The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

There was some public debate recently as to whether America could continue its military presence in Afghanistan. President Trump decided to consult with his generals and then decided to keep us there and even add a few thousand troops. The idea is to shift away towards nation-building and re-focus on defeating terrorist threats to the West.

Various people are rather unhappy about US troops still being there after first being sent in late 2001 (following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack); they call it the “never ending war“. It made a fair amount of sense for US forces to root Al Qaeda out of its secure hiding spots in the Afghan mountains, right after we lost almost 3,000 lives from an Al Qaeda plot. However, a second phase of the Afghanistan mission eventually developed, focusing upon the pro-radical Islamic Taliban political / military movement in Afghanistan. This second phase focused both on degrading the Taliban’s military strength, and in denying its political strength by building an alternative nation-state more in keeping with western democratic traditions.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Taliban, which had gained control of the Afghan national government, was and remains a home-grown movement focusing mostly on Afghanistan, versus international Islamic conquest as with radical group like Al Qaeda. The US under President Bush (the second) and then President Obama tried with some success to keep the Taliban from ruling Afghanistan. Doing so would help keep Al Qaeda or a similar radical Islamist movement (such as ISIS)  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:16 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, September 2, 2017
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

Many years ago, in a personal search for contemplative sanctity following a romantic break-up, I took up the study of Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk and author whose spiritual works became popular in the late 1940s, and remained a big part of the Roman Catholic book scene through the 50’s and 60’s. Merton’s life, and the many changes that both he and his thoughts and writings went through over the course of his life (which was ironically cut short at the age of 53 due to an accidental electrocution while attending a conference in Thailand), is a story in itself.

Merton began his adulthood as a well-educated “man of the world”, but then attempted to retreat from that world by immersing himself in the realm of Catholic monastic sanctity (he selected the Trappist tradition just because it seemed the most removed from erudite modernity). But ultimately he found his way back into the cosmopolitan intellectual scene, while remaining a full-fledged Trappist and Catholic priest (and also attempting to take on the life of a hermit!). When you become a Merton enthusiast (as I did) and really drill down into the details of his life, you can see that Merton needed to break a fair number of rules and guidelines in his tradition, and even his Church, in order to pull all of this off. When he died, he left the Trappists, the Church, and the world in general with a lot; but in order to do it, he also made a lot of compromises to his many commitments.

In the last decade of his life, Merton became increasingly interested in the Buddhist tradition, especially Zen Buddhism. His main contact and correspondent from the Zen world was the renowned Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki (although Merton had also communicated with Thich Nhat Hanh). Merton himself was a very capable scholar, and within a few years he felt himself qualified to write articles and books on Zen. His most famous work is “Zen and the Birds of Appetite” from 1968, although there is also a 1967 Merton book called “Mystics and Zen Masters” (I have read both books). In a nutshell, Merton was  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Current Affairs ... History ...

I’ve been pondering the terrible incident that took place earlier this month in Charlottesville, VA, when radical white nationalist groups (including neo-Nazis and the KKK) gathered to protest the planned removal of the monument statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. There are plenty of terrible things to say about the radical right (or “alt-right” in modern terms) and the violence that it fomented, violence which led to the death by automotive terrorism of a young woman who was part of the crowds that came to Charlottesville to counter-protest the radical right. And since there have been plenty of writers and commentators who have already expressed those things in ways that are much more cogent and eloquent than I can, I will pretty much leave untouched the tragic events that transpired in the home of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and in more recent times, writer William Faulkner and pop-singer Dave Matthews.

What I would like to ponder a bit further is the issue of removing statues, monuments and other symbols relating to the Civil War and the Confederate movement of the 1860s. In quite a few towns in the South and also further north, local community activism has led to the removal of Confederate flags along with a wide variety of statues and monuments relating to the Confederacy. The City Council of Charlottesville had recently approved the removal of Robert E. Lee and Traveler (his horse) from the downtown pedestal where they stood since 1924, although the actual removal has been delayed by a lawsuit. There doesn’t seem to be any set plan as to where the Charlottesville statue will wind up, but other cities have moved similar statues to museums.

Although I completely agree that General Lee and other tributes to the Confederacy need to be removed from pedestalled places of honor on public grounds, I do hope that these artifacts will be preserved and made available to the public, although in a context where the great sufferings that were at the heart of the conflict (i.e., the institution of slavery) can be balanced with the “southern pride” aspects of the rebellion. The terrible nature of slavery must remain at the forefront  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:17 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, August 18, 2017
Current Affairs ... Society ... Technology ...

I usually avoid offering “real time” commentary on significant national events, as my inner nature is more tortoise-like than hare-like. I try to wait a while and let things cool off, if possible, before making judgments. Given that I graduated from engineering school way back in 1975 (BS Industrial Engineering summa cum laude), and then at age 47 took a half year break from my working career for a rigorous software training program (Chubb Institute’s long-gone “Top Gun” program), I was immediately drawn to the story of James Damore, the former Google software engineer who wrote and distributed a letter questioning Google’s diversity policies.

As you probably know, Mr. Damore was subsequently cashiered from the “Googleplex”. I.e., he was fired for criticizing Google’s vigorous efforts to recruit and maintain female technical and engineering personnel (mostly software designers and coders). These efforts include hiring preferences favoring women over men, on-the-job support programs for women only, and mandatory training for male technical staff warning against both explicit and implicit (i.e. sub-conscious) negative actions and attitudes regarding female techies. What made it tricky for Google was that Damore cited a variety of scientific studies to support his argument that the predominance of male technical staff is “natural” and nothing much can or should be done about it.

Over the past week or so, there have been a whole lot of opinion pieces about Google’s firing Mr. Damore. People with liberal / Democratic party biases generally support Google, while those with conservative / GOP sympathies think that Google was wrong. Also, more men oppose Google’s decision and more women seem to support it. But of course, you can find plenty of cross-over individuals. However, on average . . . ah yes, “on average”. This is at the core of what got Damore in trouble.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:48 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, August 12, 2017
Brain / Mind ... Health / Nutrition ... Personal Reflections ...

Every now and then I like to post some thoughts on how I’m adapting to old age (or sometimes not adapting too well). Perhaps something I say might be of help to someone else, just as I sometimes pick up a good tip or two from another blog or column on the web. (Unfortunately, there is so much junk to sift thru on the web these days before you find something valuable). So today I’m going to talk about sleep, or lack thereof.

Ah yes, sleep, a seemingly simple topic that is really very complex. Or at least when you start getting old like me. When I was young, sleep wasn’t much of an issue. It was once pretty easy to fall asleep whenever I chose to, and stay asleep as long as I needed to (usually 7 hours or so). When I was in college, I had a summer job on a railroad, which required me to occasionally work a night shift (or “3rd trick” as they called it). I had no trouble adjusting my sleep pattern as to fall asleep in the morning after getting home and getting up around what would be my usual supper time, feeling fully refreshed and ready for another night shift (or an adjustment back to normal daytime living).

Today I have a regular 7:30 to 4:30 job, but over the past 6 or 7 years, getting enough sleep every night has become harder and harder. I myself am a morning person, so I generally like to get up early (and thus I should get to bed early). As I got into my later 50s and now into the mid-60s, it has become harder and harder for me to sleep straight thru to the alarm clock — I started getting up too early. My problem is not on the evening side; I usually fall asleep pretty easily when I hit the pillow around 11 pm (but it should be 1030). The problems start sometime after 3 (and sometimes as early as 2:30 am), when I get up and then have trouble getting back to sleep. Basically, my problem is called  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:13 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Photo ...

Just another Friday night at just another Italian restaurant in North Jersey. “A bottle of red, a bottle of white . . . ”

(Actually this is a very nice place, so let me give it a plug — Bazzarelli’s Restaurant in Moonachie, NJ)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:02 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, July 31, 2017
Photo ...

I haven’t gone hiking much lately — that’s become another casualty of old age for me. But I did get around to a short stroll not long ago up in one of the local “mini-forest” preserves nearby (Eagle Rock Park in Essex County, NJ). It certainly was nice to be surrounded by woods and sunshine once again.

Unfortunately, natural spots in urban areas are too often littered with human debris. So, the first shot shows a typical Eastern woodland scene on a typical summer morning. And despite the “typicality” of the scene, I think it’s quite easy to see the sacredness of nature in it, the preciousness of the living layer that envelops our planet. The next shot shows a soda can that someone felt they could discard at a spot like this, as though it was just another human garbage dumpster. How can people be so blind? This is hallowed ground!!

Sure, the world has much bigger problems today than litter in a park. E.g., nuclear missiles in North Korea, Donald Trump, access to health care, wage stagnation, climate change . . . where do you begin? Well, I think you begin with every individual’s mind and soul. And throwing garbage in a forest is a sign of a much deeper flaw in human character, a flaw that ultimately manifests itself as an increasingly troubled world. So start small and don’t trash the forest!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:37 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, July 29, 2017
Brain / Mind ... Health / Nutrition ... Personal Reflections ...

Unlike many people who live in my vicinity, I’ve never been through professional psychotherapy. This is not to say that I wouldn’t possibly benefit from it (and some people say that I probably need it!). But I’ve managed to get by and keep on progressing through most of my life without needing to sit down and hash things out over and over again with a shrink. I have my moods and my fears and anxieties, and I’m sure that I’ve missed some opportunities in life because of an unnecessarily negative attitude on my part. But overall, I’m just not all that unhappy (not yet, anyway).

Furthermore, therapy is rather expensive. Yes, I know that many people manage to use their health insurance to pay for at least some part of their shrink-fees, but I don’t want to get involved with all of the paperwork and bureaucracy involved with such a ploy unless I’m really in bad shape. Another turn off — just how to you find a shrink that you can relate to and who can relate to you? I’ve known a handful of therapists in my life, and there are perhaps one or two I could imagine working with. But as to the others, ughhhh.

Given that I don’t suffer from chronic depression and that I’m not harmfully bi-polar (hey, I have my moods, but . . .); and given that I’ve managed to hold a professional job with the same employer for the past 16 years; and further still, that I’m not abusing anything intoxicating or mind-blowing . . . given that I pay my taxes and stay out of trouble . . . well OK, all of that still doesn’t mean that I’m a totally sane and healthy individual. But as to whether any particular therapist could improve things for me . . . well,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:08 pm       Read Comments (4) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, July 10, 2017
History ...

In my last post, I outlined why I got interested in the American Civil War. Today, as something of a johnny-come-lately Civil War buff, let me start out by saying some things about July 3, 1863, the date that is famous in Civil War annals for the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Not many people are aware that there was also a third major military and political thing going on in the Civil War at that time. Too bad that it is overshadowed by Gettysburg and Vicksburg, because it is really very interesting, and is just as relevant to the ultimate course of the War as those events were.

Basically, I am talking about the Union campaigns in Eastern Tennessee and Northern Georgia, which stretched between June and November, 1863. Interestingly, the people of the Appalachian hill and mountain country in those states were generally pro-Union. They were clearly not slavery abolitionists, as they were just as racist as any plantation owner. But they couldn’t put big plantations in their narrow valleys, and thus didn’t depend on cotton, tobacco and slavery for their economic livelihood. They were small farmers and lumberers and miners who wanted access to the northern cities to sell their wares. So, a lot of people in those regions maintained their contacts with Washington after Tennessee joined the Confederacy, and they weren’t all that happy about being ruled by “the rebels”. They were anxious for Lincoln to send the Union army down to their region so as to get “Old Glory” flying over them again in lieu of the “Stars and Bars”.

However, through 1862 and early 1863, the Union army had a lot of other things to do. Finally, in mid-63, Lincoln and General Halleck decided to direct General William Rosencrans and his Army of the Cumberland towards middle Tennessee, with orders to push Braxton Bragg and his Confederate forces out of that state. Rosencrans took a long time to get started, but by June he was pushing Bragg’s troops southeastward out of  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:43 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, July 4, 2017
History ... Personal Reflections ...

The Fourth of July is one of the few American holidays that celebrates the history of the nation. Yes, Thanksgiving and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day certainly have strong historical roots; and yes, there is Lincoln’s Birthday and President’s Day. But Independence Day focuses squarely on a momentous historical event, i.e. the signing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the document that proclaimed the end of colonization and the beginning of a new nation upon the North American continent.

For those interested in Civil War history, the Fourth is also a momentous time. On July 3, 1863, two big battlefield events marked a turning point in the War, and heralded the beginning of the end of the nation’s division. On that day in 1863, the Confederate Army suffered a punishing defeat during its second attempt to invade the North, i.e. the bloodbath at Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg, PA popularly known as “Pickett’s Charge” (even though Pickett was only one of the three generals leading the charge). Also, after a long Union campaign to re-gain control of the Mississippi River, General U.S. Grant successfully concluded a long and costly assault on the strategic river city of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The Civil War would go on for another year and ten months after this day, and would yet impose a great amount of death and destruction. But from this point on, the Union pretty much gained the initiative; it no longer spent most of its resources reacting to Confederate military thrusts (in ways that were often bungled and ineffective). In 1864, the War was pretty much a matter of attrition for the Union. Grant’s bloody Overland Campaign in Virginia and Sherman’s destructive “March to the Sea”  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:15 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
 
 
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