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Jonathan's Coffeeblog: Gods & Myths

"The meaning of life and other trivia." Copyright ©2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 Jonathan David Leavitt. All rights reserved.

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Tarkovsky vs. Hollywood - 5:47 PM Sunday, March 15, 2009
[Plus Yurodivy and Skomorokhs]

Tarkovsky &  Rublev

Last night I watched a strange, long, movie called Andrei Rublev. It was in my Netflix queue, and had finally risen to the top after months. I don't even remember why I added it to my queue, but I obviously had the right instincts when I did, because the film got me thinking about many things, not the least of which were Russia, the role of court jesters and holy fools, the meaning of art, and of course, the meaning of life, which is the fundamental theme of Jonathan's Coffeeblog. The film was the work of a Russian director named Andrei Tarkovski, who worked in the Soviet Union and ended his days as a defector. He was buried in a cemetery for Russians in France in 1986.

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Footsteps on the Moon - 5:19 PM Sunday, February 22, 2009
[Old ideas never die, unless they're blown away.]

Footsteps on the Moon

Back in 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on earth's moon, I remember something that was reported on television. The bootprints of the heavy space suit footwear made impressions in the loose topsoil of the moon's surface, and because the moon has no wind to blow the bootprints away, it was predicted that they would be there for millions of years. Millions. Literally. That, to me, was "mindblowing," in the jargon of the era. Years later, when I became interested in the origins of ideas, and the course of history of these ideas, I began to realize that ideas, too, have the potential to last forever in the minds of humans unless there is some "wind" that eradicates them. Moreover, it takes a lot of such "wind" over a long period of time, to extinguish an old idea from human memory.

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Lenin - 1:16 PM Thursday, February 5, 2009
[The HOW of implementing the Marxian revolution.]

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

For a long time, I've been wanting to blog about V. I. Lenin, the Soviet revolutionary whose ideas and deeds virtually define what is now known as "left-wing." The problem with blogging about Lenin is keeping it short and to the point. I set myself the goal of finding a maximum of three points I could make about Lenin. I think I've done that, and will make those points, after a little background information:

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Jewish Christians and Christian Jews - 12:41 PM Thursday, December 25, 2008
[And on that note: Merry Christmas!]

Painting by Georges de La Tour

I've written before in the Coffeeblog about what it was like growing up as a Jewish boy, more or less, in a Christian country, more or less. As Christmas rolls around again (Hanukkah already started a few days ago), my thoughts turn to this theme once again. I began writing this on Christmas Eve, 2008. Although the terms are confusing, I want to write about Jews who consider themselves Christians, and about Christians who consider themselves Jewish. A good starting point is the life of one Jesus of Nazereth, born in the northern region of the land of Israel called Galilee, approximately 2,008 years ago (Wikipedia says the Jesus was probably born some time between 2 and 7 AD). It is in honor of the birth of Jesus that the holiday of Christmas is being celebrated today in Christian countries, but also in places like Japan. Even a self-designated atheist like the Jewish-born Ayn Rand enjoyed, supported, and celebrated Christmas.

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Thanksgiving Day - 11:49 AM Thursday, November 27, 2008
[No American would consider eating a bald eagle.]

Thanksgiving Day (Coffeeblog)

Today is the day that North Americans celebrate their good fortune, whatever it might be, and express their gratitude to whomever they feel it, divine entities optionally included. It is traditional to eat turkey on Thanksgiving day, probably a reminder that wild turkeys were abundant when the first European settlers arrived. At the very least turkey eaters can feel gratitude to the bird who gave its life, unwillingly as it were, for the festival dinner.

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The Third Rome - 10:49 PM Sunday, November 16, 2008
[Translatio Imperii, Part Two]

The Third Rome

I recently wrote in the Coffeeblog about a medieval political theory called, in Latin, translatio imperii, meaning transfer of power, promoting the idea that the Germanic kingdoms of Northern Europe were direct descendants of the Western Roman Empire. At this moment I am extending that idea to Russian history, beginning with a mysterious monk from Pskov, his Legend of the White Cowl, and his compelling idea that Russia was the Third Rome. The First Rome, of course, was the western empire ruled from Rome itself, which according to legend was founded by brothers Romulus and Remus. The Second Rome was the name for the Byzantine Empire, ruled from Constantinople, and created by Constantine the Great. According to the Pskov monk, whose name was Philotheus (Filofey in Russian), Constantine had given a white cowl to the pope, who sent it to Philotheus, who passed it on to the Archbishop of Novogorod, which was an important medieval Russian city. The Archbishop died in 1352. In 1453, 101 years after the Archbishop's death, Constantinople, the Second Rome, was taken by Ottoman forces and has been ever since a major Muslim capital, now called Istanbul. Russia, having received the white cowl, became the successor to the Byzantine Empire according to Filofey's doctrine of the Third Rome. This doctrine is not a mere historical footnote, but an idea to be taken quite seriously during our present era.

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Tengri, Lord of the Sky - 3:43 PM Saturday, August 23, 2008
[Heavenly peace indeed.]

Tengri (Coffeeblog)

A few weeks ago I saw Sergei Bodrov's movie about the life of young Temujin, the Mongol slave boy who grew up to become Genghis Khan, conqueror of Eurasia from China to Afghanistan in the early 1200's. Wow. It was quite a movie, somewhat long and detailed compared to a Hollywood flick. Some of the scenes were so fantastic that I thought they were fictionalized, so I looked up Temujin in Wikipedia and found that the same events were believed to be true. One recurring scene beguiled me, when Temujin, at various ages beginning in boyhood, climbs a mountain to commune with a sky god named Tengri, personified in the film as a mysterious wolf. That scene led me to more web searching only to discover that Tengri is/was the universal deity of the Turkic and Mongol peoples, and as such, an excellent point of departure for a Coffeeblog extravaganza about Eurasia, Turks, Mongols, and sky gods in general. There is actually a religion called Tengriism, labeled pagan or shamanistic, but the worship of Tengri brought me back to memories of my school days. You see, I am so old that I remember that, along with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, at the beginning of every school day we recited a prayer.

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The Whole Megillah - 5:42 PM Thursday, March 20, 2008
[Recited every day. It has never ended.]

The Whole Megillah (Coffeeblog)

At sundown this evening it will be Purim again, the Jewish festival when Jews read from the biblical Book of Esther, traditionally recorded on a scroll of rolled-up parchment, papyrus, or paper. A Hebrew word for "scroll" is megillah, and the holiday has given rise to the Yiddish phrase, the "gantze (whole) Megillah." Since the rabbi reads the whole scroll aloud to the congregation in an ancient tongue, and seeming, for children at least, to go on forever, the "whole Megillah" refers to a prolonged, predictable litany which we have heard before, and are banefully expecting to hear over and over again. As it happens, "the whole Megillah" is a very timely topic today, and not just because it's Purim.

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The Imperial Eagle - 8:50 PM Tuesday, March 4, 2008
[Hail to the Chief?]

The Imperial Eagle (Coffeeblog)

Eagles are a family of birds knows as raptors, from a Latin word for "robber." The words rob, bereft, rapid, and maybe even the slang term "rip-off" are all related. Eagles have very good eyesight, the better to spot their prey from far off, with sloping brows to protect the eyes from the sun. They also have strong heads and necks, and huge sharp, curving beaks. Romans who had noses like eagle-beaks (aquiline) were associated with nobility. Eagles have a no-nonsense look which has given them iconic status throughout history. The mythological Native American thunderbird was like an eagle, but large enough to create thunder when it flapped its wings. The European gods Zeus, Odin, and Jupiter also were said to have the power of thunder and lightning, and eagles were associated with these gods in stories and as symbols. In military terms, the eagle, King of Birds, could be said to have "air superiority," although I doubt an eagle needs to waste energy fighting other birds. I find this all fascinating. Even more than fascination, however, my primary motivation for blogging about eagles is the fact than an extraordinary event is taking place as I write this, an event whose outcome is unknown, which I will address in the last few paragraphs of this blogpost.

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Milos Obilic and the First Battle of Kosovo - 9:27 PM Monday, February 25, 2008
[Never again? Please.]

Milos Obilic and the Blackbird Field

Later in life I'm becoming a history buff. In college I considered the study of history burdensome, with all those details to memorize for the exam, but now, whenever I hear a news headline about some world trouble spot, I want to go immediately to the Internet to get the background. This impulse has led to previous Coffeeblog posts such as The Right-Left Politics Meme, Anselm Kiefer's May-Beetle, and Ismail and the Safavids. Well, it's happened again. This past week or so, the new nation of Kosovo declared its independence, following which it was recognized by the US, following which there were huge demonstrations in Serbia against the US, plus riots by angry Serbs who set fire to a US Embassy office, a McDonalds restaurant, and multiple American Flags. "So what else is new?," you might be saying if you're a Christian, a Jew, or an atheist, who has not kept up-to-date on your Serbian history. "Of course the Muslims are burning the US Embassy. That's what Muslims do. The US must have been caught flushing another Koran or something." But guess what? The Serbs are not Muslims. They are Christians (Serbian Orthodox) or atheists too. So why are they angry? Well, the brand-new nation of Kosovo is populated primarily by ethnic Albanians (there is also an independent nation of Albania}, and most of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are Muslims. So the US supports a new Muslim nation and the Christians burn our flag? Well, yeah. For me, that means it's Google time again.

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An American Folk Hero: The Dropout - 2:54 PM Thursday, January 10, 2008
[Everything a decent kid was not supposed to be.]

Henry Miller and Who?

This past weekend I celebrated another year of my life with an annual visit to Big Sur on California's central coast. Named in Spanish for the big river of the South, El Rio Grande del Sur, Big Sur was barely accessible until the 1940's when Highway 1 was built along the precarious cliffs where the mountains of the Ventana Wilderness meet the rocky shore of the Pacific. Writers Robinson Jeffers, Jaime de Angulo, and Henry Miller brought fame to the region as a place for Americans and Europeans who wanted to get away from it all; in other words, to Drop Out. ...

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Oil and Regime Change - 4:12 PM Saturday, December 8, 2007
[Jews confront a Syrian Nut-Job.]


It's Hanukkah again, 5 candles tonight. For Jewish children living in Christian lands, Hanukkah has become a substitute for Christmas. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. The Jewish holiday is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev, which is a Babylonian name for a month which occurs around the same time as the Roman month of December. The resemblance ends there. The first Hanukkah commemorates an event which took place in Jerusalem 164 years before Jesus was said to have been born nearby in Bethlehem. The event was the rededication of a temple rebuilt on the site of a previous temple built by King Solomon. The word Hanukkah, in fact means "dedication." There is a villain in the story: the king of Syria, Antiochus IV, whose admirers called Epiphanes, meaning "shining" in Greek. The Jews had another Greek name for him, Epimanes, which, translated into the contemporary American vernacular, means "Nut-Job." ...

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Are Christians an endangered species? - 4:23 PM Saturday, December 1, 2007
[From the Milvian Bridge to Lebanon]

Helen & Constantine

As a boy growing up in Pennsylvania I felt like a small Jewish fish swimming in a vast, boundless sea of Christians, while Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus were the stuff of storybooks. Now, however, I am repeatedly encountering the idea, on the Internet and in the mass media, that Christianity is running out of time. Today I Googled the phrase "demise of Christianity" and got 766,000 hits. The themes under that category included secularization of former Christians; the choice not to have children; a preference for personal spirituality over organized churches, and escalating geographic relocations due to competition from other, more assertive religions. Many believe that Christianity is not only vanishing from places like Lebanon and Iraq, but drastically losing numbers in Italy, the UK, and elsewhere. These dramatic current events described aroused my curiosity about where all of the Christians came from in the first place, and that led me to the story of the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, and that of his mother Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta....

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Amaryllis belladonna - 7:19 PM Tuesday, July 31, 2007
[Now it gets a little weird.]

Naked Ladies: the Lily

Every year around this time a striking lily appears suddenly at the sides of the roads and around the local gardens. It has a smooth cocoa-brown stalk, leafless, and at the top are trumpet-shaped pink flowers. Bunches of them are quite beautiful, but stark, because of the strange color of the stalks and the lack of leaves. Due to the nakedness of the stalks and the pinkness of the flowers, they are called "naked ladies." Their effect on me is bittersweet because of their odd beauty, but also because their appearance means that the days of summer are numbered, that fall will be here soon, followed by winter, and that the late sunsets of midsummer will soon come to an end as the days grow abruptly shorter. I learned that the Naked Lady Lily is also called an Amaryllis (the only true Amaryllis, according to Wikipedia, though there are may other plants falsely called Amaryllis), and that the species is Amaryllis belladonna. I thought I might find some good stories about Amaryllis belladonna on the Internet, and I was not disappointed....

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The Mother of All Mother's Days - 2:05 PM Sunday, May 13, 2007
[I'll stick with the traditional phone call.]

Mother's Day

Yup. It's Mother's Day again. I already made the phone call to my mother, who is 3000 miles away. Looking up Mother's Day in Wikipedia, I discovered that the holiday has ancient origins, But first, what of modern Mother's Day? The British Mother's Day was brought to the USA by Julia Ward Howe, a pacifist and feminist born in 1819. Her "Mother's Day Proclamation" included this:

We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

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Rocket Polemics - 6:52 PM Friday, April 6, 2007
[Then I remembered something called Greek Fire. ]

Greek Fire

Today is Good Friday, the Christian anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus. This year, Greek Orthodox Christians as well as Roman Catholics and Protestants will be celebrating Easter on the same Sunday. Greeks call it Pascha, the name of the Jewish holiday Pesach, which is still going on as I write this, celebrating Jewish liberation from slavery in pharaonic Egypt. Both Easter and Pesach are descendants of pagan holidays celebrating the arrival of spring, the resurrection of dormant vegetation in the Northern Hemisphere, and the birth of many animals and birds. Both Pesach and Easter are celebrated with eggs; in the Greek tradition the eggs are colored red. I wrote about Easter eggs in Jonathan's Coffeeblog last year....

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Monotheism Minus One - 8:07 PM Friday, March 30, 2007
[What difference does one god more or less make?]

Who Made the Watchmaker-Maker?

Anselm of Canterbury, an Italian cleric who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, defined God (notice the capital G) as "a being than which nothing greater can be conceived (imagined)." He claimed that a being who exists must be greater than one who doesn't, so, based on the definition, God must exist. And if you, like me, don't buy that argument, then you could very well be an atheist....

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Chaos - 12:54 PM Friday, February 9, 2007
[Eppes gornisht?]

Chaos: the Mindmap

I started out writing about mindmapping, a popular technique for making notes and structuring ideas, when I realized that in order to structure something, you had to have something to structure. And that something, in its purest and most extreme form, would be chaos. And that's when I decided that I'd need to write about chaos before I wrote about mindmapping....

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Anselm Kiefer's May-Beetle - 4:35 PM Monday, January 15, 2007
[All burnt up.]

Anselm Kiefer's Maikäfer

Maikäfer flieg.
Dein Vater ist im Krieg.
Die Mutter ist im Pommerland,
Pommerland ist abgebrannt.
Maikäfer flieg.
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January - 7:13 PM Sunday, December 31, 2006
[A song called "Old Long Since"]

Flies Cemeteries and More

Our story begins with yet another Numa. In this case, it is not Numa Numa, but Numa Pompilius, the legendary second King of Rome, after Romulus. Remember? Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers raised by a she-wolf? Anyhow, around 713 years before the Christian era, Numa Pompilius added two months to the calendar: January and February. Why, you might ask, add two months? Pre-Numa, the Roman winter was considered so useless that it wasn't even assigned months. The year ended in December (the "tenth month") and began after winter in March, named after the god Mars, who was at first a fertility-vegetation god, before He joined the military-industrial complex. But I digress. Back to January....

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Numa Numa - 5:43 PM Friday, December 29, 2006
[The making of a "meme".]

Love from the linden trees. For Americans like me it doesn't make a lot of sense. I remember from ninth grade shop class that basswood, a high-quality hardwood, came from American linden trees. If I had been born in Northern Europe or a Slavic country, I might have learned that the linden (lipa in Czech and Slovak, lime tree in the UK) was a very special tree, associated with the love-goddess Freyja, with village councils, and as a material for making ikons in Russia. And if I had been born in Moldova or Romania, I would have understood the lyrics to a song called "Dragostea din Tei." In the rest of the world, the song, which might sound like nonsense for non-Romanian-speakers, is known as the song for the Numa Numa Dance, and it is at the root of what Wikipedia calls the second most popular meme on the Internet....

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Christmas, Moravian Style - 3:33 PM Friday, December 22, 2006
[Yes, Virginia, there is a Putz.]

In 1415, a century before Martin Luther, Western Europe was already beginning to be torn apart by sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. That year, Jan Hus, a Czech priest, was burned at the stake for heresy. His followers, initially protected by King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (that's right, it's the guy in the Christmas carol), carried on the early Protestant tradition; many went underground. Fast forward to 1700, when a German count named Zinzendorf gave refuge to stealth Protestant refugees from Moravia, the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic. In 1741, on Christmas Eve, Zinzendorf and a group of Moravians founded a community in Pennsylvania, which they named Bethlehem ("House of Bread") after the village in the Judean hills where Jesus was born....

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Utopias, Dystopias, and Heterotopias - 12:23 PM Tuesday, December 5, 2006
[Where Jonathan's Coffeeblog resides.]

Utopias, Dystopias, and Heterotopias

If there is any topic worthy of the "gods and myths" category of Jonathan's Coffeeblog, this is it. Whereas much of the Western world appears no longer to take seriously their gods of the past, utopias in their various manifestations are more powerful in the minds of the multitudes, Western and otherwise, than ever. One might say that if the monotheistic God is dead in much of the West, Paradise and its pursuit on earth has replaced him....

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An Act of Political Theater - 11:44 PM Tuesday, November 7, 2006
[Après Ça Le Déluge.]

The Devil Made Me Do It

Today was Election Day; I voted mid-morning. The ballots had been changed again. This time there were large sheets of paper with arrows next to each choice on the ballot, or more precisely, arrowheads and arrow tails. We were given a ball-point pen to connect an arrowhead with an adjacent arrow tail, thus indicating our machine-readable choice. An election worker then fed the ballots through a scanner. This was a change from last year's high-tech touchscreen machines to a lower-tech paper system....

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The Croissant - 3:34 PM Thursday, October 5, 2006
[She makes you think of a latte.]

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Single-Payer Spiritual Care - 6:29 PM Sunday, September 17, 2006
[Sure there aren't more of them?]

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Hopperesque - 6:02 PM Monday, September 4, 2006
[It just made Sartre sick to his stomach.]

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The Great God Pan is Dead? - 4:50 PM Friday, June 23, 2006
[Comparing Apples and Lemons]

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Eastertide and the Cosmic Egg - 6:52 PM Sunday, April 23, 2006
[Derived from the Greco-Roman word for "gadfly"?]

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Kiss Me, I'm Irish - 2:40 PM Thursday, March 16, 2006
[The gift of Blarney for a blogger]

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Purim - 4:38 PM Friday, March 10, 2006
[Thanks to a Jewish woman named Myrtle]

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White Swan, Black Swan - 3:38 PM Wednesday, February 8, 2006
[Mythmakers par excellence]

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Back in the Saddle Again - 9:15 PM Monday, January 16, 2006
[Enough about the furshlugginer holidays]

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Another Christmas Miracle - 6:30 PM Friday, December 23, 2005
[Sometimes the oil lasts longer than you might expect]

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Buenas Noches Calabaza - 12:23 PM Sunday, October 30, 2005
[The pumpkin is the original treat of the season.]

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Getting Stuff Done - 3:54 PM Monday, October 24, 2005
[Using the blog to distract yourself from Getting Things Done?]

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Wearable Architecture - 6:11 PM Thursday, October 13, 2005
[Return to intrauterine nirvana]

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The Golem of Prague - 5:43 PM Sunday, September 18, 2005
[And his (ulp!) ilk]

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The Original Tricky Dick - 3:28 PM Saturday, August 13, 2005
[They even named a car after him]

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Fog - 1:37 PM Monday, July 18, 2005
[Playing tag in the 21st Century]

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Johanniskraut - 11:32 AM Friday, June 24, 2005
[A Midsummer Night's Dream]

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Synchronicity Rocks - 5:52 PM Thursday, June 2, 2005
[Jung, Schmung]

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Go Figure - 1:57 PM Saturday, May 28, 2005
[What is the capital of Rhode Island?]

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Sith Happens - 7:11 PM Tuesday, May 24, 2005
[Long Ago and Far Away?]

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Robert Bechtle's Religious Art, Part Two - 1:53 PM Thursday, May 5, 2005
[The Great Thunderbird's Big Medicine]

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Robert Bechtle's Religious Art - 10:54 AM Monday, April 11, 2005
[Part 1: You are my sunshine]

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The Third or Fourth Day of Spring - 12:52 PM Friday, March 25, 2005
[What's so good about Good Friday?]

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Cyberschmoozing - 3:25 PM Saturday, March 19, 2005
[A kiss is just a kiss?]

In February, 2005, a self-styled summit on online social networking was held in cyberspace, with no identifiable geographical locus. Blogosphere old-timers as well as newcomers like me have become familiar with Flickr, del.icio.us, Technorati, and other Internet entities (internentitites?) for establishing connections between people, at the core of which, are blogs themselves. (See my recent post on Blogger's Block.)...

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So Much to Procrastinate, So Little Time - 11:04 PM Thursday, March 10, 2005
[When is putzing around not putzing around?]

The Italians call it dolce far niente, sweetly doing nothing. In the Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora it's called putzing around. Today is a good day for it. It's a preview of spring, the Espresso Roma terrace is replete with gay chatter (not that kind of gay, the other kind of gay), and, as I write these words, it's three minutes before 3:00 PM—the hour at which most of the day has been shot to hell....

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It's a Jungle Out There - 8:43 AM Wednesday, January 5, 2005
[Do wild women get the greens?]

While parking around the corner from my favorite coffee hangout, I noticed this garden in the front yard of a cottage. There are many such gardens in Berkeley, celebrating the luxuriant overgrowth of foliage. These "jungle gardens" (my name for them) are so wild that one is never sure that they were intended to look that way, or they are simply neglected. Neglect, however, when it comes to gardens which don't relay on artificial nurture, is not really neglect, but delegation of horticultural responsibilities to Mother Nature....

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Yule for Jews? - 1:57 PM Friday, December 24, 2004
[The festival which dare not speak its name]

As a kid I was raised as a Jewish Socialist, meaning that I got a double-dose of Christmas guilt. As a Jewish child I was not supposed to get sucked into Christian proselytizing and as a Socialist I was not supposed to get sucked into the "opium of the masses." But I lived only a few miles from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the "Christmas City" and site of one of the world's most spectacular nativity scenes, the Moravian Putz. (That's right, it's called the Putz. The word has radically different connotations in Yiddish and Moravian German.)...

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From Solstice to Santa - 6:11 PM Thursday, December 23, 2004
[Yuletide Punditry with Horns, Holly, and More]

The winter solstice marks the end of the terrifying loss of the sun's radiant light and heat as the days get shorter in the Northern Hemisphere. Our Ice Age ancestors depended on migratory herd animals (including caribou and their domesticated cousins the reindeer) for survival. These mammals with cloven hoofs and horns became objects of awe and worship: horned gods upon whose reproductive capacity humans depended for survival. Each year they gave their lives as a gift to humans (with a little help from the humans, of course.)...

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Copyright ©2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 Jonathan David Leavitt. All rights reserved.