Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Countdown to G-Day

Hey everybody,

I know I've been absent from my usual online haunts for awhile. I'm finishing grad school later in May, and I've been utterly, utterly swamped. I'm also moving the day after graduation (more stress) so don't expect to see me posting until after real life settles down (around Memorial Day).

-Jim

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Lost School of Yiddish Zen

Thanks to Jeff for sending me this forward. Keep 'em comin!


THE PRINCIPLES OF JEWISH BUDDHISM

The Lotus & the Mishpokheh:

1. Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as the
wooded glen. And sit up straight. You'll never meet the Buddha with
such round shoulders.

2. There is no escaping karma. In a previous life, you never called,
you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?

3. Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.

4. To practice Zen and the art of Jewish motorcycle maintenance, do
the following: get rid of the motorcycle. What were you thinking?

5. Be aware of your body. Be aware of your perceptions. Keep in mind
that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness.

6. If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?

7. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Forget this and
attaining enlightenment will be the least of your problems.

8. The Tao has no expectations. The Tao demands nothing of others. The
Tao does not speak. The Tao does not blame. The Tao does not take
sides. The Tao is not Jewish.

9. Drink tea and nourish life. With the first sip, joy. With the
second, satisfaction. With the third, Danish.

10. The Buddha taught that one should practice loving kindness to all
sentient beings. Still, would it kill you to find a nice sentient
being who happens to be Jewish?

11. Be patient and achieve all things. Be impatient and achieve all
things faster.

12. To Find the Buddha, look within. Deep inside you are ten thousand
flowers. Each flower blossoms ten thousand times. Each blossom has ten
thousand petals. You might want to see a specialist.

13. Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?

14. Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then
what do you have? Bupkes!

When Christianity and Islam get mixed, the results are often explosive. It's nice to see that other great religions can blend with results that are merely humorous.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Your Sombrero, Senator?

The current storyline over at the webcomic Shortpacked asks the question "How silly can Congress get?"

Their answer: Really, really silly.

Over the top? Yes. Fundamentally wrong? *sigh* That's where I wonder...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Anthropology of Dying

My grandmother has been in declining health for the last few years. She suffers from vascular dementia, among other age and smoking-related problems.

Recently, she fell and broke her hip. She had a partial hip replacement operation and blessedly came through it in good physical shape (for her age and condition).

Her mental shape? Not so good. Memory problems are not new territory for her, but she's been very confused ever since the operation. Confused enough that every morning, she tries to get out of bed and falls because she can't remember that she broke her hip.

The painful conversation about where she is and why she can't go home is repeated several times a day. Last week, she moved from the hospital to a rehab facility, which hasn't helped her confusion.

When I visit my grandmother, I don't know how to talk to her. She pleads again and again to go home, and it breaks my heart to deny her over and over again. My grandmother has had episodes of acute dementia before, but never for this long, and doctors tell the family that she is unlikely to recover mentally or physically to level she was at before the fall.

The situation is difficult for everyone in my family. There seem to be no good answers here.

Human cultures tend to develop rituals for difficult times in life. In most parts of the world, funerals and mourning behavior are well understood, even if the rules are seldom written down.

We have rules for death. We have sytems for dealing with it. Wills, executors, burials, afterlives. We don't seem to have rules for the long, slow, decline that more and more often precedes death. "Modern medicine" has kept my grandmother alive for years, perhaps decades, longer than she would have lived a centruy ago. Well and good. But medicine offers no rules on how to deal with a beloved relative who is less and less the person that she was.

Forgive me, medicine does offer ONE rule- "Pay the bills. Right away." Not very comforting.

How do you treat an aging relative whose decline reaches a point where the label "second childhood" is not strong enough? When the family matriarch crosses the line from being "not her old self" to being not quite a full person anymore?

Ours is the first generation when geriatric medicine has made this set of problems widespread. It is now easy for us to help along an aging heart, but we are almost powerless to halt the decay of an aging brain.

Mixing-bowl, libertine America is generally weak on cultural rituals. We are too mixed-up, too scattered, and too focused on the new to remember the traditional, at least until we belatedly discover that we need tradition to lean on.

Maybe this is a situation where that weakness of tradition can become a strength. Before now, no culture in the world has needed to find ways to deal with geriatric dementia on a large scale.

I can reasonably expect (okay, hope) that people scattered all over the U.S. and Canada will read this blog, plus a few on on other continents. Have any of you had similar experiences with an older relative or friend? Have you found anything that helps? I'm collecting all idea, no matter how odd or person-specific.

P.S.- I'm not saying that there are NO resources out there to help people cope with this sort of problem, but I still think that long-term mental decline is not quite the same problem as death. Some resources I've found helpful before are below; will add to these as I find more:

Hospice Net- http://www.hospicenet.org/
Elisabeth Kubler Ross- http://www.elisabethkublerross.com/

Bill Moyers: Dying On Our Own Terms- http://www.pbs.org/wnet/onourownterms/

The World Is Too Small: 6.5 billion and counting

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and United Nations Population Fund, there are now more than 6.5 billion humans living on Earth. That's 6,500,000,000 people, for those of you who are impressed by zeroes.

If you're one in a million, there are 298 of you in the U.S.A. and 6,500 of you in the world.

Is it possible for any human being to be unique anymore? They say that everyone has a twin somewhere. Heck, I'll settle just for being unique in my metro area and job market, but even that's getting harder and harder. So unless you're really strange, get used to the idea that while you may be different compared with the people in your immediate vicinity, it's getting harder and harder to be special.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

State of the Union Drinking Game

State of the Union: The Drinking Game!

Note: This piece is presented for humorous purposes. Please, for the love of Mike, do not actually try to drink when all of these things happen. If you do, this blog is NOT responsible for your liver. Or upcoming lack thereof.

Drink When The President Brags About The Success of:
-The Iraq War
-The War on Terror
- 9/11
-The Middle-East Peace Process
-Tax Cuts
-Medicare Reform
-Immigration Reform
-The Department of Homeland Security
-The Confimation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (as of 11:45 AM)

Drink if the President ever mentions:
-The Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections
-The death toll in the Iraq War
-Lobbying Reform
-Twice if he mentions Jack Abramoff by name
-Hurricane Katrina
-The budget defeceit

Catch Phrases: Drink Each time the President says:
-We're making progess
-We're ready to declare victory on...


Drink when the President introduces one of the following in the audience:
-A working-class family from the heartland who has benefitted from Bush administration economic policy
-An elderly person who supports Medicare-D reform
-A famous athlete (Twice if it's a player from the Steelers or the Seahawks)
-An Iraq veteran
-A potential 2008 GOP Presidential candidate
-An "elder statesman" figure
-Twice if it's not a member of the Bush family

Drink TWICE if the person is also a member of a racial, ethnic, or religious minority.

Drink when the President says the following words:
(Not recommended if you have to work Wednesday morning)
-Freedom
-Democracy
-Victory
-Faith
-Oil
-Ownership
-Any "Bushism"

The low-impact SOTU drinking game: Drink whenever the audience applauds enough to stop the speech. Twice for a standing ovation.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

Good Idea: Encourage girls to pursue careers in math & science by identifying strong female role models in those fields.

Bad Idea: Scrapping the project because real female engineers aren't telegenic enough.

Worse Idea: Creating a soap opera about fictional female scientists instead.

*Snork* I'm sure this TV project (which has not found a buyer yet) would do as much for the respect of women in science as "General Hospital" did for doctors.

Maybe we should, oh, put a few CS/EE departments through sensitivity training instead.

*Grumble*grumble*misplacedpriorities*grumble*

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Peace and War make mismatched sandals

It's official now. Hamas has won a strong majority in the Palenstinian Parliament.

Everyone connected with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or Middle East politics in general, is doing a double-take.

Warnings of gloom, doom, and suicide bombings are all over the media. The Christian Science Monitor questions whether the U.S. should recognize a democratically elected government with a majority party that is considered a terrorist organization by the State Department.

At first glance, the outlook for the peace process is grim. The moderate Fatah party has lost control of the Palestinian government. President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Fatah party, stays in office regardless of the outcome of the parliamentary elections, though he earlier pledged to resign if he could not lead a government dedicated to the peace process.

The State Department has considered Abbas the key Palestinian figure in the peace process. Secretary Rice's statement earlier today blandly congratulated the Palestinian people on a peaceful election process but was critical of Hamas, saying that "you cannot have one foot in politics and the other in terror."

So. Gloom, doom, and a new Hammas which now has foot planted in terrorism and one in government. Definitely not a good day for world peace. Maybe not a good day for democracy. On the other hand, it was a good day for Haliburton, whose stock rose on the expectation that Middle East oil prices are going to stay high for a loooong time.

But does Hamas' victory have to be a disaster? I don't think so. The change in the IRA's role in Ireland since the 1997 Belfast Agreement shows that a militant resistance group can become a positive, legitimate political organization. Granted, the situation in Israel is a lot worse than 1990s Ireland, but I still think the success of the Irish process can be a useful model for Hamas today.

The great weakness of the Israeli-Palenstinin peace process has always been that extremists on either side can derail it with much less effort than it takes for moderates to get it moving again. Well, the Palestinian extremists no longer have a reason to undermine their own government; at least, not a reason that is likely to carry much weight with the voters.

This election will cause great changes in the Palestinian government and the peace process. But those changes don't have to mean war, or more bombings. Hamas has a historic opportunity to transform itself, and Palestinian politics. Give them the chance to do this in a postive way before condeming them and cutting off relations with Palestine.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I'm Getting Old: Kids and what they're watching

Today was the second meeting of the Intro Theater course I'm teaching this semester. Todays agenda: A set of activities that combines getting-to-know-each-other games with a system for taking a sort of cultural core sample of the students. The goal is to try to find cultural artifacts (plays, books, movies, TV shows) that all or most of the class is familiar with. This helps me figure out what kind of backgrounds students come from, and what common works I can use for examples until the students have read and seen some plays. In theory, it helps the students appreciate the diverse backgrounds that their classmates from from.

What did I learn today? Mostly that I'm out of touch. Movies that at least 80% of the class has seen: Wedding Crashers, The Notebook, Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Lion King.

I haven't seen Wedding Crashers OR Notebook, the two recent movies on the list. Conspicuously absent: Princess Bride, Indiana Jones, and the original Star Wars. movies. What did these kids watch at sleepovers? I know better than to even ask about Goonies. Classics like Wizard of Oz, Sound of Music, and Gone With The Wind did not come close to making the list. The kids mostly just gave me questioning stares when I mentioned Casablanca.

What makes a culture? In large part, it is information and traditions that all members of the culture have in common. Finding that common ground is getting harder and harder in America today. I applaud our society's diversity, but forces like media fragmentation, obsessive demographic targeting, and test-based school curricula are shrinking the amount of cultural material that we have in common, especially cross-generationally. I'm not even 30 yet, and already it's clear that the movies, shows, books, etc. that *I* grew up with are mostly unfamiliar to 19 and 20 year olds. Particuarly worrisome is the lack of familiarity with "classics" that usually cross generational lines. If eight years age difference means that my culture packet is almost separate from current 20 year olds, how much do they have in common with Baby Boomers? With the elderly?

I wonder if the next generational war will be sparked not by the draft, not by senior citizen entitlements, but by the simple inability of parents and children to find anything they can talk about.

*sigh* Far and away the best-known movie/show/book in my class?

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

I gotta go find a DVD set...

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire (Part One)

Gibbon wrote that the decline of the Roman Empire was caused by the loss of civic virtue and rise in laziness among Roman citizens.

Today, some people wonder if our own civilization faces a similar decline. Scholars have weighed in on both sides of the argument.

However, given that there are finite resources in the world, and we are spending a lot of ours pushing eight-foot tall inflatable christmas snowglobes, I think we're in trouble.