The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Brain / Mind ... Personal Reflections ...

My mother has been in the intensive care unit at St. Marys Hospital in Passaic for the past 18 days, following an unexpected respiratory arrest that brought both her lungs and heart to a halt. Thus, I’ve gotten to know something about hospital life; there’s nothing like hanging around an ICU for 6 hours each day (following a few hours in the emergency room at the start) to get a feel for things.

I must say that I’ve been impressed with many of the people working there. I’m still not a big fan of doctors, but the emergency room MD was pretty amazing in his low-key fashion. He was dancing his way through a non-stop chorus of chaos, making it all look well-rehearsed. The ER med tech guy who helped him was an amazingly intense young man. And most of the ICU nurses and technicians have done pretty well too.

I’ve been going back to my office for half-days during this time, and many of the people there are minor-league by comparison. The combination of human caring and professional intensity is entirely lacking amidst much of the support staff. Myself included, unfortunately.

I probably am romanticizing the hospital situation somewhat; there are problems and pettiness and employee gripes at St. Marys. It’s hard and sometimes nasty work, but when these folk go home they certainly are entitled to feel good about what they do for a living.

Next thought: since her respiratory incident, my mother has been in something of a coma, to a varying degree. She does open her eyes a fair amount, and sometimes seems quite aware of what is going on around her. But most of the time, she is not experiencing what we call “consciousness”. This is ironic to me, given the academic interest that I’ve taken on the topic of mind and self-awareness. I’ve read quite a few books and have devoted part of this web site to reviewing what I’ve learned from scientists, psychologists and philosophers about the complex interactions between brain, mind and self (and let’s not even get into stuff like “free will”). But I didn’t imagine that my own mother would soon be caught in the twilight world where those around her can only guess “what it is like” for her right now.

All of those good words and learned thoughts by the experts, professing to have a grasp on what our minds are and what goes on within them . . . You’d think I’d be well prepared to understand what my mother is going through. But no. When something really happens to the brain and mind of a real person, all of the learned thoughts and conceptual paradigms about our innermost life are “like straw” (as St. Thomas Aquinas said late in his life about the many words he had written trying to capture the essence of God).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:42 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Personal Reflections ...

This blog has pretty much been “off the air” lately, as my time has been diverted to a family situation. I.e., my mother experienced a “respiratory arrest” last Tuesday afternoon that effectively shut down her lungs and heart. The EMT and ER people managed to keep her going and get her stabilized, and she’s been in a hospital intensive care unit since then. We’re not sure how this situation is going to play out; my mother’s condition is “touch and go”, you might say. There’s been some progress, but also some set-backs. She is fighting incredibly hard to keep going, however, and most everyone involved seems rather impressed by her sheer willpower.

So, I will be back before long, and I’ll have some interesting things to talk about. I’ve been in the “belly of the beast” of the American health care system, and may still have a ways to go through those awful entrails. I’ve had some time to reflect on my family relationships. I’ve been in an urban hospital mixing with people from all parts of the globe. I’ve had my life upset a bit, giving me a chance to look at it from a different angle. It’s all been quite upsetting, and awfully tiring; I’ve lost 5 pounds over the past week (which takes me down to around 120 — but on the bright side, that’s a good excuse to start eating more!). But it’s also been a learning experience. Life as a learning experience; that’s what being an “eternal student of and for life” is all about. I hope to share some of my new lessons on this page very shortly.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:25 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Monday, December 8, 2008
History ... Society ...

When I was in grammer school and high school, I learned about history — as did most of us. Regarding our own nation, I learned about the Revolutionary War, about the Civil War, about WW1 and WW2, about the Founding Fathers, about the adoption of the Constitution, etc. Regarding world history, I was taught about the great empires in China and Rome and the Middle East, about the kings and queens of England, about Alexander the Great, about Genghis Khan and Marco Polo, about the Greeks and the Egyptians with their pyramids, and other sundry events and dates and figures. Unfortunately, I never thought to ask the bigger questions: just why were there kings and nations and wars and trade routes to China? I never stopped to wonder just when and why, in the course of early human history, did people give their consent to being ruled by a king or other kind of government? Just why did they affiliate themselves with a kingdom or a fiefdom or a nation? When did they consent to the idea of war, of putting their lives on the line to bring mayhem and misery to other people who were ultimately like themselves? And when and how did the one or two good things that came from large-scale organization brought on by kings and ruling elders, i.e. trade and shared learning, get going?

Only in my old age did I even think of these things as questions. I have been listening to a CD course from The Teaching Company called “The Wisdom of History” by J. Rufus Fears. I must give Prof. Fears credit for bringing up those questions. In his history of the Middle East, the big professor (Dr. Fears does appear to be a robust man; his “hotness rating” on is 0) points out that it was in Egypt and Iraq where the first kings and kingdoms occurred. Humans were living there as they were throughout the rest of the world, i.e. in little family-tribes, getting by through a mix of hunting, gathering, and small-scale agriculture.

However, the weather started changing, getting dryer and dryer, and a lot of these little tribes were in trouble. Someone figured out that they could prevent these people from starving by learning how to channel the big rivers and predict their flows, i.e. the Nile and the Tigris / Euphrates system. This would take large-scale organization on the part of those with the right information; and such organization required the ability to boss other people around. Since it was a matter of growing food or starving, a lot of people gave in and pledged their allegiance to the handful of folk with information about the rivers. (Information is the precursor to power.) And so came the birth of kingdom and absolute tyranny. The new kings soon made it clear that they were the boss, not to be questioned. If you don’t like it, go find your own river.

Once we had kingdoms with hundreds and eventually thousands of people willing to do what the king said, it wasn’t hard to take the first steps towards war. Maybe there were still tribal people getting by out beyond the rivers in question; well, why not organize some of the subjects into a fighting group, arm them with sticks and rocks and whatever else could do harm, and go out and conquer those little tribes. It would make the kingdom bigger, give the king more land and people to control, and thus allow more taxes to be levied as to support the material comfort of the king and his family. So, the idea of war and conquering got started. It got especially interesting when one growing kingdom discovered that there were others out there, and that they were becoming interested in the same hills or seas or rivers for future expansion. So, more and more emphasis was placed on training armies and making war. Eventually, war got so popular that it became more than a way to compete with other kingdoms for new turf; if done right, it could conquer another kingdom as a whole, providing a bounty of new lands, slaves, and whatever material comforts the losing kingdom had accumulated.

So, starting with the Middle East but certainly expanding rapidly out from there, the world saw the continual geographic growth of regions where local inhabitants lost their freedom, where they were forced to swear allegiance to a king and give in to his demands (including taxes, service in the army, contribution of free labor for public projects, obedience to general laws of behavior, etc.). There were fewer and fewer places where a small family tribe could just live on the land as they chose. The world was getting organized, but in a rather crude way; there were a handful of big bosses (kings), and thousands then millions of people taking orders from them unquestioningly. (If you did question the king, you were probably a goner).

Still, the geographic growth of all this forced control caused by megalomaniac kings did cause one good thing to happen, something that would eventually give many of the small people the opportunity to gain some level of power and freedom of their own. And that was trade. As kingdoms grew, roads and ships had to be built. Over time, people became more mobile. And people discovered that over those hills or across the bay were other people who had access to local resources that allowed them to make metal plates or pottery or perfume; they might be interested in exchanging some of that stuff for what we have, be it fish or apples or wool or stone tools. Once trade started, many possibilities for individual betterment were unleashed. Numbers and writing were started by kings and their ministers to keep track of taxes; but those techniques eventually got out and were adapted as to help traders. So, with trade was spread the ability to write and understand numbers. Eventually, this spurred the exchange of ideas and techniques. Civilization was on the way.

And thus came about the schizophrenic world that we know: a world of war, a world of power, a world of allegiance demanded by king and country, demands that that too quickly become tyranny. And yet, a world of economic opportunity, intellectual development, and humanistic ideals. The Middle East was the birthplace of our key monotheistic religions, and thus the ethics of individual dignity and rights that eventually stemmed from them. Not far away were the ancient Greeks, who through the leisure and learning allowed to a privileged few (because of trade) were able to develop philosophies and ideals like democracy.

So there it is, the (very rough) story regarding the origins of the best and worst of humankind — if I’m hearing Dr. Fears right. It’s too bad that we are all taught at a young age to take them for granted. If we are going to emphasize our good things and phase out the bad, we need to know where they came from and why they got so popular. History needs to stop being all about dates and people and battles, and start being more about why humankind is the way that it is. You gotta know how you got here in order to get any further.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:46 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Art & Entertainment ... Photo ...

On Monday evening at sunset, there was a celestial mini-event here in the Eastern USA, as the crescent Moon was in close proximity to Venus and Jupiter. All shining brightly in the south-western sky, the three formed a triangle that was quite a sight to see, hovering over the afterglow of dusk. I got out my camera and tripod, and you see the results above.

Back in the old days, the public interpreted events like this as having some sort of metaphysical consequence. By “old days”, I certainly do include pre-historic times along with antiquity and the Middle Ages. But I must also include the “hippie era” of the late 1960’s, when the “dawning of the age of Aquarius” became a popular topic. The 5th Dimension put out a hit song reflecting the great hope that was in the air at the time, the hope for a “groovy future” because of a certain alignment of Mars, Jupiter and the Moon. (Probably assisted by all of those “mind expanding” substances that American youth was popping or smoking or ingesting back then.)

But today, the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus — which you’d think was an even better partner than Mars — can put on a show right before dinner, and hardly anyone went out to light ceremonial bonfires for ritual dancing in multi-colored robes. I’m surprised that hardly anyone thought to link this heavenly display with the recent election of Barack Obama as POTUS. Many people, especially rich liberals and not-so-rich youth, see the coming of Obama as something mystical, the dawning of a new era. So why didn’t they make the connection with this great sign from above? Why wasn’t there barefoot dancing by joyous youth around the autumn flames at sunset? Just because the stock market had another bad day?

I’m not going to let this go without an attempt, however lame, at a 60’s style celebration of that great sign in the sky as our nation enters a new age. Get ready, because I’m going to mash the lyrics from the first stanza of the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”. But I’m also going to need to twist up Mr. Obama’s last name somewhat. Aquarius has 4 syllables, while Obama has a quick 3; it doesn’t fit well in the refrain. So I’m going to give his name a Roman Empire twist; I’m changing it to “Obam-ius”. Having done that, here’s what we get:

With Venus bright in the southern sky,
And Jupiter out near the Moon
When hope will guide our country
And peace will be here soon
This is the dawning of the Age of Obam-ius, Age of Obam-ius,
Obam-iussssssss . . . .

OK, I’ll stop here. Guess the 1960’s are over, REALLY OVER. Just me getting old.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:11 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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