Reminiscence: And I could wish it were 1949 again

The other day, I had a solicitation in the mail from a magazine called Reminiscence. Apparently, a lot of folks like to engage in nostalgia. I confess I occasionally do the same, though I’m aware of how time can soften the contours of the past.

Lit Brothers
Lit Brothers

Still, I like to muse on past events that were really quite wonderful and that I wish I could relive again. After all, why are we given memory if we’re simply meant to forget? If I had to pick a year in which to indulge, it would be 1949. It was a good year for me and for America, too.

 

Collectively, it was a simpler time, relatively free from the frenetic pace, complexity and stress of today.

To be sure, segregation was still a factor in denying Blacks their portion of the American dream and women were still largely subservient to men. China had just fallen to the Communists. At the Kremlin, Stalin ruled with an iron fist and Russia had just tested the A-bomb. The Cold War was on in earnest and so we resorted to an ongoing airlift to save Berlin.

Nonetheless, we had a decisive president in Harry S. Truman, who never skirted making the hard choices like dropping the A-bomb to shorten a savage war or later dismissing a popular, but unruly general. In short, we felt safe.

Four years after World War II, we were at peace, with no protracted conflicts like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We weren’t saddled with mind-boggling national debt, Congressional deadlock, inflationary pressures, the loss of our manufacturing base, or economic recession.

There weren’t any urban riots, decaying cities, or the threat of climate change that imperils our existence. We could never have imagined a 9/11 or the pervasiveness of terrorism.

Here are a few economic facts that put things into perspective about 1949:

Unemployment stood at just 3.8%.

Inflation, a mind-boggling 0.95%.

You could buy a house for an average $7500.

A car for $1400.

Gas, 17 cents for regular.

Let’s put it another way: $100 in 1949 now comes to $967.01 in 2014, with an average 3.5 inflation rate annually since that remarkable year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Most items were still made here in America, including TVs and cars. Cars had turned into long finned gargantuans replete with white wall tires and, with pent up demand, we couldn’t make them fast enough.

We were kings in forging steel and cities like Akron, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem and Lehigh lit up the night sky.

In New England, the textile mills of Lawrence, Lowell and North Adams hummed on.

We were good at making shoes and my father toiled in a neighborhood leather factory.

I was then a street urchin, much like Tom Sawyer, exploring the thoroughfares of Philadelphia, curious and, sometimes, mischievous. Occasionally, I played hooky, skipping school to walk downtown and visually rummage the big, many floor stores like Gimbels, Lit Brothers and Wanamaker’s, bustling with goods and replete with escalator stairs.

Yes, American cities once possessed vibrant downtowns that provided cohesion before the onset of suburban box stores and strip malls. Downtown was the place to be–shopping, movies, eateries.

Baseball was truly our national game, with many of the contests played in the afternoons. It was the era of greats like Williams, DiMaggio, and Musial. They hadn’t lowered the mound to boost hitters. No free agency meant modest salaries. Stadiums were named for people, not corporations or banks. Franchises didn’t move. Players didn’t cheat with drugs. Sundays and holidays meant doubleheaders. What a deal!

We didn’t have playgrounds in Kensington, the ethnic blue collar stronghold, dubbed Fishtown, where I lived near the Delaware River, but that didn’t stop us from playing stick ball, smashing cut-in-half tennis balls against factory facades. You determined singles, doubles, triples and home runs by window level.

I liked venturing down to the wharves, where I could see the cargo ships unloading, waive to their crews, and study their flags to learn their origin. It was here I developed my addiction to visit far off lands.

TVs initially with 4 inch screens, were now selling madly, or at the rate of 100,000 weekly, sadly hinting at foreclosure of neighborhood enclaves where we’d gather nightly on the white marble steps of our row housing, chatting our humanity until late evening breezes whispered their coolness and launched our escape from the steamy heat of asphalt streets and we could at last renew ourselves with sleep. We never dreamed of air conditioning, though a good many of us lived in upstair flats.

Despite TV’s inroads, radio still loomed large with shows like The Shadow, Jack Benny, Suspense and the Lone Ranger. Daytime–Arthur Godfrey was all the rage.

As for TV, showslike Mama, Texaco Theater, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Life of Riley were our staples. At most, you’d be lucky to have three channels, and after the 11 pm news, stations would shut down, sometimes to the National Anthem. They gave you a test pattern to help you get your “rabbit-ear” antennas right.

The music revolution hadn’t begun. No Elvis Presley. No Beatles. No Rock n’ Roll. No heavy metal or hip hop. We had Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Not knowing anything else, we were content.

Lyrics still rhymed, making them easy to remember. No CDs. Just vinyl records that could scratch easily, but the risk worth the sound!

Sinatra and Crosby reigned along with new stars like Rosemary Clooney, Frankie Laine, the Ames Brothers, and Dinah Shore. And then there was the handsome Mario Lanza, whose baritone thunder captured women’s hearts.

In 1949, you could escape Philly’s summer heat with a day movie for only a dime or a quarter at night, and even get in on a double header that included the world news and Disney cartoons. Bogart, Gable, Wayne, Cooper, Grant–and, yes,–Bob Hope (number one) were the big draws. On Saturday afternoons, a special treat with serial showings of Superman!

Despite technicolor and Gone with the Wind, color was rare.

Comedy was big and I laughed till my sides hurt at the likes of the three stooges, and Abbott and Costello. And then there were those shoot ’em up Westerns with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, adept in singing prowess as well as gun savvy. Why we even got to know their horses, Trigger and Champion, unlike the plods of other Westerns apart from the Lone Ranger’s Silver.

Telephones weren’t in abundance, so sometimes we resorted to a neighbor’s phone or a telephone booth to make a call. To call long distance could be expensive, even intimidating, and thus rare. Nice, however to be out of reach. Or on the streets, free of distracted drivers.

Magazines, often pictorial, like Look, Life, and Saturday Evening Post, caught your eye and provided quick reads. And they cost cents, not dollars.

Yes, many doctors still made house calls and health costs were reasonable.

We didn’t have Interstates then. That would come with Eisenhower’s mandate. Main highways were mostly two lanes giving way occasionally to a third lane for passing. Crossing the Ben Franklin for the Jersey shore and fresh fruit took you through spacious countryside with luxuriant tomato farms. Mom and Pop cabins–no motel chains–offered accommodation for $3 a night.

There were only 150 million of us then and even California had ample elbow room. Worldwide, just under 2 billion people, meaning more manageable resources, less poverty, and a cleaner environment.

More of us began to fly–on noisy propeller contraptions that is. Passenger ships still plied the ocean like their ancient predecessors.

What I really liked were the trains and, especially, the sleek new diesel locomotives. Train stations were busy, exciting places, filled with shops, much the way it still is in Europe.

On a sadder note, I miss my once teeming family–my mother and father, brother, oodles of cousins, dear aunts and uncles, and childhood friends, in 1949, luxuriating in life’s bloom. As life stretches out, we mourn our losses as well as count our gains. We learn to appreciate what we cannot keep. I am glad for memory.

I could go on, but you get the picture, or at least my view of 1949–like a fine wine, a year of superbly good vintage. A time of innocence and simplicity, where less proved more, and thus possessed its own indulgent beauty.

But we can’t be Rip Van Winkles either. Time moves on, and we with it.

–rj

Technology and the shrinking of community

I just read Frank Somerville’s recent post (July 3) on Facebook. For the record, he’s the nightly news anchor on KTVU in Oakland, CA. I don’t live anywhere near the West Coast, so I don’t get to watch him, but Somerville keeps a page on Facebook that I read daily for its keen insights, sensitivity, and passion for social justice. Thank goodness he’s out there and how I wish there were more people like him, concerned about doing the right thing.

I say this because, quite frankly, I’m damned tired of running into people on a daily basis who, just the opposite, are full of themselves in their thoughtlessness towards others, and making matters worse, frequently mean and calculatingly offensive. Unfortunately, the downside of technology can be the marginalization of community, despite a plethora of social media.

10351899_743347829061880_8323386999323754107_nSomerville laments how many people use the Internet to get back at others. Case in point, a waitress posting the $69 dining bill of former Oakland Raider Warren Sapp, who hadn’t left her a tip. Clearly, she sought to embarrass and humiliate Sapp, who later said that he didn’t like the service and her calling him and his friends boys. I know that I’ve done the same thing as Sapp on rare occasions. Tipping is a way of saying thank you and, likewise, an incentive to serve the public well. In Europe, you don’t generally tip, since a service charge is included, and, believe me, the service can get pretty lousy.

Meanness, unfortunately, runs amuck on the Internet due to the anonymity it provides for angry types low on self-image seeking compensation. I remember Edgar Allen Poe writing in his goose-bumpy short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” of that most perfect kind of vengeance that allows its perpetrator impunity, or escape from accountability.

I often see Poe’s maxim raise its ugly head in reader comments, especially in discussion forums, and of course, par excellence, Twitter and Facebook. I find myself aghast, not only at the repugnant foreclosure of other viewpoints, but the sheer cowardice it masks, latent with resentment and a need to enhance self by controlling others or turning them into punching bags. Sadly, there have been instances where such verbal pugilism has taken on fatal consequences.

More often, I see the pervasive fallout of anonymity virtually daily when, like Somerville (more below), I’m driving, motorists who think rules are for other people–deliberately running traffic lights, stop signs, or not yielding right of way, or pulling out in front of you, or not signaling, or slowing traffic to a snail’s pace while on their cell phone or texting in public mastabatory self-indulgence.

My wife came home the other day, telling me of a woman who turned in front of her at a three way stop. She gave her the horn, getting the one finger salute in return. I’ve counseled her to not let such ilk spoil her day. You also just don’t know who you’re up against. Stats tell us an estimated 1500 die in road rage incidents every year. Anyway, I sometimes think there really is a bit of karma going around and that the chickens ultimately come home to roost.

Somerville ends his blog with his account of a guy with a mounted camera on his dash who comes up behind him “for no apparent reason” as he is on his way to work. Turns out, he can’t get rid of him. Pulling over, the guy draws along side of him, and Somerville, not wanting the incident to escalate, calmly asks, “What are you doing?, only to have the guy grin and keep videotaping him. Speeding off, Somerville finally loses him.

Hey, so creepy! You just never know what kind of oddball that anonymity may confront you with next.

–rj

 

Christina Rossetti’s “After Death”: Her unction to the living

 

crossettiI have always liked the poetry of Christina Rossetti, Victorian England’s foremost female poet. Poetry ran in her genes. Her maternal grandfather had been a poet and translator; and, of course, so was her more famous brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who also excelled at art.

I like to think of her in conjunction with the American poet, Emily Dickinson, our most prominent woman poet; in fact, they share the same birth year, (1830). Both suffered losses in love and never married.

Both were raised in devoutly religious homes. Dickinson’s grandfather was prominent in founding Amherst College, initially a school to train ministers. Rossetti’s mother was an evangelical. Both wrote a cerebral poetry of ardent sensitivity to life around them.

But there are differences, too. Religiously, Dickinson proved rebellious; at times, even skeptical.

On the other hand, Rossetti’s poetry is replete in piety. Still, thematically both poets seem often preoccupied with retreat and mortality. Strikingly, several of their poems feature a persona speaking from the grave.

Here is a poem I’ve always liked and taught in my literature classes for many years. Maybe you will like it too:

After Death

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor child, poor child”: and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.

ANALYSIS

In this poem, a deceased person reminisces her funeral. She recalls the man she loved, filled with pity, gazing at her corpse and weeping.

But there is disillusionment on the persona’s part: her friend did “not touch the shroud, or raise the fold/That hid my face, or take my hand in his,/or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head.” In short,  he exhibited no commitment, even in the context of death. (It’s not what he does, but what he omits to do that matters here.) At best, his response proves ambiguous and we are left unsure his grief manifests love, for grief is not necessarily synonymous with love. We only know from the persona’s perspective that he “did not love me living.”

Ironically, the persona’s anguish eclipses that of the mourner, for what she yearned for in life was love and not the pity that comes from her death.

The poem’s last lines are saved from self-pity in their matter-of-factness: “He pitied me; and very sweet it is/To know he still is warm though I am cold.”

But the poem with its subtle “I am cold” also returns us to the theme of death and its inexorable alienation from life with which the poem opens. And even more: it hints at the persona’s repressed anguish in the close–“He still is warm though I am cold,” sparing these lines from their seeming sardonic, or derisive, tone. The truth she reaches for is that he did not make use of the opportunity to love her while she lived.

While pity may speak for the mourner’s potentiality for love, death has foreclosed on its possibility.

Mortality’s unction is that we fervently love while we can in this brief parenthesis of light.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan Sarandon Gets It: Authentic Living

susan-sarandon

“I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I’ve been dreaming of my parents every day,” says Wang Zheng, a 31-year old engineer whose parents were aboard missing Malaysia Airlines Flight  370, now into its third week with still no positive yields as to its fate. 

Ironically, new reports of possible debris 1500 miles off the coast of Western Australia aren’t offering the languishing families and friends the solace they seek–that their loved ones may still be alive, despite its sheer unlikelihood.  As humans, hope is often all we can muster up against life’s irrational swells that confront, often adversely, randomly, and without closure, our daily quest for denominated happiness via health, work, food on our tables, and loved ones to share our good luck with on our return at day’s end.

Emily Dickinson said it well about the fervency of hope in her typically simple, yet elegant, observance,

 Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops at all.

Of course, it’s good to have hope in life, since without it we’d find each other mutually insufferable, depressed cranks weighed down by hurt, anger, and resentment.  I’m thinking just now of the biblical Job whose troubles were only made worse by his judgmental friends, devoid of empathy, callous to his personal suffering.

What prolongs our suffering, however, comes from our need to impose control, especially when it comes to life’s volatility, and thus hope may not really be what we need to shore us up.  All of life is laced with the temporal, or ending, a serial repertoire of good-byes.  In the vast aeons of Nature, even the mountains are born and die, our own existence as a species hardly a wink up against’s Nature’s several billion year legacy of genesis, maturation and decline.   For most of us, coming to terms with our own mortality is our ultimate existential dilemma. and the stuff of poetry, say like Keats (e.g., “When I have fears that I may cease to be”).

The Buddha had it right:  “All suffering is born of desire.”  Our primary desire is often for permanence when the truth is that impermanence embraces everything.  Again, we don’t like to say good bye.  I knew this first hand as a child, preferring to make myself scarce rather than seeing loved ones off.

We spare ourselves considerable grief when we grasp this fundamental truth, an observation shared in universal creeds and philosophic rumination, affirmed by science.  We can’t retain our youth; we forfeit our friends, sometimes our mates; we change our jobs and often our locales; we lose our parents; we see our children move out and sometimes far away; and, of course, we always must contend with that random press on human intent and happiness via cosmic intervention such as accident or natural disaster.

In all of this, it’s our human disposition to wander between past and future and thus miss out on what we do have–life in the Now–and living mindfully in its effulgence rather than hedonistically, which inevitably comes up short.

I was just reading about Susan Sarandon, whom I’ve long admired for not only her film achievement, but her compassion for those denied social justice.  In her personal life, she mirrors the wisdom of seizing the day, or maximizing our present.  Asked why she dissolved her 23-year relationship with Tim Robbins, with whom she had two children, she said that it came after performing in Ionesco’s Exit the King on Broadway, which deals with confronting mortality: “You can’t do a meditation on death and stay in a situation that’s not authentic” (Meg Grant, AARP Magazine, Feb/Mar 2014).

I also like her punchline simple formula for everyday happiness:  “It’s the simple things.  Good food.  Good friends.  Sunsets and sunrises.  With age, you gain maybe not wisdom, but at least a bigger picture” (Grant).

Me, I call that wisdom: authentic living in the present.  After all, the Now is all we really have, given the ephemerality of life’s myriad textures.  Living it meaningfully–which is to say, mindfully–enables us to find freedom over circumstance and, with it, greater happiness

–rj

The Yacht Mentality that Threatens our Economy

unemploy I turned on the TV while eating lunch yesterday to a feature called “Island Paradises,” thinking Hawaii or maybe some Caribbean gem like Dominica or St. Vincent’s.  Instead, it was about one man’s substantial investment, worth $28 million, in a plus 100 foot long yacht, sporting 3 recreational decks with pools, 7 bathrooms and 15 bedrooms, plus 3 bars and a below deck garage replete with several sleek motorized boats.  Docked in Ft. Lauderdale, it costs– Can you believe this?–$50,000 a fill-up.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of ostentatious display of wealth rankles me, not because I’m covertly envious, but because I think it represents excess and is just plain ethically wrong in a world of so many poor.  Again, I think of the 1% in my own country (USA), who own 37% of its wealth and whose income has actually increased since the economic downturn of 2008 (Pew Report, February 2013).  Meanwhile, hundreds of service food workers have staged walkouts in quest of a more sustainable minimum wage, presently $7.25 an hour. The average food service worker actually makes about $11 an hour, barely above the poverty line for a single parent with one child.

The President is compassionately urging an extension of unemployment benefits for 1.3 million presently receiving unemployment insurance.  (The total number of long term unemployed, however, stands at a stubborn 3.5 million.)  As he rightly put it in Saturday’s weekly address, “The holiday season is a time for remembering the bonds we share and our obligations to one another as human beings.”

It isn’t that the vast majority of these folks are free loaders.  It’s simply that they’ve been looking and can’t find work and that, by the way, is what the drop in unemployment to 7% really means, that thousands of despairing workers have simply given up looking for work. Unfortunately, the longer you’re out of work, the more companies shy away from you.  What’s more, in a strained economy, many companies are resorting to part-timers to circumvent having to pay benefits and to maximize profits.

What really hurts is when you’re past 50 and lose the job you’ve worked at a good many years, anticipating a reasonable retirement package just a few years up ahead.  This recently happened to a friend of ours, an engineer with a strong resumé in computer skills. Though he looked everywhere, he ended-up driving a school bus.  So even if you find work, you’re likely to find your sharply reduced wages sure to contribute to your continuing financial distress.  The situation for blacks and hispanics is even bleaker.

That yacht feature reinvests my thoughts as I write.  The obscenity of it!  The truth is, despite what conservative pundits tell you, a massive transfer of wealth is taking place in America and it’s not Robin Hood style from rich to poor.  Consider this from the Pew Report:

During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%.

Think movie stars with their posh Bel-Air and Malibu compounds; instant millionaire athletes, Wall Street traders; bank CEOs.  Hey, think Walmart with its six family progeny having a bloated net worth of $144.7 billion.  Wal-Mart currently pays its “associates” $8.81 an hour.

Again, our President weighs-in:

If Members of Congress don’t act before they leave on their vacations, 1.3 million Americans will lose this lifeline. These are people we know. They’re our friends and neighbors; they sit next to us in church and volunteer in our communities; their kids play with our kids. And they include 20,000 veterans who’ve served this country with honor.

In the meantime, House Speaker John Boehner, emerging as America’s Scrooge, has served notice of his opposition to any extension of unemployment insurance, set to expire December 28.

This is America.  We can do better than a yacht mentality of self-absorption, extravagance and indifference.

–rj

Will tablets replace your TV? The new frontier of online video

iPad3

Just came across an interesting piece in the Economist  (November 9, 2013) on the growing popularity of online video in China that threatens TV.  In fact, a recent Chinese government reports says that only 30% of Beijing households watched TV in 2012.  Online video is big bucks in China with some 450 million viewers, or 80% of the connected population.    

We haven’t seen this drift in the West where TV sets are on 5 hours a day in the average American home.  That doesn’t mean China’s online video craze won’t happen here.  Who could have predicted the rapid downturn in PC demand that followed the rise of tablets three years ago?   Computers once priced in the $1000 range can be had now for $300 or less.  What’s more, tablet users are increasingly prone to downloading Amazon or iTune TV and movie offerings to their tablets.  Cable and satellite networks like DirecTV are catching on, and so you’re not confined to your TV anymore for personal viewing.  There they are, with all the convenience of portability, right on your tablet!  Hey, let’s not leave out Netflix.

And then there’s always been the ubiquitous YouTube, more popular than ever.  Forbes.com tells us that in 2012 one hour of YouTube video was uploaded every second.  In short, video making, like self-publishing, has become the province of the everyday Joe.   According to Brent Weinstein, Head of Digital Media at United Talent Agency, “Online video today is what TV was a couple of years after it came on to the scene” (Forbes.com).

YouTube, in fact, has been a honing ground for developing sophisticated expertise, spilling over into start up multi-channel networks (MCNs) such as Ted, TubeFilter and Kaltura-Connect coms with their dedicate devotees.

The big ops can read the tea leaves.  Just the other day I saw this catchy Hulu ad.  Get your first week free, then enjoy your favorite TV shows on your tablet for just $7.95 monthly.  With prices like that, cable and satellite TV had better watch out.

Of course we’re still talking about original TV programming, even if rechanneled; nevertheless, it isn’t hard to figure out where the math is taking us.  The bottom-line is that a revolutionary change in how we get our information and entertainment is underway.

According to the Economist, Chinese online video entrepreneurs started competing directly with TV programming five years ago, coming up with their own programming.  In the U. S,  you can see this same trend reflected in  Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu making their own programs to sidestep licensing costs and gain access to a potentially huge market.  Very soon, we’ll be talking about mobile networks.

For families who like to do their viewing together, no problem.  Internet TV is on its way and of course with Apple TV, no problem transferring your tablet videos, music and photos to a larger screen right now.

Usually the scenario is that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold.  With China, what’s happening marks a seismic shift.  Better, anyway, than its usual export of Asian flu!

–rj

Our Survival at Stake: Do We Have a Future?

Sir Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon

As much as we can do it, we should avoid living our lives on assumption that a belief is true simply because we’ve been told it’s so by family, government, religion, politics, economics, or the collective culture in which we’ve been raised.  The only fixed verities are those within the scope of natural law with its defined predictability confirmed by replication.  Our responsibility should be to explore those verities affecting our well-being and allow them fullest scope.  We never escape the inexorable operation of those laws, for whatever we do, there is always a consequence. But sometimes we get to choose.

There is no inherent purpose to life, though many moralists like Tolstoy have implied one in asking, How ought we to live?  Nature works through selection only, reinforcing those causal elements promoting regeneration.  Often it works with infinitesimal numbers, a million seeds to effect a single germination.  It has no ethics.  It is devoid of Mind.

We pride ourselves on our freedom, but we are overwhelmingly conditioned by biology and complex behavioral repertoires sanctioned or extinguished by environment.  It is not the future that shapes us, but what has happened to us that defines what we think and do.  Conversely, this defines our tragedy that may doom us on this earth.

We were not born into a preset regimen other than one genetically imposed, so Locke was right about the tabla rasa, or clean slate, notion of our infancy.  Preconditioning is what happens as we make our journey. It follows that each of us needs to recover that initial state; that what I believe or do should be based on immediate consequences rather than because I am told to do so by law,  government, religion or individuals.  We do need laws in a world of many to ensure equal access to the trough in the context of safety, but there is nothing sacrosanct about any law, belief or opinion that allows it to go unexamined.

One of the inherent drawbacks of the human condition is superimposing belief and practice on others.  History, accordingly, is often bloodied with the cruelties of absolutism forced on others, often in the context of religion or secular ideology.  This week, the Ukraine remembers its 3 million dead, starved to death in 1932-33 by a Stalinist regime bent on enforcing collectivization of that nation’s farmland.

Other than climate change, humanity’s greatest threat comes from Islamic extremists bent on returning to the way of the sword, or Jihad, in imposing their beliefs.  The danger lies in Islam’s not merely being a set of beliefs, but a whole way of life regulating every human behavior, codified ultimately in Sharia mandate.

I alluded earlier to the behavioral quirk in us that may cause our doom.  Conditioned as we are by immediate consequences, we often cede the future for the dividends of the present.  Such is our present circumstance with meeting the exigencies of global warming, declining resources, and burgeoning population. 

In short, unless we can render the future more palpable, allowing us to help shape it for those who come after; indeed, assure its livability with reasonable happiness, then we may be moving into our final chapter.  While altruism is a tenant within humanity and perhaps, in evolutionary vein, promoting survivability (see E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology, 1975), we too often exercise our limited freedom for the immediate.  Like the heroic soldier forfeiting his life on the battlefield to save the lives of his fellows, we need to emulate a consciousness of others that may often conflict with our personal happiness and achievement.

Evolution, paradoxically mindless, has always arbitrated for the future over the present as denominator of survivability and made you and me possible.

The Renaissance philosopher I’ve admired all my life, Francis Bacon, summed it all up in saying, “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.”  Do not base your life on the beliefs of others.  Live for the world of ideas and sort out those verified by the best science.  Live in the fullest moment of today, but not without regard for the future of your fellows.

–rj

My Love Affair with Vermont

vermont2

I can’t say how it began, but I know I’ve always had this love affair with Vermont, even though I’ve never lived there.  I suspect it has a lot to do with its mountain greenery, since I’ve always been partial to mountains, those silent sentries walling out an octane world fulsome with pursuit and possession, safeguarding neat valleys of Yankee towns and villages anchored by white steepled churches.

I grew up in Massachusetts with vistas much like this, and Vermont, New England at its best, not far away.  I can’t think of a wooded vista excelling that stretch of aerial road known as U. S. 9 connecting Vermont’s  quaint Bennington and Brattleboro towns in the south that I used to travel often.

A few years back, or 2005, I finally canvassed the state right up to the Canadian border before twisting back to the Massachusetts coast by way of New Hampshire’s lofty White Mountains.  One special delight was visiting Swanton, just south of the Canadian border.  My grandparents had called it home.

Retaining its small population contributes to the state’s Edenic luster, despite the continuous threat of emigres from New York and Massachusetts, not infrequently buying up commanding views, cutting trees, and building spacious palaces of material privilege.

In Vermont box store giants are rare, and thus town centers of mom and pop stores prosper and prove gathering places.  Smallness and simplicity turn back the clock.

I like the democracy of these towns with selectmen, not mayors, held to account by their  citizens in weekly meetings of equals.

vermont3

For many of us, Vermont means dairy farms, cradled among gentle hills, producing cheeses by the score; undulating countryside redolent with flaming fall foliage and winter’s maple syrup like no where else.  But it’s also a place of considerable waterways, despite being New England’s only landlocked state.  Every town seems to have its murmuring stream or running river, which sometimes menace human artifacts with storms like last year’s Sandy.  And then there’s Lake Champlain, America’s sixth largest lake, 120 miles long, 14 miles across at its widest point and 400 feet deep.  What grabs me most are its myriad covered bridges, more than anywhere else, archives of a past of horse-drawn carriages catching shelter from cacophonous clouds unleashing summer deluge.

Apart from scenic splendor and sanctuary replete with serenity, I like the state’s progressiveness.  Vermont, by the way, is the only state represented in Congress by a socialist, registered as an Independent.  Small as it is, no state ranks higher in promoting the welfare of its citizens.  It was the first to abolish slavery.  It was also first in granting women the right to vote in 1880.  Unlike neighboring Massachusetts which recently blinked under religious pressure, Vermont has now joined just Oregon and Washington in passing death with dignity legislation.  Vermont was the first state to allow civic unions and, later, gay marriage.   Looking towards the future, it’s promoting a single payer, non-profit health system akin to European and Canadian models.  Concerned about climate change, it has joined eight other states in offering rebate incentives to purchasers of electric cars.

At times, I think of Vermont as almost another country independent of the body politic. In fact, for fourteen years, it was just that–a sovereign nation before joining the Union.  Funny I should write this, but when I was in my twenties I had looked to New Zealand as my deliverance from a meaningless Asian war, burning cities, and assassinations of progressive leaders, including a president who gave possibility to Camelot.  New Zealand responded with immigrant status and employment, yet I didn’t go, for my American roots lay deeper than I knew.

A few years ago, I visited New Zealand and beautiful Taranaki which would have been my home.  I happened to meet several American ex-pats, one of whom shared that California had grown stale for him with its exponential growth in population and social burden, despoiled environment and plighted cities, accelerating crime and sky high taxes, inflated mortgages and a growing economic divide.

I wish now I had asked him if he needed to go so far, even as I had once thought of doing.  Why not Oregon, Washington, Montana?  Why not Vermont?

I wish I had asked myself that question when blessed with those options uniquely granted to the young.

–rj

What Being Centered Really Means

True peace is achieved
By 
centering
And blending with life (Tao 22).

You hear a lot about being centered, but just what is it?

The ancient Greeks advocated “the golden mean,” or middle way.

Roman writer Vergil based his Aeneid on Pietas, or something akin to self-control.

Perhaps drawing on his Hellenic education, St. Paul advised moderation in all things.

Excess is always dangerous in any pursuit, for it forecloses on alternatives that may prove more tempered and thus wiser than those fostered by our passions.

Unfortunately, indulgence, or excess, defines history with its repeated accounts of obsession gone astray for power and possession.  History is narcissism writ large.

At the everyday level, we hear continually of people who have ruined their lives and hurt others simply because they were unable to rule themselves.

Because self-interest especially dominates in politics and religion, I generally am suspicious of them both.  As I write, there’s the rancor in Congress over raising the debt ceiling so government can pay its bills.  Currently, however, a persistent few are willing to shut down government unless they have their way.  As I’ve written  in an earlier blog, political parties lead to narrow partisanship, as President Washington so wisely observed in his Farewell Address.

In religion, we needn’t dial back to the Crusades or Inquisition to access the violence of fanatical fundamentalism.  If you look at a worldwide map, you’ll find religious mayhem abundantly distributed, whether in the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, and Indonesia.  As for Africa, there’s last week’s heinous massacre at Nairobi’s West Gate Mall in Kenya by Somali militants, who selectively shot non-Muslims.  Nigeria has its own ongoing debacle with Islamic extremists. These things happen because without centeredness we lack balance and thus forfeit stability and often our humanity, too.

On the other hand, fraudulent centeredness can possess its own rigidity if focused merely on ourselves.  True centeredness serves as a reference point that proffers balance, always its marker, between extremes. Think acoustics. Think harmony.

Centeredness promotes equilibrium, a check on ego, a capacity to not confuse the parts with the whole, enabling us to respond more patiently and thus more wisely.  A state of being, it isn’t found in having.

Centered people aren’t dismayed by the fallout of time or chance.  They see the evolving pattern and not the ephemeral circumstance.  They’re grounded in the Eternal, not the transitory.  Thus change and loss and disappointment don’t throw them off balance.  In touch with themselves, they live in harmony with nature’s artifice. .

Writing from a jail cell and facing imminent execution, St. Paul could cogently advise his friends that they pursue “all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious, whatever is excellent and admirable–fill all your thoughts with these things.”

This is centeredness.  This is harmony.  This is the fabric of Eternity.

–rj

Cajun Music: Addictive!

Cajun music instruments
Cajun music instruments

I like to work out daily on our elliptical machine, or at least 5 times weekly for 30 minutes a session.  It beats taking a vigorous walk in often hot and humid Kentucky for up to an hour.  In contrast,  I can turn on the fan in the exercise room, plug in my iPod, and be serenated.  Lo and behold, exercise done!

One of the marvelous things about music is that there’s something out there for every taste and mood.  Most of us like a fast paced tempo when we’re trying to get the heart pulse up.  Lately, I’ve discovered that Cajun music with its dominant, happy mix of accordion, fiddle and triangle gives you real foot-stomping stuff, even if you can’t get into the French lyrics.  A vibrant variant reminiscent of the blues also exists, known as Zydeco.  It will remind  you of swing dancing and it’s both sexy and passionate!

There are a good number of Cajun bands out there and I don’t think you can really err in your selections, but I like Michael Doucet’s BeauSoleil the best.  He founded the group to try to stave off the decline of Cajun culture, especially its language, which remains an endangered species.  Back in 1950, half of the Cajun people spoke it as their language at home.  That’s declined to just 10% presently.  Cajun, by the way, comes from the French word, Acadian.

You probably know this, but the Cajuns are descendants of the former French colony known as Acadia in today’s Nova Scotia.  The British exiled them when they refused to accept British sovereignty in 1755.  Their homes and crops were burned and many family members separated.  Many, nearly a half, lost their lives at sea.  Their plight is memorialized in Longfellow’s Evangeline.

Ultimately, most of them settled in central and Southwest Louisiana (the Bayou country), preserving their culture for two centuries.  Cajun is the Acadian dialect of their forbears.   Louisiana today has about 700,000 Cajuns, though the vast majority are Anglicized.  Nonetheless, Cajun festivals are popular and frequent in Louisiana, with Lafayette their apex.

Be careful though about sampling Cajun music:  Like its spicy cuisine, its joie de vivre music can prove addictive.

–rj

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