The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Friday, October 30, 2009
Personal Reflections ...

It’s been about two weeks now since my mother passed away, and life is pretty much getting back to normal for me. There’s still some work to do about settling the estate, but most of the grieving rituals are over. Most of the people around me in my daily life have expressed their sympathies, and I’ve very much appreciated their kindness. But that’s all coming to an end now.

So life is getting back to normal – but the normal has changed. Over the past few years, “normal” to me was giving most of my attention (and much of my income) to my mother to support her in her growing weakness. Admittedly, my role was more “oversight” in nature; it was my brother and the home care assistants who met her daily physical needs by keeping her clean, dry, warm and comfortable. They were the ones who gave her medication, fed her, cleaned her, brushed her hair, got up at 4am to adjust her breathing machine, wiped the mucus from her mouth during a coughing fit . . . I took the role of strategist, planner and adviser. Along with my usual two visits per week.

But that’s over now. And to be honest, I feel a bit sad  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Personal Reflections ... Photo ...

I was going to write something today about Hegel and Obama, about how the spirit of history chooses certain men and women to be great; about how these men and women give themselves over so that the evolving great ideas of history can become manifest. And yea, that does make you think about you-know-who. But then again, Hegel also talked of how the great men and women are not always “good” according to the standards of morality that have evolved presumably by the same forces (where do you even start with that thought? Perhaps Bill Clinton, to get a jump on it . . . ) Well then, if you can’t be great, then as a fall-back, you can always be good.

My mother, who died a week ago today, was indeed good. Not morally perfect, mind you. But definitely good, very good. I am now going over the family photo collection, and I just came across this shot. And it seemed like a good foil to the Hegelian theme of historical greatness. It’s from “just another day” in my mother’s life, probably taken around 1964 or so. She has just finished a wash in the machine downstairs and has hung my father’s work shirts outside to dry. My uncle’s old gray Plymouth is visible behind them (Mom used to call this car “Bessie”). In the backyard, it is either late fall or early spring, and the peach tree is still bare. But it’s warm enough for one of my packing-crate projects, as you can see below the shirts. I was around 10 or so, and used to go to the factory dock up the street to drag home boxes and crates for various building projects. I think this one was an airplane. At other times I had built ships, submarines, and even multi-story office buildings. Wherever my imagination would take the architect inside of me.

My mother was following conventional morality to the “T” that day. She didn’t drink, she didn’t flirt, she didn’t go out at night. She stayed home and did all the boring, thankless quotidian tasks, so as to provide a comfortable household for my father, my brother and me. She did her best to make it nice; she planted flowers, cooked fresh food, kept everything clean. She made my brother and me do our homework. She went to PTA meetings. She fed and cared for the dog. According to later social interpretations, she was oppressed, maybe even a chump for not rebelling against the sexual roles and suburban paradigms of the time. And yes, I will agree that it was too bad that she couldn’t have done more with her career, which she gave up when I was born. Supposedly she was pretty good as a corporate accounting technician (with the Okonite Company).

But what she did do was still darn important, even if it was never fully appreciated or compensated with a paycheck. I know this; I was there. I learned to take a mother like that for granted. Only later on in life did I find out that not everyone had such a mother, such a devoted homemaker. Only later on did I realize that I was being treated like a VIP. Maybe even like a Hegelian VIP (even though I fell far short in my adult years of being a “man of history”).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:37 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Personal Reflections ...

My mother passed away this past Saturday morning, in her own home. She was 87 years old. My brother was there with her (I wasn’t). From what he reported, she died quickly and without struggle. It was probably the kindest type of death possible: quickly, at home, with a loved one near-by. Death is a thing you don’t hope for, but “type of death” sometimes is. In this instance, my brother and I had our hopes fulfilled.

The social and religious death rituals are done, and my mother’s remains now lie buried next to my father’s. Back in the land of the living (living for now, anyway), I am currently dealing with the complex, powerful and sometimes contradictory emotions involved in losing a parent while in your mid-50s. Certainly I am glad for having known my mother for so long. But by the same token, having had her in my life for all these years, the loss is that much deeper. I was quite close to my mother as a child. She was anything but a distant parent. She was very warm and caring towards my brother and me. As young children, this certainly was nice.

Obviously, it became a problem in the teen years, when you want to carve out your own identity and independence. In the end, no permanent emotional damage was done between Mom and me or my brother, but many various kinds of angst were experienced as we transitioned from dependent children to independent, know-it-all young men. Although sex and girlfriends were more of an issue for my brother than me (given that I was more of a social “dork”), I became much more distant from my mother by the time I had finished college. The fact that I found a job after graduation in a distant city also contributed to our separation (my brother found work nearby and continued to live “at home” with Mom; this was good in that my father had died during my junior year).

I had all kinds of Barack Obama-like dreams of greatness and changing the world. And as with Barack, my own mother’s needs would have to take a back seat to my own great plans. But fate eventually made it clear that it had other plans for me. I married an intelligent, literate woman of good education, and felt that I had made it into the world of culture and accomplishment. Unfortunately, she lacked parents like my own, parents who fully committed themselves to their children’s proper rearing and well-being. Thus it was hard to fully commit herself to our marriage. After a few years we decided to separate, and she moved on to other relationships (actually, she started working on those relationships not too long after we took our vows).

I had hoped to continue working toward some type of “greatness”, and to find another partner in this quest. But as years became decades and “greatness” eluded me along with “a girl who understands me” (thinking here of a Warren Zevon song, “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”), I was living back on my ancestral turf again (good old northern New Jersey), and my mother was starting to decline physically. My brother was still living at home, and devoted himself to caring for her and keeping her out of a nursing home. This wasn’t exactly what I had hoped to devote my life to, but over the years it became about the best cause I could involve myself in that might have positive, humane outcomes. (I never had or raised children, a cause in which many people find solace after their career dreams evaporate).

So, over the past 9 years, as my mother went from walking cane to walker to wheelchair to overhead hoist system to hospital bed (at home, mostly; but she did have two hospital stays earlier this year), I became more and more involved logistically and financially with my brother’s cause of making my mother’s declining years dignified. My brother remained the front-line guy; he lived with her and I didn’t, so he had to take her to the doctor and change her urine-soaked clothing and oversee the thousand details involved in keeping her comfortable and involved in a family setting. My brother was also the lead-guy with respect to emotions. I talked with Mom and tried to be as friendly as possible, but my brother was the guy who kissed her and held her trembling hand as to help her eat while seated in a wheelchair at a restaurant. (Oh, and he bought and drove the wheelchair-lift van to get her there too).

So, it didn’t seem as though I was “emotionally invested” in my mother; I didn’t expect to experience much more than a sense of pity and a kind of nostalgia for earlier days once she finally left us. In a way, I thought this was good; why put your feelings on the line for what has to happen sooner or later anyway. I had fervently hoped that she would meet a peaceful ending, and certainly would have been upset if this hadn’t happened; but as to feeling any big emotions about her no longer being in my life, I really wasn’t expecting much.

But as they say about tidal waves, you hardly see them coming until they hit the shore. Mom is now gone, and I am about three-quarters sure that I am entitled to a “mission accomplished” feeling. She lasted to age 87, beating all her relatives (and even her in-laws). Even though I was mostly on the planning and strategy end of the operation, over the past few years my inputs and involvement seemed to grow (certainly my financial involvement grew). I was there on almost all of the major care decisions, and I think we got most of them right (still need to think a few through, though – not that it would do any good – but just for my own sense of closure and self-judgment).

Nonetheless, I’ve been dealing with some major emotional feelings since I arrived at my mother’s house on Saturday morning and saw an EMS truck out front with local policemen near the door. Again, these are not guilty feelings. And a lot of these feelings have positive aspects (right now I’m feeling the kind of exhaustion you get after an intense effort at something that more or less comes out right, as my mother’s funeral services did). But they also involve sadness and loneliness; they do at times make me think some not-entirely-logical thoughts, e.g. “too bad that a person like her has to die”. I mean, dying is just part of the deal for everyone, the just and the unjust. But that hasn’t stopped my eyes from moistening and my throat from clenching now and then. Something big just happened to me, good or bad.

Hopefully it will mostly be good. I suspect that I’ll get on with things and eventually find some new inspirations in life. Hopefully the goodness that was inherent in my mother will inspire me to find ways to share some of her goodness, some of her appreciation for simple being, that was so prevalent thorough out her life. I took a walk in the park this morning to reflect on this, and decided to engage in a mental exercise meant to achieve “fairness and balance”. I reminded myself of my mother’s many faults, her clumsy and stupid moments, the times when I felt she had failed or disappointed me. There were such moments throughout the course of her life. She was not always even-tempered, and she did not share my penchant for intellectual discourse and critical thinking. She wasn’t always supportive during my marriage, and didn’t appreciate that my ex-wife hadn’t know the caring environment that her own family always provided. (To be fair, my mother was quite sympathetic when my marriage finally fell apart).

But it was not an entirely easy exercise; I had to force myself to recall the bad moments, and even then they faded from mind quite quickly. In the final years, as my mother talked less, she seemed to accumulate a kind of peaceful wisdom, something beyond my scientific and philosophical thinking and also beyond the Catholic religious myths that she and my brother devoted themselves to. I may be imagining and projecting; this may all be wish
ful thinking on my part, but she seemed onto something “Buddha-like”. It occurred to me that we both grew over the years. She could (when she was still here) think about my own continued failings and lack of “world-class achievement” over the course of my adult years, as I could recall her own faults. But by the end, we both weren’t the people we would have been thinking of. We were different, and hopefully better. Hopefully she’s now in a more perfect realm, and I’m still here struggling with my earthly faults and failings.

So for now, I’m in a void. But it certainly wouldn’t be my mother’s intent to keep me there. Just the opposite, of course. I have faith that the seeds of inspiration and hope that she planted in my subconscious regarding life’s deeper and ultimately positive dimensions will bear fruit, fruit to share with myself and with those around me. I believe that the world is a better place because of her, in a hard-to-fathom way (just like that tidal wave moving across the ocean). I hope that I yet find ways to share with the world some of the goodness that accumulated within the swirling patterns that were her life.

P.S., perhaps my mother represents another shred of evidence supporting the proposition that although the good do not always enjoy good lives, they die good deaths.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:58 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ...

I hate to say it, but I’m coming to agree with VP Joe Biden, that the USA should start throttling down its military effort in Afghanistan instead of ramping up as General McChrystal recommends. When our troops first went there in late 2001, it made lots of sense. We had an easy-to-understand mission (shut down the al Qaeda operations there and overthrow the Taliban government that was supporting it), and found some committed allies on the local level – i.e., the Northern Alliance.

What ever happened to the Northern Alliance? In a nutshell, the USA decided to go with democracy and side with whomever could rig – errr, win a nationwide election. That would be Hamid Karzai and company. Unfortunately, Karzai appears to be corrupt and increasingly unpopular. Any attempt at central government in Afghanistan has a rough field to hoe; but a corrupt one is probably an exercise in futility. The provinces aren’t likely to be very enthusiastic about getting shook down in return for a national identity that they just aren’t interested in. They just want to grow their goats and opium, there is hardly any national economy to get involved with.

I don’t know the whole story about the Northern Alliance,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:27 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Monday, October 12, 2009
Politics ... Psychology ...

Here’s today’s quiz question, and it’s an easy one. Which field of professional study and practice gets the most interest and attention from the public? Nope, it’s not otorhinolaryngology, not even limnology or soteriology. As you probably guessed, it’s PSYCHOLOGY. (Although maybe it should be soteriology).

Why? Well, you don’t have to be a psychologist to figure out that we humans are very interested in ourselves. And psychology has a lot to say about ourselves. But as to how much of it is accurate and valuable, that is subject to debate. Nonetheless, there are lots of people out there who have taken some classes on the topic and have read-up on the literature, and just love to try out what they’ve learned on other people. That includes myself! Pop psychology is just another little tool we use in the great human task of getting along with each other. Or sometimes in sticking it to one another.

Whenever someone volunteers to psychoanalyze someone else,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:47 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, October 9, 2009
Politics ...

It’s nice that President Obama unexpectedly won the Nobel Peace Prize, only a week or so after the unexpected rebuff from the Olympic Committee regarding Chicago’s bid for the 2016 summer games. Oslo giveth, Copenhagen taketh away. Various pundits have questioned this award, in that President Obama has only been in office for 9 months and hasn’t ended any conflicts or resolved any major international disputes yet. He has certainly expressed willingness to look at the world in a more open, cooperative way than the Bush Administration, and has taken steps to build bridges with the Muslim world. But as to what the fruits of his good faith will be in Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Venezuela, Israel-Palestine, Burma and other crisis spots, it remains to be seen.

President Obama certainly does deserve a prize for creating an air of worldly grandeur about himself. He certainly cuts a good figure and talks a good line, given his youth, stature, intelligence and diverse heritage. Both his campaign and his Administration staff have used this to good advantage. (His occasional attempts to seem homey and rub elbows with the red-state proletariat just add to the luster). In all my memories of televised political events going back to the Kennedy election of 1960, I never saw anything like Obama’s Denver nomination speech, with the Greek temple backdrop. Barack Obama certainly does bring a cosmopolitan perspective to the gritty reality of American politics.

Another unprecedented feature of the Obama campaign having an international flavor  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:48 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, October 4, 2009
◊  Anomie
Current Affairs ... Society ...

Are we living in a time of “anomie”? Sociologist Emile Durkheim defined anomie as the time between the breakdown of one social order and the establishment of a new one. During times of anomie, people are often confused, as they lack clear rules on how to live and relate with each other.

I think that we are in such a time. I believe that until the 1970s there was a dominant social order in America built around the suburbs, the manufacturing economy, and advancing science and technology. Although we still have suburbs and advancing science and technology (the manufacturing economy was DOA by the mid 1980s), we aren’t quite as enthused about them as we once were; we are no longer willing to build a social narrative around them.

The modernist suburban-industrial social order started breaking down  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:48 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, October 2, 2009
Psychology ... Science ...

I was thinking about fractals and life the other day. Fractals are an interesting part of the trend in mathematics and science over the past 20 years or so to better explain large scale, complex phenomenon like – well, like life itself. A key insight behind the concept of fractals is that some patterns repeat themselves at varying levels of size and organization. It’s sort of like Russian dolls – you look inside the doll and you see a smaller doll, looking just like the big doll. Then inside that smaller doll, there’s a smaller doll still, that looks like the bigger dolls. And on and on, until the dolls are microscopic in size, but still resembling the biggest doll and all others in-between.

Fractals have helped mathematicians come up with solutions to some problems for which math did NOT previously have anything useful to say, e.g. analysis of a rugged sea coast-line. Faster computers have made possible the application of fractals to a wide range of problems. You’ve probably watched a movie with a realistic-looking scene generated by a computer using fractal math; and you didn’t even know it. That’s the power of fractals.

My question is, just how powerful is the fractal concept  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:13 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
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