The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Monday, June 19, 2017
Food / Drink ...

One of my reasons for starting this blog (way, way back in 2002) was to share my impressions of the various craft beers that I had come across and have generally enjoyed. Over the years, however, I’ve found a bunch of other things to talk about, so I’ve only posted a handful of beer reviews. My last one was in September, 2014, with some thought on Duclaw’s “Sweet Baby Jesus”, an interesting porter style flavored with chocolate and peanut butter.

As to the flavor and overall “experience” from drinking Sweet Baby, I had reported my generally positive impressions about this concoction (it is indeed much more sweet than your usual brew, yet the hops keep it from becoming cloying). This is a nice drink to have once, but you might not want a second one right away. Anyway, it’s been almost two years now, but I finally have another interesting beer experience to report. This one is quite the opposite of Baby Jesus, though — instead of sweetness playing against the bitterness imposed by hops, i.e. the classic beer formula, I got rushed with with a flood of sour and astringent flavors. The beer in question is quite a bit different from your usual pour.

The beer in question is called “Cranberry Gose”, put out recently by Long Trail, an honorable craft brewer from Vermont. I came across a six-pack of Gose not long ago at a local high-end liquor store (shout out to Scott at Rutherford Wine Shoppe, who usually keeps a nice craft brew selection). To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with the “gose” style; I actually thought this would be just another Long Trail flavored ale. And let me admit, I misread the label; I thought that the name was  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:25 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Outer Space ... Science ... Society ...

Nor will any vicious beast go up on it;
These will not be found there.
Isa 35:9 (NASB)

There’s an interesting article in the May 2017 edition of Scientific American that might interest those of you who are “dog people”. The title of the article is “How to Build a Dog“. No, it’s not that scientists are now so far advanced with DNA manipulation and life incubation techniques that they can custom-design a dog, and then use CRISPR, stem cell activation and artificial incubation technology to grow that customized dog in a lab. No, we haven’t gotten to the point where you can custom order your next dog, mixing and matching features as if selecting from a Chinese restaurant menu, Say, for example a miniature German Shepard with long, fold-over ears, a fuzzy tail, and shaggy white fur with brown patches.

The SciAm article is really about foxes. A number of biologists and naturalists over the years have tried to take foxes from the wild and teach them how to live with human beings. These attempts have generally failed; foxes just have too much “wildness” inside of them. However, one long-term scientific experiment based in Siberia actually has been quite successful in creating a different kind of fox, one that is similar to your average run-of-the-mill pet dog. This experiment was begun in the 1950s at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk by a Russian geneticist named Dmitry K. Belyaev. The SciAm article was written by Lydmila Trut, who started working for Dr. Belyaev in 1958 as an intern, and took over the project following Belyaev’s death in 1985. Dr. Trut gained her doctorate in evolutionary genetics and now at age 83, continues to direct the domesticated fox program in Novosibirsk.

The program was quite successful. The SciAm article describes the looks and behavior of their current generations of foxes (and provides pictures), and the parallels with dogs are quite amazing. These foxes like being around people, they want to be petted and have their bellies rubbed; they wag their tails and follow  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 4, 2017
Politics ... Society ...

If you were to survey Americans today by asking “what is the most unfortunate effect of Donald Trump’s decision to enter politics, run for President, and win the White House?”, I’m sure that you would get a wide variety of answers. People with a liberal political bias would focus on the regressive steps are being taking in terms of protecting and promoting justice for minorities and women, along with the harsh treatment that immigrants (especially Latin and Moslem immigrants or wanna-be immigrants) are now experiencing and the reversal of progress in facing the impending crisis of global climate change.

Others, including many doctrinal conservatives, would regret Trump’s populist political commitments and his general incompetence in the politics of governing. Others still will object to his generally boorish character, his lack of diplomatic finesse, and the bad name that Trump is generally causing for our nation throughout the world. Obviously, his supporters would reject the premise that Trump’s Presidency has ANY unfortunate effects, or would provide a snide remark saying how the most unfortunate thing is that the media, the intellectuals and the “deep state” still cannot appreciate the need for the shake-up and clean-out that Trump is accomplishing.

There are a handful, including myself, who indeed find many unfortunate aspects to Donald Trump’s ascendancy to national leadership. However, our biggest concern would be the deep political divisions that Trump is causing between people who identify as Democrat / liberals and those who feel closer to the Republican / conservative point of view. It seems as though every Trump story develops into a “dueling narrative”.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:16 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, May 22, 2017
Religion ... Zen ...

I’ve been involved with a Zen sangha for seven years now, and so I’ve pretty much seen the “lay of the land” of Buddhism, at least the modern American version of Buddhism. Buddhism says a lot of good and interesting things about life, the universe and everything. But there are some good things that it does not say. One of those things is the value of humility. For whatever reason, I have not read or hear much about the virtue of humility from the various Zen and Buddhist teachers I’ve run across. Humility doesn’t seem to get mentioned in the Buddha’s various “lists”, e.g. the three refuges, the four noble truths, the five faculties / strengths, the eight-fold path, the ten essential precepts, etc.

Even among the thirty seven “Practices of Bodhisattvas”, only one, #31, might relate to humility — “the practice of all the bodhisattvas is to scrutinize oneself continually and to rid oneself of faults whenever they appear”. Even this isn’t exactly very humble — it assumes that we can rid ourselves of our faults with a bit of Buddhist-style self-reflection. Yes, if you do some Googling, you can find articles on the role of humility within Buddhism. You can even find a blog post with the same title that I’m using here, sans the question mark — where the writer claims that Zen is a humble tradition because one of its “koan” stories admits that Zen is not really needed (in the sense that “we seek what we already have”). Given that there are allegedly about 1,700 koans, one line about “selling water by the river” does not a trend make.

There are also the various Buddhist rituals that seem to reflect personal humility, such as the frequent bowing that we Zen-folk do when trying to imitate our Japanese predecessors. But there is also some Japanese hubris that has filtered its way into modern Zen centers (including my own), such as the perceived need by teachers to be condescending and sometimes even rude with their students. Some groups even maintain the old Japanese tradition of having a priest walk with a stick  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:16 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, May 13, 2017
Photo ...

Walkin’ on broken glass — front steps to an abandoned building, University Avenue, Newark NJ.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:47 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, May 6, 2017
History ... Religion ...

My middle-age years were a time when I had become interested in various topics and personalities having to do with science, history, society and religious spirituality. Once I picked up such an interest, I would usually dig in by buying and (eventually) reading a handful of books, and maybe one or two Great Course audio/video lectures from the Teaching Company. When the Internet became widely available in the last few years of the 20th Century, I supplemented my research with web-site searches. I even occasionally found someone else who is also interested in the subject and exchange notes on it.

But after a few years, I usually moved on from a particular subject and took up another topic. One of the topics that I explored for awhile in the late 1990’s regarded James the “brother of Jesus”. I had previously become interested in the “Historical Jesus” movement of the early 1990’s, and had soaked up a fair amount of information on what the scholars knew or were speculating about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the social, cultural and historical background of his home turf, i.e. ancient Palestine in the early Roman Empire. One of the major aims of historical Jesus research is to come up with a portrait of Jesus that is not inspired by any particular religious viewpoint, but instead “lets the chips fall where they may” by using standard historical and sociological research techniques.

(Unfortunately, too much of what was presented to the public as “historical” research on Jesus in the 1990s and 2000s was in fact driven by anti-religious motivation; there was an apparent desire to prove that Jesus had not only failed to perform miracles or rise from the dead, but that his teachings and motivations were not primarily religious or spiritual but were more philosophical or political. These views were hardly any more objective than the standard religious interpretations of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan was a notable  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:50 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Society ...

Not long ago, I listed to a Teaching Company audio course on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is an interesting psychotherapy technique, in that it puts emphasis on getting the patient to “pull up their own socks” instead of relying on the therapist to evolve a plan (after long analysis) for the troubled patient’s mental salvation. Of course, CBT is more subtle than that, but it certainly does try to encourage the patient to build up their own social and mental resources. One of the important resources that the CBT therapist attempts to foster is an inner sense of “meaning in life”. CBT includes exercises whereby the patient identifies things that they find very important, and that give meaning to their lives. These exercises might consider family relationships, social belonging, personal achievement, financial success, religious or spiritual beliefs and expressions, learning and discovery, fame and acknowledgement, feeling needed, etc. Those are the kinds of things that would probably occur most frequently to many modern suburban Americans if asked what do their lives mean.

I was reminded of the CBT “meaning in life” exercise recently while I was reading an article in the April, 2017 issue of The Atlantic on ancient Athens (“Making Athens Great Again” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein). In this article Ms. Goldstein discussed what some of the great thinkers of Athens said about “meaning in life”. She concludes that they clearly rejected spiritual transcendence. “The cosmos is indifferent, and only human terms apply: Perform exceptional deeds so as to earn the praise of others whose existence is as brief as your own”.

However, the ancients recognized that there was big problem with this way of finding meaning in life for most people. According to Ms. Goldstein, “most people are, by definition, perfectly ordinary, the ancient Greeks included.” Most people aren’t going to perform very many exceptional deeds in their lifetimes. Still, the Greeks “found a solution to  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:41 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Photo ... Religion ... Spirituality ...

Although I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for many years now, and even though I disagree with the core belief of the Roman Church that

Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became one of us to free us from sin and to bring us the fullness of God’s revelation . . . Jesus Christ is the Messiah, God’s anointed One, the Savior of the world . . .

there is still one Catholic ritual that I like to participate in. And that takes place once a year on Holy Thursday, the evening of the Thursday before Easter. To commemorate the Last Supper and the vigil of Jesus as he awaited the fatal kiss from Judas and the Temple Guards of the Sanhedrin, some of the local Catholic parishes keep their churches open late so that the faithful can sit in silence. My brother, a practicing Catholic, visits four or five local churches between 9 and 11 PM every Holy Thursday, and so I tag along.

Hey, I still believe in God (pretty much the same kind of God that Jesus believed in), but at this point in my life, sitting in silence each week with a Zen sangha works better for me. And even if I don’t worship Jesus as the Messiah and Savior, I still find him to be a hugely compelling figure who should be taken very seriously. Most of the time, I take Jesus seriously by reading and learning as much as I can about his life and times. Over the past 15 years I’ve digested a lot of books, articles and programs from the “historical Jesus” movement in academia; my “Lenten project” for this year was an audio course by The Teaching Company entitled “Jesus and His Jewish Influences” by Prof. Jodi Magness, an archaeologist with extensive field experience in Israel.

But once a year it’s nice to actually participate in a Jesus-focused ritual with others, and there’s nothing that the good Catholics that I sit in silence with on Holy Thursday do or say that I would disagree with. We would certainly disagree regarding the ultimate implications of what happened on that Passover evening of two millennia ago in Jerusalem, but we all accept  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:15 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, April 8, 2017
History ... Psychology ... Society ...

I recently heard an interesting report on NPR about some research being done on the psychological importance of ritual. A University of Toronto PhD student named Nicholas Hobson teamed up with some professors to examine what the practice of ritual does to the mind, especially in terms of how we relate to others. One question that Hobson and company addressed was the difference in how we relate to those who share our rituals versus those who don’t.

But first, Hobson set out how important ritual is to the human race:

. . . rituals are ubiquitous around the world. Whenever you see a behavior that occurs in different places, different times, among people who have had no contact with one another, it tells you there’s something in that behavior that’s likely woven into the hardware of the mind.

So, ritual may be more than an idea that we pick up from our ancestors; it might be part of the human genetic endowment! It certainly is interesting to see how similar rituals are for people from all over the world.

You can often find world-wide rituals focused on a similar theme. A big focal point for many public rituals is the winter solstice, i.e. the point in the year when the days are darkest, but will soon stop getting darker and getting more light (this is December in the northern hemisphere, June in the southern hemisphere). Back in November, the Teaching Company put out a catalog that had some nice info about winter solstice rituals in the northern hemisphere. The Teaching Company will mail you scads of catalogs  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:54 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, March 20, 2017
Photo ...

We’ve had a fairly warm winter here in the northeast, and the relatively mild weather continued thru most of February. The last two weeks of February were exceptionally warm, getting over 60 degrees for 11 of 21 days thru March 9. With a lack of snow cover, the warmth seeped down thru the soil to where flower bulbs rest, and the spring flowers became convinced that it was wake-up time. The crocuses, daffodils, snowdrops and scilla got going and were beginning to sing their joyful songs of color and rebirth.

However, on March 10 the temps crashed and stayed mostly in the 20s and 30s thru the 17th. Early spring flowers can take a cold night or two, but not a 2-week return to February. So here’s what it looks like to be too far ahead of your time. This last revenge of winter will soon be gone, but unfortunately it robbed us of some of the wonderful early flowers that make surviving the horrible winters all seem worthwhile.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:21 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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