Uncategorized  Comments Off on Television
May 282016


My family did not own a television until I was 9 years old because there was no television available in South Australia until that time. Before that I had seen it once in England at my grandparents’ house in England, and watched for about 2 minutes. In Australia I got hooked on children’s shows, stuff from the U.S., and, especially, Dr Who. When the family moved to England a television was essential and turned on all the time that we were at home. I had to be selective because I had a lot of schoolwork and other things to do; but I had my favorite shows. Then when I went off to university I had no interest in television. My college at Oxford had a television in a special room and that was it. We all crammed in for Monty Python and Match of the Day (Saturday evening football), and that was it.

After university I did not have a television, and didn’t get one when I moved to the U.S. Not interested. I managed to live in the U.S. from 1975 to 1999 without a television. I would have continued were it not for my son. He came home from school one day when he was 8 years old and pleaded for us to buy a television. Without one he felt isolated from his classmates whose conversations were dominated by the latest shows. Well, I’m a good dad. I caved. I was not a helicopter parent either. He could watch whatever he wanted as long as it did not interfere with other things. I didn’t have to control his television habits anyway. I’m not a dictatorial parent. I discuss issues with my son rather than making blanket demands. He was always smart and selective in what he watched. I turned him on to Dr Who and that was the one show we watched together.

When my son left for university and I moved to Buenos Aires television went out the window. I had a television with over 100 cable channels but rarely turned on the set. I got involved in the Rugby World Cup at one point because Argentina has a great rugby team, and I occasionally watched the news or cooking shows. Both were informative in different ways. Living in China and then Italy, I have had televisions in my apartments, but I never watch anything. Never.

It’s not just that vast tracts of television shows are mind-numbingly stupid, that’s bad enough. One of the great current hits, The Big Bang Theory, supposedly gives us a view of super-smart people, yet panders to ridiculous stereotypes, and, more problematically, is riddled with factual errors which, I imagine, few people catch or care about. What is more problematic to me is that shows, whether they are supposed to be serious or comedic, give a hopelessly inaccurate picture of life as it is actually lived. With comedy this situation is excusable to a degree, but why does drama have to be fake too? In that case I can suspend belief, also to a degree.

Where I am really troubled is when it comes to shows that purport to be about real life. Recently I posted this on Facebook about Anthony Bourdain:

This guy is a poster child for all that is wrong with media images, celebrity, and hype in general. I used to be a fan until I saw what he did with a tour of Argentina. Then I thought more deeply about his shows and their ilk. He missed out on the home cooking which is fundamental to Argentine culture, insisted that they were cooking the beef all wrong in Patagonia, and produced a segment on empanadas in Buenos Aires that was a travesty (among a host of other gaffes). Yet he is lauded as a great savant of world cuisine. Let’s face it. He travels with a large crew, has his local arrangements done for him, has researchers do advanced study of the places he visits, knows nothing about anthropology, and yet comes across, via skillfully edited shows, as a mighty traveler. Nonsense. He’s a self-aggrandizing charlatan and hypocrite. His “documentaries,” and numerous shows like them, are no more “real life” than sitcoms and the like — monumentally scripted and set up to appear real to the unsuspecting. All television, including the “news” is fiction.

That’s the heart of the matter. I dislike Bourdain in particular only because I’ve seen some of his shows. But now others in the same vein I treat with equal disdain. They don’t have anything to do with life as it is lived. With drama you can suspend disbelief, but travel shows etc. give the illusion of reality – which is simply not the case. In fact, the idea of “reality TV” is just plain laughable. What is remotely real about it?

The sad part is that so many people measure their lives by the images they see on television, and find their own lives wanting. I do like the movie Pleasantville for this very reason. The television world is fake. Get used to it. Even what purports to be real is fake. Watch at your peril.


Simple or Easy

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Simple or Easy
May 222016



Let’s start with the basic proposition that “simple” and “easy” are NOT synonyms. Certainly there are many things that are both simple and easy. Boiling a kettle of water is simple and easy. Some things are both not simple and not easy, some things are not simple but easy, and a few things are simple but not easy at all. The latter idea is what I want to dwell on, but let’s cover the others first. There is a welter of things that are neither simple nor easy, although to a degree this depends on the person. Solving some of the great unsolved puzzles in mathematics is neither simple nor easy. If solutions were either simple or easy (doesn’t have to be both), they would have been solved a long time ago. Likewise, there are some things that are not simple, but straightforward enough. If you can read a map or follow a diagram, there are plenty of tasks that are complicated because there are multiple steps, but following the instructions is not hard. Once I had a friend who was given a completely disassembled motorbike which he eventually put back together again. It took him a very long time because there were hundreds of steps (that is, not simple), but it was not hard work. So now we get to those things that are simple but not easy.

I have to begin with a small caveat. Some things are simple (or easy) for some people, but not for others. Some things become simple or easy for some people after long efforts to develop skills. Once I had an electrical problem in my car engine that necessitated changing the voltage regulator. I took it to my local mechanic who told me that he was too busy for such a mundane task (for him), which at the time I had no idea how to do. He told me where to buy a new one, gave me instructions, and before the day was out I had replaced the defective part. After getting the right instructions it was simple and easy, but before that it was not.

Really what I am exploring here is that some things are simple to state, and in that sense are simple, but are far from easy to carry out. A lot of life lessons can be stated in slogans, bumper stickers, or internet memes, but a lot of people look at the statements, nod and say “yup,” and then ignore the advice because it’s not easy to practice. What about “DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY”? I think that’s a great slogan, and now I follow it all the time. I don’t worry and I am happy. The two are intrinsically linked. The hard part is learning not to worry.

For me the penny finally dropped when I reflected on a lifetime of experience with worry. There were things I worried about that never happened; things that turned out to be not as bad as I thought; things I could change by doing something about them; and things that were just as I expected but I got through them. The worrying part was wasted energy. It comes down to a simple formula: if something concerns you, do something about it instead of worrying. If you can’t do anything about it, worrying won’t help. You have to train your mind not to worry and that is NOT EASY. You have to have the will to change, and some people just can’t do it. Not my problem – I don’t worry any more. You can do as you please.

A lot of people have medical problems because of smoking or drinking. The solution is very simple – stop smoking or drinking. That’s not easy. Nicotine and alcohol are highly addictive, so it usually takes more than simple will power to overcome them. Some people simply can’t stop even though they are dying. As an EMT I’ve attended to patients who were on oxygen for chronic lung problems – caused by smoking – who were not able to quit, and even though smoking around oxygen is very dangerous.

The issue boils down to an unavoidable equation: it is not so much a matter of WHAT you need to do it’s HOW you are going to go about it. Generally, all the bumper sticker advice is nothing more than a first step – recognizing the problem. I use a mnemonic acronym to complete the process: GPA. It usually stands for Grade Point Average in U.S. schools, but I have modified it to mean Goal, Plan, Action.

There are people who are all action and no plan. Good for them. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn’t. Going from goal to action is definitely not good for me. You’ll get something done, but not necessarily what you want or when you want it. All goal and no action is not good for me either. I’m not a dreamer. If I have a good idea, I try to carry it out if it is feasible. I’m the first to admit that plans go pear shaped when you least expect them to. I would still be living in China if my plan had worked out. The government threw me a curve. So I was forced to change plans. Now I am in the process of making new plans. What’s my goal?

Devising a goal is not as easy as you think. My goal(s) could be to stay alive, to visit interesting places, and so forth. I don’t think that’s good enough. My goal is to live a happy life, which is a simple idea to express, but not easy to work out. It took a lot of trial-and-error effort to figure out what makes me happy. The elaboration of the goal can be a long process. Only then can I go to plan, then action.

As in a previous post, I’m not giving advice. I’m saying what works for me, based on experience. GPA works for me. If it works for you too, that’s great. If not, come up with something else.



 Religion  Comments Off on Pentecost
May 152016


Today is Pentecost in the Western Christian tradition. Go here if you want more of my general thoughts on the background of the occasion: In a nutshell, the first Christian Pentecost as described in Acts of the Apostles (chapter 2) occurred when people were gathered together in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, which comes 50 days (7 weeks) after Passover. Something startling happened – there was a sound like a rushing wind, tongues of fire appeared over the apostles’ heads, and people began speaking in foreign languages that they did not understand. Peter had to assure the crowd that they were not drunk, as some bystanders suspected, but were filled with the Holy Spirit. A momentous event.

All right, I could analyze the whole scene and its description in depth, but I’m not going to. The link above does a little of that. Instead I want to just note that this event is generally taken as the beginning of the Christian church. The author of Acts is saying that until this point all the people who followed Jesus were Jews and followed Jewish practices. That was why they were celebrating the Feast of Weeks, a Jewish festival. From that point on they started to separate from Judaism. But the clincher was the arrival of Paul on the scene. He had been a devout Jew, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a persecutor of Christians as Jewish heretics. But when he was converted he became not only a zealous Christian, but also an unrelenting evangelizer who spread THE WORD to Jews AND Gentiles in the Middle East and then Europe, ending with his ministry, imprisonment, and death in Rome.

It’s rather a pity that we only have the general account in Acts laying out the foundations of the early church, but we do have Paul’s epistles to fill in a few gaps. In that regard we have to contend with the fact that Acts and Paul are not completely in agreement on key details. But they are a start. One of Paul’s important acts was to establish new churches, and provide them with some key organizational principles. I firmly believe that without Paul there would be no church. There might be no Christianity at all. Some of his ideas are a bit whacky but I’m prepared to cut him a lot of slack. He continued work as a tentmaker to pay his way, he suffered humiliation and abuse, he was accused of a number of crimes, and was ultimately imprisoned and died. He was no lightweight.

Here’s my question: Was creating the church a good thing or not? As a pastor I’ve received a fair amount of flak for asking that question over the years. I’m not in ministry these days for all kinds of reasons, and dissatisfaction with the organized church is on the list. I think in that regard I am directly following Jesus because he too was dissatisfied with organized religion as he saw it. If you get nothing else out of the gospels surely you must see that Jesus was not complaining about the principles of Judaism in general, he was concerned about what it had turned into over the years in the hands of priests, scholars, lawyers, and teachers.

Sabbath law is a great example. The original commandment appears to be simple – keep the day holy; have one day per week when you lay down your tools and pick up Scripture or pray or whatever. Sounds good to me. But then legal minds get to work and you end up with rule after rule about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath, and the whole enterprise is awash in law. Then Jesus comes along and says, “Hold it! What’s the Sabbath REALLY about?” and all the people with vested interests – scholars, priests, etc – are horrified. I’m not saying that it was all about money and professionalism. Many people were undoubtedly genuinely devout. But Jesus was saying that organized religion was getting it all wrong, and he was saying this, not to glorify himself, but to help people to feel better. So, for example, it’s not a matter of doing things mechanically because the law tells you to, but because you want to because you have a pure heart. That’s what gets you to heaven. Just do the right thing and everything will be all right. I like it.

In this sense Jesus was not trying to overturn Judaism, he was trying to reform it – get back to basics. I’m totally on board with that. Then Paul comes along and gets rid of just about everything and starts a whole new church, which becomes populated by Gentiles who have no background in Judaism. So the whole enterprise changes radically – but it is still an organized religion. Rules get put into place, traditions evolve, habits develop . . . and hey presto, you have another organization with priests, scholars, lawyers, and all the rest of it, in place of what you had before.

Well, of course, various reforming movements keep rocking the boat. Martin Luther and John Calvin did a pretty good job, and many others have done so to the present day. The problem is that every time someone comes along and says, “let’s get back to basics,” they end up founding a new church !!! Surely that’s not the solution; the idea of a church itself is the foundational problem.

This is where it gets sticky. I certainly don’t believe that Jesus wanted to get rid of organized religion. He went to the temple, observed feasts, and generally knew and cared about scripture and the law. He was not tearing down the whole edifice; he was just trying to clean house. The creation of a new church, celebrated on this day, was a radical departure, even for Jesus. It was Peter, Paul, and the apostles who did it, not Jesus. Do we need a church or not?

I’d have to say, yes and no. We are social animals and we can often work well in groups. Discussing scripture, prayer, etc in groups can be beneficial. Eating together is a good thing. It’s just that everything goes haywire when you start codifying behavior and establishing rules and norms. Then bureaucracy takes over everything and usurps the reasons for having an organization in the first place. Social scientists, especially Max Weber, have discussed this problem at great length. Weber calls bureaucracy a light cloak that you put on for convenience, which then turns into an “iron cage.” A church “home” can be wonderful if you get something out of it – fellowship, support, engagement . . . whatever. But it so often becomes a burden when you spend most of your time on things other than spiritual matters, especially if the rules are inflexible and exhausting.

The Presbyterian church calls itself “a reformed church, always reforming.” Nice message, but it’s a sham. The Book of Order which rigidly governs the church is hundreds of pages thick, and if you want to be ordained as a minister you have to know it inside out because 25% of the ordination examination is on the rules of the church. I aced that part because I have a good memory. I got stuck on Biblical interpretation because I had the audacity to think for myself instead of repeating what the “authorities” taught.

So, I’d say that if the church suits you, stay with it; if it doesn’t, don’t give up on Jesus or religion. Give up on the church. Organized religion is always going to entail a compromise between what matters and what doesn’t. Organized anything – sport, business, education – involves the same compromise.


 Philosophy  Comments Off on Fame
May 082016


In Twelfth Night Shakespeare says “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” The context is complex, and for present purposes is not necessary to explore. The basic theme is important, however. Shakespeare’s general meaning still holds true. Some people achieve their positions in society purely on the basis of their birth – heredity monarchy is an obvious (and to me, contemptible) example. Some people do great things and, thus, “achieve greatness.” Shakespeare himself was in this camp – and  because of that fact there will always be a handful of people attempting to show that someone else wrote his plays because “obviously” a poor kid of his means could not have done it, whereas someone else “born to greatness” must have done it and hidden the fact for some reason. I find such arguments despicable in the extreme. Lastly, there are the people who become “great” by sheer accident.

Let’s replace the word “great” with “famous.” The results in the quote are more or less the same. You’ll detect already that I have a somewhat cynical viewpoint on greatness or fame. People who are born to fame don’t deserve any of the credit. People who are accidentally famous don’t either.  It’s the people in the middle group that I am most interested in. How does one achieve greatness?  Good question.

In my blog I talk about famous people a great deal. They are great because they have done something great – for the most part. Sometimes I have to take the time to spell it out because not everyone who has done great things is remembered by the general public. This state of affairs does not keep me awake at night, though. The truly great will always have their admirers even if their public acclaim is fleeting. In all of this there is a little group that troubles me, and its ranks are swelling, that is, people who have achieved fame simply because they want to be famous, and not because they have done anything great to warrant their fame.

There are people who want to be famous purely for the sake of fame. It’s quite likely that Sigmund Freud fits that description. By all accounts he kicked himself because he touted the use of cocaine medically, but missed the boat for not advocating its use as an optic anesthetic, leaving the credit to others. No matter, he got on the bandwagon with dreams, psychoanalysis and whatnot, thus becoming a household name eventually. In his case there was a tangled skein of wanting to be famous coupled with genuine curiosity. The fact that he got very angry when criticized is strong evidence that his desire to be famous was pre-eminent; he did not want to be shown to be wrong which in turn would have diminished his public standing.

At this point I’ll return to the acronym, WASP LEG, for the seven deadly sins (see ). P for Pride is smack in the middle, as it should be. This is not the pride that comes from genuine accomplishment; this is overweening pride, or hubris. You can feel a sense of pride for running a marathon for the first time, or baking a delicious cake without fear of eternal damnation. What gets you in trouble is preening yourself for no good reason. The current poster child for this kind of pride is Donald Trump. He’s a master of self promotion and nothing else. Unfortunately he’s not alone. How many people are there in the world today who are famous for no reason other than that they are tirelessly self promoting? It’s a disease of the media age.

The mistake lies, I believe, in thinking that fame will make you happy. Obviously I can’t speak for others; I can’t get inside their heads. I can speak for myself. I am not famous and I don’t want to be. I know that for me fame is not the path to happiness, and I’d rather be happy than famous. I’ve got a sneaking feeling that fame, should it come by accident, would actually be an impediment to my happiness. A great part of my happiness lies in being left alone. Ahhh . . . . there’s my next post already !!!


To be continued . . .