The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Friday, June 1, 2018
Art & Entertainment ... History ... Music ...

It’s interesting how we humans respond to music. What’s the difference between music and noise? Not a lot, really. Is there something mathematical about it, something that can be put into a formula, something having to do with level of organization and complexity? Maybe it’s related to entropy (in an inverted fashion — noise has a high entropy, music has a lower entropy)?

Music is a matter of sound waves, fairly smooth sound waves, that change and interact in rather complex ways. Not all sound wave arrangements affect the brain in the same way, even when they seem like music (and not all people are affected in the same way or to the same degree). Some songs just seem to resonate with whatever is going on in the brain, with all of its complex electro-chemical patterns. When that happens, somehow you know it. (Perhaps the conscious brain itself operates something like an orchestra; when its many electro-chemical patterns are harmonious, life is good; when there is discord, you don’t have a happy audience). Other songs and noise patterns just don’t get this result.

The folk song “Ashokan Farewell” is an interesting example of a song that did a lot more than originally intended. “Farewell” was written in 1982 by folk musician Jay Ungar, intended as a closing ceremony song for the music festivals that Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason, run every summer in New York State. Unless you were a patron of their Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps, you probably would never have heard the song.

But in 1990, filmmaker Ken Burns, who somehow came across Ashokan Farewell, decided to use the tune as the theme song for his 11 hour PBS documentary on the Civil War. Burns’ Civil War series became extremely popular, and as a result, Ashokan Farewell also became well known. And no longer as a closing waltz for a fiddle festival in the Adirondacks, but instead as the theme song for the American Civil War. Even though Jay Ungar was not thinking about Bull Run and Antietam and Gettysburg and Appomattox when composing the Farewell, the brain of Ken Burns made the mental connection between whatever it is that Ungar’s song does to our minds, and the sorrow, confusion, irony and sense of loss that a careful study of the Civil War brings upon the soul.

Just to nail down the dissonance here between what Ungar originally intended and what Burns later recognized within Ashokan Farewell, here are some of the lyrics that Ungar intended to be sung when the Farewell was performed:

The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan.
The pines and the willows know soon we will part.
There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken,
And a love that will always remain in my heart.

My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
The magic of moving as one,
And a time we’ll remember long ever after
The moonlight and music and dancing are done.

Now, this is a fitting tribute to a wonderful week of making music in the green hills of Upstate New York in mid-summer, but it’s not on the same level as a quote from Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman or Fredrick Douglas. Somehow, the music of Ashokan Farewell goes way beyond the intention of its lyrics, which today are seldom heard.

I would imagine that when Ungar and Mason first performed Farewell at their festivals, it must have taken on a lively tone. But now, in the post Ken Burns era, their performances are much more solemn and serious. This video of Ungar and Mason performing Ashokan Farewell (with the accompaniment of Jay’s daughter and her husband) shows just how aware they have become of the national purpose that their little dance ditty has taken on. Notice the expressions on every musician’s face here — almost like people at the funeral of a fallen leader, or a memorial service following a disaster (all of the terrible school shootings in the past decade come to mind).

So, thanks to Ken Burns, we have a tune that helps our nation to ponder the bittersweet but still confounding reality of the Civil War. And actually, it even goes beyond that. If you read the comments to the video cited above, you will notice that some people talk about using this tune at the funeral of a friend or family member (or perhaps even at their own funeral — see this comment and the responses to it, on a YouTube rendition by the Royal British Marine Band). In a way, the complexity and confusion that a close-up examination of the Civil War reveals can be scaled down to the circumstances of our own individual lives.

Going back to how songs affect the brain — for the most part, any particular “sound wave pattern” that is recognized as music will have different effects on different people. Some people like a tune, others don’t. When a song comes along that a lot of people seem to like, then it may become popular. For some people, an emotion is triggered by a popular song — but not always the same emotion in every person. But for Ashokan Farewell, its particular sound wave pattern seemed to affect a whole lot of people in a very similar way, and in a way that Jay Ungar did not suspect when he wrote the song. It took Ken Burns to “discover” the song and recognize that it would be a “hit” when paired to the complex and tragic story of the American Civil War.

As to myself — yes, I did and still do feel what Ken Burns anticipated when he chose Ashokan Farewell as his theme song for The Civil War. I have watched all of the series, and have done some additional readings on that war. And even though no war is as simple as might be explained by the political and military leaders involved, the Civil War is especially complicated. There was so much senseless suffering and loss, imposed by Americans against Americans. And yet . . . the cancer of slavery had grown and metastasized to such an extent within the American social and economic stratum that there was no way to end it without terrible bloodshed. Then there was the matter of preserving the union, which of course was used as the primary justification for the war as it was happening — freeing the slaves was not the main selling point justifying the great sacrifice that the Union made to pursue the war.

And the evils of slavery were not cited for the most part to condemn the renegade Confederate states and justify the great suffering that they encountered. It was as though this was a war “fought in denial” of its true cause and ultimate purpose. From a century and a half later, we could look at the bright side of the War — in the end, slavery was defeated and the Union was preserved. But there are so many dark sides too — for me, its the notion that this war was NOT preventable, that humans are just players in a bigger tragedy which cannot be avoided despite their best efforts. In fact, too often their best efforts help to feed the tragic outcome all the more. Is our species truly in control of its fate? A close consideration of the American Civil War tends to cast some doubt upon that notion (and feeds the growing pessimism that American will get through the Trump years without some form of costly civil conflict). And don’t forget the Roman Empire, which despite its incredible greatness, strength and accomplishment was brought low by endless civil battle and strife.

And yet — despite all the evidence that would lead one to a hopeless fatalism, life still seems worth living. And the Askokan Farewell captures that. The Civil War came to an end, much was lost; and yet, the nation, still imperfect but hopefully a little bit wiser, went on. It took an Abraham Lincoln to try to make some sense out of an awful tragedy and convince the nation to go on. So in a way, Ungar’s “Farewell” reflects the voice of Lincoln, and echos it even into the seemingly meaningless corners of our own lives. The desire by people to have Ashokan Farewell played at their funeral perhaps reflects a wish to express their reason for being, the meaning behind what their lives, even though life, especially in old age, often becomes a bundle of chaos and decay.

At the moment, I am not anticipating my approaching death; knock on wood, I think I have a few more years left. However, I am coming closer to the day when I will end my working career, when I will retire. For years, that seemed as though it would be a joyous occasion, something akin to a granting of freedom from slavery (not to make light of true oppressive slavery). And yet, as the time grows nearer, the more bittersweet it becomes. What did I accomplish with my productive years? What could I have accomplished but didn’t? I may never find the answers to those questions; whatever did or did not happen during my prime may never make absolute sense. But I do have a song to fit the mood — I hope to hear the Ashokan Farewell being played at some point during my last day of work. (Whenever that is.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:43 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, May 26, 2018
Photo ...

Say what you will about the relative merits of cites versus suburbs, cities can be interesting places where you can sometimes see the unexpected. Suburbs, not so much. So, a few weeks ago, I noticed something seemingly amiss at the site of the former Bordens milk factory along the Morris and Essex rail line, which I ride to work on occasion. This site was abandoned by Bordens long ago, and after changing hands several times, it is now used by the City of Newark and the Newark Police Department to store and repair some of their many vehicles (there also appears to be a horse training ring for use by the Police mounted squad).

The object that seemed out of place was a bus, hanging over a small dirt cliff in the yard, nose down. The bus is marked for the Newark Recreation Dept. It’s not surprising that Newark Recreation wanted a bus to transport children and families to its various activities and offer occasional road-trips outside the city. What is surprising is that the bus is not being used these days, because it’s stuck hanging over a cliff at the former Bordens facility.

How did this happen? Was it an accident? If not, what would inspire city personnel to leave a bus this way? Was it still usable? And what about that bullet-hole on the front windshield, drivers side?

I have not read or heard any explanation for this situation. So I’m just going to share it here, as another example of our cities providing spice to life; they give us unexpected flavors now and then. I’m sure that this bus is somebody’s headache; but it’s not yours nor mine, so for now, just enjoy!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:45 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics ...

The February 2018 Atlantic Monthly mag had a long article on Vice President Mike Pence, going into great detail about his evangelical religious views, and how he squares them with his extreme loyalty to Donald Trump. It seems as though Trump could do most anything, no matter how heinous, and Mike Pence would still be there to defend Trump. So it was interesting to read how Pence responded to the big revelation in October 2016, during the midst of the election campaign against Hillary Clinton, that Trump was on tape, courtesy of the show Access Hollywood, discussing his sexual exploits of women in a very crude and abusive fashion.

McKay Coppins, the editor of the article, reports that Pence clearly was considering jumping ship during the first few days of the firestorm that this revelation (by the Washington Post) had triggered in the Republican Party. For a few days there, it seemed as if Trump’s continued candidacy hung in the balance. According to Coppins, Pence distanced himself from Trump during those days, not returning phone calls. There was serious talk among GOP leaders and funders about dumping Trump and putting Mike Pence in his place (with Condoleezza Rice in the VP spot). And Pence was indeed returning phone calls from such leaders. Coppins reports that then-GOP National Chair Reince Priebus advised Trump that he could either drop out or lose in a landslide, and that Pence and Rice were ready to step in as the new GOP Presidential ticket.

Trump, of course, pulled a Houdini and slipped out of that crisis. Two factors came together to save Trump, and he brilliantly exploited both. First, there was a national debate with Clinton coming up in two day, the second in a series of three debates. Second was the fact that Hillary Clinton was married to former president Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was of course famous for his own political Houdini moves with regard to the multiple women who accused him of sexual exploitation over the years. He even slipped out  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:48 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Politics ... Public Policy ... Society ...

I’ve read a couple of interesting things lately about college education and the question of whether college should be available to everyone via government tuition subsidies at public colleges. Bernie Sanders introduced federal legislation not long ago to make all public colleges free. In 2014, President Obama proposed making 2-year community college free. The idea behind such government guarantees is that college is necessary today to obtain a good secure job with decent earnings, and that the more people who have college, the better off our society will be, in terms of economic growth, fairness and equality, and a variety of quality-of-life measures. A more educated workforce would theoretically stimulate the economy and allow employers to pay the higher salaries that highly productive college-trained workers demand. And with a higher percentage of our working population making college-level salaries, the expanding income and wealth distribution gap in our country should start to turn around, one would hope. The on-going racial gap in earnings and wealth should also improve as more minority students gain practical financial access to college.

So we get richer and have a more just society as a result of some up-front government tuition subsidy (which gets made up over time, hopefully, by increased tax revenues from higher overall worker earnings and business profits). Also, we should live better and more fulfilling lives. According to certain studies, college grads have longer life expectancy, greater life satisfaction, and better general health e.g. lower incidence of obesity. They are also less likely to commit crime, drink heavily, or smoke. They are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates. College‐educated parents engage in more educational activities with their children, who are better prepared for school than other children.

College helps students to more fully participate in cultural and societal events and activities throughout their lives. Not surprisingly then, the rates of suicide for educated individuals is far lower than their uneducated counterparts. And, so the education idealists tell us, a more educated public is a more united public, experiencing  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:27 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Religion ...

I finally got around to reading the fascinating article in the April 2018 Atlantic Monthly on the strange and seemingly paradoxical alliance that has evolved between Donald Trump (in his role over the past few years as national politician and President), and the evangelical Christian community. The article is by Michael Gerson, a Christian evangelist who worked for President George W. Bush. Gerson knows something about Republican politics, and also about evangelism — he was raised in an evangelical family in St. Louis, and graduated from Wheaton College, a place with a strong evangelical Protestant heritage.

Gerson is not the first person to point out the paradoxes involved with the strong support that evangelical Christians have given to Donald Trump over his recent political career. To put it mildly, Trump has not shown much concern throughout his life for the Bible. And yet, despite divorces and salacious words and alleged misconduct, despite the many who have had unsatisfactory business dealings with him, despite all those who claimed to be the victim of ruthless exploitation on Trump’s part, despite the fact that Donald Trump has lived his life by the mandate of eye-for-an-eye and has seldom turned the other cheek or granted Christ-like forgiveness — despite all of that, evangelicals see Mr. Trump as a champion of what they stand for.

How did modern American evangelism arrive at this? Gerson goes back to the early 1800s and traces how evangelism has responded to the challenges of slavery, the Civil War, Darwin and Evolution, industrialization and growing secularism over the past two centuries. Evangelicals have a strong tradition of political involvement, and in that respect, their latching on to a strong political figure like Trump is not all that surprising. And yet — one wonders with Gerson how current Christian evangelists can support a man who seems so immune to the ultimate message that they are trying to spread. Sure, when Trump entered his new career as GOP candidate back in 2016, he had to spend a lot of time in the heartland, and thus had to quickly learn Holy-speak  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:05 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Food / Drink ... Photo ...

I recently posted a pic of a pirogi store next to a Mexican restaurant in Clifton, NJ. That was on the north side of town. Way down at the other end of “the big C” (on the map, Clifton is shaped like a “C”), down along Route 21 and the Passaic River across from Rutherford, is a venerable eatery known as Rutts Hut. This place is so historic that it earns its own Wikipedia page.

Here’s a shot of the take-out section of Rutts at night (there is also a bar and a sit-down restaurant on the other end). It’s late, but people are still lining up for fries and “rippers” (hot dogs deep fried in oil). Rutts is definitely a part of my childhood, and is definitely a local institution!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:58 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, April 12, 2018
Religion ... Society ... Spirituality ... Technology ...

I want to talk today about a young Roman Catholic priest from Minnesota who seems to be getting more and more attention amidst the faithful for his social media skills. His name is Father Mike Schmitz, and his videos and use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram are quite impressive. He appears to be one of the first, if not THE first, Catholic spokesperson to make truly effective use of “the new media”, even though it’s been around now for more than a decade. I think that Father Mike is someone to watch, if you at all interested in the American Roman Catholic Church; I get the feeling that he is a rising star, someone you will be hearing a lot more about.

During the 1930’s, Father Charles Coughlin became know as “the radio priest” and got a national following for his commentaries during the Great Depression and World War 2 (especially considering his often fiery political views, such as his support of Huey Long and his opposition to US involvement in the War). After the War, the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton used the increasingly popular paperback book medium to gain fame through his conservative pro-Church writings. His 1948 autobiography Seven Storey Mountain was said to have inspired thousands of young people to a Catholic clerical vocation. Then in the 1950s, Bishop Fulton Sheehan became the “television priest”, supporting Catholic doctrine with a popular TV show. Then came Mother Angelica and her pioneering use of cable TV in the early 1980’s, with the formation of the EWTN network. The Internet and its social media infrastructure has been awaiting a charismatic Catholic spokesperson to come along and defend the magisterium on YouTube and Facebook, and it looks like Father Mike is the guy. You can check him and his thoughts out at his Ascension Ministries website channel, his page on the University of Duluth Newman Center site, on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

This guy has a HUGE footprint on the Internet !!

Father Mike has a LOT of videos out, over 100; I have watched about 10 or 11 of them so far. Each lasts about 6 or 7 minutes, and each roughly follows the format of a priest’s sermon at mass. For the most part, Father Mike  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:26 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Photo ... Society ...

The adjacent cities of Clifton and Passaic, NJ were once the home to a variety of eastern and southern European families, many of which emigrated from Europe between 1900 and 1920 so as to find work in the many mills and factories in the area. Today, most of the factories are closed, and most of the Euro families have moved on to more distant suburbs. But northern NJ still has a diverse economy with a continuing need for cheap labor, and over the past 30 or 40 years, this has attracted a wide variety of Latin nationals to settle in the older neighborhoods in Clifton and Passaic where the Polish, Italian, Hungarian, etc. groups used to live. The Puerto Ricans came first, but today the predominant group seems to be the Mexicans. (Also, there is increasing Middle Eastern settlement in the northern areas of Clifton and adjacent South Paterson, e.g. Lebanese and Syrians).

The Poles were probably the most predominant ethnic group in these cities up through World War 2, and today a handful of Polish and later-generation Polish-ancestry families remain. And thus, you can see “ethnic stew” scenes like this: the El Mexicano restaurant sited right next to the Homemade Pirogi store on Main Avenue (they claim to have 17 varieties), just up a few blocks from the Passaic border. For the most part, everyone seems to get along. I would bet that the Mexicano gets a few tables of Polish-heritage customers, and the Pirogi place occasionally sells its wares to hungry Latin families looking for a different kind of inexpensive but filling cuisine. So, the ethnic stew of immigrants keeps on simmering in Passaic and Clifton, just as it has for over a century now!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:37 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, March 24, 2018
History ... Society ...

Over the past winter, I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For those of you who haven’t had the torturous pleasure of engaging Gibbon, this book is a classic historical work that was issued in 6 volumes between 1776 and 1788, right after the birth of a future empire, the United States of America. There are several versions of this audiobook out there; my version is the narration by Philip Madoc and Jason Neville. Mr. Madoc does the Gibbon voice, and Neville provides the background color and abridgement that makes this book listenable within 8 hours (who knows how long a line-by-line reading of all 6 volumes would take). The musical backdrop consists of intermittent extracts from Schumann’s bombastic ‘Julius Caesar’ overture. The musical director for this audiobook went out of her or his way to select the most pompous and overblown clips from Schumann; thankfully they usually don’t last very long and aren’t overly frequent.

Both the historical events described by Gibbon, and his work in and of itself, are worthy topics of study for those interested in what was once considered “classical liberal education”. You know, sort of like Shakespeare (which I myself am quite deficient in — wonder if there is a “Best of the Bard” audiobook out there?). You would think that a huge history text would be quite dry, but actually, Gibbon was something of a sensationalist — he seemed to relish the details of murder, slaughter, treachery, rape and pillage, while staying within the boundaries of what a “Victorian gentleman” might say. After a while, it starts to seem as if the whole Roman Empire was one continuing bloodbath, and the Byzantine Empire which survived the fall of Rome for almost another millennium (i.e. the former Eastern or “Greek” portion of the Roman Empire) wasn’t much different. And nothing much changed after Christianity spread and became the official religion of the empire following Constantine. I noticed that the Christianized Byzantine Empire had developed forms of torture that even the early pagan tyrants like Nero or Caligula hadn’t indulged in, such as demanding plates and bowls filled with the cut-off noses of fallen opponents.

And if you become easily upset by a seventeenth century British scholar who casually and repeatedly refers to the supposed weaknesses and faults of the feminine body, mind and character, then get ready for a very rough ride with Gibbon. Ditto if you don’t enjoy the pompous Euro triumphalism of the Victorian upper class; Gibbon unthinkingly refers to Rome and then Britain as “civilization” and “the world”, while almost all other peoples and nations are related as “barbarians” and “savages”. I think that a lot of modern educated people today get offended and turned off by such relics of the past, and would not get much beyond the first few chapters of a presentation of Gibbon (especially such a grandiose and pompous presentation as my Madoc / Neville version).

And yet . . . if you stick with Gibbon and put his seventeenth century upper-crust attitudes into context, you will occasionally be surprised by some of the grand insights that Gibbon offers. For example, with regard to the Christian Crusades against the Islamic nations and empires who held “the Holy Land” in medieval times, Gibbon seems relatively sympathetic to the Muslim leaders who were attacked and temporarily overwhelmed by the Latin crusading knights. At one point, he surveys the justifications that ancient Christendom proffered for the massive death and destruction  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:17 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, March 17, 2018
Current Affairs ... History ... Photo ...

Out in front of the Essex County Courthouse, there is a bronze statute of Rosa Parks sitting on a bus seat. Rosa Parks, of course, was an American Civil Rights activist of the 1950’s and 60’s, and is famous for the December, 1955 incident in Birmingham, Alabama where she was riding in the “colored section” in the rear half of a segregated bus (there were many examples of such “Jim Crow” segregation throughout the nation). Ms. Parks refused to leave her seat after the bus driver ordered her to get up and move further to the rear of the bus, so that a white rider could sit down after the white section of the bus (just ahead of Ms. Parks’s seat) had become full. She was arrested for and convicted of disorderly conduct. While her case was on appeal, the local NAACP (in which Parks was active) and other churches and activists organized a boycott against the bus company by African Americans. About a year later, a federal court decision outlawed the segregated bus seating as unconstitutional.

I walk past this tribute to Ms. Parks just about every workday. Last week, I noticed that an overnight snow squall had left her face temporarily half white. It seems like an interesting photo, so I got a phone out of my pocket and took it. Rosa Parks, in black and white. It seemed like a good metaphor. Today, Rosa Parks and the many other brave Civil Rights activists who fought the crude and absolute segregation laws and practices that existed in the United States through the 1960s is not just a black hero; she is an American hero. Her story is woven into the fabric of what our nation is today. She belongs to white Americans of the 21st Century just as much as she does to blacks, and ditto for Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, whatever.

OK, I realize that what I just said does not fully and accurately reflect the reality of America today. I understand that blacks are still not fully free, not fully empowered to share the opportunities and advantages of living in the United States. I understand that even though the crude segregationist laws and practices of the 1950’s and early 60’s have largely been abolished, there still exist a wide range of more subtle social and economic barriers that prevent too many African Americans from being “just another American citizen, entitled to all the rights and participating in all the responsibilities that go with that”. I understand that Rosa still belongs much more to those women and men of color who struggle to flush out and overcome those barriers.

And yet, it was a good dream that I had there. In fact, it isn’t too different from the dream that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in his famous August, 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. In fact, Dr. King’s dream specifically included Alabama, where Ms. Parks had made her stand while remaining seated:

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

Let’s hope — and act — so that one day, the entirety of Dr. King’s dream will be fulfilled.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:27 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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