Monthly Archives: March 2013

LIVING ON BORROWED TIME

I’ve written before about living in Europe during the early 1960s when I was a civilian auditor working for the U.S. Army, and about some of the close calls I had, death wise. I was thinking about some of those experiences the other day, and about how many of us continue to exist in spite of having had similar close brushes while avoiding entrance into the afterlife. Others, of course, not so fortunate. Their close calls with death did materialize in the real thing, along with a free eternal subscription into the next dimension. Random acts of events of which turn out favorably for some fortunate souls, and not so good for others. The lack of any apparent or obvious design on the part of the universe as to who lives and who dies.

In any event, the most vivid of my memories goes back to the time that I was assigned to an audit of a large Army installation located in Orleans, France, which was about 80 miles south of Paris. The most distinguishing feature about Orleans was… that it was only about a one hour drive to Paris. At least in those days, when there were no speed limits on French roads. That, and the fact that Joan of Arc had led the French to some great victory over England in Orleans in the 15th century, in one of the never ending wars the French and British conducted through the ages. (I also later worked in Poitiers, France, a town about 300 miles south of Paris, where Joan of Arc was subsequently tried as a heretic, and condemned to die by being burned at the stake. It was amazing how we kept running into each other.) But back to Orleans and my little escapade. The Army installation where I was assigned as a junior auditor was outside the city limits in an area we affectionately called the boonies. I was part of a team of about 10 auditors and we were evaluating the cost-effectiveness of the base’s supply operations, which were, to put mildly, plain awful. Which meant that we, as auditors were having a field day writing reports about all their screw-ups.

It just about never snowed in France, at least in the 3 years I lived there. But one morning it did snow in Orleans. Not much, maybe 3-4 inches. But just enough to cause havoc for an inexperienced driver commuting in a featherweight car. When I first arrived in France it became apparent that most of my assignments would be well outside of our Paris headquarters. In the beginning, I was able to bum a ride from Paris to the audit destination (and back to Paris on the weekends) with a fellow auditor working on the same job. But that soon became a drag, so it became obvious that I needed to buy my own car. That did not turn out to be a simple matter. Until then the only car I had ever driven was with automatic transmission. But in France, in those days, to afford a car with automatic transmission one had to be a direct heir of Louis IV or Marie Antoinette, or a descendent of some other French aristocrat. So it meant learning how to drive a car with stick shift. Which, in turn, meant having to go to a French driving school to learn how to shift manually. What a joy that was. I could write a whole other blog about that experience. Suffice to say, there was a lot of screaming going on between me and the instructor.

When I finally learned how to shift, I went shopping for a new car, and found the only auto in my price range (which was basically zero to one thousand dollars) was the French made Simca. It was identical to the Volkswagon beetle, except, maybe, it was even smaller and lighter than a beetle. The only option it contained was a heater. It didn’t even have a radio. But the price was right, all of $950. (When I left France 3 years later, I was able to sell the car to a newly arriving auditor for $800. My kind of deal.) So, in this small Simca, I went tearing through the French countryside, often at speeds of 80-85 MPH, especially when I was anxious to return to Paris on the weekends. Anyway it was in this Simca that I was driving to work that morning, generally oblivious to the new snowfall. I always took the back roads through farm country to avoid traffic.

Now the thing about the French countryside, at least in those days, was the fact that there were massive 8 foot high concrete walls at the edge of each property where it met the road. I don’t know why; maybe they were trying to spare motorists from observing how ugly their hayfields or farm houses were. In any event, these walls went on into infinity, or so it seemed. So there I am, driving obliviously in the freshly fallen snow. Suddenly, the car, whose tires were about the size of those on an average bicycle, started to skid on the snow or ice. In a panic, I jerked the steering wheel in the opposite direction. Which, being an inexperienced driver, was exactly the wrong thing to do. The car then lurched into the direction I had turned the steering wheel, and with a gallop, began heading straight into the concrete wall. Remember, that in those days there were no such things as seat belts, so if I had hit the wall at that speed, I would have been flattened like a pancake.

For some inexplicable reason, there was about a 10 foot gap in the wall at that point. There was no accounting for this gap. It was by the same ugly hayfield as the rest of the landscape in that area. But it was this gap that I went shooting through, landing in the middle of the hayfield. Neither I nor the car were damaged. The driver of a car up the road coming in the opposite direction, stopped dead in his tracks, and watched my antics as I tried to maneuver my car back onto the road. He stared at me in disbelief, as I tried to appear nonchalant, as if saying-no big deal, this happens all the time. Even as my heart was pounding like a sledgehammer. When I arrived at the office, and told everyone what had happened, the Auditor-In -Charge turned white as a sheet, even as he berated me. Not out of concern for my safety. It would have been a blow to his career aspirations and chances of promotion, had someone died in a car accident on his watch.

So the way I look at it, the last 50 years or so of my life has been lived on borrowed time. I haven’t done anything extraordinary like, say, find a cure for cancer. But I raised a family and had a moderately successful career with the Government. And I never shot anyone or held up a bank. Now I’m the same age as the newly elected Pope Francis. (It’s purely conjecture, but I’m guessing that I wasn’t one of the men being considered for that position.) And I never cease to marvel at the randomness of events unfolding in the universe. Especially when it comes to choosing who gets to live and who dies.

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THE IMMIGRATION WARS

Since about the years 2004/2005 the topic of illegal immigration to this country has been a non-ending source of pandering and demagoguery. Ultra-right-wingers such as the teapot crackpots (tea party) and other assorted loons have been bemoaning the fact that there are supposedly about 11 million illegal aliens within our borders, and they just keep on coming. Some on the far-right have used figures as high as over 20 million illegals, with almost all of them being Latinos. In the right-wing delusional state that these tea partiers inhabit, the hope is that the Government will somehow round-up 11-20 million illegals and ship them back to Latin America. Mitt Romney, when he was campaigning for president, aided and abetted those delusions by making the weird statement that illegal immigrants should “self-deport” themselves back to where they came from. I’m going to go out on a limb, and taking a wild guess that this was the reason he only received 31% of the Hispanic vote, which in turn, cost him the election. Romney believed he had to pander to the far right-wing of the Republican party to gain their trust and, hence, their vote; by posing as one who was as crazy as they were when it came to the immigration issue. Now, Congress is supposedly trying to come up with new laws and solutions to the undocumented worker issue. Don’t hold your breath.

But it got me thinking as to what course our history would have charted if the Native American tribes that possessed the North American Continent had established tough immigration laws when confronting the sudden influx of white Europeans. Would they have created a tough and lengthy immigration process as we have now for those seeking to legally gain entry to our country? Would they have required white European settlers to speak and become fluent in the Iroquois language or those languages of other native tribes. (Who, by the way, were wrongly called Indians by Christopher Columbus and his exploration parties. Even after it dawned on them that they hadn’t arrived in India.) Would pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock have been required to have an extensive knowledge of the history and customs of each Native American tribe? Would these pilgrims first be required to obtain a green card or other work permits before they could even be considered for citizenship? Fortunately for the early European settlers, the existing Native American tribes were not militarily strong enough to insist on formal immigration procedures before these settlers could enter the country. So the Europeans started coming over in droves, and taking over, and occupying the lands that Native Americans had inhabited for centuries. Even if it meant slaughtering the natives by the thousands. Which they did without honor or conscience.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the illegal white settlers made some feeble attempts to right the injustices inflicted on Native Americans. They carved out some usually inhospitable territories and ordered native tribes to pack up and resettle in those lands. This meant the tribes had to give up their tribal grounds where their ancestors were buried and moving to unfamiliar lands. These movements of native tribes from their homelands to new territories are often referred  to in history as the trail of tears. Many lives were lost along the way. Today, these tribal “nations” are usually riddled with poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and high unemployment and welfare. (Who could have predicted that outcome?) Some tribes have secured permits to build gambling casinos on their lands which has, indeed, given these communities a fresh infusion of economic wealth. Sort of the way it’s done in Las Vegas and Reno. Those that haven’t built casinos are still mired in poverty.

So, to a large extent, all of us that are not Native Americans, are illegal immigrants. But that doesn’t stop the far-right from demonizing those amongst us that are “undocumented.” Which is, of course, overwhelmingly Hispanic.  The deep-seated, if unspoken, fear among the tea party crowd, and other assorted right-wing looney-tuners, is that the growing influx of both legal and illegal immigrants will change the very nature of our ethnic and cultural heritage. Instead of a country dominated by white Anglo-Saxons, we will become a nation where minority populations will come to predominate. And Hispanics will have the largest numbers and influence among these minorities. Which is very true and already happening, whether the opposition likes it or not. This sends the anti-immigration crowd into a frenzy. If they could, they would like to build, like a thousand mile wall about a hundred feet high, with electrified barb-wire on top, along our border with Mexico. And post about 100,000 border patrol agents there, to shoot, on sight, anyone crossing the border without the required documentation.

One reason we have a large extent of illegal immigration to this country, is because the legalization process is so lengthy. It often takes about ten years of grueling paperwork to come here legally. It also requires a knowledge of American history, culture and politics that most high school and many college students in this country fail to possess. My own view is that anyone seeking to come here should be allowed in as long as they can speak a reasonable amount of English and have no criminal record. If they want to come, let them in. We have vast swaths of land that are nearly uninhabited, where they can settle. Here in Nevada, the hundreds of miles between Las Vegas and Reno, is mostly devoid of population. The same is true for practically the entire state of Montana. The very commercial and social foundations of this country were built by immigrants. If people in other counties that can speak English and have no criminal background believe they can make a better life for themselves here, we should welcome them in.

I realize, however, that this is a much too sane and rational solution to the immigration wars currently being waged. So Congress pontificates, the President offers proposals, and all are loaded with enough land mines to blow-up any common-sense resolution of the immigration situation. Such is the nature of our political process in present day America. I guess anyone seeking entry, but not willing to wait 10 years, will have to continue to try to sneak in. And right-wing whackos can retreat to their delusional ivory towers, and wait for all the illegals to self-deport.

 

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RELIGIOUS RESIDUALS

A few items to discuss that I didn’t cover in my previous entry. As I’ve written before, there’s a vast ocean of difference between a belief and dialogue with God, and a belief in organized religion. One can believe in the invisible man and pray, talk, or have dialogues with him in the comfort of one’s own home, in the car, a shopping mall, or sitting on a park bench. (If you want to experience the most vocal praying, imploring, or beseeching of God’s favor, visit the craps or roulette tables in the Las Vegas casinos.) So while communication with God is purely a solitary endeavor, the decision to be involved with some religious faction is a whole different ball game. Organized religion is totally a man-made invention, and is usually used by its hierarchy to wield enormous political and social power. Keep in mind that both the old and new testaments were written by man, not God. As I explained last time, the stern gods of the Judao-Christian bibles essentially replaced the antics and shenanigans of the Greek mythology gods, with a new set of “thou shall nots.” The fables, myths, and superstitions of the ancient Greeks were superseded by a whole new system of rites and rituals, primarily for the benefit of the men establishing the new rules and regulations. And this type of authoritarianism was not just true in Judao-Christian societies. Other organized religions such as Islam or Hinduism are not exactly a barrel of laughs either.

The influence of the Christian Church throughout Europe; since the Emperor Constantine gave the okay to have Christianity become the official religion of the ancient Roman Empire; until the end of WWII, cannot be overstated. The Catholic Church followed by Protestant churches after the Reformation wielded enough power in virtually every European nation to make kings tremble. Church leaders had the final say in the very fabric of social and political day-to-day affairs within each country. Those that didn’t obey Church dictates were usually branded as heretics or worse, which usually meant banishment from society, imprisonment or death. Church elders often had the power to dethrone kings and queens; although that didn’t work too well for the Vatican when it tried depose of Henry VIII in England. It led, instead, to the British turning away from Catholicism and embracing Protestantism. As I’ve said, this type of religious power and domination did not wane until the end of WWII. After experiencing the tragic horrors, and massive death and destruction of that war, Europeans began asking where was God or Church leaders during all of this. This led to most Europeans becoming more secularized in most nations; a trend that is ongoing to this day.

In this country, organized religion, however, is still thriving. Even something as simple as the Government requiring health insurance companies to provide contraception for women in their health plans, brought howls of protest from Catholic leaders, as if church doors were being nailed shut by Government troops. In my last posting I tried to point out the absurdity of biblical stories being taken literally as points of fact. I didn’t mention, however, the extent to which both Judaism and Christianity were heavily influenced by pagan religions. Despite both religion’s denials, paganism has played a large role in their formation. For example, in the old testament, god calls upon Abraham to sacrifice a living being, as a display of Abraham’s total devotion to god. This is straight out of pagan religions which usually sacrificed animals (and sometimes humans) to appease the wrath of whatever gods they believed in. In Abraham’s case, instead of sacrificing a goat or lamb, as was the custom in those days, God asks him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham is horrified, but because god asks so nicely, he agrees to go ahead with the sacrifice. Of course, as we all know, at the last minute god stays Abraham’s arm as he was about to slit his son’s throat, and offers up a lamb instead for the sacrifice. But what did that poor, innocent, defenseless lamb do to deserve this. Isn’t god aware of his greatness, without having to cut open the throat of a defenseless animal.

An example of pagan influences in the new testament surrounds the birth of Jesus himself. Virtually all biblical scholars agree that Jesus was not born on December 25. Most figure his birth was most likely in the early Spring. But December 25 was selected because it coincided with pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The whole kit and kaboodle- Christmas trees, gift giving, celebration- all part of pagan rituals surrounding the winter solstice. Most people don’t realize that the wedding ring was also taken directly from pagan practices.

Speaking of the birth of Jesus, I think that the holy ghost needs a new PR man. He is part of the divine trinity in Christian theology- the father, the son, and the holy ghost. But as Rodney Dangerfield might have put it-the holy ghost don’t get no respect these days. Supposedly the third most powerful entity in the universe, and yet, he hardly gets a mention. I mean people are always going on about God or Jesus, and telling the world what wonders either one has done for their lives. But who ever cites the holy ghost? Yes, he did impregnate Mary so she could give birth to Jesus. And he did it while she was sleeping; unquestionably an impressive feat for a being that is rumored to weigh only 7 ounces. But that was 2000 years ago. How long can one rest on his laurels. It’s time for him to get get back in the game and do something wonderous in this day and age. Like maybe creating peace between the Arabs and Israelis. Now that would truly be a miracle.

Oh, and the reason their are 10 commandments instead of some other number. There are 2 possible explanations. Years ago, the Hollywood comedian Mel Brooks (of Blazing Saddles fame) made a movie called “The History of the World.” In one scene he plays Moses coming down from his meeting with god on the mountain, and with 3 stone tablets in his hands. He proclaims to the crowd assembled before him- “I have 15 commandments that god wants his people to obey.” Suddenly, one of the tablets slips from his hands, and shatters into pieces on the rocky ground. “Oy vey” he sighs. Then, gaining his composure, he address the crowd again stating-” I have 10 commandments god wants his people to obey.

The other explanation comes from the late comedian, George Carlin. He pointed out that 10 is like a magical number in our society. There are lists of 10 best or worst in virtually every category. The 10 best movies of all time; the 10 best or worst dressed; the 10 greatest home run hitters; the 10 best quarterbacks; etc., etc. Ten is the basis of the decimal system, and amounts are easily multiplied or divided by ten. Ten is, thus, a revered number by mankind. Therefore, the plan to have 10 commandments was basically…..a marketing decision.

 

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THE FUN GODS

When I was in college, I was an avid reader and devotee of Greek mythology. I loved reading Homer’s- “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” and other literature about the antics of the Greek gods. They were always getting into all kinds of trouble and mischief when they sought to meddle in human affairs. There was, of course, Zeus and Hera, king and queen of all the gods, up there on Mount Olympus. Then there was Aphrodite, the goddess of love and desire, whom I’m sure you’re all familiar with, and who needs no further explanation. Apollo was the god of learning and enlightenment, although a little on the vain side, I guess because of his good looks. Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. Ares was the god of war, always dripping with blood and causing mammoth destruction. His female counterpart, Athena, was less bloody and more of the intellectual force behind war making. And we can’t leave out Hades who was king of the underworld, where the spirit went after death. Not a fun place to be according to Greek mythology. Artemis was the virgin goddess of the hunt, sort of the direct opposite of Aphrodite. Among the major gods was also Poseidon, god of the seas. I guess we can blame major tsunamis on him. One other significant figure was Pan, god of the forests who was half satyr. He was always playing his flute, and being the playful sort, sought to lighten man’s burdens whatever they may have been. In addition, among mortals who became god-like were mighty Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, and Odysseus, another hero of that war, who encountered numerous adventures over several decades, on his journey home from that war.

I always felt what fun times it must have been to live in ancient Greece and have to contend with the exploits of these gods and goddesses on almost a daily basis. All this came to mind last night, when I watched parts of a new series on the History Channel called “The Bible.” Aside from some ham-fisted overacting, and really cheesy settings and costumes, this series tends to depict a very literal translation of the old and new testaments. And sure enough, the series shows how the playfulness and antics of the Greek gods are now replaced by the stern and wrathful actions of the Judeo-Christian god. It’s like one of the 10 commandments states that: “Thou shall not engage in any form of frivolity, whatsoever.” So there is the god of the old testament flooding the world thru 40 days and nights of rain, and killing every living thing except for Noah and his family and some animals he managed to schlep on board his ark. And there is god hurling balls of fire down on Sodom because of the supposedly wicked ways that occurred within the city’s confines. Or turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, because, heavens forbid, she dared to look back to see Sodom being turned a smoldering ash heap. Not quite the fun stuff encountered in Greek mythology.

So if the game afoot is a literal translation of the bible, I feel it leaves us with some unanswered questions. Lets start at the beginning with the whole Garden of Eden fiasco. First there was Adam and Eve, who had two sons, Cain and Abel. The world now has 4 people in it. Cain kills Abel (already mankind is off to a very bad start) and the world population is now down to three. Then some cockamamie fable is put forth that a talking snake seduces Eve into eating an apple from the tree of knowledge. God becomes wrathful again and expels Adam, Eve and Cain from the Garden of Eden. What nonsense. I have it on very good authority, that the reason for the expulsion was that Adam and Eve were underwater on their property mortgage. I mean, it’s not like Adam was a high roller on Wall Street. In fact, he had no visible means of support. He got behind on his mortgage  payments for Eden, and god foreclosed on this property the way banks foreclose on properties today. It makes much more sense than that whole talking snake/forbidden fruit gambit. But the real mystery lies in what happened after the expulsion. When we last viewed the situation, there were 3 people in the world, Adam, Eve, and Cain. But after exiting Eden suddenly we discover that there are all these multitudes of people beyond Eden’s gates. Where, the hell, did they come from? I have heard no theologian offer a plausible explanation for that one.

Let’s also examine that Noah’s Ark fable I mentioned before. God decides, once again, that mankind is comprised of nothing but despicable  lowlifes, and decides to kill them all off, except for Noah and his family. He tells Noah to build an ark, and ride out the next 40 days as the world becomes flooded. But Noah also has to bring aboard his ark one male and female member of every animal species on Earth, so life can carry on as before all this deluge unpleasantness. Laying aside the fact that you would need an ark about the size of Russia to house all these creatures, where would you store 6 weeks of food supplies. It’s not like they had refrigeration in those days. And how would you arrange it so that the lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards and other meat eaters, didn’t devour the sheep, lambs, goats, zebras, and other defenseless animals. And which family members were assigned the joyous tasks of shoveling out the shit from the animal quarters every morning. Nevertheless, there are millions of people, today, who believe in a literal translation of both the old and new testaments, and many are actively looking to find remnants of Noah’s ark, especially on the mountain where it supposedly landed.

One last thing. In both bibles, god is actively present in mankind’s affairs. In the old testament, he is continually setting forth instructions for Abraham to follow which subsequently leads to the formation of both the Hebrew and Arabic nations. He parts the Red Sea, so Jews can escape from the despotic slavery they were subjected to in Egypt. He gives Moses the 10 commandments so the Israelites can live in his ways. The new testament is, of course, all about Jesus and his teachings and ascendency into heaven. But once Jesus has risen, not a peep. Not a word, not even a fireball, in 2000 years. Where has god been all this time. He could try to communicate through some type of Skype arrangement, or at least send us a tweet or an e-mail. But there’s been nothing. Although I surmise that god is kind of an old-fashioned type of guy, and doesn’t cotton much to computers or I-Phones.

In any event, I still think that, if one is going to take religion seriously, the gods in the old Greek mythology were a hell of a lot more fun to believe in. And maybe next time I’ll explain to you why there are 10 commandments, instead of, say, 8 or 11 or 13.

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