Friday, December 31, 2010

what is it about cemeteries?

Sometimes just going out to lunch or dinner with an ex isn't just the pleasant experience you think it's gonna be.

We went to one of the places we usually go to. We ordered items congruent with who we each are at the moment. And instantly, the conversation turned to disease, dying, and death — nothing unusual there. Both of us have mothers in need of care. Both of us have fathers who are gone. There, the similarities between us end.

To tell the truth, I thought we'd be together forever. If it wasn't us together, then it would be nobody at all. Turns out, I do 'nobody at all' rather well. Maybe a little too well. Alone, I become (even more) competent. Efficient. You can't be called a control freak if there's no one else around to do things wrong, right? Right. I clearly have no business trying to live with anyone who might be called an 'equal partner.' And I've become just fine with that (And yes, I do know what utter bullshit this paragraph is — but I need it to make my argument here).

So that's why the conversation floored me.

We'd both been thinking about the same cemetery. And suddenly, there we were planning a nice biodegradable, eco-friendly burial side by side, in glorious Marin, overlooking some of our favorite trails. Blew me away, this turn of events. And yet, I probably shouldn't have been surprised.

I've had this intimate conversation before. Used to check out old-West cemeteries with another ex, looking for just the right shabby little rundown plot of earth to lie down under a slab of stone together along the Western Coast. Or up in the Mother Lode of the High Sierra. We'd compose brilliant epitaphs and laugh our heads off. It was always somehow so very romantic. Oh. And another ex, and another cemetery. It's as if cemeteries (like those wooded and mountain top trails) were some kind of foreplay. There were other couples wandering through, clearly as high as we were.

We've flirted with going by way of fire and ash. But no. The call of the earth is just too great. The sound of the sea. The smell of the redwoods just around the bend. The golden hills leading up the mountain. Who could resist all that?

And this time we mean it.

A door opens, I always say, and either we walk through, or we turn aside. And if we turn aside, that door doesn't open again. The moment is lost.

And a door just opened. And I want to walk through it, and make this happen. Time to get serious (or not so serious) and pick a spot overlooking the Pacific. Maybe some shade trees nearby. In this place, nothing (or rather, no one) is marked. There's no stone, no brass plates, no names, no dates. What there is is GPS tracking devices, as you follow a trail. And there you are, rotting anonymously next to an anonymous ex or two or three.

And suddenly, I want to bring my sister there as well. And keep an eye on her (yes, I said that). And somehow that feels a whole lot less — what? Not lonely, exactly. No. A whole lot less useless. As if fertilizing the ground isn't enough to ask for.

Weird as it sounds (even to me) the idea of sheltering my baby sister (who has to be moved from her lonely site, anyway) — makes all this death and dying a bit more palatable. Like — as in life, that I'd have some role to play that feels just right. Taking care of others...

Now, I'm not an idiot. I do know that none of this makes rational sense. But it feels right. And these days, I'm so busy being rational, utilitarian and efficient (this last one, fairly poorly, I might add), that going with something that feels right — just feels ... right.

"In life," she said, " we only lasted 5 months. Maybe we can do better with eternity."

"I wonder," I said, "if I can manage to stay still that long..."

And on that note, let me wish you a delightful New Year's eve — celebrating the last dying ember of a very hard year — and wish you as well the most cheerful of New Years possible. Filled with joy, lollipops and shiny high tech toys, and most of all, with long walks down beautiful trails overlooking the still unspeakably magnificent Coast.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

a kaddish for the Israeli flag, may it rest in peace

People say that there are a lot of reasons to open up a bible. Here's one of them you might not have ever been asked to think about. And a reason why using the bible — especially לך לך — as a basis for validating nation-building is not a terribly good idea. We can lay all this quite literally at the feet of Abraham.

And then there's the flag. And you might ask, well what does the Israeli flag have to do with Abraham? And any Arab or Muslim on the planet is likely to have a ready answer. And which we're going to look at. But first, let it be said that—

Abraham does good microcosm.

If all the rest of the Torah disappeared except for the passages on Abraham, we'd all still have plenty left to argue about. I'm not sure the world would be any different than it is now. The essential arguments are right there. Starting with לך לך (lech l'cha).

And YHVH says to Avram — take yourself out from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house and go to the land that I will show you ...

And the trouble has begun. Right there.

Maybe that's not fair. Maybe the trouble has already begun a whole lot earlier. But I tend to date trouble right here, starting with Avram. Starting with Avram's troublemaking, paradigm-shifting deity. Known affectionately as the Tetragrammaton — the four-part piece of grammar.

So YHVH orders Avram out. And stranger things, I suppose, have happened, but this one's at the top of my strangeness list. Instead of downing his meds, Avram follows the incorporeal orders and ships himself off. He goes, and schlepps everyone with him. Now what's with that?

Yes. I fault Avram right there. He clearly wasn't raised the way I was raised. The tzaddik and Mrs Tzaddik insisted on questioning everything. Everything. Maybe we've got to do it, (religiously, I might add) because Avram didn't. He's just terrible at being what we now call Jewish. Why doesn't he argue?

So, to speed things up here. First his god orders him to go and points him in the 'right' direction. And gives Avram the great big come-on — it could as easily have been Jim Jones speaking.

Do what I say, and I'll bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you...

How's that for power tripping?

It's not like trouble is coming out of nowhere. It's right there at the beginning: plenty of warning. If you're not thinking Jim Jones, how 'bout the Godfather?

Because wait, there's more. When Avram gets to Canaan, YHVH makes him an offer he can't refuse.

Over and over again.

—I will give this land to you and your offspring ...

—For all the land that you see, I will give it to you and your offspring forever ...

—I'm the god who took you out of Ur (Casdim) in order to give you this land as an inheritance ...

—[my personal favorite:] To your descendants I have given this land, from the Egyptian River, as far as the great river the Euphrates, — the land of the Kenites, the Kenizites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Yebusites...

Yup, kiddies. Occupied territory. And map it out: it encompasses about five distinct sovereign contemporary nations.

And note the structure:

—I will give
—I give
—I have given

It's word magic: Abra'cadabra: I create as I speak. Abraham's YHVH utters the magic word, et voila...

And only then comes the bit with Hagar and the birth of Ishmael. Yitzhak is still not even conceived of being conceived, if you know what I mean.

But wait, there's more.

—To you and your offspring I will give this land where you are now living as a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan shall be yours eternally, and your descendants.

—All you have to do is keep my covenant, circumcision. [Pretty good deal, if you ask me. I'd do it... I think.]

Turn the page. Okay. Plot thickens. Now we've got Yitzhak to worry about. And the deity makes it clear — or rather the text makes it clear that the deity makes it clear that the 'covenant' is with Yitzhak, who isn't even born yet.


And we haven't even gotten to the Akedah yet.

Okay. Close your eyes. And picture a map of the Middle East.

—Picture Egypt, with the Nile flowing from south (Upper Egypt) to the Mediterranean (Lower Egypt).

—Turn your eye eastward toward the great Tigris and Euphrates (running north to south, and dumping into the Chott el 'Arab — around where Ur used to be— and then into the Gulf).

—Picture the Nile as one blue stripe. And way on the other side, picture the Euphrates as another.

—Now draw a Star of David right smack encompassing all the land between them. Can you see it?

It looks (strangely enough and what a surprise) exactly like the Israeli flag.

Not to Israelis of course. Not to Jews everywhere. No, to them the flag looks like the Jewish prayer shawl.

But it doesn't look like that to the Arabs, or to Muslims everywhere.

Skip the Akedah for now. We'll deal with that one another time... For now, just look at that flag.

I think the flag's a problem. It illustrates visually (to those sensitive to it, which is a good chunk of the planet's human inhabitants), the assumed Israeli agenda. That they intend to and will appropriate all the land between those two great rivers. And can back up the land grab by just pointing to those passages in Lech L'cha in the bible.

I've never met an Israeli — or even a Jew anywhere — who has any idea of what I'm talking about. Even Abba Eban. I talked to him about it, when he came to speak honoring my father. He had no idea what I was talking about.

But to Arabs everywhere? To Muslims everywhere? To the PLO pamphlets distributed a whole generation ago? The Israeli flag screams "biblically sanctioned land grab." From Egypt to Iraq. Including (if you follow the geography of the YHVH passages) southern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and even the northernmost tip of Arabia. Now that's a chunk of change.

So. How's about a simple act of visual redefinition? An Israeli flag (if there must be one at all—which is a different question altogether) of less provocative design. Not screaming 'land grab' with no alternate interpretation to trump the visual landscape on the flag. How 'bout something a little more modest. And it's got to do away with those two distinctive stripes of blue! As long as those two stripes are there, the biblical allusion is the only one that will come to mind for those who care.

Change the flag, and much becomes possible. A re-thinking of intention. A flag that doesn't look like a colonizer's wish list. All blue, with a white Star of David is a little too much of a 'pushed-into-the-sea' look, so that won't work. And all white with a blue Star of David looks a little too much like the white flag of defeat. We want no losers here. None at all. Losers insist on revenge. It's the Middle East outside, remember? Keep it simple. But make it work. I have no idea how.

And most of all, make it something the neighbors can live with. Something that when they see it waving across a friendly little border, doesn't invoke Abraham's out-of-line deity giving away the neighborhood, or Yitzhak's descendants appearing to peer covetously across some invisible line.

And when you redraw that map, please think before you hoist it up the flagpole for all to see.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

dwelling in despair

"We don't have to dwell in despair," she said. "We get one life, that we know of, and do we want to dwell in despair, or do we want to laugh and create and love and carry on?"

I'm sorry. I don't speak this language. And I'm not sure I can learn it either.

It's not what I was taught at all.

I was taught that we do have to dwell in despair. That the problem is that people don't take the despair seriously enough. That if we don't immerse in it, no one will remember it. And then where would we be? According to this argument, articulated best by Mrs Tzaddik (not the tzaddik himself, who would never have put it this way) — according to this argument, it all boils down to two words, and you can guess what they are:

1) Holocaust
2) Responsibility
3) Holocaust

Actually, there's also:

4) Inquisition, Spanish

which is tied to the

5) Reconquista and the
6) Expulsion and
7) Holocaust ...

Ah, you see what happens? The words start just rolling off the tongue, and there's this snowball effect — the despair doesn't diminish. No. It accumulates. The more you think, the more there is of it.

The tzaddik put it differently. Of course he would.

There are fragments of lives cut short out there — fragments that have been dispersed throughout the globe. And it is our job to bring those fragments back. Piece them together. And send them off to where they need to be. This is, after all, what the Shekhinah is after as well, is it not?

He wasn't about keeping all those shards themselves. No. He knew that someone out there wanted them back. This is the kind of Collector that he was.

Collect the fragments.
Piece the bits together.
Discover their history.
Find their rightful place.
Return them.

All those bits of junk! Every bit of junk — that was his task. Piece by piece, putting the world aright.

So, yeah, it was dwelling in despair. He'd piece the fragments together. And she'd drive home the despair.

"Lest we forget!" she would say. "Lest the world forget." All the wrongdoings of planet earth were hers to remember, remind others — and teach them to change their ways. And that if each person did his part ... But it begins with immersing in despair.

It wasn't personal, really. Or maybe it's all personal.

Dwelling in despair was just something that had to be done. And so they did it, and did it right. They created a Dwelling of Despair. A museum to bring all the bits and pieces together. Not a Holocaust Museum. No, not that at all. For the Holocaust itself is only another set of fragments — but there's so much more than that.

So. I was raised in such a way that the point was not to laugh and love and carry on. The point was to collect the fragments and help put them back together. And ship them back wherever it was that they belong.

Think of it like working at the Post Office. There's always more. And your work is never done. Not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

a kaddish for the printed word

If I grade one more paper tonight, I think I will scream!

Problem is — I have another 4.5 years worth of papers to grade, and I won't scream. I never have screamed. I'll kvetch. I'll pull my hair. I'll eat chocolate. I'll complain a lot. And I'll look for something positive to say about them. And there will be something good to say.

What's positive?

First of all, they're on paper.

Not that my students want to submit their work on paper. After all, if you're just downloading shit, why not transmit it electronically as well? Why use good trees for this?

Okay, to be fair: I've read 2.5 good papers so far in the past week. So that's 2.5 out of 38. And that's just one class. And it took that long because I've been sick all week. Makes them all the harder to read. They hurt my kishkes.

But I didn't sit down to write about the demise of good writing. I actually wanted to say a word about the demise of writing and printing on paper. After all, what I'm writing right now doesn't warrant being written on paper. The question is, what does?

I can feel it happening. It's been creeping up slowly. Like vegetarianism. Like menopause. Like death. It started when one colleague began casually whipping out his iPad during our Study Group, and showing me that he had all the reading on PDFs and kindle formats. And my other colleague whipped out his iPhone, with the entire Talmud right there between his thumbs. We were sitting in my Library. Surrounded by paper. Paper in Victorian mahogany bookcases with glass doors. Protecting all that paper. Talmud on iPhone! Isn't that a sin or something? Or is it a mechiyah?

And now I look at my treasured collection, and what do I see? A fire hazard. An ecological genocide. A shanda.

I bought a book yesterday. Lev Grossman's The Magicians.

And now I'm thinking, is this book good enough to deserve the paper it's written on? Maybe only really good books should have the honor of real live paper? And who would it be who determines that?

And then I think of the end of Lucifer's Hammer. When the diabetic nerdy astro-physicist, Dan Forester, has carefully buried his most treasured books as 'the world is coming to an end' — and it's implied that it's his self-sacrificing actions that will lead to the rebuilding of civilization. (It is also implied that civilization is worth rebuilding, even if it's more romantic to think otherwise).

If you buried a kindle (or iPad or iPhone or iPod, or iBook) in the ground, after the disruption and destruction of all electronic communication, would any information at all have been preserved? Cloud technology begins to sound like a terrible idea from this perspective. Would all of Google, Wikipedia, JSTOR, AnthroSource still be — well, they'd all be gone, right? And I don't think I'd mourn the loss of online sources at all.

I'm sick of too much undigested information. I sure as hell am sick of download. Too much easy access to any superficial fact — that still requires analysis, but isn't getting it.

Remember the slow assimilation of hard found resources... The worldwide search for 19th century journals... Piecing the puzzle together bit by bit... all gives you the time to think, really think, about meaning. And when we scour the earth for that treasured manuscript, or missing folio — we meet people, and we talk to them. And they have another bit of the puzzle — and we collaborate. We fall in love in the Archives. We're curled up on the floor of the Stacks. We're intoxicated by the back corridors of used book stores. Curled up in a comfy armchair in a cozy incandescent library, with a fire going in the fireplace, and the rain pouring outside, and it's getting dark out... Maybe you're too young to remember that ...

Sorry. Sorry. I got a little over wrought there. Way too schmaltzy for words.

I mean, we could just sit home and download, right? And we can think we've found everything there is to know because we've Googled it. Wikipediated it. I mean, if it's only on paper, does it even count?

The paper that got me so pissed off considered something called 'Brainy Quotes' to be 'research.'

Throw a quote in here and there — professors like that shit, don't they? I've heard that more than once. To my face. And with a smile.

Okay. Yeah, I know — I'm spewing here. Conflating things.

This was gonna be a nice quiet post on the question of whether to spend hundreds of dollars (which will be equated with pre-Christmas dollars spent boosting the economy) on the purchase of an iPad — and never ever ever again purchasing another book. Or whether to forego the currently coveted contrivance, and stick to my love of paper and binding. But reading student papers all day long for the past few days has made me reconsider the value of the printed word altogether.

My colleague says he's still trying to figure out how to comfortably curl up with his iPad in bed at night to read. That a real live book still outperforms in bed.

I take this very seriously.

And how do kitties feel about electronics in bed? At present, Vlad waits patiently until the book is in place on the pillow before he climbs up and sits on it. Would Vladdie be equally comfortable on a kindle?

Here's what I've come to:

— I'm sick of reading papers.

— I'm still quite happy reading paper books.

— Somebody had damned well better have saved all the books in the world for when the electronics all go down.

— Only the finest of reading materials will do for kitty and human nocturnal satisfaction.

Conclusion: I get to keep the 500 bucks that I don't have for an iPad, and go out and buy just another book or two — for tonight...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

rabbity babbity and the neti pot

In her seventh HP book, JK Rowling introduces us to yet another children's book she hadn't written yet— The Tales of Beedle the Bard — and then found that she had to actually write the thing and come up with stories that matched the titles that she had so 'carelessly' tossed into HP7. I seem to have conflated two of her titles into one. I'm not here to tell you either of those tales. You've probably already read them yourself, like everything else that Rowling has written. Or if you haven't, ask the next person you set your eyes on. They have.

No. I want to tell a different tale.

There once was a Shekhinah in the world, and she had a perpetually sniffly nose. And worse than that, she couldn't breathe through it, either. And worse still, it was all bent out of shape — from the inside out. And the right side didn't work at all unless she pulled at her face to keep the passage open. Almost all photos of her show her looking studiously to the side, one hand supporting her jaw. It's a trick, you see. She's not trying to be studious at all: No. She's just trying to breathe.

One day, this witch came into her life. A witch who only appeared in a special looking-glass, with a slender titanium frame around it. The looking-glass could show the Shekhinah absolutely anything she wanted to see, on earth or off — but instead, quite magically, it brought her this witch instead. Unasked for. Right out of thin air.

And the Shekhinah is no conjurer. God forbid. She takes no responsibility for the witch's appearance at all. Cackle all you want.

And a really witchy witch at that. Custom made, it seemed, to cast a spell upon the Shekhinah, who was really someone else in disguise. I'm not sure who, though. I mean, hell, it's the Shekhinah — who else could it be? But it sounds like the story should go that way.

So. You know witches. They're yentas of one kind or another. Just can't mind their own bloody business. Have to go around stirring up trouble. And this witch took the form of the most seductive irresistible thing the Shekhinah had ever experienced: the tall, butch dyke incarnation of shikse goddess. And threw in 'musician' as well, just for added effect to keep her spells aimed to kill.

And kill she did. She hit the brain and the heart with one fatal blow — on YouTube, no less — with a private spell with one aim: to fling her sincerity right through the looking-glass screen so that it should slay the Shekhinah instantly. And so it came to pass. The Shekhinah was writhing on the ground, cracking up, and could not catch a single breath.

"You slay me!" she tried to say. But no breath. No sound.

And in this way, the Shekhinah passed out of this world into the world to come.

It was the spell of the Neti Pot.

For the witch advocated, in email after email, and in that final YouTube blow — that the Shekhinah take up use of the vile contraption. She gave argument after argument. Day after day, and night after night. She set her enchantments to music, and forced the Shekhinah to listen — nay, to hear — the seduction of the neti pot. Her advocacy was relentless. And there, on YouTube, were little two year olds adding to the argument, and creepy guys, and businesses all hired by the witch to cast her spell.

She used the ultimate spell of 'rationality' figuring that it would work the best in this case.

Her arguments included, (if I recall them at all):

No. I've blanked every single one out. I don't remember a thing. Not a thing!

But they were rational when you read them, or looked into those sincere faces, with a contraption — the neti pot itself —up one nostril, and water sincerely and magically pouring like Vernal Falls down the other nostril. Can I throw up now?

And they all look so innocent. And healthy. And clean.

And I decided that for sure, it's a cult.

And they lure you in with rationality and health claims, and how you'll breathe better, and sleep better, and never get sick again.

And they have the same look on their face. That cult look of utter guilelessness and honesty. That you-can-trust-me look.

And it might as well be J.K. Rowling selling you HP8 or Beedle the Bard. You know that you're just doomed. That you're gonna join the cult — eventually.

But in the meantime, you're going to resist with every fiber of your being. Anything, you cry out. Anything, but the neti pot!

And you know that once you're hooked, you'll walk around with that dumb-ass glow on your face, wreaking of health and happiness, and sound-sleeping nights that you can't even imagine. And a free neti pot of your very own to take home with you, if you sign up right now, maybe in blood.

And that the one thing that you don't get —absolutely not — is a free butch dyke of your very very own, thrown into the bargain. Instead, the story always goes, she runs off to indoctrinate someone else, poor soul.

And then she goes home to her wife.

Babbity Rabbitty has a better ending:

"... and ever after a golden statue ... stood upon the tree stump, and no witch or wizard was ever persecuted in the kingdom again."

Don't you just love J.K. Rowling?

Monday, December 13, 2010

a kaddish for terry dobson

There's no reason for me to remember. There's no reason to forget. I knew the man for 15 minutes. The last 15 minutes, it turned out. Riki, his partner, told me at SF General Hospital that night, that in those 15 minutes, I had gotten the best of Terry Dobson.

Maybe it's the focus on the kaddish right now that brings him to mind. No matter. It's still a pretty bizarre tale.

I was told to go to his Teaching at Suginama Aikikai that night. It wasn't a request. It was August, 1992. I had no business being there. I was downright crappy at Aikido and was always going to be crappy at Aikido — although, for me, the progress was phenomenal. I was soaking it up — O Sensei's poetry, in particular, moved me. Wada-sensei's ritual stirring of the universe, was just that: stirring. I loved Aikido. Derived my sense of balance, aesthetic, and righteousness from this martial art. And more than anything else, I was moved by the physical acts of resonance that were possible to cultivate.

The only problem was that I couldn't really 'do' it. Or do it well. Or well enough. I was good at feeling sorry for myself. Spent plenty of time crying in the tiny changing area. Until I was told, more than once at that point, that crying in the changing area was just part of the discipline. It meant that we were still there. Trying.

So. Call it low self-esteem. I didn't feel I belonged at Suginama Aikikai, which seemed to wreak of more testosterone than any other dojo in the city. I certainly had no business training, even for one night, with Terry Dobson.

But I went.

And if you want to read what I wrote, you can find it at Aikido Today Magazine: the journal of the art of Aikido, Vol. 6, No. 5. If you can find it at all. Aikido Today is now defunct. And all 100 issues have just been made available through Arete Press at

So. Those 15 minutes that were mine. Yes, he was charismatic. Brilliant. Compelling. All those good words. Yes, I took notes on every word he said during his Teaching. Yes, I watched every single person listen, but not hear him. Yes, he spoke of nothing if not how to face your death. Aikido as a practice on how to meet death with integrity. Not to flinch, not to turn away. According to Riki, he had been immersed in some version of this teaching for at least a decade. But not like this. That night he was explicit.

And then he fell into a coma. Right afterword. Riki said he'd been waiting for that moment for years. Anticipating it. And here am I, Doctor Nobody, still thinking about Terry Dobson. The Terry Dobson I knew for the duration of that Teaching, and our 15 minutes afterward. It just doesn't make sense.

What he said was, "There you are! I haven't seen you in so long!"

"We haven't met yet," I replied. "We don't get to meet until next time."

Now, why did I say that?

I was called to the hospital in the middle of the night. I had his last words, his last Teaching. For some reason, no one had filmed the event. So my notes were all that remained.

In the middle of the night, I sat with Riki, and Terry's kids and read them my notes. Notes that I had taken just for me. Filled with attitude that was not just his. The first words of his I heard were:

"The only reason you came in here is to be able to meet your death with integrity and relaxation."

"The uke," he said, "the uke is there to bring you your death."

Which is a bit ironic, if I think of it now. For in meeting our uke, it is our uke who is always thrown, while we ourselves remain standing, having moved — only slightly — off line.

Were we supposed to meet our death and win?

"The uke grabs with sincerity," Terry said. "His ki pours through him. Honor his direction and his intensity. That's what draws him in. Take advantage of his imbalance and his desire to regain his balance. ... Make sure that he's going over nice."

"The name of the game is ki," he said. "Power and protection start very simple and direct, with working at making sure that your goddamn stupid ego isn't crapping through."

"We're working on stillness," he said. "Make a decision to be there." But as I recall, nobody was really listening. Maybe they'd all heard Terry Dobson's death spiel before. But I hadn't.

So. Okay.

Meet death with integrity.
Don't flinch.
Don't turn away.
Step slightly off line.
Use his imbalance.
Keep goddamn stupid ego out of it.
Be there.
Achieve stillness.

Fine. I'll do that. Now I know how to handle death. No problem.

So. Here's the troubling part. You've probably guessed it: It's that response I gave him:

"We don't meet until next time."

Which every one I know is quite clear about. And I won't even say it out loud here. I don't know why I said it. It just seemed true. I think I meant that I just wasn't ready yet for Terry Dobson. Or maybe it meant that he just wasn't ready for me.

My friend (who runs his own dojo), my friend who forced me to attend that night was pretty clear about it.

"Terry, he said, "had been waiting for release for a very long time. And then, he checked in with you, and he was gone."

What does that mean? Did I kill him?

"You know what that means," my friend said, rolling his eyes. "You know what that means."

And he explained (as if to a child) all about 'checking in.' About passing between the worlds. We said our hello, and we said our goodbye. And we would recognize each other. Next time.

Thinking about Terry Dobson makes me want to sit right down and sob really really hard. It's not really about him. And it's not really about me.

I just don't believe in next time.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

a kaddish for perfection

When I lived in the foster home, before being rescued by the tzaddik's intercession, there was more than one uncomfortable moment. I suppress them as best I can, but every once in a while one of them pops back up without permission and without apology for the intrusion. Like a jack-in-the-box wound way too tight, one of those memories stuffed way down came exploding out uninvited last night.

We went to see Black Swan. And this is not a movie review.

But let me get the movie bit out of the way with, hm, let's say three points:

a) this is a hard movie to watch
b) this is a hard movie to watch, and
c) this is a hard movie to watch ... if you've ever done ballet.

Or if you've ever done anything that you care about.
Or if you've ever become obsessed.
Or — and it's this last or — that led to the unwanted and heavily suppressed memory.

Or —

But let me start from the beginning.

So. Foster home. Nice, generous family with way too many kids on their hands. But only two girls, and we were very very young. And Mrs. Foster wanted to do the right thing by us, and so she sent my foster sister and me to ballet class. Not just that, but she sewed our little pink costumes all by hand, right down to the tutus. There's a picture of us to prove it. I, of course, look mortified. The deer-in-the-headlights look. I think I was all of three and a half. Maybe four tops.

And at the end of the year there was to be the performance of our little life-time. Weren't we excited? Our teacher made us do 'it' —whatever 'it' was— over and over. I don't remember any of it. Suppression, remember? But this one thing came back to mind. My foster sister and I were to perform a duet. And just before we went on to the stage, our teacher stared into our eyes severely and said:

"Remember, this is a performance. It has to be perfect."

And we got into position on the stage. And the music started. And the lights came up and focused on us. And we were facing each other. And I took a glance to my left, and saw a dark room with all these grown-ups that I couldn't see. And they were staring at us. And when the right note manifested, we began to move. And J, my foster sister glanced into the darkened audience as well. J lost her focus, and our little dance crumbled.

And we stopped, terrified. And the music kept playing. And I whispered with horror, "you made a mistake!"

And we both started crying.

And all those unseen grown-ups in the audience started to laugh.

And I never danced again.

Now. I'm a mom. I've been to these horrible things when my own kids have had their little recitals. And I've sat there hoping that my own little trauma would stay stuffed deep inside that tightly wound box. And now I know that we must have been adorable. Just like my own kids were adorable. And that those grown-ups must have been parents. But none of them were my parents. And with my kids there was another big difference.

My kids' teachers had a very different message for them:

"Have fun with it."

Just that, nothing more.

So. That last point about the movie last night:


this is a hard movie to watch ... if you're committed to perfection.

Which is not quite the same thing as obsession.

Black Swan is all about perfection. And that real perfection requires a modicum of imperfection to be just right. Too much technical precision feels wooden. It feels boring. And our eye strays anywhere else it can to escape. We need a touch of insanity in our art. We need to have fun with it. We need to be unpredictable and wild — without losing our form.

A painter friend of mine painted stencils on my ceiling and made every single repeated geometric a slightly different color. "The eye will not move, otherwise," he proclaimed. "It will have no reason to move if they are all exactly alike." What made his murals perfect was his carefully crafted imprecision.

Even Islamic art purposefully includes a flaw somewhere in the piece — saving 'perfection' for Allah alone.

And my horn playing partner in our kaddish in two-part harmony knows this as well. And somehow I too managed to stumble upon the liberation of imprecision along the way. And I embraced it.

I teach this way. It's one of the ways I use to keep it fresh. I forget words — and students find them. Find words that work, or might work. And the words they find are fresh and new, and the ideas get to change with the words they find. And we have, suddenly, a new angle to explore.

I tell them to have fun. Have fun with it. I don't think they believe me.

Black Swan has a perfect moment in it. When technical precision and ecstatic abandon merge — and everyone experiences the transcendence of that moment. The dancer. The audience. The audience watching the film. Everyone, at the same time. It's perfect.

With the usual consequences.

Friday, December 3, 2010

a kaddish for self-evident truths

A good friend jogged my memory a week or two ago at the tail end of a post on his blog. Well, it was more like a jolt than a jog. It was something about the Declaration of Independence. Which I suppose we've all been taught nothing but respect, awe and reverence in the face of that hallowed document. But suddenly something about it felt wrong. Massively wrong. And I don't think it was 'cause I was in a bitchy mood, because I'm pretty sure that was not the case.

It was those words. Those words we just spout off and don't even hear anymore. Suddenly, those words really pissed me off.

We hold these truths to be self-evident —

Now, it really doesn't matter what follows after that, does it? You could say anything, really, and the implication is that whatever follows must be true, and that that truth is self-evident. And you can't question it.

The word 'truth' is bad enough, in my book especially when it started it's life, as this one did, as a capital 'T' Truth.

But self-evident? Self-evident means no evidence at all. It is hyperbole.

No, it is worse than that. That which cannot be questioned wreaks of tyranny.

All 'truths' require a) evidence, b) the ability to test and question that evidence, and c) independent verification. But what follows here is not that kind of real truth at all — it is an aspiration. We aspire to equality, perhaps, but we are not 'created' that way. And this is apart from the fact that we are not 'created' at all — not in the sense that the Declaration of Independence has in mind.

that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights —

You know where I'm going with this: it's that bloody Creator thing again, for starters.

So the whole set up here is to make what follows unassailable, unquestionable, and emphatic. but these words do not make any of it actually true. And of course, the whole bit is preceded by the winning combo of 'the Laws of Nature' and 'Nature's God' — more stuff you can't argue with.

It's not that I think the sentiments here aren't admirable. Well, while we're questioning, maybe we should question these sentiments as well:

endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I don't actually have evidence that we have these Rights. Let's take them one by one:

Life: This sounds reasonable, if we don't think about it. But right from the beginning, I think about unequal prenatal care, a woman's ability to 'choose' whether her unborn child lives or dies, whether that child if born, has access to sufficient good nutrition and health care (oh, and safe neighborhoods) to keep that Life sustained...

Liberty: Surely, I don't understand this word at all. When I lived in Brussels there was a law that prohibited folks from borrowing more than a certain proportion of their income. The idea was that to become overly indebted would make us unfree. In Belgium, too much liberty was equated with very poor decision making, leading inevitably to no liberty at all. In which case, it is the role of the State to intercede on our behalf. In our country, on the other hand, Liberty seems to mean just the opposite: we are at liberty to be as self-destructive as we like — immersing ourselves in debt, weaponry, foods, and habits that lead to greater not lesser suffering. So. Liberty. Too much brings about too little.

Pursuit of Happiness: gevalt. It's a very fuzzy concept — it could mean anything, anything at all. Does that really belong in the Declaration of Independence?

Much of the rest of the Declaration consists of complaints against the then King of Great Britain — and that part seems a whole lot more rationally considered, if a bit whiney. It is, at least, specific, and makes the case.

But the part we like so much? The self-evident truths?

There's something just terribly wrong with it.

Or maybe I've just graded too many papers in my life. The thing needs a much bigger editing job than it actually got. This is definitely not an A+ document.

I invite you to a re-writing party. Right here, right now. How would you phrase it? Would the sentiments be the same? Or are you just plain happy (sic) with something as sloppy as ''self-evident truths' that are not self-evident at all.

What would you really like to see in there?

For me, I'd ditch the 'created equal' bit in favor of a right to 'equal opportunity.' Which was another thing that struck me living in Brussels. Tuition there was a small nominal fee per year. At the time, it was about ten bucks. Anyone, whether citizen or not, could get a higher education for next to nothing. And if you failed, you had the opportunity to try it all again... No student loans. No three jobs just to stay afloat. No debt into the hereafter. Anyone, anyone could study and learn...

But the most important thing I'd change, is I'd add responsibilities. For rights do not stand alone. They go with an obligation to serve the system that provides those rights. Taxes. Military service. Voting. Scraping graffiti off the walls. Sweeping the sidewalks. Planting trees...

Rights are always accompanied by Responsibilities — even if our hallowed document is too busy complaining about the King, or espousing the self-evident to remember this vital part of establishing any viable new order.

Monday, November 29, 2010

the real problem with the evil eye

George Foster long ago wrote a delightful article on envy and the evil eye. He spelled out exactly how the phenomenon works, particularly in Tzintzuntzan, but he claimed it extended throughout peasant society worldwide. The critics, primarily Marxists, claimed that he was wrong — but claimed it in such a way that they affirmed his essential hypothesis.

By now, it is commonplace to equate the evil eye with envy. That casting a covetous eye on what does not belong to you can, quite literally, make the object of your envy ill — sometimes terminally. And so, the solution in such societies is, for the rich, redistribution of a portion of their wealth for 'the people' to enjoy, ie, for the common good. This diffuses the envy by impoverished peasantry, reinforces established hierarchies, and helps prevent peasant revolts. Supposedly. Except, adds Fanon, in the case of Western dominance and colonialism, in which case revolution is de rigeur.

So. How does this help me with my love life?

After all, evil eye manifests primarily at the micro level. In little earthen gourbis and thatch-roofed huts around the world. Where a covetous eye is cast upon somebody else's wife, someone else's child. Where longing is the primary emotion in play. And there's nothing you can do about it.

Twice in my life I've been offered someone else's partner. Yup. The first time it was temporary. Here's the key to my apartment, here's the bed. Keep her warm and safe while I am gone. Right. No way. But I thought it was very sweet. Considerate. And thoughtful. The second time, was more serious. When I'm dead, take my spouse. Yes, ma'm I said, instantly. I mean, how can you say no to that? There's so much at stake. Especially when this is someone you already love.

Preemptive redistribution. I think that's what Foster would call it. Or maybe I'm putting words in his mouth. The fortunate one protects what could be coveted by giving it away, kind of.

Mrs Tzaddik did this recently. As a result of a brain injury, she fell into a delusion in which the Tzaddik, before his death, had built — brick by brick, so to speak — an exact duplicate of her house, along with everything in it exactly in its place. And she herself was living in the wrong house, trying to get home. When my birthday came around, she offered me a marble and bronze statue she greatly admired to be my birthday present. "Take it from the other house," she said. A brilliant way to both give and not give. To be generous and have it cost nothing at all.

I see the reallocation of one's partner not quite in such baldly pecuniary terms, but as an attempt at protection against the evil eye. We give away that which we treasure, but give it in such a way as to hold on tight — maybe tighter — than we did before. The thing we really cannot control is what happens after we die. It drives us mad, from time to time. And the rest of the time, we just let it go. Remain unprepared. Or write up a bunch of legal documents that we'll forget to revise at the time they're really needed.

The offer I received is actually not unknown in human history. Levirate marriage is based upon this principle. Social welfare systems are as well. Life insurance policies might be good for financial health, but they don't keep you warm at night.

I feel honored to have been considered for such a serious and deeply felt responsibility. I also feel cleansed of my own envy of such a perfect couple, such a pretty pair! I don't think this has anything at all to do with what will or will not take place in the distant future. Surely, I will precede them both into the hereafter, long before their own demise. I'm not willing to think about that or alternate futures at all.

What I do think about is honor. Protection. And the brilliant ways in which humans attempt to ward off the inevitable, protect their young, protect their partners — and try, against all odds, to keep them warm and safe.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

two shape-shifters, one bed

You probably know shape-shifters of your own, or you're a shape-shifter yourself. T would say that of course you are. That you shape-shift every time you switch consciousness from say, your corporate self to your personal self. Your social self, to your lover self. Your talking to mom on the phone self. To ... you get the idea. This being Thanksgiving, you may well have been shape-shifting all day and well into the evening, into an exhausting something you're not terribly happy playing at. Yah, T equates shape-shifting with performance. With performativity. Not that you're putting it on, exactly. No.

But that you can show others a different persona, at will. The at will part is important.

But not all shape-shifters agree that that's what it's all about.

The beautiful C used to live with me from time to time when she needed to. She had a house of her own across town but for 'complicated' reasons was having trouble staying there at the time. So. She had a room at my house she called her own.

C was a shape-shifter of extraordinary power. And people saw in her an antique man of her own lineage, who once had ruled Romania, and terrified the countryside by appearing to manifest as undead. C and her ancestor were in fairly constant communication, and I got to know him quite well. Nice bloke. Interesting family. Came to rule just after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. He didn't take well to the Turks ...

The point is that C took responsibility when her audience saw this ancient ruler instead of her when she spoke. She took credit for his manifestation, as well as for the deeds that he might do and the things that he might say. When you spoke with C, you were in conversation with the lot of them. Especially him. (I later learned that this ancestor and others of his family manifested to many in Romania at the time, and that C's relationship with him was not at all uncommon).

But when he manifested for her, other people would see him! They could describe him! They saw his long black ringlets— and that thick handlebar moustache. They could describe his big eyes and the crownlike cap upon his head. The carmine jewel at his forehead. And on and on. They saw him. They did not see her.

I never saw this stuff, but I certainly was in the conversation.

So. C used to stay at my house when she needed to. Which means the whole bunch of her ancestors were there as well. She claimed her own room. And she claimed her own bed. Or maybe it was 'they' and not her at all.

But I had another friend of the shape-shifting persuasion.

And he too would stay in what by default was becoming the 'guest bedroom' — since calling it my 'study' didn't seem to be working out too well, with all the house guests at the time. His home was in Budapest, but he would visit every two to three months for two or three weeks at a time.

He called himself a scientist. And what he wanted was to build a computer that could do what he could do: read energy fields and heal folks by shifting their magnetic fields. Or something like that. That's what he purported to do. Whatever it was, his hands-on healing was powerful. And I never thought a machine could duplicate whatever it was that he did. I just thought of it as 'body work' — until I myself saw him shape shift.

Right before my eyes (and no drugs in sight) he transformed into an ancient mythical being documented from northern Europe. It's not a figure I'm familiar with, although just the other day I saw its image on an archaeological volume at the meetings in New Orleans. T recognized him. I still can't remember the name. He had two very large antlers. That I do remember.

The scientist from Budapest acknowledged the shape-shifting, but his explanation differed from that of C's. He said that what he did was 'normal' healing within a realm that would be able (at some point) not only to be explained by science but to be duplicated by it. He insisted that what people saw during his healing sessions were projections that they themselves manifested — and had nothing to do with him.

So. Two views of shape-shifting. His. And hers.

His: people see what they need or want to see.

Hers: people see what she purposefully projected for them to see.

I'm not here to say one of them is right or wrong.

I'm here to say that they were both periodic guests in my house. Staying in my 'guest room.' Which should have been my study. And it was bound to happen that at one point they would both be claiming that room — and that one bed — as their own.

Now, I know that I should have taken charge of the matter. So, in essence, this is all my fault. But my excuse is that I really don't like making decisions for other people. I didn't want to decide between them who got the room and bed, and who slept downstairs on the couch. I mean, these are after all, both powerful magical practitioners that I didn't really want to piss off. She, especially, had a vile temper — and she was also my best friend. But he would come all the way from Budapest, and surely could use a decent bed.

So. I did something you'll probably agree was pretty stupid. I left it up to them.

These are two intelligent, articulate, periodically rational adults, right? I figured they could decide which one of them would take the bed, and which one would take the downstairs couch. Or maybe they'd come up with alternating nights. Or weeks. Something reasonable and mutually acceptable.

I went to my own room, shut the door, picked up a good book, and went to sleep. Let them figure it out.

But no. They both claimed the territory to the end. They both headed for the room. Both planted their stuff in the room. Both washed up and brushed their teeth. Put on their night things. And both climbed into the bed, growling and snarling at each other in some inhuman-sounding form. It sounded like whatever creatures they were, were ripping the house apart. I felt dismay that all my books, fieldnotes, and computer were in the same room with them.

In the morning they both came down for breakfast, which I had made. They ate my grandpa's Macedonian Sephardi eggs still glaring at each other, and went off about their day.

They never overlapped again.

But now, when I think of it, I wonder: is there a kaddish for the undead? Did anyone ever in history say a kaddish for Vlad Tepes, Draculea himself, prince of Wallachia, who lived for a time at my own house?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

epitaph for a tzaddik

New Orleans.

With the voudon priest. Again. He gives me a reading. And one of the things he says is:

"Don't go to the cemetery. He's not there. Go to the place where he still resides. The place where he still lives."

And all I can think of is well, where is that? Where is he alive? Where can I hold this conversation?

And with that reading, I fear that something just washed right out of me. I'm not sure if it was joy or sorrow. I sat there just crying my eyes out, for some reason. And then it was all gone. It just plain washed away.

But I still need to construct a stone. And write something on it.

What if we wrote what we really wanted to say — and set it in stone? (Though I've noticed that it's not stone anymore. It's these metal plaques that lie flat on the ground). I can't stand that the tzaddik is still left unmarked. Unvisited. But there's John T, saying don't bother going — 'cause that's not where he's at.

Where is he?

He's in half the books I own. He resides in Turkish brass trays. Mamluk Revival pitchers. He's in drawings. Paintings. Amulets. In an incredible amount of just plain junk. In every fragment of shredded textile that he gave me and that I haven't thrown out. All this stuff. He's there. He's not just in the museum. He's every unsolved mystery, unplaced artifact. He's in every job well done.

But all I want to write:

Pappa! Why have you forsaken me! and on and on like that ... Very very whiney. Overdramatic. Yah. I know. Pathetic.

Here lies the tzaddik... Yah. That doesn't work either. It's pure conceit.

Founder and Director of bla bla bla ... as if he's an institution. As if no blood ran through his veins.

How 'bout a picture? How 'bout a name. With dates.

How 'bout a tree?

And maybe it's that unmarked grave that makes his death feel so unfinished. And this is me dragging it on and on. Holding on to unfinished business. Or maybe just holding on. What right do I have to write his epitaph? He's still alive for me.

I pick up the phone to call, to ask him a question. I go to New Orleans and feel that I'm still supposed to collect that stuff for him? Am I supposed to take it on? Or just look, and let it go?

Do you feel it in these words? Something's gone. Something's really washed away. There is no power in these words. Is that the magic a yahrtzeit supplies?

Cultures prescribe a mourning time. But they proscribe it as well. They circumscribe the time of mourning. Start it now. Do it this way. And now, stop. Desist. And cease. Be done. Lest you fall into self-indulgent wallowing. Self-absorption. Decay. Decline. Just cut this out already.

Even the Tzaddik would say now, enough is enough. Now let it go. Go live.

And so, I turned to Precious Daughter. And we talked of China. Of infrastructure falling. Of going down with the ship. Or not. Of shape-shifting. Dogs. Cats. Brooklyn apartments. Crappy impressionists. Screenwriters who surprise us. Unfinished novels. Of choosing rationality. Of those we know who don't. Family recipes for borekas. Color. Sound. Upholstery. Mandarin. Business divinations. Those who succeed through malice. Those who succeed with humility. Travel. Bravery points.

We do not speak of failure, I notice. Only of being on the path.

And then his voice arises. He applauds. The tzaddik is back inside the conversation.

"Anyone can do it with money," the tzaddik says. "Remember, you can do it without."

There were no excuses with him. No judgements. No admonitions. Just a little nudge. No expectations. And maybe a phone number. "Talk to so-and-so..." And either you do, or you don't. Either it works, or it doesn't. You follow through. Or you don't. We make our choices.

Here lies the Director.
Collector. Protector.
Tzaddik, rest in peace

Monday, November 22, 2010

a kaddish for new orleans

The meetings. New Orleans. Again.

Our session this time was 'On the Circulation of Trance: Trance in 21st century globalized society' or something like that. One of those times when every paper led seamlessly into the next, each amplifying the concerns of the previous. Each of us, in our own way, questioning the problems of authenticity, as trance and trance rituals become things of the past worth either retrieving or letting go. A fitting topic for New Orleans.

New Orleans, after all, specializes in entrancement. And here were 5,000 or more anthropologists hitting the Big Easy over the last week, each one of them it seems having a pretty hard time staying focused on the meetings when the city itself beckons so seductively.

Something happened while we were there, that might strike you as not terribly important in the scheme of things, given Katrina and the the BP oil spill in the Gulf. But I think it was indicative of more of the same to come.

It was a little thing. The water went out.

Can you say that? Meaning it the same way you might say 'the power went out'?

You go to brush your teeth or wash your face, or flush a toilet, and there just isn't any water. At all. Just like that. And you think, okay, there's something wrong in my room. But no. It's the whole town. With no water. And no warning.

And then the warnings come on the phone, the papers, banners on the bottom of your television screen: When the water returns, don't drink the water. Don't wash your face with it. Don't let it on your skin. Boil all your water. Or use bottled water.

Until we figure this one out.

And it makes me think just how incredibly fast a city can go down. That infrastructure in any community — from a major city to a tiny oasis in the Sahara — is a miraculous but fragile thing. We build it over very long periods of time. Build it up from scratch and watch it take shape, and grow, and provide more services. And come to depend on those services. We talk about the provision of schools, medical care, protection from fire or crime. Electricity.

But before that, and maybe first of all, comes the expectation — the necessity — of good clean, safe water.

In the Sahara we carried our own water. And we had maps that showed every well across the desert. Without knowledge of where those wells might be, one does not venture out across the Sahara. We rationed carefully. But we also knew where those wells were. And if one was dry, we knew where to expect the next one, and the next, in close enough proximity to survive. And in the Sahara, it's very clear when travelers have been mistaken in this regard. The remains of bone and metal litter the panorama, picked dry by birds and bandits in equal measure.

So, I'm used to this from the places that I've lived or traveled. Abroad. The power, if there is power, goes out. The water is rationed. You improvise. You share. You help your neighbors, or nobody survives. I've taken this for granted when I'm over there. The Middle East. North Africa. West Africa. Central. East. Systems on the edge of no system at all.

America, however, presents itself as immune to collapse of systems. But all systems eventually fail, do they not?

New Orleans has been giving us a lot to think about in this regard. We've been seeing one system failure after another, each one a little bit different. Each breach very possibly having no real, durable, long term solution at all.

In New Orleans, if anything, one expects too much water rather than none at all, right? But this week there was a drop in the water pressure on the east bank of Orleans Parish. And nobody's quite sure yet why. The Sewerage and Water Board power plant just failed. One report stated that apart from this the NOLA water system is leaking more than 70% of its water at present. I mean, that's worse than Damascus, isn't it?

Okay. So, I'm not talking here about how much I love New Orleans. How great the music is, everywhere you turn. How each person you meet is ready to talk your head off for hours at a time, just for the pleasure of the conversation. How walking the narrow lanes of the French Quarter makes my own town, San Francisco, seem downright boring, banal and tame. I'm not telling you anything about my visits with a voodon priest and meeting the newest young, sweet pythons in his brood. Or my tears over the loss of Jolie and Eugene, the elder pythons I remember. Nothing about the distinct flavors of 'Slap Ya Mama' spices, Alligator jerky, Swamp Fire Seafood Boil, or hot Cajun eggs. Not saying a word about New Orleans pride: the Bud Light 'Here We Geaux!' signs, the 'Geaux Saints' flags flying proud. Not a word about all that music. And not a word about Marie Laveau, the St. Louis cemeteries, and John T. Nothing about being called 'baby' or 'darlin' in that lyrical lilt every other sentence. Nothing 'bout just how very much I've loved New Orleans from the first time I set eyes on it about 25 years ago.

No. This is me, thinking infrastructure.

Thinking 'bout the Sewerage and Water Board proposing increased taxes to pay for projects to fix 'it' all — once they figure out what on earth the problem might actually be. This is me thinking about Mayor Landrieu saying, no, no way. No more taxes.

Thinking about how saying no to taxes is saying no to infrastructure.

A.F.C. Wallace reminds us, in case we have forgotten, that revitalization is not inevitable. The only thing that is inevitable is that the Steady State will fail.

And New Orleans seems to be our canary-in-the-coal mine in this regard. Our early warning system, that systems are going down. And we don't want to fix them. No, it's just so much easier to blame politicians for the failures and vote them out of office. And vote folks in who'll make sure nothing long term ever gets repaired again.

No taxes? Sure, we can do that. No water. There are, after all, consequences. Guess we don't want to think about that one when we call for smaller government.

Don't get me wrong. This is not a plea to fix New Orleans.

It might be a plea to think about la longue duree. The long term consequences of our actions.

Or maybe not that either. Maybe, as good little anthropologists, we just take notes and watch it all fall. Watch cities fail, one at a time. Maybe we move in time to save ourselves. Maybe we choose to go down with the ship. Maybe we say science can cure all this, if we just put our minds to it. Maybe we say, it's signs from the heavens. Maybe we change our habits. And maybe there are no habits that need changing. And maybe this isn't any problem that needs fixing.

Cities rise. Cities fall. That's just the way it is.

Well, for that matter, planets form. Planets die. No big deal.

Maybe we don't think large enough. Think geological time. Astronomical time. It's just a question of scale. In la long duree none of this really matters at all, does it?

Okay, so this sounds just like another bummer post from another bummer pessimist. But that's not what I intend here. The cosmic view might really be a thing of beauty. We step back and watch the choreography and ballet of it all.

I mean, what else is there to do with our gift of human consciousness?

And the insight of 5,000 anthropologists, (or however many there might have been), that we collectively might have on every human problem in every corner of the world, does not really help us when the water's going down.

The wisdom of New Orleans is a very matter-of-fact, "I just deal with it. Baby."

So, yeah. New Orleans entranced me. Again. And what all did I do with it? Well, what do you think I did with it? I took notes. After all, I'm just an anthropologist. Baby.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

the tzaddik sells his daughter

Jerusalem, 1961

The tzaddik, as we know, was a great collector of Judaica: manuscripts, ceremonial artifacts, and ancient pieces of junk. For him, every single fragment was precious and worthy of preserving. Each broken piece of something had matching pieces yet to be discovered. Every object had a story that had to be uncovered.

If the Holy One, Blessed Be He created the world by separating all its parts — light from dark, and earth from sky ... — it was the tzaddik's job to put it all back together again. But you already knew this.

He took Malkah with him on many of his adventures. Up the Motherlode, looking for cemeteries (he collected cemeteries, but only if they were Jewish). They drove up and down the mountains searching out each and every single one. The tzaddik would then find a donor who would help purchase the rundown little plot of land and broken stones, and bring it back into a state of preservation. He taught Malkah to decipher the gravestones when she was about eight or nine.

But in Jerusalem, treasures were boundless. Either that, or they were fakes. He always seemed to know the difference. He would wander through the tiny streets (of west Jerusalem — the city was divided at that time) until he turned at last in through an open door. He'd find a grungy little stall, and look through absolutely everything with equal deliberation.

Every thing has a story.

And he was a great storyteller once he figured out the tale. The other thing that gave him pleasure, was giving away the pieces of junk. Once he unearthed the secret of an object, the next step was to find its home. There was always someone — or some institution — whose story it was. It was for them to preserve the thing and keep it safe.

He always assumed that once each object had found its rightful place in the world, that it would be honored. That others would treasure it as he did.

He was the most unmaterialistic materialist the world had ever seen. Of course. A lamed-vavnik, putting the universe of separation back in order, one piece at a time.

So. They turned down a cobbled alley, and there was this dirty little stall. And sitting in the dirty little stall was a dirty little man. An old and toothless man, wearing what looked to Malkah like rags inside the ragged stall. The shop was dark before her eyes adjusted. It only had one lightbulb hanging down.

There was a mournful horn playing in the distance, from somewhere further down the cobbled lane. It pervaded the very marrow of the stone walls all around.

Can you hear that sound?

The dirty, old shopkeeper was sitting cross-legged upon more piled up rags upon the cold stone floor. A woven blanket maybe. It was too dark to see. The tzaddik and his daughter sat cross-legged on the other side. There didn't seem to be much more room in the shop than that. Most of the light streamed in from the outside, and so they sat as near the doorway as they could. The shuttered doors of the shop were painted that blue — you know. Evil eye blue. The blue of protection.

The tzaddik's eyes were filled with equanimity. But Malkah knew he wasn't walking out of that shop without the crumbling manuscript now in his hand. The shopkeeper knew the same. He got up and disappeared into the darkness of the back of the shop.

The tzaddik didn't lift his head from deciphering the text below, even when the shopkeeper returned with the steamy little glasses of burning hot tea. The tiny glasses were old; the painted floral decoration mostly faded.

The shopkeeper eyed Malkah hungrily and with a wave of his hand insisted that she drink. She took a tiny burble and was struck by a syrupy jolt. Her body shuddered. There was nowhere to spit it out and she was forced to swallow.

The hours passed. More rounds of tea. The horn began another mournful tune. The haggling went on for hours. The grubby shopkeeper kept glancing at the tzaddik's daughter.

"I have a son," he said at last.

"Mazal tov!" proclaimed the tzaddik. "A blessing on your house."

"He and your daughter would make a pretty pair."

The tzaddik turned to another page in the crumbling folio sheets. He grunted.

"You could take my son with you," the old man said. "To Amrika."

"He could use an education," said the tzaddik.

"An education, yes!" the shopkeeper said, and started wrapping up the manuscript in newspaper, and tying it with brown twine.

A filthy boy just Malkah's age stepped into the shop, as if by magic. He had dark vacant eyes, huge teeth and sunken cheeks. His clothes were as tattered as his father's.

"An education," repeated the tzaddik.

"A shittach," said the shopkeeper.

The boy giggled, but with lack of comprehension. He cleared the teapot and the little glasses and off he ran. Malkah noticed that he was barefooted. As if he'd never worn a pair of shoes.

The tzaddik rose. The shopkeeper rose, kissed the tzaddik's right hand, and thrust the newspaper wrapped packet into the tzaddik's left. Malkah rose. The shopkeeper patted her on the head.

"An education," he repeated, looking the tzaddik in the eyes. The tzaddik grunted.

When they had left, Malkah was fuming. She had just turned thirteen.

"That's how it's done," the tzaddik said.

And he tucked the treasure under his arm and they walked on down the cobbled lane. Another piece of the cosmic puzzle was returning to its rightful home.

You could hear the horn finishing off its last five notes. Triumphal affirmations, finding their strength and hitting their stride.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

birthing and deathing

Birthing was easy. Well, I mean, it wasn't easy easy. But it was easy. Pregnancy was easy. There was a time limit to pregnancy and birthing, and it's pretty fixed and universal. This is how the body works in that regard. Expect this. Breathe like that. Push now. Baby. And there were a million books to read. Granted that pregnancy and childbirth don't always go by the book, no matter which book you're reading. But for the most part, humans have this one pretty much down.

Deathing isn't like that. It can be a poof! you're gone kind of death. Or a lingering on in diminishing capacity for years or even decades. Or it can be treatments. Or not treatments. 'Procedures.' Amputations. Meds, and more meds. Hospital visits or hospital beds. Incontinence. Dementia or delusion. Caregivers. No caregivers. Point is, it could be anything, anything at all — and last for a very long time.

It's that Dylan song, that lyric:

he not busy born is busy dying

Which we used to quote smugly looking at our elders. They were busy dying. We were busy living.

At a certain point, I realized that I was busy dying. I think it was when some financial rep came walking into my office (and every office on our floor, building, and likely the entire campus), trying to hook me on planning for my retirement.

I mean, was that some kind of joke?

Busy-being-born people don't plan for their retirements. They're too busy being in the present to be inside that future.

But I did it. I learned about IRAs and TSAs and deferred taxation, and all that shit. And I came to care about it.

And then I started budgeting my paycheck each month, and my expenses each quarter, and my obligations each year.

And then it was long term care insurance. One thing after another...

You get the point. I became one of those older people busy dying. And truth be told, I thought it was kinda fun.

Thinking about the financial part of living and dying, I realize, is one big reaction formation. Yes, the psychoanalysts have a word for this. But it's more than this. van Gennep, in his classic work, Rites of Passage, analyzes both the structure and function of life cycle rituals.

Rites of passage, he says, ritualize the major transitions of our physical being, from birth to death (or cycles of being) — and we take comfort in this. He covers many of the functions of ritual in this regard, including, for example:

public acknowledgement of the transition: Here, the community essentially proclaims that a shift is made, whether or not you feel that you've made the transition at all. Thus, suddenly you may be declared 'a man' or 'a woman' even if it's not at all what you feel. After this point, everyone in the community will treat you as this thing they claim you are.

public acknowledgement of expected shifts in behavior: And once the community declares you man or woman, or married, or widowed, or dead or alive — you are expected to behave in keeping with the rules associated with that status. This can be a very big bummer.

relieving anxiety regarding the life cycle change by transferring the anxiety to performing the perfect ritual: This one is why people make such a fuss over weddings. If you focus a year or two planning the perfect wedding, you don't really have to think much about what being married is all about. Likewise, if you focus on having the perfect birthing experience, you're probably not thinking about what it's gonna be like taking care of that kid for the rest of your life.

Futzing around figuring out retirement finances falls into this last category. Moving numbers around (at least in your head, if there are none in your account) is the great distraction from thinking about this latter end of the life cycle. We don't have to think about what it's really like to get ill or old or frail.

And then our parents start falling into that stage. And all our friends' parents do as well. And thinking about IRAs and retirement isn't the same as dealing with dementia or incontinence or frailty or simply not being recognized anymore. And, unlike the general incompetencies of infants, we know that the older generation (and eventually we ourselves) are not gonna just outgrow it. It's gonna get worse and worse and worse.

Being busy dying turns out to be an opportunity of sorts. An exercise in humility. Patience. Paying attention. And (for many) forming a strong personal relationship with their maker. Learning something new about yourself and the people you care about. I know this sounds like an awful lot of platitudes. I'm just trying to apologize here for the contempt I felt in my youth for anyone who spent an iota of time thinking 'bout the busy-dying end of things. This may well have been the pervasive attitude of my generation.

I realize I've conflated a number of different issues here, but the timing seems to go together: the death and dying of our elders, preparation for our own elder years, and thinking about our own death and dying. These, clearly, are not the same — but they all fit that concern with being 'busy' dying. And the rites of passage to be performed seem to include a mountain of harrowing paperwork to focus on in order to keep our minds off the real stuff: feeling it.

So. Birthing was easy. Raising kids was easy. This isn't easy. And I think this is why some of the older folk I know begin obsessing about grandchildren. Or a new puppy, or something. Focusing on the continuity from one generation to the next, and their birthdays, and their rituals, is another way to not be present with the hard transitions of the moment.

So here's the plan. Being present. To this moment. To this stage, whatever it brings. Not deflecting. No new puppies. Doing this as well as can be done.

Not sure what that's supposed to look like. Haven't read a single book on the subject. I think it's just about paying attention. Could be wrong. And could be fun.

Friday, November 12, 2010

of gummy-worms and caterpillar tales

I have two very strong images in my head from when Precious Daughter was a wild young thing of maybe two-ish. Actually, there are more images of course, but these two have been haunting me lately. They remain vivid without photographic reminders of these little moments.

Scene One, which is the earlier Kodak moment of the two, took place around the corner at the produce market. You know the kind: the one with the bins and the little shovel to scoop out real live unpackaged foods. I had Precious Daughter in the stroller, having run down the hill with her, just for fun, on a jaunt that was just something fun to do together. We were at the bins. Guess I was taking way too long trying to decide between bulk orzo and bulk bulghur (the kids loving each of them equally), when I looked down at my too quiet daughter.

The little monster had one hand holding a lower bin open, and the other hand was shoveling fists full of gummy-worms into her gaping maw as fast as it could. Gummy-worms were hanging out at all angles — she was right out of a classic horror movie playing both sides of the equation: Faye Raye and King Kong both squeezing in to possess the same little daughter at once.

Scene Two, Asilomar. Not long after the above. Not quite monarch butterfly season. The caterpillars were crawling over everything in sight in the little wooded garden between the lodge, the dining hall, and the trail to the sea. Precious Daughter is free to run, with no vehicles to worry about running her down. She picks up some crunchy leaves and squeezes them into bits, watching with wonder as they take off on the wind. She reaches down for another handful, and squeezes — but this handful squishes... A handful of caterpillars, oozing out between her fingers. Their life extinguished before she knew they were alive. Her mother running in horror to intervene before they reach her mouth. But it's too late to save a life.

Is this how we learn about life and death? Note my lack of horror for the leaves!

Was there any difference for her between the life and death of gummy-worms, caterpillars and crunchy leaves? Is the intervention that tells us cease and desist with caterpillars qualitatively different enough from cease and desist with gummy-worms to get the point across? As I recall, it took some fancy footwork to explain the difference between the two. To a two year old, are gummy-worms less alive than caterpillars? Is the taking of life something we do or don't outgrow? Or just the natural order?

"From the war of nature," Darwin wrote in his conclusion to The Origin of Species, "from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of higher animals, directly follows."

And just how clear is it that a mouth full of gummy-worms is not good for you, while a mouth full of caterpillars is not good for them? Especially when your taste buds do not concur.

Okay, you may be thinking, isn't two a little late for the oral phase, anyway? This would be a distraction, for to tell the truth, these events may well have been a full year earlier. I don't keep track of time that well. The point remains:

How do we learn that life is precious?

How do we learn that gummy-worms can kill you? Or that caterpillars are a whole lot more healthy for us, in point of fact.

It's not just the choking thing with shoveling gummy-worms down so fast. Not just the high-fructose corn syrup that's out to get us. No, in addition to all that, it's that gummy-worms were linked to BSE and Mad Cow Disease at the time of my daughter's adventures in oral pleasures. Though, all this is a sidebar to the larger issue.

I've always felt I had some unfinished business with the gummy-worms and caterpillars. And I think I finally know what it is.

As E has written a kaddish to all the creatures she has eaten, I offer that as well, and raise you five: A kaddish for the things my kids in glee might well have gobbled; or crushed between curious fingers, toes or mouth; or tread upon with crunching sounds; or put inside a baggie filled with salt, or thrown over a fence to give the neighbors ... all this and more — bad mothering — or things we take for granted. Not really an apology, but an honoring of all things gone as a result of actions or inaction. Take on the world of pain and inequality — no, I will not go that far.

I do not here take on all misadventure, nor claim it as my own. But whether thinking or not thinking, they cannot be undone.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

of gummy-worms and larger creatures

Michael Pollan has been eloquent in his appeal that we change our eating and growing habits. He sums it all up in seven syllables — not quite a koan, nor haiku either, but nevertheless giving off the impression of a wise and ancient teaching:

eat food
not too much
mostly plants

A modest proposal from a modest man.

So why does it sound so radical here in Amrika?

On the tzaddik's yahrtzeit I stopped eating animals. It was a very long time coming. I can hear my friends on both sides of the aisle berating me over it. The veg-folk for having it take so long, and the meat-folk for having let go one of the great tasty pleasures of life. The fact is, I love the taste of meat. But I can't stand the word anymore.

I think I became a vegetarian because of the word 'meat'. I finally heard it. Just that, and nothing more.


It's a word that bothered me very suddenly, listening to an interview on public radio with Jonathan Safran Foer. His new book is entitled Eating Animals. I had just shown Rouch's award-winning film, Les Maitres Fous, to my night class, and more than any other part of the film, students react to the slaughter, boiling and eating of a sweet medium sized short-haired trusting dog. I've seen the film hundreds of times and it gets me every time. I can't get used to it.

But they also sacrifice a chicken and a lamb or a goat as well. Why is it no one even mentions those? And they break raw eggs upon the Hauka altar of the 'governor's palace.' How come that doesn't bother anyone either? For that, too, is wasted life.

I think it's because we think of chicken, lamb, and goat as meat. And meat is something that we eat.

But Foer's book isn't called Eating Meat — which would make almost any potential reader defensive and oppositional instantly. The title of Foer's book is Eating Animals, and that's something altogether different. When you put it that way, it's something we really don't want to do.

That's the dog in the Rouch's film — an animal, not meat — and why eating dog is so horrific and unwatchable. We just don't think of a dog as meat.

It sounds like Foer is stating the obvious here. He doesn't push the point. But I'd like to push it here. Language matters.

Pollan and Foer share this facility for hard-hitting simplicity in their writing. They're both reasonable and not fanatics. They both are okay with folks who eat meat. Just not too much. Foer's soft sell on the radio, I guess just got to me when combined with having just watched the dog sacrifice for the umpteenth time.

I had no problem eating meat.

I had a big problem eating animals.

So. Is this about morality, ethics or ecology? Arguments I've been reading since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Nope. It was just about the power of words.

Words, like music, can have this awful power over us that is not quite rational, not quite irrational. We are moved beyond reason. We use words to come up with a reason for our reason. And if we commit to them, we are transformed.

Sure, I do feel different. I've had a belly ache for a month, to tell the truth. I don't think I was designed at all for not eating animals. Maybe I'm doing it all wrong. But I'm gonna hold the course and see how it goes. Not dogmatically (excuse the terrible pun here). No. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But for the first time, it feels right even if it feels awful.

Where do the gummy-worms fit in here. They do fit in, I'll give you that, but yes, another time. For once again it's later than I'd like, and my eyes are dry and closing. I've listened to Erin's kaddish tonight and it took me to the Siberian steppe, with only a single tree on the horizon, an ironwood. And there were nomads there, with their sheep and goats. Beloved animals. But over the fire in the fire pit: nothing but meat.

And I hear nothing, nothing but the kaddish.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

we dying dogs

Sometimes we just slow down and stop. And that's it. We're done.

That's what happened today at Funston, heading back from the cliffside trail. This woman's dogs were going just nuts as she tried to protect one between her legs who was just plain done. It was like she was paralyzed there, not paying attention to the growing chaos around her. Six or seven of the younger dogs just didn't give a shit that their elder was ready to go.

The expression came to mind: to be on your last legs. This old dog had only three. And he wasn't going to use any of them. His head was lying there in the sand. The phrase felt so literal, and I wondered really what it would feel like to be ready to just plain stop, and have no volition to ever get up again.

Just before he died, the biofather told me a story. I had asked him if he remembered anything about me from when I was little. He got this glowing, glorious look on his face.

"One story, yes!" he said. He came back to life with this memory. He was no longer an elderly man in a wheelchair with limbs cut off from the diabetes, and scars from his cardiac bypass. He was young and authoritative and in control again.

"You were very little," he began. "You were very sick. Your mother called me and begged me for money to pay for the medicine you needed. And formula or something. She needed food for you."

He had this enormous smile on his face, as he paused. I had always dreamed of him as a knight in shining armor who would one day come rescue me. But I had never heard this story before.

"And I turned her down. I never gave her money," he said proudly. And this hero's light came into his eyes. He sat up a little straighter in his wheelchair, so proud of himself.

"After all," he said dramatically, "you don't feed a dying dog."

And he looked me in the eye and grinned his winning grin, having concluded his victorious tale.

And I sat there staring at him. I mean, what can you say to that?

And I thought about his tale as I stared into the eyes of the dying dog on the cliff today. The one who was done, who was really ready to go. And I wondered about that baby in my mother's arms. Wondered if that child had felt the same or not. Ready to be done. Ready to move on. The light going out of her eyes.

Dunno. But she was a very melancholy child, the grown-ups said.

I do think it possible that some of the light in her eyes winked out that day. And a bit more, I think, winked out upon hearing the old bastard's tale. But the light was replaced, I think, by something maybe tougher. Resilience, maybe. Autonomy, for sure. An I'll-take-care-of-myself, thank you. Somewhere along the way, if it was trust that was extinguished, it was self-preservation that ignited instead. And some kind of fortitude (defined here as being a stubborn, obstinate chayah), I think, replaced it.

Lights on, lights off. I look at that dog lying there. He, in slow motion. The pups speeding around him, jumping, chomping at each others' necks and ears. He doesn't intervene. He doesn't play top dog, the way he did a week ago, a month ago. He's not quite there anymore, hovering between this world and the world to come. They slow down, and they just plain stop.

It's only humans who drag out the process with advance directives and life-prolonging measures.

I watch the dogs at the Fort or in my arms or at their home. And they tell us so clearly when they're on their last legs. So clearly, I'm just not getting up again. They close their eyes. They're often miraculously not in pain. They're just ready to go.

A kaddish for them, for us — we dying dogs.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

a kaddish for Caprica

Something was bound to go wrong on the Tzaddik's first Yahrtzeit.

It was a day I had hoped to bring my mother to the cemetery for the first time — for she herself had been too gravely ill to understand at the time that he had actually died. In the next room. In her house. Though when I told her that day, not knowing if she understood, she suddenly awoke out of her brain damage for the very first time. Her mind began to struggle back to life.

But this year too, the Tzaddik's wife was too ill to be brought to his still unmarked grave.

I'd controlled the tears all day just waiting to unleash them at the right time, the right place. And goddamn it, I still wanted to visit my father's grave, despite it getting dark already, despite it being rush hour by the time I was leaving Berkeley. I got lost, of course. Got hung up in a wrong lane, and ended up heading for Marin instead of wherever it was I was supposed to be. And I started falling into this insanity: Does he mind? Is he upset? Disappointed? Did he expect it? Doesn't he deserve better than this? How could I leave him there alone? Again. Still. Unmarked. All I wanted to do was something completely out of character: throw myself on his grassy mound (if I could even find it) and wail.

Impressions of Irene Pappas as Elektra: I wanted to pour libations upon his unmarked grave. I was born for this role.

It was now pitch black outside. The cemetery, even if I could find it, was already closed.

The Tzaddik lay there patiently, behind those enormous iron gates, alone in his allocated spot — gypped again out of his due. But you know how the tzaddikim are. The lamed-vavniks. They're a very patient lot. They're saints. Literally.

I crawled across the bridge. It took hours. Bumper to bumper. It was a Tuesday. I had worked myself into a raving lunatic, at least on the inside. Started focusing on not cracking up the car, instead.

I thought, okay, I'll go home and wallow in Caprica for a while. Not that Caprica would (or could) lift my spirits.

Caprica was killing off good characters left and right. Bummer. Didn't they have something better to do? And the Adamas — except for Sam — were a whiney lot.

Still stuck in traffic here. With time to think about the Caprican/BSG mystery that bothers me the most. The one I think no one else cares about.


For Adama, of course, means earth in Hebrew. Earth.

I mean, did they do that on purpose? I mean, they must have, right?

And throughout BSG I expected this to come up. But no, it never did. Adama searching for Earth. A destroyed Adama, finding a destroyed Earth. A renewed Adama finding a renewed Earth. Adama naming Earth 'Earth.'

And nobody saying a word about it.

So, of course I figured it would have to come up in Caprica. But these Adamas were a snivvely, sorry lot. And why wouldn't they be? Their own land had been heavily colonized (in the old sense of the word) and exploited. This is all so terribly biblical...

And stuck in traffic, contemplating BSG puzzles, and Caprican potentials, my mind began to settle a bit.

At home, for some reason Caprica had not recorded.

Had I screwed something up? Where was my fix on this awful day? Eventually, I looked online to see if it had been preempted. Tuesday night Caprica just wasn't as fun as Friday night Caprica (or BSG). But shit! It was gone. Just frakking gone.

Caprica died shooting self in foot.

I mean, think about it. The post-apocalyptic BSG had had rough times, but an awful lot to laugh about as well. And here was pre-terminal hedonistic Caprica with nothing but angst, desperation and turmoil everywhere you turn. The only character having even a smidgen of fun was the PhD candidate in Graystone's lab — so yah, why not just blow him away in a careless random moment of meaninglessness?

Was there nothing better to do than gratuitously blow away good characters just to what? Wonder who's gonna get axed the following week? Poor strategy.

Rh thinks Caprica got cancelled because it was too queer-friendly. Do you think the show lost viewers on moral grounds? I mean the whole panorama was right out of Ibn Khaldun: Permissiveness gives way to its own destruction...

I didn't cry for Caprica — although my tears had been waiting all day for some good excuse to let loose. No, I didn't cry — I got mad instead. All that great potential — wasted!

As far as I'm concerned, I'd have been just fine if they'd taken the whole cast, one by one, and locked them into those robotic Cylon bodies. Yearning for another crack at resurrection.

David Eick and company aren't crying either, 'cause they too have resurrection in mind. Another spin-off of BSG. This one tentatively called, Battlestar Gallactica: Blood and Chrome. This one is to take place when Adama is in his early 20s — around forty years before the fall.

Can I say for the record: blech.

I guess the problem wasn't so much morality dissonances but that boys just weren't getting their blow-em-up spaceship fix. And I'm sure the costs/benefits analysis concurs. Blowing up shit is literally more bang for the buck.

I still haven't gone back to the cemetery. But it seems to me that each day brings another reason to pour a libation upon a Tzaddik's grave.

When I finally do go, I'm going to tell my dad all about Adama, as he lies there underneath. He'll have a good chuckle about it. And because he can perform miracles, I'm hoping to see the Earth move when I'm there.

If you read of any earthquakes on that day, just know it's the Tzaddik having a little giggle over Adama — and under adama, too.