Looking inward: Buddhist meditation takes step back from ‘whirlwind of life’

By Kristin Leffler & John Vogan

As the brief meditation commenced, there was the slight creak of floorboards, the gurgle of stomachs and the hushed chorus of exhales, but it was a peaceful, powerful silence that most filled the quaint living room.

Lama Pema Dragpa led the Nov. 2 gathering about the Buddhist perspective on death and dying, part of a monthly Dharma talk, a public Buddhist discussion.

The meditation sessions are held in the Ithaca area by teachers from Padmasambhava Buddhist Center’s monastery retreat in Sidney Center, N.Y. Dragpa says an inclusive meeting with others to discuss and practice Buddhism is an essential part of the learning process.

“The community is incredibly important for inspiring one another. It’s a special opportunity to help each other along the path to fully actualizing our potential,” he said. “We are locked in a smaller sense of ourselves than what we naturally are. We really have unlimited potential, and it’s practical and helpful to be around other people who support that.”

The monthly gatherings started two years ago, and interest has been growing locally.

The Namgyal Monastery Institute in downtown Ithaca is looking into expanding their facilities to accommodate an increase in their student base, according to their website.

Pema Damcho lived in Ithaca for a year before moving to study Buddhism and live at the Padma Samye Ling retreat center seven years ago.

She says Ithaca’s open-mindedness and a sense of introspection has made opportunities for meditation – an essential part of Buddhist practice – available and desired.

“The only way we have found we can do anything about our own mind is through meditation practice,” Damcho said. “Otherwise, typically most of us are in this whirlwind of life.”

The gatherings give locals an opportunity to focus on the teachings of Buddha and discuss important aspects of the religion such as compassion, awareness and appreciation. About ten people attended the discussion on death and dying, an important thing to contemplate since it is related to how we live now, Dragpa said during the talk.

“We have to really use the time now. If we haven’t trained to be peaceful and aware during our lives, why would we think that’s how we’re going to be when we die? That’s the whole point of meditation, to use our time now to connect to that absolute, undying nature in ourselves, which naturally expresses itself as love and compassion for others,” he said.

The Dharma talks provide an opportunity for people to explore their own nature, something that Dragpa says all people, regardless of faith, have the potential to do through meditation and discussion.

“What’s found is not a Buddhist thing or a Christian thing or a Muslim thing, you just find your nature. We all have such an amazing capacity,” he said.

Ithaca locals interested in exploring Buddhism are welcome to attend the next Dharma talk in Oneonta on December 14.

Young wine connoisseur flies solo on new venture

By John Vogan and Kristen Tomkowid

Scott Bronstein tasted his first wine at the age of 13 during his uncle’s wedding in Sonoma, Calif. At that moment, with his senses piqued among the gorgeous vineyards, his passion for the wine industry began.

Bronstein, now 25, officially opened Barnstormer Winery in Rock Stream, NY with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 4. The operation has been a year in the making and first opened its doors in September.


The Finger Lakes region is home to over 200 wineries, and that is a challenge Barnstormer faces. However, Bronstein hopes his organic and homegrown approach to winemaking will attract people, especially younger consumers, to his winery.

Kyle Knapton, tasting room manager at Barnstormer, specifically highlights one of Barnstormer’s specialty wines: Ecstasy, a semi-sparkling sweet red blend that pairs well with desserts.

“I’ve described it to younger people as Twizzler-flavored Pop Rocks,” said Knapton. “It’s a candy wine. I definitely recommend it for parties or making a really nice sparkling Sangria out of.”

A historical inspiration fused with a more youthful atmosphere is one way he says will set them apart from competitors.

The 1800’s barn used to be home to the Arcadian Estate Winery. Since it closed and had a rundown appearance, Bronstein decided to give the place a much-needed facelift.

Bronstein’s mother came up with the new name for the winery. Barnstormers were entertainment pilots from the early 20th century. Some were daredevilish stunt pilots, while others would sell plane rides on their flights across the county.

Since their opening, around 200-250 people come in on Saturdays to partake in tastings and buy wine.

This past weekend marked the busiest time for wineries in the Finger Lakes region with products from the previous harvest season ready for tasting, said Knapton.

“We want to be fun and laid back, but we also want to make good wine,” said Knapton. “We don’t want to be bad wine that’s just a fun place to come. We want to do all those things, which is ambitious, but so far so good.”

Barnstormer offers twelve wines in their tasting room; a sampling of five wines costs $3.

Catching the Cayuga wind: the story behind the sail

By John Vogan & Sara Webb

In his blue floral-printed Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, Eberhard Alsen happily greets two Cornell sailing students from his sailboat, a white 1986 Tanzer 25. 

For Alsen, sailing is a family tradition. His father once owned two yacht clubs in Berlin, which he only learned aboutThe tranquility of Cayuga Lake is a long ways from his war-marked childhood, not only in distance and time, but also perspective. Nice.

Alsen was born in Nuremberg but moved several times during World War II. He studied American literature and immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 at the age of 26.

Alsen’s boat, FANTASY, was named because he liked the idea of ‘imagination’ — the German translation — and how a mind could wander out on the water. It can sail at up to of 6.3 knots (about 7 miles per hour), but in late September Alsen claims he sailed at 6.7 knots. The challenge of figuring out how to maximize speed is one reason he enjoys sailing so much, Alsen said.

“I still don’t know how we got it to go that fast [that time]” Alsen said.

But passion like Alsen’s is fading. The popularity in the sport has seen a steady decline over the years. Since he joined the cruising fleet in 1986, the number of boats racing regularly has dropped from 50 to eight.

The still struggling economy that took a turn for the worse in 2008 could be one explanation, he said. But he hopes the trend is only temporary and perhaps part of a cycle.

One of the particular aspects of sailing, Alsen believes, is its unique qualities of being relaxing and exciting at the same time.

“All pressure just dissipates as soon as I’m out on the water,” Alsen said. “You concentrate on the wind and the waves… You have no time to think about anything else.”

‘Out’ in the field: LGBT athletes find ally in new campus organization

This August students at Cornell University and Ithaca College founded chapters of the organization, Athlete Ally, a program dedicated to ending homophobia and transphobia in sports.

Atticus DeProspo, a soccer player at Cornell, founded the chapter for the university in August. He hopes it will help foster a safe and respectful environment for all athletes, including those who are LGBT.

“When it comes to soccer, the sport is all that matters,” said DeProspo. “If you can play, you can play. We work hard together toward common goals of repeating as Ivy League Champions and making a run in the NCAA tournament. I am looking to spread the message of tolerance, respect and acceptance for all human beings in the athletic community.”


DeProspo published a ‘coming out’ letter early last month, inspired by his professional soccer role model Robbie Rogers. In it, he explains the ‘locker room’ culture and the stigma that still exists around homosexuality in the athletic world.

He told Ithaca Week his experience as a gay athlete has been a very positive and enjoyable one, but that is not the case for everyone.

According to Campus Pride’s 2012 LGBTQ National College Athlete Report, which included surveys of 394 students — out of nearly 9,000 NCAA athletes surveyed — who identified as LGBQ (questioning), these athletes are two times more likely to experience harassment than their heterosexual teammates.

One in four said they felt pressure to remain silent about their sexual identity among teammates, and 21 percent revealed they were targeted by derogatory comments online and through social media.

Cornell athletics teams have no data for the participation of LGBT athletes in their varsity sports, but the athletics department has welcomed the new organization.

“We are very supportive as a department to Athlete Ally and our new chapter,” said Sarah Wattenberg, The Andrew ’78 and Margaret Paul Director of Student-Athlete Support Services. “Its foundation is about equality and inclusiveness, which aligns with Cornell University’s mission and motto, ‘Any person, any study.’”

Before coming out, one of the people DeProspo confided in was Brian Healey, who serves as Program Coordinator for the national Athlete Ally organization. He too shared his story during his final year as Captain of Men’s Tennis at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt.

For Healey, beginning a conversation around this issue is an important first step to creating the most inclusive environment for the LGBT community.

“Intolerance…has many root causes, ignorance being one of them. That’s why work so hard to educate as many people as possible about how damaging and lasting this can be,” said Healey.

The Cornell chapter of Athlete Ally is currently organizing an advocacy campaign video called “Cornell You Can Play,” as well as developing ally training in the athletic community. It meets bi-weekly Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. in the Kaplan Room of Bartels Hall.

Atticus DeProspo can be reached at

Students praise Ithaca’s college prep, question ‘Smartest City’ results

By Alexandra Leslie and John Vogan

Ithaca, N.Y. is the Smartest City in the United States, according to a study conducted by earlier this year.

The neuroscientist-designed website offers a series of brain-training exercises. It collected online test results from more than 3 million users, defining ‘smartest’ within five areas of cognitive performance: speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem-solving.

Daniel Sternberg, the Lumosity Data Scientist who initiated the study, said that the presence of higher education institutions such as Cornell University and Ithaca College is one factor that contributed to the impressive results.

“Our findings show that most of the top metro areas on the list do contain major research universities, including Ithaca,” said Sternberg. “This suggests that education is an important predictor of cognitive performance.”

Cornell University

Cornell University, on Ithaca’s East Hill, hosts about 21,000 students in pursuit of undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Stanford, Calif. — home to Stanford University — has also been declared ‘Smartest City’ under the same study. It was ranked No. 1 for the list ranking City and State. Ithaca, however, came in first for Overall Score Ranking for Core-Based Statistical Areas, taking the No. 1 spot in three out of five performance areas. Memory and Attention ranked it No. 5 and No. 16, respectively.

Lumosity used recorded IP addresses to estimate participants’ geolocations. Sternberg said at least 1,800 users were located in the Ithaca metropolitan area. He noted this could only be an estimate, and may include tourists and temporary visitors.

“How do we know this group of people is representative of the community as a whole?” asked Michael Guidi, an Ithaca resident. “Technicalities aside, we don’t really need a study to tell us that we live in a highly educated community.”

Janina Gunderson is a Tompkins Cortland Community College freshman. An Ithaca resident all her life, she has observed that a large portion of her peers have grown up here because of their parents’ presence in higher education throughout the city.

“People who teach at such institutions will obviously stress the importance of higher education and succeeding in school, wanting their children to find the same kind of success,” said Gunderson.

And while some choose to leave Ithaca after graduating high school, the city’s population swells to nearly double its summer size when outside students arrive for the academic year.

“Though the populations of these areas are constantly changing, they generally share consistent demographics. Some proportion of the users in these cities were almost certainly students, but we considered them to be part of the local community,” said Sternberg.

The study did not officially define what constitutes a resident; a portion of the participants may be students who are only in Ithaca to earn their degree.

“Though the order of the cities does change some in the rankings for the older age groups, the ‘college town’ effect persists,” added Sternberg.

In addition, younger residents are gaining exposure to higher education as early as their primary education. Carolyn Belle-Abbott, a teacher at South Hill Elementary School, claims this has enriched the curriculum of the Ithaca City School District.

“Both colleges have community outreach programs that bring professors, students and resources into our classrooms. I have taken students on field trips to both campuses,” said Belle-Abbott.

The Omni program at Cornell’s Johnson Art Museum allows her students to see and handle Pre-Columbian artifacts. Ithaca College also invites students into its science laboratories for hands-on activities.

“These are things I just couldn’t provide in my classroom,” said Belle-Abbott.

Once students are closer to the end of their primary education, more programs are available to prepare them for college.

“Having a wide array of AP [advanced placement] courses and very qualified teachers to teach them, prepared students well for college courses,” said Michael Guidi, a 2010 IHS graduate. “The structure of the classes were often similar to college courses [with] individual responsibility.”

“I think they also did a great job teaching us how to think critically and question the sources we read and their motivations,” added David Kaminsky, a 2010 IHS graduate.

Ithaca High School

Ithaca High School and other ICSD schools partner with neighboring institutions Ithaca College and Cornell University to give students a glimpse of what could be in store after graduation.

Ithaca High School offers a variety of college preparatory programs. Project Lead the Way serves as a program for students interested in engineering as a college major or career. Cornell cooperates with its Life Sciences program and allows students to “explore their interest in biological and social perspectives of the world.”

Though the programs are available to students, none are mandatory.

“Certain students grow up in the public school system knowing that college comes after high school,” said David Barken, a 2010 graduate of IHS. “But…higher education is still very much a luxury in this town.”

According to data published this summer, about half the city’s residents over age 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree.

“We found that the proportion of residents with bachelor’s degrees and doctorate degrees, as well as the proportion of residents seeking those degrees were strongly correlated with the area’s performance on our metric,” said Sternberg.

With two ‘smartest cities’ studies now under his belt, Sternberg indicated that cities like Ithaca will continue to top the list in the future.

Referring to the Lumosity study: “It’s just another link to share on Facebook,” said Barken.

Alexandra Leslie and John Vogan are senior journalism students at Ithaca College. Email them at or