The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
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ANOTHER STREET MEMORIAL:

This one is for Santos Solano, who died in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 9 in Newark’s North Ward. Mr. Solano was an immigrant from Ecuador who worked the all-night shift driving for a city limo company. He was found by the police at this corner shot dead in the Lincoln Town Car he was driving that night. Mr. Solano’s body was sent back to Ecuador for burial. The neighborhood set up this makeshift tribute of flowers and candles. Let not a hard working man’s struggle for a better life be too soon forgotten.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:41 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, October 23, 2004
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AN IMPERFECT VEGETARIAN MANIFESTO: It’s been about 18 year now since I stopped eating animal flesh. Well, mostly stopped. At first I didn’t give up eating fish, but about 10 years ago I did. Admittedly, I still eat clams sometimes; clams don’t seem to have any more intellectual life than a head of broccoli. But I had to give up on shrimp, as they have eyes and move around and appear to have more of a social life than I do! We all draw a line somewhere. I’m also still eating things with milk and eggs in them, but I’m trying to minimize that. For example, I recently discovered soy yogurt at the local stores (I’ll do a review soon), so I’ve reduced my moo juice intake a bit.

I will also admit to using leather products (although I have a pair of non-leather dress shoes that are pretty good, and I plan to buy more so long as Payless keeps selling them). Also, I’ve been in social and business settings where I needed to relate to a group of carnivores and thus decided not to make a scene when offered their kind of food. Chowing down together is an extremely important social ritual and when you’ve got important business to do with the unenlightened majority, sometimes you’ve gotta swallow your ethics. Today I have a job where I don’t need to socialize very much. I otherwise live a fairly reclusive life, so I haven’t had to munch on any rubber chicken or bland beef lately. Thank goodness.

Yea, I’ve generally lost my taste for meat. On those rare occasions when I’ve reunited my digestive tract with the dead flesh of some poor animal, I didn’t feel any urge to go back to that kind of eating. The problem with meat is that it’s too easy to prepare and consume. Admittedly, meat is a “complete” food, having most of the stuff we need to stay alive (but not necessarily in a healthy fashion). Just add a little starch, say a piece of bread or some fries from Mickey D’s, and you can keep on digging ditches until the sun goes down. Then add some extra fat and sugar, say a slab of cheese on top of that burger and some ice cream for dessert, and most people are in culinary heaven.

The thing about being a vegetarian is that you’re forced to work harder to get the right mix of nutrients. But in doing that kind of work, you learn to care about two very important things: taste and health. You start learning that there are other ways to have a nice dining experience without consuming a lot of fat, oil, salt and sugar – the four horsemen of the cardiovascular apocalypse. You start appreciating the textures and scents of a wide variety of grains and fruits and nuts and vegetables and legumes and spices; then you learn to combine and transform them in wonderful ways using various cooking techniques. Yea, it takes more time; I know that most people today are pretty darn busy. But the truth is that everyone makes time for what they feel is important. And if having wonderful culinary experiences every day and a healthy body to boot is important, then vegetarianism is the ticket.

Yea, I know that the big craze today is the Atkins thing; eat meat to lose weight; kill the carbs. Well, there are still a lot of arguments and disagreements regarding the wisdom of that proposition. But the bottom line is this: if you had followed the vegetarian philosophy all along, you probably wouldn’t be so desperate right now to lose weight. The enlightened vegetarian mixes carbs and proteins and spices in the right proportions so as to satiate the need for savor, and in so doing limits the role of fats, oils, sugars and salt. The carnivore seeks to satisfy the soul by injecting large quantities of such gook into the bland “meat and potatoes” at the center of his or her plate. Is it any big surprise that a whole lot of Americans are overweight these days?

There are a number of good arguments for vegetarianism. Reduction of cruelty to animals is the usual lead-off batter for the V-Team. Sure, we humans have got a whole lot of other pressing issues involving cruelty amidst our own species, but I argue that concern for the feelings of our fellow critters would help us to deal with all breeds of violence and depravity. The second argument is that vegetarian eating would make us all healthier. Given the crisis of spiraling health care costs, you’d think this argument would make people stop and think. But admittedly, there is a creepy, narcissistic side to it; recall that Hitler was a vegetarian for purposes of “body purity”.

The third theory – actually, pretty well documented – is that vegetarianism is a more socially efficient, less costly way to feed people. Perhaps in the old days, going out in the woods and hunting turkeys and deer was a cheap way of feeding hungry mouths. But in modern industrialized societies, you’ve got to feed and shelter the chickens and pigs and cows for months or years, give them antibiotics, slaughter and skin them, then refrigerate and transport their flesh for hundreds of miles. It costs a lot less per calorie or per gram of protein to grow soybeans, oats, kale, eggplant, etc. and transport them to your local supermarket. That means less use of crude oil and other energy resources, and less pollution. If everyone went vegetarian, we’d have more breathing room in terms of energy demand (as I write this, oil has gone over $55 per barrel). As such, a bit less of our national income would go to the Saudis, who quietly filter some of that money to our terrorist enemies. Our environment would also get a break.

But the fourth batter – the clean-up hitter – is taste! When you go vegetarian, you’re going to enjoy your food more. I know that it seems hard to believe; what could be better than a dripping T-bone on a smoky barbecue grill or a bacon swiss double cheeseburger, or a big browned turkey with sausage stuffing at the center of the family table on Thanksgiving, or a full rack at a ribs joint? Yea, meat has it’s peak experiences. But face it — on a day-by-day basis, most meat dishes are rather bland and uninspired. More meatloaf, more stew, more baked chicken, some pork chops, another burger, some cold cuts, frozen fillets … When you’re a vegetarian, you’ve always got a new spice to try with your black bean soup and cornbread, always have a different kind of rice to experiment with (maybe with lentils and zucchini), always have a new twist to the basic pasta-and-sauce duo, always have a new stuffing to use for acorn squash (although the basic one with apples and bread and walnuts is pretty hard to beat).

Back in 1985, when my ex-wife told me that it was time for us to stop eating meat, I immediately went out and bought three packs of chicken breasts and stuffed them into the freezer. I ultimately went along with her in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the marriage going; and in my heart, I knew she was right. But I never imagined that cooking and eating would become more exciting and satisfying once we forswore the culinary pleasures of the flesh. This is what the 97% of Americans who still base their diets around meat and fish need to know – not only will the world be better if you eat your veggies, but you yourself will be happier when meal time comes round!

Let me leave you with this imperfectly vegetarian treat: a recipe for orange muffins.

1 cup flour

1 cup oatmeal flour (put oatmeal in a food processor)

1 / 2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 egg white (again, I’m imperfect – try to at least buy free-ranging hen eggs)

1 / 2 cup soy yogurt

1 / 4 cup plus an additional tablespoon, canola oil

1 / 4 cup orange juice (or orange juice concentrate, if you like it really orangey)

1 / 2 cup golden raisins

1 / 2 cup crumbled walnuts

a little bit of grated rind from an orange or lemon, maybe 1 / 2 teaspoon

Just mix it all up in a bowl, get out your muffin pan, coat the pan with oil, fill the cups about 3 / 4, and bake at 400 degrees for maybe 15 to 20 minutes. Makes about 10 or 12. These are really good for dessert or as a snack, or even for breakfast. Better than another plate of soggy bacon!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:35 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
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The other day my friend Mary from Illinois wrote me with an autumn thought. “Have you noticed how much more colorful and beautiful the changing leaves on the trees are when it is gloomy. Somehow they seem to stand out much more beautifully.”

She has a point. It’s also interesting how the falling leaves cover the sidewalks and gutters, forming a colorful carpet that glistens all the more on a rainy day. So as to test Mary’s thesis, I got out the old cheap-o camera and got a picture of some poor soul in the rain amidst the falling leaves. The golden carpet of autumn does indeed seem to stand out in the gloom. But hey, you be the judge of that.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, October 16, 2004
Personal Reflections ...

I only have four cousins, all from my mother’s side (my brother claims to have five, but one is a “pretend cousin”). We’re all pretty close in age, and we all grew up within a few miles of each other here in northern New Jersey. We all watched “The Beverly Hillbillies” on TV as kids, but only one of us took the show’s intro song seriously. Right after college, Cousin Connie decided that “California’s the place you ought to be”, so she loaded up the truck, and she moved to Beverly …. Well, she didn’t actually move to Beverly Hills, but she definitely did make her way to the West Coast.

Cousin Connie has been in California about thirty years now. Every now and then we’d hear something about her; less often we’d hear directly from her; and lesser still, actually see her on a visit. The last time I saw her was in 1993 at her mother’s funeral (Aunt Sophie, r.i.p.). Since then, my only contact with Connie was in trying to convince her to accept a check for her share of my late Uncle Bruno’s estate (he died in 1999). She was a bit upset about being a part of a legal proceeding back in the “old country”, and told me that she wanted nothing to do with the whole thing. With the help of an Irish lawyer having the charm of a leprechaun (hey, remember Lucky Charms?), I finally convinced Connie that she wasn’t going to have her car and her family home confiscated by the IRS if she accepted a lousy $700 check from me. But I got the underlying message – she wasn’t exactly tickled pink at hearing from the folk back home.

My other 3 cousins haven’t had much contact with her either. I guess you don’t stay in California for three decades so as to remain close to an ethnic family in New Jersey.

The other day, my cousin Mike was talking about an old picture that he had of Connie. That made me think about her, so I punched her two names (married and maiden) into the Google thing, and bingo, there she is – the CEO of a computer tech company. For now, the company appears to have two employees – Connie and her husband. They’re small, but I wouldn’t write them off; they appear to have a digital tiger by the tail. They’re marketing some kind of software tailored for hand-held digital devices (tablet PCs and PDAs and stuff like that, which I know almost nothing about; I’m a troglodyte chained to my old desktop tower), and their customer list is small but quite real.

Wow, Connie as a tech company executive. She was always smart, and she did have a streak of entrepreneurial spirit in her that she got from her father, my Uncle Matt. Uncle Matt was a quality control rep for a defense company that made a whole lot of money in the 60s and 70s supplying Uncle Sam with helicopters that the Vietcong (the resistance movement in Vietnam, for you young’ns) kept shooting down. He was a Willie Loman-like character, driving miles and miles between supply plants throughout the eastern US so as to ensure that his company was supplied with good helicopter gizmos. In his spare time, Uncle Matt invested his money in stocks (and did quite well), fixed his home up into a little suburban palace (the kind of place that you didn’t like visiting as a kid because they wouldn’t let you run or play for fear of mussing something up), and urged his daughters to be successful in the world.

(But let me be fair here. Even though I was never driven by the notion of “success”, Uncle Matt and I always got along quite well. He’s actually still alive, but we’ve lost touch with him too since he retired and moved to South Jersey).

I thought at first that Connie went to California to get away from her parents. Connie was never really a hippie, and I really don’ t think she smoked too much hooch or took great advantage of the “Summer of Love” back in ’67. However, she did appear to be an individualist, someone who wanted neither to be defined by her mother’s ethnic Catholicism nor by her father’s dreams of “making-it-big”. I thought she was more like me, trying (successfully or not) to live an enlightened but non-materialistic life, an environmentally conscious life where you get involved and try to do some good without resorting to radical tactics. Now it looks like she’s been co-opted by her father’s ghosts, resorting to radical capitalist tactics in order to get rich.

Well, what the heck. I hope that Connie gets rich, and has fun doing it. For now, the only interesting observation that I can make about my cousin is that she’s gone back to using her maiden name on the company web site. That surprised me at first, given her “Escape from the Dark Ages of New Jersey” philosophy. But then again, her married name is the same as Oscar Wilde’s wife. And in my Google search, I saw reference to a play about the latter character entitled The Fall of Constance Wilde. Whoops, perhaps Mom and Dad weren’t so bad after all!

P.S., eleven years later — Connie passed away in June, 2015 after battling melanoma for several years. We on the east coast only found out about that after she was gone. She left behind her husband Chuck and two grown sons. Even in her distance — or maybe because of that distance — she was still very much a presence in our lives. She will always be a part of our stories. She is missed.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:47 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, October 14, 2004
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HEY COS: A woman at work who sits in the next cubicle from me recently went to see Bill Cosby speak at an urban church. As you might know, Mr. Cosby has been saying some blunt and controversial things lately about the need for African-Americans, especially young urban men, to pull up their own bootstraps. The woman in question also happens to be African-American and grew up in a low-income urban neighborhood, so her reactions were of much interest to me. I am grateful for her trust in sharing her impressions and opinions with an old white guy like me.

Ms. G (I’m tempted to say “Miss G”, following that quaint but charming Southern custom of addressing respected women as “miss” even when they are married) said that in her opinion, Cosby is on the money and is doing the right thing. She will be the first to tell you that there’s still plenty of anti-black racism out there on the part of whites (and maybe other ethnic groups too). But despite that, she sees a lot of black females from the inner-city (like herself) who have struggled to achieve a decent life and a responsible career, and expect their children to do even better. Like Cos, Ms. G believes that most every black individual today can overcome residual racist attitudes with enough work and willpower. But for whatever reason, too many young black men do not properly apply themselves, and thus become trapped in a world of gangs and crime and jail. Both Mr. Cosby and Ms. G feel that although our white dominated society still owes these men something, they’re long overdue for a wake-up call from within their own social community. As Ms. G says, “let’s keep it real”.

I take my hat off to Bill Cosby for what he’s doing. He’s taking some real risks and drawing some fire from black leaders who are probably afraid that a “pull your own bootstraps” message plays into the modern Republican agenda. I’ll be the first to agree that Cosby and his peers have to keep pitching for continued government assistance for the inner city. But there is a real problem regarding young black men in urban areas who leave the trajectory of education / career / family responsibility and follow a variety of meandering paths involving temporary jobs, crime, substance abuse, gang involvement, homeless shelters and jail time.

I’ve read a few research studies by well-intentioned academians who examine some Census statistics and crime surveys and employment reports and then conclude that the idea of the drifting, lawless urban black male is just a stereotype made up by bigoted Republicans. But Cos lived there and Ms. G still lives there, and they will tell you that it ain’t just a stereotype. I’ve driven the streets of inner-city areas on weekday mornings and early afternoons, and I too can tell you that there are way too many young men out there who should be in school or at work. And I can name more than one social worker who will tell you that you’ve got to get through to 8 and 10 year old boys, or else another generation will be lost (that’s exactly the way they put it).

I’ll readily admit that the starting end of the job ladder these days is like the proverbial “s*** end of the stick”. Back in my grandparent’s time, there were unions that gave factory workers some dignity and maybe even livable wages. Today, there aren’t any unions at most fast-food restaurants and health care institutions, so the low-end jobs there are generally unpleasant and low-paying. But I see a lot of immigrants taking those crummy jobs. They seem to know that you’ve gotta start somewhere to get somewhere.

I hope that Mr. Cosby’s message will bolster the attitude that already exists in the inner city neighborhoods among community pillars like Ms. G, that they will not quietly tolerate young men who drop out of school and assume an “alternate life track”. If the community backbone makes it clear that it disapproves of the “alternate life” (and there are a lot of good, hard-working, positive people living in the “ghettos” who form that backbone – that’s something that many white liberals and researchers fail to appreciate), then change is possible. Peer pressure is a very powerful thing. Let’s just hope that the pressure from Cosby and his supporters keeps up even when the alternate crowd accuses them of being Uncle Toms and Oreos, i.e. white inside. (Ironically, hip-hop artists love to exploit this line, even though they almost never live in the ‘hoods they chant of.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:58 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, October 10, 2004
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THE LUMBERING PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES: I’ve been watching the Bush-Kerry debates (and the Cheney-Edwards sideshow), trying to figure out what they’re all about. One thing for sure: they’re not about truth and accuracy. Mister Cheney couldn’t even cite the right website for factual verity; he told people to go to www.factcheck.com, when in fact he wanted www.factcheck.org. And then it turned out that factcheck.org disagreed with Cheney on the issue regarding Haliburton and Iraq, the exact point he was disputing with Mr. Edwards when citing the factcheck site. Not that Kerry and Edwards don’t mangle the truth either. If you check out factcheck.org, they will give you a long list of Democratic Party sins too.

We still have another debate to go, but thus far the most memorable moment (for me) was the lumber thing on Friday night. To recap, Mister Bush was criticizing Mister Kerry’s plan to raise taxes for people making more than $200,000 per year, saying that it would hurt small businesses. Kerry responded by saying that Bush relied upon a convoluted tax code definition of “small business”, and thus wasn’t referring to real small businesses. To nail down the point, Kerry cited Mister Bush himself, who qualifies under our tax law as a small business subject to personal tax rates, given that he received $84 from his investment in a lumber company in 2001. Bush then gave Kerry a dramatic and humorous response, denying any involvement on his part in lumber; he hoped to show America that Kerry doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. “Want some wood?”

It would have been a master stroke, a crushing blow against Kerry, had the facts been on Mister Bush’s side. But for better or for worse, they weren’t. Within a few minutes after the debate closed on Friday night, the factcheck.org site explained the nature of Bush’s interest in a foresting venture formed in 2003 by Bush’s business trust and an investment partner, and backed it up with a document filed with the IRS. (Yes, Mr. Kerry got the years mixed up; the $84 in 2001 wasn’t from lumber, but it did in fact make Bush a “small business” for tax purposes).

I suppose that the Democrats will make hay out of Mr. Bush’s confident and totally inaccurate response about his own financial affairs. This is obviously good material for a negative ad (which we won’t get to see here in New Jersey since Kerry and Bush hardly spend any advertising money in the “locked in” states; our nation really should re-think the whole rationale behind the Electoral College system). But those ads probably won’t be show-stoppers. Most people can forgive the President for not immediately remembering everything that his personal business manager is doing while he’s in the White House running the country. Bush is a rich hombre, and the lumber venture came to only about $250,000 (with Mister Bush’s trust assumedly putting up half). What’s a piddling $125,000 to a rich guy who has the world on his shoulders?

However, there is an interesting angle to the “want some wood” incident. If you do a Google or Yahoo or AllTheWeb on “Bush” and “lumber”, you will find the usual partisan blogs hashing out the pros and cons regarding their candidate’s performance. But you will also see references to another issue, one of those hidden little things that can actually affect your life. Those references regard Mr. Bush’s 2002 implementation of protective tariffs against Canadian lumber. The federal bureaucracy in charge of foreign trade decided that Canada was unfairly subsidizing their foresting and lumber industry (not that we don’t help ours), and decided to impose taxes to protect American lumber corporations from low-priced Canadian wood that could bankrupt American companies like Weyerhaeuser and Boise Cascade and Louisiana-Pacific, at which point the Canadians would jack their prices way up. Those evil Canadians — hmm, aren’t they also trying to sell us prescription drugs at low prices, with Mister Bush again protecting America from such chicanery?

Anyway, if you check out the various web sites that discuss the 2002 Canadian lumber tariff, you will realize that American consumers are bearing the brunt of higher wood prices. You weekend handymen (and handywomen) who frequent the Home Depot know darn well just how expensive lumber has become over the past few years. And anyone buying a new house or fixing up the old one will feel the pinch too. But don’t worry, the American lumber investors are doing just fine because of that.

Hmm, in 2002, George W. Bush imposed lumber tariffs that protect American lumber investors. Then in 2003, he becomes an American lumber investor (via his business trust). Yea, there’s always a story behind the story, isn’t there.

But just to be fair, let me admit – there are real jobs at stake out in Oregon and Washington state because of lumber prices. The world is terribly complex, despite the efforts of politicians to make it seem simple. I myself think the government has to help workers who are displaced by economic changes and international trade, such as all the manufacturing jobs that were lost out in Ohio and Michigan, and now all the computer programmer jobs in New Jersey and California that went overseas. The federal government can help to retrain displaced workers and relocate them to other areas where help is needed. And yes, maybe give them some “welfare” until they get back on their feet. But in the end, you can’t stop progress. If India can program computers and Canada can provide wood cheaper than we can, well — we gotta go with the flow, and gotta keep on looking to put our workers into the things that America can do better.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:07 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, October 7, 2004
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REVIEW DAY: First, a web site review. A few days ago, I said that people in modern day America often have interesting and unexpected mixtures of tastes and interests. Eclectic times, these are. When you look at a personal web site, including my own, you often see this. The home page has all kinds of buttons and links about all kinds of topics that hardly have anything in common . . . except that the owner of the site likes all of them.

Here’s a good case in point. The site belongs to a fellow named Ron Turner. It’s at www.connect.net/ron. It’s a nice enough site, tastefully done. But Ron’s topics are truly an eclectic blend. They include: philosophy; the X-Files; Gershwin; Allen Ginsberg; jazz music from the 1930s; the Dallas Mavericks; Ansel Adams; Gino Vanelli; the Bossa Nova; Les Paul guitars; and other curious and sundry things.

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of many things …” And that’s indeed what Ron and a whole lot of other personal web site people do. And the world is a more interesting place for it!

Next, a book review. The book of the day is Steven Johnson’s “Emergence”. I give it a moderate thumbs down. Johnson is undoubtedly a smart dude and a hip writer, and he says a lot of interesting things about the “the connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software”. But he doesn’t really do much to forward your understanding of the overall “complexity” movement in science and computing. For that, you still need one of the basic texts, like Waldrop’s “Complexity” or Holland’s “Hidden Order”. I got to the last chapter of Emergence wondering when the insights were going to start flowing. Unfortunately, they never did.

Oh, Johnson proffers a lot of observations which seem at first like insight. But as with night mushrooms, they wither in the mid-day sun. His biggest topic of interest regards self-organization and the Internet. He admits that it’s hard for the average person to see any trends towards a more organic functionality emerging on the web, but for an out-there guy like him, the new day is coming into view. The book was written in 2001, and cites a number of web sites and site networking mechanisms (like Alexa) as heralds of the “within five years” future. Unfortunately, more than three of those five years have passed, and the great web emergence and convergence that Johnson prophesied seems nowhere in sight (or site!).

For example, Johnson cites the rating system on www.slashdot.com (a commentary board on techie stuff), which allows viewers to vote on the quality of each posting and to filter out materials that get low average ratings. I checked out slashdot recently and the voting and filtering system was still there, although you had to search hard for the buttons that allowed you to use it. I decided not to filter anything; I thus reviewed posts with ratings that ranged from –1 (very poor) to + 5 (very good). To be honest, some of the most interesting stuff got ratings of 1 or 2, and the stuff that came in at 4 or 5 was often quite bland. Perhaps user feedback is also a recipe for mediocrity. You almost feel embarrassed reading Johnson’s predictions, as though you were watching an apocalyptic preacher yelling about the coming of the end of the world, telling you that he sees the fire on high and hears the approaching tidal waves, that the moment is about to arrive, so stand up and be ready for the rapture … and nothing happens. The birds just go on singing.

Johnson makes some interesting points about feedback and how it helps foster (or prevent) the self-organization mechanisms that allow independent geese to fly in V patterns and leaderless ants to maintain a colony and hapless car drivers to contribute to a traffic jam (and also how “districts” emerge in cities without planning, e.g. the restaurant district or the diamond district or the used machinery district – I recall walking down some street in lower Manhattan and being amazed at all the old drill presses in the windows). His example of how press stories like Bill Clinton’s dabblings with Gennifer Flowers (if you recall the pre-Monica era) now emerge beyond the control of big media bosses is certainly useful. But overall, his book is a quick and pleasant read that seems substantial but ultimately leaves you hungry – as though you had just eaten out in that classic example of urban emergence, Chinatown.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:52 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, October 3, 2004
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Great is the matter of life and death;
Impermanence surrounds us!
Be Awake, each moment!
Do not waste your life!

Morning Gatha of Admonishment

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:36 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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