learn not to be such animals when faced with frustrating circumstances.

I’m on the fence about this. I’d like to think that aggression and war is just a big mistake and that people can be taught the value of tolerance, cooperation and peace. On the other side of the coin, just when are we going to start seeing some evidence of such a learning process? There seems to have been war ever since humans gained the language tools and other means to organize on a large scale. Everyone seems to know that war ultimately makes things worse for the overall lot of humankind; even if it benefits a group in the immediate future, it obviously sets a precedent that will eventually harm that group’s children and grandchildren. And yet, the urge to war is very strong, almost as mysterious and intractable as the urge to sex. People just naturally agree to war as the preferred option to resolve their unhappiness, even when they know there will be hell to pay for using it (recall the high approval ratings for the war in Iraq back in March; interestingly, they are down quite a bit since then, from around 80% to around 55%). War really does seem as strongly grounded in our genes as the sexual drive is. That’s just my two cents, you can find people who know a whole lot more about genetics and anthropology than me who argue that this is not true.

But then again, I don’t think that the urge to aggression and war, even if genetically based, is unstoppable. We also have a genetic ability and propensity to think. Flexibility is the calling card of the human species. Chimpanzees can live in warm climates with lots of fruit trees, but not in deserts or mountains or arctic regions. Humans can live in such areas, because they can think out new responses to environmental challenges. So I haven’t given up hope that someday, our species will think up ways to avoid the stupidity and destruction of warfare. For that I’m thankful. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to live to see that day. For that, I’m quite sad. An appropriate paradox for a holiday of thankfulness set in the melancholy month of November.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:43 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, November 20, 2003
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The Eternal Student “Civilization Ain’t Dead Yet” Award: This one goes out to Nickleback for the cover of their latest CD “The Long Road”. I saw it in Best Buys the other day and said to myself “My God, Impressionism!” Let’s hope that other bands get the idea of incorporating classic art within their marketing plans.

Note of Caution to Not-Quite-Geeks: Be careful in disposing of a broken computer or any storage media, including CDs, floppys, hard drives, whatever. Someone recently told me that there’s a little industry forming, made up of people who roam around landfills or cruise through suburban neighborhoods on junk collection day, looking for thrown-out computers. They take ’em home and hook the storage media up to a diagnostic machine, searching it for files or memories containing Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, passwords, registration numbers, etc. Obviously they sometimes find things of value, or else they wouldn’t be doing this. Good old identity theft. I’m not an expert at how to permanently destroy memory – there are probably web sites that deal with this. But do keep the overall problem in mind when you throw computer-related stuff out.

Not-So-Famous-Last-Words: Back in 2000 we got some new computer equipment at work and they gave me a PC with an external USB drive meant for Imation “Super Disks”. Super Disks were a nice idea, a three and one-half inch “floppy” that had enhanced media inside holding 120 megs of data, not the usual 1.44 megs of regular floppys. Sure, CDRW was prevalent by then, but CD drives seemed clunky and slow compared to a floppy drive (and still do). The Super Disk seemed like a happy compromise, easy to use and carry but still holding a lot of stuff.

So, when I ordered a Dell for home, I shelled out an extra $50 for a floppy drive that reads LS-120 Super Disks. I figured that they couldn’t miss. Imation was quite optimistic too. On the back of each Super Disk case it said “Here to Stay. Super Disk will become the new standard disk drive … soon you’ll see Super Disk Drives built into desktop PC,s notebooks, external drives … It’s the technology with staying power”.

The prophecy was not to be fulfilled. Imation never let the price go below $10 a disk (which was reasonable compared to a regular floppy, given that it held 80 times as much data, but no contest against a 50 cent CD that held 5 times more than the Super Disk).

So, Super Disks have gone the way of the eight-track tape. I’ve got seven disks at home and I still like to use them. But obviously I don’t put anything on them that isn’t backed up somewhere else. Sic transit gloria …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:55 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, November 16, 2003
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For me, one of the scariest things about the Muslim world and culture is its general lack of humor … at least any sort of humor that we westerners would recognize. That’s a major barrier, something that blocks the finding of common ground and cultural understanding. However, I just read about Shabana Rehman, the 26 year old Muslim “standupkomiker” from Norway (as she is described on her web site). She hails from Karachi, Pakistan, but migrated with family to northern Europe at a young age.

Ms. Rehman gives it to the fundamentalists right in the eye, coming on stage wrapped in a traditionalist burka and then throwing it off to do the rest of her routine in a cocktail dress. She also has choice comments about western-liberal political correctness (which still has some fans up in the Scandinavian countries). The Norwegian liberals aren’t exactly complaining, but the radical Muslims often harass her or cause a scene at her shows. (She probably works it into the act, and the liberals just figure it was all staged).

Ms. Rehman is showing the power of comedy to make people think. She’s taking some heavy risks to build bridges where the bullets and mortars are still flying. I definitely take my hat off to her. Some of her stuff is a bit over the top, e.g. the photo of her in the nude with the flag of Norway painted on her skin that appeared recently in some European political magazine. But hey, artists sometimes get brash to make a point. Ms. Rehman is making a lot of points, but the one I like the most is that we should all ultimately define ourselves according to our own internal standards; we should not have it dictated to us by our family, our home country, our adopted culture, our religious traditions, our fashion setters, our TV advertisements, etc.

I think that Ms. Rehman is saying that we need to lessen our desire to be just another sheep in the flock, another bee in the hive. We’re humans, not insects. We can create and recreate ourselves into something totally unique, just as each snowflake is like no other. We can pick and choose our own interests, our own fashions, our own traditions, and our own beliefs, regardless of how popular they are. If Indian head pennies or Amish quilts or Easter Island idols or 70’s pop music or school board politics (or even blogging) appeal to your soul – well, go for it. But just remember, other people’s souls are drawn to totally different things, and you’ve gotta respect and tolerate their preferences if you’re gonna expect any respect for your own.

If you check out Ms. Rehman’s web site, you won’t get too much from it unless you can read Norwegian. But there’s one picture there that sez it all, no translation needed. Ms. Rehman is dressed in traditional Middle Eastern female attire, with some kind of jewel over her forehead. And yet, she’s holding a pair of skis. Most excellent! That’s the ultimate weapon against the people who train suicide bombers and terrorists. And as Ms. Rehman points out, we westerners also need to break out of our molds, the ones that affluence and economic freedom paradoxically create. We need to do some independent thinking ourselves in the face of consumerism and crafty marketing strategies (I mean, if political operatives really think that the typical ads you see around election time can convince people to vote for their candidate, then Americans ain’t got their thinking caps on right).

P.S. one element of my own individuality is my taste for craft-brewed dark beers (OK, not exactly cutting edge anymore, but still pretty good for a guy who grew up drinking Coke and Pepsi all day – can’t even touch that stuff anymore, surprised that anyone over the age of 18 still drinks that glop). I haven’t offered too many reviews here, but I just tried a new one that raised my eyebrows. It’s called Old Heathen Imperial Stout by Weyerbacher, brewed near the Delaware River in Easton, PA. Weyerbacher is not as fashionable as the various craft brewers from Colorado, Oregon or Vermont, and it’s had its problems with light beers (some of which are downright skunky). But Weyerbacher seems to know dark beers rather well (they’ve had a nice raspberry stout for some time), and this one hits the nail right on the head. It’s full-bodied but not syrupy, smooth and maybe even silky, with plenty of dark chocolate and coffee tones. It has a nice lacy head to it, neither foamy nor flat.

This is alcohol as it was meant to be – expensive, well done, to be sipped and savored in moderation, and not gulped down in a drunken stupor. Moslem fundamentalists seem to fear alcohol (although the 9-11 terrorists had no problem belting it down), while typical Americans and western Europeans are too prone to get drunk. It’s up to the radical individualists like Shabana Rehman to find the middle ground. Perhaps Weyerbacher should send her a complementary six of Old Heathen. It’s probably a great beer for the long, cold winters up in Norway.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:06 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
Spirituality ...

The Buddhists supposedly have a credo that goes as follows:

Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Gee, I didn’t think that the Buddhists were in such a sweat about death. One of the things I always admired about disciples of the Buddha was their belief in reincarnation. I grew up in the Catholic faith, which like most Christian religions taught that we get only one chance at heaven. If we don’t cut the mustard in this life, there are no second chances. If the clock runs out on you with one unforgiven mortal sin on your slate, it’s off to hell with you. (As though life on earth isn’t hell enough).

For those of you who have experienced the more fundamentalist Protestant sects, it may come as a surprise to learn that the Roman Catholics are just as paranoid about the final judgment as any Calvinist. But they are. My guess is that they wish to discourage moral sloth. Rome knows from millenniums of experience that many if not most people are on the lookout for an angle. If the Church were to ease up on the moral rules a bit, someone with a sharp legal mind (or a good attorney) is surely going to misuse the system. So the Catholics keep the standards strict, so as to make sure that souls are not cast into hell because they didn’t understand the rules properly. In other words, the Pope doesn’t want to die and have St. Peter inform him that he has a class-action lawsuit pending against him on the part of the souls in hell who claim they were not properly informed.

The Buddhist doctrine in reincarnation would obviously be greatly abused by such shrewd counselors of moral law. The soul looking to justify live a life full of sinful power and pleasure without worry of eternal consequences would obviously say, what the heck, I’ll have my greedy pleasures in this life and get around to making up for it in some future go-round. Eventually I’ll get to heaven. No eternal flames to worry about, I’ll get as many chances as I want.

(Sidenote: George Bernard Shaw had an interesting take on the afterlife in Man and Superman / Don Juan In Hell. According to Shaw, Hell is a place where you can do whatever you like and have all the powers and sensual pleasures that you please, non-stop. There are no flames, no suffering, no rules, no curfews, and no one stopping you from leaving. Don Juan obviously winds up there, but after a while starts to get sick of it. In the end he walks away, looking for the real heaven. In other words, even a rogue like Don Juan can eventually find spiritual maturity and moral integrity.)

Personally, I like the reincarnation view. Most peoples’ lives just don’t seem long enough and rich enough to set them on the path to eternal wisdom. This world just doesn’t seem like a good place to realize a sense of true fulfillment. After a frustrating day at work, I often console myself by thinking, “maybe in another life …”

But once in a blue moon you do meet someone who seems close to the ultimate truth and who seems endowed with the power to achieve things that are humane, intelligent and truly worthwhile. (And of course you often run across those who are far from it; anyone who drives regularly in northern New Jersey will experience several of those souls on any given day). So it does seem as though people come into the world with varying amounts of pre-fixed spiritual wisdom, unspoken wisdom that guides the course and conduct of their life. That idea obviously is a totally subjective notion on my part; I couldn’t imagine any way to scientifically test it.

So it surprises me to find that Buddhists chant a prayer at their services that encourages them to worry about time running out. You’d think that they would instead cite the phrase that confirmed Arnold’s pop idol status: “I’ll Be Back”. Just imagine someone on his or her death bed after a life that went to waste, a total loser, didn’t accomplish anything significant, all their dreams and visions went up in smoke, everything was a crash and burn … and with their last breath and a defiant look in their eye … you get the picture. Didn’t Jesus of Nazareth say something like this? And in a way, wasn’t he right? (I don’t believe in the physical resurrection, of course, but through the history and spiritual longings of his successors, the life of Jesus of Nazareth continued and is still going strong).

Of course, many Buddhists would add another word to this line: “Unfortunately”. The Tibetian Book of the Dead is a set of prayers to be said on the death of someone, begging that the departed soul not come back but instead find its way to Nirvana. If it does come back, the Book prays in the alternative that the soul’s next earthly incarnation be the final run. The Buddhists supposedly don’t believe in God, but then again why would they sing out prayerful petitions upon the death of a loved one if they didn’t think that some transcendent entity was listening?

I guess I still don’t understand the Buddhists. Perhaps that’s as it should be. The Buddhists, for all their human faults, are a people close to mystery. And mystery obviously wouldn’t be mystery if it were understood.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:00 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, November 7, 2003
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A THOUSAND WORDS ARE WORTH A PICTURE: For all you booklovers out there, here’s the motif above the door at the local library.



To be honest, I don’t use the public library much any more. If I want to read a book I schlep over to Borders or log on to Amazon and buy it. If I want to look something up, I check out Google. But hey, I’m glad to pay tax dollars to keep the libraries open. They’re outposts of civility and reason in an increasingly uncivilized world. Well, at least they are when kids aren’t jammed into them, fooling around while pretending to be doing homework.

The mini-computer is doing the public library harm in more ways than one. There are all sorts of computers available in the libraries these days with all sorts of referencing tools. I myself have no idea how to use them. Because of short staffing due to budget cutbacks, it’s hard to find anyone to explain how they work. I was taught the old ways of finding things in libraries (card files, periodical indexes), and those old ways are all gone. The local library may still be a gold mine of information, but I have almost no way of getting at it.

Nevertheless, I still like to stop in and wander around a library every now and then, amidst the other lonely old psychos and losers you usually find in them. The ideas and ideals behind and within the libraries are still an inspiration and are still worth preserving.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:55 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, November 4, 2003
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MISTAKEN IDENTITY: I used to watch the X-Files on occasion, although I never became a true X-cult member (I suppose that I don’t really want to believe). That show was a bit too graphic and violent for me. Nonetheless, the underlying theme of an alien invasion conspiracy was rather intriguing. Not that I believe that there really is something like that, but it made for a good story (when they used it; I never liked the “rogue monster” episodes).

The scene from the X-Files that I remember most was the time that Mulder’s public identity had somehow been shifted through alien magic to some other guy, and the real Mulder was being hunted down as a dangerous renegade. If memory serves me (which these days is not guaranteed), everyone thought that Fletcher was Mulder, Fletcher being some bit part guy who showed up every now and then for reasons never fully explained (just like everything else in the X Files). Towards the end of that episode, Agent Mulder stopped at a gas-and-go convenience store late at night and went inside, pricing a gallon of milk or something under the harsh fluorescent lights. Then the ominous music started playing and the dude behind the counter decided to abandon ship. (Good move — when that ominous music starts playing you know some major plop is gonna happen). Then the stormtroopers burst in with military gear and nabbed the real but thought to be unreal Agent Mulder.

As they led him away at the point of an automatic weapon, you saw Agent Dana Scully, Mulder’s work partner and soulmate, together with Fletcher out by the gas pumps. Scully was obviously under the alien spell that made everyone think Fletcher is Mulder, and she was obviously pleased that the impostor has been caught. Perhaps more than pleased; you could see the look of love in her eyes for Fletcher-as-Mulder. Seeing all this in passing, the real Mulder starts screaming at the top of his lungs, “SCULLY, HE’S NOT ME, HE’S NOT ME….” As the nasty federal agents jam him into the armored paddy wagon off in a dark corner of the gas station, you hear one last desperate “SCULLY, HE’S…” on the fade-out.

Want to know why this scene got stuck in my memory circuits? Because it touches a nerve with me and most every aging person who once had a dream of a better world. Maybe one in ten people who dream such dreams in their youth get to do something with them; the rest of us are forced by fear, circumstances and lack of will into one compromise after the other. We take on a hard shell in order to survive and fulfill some of the more immediate commitments that we’ve been assigned by fate (children, aging parents, attractive spouses that didn’t quite share our dreams but seemed right at the time, the temptations of a comfortable suburban life with all its techno-toys). We do what we must for the bucks. After a while we may even start believing in our new image, in ourselves as successful people. But somewhere deep inside the prison of our subconscious, there’s still that sensitive young soul looking out at who we’ve become, with our spiffy suits and fashionable haircuts, screaming “HE’S NOT ME! HE’S NOT ME!”

You might be able to think of other stories or plot lines that go something like this. The writers for the X Files weren’t the first to have thought it up. It’s a rather archetypal theme – the fear of inauthenticity. Of course, in the X Files, the aliens eventually slipped (or maybe it was all a part of their game — you never really knew with the X Files) and the real Mulder made a comeback. As for me, though — I’m quite not as optimistic.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:16 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, November 1, 2003
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Autumn isn’t my favorite season. It’s nice, but it’s over too quickly. Before you know it you’re stuck with another long, cold, dark winter. Nonetheless, I’m still trying to make the best of it.

The other morning I got in my car and noticed that some of the falling leaves got stuck on the moist windshield during the night. Now, there was a picture of autumn. So I went back inside and got out the cheap-o digital. Didn’t come out too bad.

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