The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Wednesday, November 27, 2002
Personal Reflections ...

Thanksgiving isn’t a big thing for me. First of all, I’m a vegetarian — well, not a pure “vegan” vegetarian. I do own some leather shoes and belts, but I’m far enough up the vegetarian ladder not to eat turkey. And I don’t have much family left, only an aging mother and an unmarried brother. So, I hardly know what it’s like to be at a big table surrounded by family. (Although, I did spend a few Thanksgivings in the past around a big family table, courtesy of friends or former significant others. It wasn’t quite as cozy and comfortable as those Normal Rockwell prints would lead you to believe).

However, about 5 years ago, I had a memorable Thanksgiving afternoon with my truncated family. My mother had started a medium size turkey in the oven that morning, and my brother and I went out to a bar for a couple of beers. We got back around 1 pm and checked the progress in the kitchen. Mom thought something was wrong. We looked, and indeed something was wrong. The oven wasn’t working. The turkey hadn’t cooked at all. My uncle was coming over in an hour, but it sure didn’t look like turkey was going to be on the menu. My brother and I stood there in the kitchen a bit dazed, wondering what to do. Mom soon retreated from the scene. She was then in her mid-70s, and wasn’t really into crisis management anymore. It was finally time for her kids to step up to the plate. After a few minutes, my mind had pushed back the mellow haze from the beers. We looked around the kitchen and considered our options. The last and best hope centered around a small microwave oven used mostly for heating things. Could we cook a mid-sized turkey in it and get a table ready before the sun sank low in the west?

We found an instruction book for the microwave, and looked up turkeys. Didn’t find a thing. The device obviously wasn’t designed for cooking turkeys. But the instructions did cover chicken. You could wrap up a chicken in saran wrap, and after an hour or so, it would supposedly be edible. We looked at the turkey, sitting there limp and pale in a big pan. It wouldn’t fit too well on the rotating table, but with some saran wrap, we might just make it. Did we have saran wrap? Yes!! So wrap we did, and then fit the bird onto the platform. Would it clear the walls once the thing started turning? Looked tight, but might just make it. OK, so how long to cook the thing, and at what setting? We still had the turkey wrapper, so we knew its weight. But the instruction book didn’t anticipate cooking anything that heavy, so there weren’t any guidelines. What to do? We used the engineering method and extrapolated. We did some rudimentary math, and came up with a power and time scenario (level 7 for 2 and 1/2 hours, I think it was). There wasn’t time to discuss it, we just hit the buttons and let her nuke.

What would we have later that afternoon once the cooking cycle was done, assuming that the cycle did in fact get done? Would it be edible? Would it cook all the way through? Would there be food poisoning? We called my uncle and told him to come over a bit later on, hoping that there would be something to eat other than cold cuts or peanut butter sandwiches. I sat there watching the birdie spin round and round inside the little box for a half hour or so, then decided to go out for a walk. The waiting is the hardest part. Upon my return, the thing was still spinning in the nuke chamber. Nothing had blown up or was smoking, surprisingly enough. In fact, around the 2 hour point, the kitchen started to smell something like roasting turkey. My brother and I started to believe that this was really going to happen after all. We got mom back into the kitchen to help warm up the side dishes while we set the table. My uncle got there and we explained the situation to him. He was an engineering school graduate too, and he grasped the situation that we were in and what we were trying to do.

As the sun was sinking low that afternoon, we had a moist, steaming turkey on the table, waiting for carving (gravy was a mix of canned stuff with cooking juices). I stuck to my lentil soup and yams, but the three carnivores around me attacked their prey as though nothing unusual had happened. Just another Thanksgiving bird. The family ritual had been fulfilled once more. The next day, I made sure that everyone was hale and hearty, to satisfy myself that our big idea didn’t give anyone food poisoning. It later struck me that we had a miniature version of the Apollo 13 incident. We had a major systems failure that threatened the mission, but some people with engineering backgrounds got an adrenaline rush and found a creative way to use an alternate system to save the day.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:29 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, November 25, 2002
Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

As indicated on my web site, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth had a plan for Judaism (and correspondingly had no intention of founding a new religion). Lately I’ve been wondering — what would the consensus be amidst modern Judaism regarding Jesus’ plan? Would such a consensus accept Jesus’ vision as a Jewish one, or would it deem Jesus beyond the pale, beyond what could reasonably be considered “Jewish”?

OK, I know that’s a very loaded and contentious question. Maybe I need to qualify it a bit. If, hypothetically speaking, Jesus of Nazareth were a man (and not the Divine Messiah) who was attempting to reform Judaism from within, and furthermore, if his plan for Judaism was 1.) to de-emphasize the particulars of Mosaic law, 2.) to make it easier to join by de-emphasizing blood lines, 3.) to de-emphasize the reverence for Palestine or any other particular piece of earthly soil, 4.) instead emphasize inner spiritual development through relationship with God, 5.) thus leading to higher standards of ethical behavior and “radical kindness”, would that be termed non-Jewish? Did the Jews eventually discount Jesus because he went too far, or was it more a question of historical accidents and circumstances? Note that I pick my words carefully here; when I say de-emphasize, I don’t mean ignore or disrespect. I certainly DO mean being ready to leave such things behind at some point, but only after study and analysis and appreciation of what they once meant (I’m not the “Eternal Student” for nothing).

I guess that there’s a reason behind my wondering about this. Obviously, the question reflects my own current views. I grew up in the Catholic / Christian world, but no longer feel at home there. My mind still draws me to Jesus, but in approaching him, I seem to be pulled away from Christianity. Am I becoming some form of semi-Jew or quasi-Jew or honorary Jew? Or am I just stuck in the no-man’s land that divides Judaism and Christianity, a place in history occupied briefly by Jesus’ brother James and the early non-Pauline Jewish-Christian communities?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:53 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Saturday, November 23, 2002
Religion ... Society ...

I’ve noticed that the Christmas Season has begun. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, but decorations are going up on the malls and Main Streets and people are already buying Christmas trees and putting up lights. It seems to get earlier every year. Here are some personal reflections on “The Holidays”:

1.) The retailers obviously want the season to start as early as possible, because it’s good for sales. When people wait until mid December to buy gifts, as they did back when I was a kid, there’s more chance that bad weather will interfere and thus some gifts just won’t get bought.

2.) Because the season starts so early, it ends pretty abruptly now. I see lots of Christmas trees on the curb on the morning of January 2nd. Back when I was young, it was local Christian tradition to  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:47 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, November 21, 2002
Current Affairs ... Society ...

Back in the 16th, 17th and 18th Century, there were a lot of intellectual “cross-trainers” around: educated people who applied their minds to a variety of subjects including philosophy, mathematics, science, commerce and government. Ben Franklin is a good example, but you also had Thomas Jefferson, Rene Descartes, Leonardo DaVinci, etc. Today, of course, you don’t find many people like that. There’s so much knowledge out there now, you need to specialize in order to be taken seriously.

That’s too bad. There are still a few thinkers left who cross boundaries, who try to weave science and humane thought together. But they aren’t too common anymore. Rarer still are those who know what they’re talking about. In the 20th Century there was C.P. Snow and Jacob Bronowski, and we still have Robert Pirsig. I am currently picking through Pirsig’s second book Lila. Despite the fact that Lila doesn’t possess the charm of Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance (it’s actually a rather strange book), there are occasional brilliant insights in that book. It’s like rooting around a garbage dump, looking for diamonds — and occasionally finding some. The garbage dump is Pirsig’s grandiose “Metaphysics of Quality” and his blather about “values”, and the diamonds are found when Pirsig sucessfully melds philosophical and scientific insight, such as his comparison of the various levels of functioning within a computer with the idea of a mind existing within a mechanistic human brain, and the idea of a society existing amidst a host of independent, non-cooperative human egos.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic about a writer named Henry Adams. This Adams was not one of the early Presidents of the US (although he was one of their descendents), nor is he a character from the 1960s show The Addams Family. Henry Adams was a cranky blue-blood who lived around the turn of the 20th Century, who concerned himself with the overall state of human affairs. In 1906 he authored “The Education of Henry Adams”, wherein he tried to build a philosophy based upon the lessons of history and science. He asked whether creation has a particular purpose, or is just an accident of circumstance. As with most people who ask such questions, he didn’t come up with a definitive answer. But at least he asked the question and was taken seriously. Today, if you ask that question, you aren’t taken very seriously. In an age of intellectual specialization, anyone who asks the big questions is automatically put into the “fuzzy mystic” box. OK, well, maybe Ken Wilber and Fritjof Capra and their like can be accused of speaking and writing a bit too much and forgetting to come back to earth sometimes. You wonder if they have in fact nailed down the basics of differential calculus and iambic pentameter.

Nevertheless, it’s too bad. Just not a good time for big thinking.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:53 am       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, November 19, 2002
Politics ...

Last week, I saw a TV show about the Jimmy Carter presidency (part of PBS’s “American Experience” series). It was rather painful to watch. I take a personal interest in Carter since I also have an engineering background, share some of his religious motivations, and since I also worked for the feds in Washington in the late 70s (nowhere near the White House nor any other center of power, however).

Back in ’76, I caught “Carter fever”, as did many other people around my age. Richard Nixon, that personification of Republican evil, had recently fallen, and his lackey, Gerald Ford, had been soundly defeated. Carter promised a new era of rationality and compassion, a deliverance from the horrors of partisan politics. It seemed as though the idealism of the 1960s was finally taking hold in the White House. Not the “peace, pot, microdot” aspect of it, the naive desire of spoiled college students to shape a society around sex, intoxicants and lack of police and military responsibility. Jimmy Carter seemed to represent the better part of the 60s, the Kennedy-esq desire for compassion and responsible leadership devoted to society’s long-term best interests.

I recently started reading “The Presidency of James Earl Carter” by Burton Kaufman. I’ve only gotten thru the first chapter so far, but one thing is quite clear from it. Although Jimmy Carter got a lot of our votes by posturing himself as an anti-politician, he was indeed a crafty politician up through 1976. So why did he fail so badly in exerting political leadership during the crises that confronted America thereafter? Ironically, it seems as though he convinced himself during his Presidency to believe in the image that he created to get elected. He started to believe in the lies that he told to get votes. He disregarded the clearly apparent threats of Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan and actually tried to be a non-political super-administrator dedicated to enforcing the nation’s best interests.

Or was he just stupid? Well, Jimmy Carter was rather dumb in thinking that he could govern as an enlightened dictator. America did indeed elect him in 1976, but it didn’t simultaneously vote to suspend the Constitution. The Constitution was and is based upon good old short-term, partisan politics. I’m now convinced that about the best a president can do is to maintain the status quo, pretty much what Bill Clinton did. Forget about advancing the country towards a kinder, gentler, more rational, more equitable, more long-term way of doing things.

If the country is ever going to go that route, it’s not going to do it via politics. Politics will follow, not lead. Even before Reagan was elected in 1980, the country was slipping into a “get mine now” attitude, providing only for the immediate family and garnering enough to have a nice retirement. Forget about building a better world for future generations and for the third world; there’s not even enough left over for the poor right in our own cities and mountain valleys. Therefore, that’s where our politics are at. Unfortunately, our lack of sharing with the rest of the world (other than some condescending humanitarian aid) is now causing resentments that threaten us. Thus our politics currently focus on “homeland security”, i.e. building up walls. The Roman Empire went through something like that. Deja vu all over again?

We shall see. Jimmy Carter, where are you now? Oh, that’s right. Working with your Center, trying to do whatever good you can do, wherever you can do it. Jimmy, you still have my vote.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:05 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, November 18, 2002
Music ... Politics ...

I was just reading an article on the Washington Post website about former V.P. Al Gore. It seems that Gore had a “defeat party” in early 2001 after the Supreme Court slammed him. John Bon Jovi and Tom Petty were there, and Mr. Petty sang “I Won’t Back Down”. Nice, but it was too late for that song. If I were Gore, I would have had Bon Jovi modify the lyrics to one of his signature tunes: “Shot thru the heart, and you’re to blame, baby you give democracy a bad name”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:50 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, November 17, 2002
Religion ... Spirituality ...

About ten years ago, I got interested in monasticism — you know, monks and monasteries. At the time I was still trying to be part of a mainstream Christian congregation, but I didn’t really feel at home in it. So I took a look at monasticism. The monastery seemed like a place I could relate to — lots of quiet and solitude. I thought it was a radically introverted kind of religion. Being a radically introverted kind of person, I felt drawn to it.

Up to that time, I didn’t know much at all about monks. But one day by chance I read an excerpt from Frank Lentricchia’s biography, “The Edge of Night”. Mr. Lentricchia is a middle-aged scholar at Duke University (the NY Times called him “the Dirty Harry of contemporary literary theory” — if you can imagine that). As far as religion goes, he is a dedicated agnostic and wants nothing to do with the Catholicism of his youth. However, he was drawn to visit a Trappist monastery in South Carolina after a colleague mentioned it. After that visit, he still didn’t want to go back to the Church. But he did go back to the monastery again, as it hit a nerve in him. His article likewise hit a nerve in me. So I got some books by Thomas Merton, which hit some more nerves in me. Both Merton and Lentricchia were cynical, worldly literary scholars who didn’t see much point in everyday religion. Unlike Lentricchia, Merton found the Trappists earlier in his life and took the bait. Merton spend the balance of his life at the Gethsemani Abbey south of Louisville. However, because of his restlessness and brilliance, he still had a world-class literary career. Merton died in 1968 during a visit to Thailand, far from his hermit’s cabin in Kentucky.

Inspired by all of this, I set out on a monastic journey. I tried to get close to it. But it turned out to be something that I just couldn’t get my arms around. I bought a bunch of books written about monks and by monks, about their history, about their current doings (or non-doings, in the case of prayerful hermits), and about their rule — the Rule of Saint Benedict. And I started visiting monasteries. Over the next 5 years, I made about 10 retreats at a variety of monasteries along the East Coast. I also started attending some of the prayer services at a local Benedictine monastery (attached to a Catholic high school). I was indeed looking for a home, as Merton had found. If that didn’t work out, I’d at least like to find a place to go, as Lentricchia had found in South Carolina.

After five years, it was pretty clear that I just wasn’t going to find such a place, neither a home nor a home away from home. I tried to reach out to the monks at the places I visited, but the conversations never caught on. For whatever reason, I just didn’t seem to fit into the roles that seem to interest the monks. One role would be a potential postulant, someone that wants to join up. Obviously, there aren’t many people who want to live celibate lives inside a monastery these days, so if the monasteries are going to avoid dying off, they need to take seriously everyone who might have such a calling. But I was trying to sniff out the vibes before I would lead anyone on. And the vibes just weren’t what I had hoped they would be.

One problem was St. Benedict’s Rule itself. Hey, I could see giving up sexuality and even property ownership in return for a communal life engaged in spiritual growth. But I couldn’t see tying myself to a Rule written in the Dark Ages that called for strict obedience to an abbot and allowed physical beatings as methods of discipline. The monks of today defend their rule quite vigorously, citing its staying power. And they do indeed interpret it so as to avoid its harshest provisions. But I never felt comfortable with their gloss-overs.

During my visits, I also avoided posturing myself as a devout Catholic (actually, Episcopalian — I was in my Episcopalian phase, and in fact two of the ten monasteries I visited were Episcopal — the others of course were Catholic). I tried to be honest — I’m just a sojourner, a guy looking for something deeper. I don’t know why, but it generally made the people that I talked to uncomfortable. I really didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, but I did. I got the same thing when I went to a quasi-monastery run by the Quakers (Pendle Hill outside of Philadelphia). The Quakers are by design quite a bit different that the Episcopalians and Catholics, but they still seem to demand some sign of institutional loyalty.

I guess that was my problem with these places — they were very institutional, at bottom. You knew you were in a Roman Catholic establishment, or an Episcopal establishment, or a Quaker establishment. I was looking for something a little more on the edge. Hey, not that I have anything against establishments. I’m sure not trying to overthrow any of them. But I just thought there was a little more room to push the envelope. And there wasn’t. Maybe I got there too late. Maybe back in the 60’s, people were pushing the envelope all over the place. By the 90’s, I guess that people weren’t.

If you read Robert Pirsig’s second book, Lila (Pirsig of course was famous for Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance), you know that he spends a lot of words explaining the difference between dynamic quality and static quality. He doesn’t condemn static quality, but pretty clearly he likes dynamic quality better — it’s where the action is. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much dynamic quality in the monasteries that I visited.

You might ask, well, what did I expect? Those places are inherently stodgy. Yes, that certainly seems to be true, but once upon a time it wasn’t. Monasticism started out as a protest against a Christian church that was becoming too stodgy and established. Merton certainly thought it could still be a place where social change was fomented (Merton got involved with the racial justice and anti-Vietnam war movements back in the 60s). There are still some monks today who write books and give talks about social and religious change.

But I just couldn’t find any traces of such sentiment. For now, I have some financial commitments that preclude any monastery visits (you do have to pay for your lodgings, and of course your expenses in getting there — it’s like any other vacation trip). But at some point, I hope to return to some of the places I visited, e.g., Weston Priory in Vermont and Genesee Abbey outside of Rochester, NY, and try out some new places. I won’t be looking for a home next time around. But a few days out in the woods, attending beautiful prayer services and taking long walks, gazing at the stars before attending the pre-dawn vigils, could still do me some good.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:48 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, November 14, 2002
Science ...

I recently spent two evenings attending an adult class given at the local high school. The subject was advertised as “the Universe, coming or going”. The description in the catalog implied that the course would focus on the 1973 PBS series “The Ascent of Man” by the late Jacob Bronowski. I saw that series when I was in engineering school, and it was heady stuff … it made you really want to believe in humankind and the power of the mind (but then again, I was young at the time). Well, I hadn’t heard anything about Bronowski or “Ascent” since then, so I signed up for the class, with high hopes.

As always, advertising can be deceiving. The class was taught by a retired physics professor on a mission. I wasn’t quite sure though just what his mission was. At first, it seemed as if he was trying to apologize for science to a largely liberal-arts audience. It seemed like he was pandering. Then he tried, not very successfully, to revolve everything around a Gauguin painting, the one with the 3 questions: where do we come from, who are we, where are we going. Turned out that he was putting those questions out as bait for the artsy set, trying to get them to swallow some math and physics using the Bill Nye the Science Guy entertainment / demonstration approach. Well, the demonstrations were mostly a flop, and the artsy people were pretty well glazed and dazed by 9pm.

At the second class, my guy had lost about a third of his audience. But some die-hards stuck it out; to sugar-coat it for them, he had someone read poems during the bell curve and entropy demonstrations. I was pretty well convinced that this fellow was a dweeb (and I don’t think he liked me too much either — during the first class I injected some know-it-all comments about fractiles and cosmic expansion during a dead spot, trying to keep some momentum going — hey, I was only trying to help, but I don’t think he appreciated it). But during the walk home, a classic Indian summer evening with wet falling leaves all over the place, I figured out what was going on.

It seems pretty clear that a whole lot of people out there, even the most educated people, really don’t have a good grasp of basic scientific principles like entropy, randomness, statistical distributions, exponential number functions, the microsphere of molecules and atomic particles, digital logic and the macrosphere of galaxies and the universe. And you can see the consequences of that in many ways, for example in the short-sightedness of politics and in the crazy way that most people drive. Most folk don’t know that the way they drive, i.e. fast and jerky, and the huge vehicles they drive, i.e. SUVs, use up a whole lot of oil, which is eventually going to run out. And most of our biggest political problems revolve around this — Al Qaeda and Iraq are both ultimately oil issues. If we weren’t such oil junkies, both wouldn’t be such problems. (Yea, I’m guilty too, I drive to work every day when there’s a bus, albiet a slow bus that runs thru some nasty neighborhoods; but I drive carefully and get 31 MPG, and keep the driving down on weekends, for what little it’s worth).

Well, I now see what the guy’s mission was. I hope that he keeps working on his script and starts getting thru to those physics-challenged english majors. He didn’t do so well the first time out, despite invoking the ghost of a master (Bronowski), but maybe he’ll get better with practice. And actually, I did learn one interesting thing from him: the role of flowers in evolution. Flowering plants came relatively late in the grand scheme of things, but without them, the bigger warm-blooded animals like elephants and horses and monkeys (and thus humans) would never have evolved. There were a lot of little mammals around once the cold-blooded dinosaurs started dying off, but they could only grow so big eating grasses and ferns. Flowers, and the fruits and grains that come from them, concentrate sugar and starches into snacks with a lot of punch, thus allowing bigger warm-blooded things to live (the dinosaurs, being cold-blooded, didn’t need high-carb diets). So, the flower was one of those little things that made a really big difference. How about that! Live long and prosper, Professor Goldstein.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:08 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Food / Drink ...

Before I get to the heavy stuff, let me review some beers. Magic Hat Number 9: a bit of apricot, and it works! Yuengling Premium: for a cheap-o beer, this is quite drinkable; none of the metallic hop flavors that most cheap beers have, even has some malty smoothness (still a bit watery, but what do you want for a 6 under $5 ??). Wolavers Pale Ale: not all that hoppy, but satisfying enough, a nice balance between hops and malt. Organic too. Sam Adams Cream Stout: well, not bad for an A-B affiliate. It is indeed a stout, with lots of body, a somewhat sweet background, hops nicely balanced (not the gagging sensation you get from that watery Irish bully, Guiness). Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale: Bill was becoming an autumn tradition, but for the past 3 years all you could get here in NJ was Post Road Pumpkin. But the other day I saw Bill’s back in the cooler, so I brought home a 6. Bill is better (if you like pumpkin pie in your beer – and I do!). Ramapo Valley Brew Pub (Suffern, NY) Harvest Wheat: a good all-around blonde wheat, nice body, clove backdrop, well balanced. Flying Fish ESB: not quite an English ESB, but maybe that’s a good thing. Drinkable enough, not overly malty but not watery either. As you can see, I generally don’t have anything bad to say about beer.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:59 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, November 11, 2002
Web Site/Blog ...

Hi, welcome to the ramblings of an eternal student. I’m about 50 years old, have an engineering degree, law degree and masters in economics, but I never really got out of school. I buy tons of books and read ’em, and think about ’em, and keep on learning things. I know that I went to some graduation ceremonies, but no one ever told me to stop doing what you do in college and grad school. I.e., learn. So, I’m stuck in the learning mode. It’s just what I do. Not much else going on in my life, nothing much to brag about. Never had a marriage or relationship that lasted, never brought up kids, never been in the headlines, never got rich, never been to China or most anywhere other than New Jersey. But at least I’ve still got my mind and my curiousity.

I’ve been reading up on cosmology and quantum theory lately, but I’ve also been getting back up to speed on Robert Pirsig (you remember, Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance), and have something on Jimmy Carter to digest, and ancient Greek Civilization too. And I’ll be reading and thinking more about race relations here in the US and urban poverty and spirituality and Myers Briggs (I’m a cross between INFJ and INTJ) and the historical Jesus of Nazareth. And I’ll be sharing it here, in case anyone is interested.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:51 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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