The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
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Monday, June 29, 2009
History ... Personal Reflections ...

When I was a kid, the American Civil War was mostly a boring subject that you suffered through in history class. About the only cultural reference to it was the opening song from the TV comedy series “F-Troop”; i.e. “The end of the Civil War was near . . .” My parents took my brother and me to Gettysburg one summer, but that was mostly just a yawn for us. About all I remember about Gettysburg was having pancakes in a local eatery and then looking out at some muddy hill slopes from a visitors center on a rainy day. We were less than impressed at the fact that a big battle took place on those hill slopes about a century ago, and that a lot of guys died there. What should I care; none of my ancestors were anywhere near the place when it was happening. They were all in Poland or White Russia at the time, dealing with their own various wars.

Then came my college years, when I joined my youthful colleges in focusing on a more relevant war, i.e. the one in Vietnam. That was the war we were going to stop; that was how we were going to change the world, rearrange the world (as CSN&Y; sang so soulfully). That was going to be our break from the mindless cycle of killing and destruction, of which the Civil War was just another horrible milestone. We were part of a revolution, part of a new day. Or so we liked to imagine.

After college, in my mid twenties, I moved a bit closer to Civil War country.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:16 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, June 26, 2009
Politics ... Public Policy ...

Michael Kinsey had a really good op-ed piece in the Washington Post today regarding the Obama Administration’s impending health care reform initiative. Mr. Kinsey focused specifically on the issue of whether federal reform will cause health care rationing. In other words, under the newly designed national healthcare system, would anyone (or everyone) be denied the maximium possible health care for certain diseases or conditions? It got me thinking about the whole health care reform issue.

As Mr. Kinsey points out, under today’s “libertarian” health care system, people certainly do get different levels of health care. The richer and more important you are, the more health care you get. Health care is rationed according to wealth, or according to whether you’re lucky enough to have a job that provides health insurance (and within that group, how good your health plan is). Obama’s health care initiative will basically socialize the health care system; not that the government will operate it as was tried in Britian and other nations. There will still be private doctor practices and hospital corporations and insurance companies involved. But the overall system will now be designed and regulated by the government. There will still be some room for capitalism, perhaps much room. But the federal government will now provide the overall “system design” and its playing rules.

Why should this happen? The best motivation is to give everyone access to an acceptable level of health care.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:35 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Society ...

I’m a regular reader of The Atlantic magazine and I enjoy the semi-regular pieces written by Sandra Tsing Loh regarding modern family life and relationship issues. Ms. Tsing Loh blends the subtle and the blunt quite nicely. She usually starts with the standard modern-female issues and viewpoints, but then mixes in drafts of earthy humor and ‘what the hell does that mean’ cynicism, even at her own expense. In a nutshell, she keeps it real.

Unfortunately, Loh is going through a marital breakup and divorce, and her thoughts about it in the July Atlantic (‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’) are void of her usual insight and refreshing candor. I myself went through a divorce, and I remember that my own thoughts and writings about it were rambling, confused, contradictory and self-indulgent during the first year or two thereafter. The Atlantic was doing Ms. Tsing Loh a favor by publishing her recent piece, thinly disguised as a book review. Perhaps it will contribute to her healing process, and perhaps they owe it to her after all the other good stuff she’s provided them with.

I posted a fairly detailed reflection on Ms. Tsing Loh’s article on a nice little blog called She Started It. The “she” in question is a writer, wife and mother from the Atlanta area. “She” (Anjali E.S.) was gracious enough to accept my comments and acknowledge my thoughts. I was careful to thank Ms. E.S. for her insight regarding Ms. Tsing Loh’s blaming the world around her for what happened to her marriage. I amplified and developed Anjali’s insight; but as her blog title says, she indeed started it.

I want to further extend that line of thinking here, especially with regard to Ms. Tsing Loh’s reflections on her own husband and about various other husbands she knows. I hope this is not too unfair, but I read Loh as saying that post-feminist men don’t function anymore; their libidos are shot. Enlightened guys who went along with becoming sharing helpmeets weren’t robust enough to keep the fires of passion burning. Modern men just aren’t strong enough to meet the modern woman’s reasonable demands. As such, Ms. Tsing Loh tells us that some modern Euro women are turning to immigrant men from the Islamic lands. (Good luck with that!)

Again, as pointed out by her critics (many of whom are women), Ms. Tsing Loh admits to an affair, admits that she and her husband were spending more time apart with their careers, and claims that she “doesn’t have the strength” to work on reconciliation. She thus seems a bit unrealistic in her expectations regarding marriage and men. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that women are solely or primarily responsible for making marriages work. I realize that relationships are highly interactive phenomenon; Loh’s evident loss of enthusiasm regarding her marital relationship cannot, by definition, be all her doing. But I do think that a viable marriage takes a lot of work on both parties’ accounts; forget the romantic illusions, and forget the expectation that the emotional burdens will always be fairly and evenly split. Again, I’m not saying that women should be given the duty by society of making marriages work. However, for marriages that do work, there often are times when one party has to work more than the other to keep things from falling apart.

Yes, I know that I’m not exactly the best person to make that statement, given that I couldn’t make my own marriage work. I don’t want to go into the whole thing here. But I will say that I put a lot of effort into my own marriage before concluding that it was beyond repair. I will also admit to having done something much like what Sandra Tsing Loh is now doing; I blamed the Catholic Church, then my family, then my ex’s family, then myself, then her, then my boss, then the corporate world . . . Until I finally accepted the fact that this on this planet, irony and tragedy flourish alongside hope and fulfillment. In a number of years, as wisdom seeps in, Loh might well realize that blaming social institutions and one-half of the human race for what happened between her and her ex was perhaps a bit hasty.

But right now, Ms. Tsing Loh is hurt, and long-run views cannot be expected of her. However, she has issued a video on the Atlantic web site where she talks about her divorce from within a U Haul trailer. Her sense of humor thus hasn’t gone completely off-line. That’s a good sign. I think she’s going to be OK, in good time.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:32 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

After reading about 25 Iran analysis articles over the past few days, I can only conclude what Churchill said about the Russians: Iran is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The “experts” are all over the place. Here’s a summary of what I’ve recently read about the big Iranian questions:

Q: Who really holds the cards in Iran?

>> Ahmadinejad
>> Rafsanjani
>> Mousavi
>> Khamenei
>> Khatami
>> Khomeini’s ghost
>> Nuri
>> Karrubi
>> Rezai
>> The Assembly of Experts
>> The Revolutionary Guard (these fellows certainly hold the guns!)
>> The Guardian Council

Q: How to explain the results of the election?

>>  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:11 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Personal Reflections ...

I would like to see the results of a survey of young people in their 20’s, as to whether or not they would like to live a quotidian life. Quotidian – that’s a good word, a rather popular word amidst the literate crowd these days. It has two meanings that go hand in hand. On the one hand, it means things that happen on a regular basis. On the other, it means things that are commonplace, average, mediocre, not notable. So, people who try not to be commonplace, average and non-notable seem very fascinated with this word. They probably would have answered the survey with a resounding NO! I don’t want to live a quotidian life. To be honest, in my twenties, I would have answered the same way. But like most of the people who have gotten interested in this word, my life has been quite quotidian nonetheless.

But let’s take a break from being condemned to the quotidian, and take a quick romp through Google-land to see just how that interesting word is being used.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:22 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Science ... Society ...

The NY Times had an interesting little article today on a fashion trend developing in the eyewear field. For the past 5 or 6 years, square and narrow glasses have been the accepted “thing to wear”. But now that’s shifting towards small round frames.

I myself, being a long-time wearer of glasses, liked the big oval frames that were once popular (and which are still a long way from making a comeback). They provided a wide, uninterrupted vision field, as well as maximum protection against stray objects flung in the direction of your face. And they were stable and comfortable on your nose. I kept wearing my old ovals until about 3 years ago, when I finally capitulated to the current style. Economist Robert Samuelson, who in my opinion says a lot of cogent things about the current economic situation (not the constant pessimism of Nouriel Roubini, but certainly realistic about the dangers and painful adjustments that we face), is brave enough to stick with the old style. Now there’s a guy I can admire.

Anyway, the Times article asked a question (but didn’t answer it) that I’ve often wondered about  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:25 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, June 8, 2009
Photo ...

One of my resolutions for 2009 is to get some good pix of a full moon rising. There’s a nearby park with an overlook that’s just about perfect, with a good south-east view of an urban horizon. The full moon usually rises around 9PM, a convenient time. So, for the past two months, I’ve been trying to get some shots of a big yellow moon bubbling up over the city lights. But guess what? The weather was lousy both times. So, I’ve got to try again in another month or two.

Last night, there was just too much smog and cloud cover on the horizon. But there appeared to be some breaks at around 30 or 40 degrees up. So I decided to wait it out, hoping that some interesting shots could still be had. The moon did eventually poke through for a few minutes, and I managed to get a few shots.

I find it interesting that the major western religions, which for many centuries have denigrated the ancient nature-worshipping pagans that preceded them, still base their most important celebrations around the rising of the full moon. For Moslems, that would be Ramadan. For Jews, Passover. And for Christians, Easter (although they don’t talk about it much).

Well, I’m not into nature worship, but I do enjoy nature photography, so here are my shots from yesterday night. I didn’t see any Wiccans building fires and dancing; but the Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t allow that anyway.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:30 am       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, June 6, 2009
Spirituality ...

The Conference of the Birds, and other journeys through Hell: I’m still plowing my way thru Reza Aslan’s “No God But God”, and I just finished the chapter on the Sufis. Ah yes, the Sufis, that interesting little offshoot of Islam that we “enlightened yet spiritual” westerners can sympathize and be comfortable with (unlike the rest of the Quranic tradition). There are plenty of books on the Sufis to be found in the “spiritual” aisles of Barnes and Noble, Borders and Waldenbooks; liberal Catholics love to quote Sufi wisdom when needing to prove their goodwill for the sons of Mohammed.

And yet, I’ve heard that the Sufi image amidst Euro-American spiritual seekers has been sanitized a bit; despite their many divergences from mainstream Islam, much of Sufi reality in the Moslem world is in fact politically oriented. Also, some of their actual devotional practices and artifacts would not be edifying to an open-minded liberal Protestant or Unitarian, e.g. drawings of bloody men with knives in their throats and eyes. And yet, many of their prayers and sayings have found an audience amidst the Birkenstock crowd.

One of those Sufi popular works is “The Conference of the Birds”. Being a former (albeit not entirely ‘former’) spiritual seeker, I have read a few books and articles about the Sufis. However, I only became aware of “Conference” recently while reading Aslan; oh well, perhaps it’s to be expected that a Moslem author (although not a Sufi himself) would best point out the significant works of an Islamic tradition, however peripatetic.

For those not already familiar with “Conference”, it’s basically the story of a journey, sort of a spiritualized version of “The Wizard of Oz”. In sum, a bunch of birds get together and are led by a leader bird (the “hoopoe”) in search of the great “Simurgh”, the fabled lord of the bird universe. The journey is a long and arduous one; many birds turn back after getting their tailfeathers singed, literally and figuratively. In the end, only 30 birds from the flock that started the trip make it to the land of the Simurgh.

Finally comes the moment for the great Simurgh to appear before the tired, beaten-up group of avian travelers. And to their surprise, the thirty birds see only themselves. The Simurgh turns out to be a mirror (or a reflective lake). The pilgrim birds were disappointed at first, but soon the lightbulb goes on in their little heads; because of all the pain and struggle that they’ve experienced and steadfastly endured in their search, they have been converted into something more. Their desire to find the Simurgh was obviously strong enough to get them through the terrible tests, like what we face in this world; they have found that their desire in itself was the equivalent of what they sought. It’s kind of like in the Oz story, where the lion, scarecrow, tin man and Dorothy finally got what they wanted not because of anything the Wiz himself could do for them, but because of their own steadfast seeking.

There’s an interesting theological metaphor here, i.e. God as a mirror — a mirror of wisdom that we find and behold only as a result of a long, arduous journey of seeking. I’m sure that the mainstream Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders and teachers would condemn this idea as heresy. It hints that in the end, the steadfast seeker actually becomes God, losing the boundaries of him or herself, and finding all in unification with God. It’s quite a bit different from what we were promised in Sunday School as the reward for a good Christian life. We were told that we would go to Heaven pretty much as we now are, so long as we followed the rules while here on earth. In that Heaven, we would be given the same sort of stuff that makes us happy here in this life, such as soft-serve chocolate ice cream; and we’d be spared from the stuff that makes us miserable. That was the deal. Now and then we might have some sort of interchange with “the boss” (obviously our case would be reviewed in full soon after our souls departed our body), but for the most part we’d plan our days as if we were the guests at an exclusive resort.

The Sufis and their bird friends see something different. Interestingly, they are rejecting the similarly puerile notion of popular Islam, that the good man is rewarded with a bevy of black-eyed virgins on entering Paradise. The Sufis just leave you with you. But also with a “you” that is now so much more, so vastly expanded as to be one with everything. Thus, you still have access to soft-serve ice cream and black-eyed virgins, but the relationship between you and them is now so much different that it would be on earth. They will not matter to you, not in the way they now would.

I myself would like to take the ‘birds’ paradigm one step further. The base-level Christian and Moslem concepts describe a Paradise that is an eternal vacation, with no more work responsibilities. I think it’s exactly the opposite. Once you become part of God, there’s plenty of work to do. There will still be a world in process, a world “not-fully-one-with-God”, the world that we presently know. And I myself think that God is active in it, in ways that we don’t often see, in ways that we can’t usually fathom. (Obviously many of us suspect that God is a slacker or an illusion, because if God were truly active in the universe, there wouldn’t be so much pain and suffering and ugliness and meaninglessness. E.g. astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson and his atheist arguments based on the seeming craziness of conscious life occupying only tiny crevices of a vast, hostile Universe.)

So if we are part of God, we will also be active in this realm somehow. I’ve written before on how impressed I was with George Bernard Shaw’s “Don Juan In Hell” sequence (within “Man and Superman”). In a nutshell, Don Juan goes to Hell, and discovers that Hell is really what most Christians were taught about Heaven; i.e., a big, never-ending vacation resort. No fires, no pitchforks, no worms, no unpleasantness whatsoever; the devil is indeed a gentleman and a gracious host. Everything and everyone is bright and beautiful there. Just what the Don was seeking during his days on earth.

But something happens to Don Juan while in Hell. Even though everyone else is having a great time, with not a trace of misery or doubt in the joint, the Don starts wondering if this is really it. He takes more and more walks to the netherworld beyond Hell, and finally decides that he wants to leave all the sophisticated beauty and intelligent pleasantries behind, as to get to work in a Heavenly cause. Shaw doesn’t exactly spell out the details of what this Heavenly cause would entail, but he hints that it does involve spreading ultimate good (the “life force”) in the universe.

I’d like to think that Don Juan somehow found the same mirror that the Sufi birds found, despite all the lovely, non-stop distractions of Hell. Once a seeker finds it, they go off to an active involvement in the cause of ultimate goodness — whatever that is (we ‘see it darkly through a glass’ in our present lives, although we know somehow that it exists). Shaw’s “Life Force”: ultimate goodness, ultimate wisdom, ultimate Godness. I think that’s the ultimate goal of the great journey that the Sufis, in their deep spiritual contemplations, would envision as our best option in life. As to those birds who fall aside from the journey, well — as Shaw implies with Don Juan, perhaps it’s never too late, no matter what may happen to us in the awaiting realms beyond the horizons of our current being. The mirror is everywhere, even in the depths of Hell!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:37 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Personal Reflections ... Philosophy ...

It occurred to me during my drive to work today that the month of June is a good time to ponder the idea and ideal of human freedom (I discussed freedom a bit in my post on May 25). Why? Because there are several historical anniversaries in June that relate strongly to freedom. Let’s start off way back in the mists of the Middle Ages, with the signing of the Magna Carta by England’s King John. That happened on June 15, 1215. The MC was an incidental byproduct of the political wrangling going on at the time between the King, the barons and the Catholic Church. However, it set a precedent that eventually inspired ideological and political developments, including the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

King John wasn’t doing so well at the time, so he agreed to formally promise the barons and the Church that he was NOT an absolute dictator and that the people of England (well, at least the richer people) had certain rights that the King could not take away. In the coming centuries, the various English kings and queens went back on this pledge, and Oliver Cromwell threw it out the window during his religious dictatorship in the mid-15th Century. But the idea of inalienable rights for English citizens (again, for the richer ones at first; the commoners had to wait) never died. They were like seeds that lay dormant for centuries, until the conditions became right in the Eighteenth Century for their resurgence, growing into what we know today as the Anglo-American ideal of freedom.

From the plains of Runnymeade in 1215, let’s zoom forward in time to Galveston, Texas in the year 1865. Do you remember the theme song from the TV show “F Troop”? The first stanza describes the situation in Galveston: “the end of the Civil War was near”. (Theoretically it was over, as General Lee had surrendered to the Union in April, 1865; but back in those days, communications were slow, and there were ongoing “pockets of resistence” in the South that had to be mopped up by Union forces). President Lincoln had already declared slavery dead in his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. However, life went on as usual on slave plantations throughout the Confederacy.

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. This was one of the last areas in the South to be “emancipated”. As such, June 19 became a local celebration amidst the former slaves and their descendents, known as “Juneteenth”. June 19 is still marked today as a celebration of the end of slavery in America. And the end of slavery certainly represented an advance in the realization of human freedom. There was obviously a long way yet to go in that “realization process” for the slaves and their future generations. But, as with the Magna Carta, it was a milestone along the road.

Next, let’s go to a land where Anglo-American ideals of human freedom never got much traction. I.e., China. As Prof. Rufus Fears and others point out, our ideal of freedom can be broken down into significant components, including personal freedom, political freedom, and national freedom. The Chinese have, over their many centuries, done fairly well with national freedom, and are doing a lot better lately with personal freedom (stemming mostly from the fact that a lot more people there are better off economically these days). But political freedom has just never been a significant part of their history. Can our American values regarding political freedom be transplated to that culture? Do these values represent something universal about humankind, or are they just a by-product of our own history and circumstances? Back in the spring of 1989, it seemed as though the notion of political freedom was finally taking root in China; a group of students and intellectuals were leading protests centered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Unfortunately, in early June the Chinese government decided to put a halt to the whole thing at a cost of several hundred lives. However, the moving story of the “Tank Man” is still remembered by many Chinese and westerners, and will hopefully inspire an eventual flowering of political freedom in China someday, when the time and conditions are right. In a nutshell, a group of Chinese Army tanks were leaving Tiananmen Square on June 5, following the bloody battle fought over the previous week against the protestors. One brave man from the scattered protestors decided to stand in front of the tanks, halting their progress. Since there were a lot of journalists present taking pictures, the Army decided not to crush or shoot the guy on the spot.

For a number of hours, there was a brave stand-off; at one point, supposedly the “tank man” got into a conversation with the tank drivers and lectured them about freedom. He was finally escorted off the scene, and was probably killed shortly thereafter (western reporters and historians are unsure about what happened to him). But the pictures of his moment in the sun live on, and like the “blood of the martyrs” in the Second and Third Century Roman Empire [i.e., the early Christian leaders acting in defiance of the pagan Roman government], they may well inspire a future movement that will change the world. Or a big part of it, anyway.

In the USA, our big patriotic celebration is on July 4, the anniversary of our Declaration of Independence from England. But the month of June is perhaps the better time for Americans and westerners in general to reflect on our “heritage of freedom”. Oh, one interesting P.S. that fits in with this theme. In a recent presidential proclamation on the White House website, Barack Obama has proclaimed June as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month”. Freedom is still a “work in progress” here in America, and the current movement towards full social acceptance and personal rights for gay or “gay-like” people is certainly a sign of progress. So it’s June — let freedom ring! (And may it ring someday in those Middle Eastern lands that our President so ironically decided to visit this month).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:26 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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