The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Monday, August 29, 2005
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MYTHOLOGY, NEW AND OLD: I never got hooked on the whole Lance Armstrong thing. In fact, I didn’t even know who Lance Armstrong was until a few months ago, when I heard he was about to retire. But since then I’ve gotten up-to-date on Mr. Armstrong and the wave of admiration that he has stirred here in the good old USofA. Obviously, I don’t pay much attention to cycling. The last time I gave it any thought was in 1980 when I saw “Breaking Away” (good movie). Oh, and maybe when I’m driving here in town and come upon a bunch of local guys in tight uniforms and aero helmets pretending to be Team Cinzano, making me crawl behind them as they huff and puff their way up the hill.

Mr. Armstrong touched upon our nation’s penchant for resurrection stories. As with Jesus Christ, Lance Armstrong came back from the dead. But to Americanize the myth, Mr. Armstrong took on the snobby French and beat them. Again and again!

But now those agnostic French have struck back. They took out their frozen urine samples and found something called EPO, which is both a banned performance enhancer and a medicine for cancer patients. So far Mr. Armstrong is denying that he took EPO, but I can’t help but believe that he did. However, I don’t think that he took an illegal enhancer in the same way that so many other athletes did (and probably still do). I believe that it was a quiet medical decision between Mr. Armstrong and his doctors, and not a quest to set new records of athletic endurance. I think that his doctors said something like this: “Lance, the Lord has been good to you, but you’re still not the same guy as before you got the cancer; I can’t stop you from pushing a bike over 2,000 miles of hills and dales, but just to make sure that it doesn’t hurt you and that you finish OK, why don’t we give your system a little boost, just to even things out a bit”.

If that’s the case, then I have no problem with Mr. Armstrong keeping all his medals. But as far as the American Myth goes, the dream is over. Cancer is the horrid shadow of inevitable death, the thing we can do nothing about; if I remember my Joseph Campbell right, Lance Armstrong has assumed the role of the hero who got up and vanquished the unconquerable foe. But if my imaginary doctor is correct and Lance Armstrong is not the same as a guy who never had cancer, then our worst fears remain. And that explains the ruckus and the denial that the French “B Sample” test results have caused.

THE ORIGINAL RESURRECTION MYTH: Lance Armstrong is the new resurrectional myth maker, and Jesus of Nazareth is the old one. As I’ve discussed here before, I have come to believe that the academians are correct in describing Jesus as another in a long line of Jewish apocalypticists from the time of the Greek and Roman occupation of Palestine. But in their academic world view, the big professors miss something essential about Jesus, something that explains why so many people profess Jesus as the Son of God who was raised from the dead. It’s because Jesus said to his followers that he was Son of God (“Son of Man”, more accurately) and that he would come back from the dead! Because Jesus said it, his disciples wanted to believe it; he was obviously a very charismatic figure.

Jesus came to believe that he, as a Jew, was amidst God’s chosen people; but moreover, as a man of intense spirituality in a time of crisis, Jesus also came to believe that he was the chosen of the chosen. The Jews of the time had a myth about God appointing a “Son of Man” who would come along in the clouds and set up God’s Kingdom right there in the Holy Land, along the far eastern shores of the Mediterranean. For proof, read the Book of Daniel. Jesus decided that the time had come and God had given him the mission of readying himself — and anyone who would listen — for the carrying out of THE BIG CHANGE. When Jesus was handed over to Pilate during that fateful Passover celebration, he probably figured that everything was right on track; just as his body was dying on the Roman cross in the cruel afternoon sun, God would start the BIG EVENT.

But the big event never came. Therefore, it’s no surprise that some of the early followers remembered Jesus crying out from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” The standard Christian mythological interpretation is that these words were a foil meant to emphasize the sweetness of the resurrection that followed. But I think that they were actually remembered in despair by the disciples. Many scholars doubt that any of Jesus’ followers were standing near by throughout the crucifixion event, since they would also be picked up by the Romans and be killed. But these words may well have reflected their own dismay and disappointment about Jesus being wrong. The sun had set that evening and the Kingdom had not arrived.

Something obviously happened later on to restore the disciples’ faith that Jesus and the BIG EVENT were delayed but were still on the way. Jesus was not wrong; his timing was just a little bit off. Without that faith-restoring thing (whatever it was), there wouldn’t be any Christianity today. I’m not saying that a miracle actually occurred. It could have been a case of mistaken identity, or a bout of meditative exuberance as Paul seems to have had on the road to Damascus (described in Corinthians).

OK, so where am I going with all of this? Well, what I’m asking here is this: what do we do when we finally get past the myths, when the masks of wishful thinking finally come off? How do we look at death and life and find hope, after we admit that Lance Armstrong did have a banned performance enhancer in him, and that Jesus of Nazarteh died without bringing on God’s Kingdom and that he stayed dead, just like everyone before him and since? (And let’s not even get started about the Buddha and Mohammed). I think that there is a way to do it, and that it involves wisdom and maturity. Hey, it’s never too late to keep on growing up. But it’s a huge challenge, and I’m not at all sure that I’ll ever live up to it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:57 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 28, 2005
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If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a human soul.

Henry David Thoreau

I think that Thoreau was on to something in that quote. I think it touches on the biggest source of anguish for the human race. People are like plants. When planted in the right soil, plants flourish. When planted in the wrong soil, they barely grow, turn yellow, and probably die before their time. Or perhaps the wrong soil will make a plant grow too fast and become an obnoxious weed. What might normally be an appropriate defense mechanism, like a thorn or a pointy edge, becomes aggressive and offensive. So too with people. Find the right community with the right values and interests, and a human being will likewise flourish. Be surrounded by people who really aren’t like you, who just don’t see the good in you, and you shrivel (or grow too strong and aggressive).

People are different from plants in that we are all so different. With plants, all petunias do well in one set of soil and climate and terrain; all pine trees do well in another. But with humans, every member of the species is different. I would do well in one set of circumstances, but my brother, who shares a lot of my own genes, does well in entirely different circumstances (and we both do poorly in the other one’s appropriate environment).

I honestly believe that everyone would be a “good person” if they were just brought up and remained rooted in the environment that was meant for them. Everyone would be moral and virtuous and highly accomplished in some field. Everybody would make a positive contribution to the greater good within his or her own lifetime. But in reality, very few people turn out this way. People get depressed, get nasty, commit crimes, get greedy, get materialistic, get fixated on achievement and power and ego, etc. We either wither or turn to weeds. Stalin and Hitler are prime examples of weeds. People who commit suicide or destroy themselves with drugs or alcohol are prime examples of witherers. And there’s a whole lot of quiet desperation in between those extremes.

I honestly believe that everyone is inherently good, and given the right environment would be good at something (as well as becoming good to others). I believe that God sets our “default” switches on “GOOD”. But then God randomly scatters our seeds, so that the chances of winding up with the right kind of soil and the right climate are fairly slim. Well, so much for the Intelligent Design argument!

Perhaps Nature has its reasons for making us all so different and not always placing us to best advantage. Perhaps it’s good that a person who had the natural talent to be a great violinist becomes a warehouse laborer and engages in spousal violence. Perhaps it’s good that a person who should have been an athlete becomes a drunken third rate lawyer. Perhaps it’s good that a great scientist tries to survive as a bit-part actor and is hospitalized for clinical depression. Perhaps it’s good that someone who would have made a wonderful parent becomes a priest who abuses children. Maybe it’s best for the survival of the species that a wide range of (mostly unused) talents are available most everywhere, so that if conditions suddenly change, someone will be able to adapt to it (and have children and keep the species alive).

Imagine if there were dinosaurs that were built for cold weather and lived miserably in the warm, swampy weather of the Jurassic Era. Eventually they would have had their day, and we still might have had dinosaurs today.

Still, we are human beings, and we have brains; our credo is “it doesn’t have to be like this”. If we could focus ourselves on the problem of finding the best place for each of us (not in terms of weather or soil conditions, but in terms of social factors and communal values), then I think there would be a whole lot less unhappiness and a whole lot more good behavior amidst the human race. I really think that is a prerequisite for the elimination of war and starvation and poverty and wealthy families living in gated communities. Perhaps it’s a bit utopian, but I say we should work on the question of finding the right place for everyone. If it could somehow be done, or even partly done, then more people would feel like human beings; and more and more people would then actually live like caring human beings!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:17 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, August 21, 2005
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Here’s a moment of summertime bliss out on the steps (to my apartment). The guy next door is seen having a smoke with his 2 year old son near by. It’s just another humid, grey-and-green summer day in suburban New Jersey.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:36 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 20, 2005
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I got involved in a somewhat interesting project at work this past week. About two years ago we got some federal grant money to post a few anti-gun violence ads out in the high-crime neighborhoods. Being a prosecutor’s office, no one really thought it would do much good, so no one did much about it after we got the money. Well, to be honest, the community outreach people did put some ideas together and talked with some media sources. But the clock was ticking and it was apparent that we weren’t going to spend the money in time and would have to give it back. Since I’m responsible to watch out for stuff like that, and since giving money back gets the big boss upset, I decided to jump in and get things moving. Not that I really believe that a few billboards and bus posters reminding people that guns kill innocent children are going to save any lives out there on the mean streets. I’m simply trying to keep my job, need the money.

So I started making calls to the in-house graphics guy, to the purchasing office guy, to the billboard company lady, to the bus ad company lady, etc. We finally put a half-way decent looking ad together and are now in the procurement phase; the billboards should go up right after Labor Day. One person I had to talk to was a Ms. Pickens, who works with the educational agency that has the rights to the background image (a child’s face with the letters “Don’t Shoot, I want to grow up”; it originally came from Cease Fire Chicago). Anyway, while talking to Ms. Pickens, I had one of my usual stupid thoughts: just for a laugh, I would ask her if she was related to Slim Pickens. Yep, Slim Pickens, the movie actor who played the B-52 pilot in Dr. Strangelove. Luckily, discretion got the better of me and I didn’t say anything about the late, great Slim Pickens. As a result, Ms. Pickens gave us permission to use the image.

But the thought of Slim Pickens and Dr. Strangelove gave me a laugh, as it brought back a nice little memory. Ironic, you might think, that a movie about an accidental war which set off a nuclear holocaust would make me laugh. But that’s just me. It reminded me of the time, say about 20 years ago, when I was out in a forest somewhere in northern Virginia with my friend Loyd and his wife Eve. We were cutting and gathering dead trees for their wintertime firewood supply (we actually had a permit to do that). Well, we came across a tree near the road that looked pretty dead, so Loyd got out the chain saw and started attacking the trunk. I was standing pretty close by; as Loyd got near the tipping point he stopped and advised me to get back a ways, as the tree would soon be coming down. I gave him a puzzled look not unlike the expression that our President wears so frequently these days. He then put the saw down, turned towards me and said “despite your Doctor Strangelovian fantasies, you don’t ride it down!”

OK, to get the joke you have to have seen Doctor Strangelove. Back in my time, you absolutely had to see that movie; an end-of-the-world nuclear war with Russia was a real possibility, and Stanley Kubrick wanted to show us just how easily it could get started. Today, nukes are still a threat, but it probably ain’t gonna be Russia that sets the next one off in anger. Anyone under 35 today probably doesn’t remember that classic scene towards the end of Strangelove where Slim Pickens puts on his cowboy hat, goes down into the bomb bay, mounts an H-bomb like a bronco, then gets dropped out of the plane somewhere over Siberia, waving his hat and hooting like a Texas cowboy. (Little did we know that Kubrick was predicting the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election). And they probably don’t know that James Earl Jones, with his deep, evil voice, was in this film long before there even was a Darth Vader!

Oh well — so much for those good memories from the bad old days. And thanks to you, Ms. Pickens, for reminding me of Loyd, and for giving me permission to try to make the bad new days just a little bit less bad. Those billboards that the feds are paying for probably won’t do much good. But as with good old Slim and his H-bomb, we might as well go down trying.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:26 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, August 15, 2005
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WORLD BEAT: When I bought my Corolla after my Prizm got wiped out back in January, I pretty much ignored the radio that came with it. I didn’t have a radio in my last two cars, so I was pretty much used to driving in silence. But I finally gave in to temptation and started tuning in. To make it seem a bit less wicked, however, I tuned in to NPR. At least there’s some educational value in that; it isn’t purely entertainment. So I’ve become an NPR drive-time regular, listening to Morning Edition on the way in and All Things Considered on the homebound trip. And it’s been good for the most part. NPR definitely has a liberal / politically correct bias to it, but that’s mostly OK with me even though haute liberalism gets kind of dippy at times. That dippiness comes thru loud and clear whenever NPR plays music. If they play it on NPR, you know you ain’t gonna be humming it the next day at the watercooler. I appreciate NPR’s respect for cultural diversity, but maybe there’s a reason why American music is popular in La Paz and Malabo and Kuala Lumpur and Bangafore. Maybe it’s better than the indigent stuff from those places (which NPR seems to like so much). Sure sounds that way to me!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:07 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 13, 2005
History ... Religion ...

BOOK REVIEW: I recently finished reading Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium by Bard Ehrman. A whole lot of non-academic books dealing with the “historical Jesus” have been published over the past 10 years. Some of the big authors include John Dominic Crossnan, Robert Funk, N.T. Wright, Msgr. John Meier, and Marcus Borg. Each of them seems to be grinding an axe of some sort, despite their purported attempts to present an unbiased historian’s interpretation of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Some are obviously supporting the traditional Christian interpretation of Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God, and as the Lord and Savior. Some others paint Jesus as a social and political reformer, someone who was out to promote a secular vision similar to our modern “-isms” (e.g., socialism, universalism, feminism, pacifism, rationalism, communism, or maybe even capitalism!), despite all the God talk.

Professor Ehrman, by contrast, tries to popularize what appears to be the modern academic consensus about Jesus: that Jesus was one of many Jewish apocalyptic prophets who preached and gained a following in Roman Palestine. Like the others, Jesus was convinced that God was angry about the continuing sins of the Jews and about the Romans trampling upon the Holy Lands, and was about to come down from the sky and establish a righteous kingdom of His own. Not a kingdom in the heavens, but one right there in the hills of Galilee and on the streets of Jerusalem. The end and the beginning would come with a mighty reckoning. A mythic figure called “The Son Of Man” would appear in the sky and cast judgement: good people could stay and flourish, but the bad were gonna get cast into a pit of fire or something. It was all about ancient Judaism, all about the fulfillment of scriptural prophecies. And it was all going to happen in Jesus’ time. It had nothing to do at all with later Christian beliefs or Enlightenment-age theories about how the world should be run.

I personally found this book to be monumental. It’s one of those handful of books that you read in your life that opens your eyes and puts a lot of puzzle pieces into place. HOWEVER . . . . . this is not to say that Professor Ehrman has written the definitive biography of Jesus. I still think that he misses some important things and suffers himself from certain biases that distort the picture. The biggest problem is that Professor Ehrman assumes that Jesus was much like his friends in academia: a sober, reasonable fellow with whom you could have a polite, well-informed conversation about worldly matters. Ehrman forgets that if Jesus was an apocalyptic, he was probably much like the modern apocalyptics that are described at the start of his book — i.e., people with fire in the belly, people quite sure of their beliefs even when based on conjecture and fantasy. I.e., someone you might call a fanatic, even a “nutcase”. Jesus was clearly a man with a passion for the holy. So it’s a bit strange when Ehrman strongly asserts that Jesus did not think of himself as the Son of Man (or maybe more accurately, the Son-of-Man-in-training, awaiting the big day). According to Ehrman, that notion had to have been made up by the Christians later on, after Jesus was long gone.

Ehrman argues that within the Gospels, especially Mark, language about Jesus’ preachings seem to refer to the Son of Man in third person; i.e., Jesus was talking about someone else. However, in many other places Jesus clearly refers to himself as the Son. Ehrman reasons that Christians wouldn’t have made up Jesus’ third-person referral to the Son (since it would militate against the view of Jesus as God), but they certainly would have incentive to write about Jesus calling himself the Son. Ergo, any surviving third-party reference must be historical, and the other first-party references in Mark and the later Gospels must be made up.

Now wait a minute. If the early Christians were tweeking the text and inserting revised memories (and I agree that they probably were, up to a point), why were they so shy about re-hashing the lines where Jesus seems to envision the Son of Man as someone else (e.g., Mark 13:26-27 and maybe 8:38 — although that line implies some connection between Jesus and the Son)? Ehrman replies, “because it was the truth”. But that fact arguably didn’t stop the ancient Christian re-writers elsewhere.

I’ve got another theory. Some lines in the Gospels infer that Jesus taught his disciples things that he didn’t share with the crowds (e.g., Matthew 13:17). What if Jesus believed that he was the Son (or was coming to believe it over time), but was a bit shy about announcing it to the masses (perhaps for fear of what eventually DID happen to him, i.e. arrest and death)? What if Jesus shared this belief with his disciples, but was slow in proclaiming it to the crowds (until perhaps that fateful week in Jerusalem)? Then his followers would remember him as the Son, but the memory of his preachings might be a bit more circumspect. And that is just what we see, at least in Mark (which again has the most credibility as the earliest writing).

Another little irritation: Ehrman’s homey, jokey, ultimately condescending writing style. He obviously wouldn’t attempt such humor in a paper published in an academic journal. But when he appeals to the masses, he bends over backward to prove that he’s a regular guy. It’s OK at first, but it gets old real quick. Professor Ehrman, it might be better if you didn’t try so hard to prove that although you’re an academic superstar, you still know how to talk to dummies like me. The story about his son’s rebuke for calling him a dude because “dude” also refers to a camel’s gonads is something that should stay in the family. I can readily accept the proposition that words sometimes have two meanings without a sidenote about everyday teenage sarcasm.

Nonetheless, this book goes a long way in explaining who Jesus really was and what he was all about. It seems rather simple and obvious once you understand it, but it will be hard for many Christians to accept it. So maybe that’s why Ehrman tries so hard to be lovable to the average lout; a lot of average louts aren’t going to love him once they get the gist of what he is saying. Despite its various flaws, this is is a powerful and important book.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:23 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, August 8, 2005
Society ...

Conservative columnist David Brooks had an interesting column in today’s New York Times, interesting in that it was cram-packed with good news. Usually conservative columnists are full of doom and gloom about how society is going to hell in a bucket because of what the liberals did to it. But Brooks says that things are getting better; Americans are now living more virtuously, and he has the statistics to prove it. Crime is down, violence is down, drunken driving is down, drug abuse is down, divorce is down, teenage pregnancy is down, abortions are down, volunteerism is up, parents spend more time with their kids, etc. And I agree with Brooks that all of that is good news.

And yet, for all the goodness going on out there, there doesn’t seem to be much joy about it. Brooks says “I always thought it would be dramatic to live through a moral revival. Great leaders would emerge. There would be important books, speeches, marches and crusades.” But in fact, there’s little drama to be found out there: no great leaders, no great books, no rousing speeches, no big marches, and no crusades (thank goodness).

The one thing that there does seem to be a lot of these days is fear. Fear of terrorism, fear of losing one’s job because of some decision made in India or China, fear of being sued, fear of getting sick and going broke because of lousy health insurance, fear of having one’s pension taken away. I can’t help but wonder if all of this good behavior is inspired not by a revival of the human spirit caused by modern progress, but by the many threats and uncertainties associated with our modern dystopia.

Hey, I’m not saying that it’s bad that we’re all acting better. But unfortunately, it appears to be more of a reaction or a side-effect to some other bad things. As Brooks indicates, it’s a paradox that we’re not living in happy, Kennedy-esque times. We’re a long way from Camelot, even if we are behaving a little better these days.

(I certainly don’t see this better behavior filtering down to daily life, however. One example: people seem to drive faster and more aggressively wherever I go, rich neighborhoods or poor. Patience with one another at a crowded Dunkin Donuts check-out line or on a delayed airline flight seems in shorter supply than ever. Back to coffee, manners are even worse amidst the fashionable crowd at Starbucks.)

KIDS TODAY: A side note to Mr. Brooks’s “moral revival” theory regards America’s youth. Mr. Brooks cites statistics from the US Department of Justice indicating that teenage violence went way down over the past decade. I’ve also read that alcohol, drugs and cigarettes aren’t as popular with kids these days either. But are kids really living better lives? We hear a lot more about teenage depression these days, and the problem of bullying seems to get more and more attention. Many kids are overweight, which you wouldn’t expect if they were living healthy, balanced lives. SAT scores don’t seem to be trending upward. And the number of wacko crimes that affluent kids commit is rather scary.

Sure, we always heard about kids from the slums and barrios getting into trouble, but when I was growing up I don’t recall any shockers from the suburbs. OK, the Colombine High School situation was sensationalized by the press and is still fairly rare. However, the Jeremy Wade Dell stuff really isn’t. We just had some teenagers from an average family in northern NJ decide to kill an unpopular girl just for the heck of it, then hack her body apart and attempt to dump it in a river (just a half mile from where I grew up). And then there was a local crime in ritzy Upper Montclair last week (where a lot of people actually take David Brooks seriously); somebody trashed a garden full of historic, one-of-a-kind iris bulbs. There’s a local debate going on about whether it was the work of some bored, nasty rich kids (and there are a lot of them in Upper Montclair, I can tell you; they didn’t seem as bad 10 years ago), or some adult vendetta going on. If you want to check out the local debate about the state of Upper Montclair’s youth, here’s the townie blog coverage.

Virtue . . . still a tough sell, David Brooks notwithstanding.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:58 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, August 6, 2005
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WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE SPACE SHUTTLE: The most intelligent suggestion I’ve heard so far is that if we have to keep the Space Station going to save face, then at least we should stop sending people up in the Shuttle (from Prof. Alex Roland on the PBS News Hour). Use the Russian Soyuz to bring people back and forth; it has a better safety record than the Shuttle. Convert the Shuttle to total automatic control, as to bring the heavy equipment up and down.

It would take some money and technology to covert the Shuttle to unmanned operation, especially for the docking maneuvers at the Space Station. However, to fix the foam problem on the Shuttle’s fuel tank so as to make it safe-enough for people is also going to take a big chunk of money and technology. If they get the thing patched up and send people up in it again, NASA anticipates getting another 15 to 18 missions out of the Shuttle before retiring it in 2010 (and there’s still that 1-in-50 to 1-in-100 chance of another deadly catastrophe on each flight). If they covert it to freight-only, they can take more chances and maybe get 25 flights in before the last one goes boom or crash. Hey, there’s always that Enterprise mock-up vehicle for the Smithsonian.

It’s going to be 2015 or so until the next manned American space ship gets going. That will be the “Crew Exploration Vehicle”, which Boeing and Lockheed are now competing for. But stay tuned – NASA and Congress seem to change their minds every couple of years on what the replacement for the Shuttle will be. Two years ago it was the “Orbital Space Plane”. Before that there was the X-38, the X-37, the X-34, the X-33 . . . . . . But OK, let’s not rush. Let’s try to get it right next time. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the Shuttle. NASA is trying to get a modular, flexible vehicle that can be adapted to a variety of missions through rearrangement of its ‘building blocks’. I’m glad to say that the early designs for the CEV keep the people-vehicle far away from the rockets. That was the inherent design-flaw of the Shuttle, the one that will go down in the “worst engineering decisions” record book.

Maybe in 20 years or so, they’ll have the orbital tether in service, totally eliminating the need for 3-2-1-0-blast off! You just get in a slow elevator, and in a couple of hours you’re up in the final frontier. For now, though, I’m glad that I satisfied my blood-voyeurism urges and listened to the Discovery blast-off last Tuesday, because it’s probably going to be the last space-gladiator show here in the USA for a long, long time. Maybe forever (which would be a very good thing, as I’m now mature enough to realize).

Hope the Discovery and its crew make it home just fine on Monday.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:26 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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