The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Religion ...

It’s statistics time again. Today’s statistics are about religion, courtesy of a recently released study by the Pew Foundation (more properly, the The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life). The Foundation recently commissioned a telephone survey of over 35,000 people living in America regarding religious preferences and backgrounds. The results are quite interesting for many reasons. But I would like to focus here on a small sub-set of the many statistics derived from this study, as a way to gauge the relative health and healthiness of the major religious choices available in the USA (evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Jewish, etc.). Admittedly, I’m not ready to provide a precise definition of “health” and “healthiness” with regard to religion. Perhaps the statistics themselves will help explain what I’m after.

The first thing that I’m going to compare is the percentage of people who are still active in the religious tradition in which they were brought up in youth. That should tell you something about whether the religion in question is realistically addressing the life needs of its members, given the realities of life in our country today. The second statistic that I’m interested in is the percentage of those people who have left the religion they grew up in and now practice no religion at all. This gives us some idea of how many people “got a bad flavor in their mouth” from their childhood experiences of religion, and were then turned off to all thoughts of collective worship.

The third statistic of interest is a bit of a “corrective” for the first one. It regard the percentage of people in a particular religion who are immigrants. I think it can be fairly said that immigrants often prefer to stay involved in their childhood religion, because it provides social stability for them as they get used to living in a foreign land. That was certainly the case for my grandparents and those like them who came over from Poland many years ago. Only decades later did their wise-guy grandchildren (including myself) start questioning the old time religion.

Well, let’s take a look at the numbers from Pew and see what they might mean:


Evangelical Protestants
Mainline Protestants
Jehovahs Witness
Roman Catholic
Unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic, nothing)

I would think that the higher the “Still Involved” percentage is, the more healthy the religion is (if all else were the same, which it never is). The Hindus come in first here, at 84%. The Jehovah Witnesses are the worst at 37%. The next statistic, “No Religion” (meaning “left the childhood faith and not practicing any religion now”), goes the other way; the lower this number is, the more healthy the religion is, or would seem. The Hindus are almost the best in this, at 8% (only the Orthodox are slightly better at 7%). The Jehovah’s Witnesses are again the worst, at 33%. It appears to me that a lot of people get burned out by the Witnesses. It’s definitely a religion for special tastes, and not for children. As to the Hindus, they appear to be the most healthy, but we have to look to the third statistic to put their success into context. The Hindu religion is mainly practiced by immigrants; 86% of those surveyed who grew up in the Hindu religion were born abroad. So it’s not that surprising that the Hindus get such good stats; it’s a cultural thing. The average American thinking about converting to Hinduism would probably not experience the same satisfaction that current practitioners of Hinduism seem to enjoy.

The next interesting thing that grabs my attention is the difference between the Mainline Protestant groups (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Congregationalist) and the Evangelical Protestants (Baptists, Pentecostals, Holiness Churches, etc.). Both have very low percentages of immigrants; they are definitely American religions. But for whatever reason, the Evangelicals seem to be doing better than the more liberal Mainline churches. The Evangelicals held on to 71% of their childhood members in the survey, versus 60% for the Mainline churches. And a slightly lower percentage of childhood members of Evangelicals turned off to religion completely versus the Mainliners (12% versus 14%). I take my hat off to the social justice awareness of the Protestant Mainline churches, but it looks as though they are not doing enough to meet the personal needs of their members. It’s too bad there has to be a dichotomy in that regard; it’s too bad that religion can’t find a way to minister to both those who have suffered injustice, and to those who are living an average American life.

I developed two other stats regarding crossover between Mainline and Evangelical Protestants. In which direction is the traffic heavier? As you might guess, the traffic is heavier for Mainlines going over to the Evangelical side. About 15% of people surveyed who were born in the Mainline tradition went over to an Evangelical church, whereas only 9% of Evangelicals went over to a Mainline church. For better or for worse, the Evangelical Protestants have a better handle on what the average American family seems to expect from religion.

The Jews show a good retention rate of 76%, despite a relatively low immigrant rate of 10%. However, those who do leave Judaism often stay away from religion co
mpletely (14% of those who grew up Jewish became non-religious). The Mormons aren’t much different from the Jews here; they have a retention rate of 70%, an immigrant rate of 6%, and a “no religion anymore” rate of 14%. The two “catholic” style faiths, the Orthodox and the mainstream Roman Catholics, have interesting differences. The Orthodox seem “healthier” with a 73% retention rate and a 7% no-religion rate, versus 68% and 14% for Roman Catholicism. However, some of this difference is explained by immigrant status; about 38% of the Orthodox in the poll were born abroad, whereas 26% of Catholics were immigrants. So you would expect the Orthodox to do somewhat better, although perhaps not by that much. Recall, though, that the Orthodox church is small potatoes in the USA; there are almost 40 Roman Catholics for every Orthodox Catholic.

The Catholics still appear to be doing better than the Mainline Protestant churches. However, if you were to adjust for the higher percentage of immigrants amidst the Catholics, the Catholics wouldn’t seem that much better. The survey didn’t break out numbers for native-born Catholics, but based on the numbers for Hindus and Orthodox, you would expect the retention rate for native-born Catholics to be around 64 or 65%; i.e. not that much better than the Mainliners’ 60%.

As to Islam, unfortunately the Survey did not have good numbers, since the percentage of Muslims is relatively low. What few statistics the Survey does show regarding Islam suggest general stability and high rates of immigrant status, similar to the Hindus.

Interestingly, the Buddhists and the “Unaffiliateds” (atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular”) don’t look very ‘healthy’ at all. Despite the attractiveness of Buddhism to many disenchanted Catholics and Mainline Protestants, those who are born Buddhist often don’t stay; their retention rate is a relatively low 50%. However, when people leave Buddhism, they often follow the spirit of the Buddha and stay away from religion completely. That percentage is 28%. The Buddhists in the survey were mostly native born, but 26% were immigrants, similar to the Catholics. So, despite cultural ties for the immigrant faction, born Buddhists still seem to be streaming for the doors.

The Unaffiliateds did even worse (these include atheists, agnostics, and “nothing in particular”, whether or not they believed in the supernatural). Only 46 percent of people who grew up in the “unaffiliated” status had stayed in it. The survey said that most of those who left became involved in some religion. The survey provided a statistic for the atheist component alone, showing that only 40% of people growing up in atheist households still considered themselves atheists! Unfortunately, there was not any follow-up on this group regarding what they had become – were they now regularly going to a church or a temple, or were they simply shifting over to “agnostic” or “unaffiliated believer” status? Unfortunately, Pew left us hanging here. Still, the atheist perspective is obviously a tough sell. Many people adopt it in adulthood, but it obviously doesn’t leave a good taste if you were brought up as a child in it.

So you see a lot of “do your own religion thing” here in America, especially for the native-born. Many people who were born into a religion eventually become “unaffiliated” with any religion, but those born “unaffiliated” often become religious. The Jews and Mormons seem to be religions where you usually are born into it and stay in it, even though they are both highly Americanized. The Hindus and Muslims may go that route too in the future. The Mainstream Protestants by contrast are an all-American Church in a nosedive; the native-born component of the Catholic religion isn’t doing that much better. They both seem to fulfill predictions that the secularization trend going on in western Europe will take hold in America; i.e. the Christian churches will become mostly for immigrants. However, the Evangelical Protestants seem to be bucking this trend; they may attain the “born into and hold onto” status of the Mormons and Jews, but on a much larger scale. They are obviously going to remain a political force. They may be tuning into something uniquely American in character and circumstance.

And finally, as to the no-religion or almost-no-religion (Buddhism) options: these factions may be growing in influence in Europe, but they don’t seem to be catching fire here in the USA. Before they can present a relevant alternative for the human family as a whole, they will need to do better with their own children. Otherwise, they won’t ever amount to much more than a refuge for burnt-out adults (like myself) who eventually slip thru a hole in the proverbial fisherman’s net of established religion.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:11 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Personal Reflections ... Photo ...

About two weeks ago, the UPS guy showed up at my apartment house and left eight boxes on the porch. I saw the boxes and out of curiosity, I looked at the shipping label to see who this stuff was for. To my surprise, it was for me! But I didn’t order it, it was a big mistake. I recognized the name of the sender, an internet purveyor of specialty food items; I had ordered from them before, but not for several months. So I went on line, and to my relief I didn’t see any unexpected charges against my credit cards. Then I shot an e-mail to the company telling them that it was all a big mistake, I didn’t order this stuff. They wrote back and asked me to open one box, get out the invoice, and give them the reference numbers. I sent that back to them, and asked them when I should expect the stuff to be picked up. Two days went by, no reply. So I wrote again, asking ‘when are you having this stuff picked up?’ Again, no response. So, I got out the invoice and decided that whatever this stuff was, it was now mine.

Actually, it was a lot of beans. Another customer had ordered big 25 pound bags of beans and grains from this company. I can’t figure out why; their prices per pound are almost twice what you pay in the supermarket (despite being bought in bulk). Well whatever, the stuff was now mine, por nada.

Actually, I gave three of the bean-bags and a sack of organic couscous to a homeless shelter that my brother used to volunteer with. That still left me with a good supply of lentils, black-eyed peas, wheat berries, split green peas, and white beans. I got them put away in my kitchen, but then I started thinking about the bags that the stuff came in. Most suburban people (like me) normally never see bagged foods in bulk. You see cans and plastic wrapped food in supermarkets, but unless you work in a warehouse or a food factory or an institutional kitchen, you never see 25 pound bags of beans. So here’s a picture of one of the bags. This is what it looks like, straight from the heartland of America (the bean company is in Nebraska). It definitely looks different. It didn’t come from coastal, urbanized America; it’s plain and understated, but colorful and creative in a certain way. Perhaps it’s something waiting to be discovered by the artistic crowd in Manhattan. Yes, I could see a special display at one of the big art museums, maybe the Whitney: “Straight from the Heartland: Bulk Bean Bags of America”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:34 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Personal Reflections ... Politics ...

Once you reach a certain age, the overarching goals of life change. When you’re young, your goals are (or should be) very grand. Depending upon who you are and how you’ve been influenced by the world around you, your aims in life might include achievement, power, wealth, fame, true love, that sort of thing. Maybe even happiness. However, after a decade or two, most people get rounded down (although a few do get on that elevator to the top and keep on chasing a dream — for better and for worse). Their goals start changing to contentedness, self-actualization, raising a family, and perhaps achieving religious salvation or transcendence. Then as you get older, it becomes mostly day-to-day survival, with an occasional attempt at “passing something on” or “helping to prepare the next generation” (despite the fact that the next generation mostly doesn’t want any help; never did, never will).

I think that I’ve found a more generic concept for whatever it is that we should be doing with our lives, no matter what our age and situation. It’s called “eudaimonia”, and it goes back to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks (it means something like “spirit of good being” or “human flourishing”). It’s kind of a generic notion of “being in synch”, about finding the best balance between your own authentic self and the world around you. It’s all about finding wisdom and acting virtuously for all the days of your life. It’s a hard concept to nail down – almost as hard as actually living in a eudaimonious way.

But hey, ya gotta keep tryin’.

ALSO – speaking of happiness, I see that the US military is quite happy about its successful missile shot at the NRO spy satellite that was going to come down soon. However, the purported reason behind the mission is starting to look just about as valid as President Bush’s reasons for invading Iraq (remember the supposed “weapons of mass destruction”?). Last night on the PBS Newshour, MIT science professor and defense critic Theodore Postol said that he did an analysis of the degree of force that the satellite in question would experience when it started hitting the upper atmosphere (had it not been shot down). He felt that the high degree of sudden force, combined with the twisting and tumbling the satellite would experience and the high temperatures of re-entry, would surely burst the tank holding the toxic hydrazine propellant, dispersing it well before the remains of the satellite got close to the ground. He described the construction of such tanks as “gossamer”, i.e. very lightweight (given that the rockets that launch these satellites can only carry so much, and the designers would rather have more cameras and electronic stuff than thick tank walls).

Sooooooo ….. another Bush Administration pro-military excuse goes down the tubes.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:55 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Current Affairs ... Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

I just have three minor, mostly unrelated thoughts to discuss tonight. It’s pretty hard to weave them into a coherent picture, but 0f course, I’ll “go down trying”.

First – here’s a nice little article from the NY Times about the end of outdoor skating during the winter on frozen ponds. Unless you are up in Canada or in the middle of northern Minnesota, it just doesn’t get cold for long-enough periods anymore. Also, because of human development, there is too much road salt and other pollutants that keeps lake water from freezing. That’s a shame. Outdoor skating was a part of my youth here in New Jersey. I was never very good at it, but it could be fun nonetheless. But no, it just doesn’t happen very much anymore. The world has changed.

Second – about that spy satellite that the US military is going to shoot down in a week or so. I can’t help but wonder if they would normally ride something like this out, but now have itchy trigger fingers because of that Chinese anti-satellite test in January 2007. It’s not like the thing would require evacuation of hundreds of square miles of land. It wouldn’t spray toxic rocket fuel for more than a city block or two. They could track it and give advanced warning to any populated areas that it might hit (chances still greatly favor its coming down in the ocean). It’s not some huge crisis.

So I can’t help but wonder if the dramatic response is a message to the Chinese – i.e., you guys managed to hit a satellite in a controlled test with a missile launched from a special base. We can hit a satellite from one of our regular warships in international waters. On any day we want (assuming that the interceptor missile works). Admittedly, there are some technical differences – they hit a satellite up around 500 miles up, whereas we would hit ours at around 100 miles or less. Our situation won’t cause the big space-junk mess that the Chinese caused. But still, I think the intended but unspoken message to China and the world here is that the USA is still the big khahuna with regard to space and military technology.

Third – is competition between religions a good thing? The March Atlantic has an article written by Alan Wolfe about this. In many instances throughout history, competition between differing religious viewpoints led to war, torture, and other bad stuff. Today, in some places, this still happens (e.g., Nigeria). But in the USA, the effects of religious Darwinism will arguably be more peaceful. Since we are a rich nation, there’s not much danger of warfare breaking out between, say, the Mormons and the Pentecostals. But what we are seeing is the “Wal-Mart-ization” of religion.

In the US heartland, the mega-churches seem to be growing at the expense of small, traditional Protestant congregations (actually, there are signs of early mega-church formation here in NJ; e.g., not far from me, a newly formed generic Christian group meets every Sunday in a local Boys Club gym). These big churches offer a variety of worship forms, some featuring modern entertainment, and a wide variety of services including job seekers clubs, social outreach groups, sports teams, study groups, parents’ support ministries, etc. Other types of churches will hang on, but only by finding specific targeted audiences, e.g. gays (at some liberal Episcopalian parishes), educated agnostics (Quaker and Unitarian churches), struggling immigrants (probably where the Roman Catholic Church in America is heading), poor people looking for support (e.g., urban Pentecostal and Islamic congregations), cultural niches (Judaism, Islam, Hindu temples), etc.

So, the days of Currier and Ives are coming to an end in the USA. Paintings of kids skating on a pond under clear blue skies with a quaint small-town church in the background are visions of the past (or fading fast, anyway). Skating now goes on inside a big indoor rink; religion happens inside something like that too. And those skies aren’t so clear and blue anymore, but if you do get such a day, you might see the contrail of a rapidly-climbing anti-satellite missile seeking out an enemy in space (or some falling space junk).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:34 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Politics ...

John Heilermann points out that after Tuesday’s primary results in Maryland, Virginia and DC, Barack Obama is looking like the heir apparent. Heilermann also thinks that Obama could either be the next John Kennedy or the next Jimmy Carter. Let me expand on that thought by not assuming the outcome in November. Let’s expand our consideration to include two other Democratic presidential candidates who came out of nowhere to rally the party to their cause (but lost to the GOP). Those candidates would be Michael Dukakis (1988) and George McGovern (1972).

So now we have more of a range. McGovern was arguably the worst of the worst; he never ever had a chance against Nixon. Dukakis, by contrast, did seem viable at first; polls in May and June of 1988 showed him running ahead of George H.W. Bush. But within a few months, Bush would take a commanding lead and would trounce the Duke in the general election. Next on the spectrum is Jimmy Carter, who won the election but then lost the Presidency (and I still contend that he was the unluckiest President of the 20th Century, or at least tied with Woodrow Wilson). Finally, there is JFK, the guy who won the election and did a good job as President until that black day in Dallas in November of 1963.

So which overall scenario will best fit Barack Obama? Yes, I know; let Obama be Obama. His campaign and his Presidency (if he is elected) won’t be exactly like those of any of these four past Presidents (and God forbid he should have an ending anything like Kennedy’s). But still, the point remains – there is a lot of uncertainty about Obama. We are breaking new historical ground here. The powers-that-be in the Democratic Party seem ready to take the risk, bolstered by polls showing favorable public attitudes, good outcomes in head-to-heads against McCain, and by Obama’s fundraising success. But public opinion is fickle. I hope that Barack Obama is truly the stuff of American greatness, the next tall man from Illinois to rise up to reconcile a fractured nation. We shall see — with prayers again that he doesn’t end up like Lincoln did!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:21 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Personal Reflections ... Politics ... Society ...

There’s a little piece in the March Atlantic Magazine regarding a U.S. Bureau of Labor study showing that overweight women have and are facing increased employment discrimination. Over the past 25 years, men and women of all ages and races have been getting heavier, and at the same time the discrimination against overweight women, in terms of salary differences, seems also to be increasing.

What also captured my eye is a bar chart that went with the article (using data from the study). This chart purports to show that between 1981 and 2000, the percentage of white working-age women who are either overweight or obese rose from 12.6 percent to 50.4 percent. I.e., from one-in-eight to one-in-two. If that is true, it is quite astonishing. But I didn’t think it was accurate. To check, I took a look at a report called “Health, United States, 2007”, published by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Table 74 of that report shows that in the 1976-1980 period, 38.7% of white women age 20 to 74 were overweight or obese; in the 2000-2004 period, this went up to 61.4%. That’s still a huge jump, and shows the current situation to be even worse than the Atlantic numbers (6 in 10 overweight versus 5 in 10). But it’s still not a fat revolution, as the study stats would imply.

There certainly is a health crisis lurking behind all of this, as excess weight correlates with an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular conditions and muscular-skeletal problems, from what I’ve read (and what I’ve seen in my own family). From an aesthetic point of view, I also find this regrettable. Every guy has his tastes in women; some guys like the Rubenesque figure and probably welcome the trend. But I myself like the tall thin type best – that is, from the shallow perspective of appearance. I’m mature enough to know that true human worth goes way beyond looks; still, I’m still entitled to what I find most immediately pleasing regarding body appearances. A little bit of ‘girlwatching’ doesn’t hurt anyone.

Sticking with the looks-only perspective, it’s no secret that most guys find women in their 20’s and early 30’s to be the most aesthetically pleasing. That’s just nature at work; most men have enough brainpower to realize that true friendships and relationships depend upon much more than surface appearances. But nevertheless, even the most enlightened guy can Platonically admire what nature does with reproduction-age females. So, perhaps the most disturbing statistical trend for we girlwatchers is what has happened to the 20-34 year old cohort of females; in the 1960-1962 period, only 21.2% of such women were overweight or obese; in the 2000-2004 period, that number went to 51.6%. My goodness, McDonalds and Hagen-Daz and ADM (with all of that unhealthy corn syrup they crank out) are trying to kill off girlwatching in America!

Just to show that I’m not being totally chauvinistic here, I’ll leave behind a link to an article that I just read on the New York Magazine web site regarding the differences between Obama and Hilary. Actually, I’ll link to the last page of that article, which sums things up very nicely. To paraphrase it, Hilary is the practical choice, the choice which assumes that politics in Washington and the world at large are nasty and are going to stay nasty. Obama reflects the assumption that through American good will and idealism, the world of nations and the world of politics can become kinder and gentler. Right now, the Obama point of view seems to be winning, and in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing. But I just don’t think that the world is ready for Obama’s paradigm; or, said another way, Obama is just not ready for the real world’s paradigm. His speeches sound like wishful thinking to me. But McCain and the GOP are just too pessimistic about the human race. I still think that Hilary, however uninspiring politically (and not much from the girlwatching perspective either), is the right mix, the best you can do. I still hope she can pull out of her tailspin.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:14 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, February 9, 2008
Society ...

There’s an interesting article in the March Atlantic Magazine which speculates that in 20 years, a lot of today’s posh suburban developments in the exurban fringes could become low-income slum communities (“The Next Slum?” by Christopher Leinberger). The subprime mortgage crisis may have set in motion a process powered by a series of underlying demographic and economic factors, a process that may leave the cities and inner suburbs better off and the exurbs and their McMansions much worse. It would be hard today to imagine gangs, drug dealing, and vinyl-clad estate houses split up into tenements out along the Interstates and outer-beltways, but perhaps in 20 years the suburban-fringe paradises of today will become tomorrow’s nightmares. Stranger things have happened within the context of decades.

This made me thing of a song that I just bought and downloaded from the new Amazon MP3 site. I’m not getting paid to plug for Amazon, but I will give them credit for not requiring that you download their special software to buy their music. All of the other major digital music sites seem to require that, and personally I don’t like it. Who knows what their software is doing that you’re not aware of. My computer and its registry are cluttered enough as it is without needing a special application for every site that I do business with.

Anyway, the song I’m referring to is Cashman & West’s “American City Suite”, from 1972. It’s a lament about the decline and decay of urban neighborhood life in New York City that took place back in the 60’s. American City Suite is actually a rather touching and underrated tune; there’s some real emotion in it. It got some airplay for a few months after it was released, but has gone entirely unnoticed since then. Nice that Amazon decided to list it (I think that MSN also has it). Here we are, about 40 years later, and maybe those urban neighborhoods are coming back. And perhaps the suburbs (the outer ones, anyway) are going to experience the social decline that they previously caused in the cities, what Cashman & West sang about. It makes you wonder if Terry Cashman is thinking about writing a new version lamenting the end of the McMansion / SUV dream.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:30 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Society ...

I’m not a huge football fan, but since I live in the New York area, I couldn’t help but get swept up in the enthusiasm for the underdog NY Giants over the past few weeks. What a great comeback from a team that barely made the playoffs. They came back to knock off three powerhouse teams, and then beat the mightiest of the mighty, the previously undefeated New England Patriots, in the Superbowl. This year’s Superbowl finally earned its name. And the NFC playoff game in Green Bay was also a classic, being played in minus 3 degree weather (an “IceBowl”, as some have called it) and won in overtime with a dramatic field goal right after the kicker had blown two easier attempts. That was probably the one NFL football game that I’ll always remember.

Being a reflective sort of chap, however, I’ll not dwell too long on the athletic and spiritual achievements of the Giants over the past 6 weeks (as well as financial ones), great though they were. Instead, I’d like to ponder two social themes that are quite prominent in a football game, especially a high-powered, big-money game like the NFL. Those themes are competition and cooperation. Professional football is mix of both. There’s plenty of competition on every level; competition to win the game, competition between players to make the team, competition for TV ratings, etc. There must also be a lot of cooperation. E.g., cooperation between team players throughout the game; cooperation of teams with the rules of the game, and with the decisions of the referees; cooperation with the fans, who pay good money to watch; cooperation with the capitalist and governmental institutions who provide and maintain a stadium, provide traffic control for the crowds, sell commercial air time on the media, provide for a team’s logistic needs (uniforms, travel, game scheduling, training facilities), etc. Although the main point of an NFL game is to win and to make money in a capitalist economy, there is plenty of cooperation going on behind the scenes.

For me, though, it’s sad that competition is king here, and cooperation is the handmaiden working in the shadows. Football says a lot about our social priorities and assumptions. My second grade teacher told me and my parents that I was “different”. Part of the difference that she was referring to, I believe, regards my unwillingness to just accept things. Not that I’m any great rebel, but I think that I was born with an instinctual ability to notice and question things that many others take for granted. One of those things is competition; back in grammar school I knew early on that we were being encouraged to compete with each other, because that’s just how life in America is. But why is that, I wanted to know. No one had a good answer. Just shut up and take your lumps in dodgeball and ‘steal the bacon’.

I still wonder why we have to be so competitive. The Ayn Rand capitalist theory is that competition brings out the best in us. If we didn’t have to compete, if our needs for security were met, we’d all be lazy. Such laziness would eventually lead to rampant poverty and social collapse. Competition makes things as good as they are. Even the losers are better off in the long run because of it.

And yet I wonder. Is that really the main choice for us human beings? Competition versus laziness? That sure seems to be what we assume here in the USA. Cooperation is just a side-effect that’s sometimes necessary to enhance competition. It’s like that with mother nature herself. Families are the bastions of cooperation, but only such that each family can better compete for money, land, and opportunities for their children; this applies to almost all creatures. Putting competition first is in our nature.

But do we have to be slaves to mother nature? Isn’t it the human heritage to do something different, based on our ability to reason? My reasoning would say that cooperation is the better part. I would envision a human race where cooperation is king, where people truly strive to cooperate, where cooperation brings out everyone’s best. Yes, some competition would still be necessary; I myself enjoy having a choice of supermarkets and department stores to go to. And yes, competition makes the NFL so occasionally entertaining (but only occasionally; most football games are pretty boring to me). So why can’t we all assume that it’s cooperation that can make us better off; on every level, even to the level of nations deciding how to split up land, oil, seaways, water, minerals, wealth, etc.

Yea, I know, we’re a long, long way from that here on Planet Earth. For now, the most significant manifestation of international competition, i.e. war, continues on and on. We’ve kept it out of America for a long time now, although 9-11 showed that it could come back. Yes, I do look at (pseudo) Islamic radical jihad and al Qaeda as an exercise in competition, in the same vein with capitalist, species evolution, the “magic of the market”, and conservative politics. Imagine if we could turn down the competition instinct and do away with war. Imagine all the economic resources that would be freed up for better uses if the many nations of the world stopped building and buying jet fighter planes and tanks and destroyers and missiles and machine guns. Despite all of the wealth created by economic competition, there is also a huge economic drag created by military competition. When you balance these factors, is the average citizen of this world better or worse off?

I still think that humankind could make it different; we could make cooperation the prime directive, without losing our iPods and all of the magic that we saw from the NY Giants over the past few weeks. But that will probably take centuries of time and many more hard lessons. I won’t live to see it, but I’d like to think that every dream of a better world somehow helps.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:24 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, February 1, 2008
Personal Reflections ... Photo ...

WALLINGTON, NEW JERSEY used to be notorious for its bars. Well, perhaps notorious is too strong a word. They generally weren’t centers of gambling and prostitution. They were mostly blue-collar shot-and-a-beer places. But there were plenty of them, located on both the main drags and the back streets. Back during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, a lot of homeowners put an addition on the front of their houses and opened up a bar where the parlor would have been. Despite all the national unemployment, there were still many people working in the mills across the river in Passaic, and with all of the gloom, most of them could use a drink on the way home. So there was just enough demand for convenient liquor as to allow these homeowners to make a few coins. Back in the Depression, every little coin helped.

Many of these little mom-and-pop bars held on into the 1960s and 1970s. A few would still open up now and then, into the 1990s. By 2000, though, just about all of these neighborhood places were gone. Not that Wallington has gone dry, but you now have to stick to the thoroughfares and find a bar with upscale pretensions, or maybe a place with a restaurant attached (or the bowling alley on Paterson Avenue). Interestingly, though, if you walk the back streets of old-town Wallington, you will notice all of the funny-looking houses with living rooms extending out to the sidewalk line; i.e., the remains of the old bars.

Actually, there is one little tavern on Locust Avenue that is barely hanging on, but it’s in its last days. Locust Avenue is one of the main drags; however, the layout of this place is definitely classic Wallington-1930s, i.e. a shoebox in the front of an old two story house. The establishment in question had been run since the Depression by the Puzio family. Sometime during the late 70s or early 80s, one of the sons living at home decided to fix the place up a bit and keep regular evening hours on most weekdays and on Saturdays. It was no longer a dingy old bar smelling of spilled beer and rye, with a couple of old guys on metal stools burning cigarettes in the dark while watching a ball game on a TV above the cash register. “Pee Wee” (what everyone called the fellow who ran the place) built up a patronage of college students and young middle-class professionals during the 1980s. And I was one of those patrons. The “Colonial Room” (the place actually didn’t have a sign with that name, but there were printed matchbooks saying “Pee Wee’s Colonial Room”) was always a nice place to start the evening with. You’d leave by 10pm for other points of interest, for places where more exciting things may or may not have been happening. But even if the rest of the evening went bust, at least you got a nice hour or so in at Pee Wee’s.

Pee Wee works a day job, and by the 1990s, he lost interest in being a barkeeper by night. The place wasn’t open as much, and then finally wasn’t open at all. The 21st Century arrived without a Colonial Room available to stop into for a beer and a quick chat with good old Pee Wee. The world had lost another good thing. But not totally, as it turned out. Last year, my brother told me that he had run into Pee Wee at his church, and even though the guy is now in his early 80’s, he said he would try to open the bar on Saturday nights – although he couldn’t promise that it would be every Saturday.

Nonetheless, Pee Wee did make good-enough on his promise, and late last December I stopped in with my brother for a reunion. It was bittersweet. Pee Wee was now an old man; he’s still in pretty good shape for his age, but different from the guy I remembered (although he still has a good barkeeper’s knack for hospitality; e.g. he still gives you a glass with your beer bottle, without asking). The place was mostly empty and quiet. Pee Wee only had the background lights on, unlike the old days when all the lights were lit and the seats were full of people chatting and laughing. Behind the bar were just a few bottles, just enough to fix a couple of mixed drinks; quite unlike the rows of bottles on the shelves against the back wall, as in the old days. The reunion was great, but there was no doubt that it was 2007, and that the old magic wasn’t coming back.

My brother and I got there again last week; things were about the same, but I wasn’t expecting much this time. In a way, the melancholy had lifted somewhat with oldies music playing in the background, and with another customer or two present. But a “new era” for the Colonial Room is not in the offing. Pee Wee told us that he and his wife now have the place up for sale, and hope to move out of state in a few months. So although we will hopefully get back there at least once more before the end, the focus must remain on the past, and not the future. The goodbye process has begun. But at least there will be a goodbye process. Too many good things pass without a decent goodbye.

So here’s a pic of “the Wee” in his bar, with two friends. He’s obviously the guy in the center; Wallington is not good with irony, so you don’t expect a “Pee Wee” there to be a 7-footer, nor a “Big Moe” to be four-eight. Nonetheless, Pee Wee was a classic “tavern keeper”. The world will have lost something on the night when he locks the front door of the “Colonial Room” for the last time.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:02 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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