The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
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Thursday, April 28, 2005
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DANCIN’ FOOL: One thing I could never figure out – I guess it’s just me – is why people like to dance so much. Dancing is one thing that my mind just wasn’t wired for. I could never figure out how to move my body in a graceful fashion. Whenever I did try to dance, I looked like Rip Van Winkle or Ichabod Crane or one of those other lanky, mythical old guys who lived somewhere in the hills near the Hudson River, up past Bear Mountain (maybe also something like Jim Carrey’s rendition of Lemony Snicket). My own bodily interpretations of music just aren’t like most people’s. They’re rather ugly (more like boppin’ up and down to the beat). I once took dance lessons, and that made it less ugly. But it still wasn’t any fun; I wanted to bop up and down, and they made me shuffle from side to side. So for the most part I’ve stayed off the dance floor (and have regretted the handful of times when I violated that rule).

Obviously, I can’t relate to metaphors about life being a dance. Perhaps it all relates to my Myers-Briggs temperament. I’m a mongrel mix of INFJ and INTJ. The N, T and J elements combine to keep my mind from grasping the feel of dancing, and the “I” element keeps me from any great craving to dance with someone else.

For the most part, I’ve had a full life. I’ve experienced in some way most of the good things that life and society have to offer. But dancing is the one aspect of human experience that I just never connected with. I honestly think it was biological destiny; people who are good dancers just take to dancing like ducks take to water. I just don’t have those genes. And I don’t regret that; dancing dosen’t even look like fun to me, and romantic dancing just looks like a vehicle for sexual frustration more than anything else. If people like me ran the planet, one thing’s for sure. There wouldn’t be much dancin’ going on. Other than some boppin’ up and down in the street, now and then . . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:24 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, April 24, 2005
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Here’s a good quote from Roman Catholic Cardinal Jean Lustiger, who was considered by many to be pope material (except by Cardinal Ratzinger, who held all the cards). There are a lot of things that Cardinal Lustiger believes in that I find quite regressive (e.g., his insistence on the Church’s continuing rejection of any ministerial role for women). But this particular thought of his, regarding politics and the state of the world, seems to be right on target. Cardinal Lustiger says that “the failed experiment of Marxism has been replaced by the rise of powerful wealthy elites that control an increasingly unequal and unreflective society; this will be the weakness of democracy. Democracy needs citizens, not consumers. When people are merely consumers of politics, they are more easily manipulated. And thus, conformism becomes stronger than ever before.”

Good one, Cardinal. Nice to see that someone else “gets it”. I hope the rest of the world also sees it before it’s too late. But talking about democracy, perhaps what’s good for the goose is good also for the gander. Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church could also use a dose of democratic citizenship, and go a little bit easier on the “manipulated conformism” of “powerful elites”. Oh well, maybe the next Conclave . . . . maybe the windows will open again some day.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:03 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, April 21, 2005
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I sometimes get interested in the question of why people are interested in what interests them (say that three times fast). Earlier in the week, there were several news items that got people’s attention in my office. Some people focused on the lousy start that the Yankees were off to. Others were interested in the Papal Conclave in Rome. And then there were the ladies in the secretarial pool. They were meeting in little groups and gravely discussing the report of a huge wave that almost took down a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Hmmm, I started wondering why that concerned them so much. Here’s what I came up with after some pondering: cruises are basically designed for and marketed to married middle-age women in pink-collar jobs; i.e., women whose marriages are way past the stage of romantic idealism, and who generally don’t have demanding professional careers to divert their attention.

The responsibilities of holding a job and raising kids and owning a house (and maybe also taking care of aging parents) will surely trample the sweet visions of happiness that were present at the start of most marriages. This applies to both men and women; but for whatever reason, pink-collar women seem to miss the youthful notions of romantic destiny to a greater extent. A two-week cruise is a temporary cure for that, a synthetic bubble where the romantic illusions can be rekindled for a week or two. The pressing responsibilities of life are put on hold. In every direction, things are made to seem new and entertaining. There are warm sea breezes, starry skies at night, fresh flowers in every corner, fine food, entertainment, nice people, and port cities to discover (and shop in). You get the feeling that it’s safe to be in love again with your grumpy old husband (or your frumpy old wife). They don’t call it the love boat for nothing.

So, with that in mind, it starts to make sense why our female clerical staff was so upset by the storm report. How could mother nature be so callused as to threaten a cruise ship, a vessel full of middle-aged couples (much like them and their hubbies) trying to re-kindle the notions of togetherness? How could a killer wave hit the love boat? What has gone wrong with the universe?

I’m having some fun at the expense of my female office-mates here . . . but only up to a point. I’m also a bit of a romantic and an idealist, although in a slightly different sense. I’d also like to believe in “love”, although perhaps in a less sensually-oriented fashion than what passes on cruise ships. I’ve had a lot of huge waves hit my own idealism over the years, so I can sympathize when someone else’s dreams get battered. Yea, ladies . . . . . it’s a tough, stormy world, ain’t it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:49 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, April 18, 2005
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MAGNOLIA MUCK: Spring has definitely sprung here in the northeast. Birds are singing, and trees and flowers are blooming everywhere. So what’s not to like? Well, to be honest, I have mixed feelings about magnolia trees. They’re very pretty and they smell nice when in bloom, but their petals drop quickly and form a brown muck on the sidewalk. It serves as a reminder not to get too caught up in the seductive joy of April and May. Magnolia muck testifies to the fact that autumn isn’t all that far away. All bodily objects are subject to decay, without exception. To paraphrase the Christian ritual for Ash Wednesday, “remember that you are muck, and to muck you shall return.”

Well, just a quick reality fix. Now get back out there and enjoy the birds and the flowers and the rhythms of life. While ye may.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:30 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, April 15, 2005
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This week, a stray beluga whale came up the Delaware River as far as Trenton, NJ. Belugas generally live up in the North Atlantic around Newfoundland, so this one was really out of its territory. New Jersey sent out some wildlife specialists to check the whale out. They determinded that it was a old male loner who was taking a journey and maybe took a wrong turn, or just got hungry and figured that river fish was better than nothing. For now, the whale seems healthy, so the State is gonna leave it alone. But they wonder if it’s gonna hold up OK in non-salty river water (I wouldn’t call it “fresh water”; this is New Jersey, after all).

I can sympathize with that whale. That’s the way that life sometimes goes. You take a journey, look for interesting new horizons, and sometimes you find your true home. But sometimes you wind up on your own, far from a friendly and supportive environment.

I hope the beluga eventually finds what he is looking for and what he needs (salty water with plenty of oxygen and plenty of fish, nice temperatures, other whales like him, no boats to cut him up — he already has a propeller scar on his back). New Jersey is a tough environment for non-aggressive creatures like whales. And for non-aggressive people, too.

FOLLOW UP — HAPPY ENDING (we think): Helis the beluga went south the other day, and they think he made it OK back to the ocean, where he belongs. So maybe NJ wasn’t so bad on him. He probably got his fill of shad and herring and decided to move on. New Jersey officials did a good job in keeping anyone from messing with him. All right, sometimes you can do OK in Jersey; so long as you know when to get out.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:01 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, April 11, 2005
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TRUE RED AND BLUE, AFTER ALL? Since the November election, there have been a bunch of deep-think articles in various papers and magazines saying that the whole Red State / Blue State cultural divide really doesn’t exist, and the national political trends of the past 20 years or so are not a function of differing ideologies. I would guess that most of those articles have been written by Blue state people and have appeared in publications sited in Blue states. It’s a Blue State process: put forth an idea about a cultural divide within the nation, then try to criticize and debunk it. Blue state people value unity and togetherness, so they will obviously revolt against their own perceptions of disunity. That’s just what they do.

I too value the notion of community, but to be honest, I think that the blue versus red state thing is not just an illusion. There was an interesting affirmation of this in an article in the May, 2005 Atlantic Monthly (a blue state magazine that has already published a number of “no real divide” articles). A Frenchman named Bernard-Henri Levy took a trip across America in the Alexis de Tocqueville tradition and wrote about it (“In the Footsteps of Tocqueville”, the article is called). Recall that Tocuqeville toured America in the early 1800s and wrote a famous book with his reflections on American politics and culture. Mr. Levy, as a modern Tocqueville, seems to agree that there is something going on out in Wyoming, Idaho, Kansas, Arkansas and the like. In the coastal cities, where the Democrats can still win elections, it was hard for Mr. Levy to get anyone to say why they consider themselves a Democrat. But in the red states, people had a whole lot of reasons for being Republicans. And the reasons sound awfully familiar: religion, anti-elitism, family values. Mr. Levy seems to think that the heartland is indeed voting against its economic interests and in favor of an ideology based on “the way we like it out here”.

Yea, I thought so. There is a real need for discussion and interaction across the political / cultural / geographic divide here in America. The folk out in Indiana and Oklahoma need to see that gay marriage isn’t the end of the world, and the folk in New York and California need to think about how things play in Peoria. Whoops, blue state there (if only because of the Chicago area). OK, then how things play in Pocatello and Petersburg and Plano. Mr. Levy points out that Europe has suffered the effects of passionate ideology more than once over its long history, while the U.S. really hasn’t (other than perhaps the Civil War). He ends the article on a note of irony: a votre sante, i.e. good luck in dealing with it all, hope you do better than we did, although I rather doubt it . . . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:28 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, April 9, 2005
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I need a break to get my thoughts together.   Time for a picture break.   I’m not exactly sure just where this picture was taken.   I think it was somewhere in Pennsylvania, circa 1985.   Other than that, not too much I can say.   As the song by Jackson Browne goes, “it’s just another town along the road”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:48 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, April 4, 2005
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I’ve studied economics a bit, and I know what the bedrock assumption of economics is: that every human being continuously struggles to maximize his or her wealth and consumption. This means that any kind of political system that runs counter to this basic instinct (like communism or socialism) is ultimately doomed to failure. The only thing that works with the human species is freedom, capitalism and laizez-faire, with just enough government intervention to keep the losers from revolting against the winners and upsetting the apple cart. Losers and winners are inherent to the system. It’s just natural that some folk become filthy, stinkin’ rich, while others stay dirt poor. Nothing much to be done about it; social welfare programs just don’t work. As the late Ayn Rand and her followers might say, if everyone is special then no one is special, and we all then wallow in poverty.

I grew up as an economic idealist, someone who believed that humans could use their brains and communication abilities to re-arrange things so that poverty and injustice would be eliminated, or greatly reduced anyway. But the main-stream economists say that it can’t happen because people are natural profit-maximizers. If you set up a collective system (i.e., government) that takes away their incentive to get rich, they would never come up with technical innovations like cell phones and DVD players and decaf coffee and Viagra. We’d still be living in the Middle Ages if socialism had its way (or something like Cuba, anyway). You can’t have technology and social justice at the same time. It’s one or the other.

I’d like to think, though, that there are people who would still do their best to develop good stuff even if it wouldn’t make them rich (so long as they could be reassured of a decent, comfortable life). I may have an example, a guy named Tom Meinen. This fellow has developed some nice little software applications and he gives them away for free on his web site. One is called “Renamestar”, a handy tool for renaming files (much easier than re-naming in Windows, and it allows automatic sequential numbering; this comes in handy for digital photos, e.g. “EllensBirthday01”, “EllensBirthday02”, etc.). Not only is Renamestar free, it’s also not a plant for spyware or advertising software (anytime you download a free program, you ALWAYS need to assume that it’s a “Trojan Horse” for spyware and adware). A lot of people make good money by planting spyware and adware in their “giveaway” software. But Mr. Meinen appears to be honest when he says on his website that his products are free of the nasty stuff.

Mr. Meinen does make one request to anyone who uses his stuff: “all I ask is that you contact me via e-mail or postcard if you use and enjoy a program . . . this knowledge helps to make the hard work of developing software worthwhile”. My goodness, imagine if Bill Gates and company took an attitude like this. OK, you couldn’t reasonably expect to get Windows and Office for free, but maybe you would at least get fair trade practices and fair prices, versus the current Microsoft monopoly.

But yes, we would all have to become like this for the nice-guy approach to work. One hungry wolf spoils it all for everyone – you then have to eat the other guy as to avoid getting eaten (just what Microsoft does so well). But nonetheless: Tom Meinen, more power to you. You are a prophet, a man who belongs to a more civilized age sometime in the future (hopefully). Mr. Meinen also appears to be a vegetarian (his e-mail address is thru a veggie web site), which IMHO is also a glimpse of a better world.

Oh, here’s Mr. Meinen’s site: www.renamestar.com

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:34 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, April 2, 2005
Current Affairs ... Medicine ... Public Policy ...

I had a chance the other day to download and read the original court decision that started the whole Terri Schiavo fracas (In Re Guardianship of Theresa Marie Schiavo, Incapacitated, Feb. 11, 2000, Cir. Ct. for Pinellas County, Fla.). To be honest, Judge Greer’s description of the decision process gives me jitters about how the legal system responds to artificial life-support situations. I don’t want to second guess Judge Greer, or all of the appeals courts that upheld him. I firmly believe that he carried out the law in a responsible manner. But I wonder if the law is truly ready for cases like this. Remember, the laws and procedures that apply to situations like this derive from English Common Law, which basically goes back to the Magna Carta. However, the technology that makes a Terri Schiavo situation possible only goes back maybe 25 years.

The first thing that you should ask about a legal case is, who is the moving party – who is starting the whole thing (in this case, initiating a request to terminate extraordinary medical efforts that were being used to keep a human body alive). Well, that’s not so hard; the moving party was Michael Schiavo, the husband of the late Ms. Schiavo. OK, next question: does the moving party have legal authority to request what he is requesting? In this case, yes, Michael Schiavo had such legal authority, given that as husband, he was the recognized legal guardian. So what about the parents? Were they just chopped liver? No, not quite. They were allowed to be heard in court. And they were. They hired an attorney who made legal and factual arguments, presented witnesses, and cross examined the witnesses presented by Mr. Schiavo. Even though a spouse trumps a parent with regard to legal authority over an incapacitated person, the parents still got their day in court.

In the decision allowing “discontinuance of artificial life support for Theresa Marie Schiavo”, Judge Greer made it clear that he carefully considered everything that both sides presented. He weighed up the veracity and relevance of all evidence, and found that it tipped, however slightly, towards the conclusion that Terri Schiavo would want the feeding tube removed if she could had envisioned the present situation while she was still conscious. That was the axis and the focal point of the law and the decision. That was what everything revolved around. And that’s where I’m having trouble.

NOT that I think that there was a murder here. I believe that for all practical purposes, Terri Schiavo was dead – dead UNTO HERSELF, that is, and dead for mind-conscious people like myself. But most people are more body-conscious (yes, there I go again, using a mind-body Cartesian dualism, the scourge of hip philosophers over the past 50 years or so; but maybe this case shows why that dualism was invented and retains its power). So, for many people, most notably Mr. and Mrs. Schindler, Terri was NOT dead, despite not having any brain or mind. Quick footnote: my brother said that he liked the pictures of Terri Schiavo as an attractive young woman, as she possessed a certain look – the svelte look of the 80’s, the “big hair” look. He said that he misses the “body consciousness” of that period. Not surprisingly, then, he feels that removing the tube was wrong. (Ironically, excessive body consciousness might have contributed to Ms. Schiavo’s heart attack.)

But let me go back to the first question for a moment. Judge Greer had no problem with Michael Schiavo’s authority as husband and guardian over Terri Schiavo. And again, I have no reason to think that the Judge was messing up. But I do have trouble with the law that he was applying (which, again, is based partially on unwritten Common Law principals and partially defined by written constitutions and statutory laws passed by our State and Federal legislatures). In a case like this, where the definition of life is fuzzy and a whole lot is at stake, I would like the law to require the judge to ask more questions. Such as, has the spouse in question been loyal and devoted entirely to the incapacitated spouse, just as we would expect in any other marriage? The answer in this case might be no.

Hey, not that I think that Michael Schiavo was evil or bad in finding another girlfriend and getting on with his life. It’s just that when the stakes are so high, maybe you can’t have it both ways – if you’re not the perfect husband, then maybe you shouldn’t have the biggest say when the question comes down to what is life and what is death. (I think that the law should still allow a not-quite-perfect husband like Mr. Schiavo to have SOME say, maybe a BIG say, but not THE say, as the law required here).

Now, back to the question of determining intent in a situation like this, where there are no written instructions. (If there IS a living will and it’s very clear that you don’t want your body kept going if you’re brain dead, no matter who thinks what about it, then the law must respect that – just my $0.02). Judge Greer based his decision on some casual comments that Terri Schiavo had made at some point to her husband and to his brother and sister-in-law. These comments indicated that she didn’t think that artificial life support in hopeless cases was such a good idea. I.e., Mr. Schiavo and his brother and sister-in-law testified in court as to what they remember Terri saying, and were subject to cross-examination by the parents’ lawyer.

In the decision, Judge Greer seemed to acknowledge that this wasn’t much to stand on. However, the cross-examination by the parents’ lawyer didn’t seem to fluster anyone, so the testimony was accepted as factual. The parents didn’t offer anything indicating otherwise (other than some comments that Terri made about the Karen Ann Quinlan case when she was around 12 years old, which the Judge discounted because of Terri’s age). So, using standard legal mechanics, a judgment was rendered: Terri would want to pull the plug here.

What bothers me about the legal process (again, not about Judge Greer, who was doing his job) is that it tried to come up with a simulation of Terri Schiavo’s mind, i.e. what she would have wanted if faced with this terribly complex and wrenching situation. More troubling, it based that simulation upon just a few passing comments. To me, it would have been more intellectually honest for the law to have admitted that a few comments were not enough to build a reliable model of how Terri Schiavo’s mind would work in an extremely important and complex situation. So, maybe we have to allow the Judge to step in and build a more general “decision model”, one that considers what we do know about Terri Schavio’s statements and expressed beliefs, but that also allows consideration of what is currently at stake. In such a process, I think it would be legitimate to ask, just how would pulling the plug affect other people. In this situation, it obviously affected the parents quite negatively. (It also hurt George W. Bush and Tom DeLay and all the Roman Catholic toadies, but their cynical interests disqualify them from ANY consideration whatsoever.)

The Schindlers were obviously locked into a typical parental body philosophy. Every human being presents both a body and a mind to others. Some people are more affected by our bodies and some people latch on more to our minds (I personally am more of a mind person, or try to be). Ms. Schiavo’s parents appeared to tip more towards the body side (which parents naturally tend towards, given that they helped to create the body of their child). So, maybe the court should have been allowed to ask, is Terri still “alive” to the parents? (I would disqualify consideration of anyone outside of immediate family, especially Tom DeLay and all the wacko priests and pro-life nuts who cynically professed their eternal body-love for Ms. Schiavo). Perhaps Terri Schiavo would have wanted to have been kept alive if she could have known how her parents responded . . . . at least so long as they were alive and conscious.

Well, as far as I am concerned, Terri Schiavo died a long time ago. But I appreciate the fact that other people have other viewpoints on that, and I especially sympathize with the parents’ viewpoint. (Not that I condemn Michael Schiavo either; I believe that he honestly represented the Terri Schiavo that he knew – but in marriage, you never really know the dynamics of the relationship that your spouse has with her or his parents — believe me, I know that from bitter experience!). I’m troubled that the law did not allow this to be considered. Then again, I’m also troubled by the notion of spending gobs of taxpayer money keeping brain-dead people alive for their elderly parents, while leaving younger parents who don’t have health insurance unable to provide basic care for their children. Well, there’s no easy answer here. All I can say right now (in a spiritual fashion) is rest in peace, Ms. Schiavo, and may the scars heal amidst those who were close to you. And thanks for making us all think, however inadvertently, about many things in our nation that need thinking about.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:14 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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