Tuesday, June 29, 2010

penetration, the game

I've always been fascinated by K.E. Moyer's work on kinds of aggression and their biological basis. What he attempted to do was to figure out how many distinct types of 'animal' aggression he could find that were triggered in the brain without overlapping any other type of aggression. He was of course aiming to understand human aggression, but he thought he'd start with something a bit more primal. He came up with the magic number: seven. One of them is my favorite—it's probably obvious which one. Paul Brain (sic) later on collapsed Moyer's categories to the magic number of five, trying to be concise. However, I think his list is a bit of a cop out, leaving out some of the more juicy categories.

This morning, for some reason I cannot fathom, but surely the psychoanalysts can work out pretty quickly, I thought of trying out Moyer's theory of aggression with a word-substitution game. This, after all, worked fine one year when I was leading services (rephrase: was forced to lead services) and the only way I could stand to do it was to substitute the English word 'God' for 'Nature' — which worked out quite nicely, and kept my blood pressure down. Curiously, 'nature' is a Demotic word (ie, ancient Egyptian), the original being 'neter' which tends to get translated as 'God' or 'gods', so I figure it was only fair to go back the other direction.

So, what follows is Moyer, substituting the word 'aggression' with 'penetration'. Not exactly in his own words. His typology of aggression transmuted to 'penetration.' I haven't tried this yet, so we'll see if it works out at all. Also, I'm sticking to his order; I haven't changed anything around.

1. The penetration of territorial defense — when animals attack and penetrate intruders who enter their territory. After all, the best response to territorial penetration is meeting them head on, so to speak.

2. Predatory penetration — when an animal attacks and penetrates his prey. This form of penetration is NOT (Moyer's emphasis) believed to be hunger-induced, but rather involves the lateral hypothalamus and the specific 'trigger' stimuli (the animals it typically feeds on, the prey, well yum).

3. Inter-male penetration — occurs when another male, preferably a stranger, is present. Androgens are believed to be critical in this form of penetration. (This one is my second favorite).

4. Fear-induced penetration — always preceded by attempts to escape. This form of penetration behavior is most evident when the animal is cornered and is afraid. He will almost always react with penetration before he attempts to get away. Moyers doesn't say so, but I think this one is especially useful in understanding a male reaction to a female he fears. The amygdala and lateral hypothalamus are believed important here.

5. Irritable penetration — this will be evoked by any attackable object or other animal. The ventromedial hypothalamus and amygdala are believed to be the crucial brain structures here. Here Moyers comes up with a great residual category. Aggression, just because. Sorry. Penetration. When grouchy or on edge, just penetrate... don't think or try to figure it out.

6. Maternal penetration — When a female attempts to protect her young from harm. Usually takes the form of attempted verbal penetration ("don't cross without looking both ways...") or just as often involves the use of a cue-tip.

7. Instrumental penetration — It worked before, so I'll do it again. This form of penetration is the only one he ties to being reinforced by learning.

So, does it work? Do we learn anything more about aggression (or about penetration) by trying out a little word substitution? Or maybe, we don't learn anything else at all, because there really is (or was) no difference to begin with? After all, even Freud changed his mind about this a few times... At first he posited that all behavior is triggered by sexual and aggressive impulses. But no, he eventually decided, that might be true for women, but for men sex and aggression were the same impulse after all...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

glossary, as requested (with apologies)

In no particular order, maybe this will help:

shikse — (aka shiksa) — term of endearment (or not) for women of the non-Jewish persuasion. the most important sub-category is, of course, the shikse-goddess.

shul — synagogue, small or large, in which members of the tribe congregate for ritual acts and moments of imposed solidarity.

shabbes — the hours of the week between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday devoted to rest, repose, debate and very good sex. It's a sin to grade papers on shabbes.

sin — (khet) — something we decide is wrong, unless we want to do it. Unless calling it a 'sin' makes it more fun to do...

rebbe — (to be distinguished from rabbi) — a wise rabbi we consider as our teacher and treat with reverence, which everyone else we know thinks is misplaced.

yenta — a matchmaker, who generally speaking, can't keep her mouth shut and can't stop minding other people's business. Not to be confused with Yentl, the title of a Sholem Aleichem story made into a dreadful soppy movie with too much singing.

Reconstructionist — the rational branch of Judaism, devoted to reason and, for the most part, understanding the physical circumstances under which we live.

bireishit — Genesis of the Hebrew Bible. Usually translated as, "in the beginning..." bireishit could also be rendered as "in her head..." which in one fell blow makes us have to reconsider all the text that follows.

god forbid — (aka g-d forbid) — a colloquialism I consider hysterical, at least when I use it, given that I'm a righteous and devout atheist.

Hebrew School — an after school rite of passage devoted to indoctrination into the secrets of the tribe, its sacred language, and its obsessive devotion to territorial claims tracing back to g-d's land grant to the tribal patriarch, Abraham.

akeda — the ritual almost-sacrifice of Abraham's son, whom the Bible names by name as Yitzhak (Isaac, Abraham's younger son), and which the Qur'an assumes (thus, no need to name him), could only be Abraham's elder son, Ismail (Ishmael), given that the rest of the passage makes no sense at all otherwise.

Did I miss anything, or will that do for now?

Words I did not explain: pasties, packing, and secular humanism. Oh, and labia menorah (which will have to wait for a post all its own, maybe—although here, a picture might really be worth a thousand words).

Friday, June 25, 2010

the rebbe and the wise little children

A friend and colleague posted this quote from Arthur Green on his blog and so, of course, I've struggled with it. Which is better than saying, yet again, that it pissed me off:

"We would understand the entire course of evolution from the simplest life forms millions of years ago, to the great complexity of the human brain (still only barely understood) and proceeding onward into the unknown future, to be a meaningful process. There is a One...and that One is Being itself, the constant in the endlessly changing evolutionary parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. But turned around, seen from the perspective of the constantly evolving life energy, evolution can be seen as an ongoing process of revelation or self-manifestation. We discover; it reveals. [...] Our task ... is not to offer counterscientific explanations for the origin of life. Our task is to notice, to pay attention to, the incredible wonder of it all, and to find [the Eternal] in that moment of paying attention." from Arthur Green, Radical Judaism

R was about 14 when she participated in that thoroughly non-Jewish (but keep 'em in the fold) institution known as Confirmation classes. It was another case where she begged me to force her to go, and I refused. Angrily, she signed herself up for the sole reason that maybe just maybe she would regret not having gone in some distant adulthood incarnation. I am happy to report, she has not yet reached that state of mind.

At that time, all the synagogues in the City formed a consortium so that the Jewish teens from all the various congregations could mix it up, study together, and be exposed to other (Jewish) points of view. She and her buddy found themselves, for the first time in their lives, in the clutches of rabid Orthodoxy (excuse the horrid pun). The rebbe expounding in front of them was passionate about Bireishit. Well, okay, so am I. But he was insisting that every word was to be taken literally.

Who did he think he was talking to? My kids' hippy-dippy cousin who found himself in Jerusalem faced with an undeniable Truth he could cling to? No, these were sophisticated secular humanist kids raised to seek and weigh evidence, and to speak their mind if the evidence appears to be lacking.

"Don't you believe in evolution?" wailed R's incredulous buddy in his most obnoxious high-pitched tone. Well, you can imagine the rebbe's response. (He railed against secular education).

I picked up the kids after their session and they were shaking with rage. How could such a wise man be so ignorant? When I heard their raging of course I wanted to complain to their Program Director. No, they insisted. It was important, they argued, that they be exposed to such ignorance. They would not have believed it really existed otherwise.

I remember when I was a kid and we were faced with what we thought was a fascistic pig-headed Hebrew School teacher, so unlike our own rational Reconstructionist rabbi (who gave us the proofs for the existence of God, and told us our homework was to go home and disprove them). No, this dictator demanded obeisance and strict adherence to his teachings. No argument, although we had been trained to argue. One afternoon when we couldn't take it any more, we barricaded him in the school office and all took off to some activity we could freely argue over.

So. Arthur Green. The fallacies. His depiction of evolution is as if it is directional — a very 19th century view of from the simple to the complex. Evolution is not directional. It is not a progression leading 'up' to "the great complexity of the human brain." In fact, it's not about 'us' at all — except in the sense that it is us studying the process.

And then, without a blink of the eye, he baldly states, "There is a One ..." (my italics). As if such a definitive statement makes it so. A statement rooted in the same capital T Truth of any Orthodoxy around the world. A knowing — without evidence — the dreaded F-word: faith. Can you feel me shudder? Ugh.

And takes it further, "and that One is Being itself."

Which doesn't mean anything at all. But I guess it sounds good. To somebody. Maybe to most people. But what on earth does it mean? And maybe it's not meant to mean anything, but to feel right, feel comfortable or comforting, though I'm not sure why this nonsensical statement would or could bring comfort to anyone at all. And how did 'revelation' become a mechanism of evolution? My friend who posted it, should know better than find this comforting. Although perhaps in his struggle to explore Judaism, he posted the quote in order to enter the argument, play with the words, have at Arthur Green in some fun, dynamic way. In which case, I applaud.

My daughter used to write essays with sentences like that. When she was a kid.

"What does that mean?" I would inquire pointedly when she forced me to proof her essays at 1:00 AM.

"I don't know," she'd say. "But we have to write 6 pages (or whatever), and that sounded good." And she'd watch me go ballistic. I had graded way too many of those space-fillers even then to let her get away with that.

"Each word, each sentence, has to mean something!" I would say. It has to serve your point, I'd say. You have to know why it's there. Even if no one else knows why that word or sentence is there, you should know what role it plays in your argument.

She didn't want to be in an argument, really (see the He-Man.Skeletor Debate). Although she was getting much better at it.

My anger with the rebbe and with Arthur Green as well, is not in their statements per se, but in the phrasing of their statements in such a way as to suppress the argument. How dare they shut the door to inquiring minds, whether of children or of men? (And yes, I said men. I don't think either of them are speaking to women at all, but that's another subject).

The classroom offers (or can offer) a place to inquire, debate, and wrestle with ideas. God forbid we hand our students (or our children) definitive inarguable Truths they cannot explore and question on their own.

The last part of Green's quote I can live with. Although his very use of language goes against 'scientific explanations for the origins of life.' The part that does work (for scientists as well as 'believers') is 'the incredible wonder of it all' — and I'm okay too with 'having a moment of paying attention.' But evolution (with apologies to Arthur Green), has nothing to do with revelation.

It's Friday. Good shabbes. Enjoy the contradictions.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

rumi and the bell-shaped curve

Summer Session. Magic, Science and Religion. Possibly the very last Summer MSR that I ever get to teach. And so, I've really wanted it to be sparkling. Thoughtful. Deep. Fun. Engaging. Paradigm-shifting, if I can manage it. For them. And for me as well. But I always want this. Generally speaking, students signed up for Winter or Summer Session are highly motivated, albeit in a bit of a rush to 'finish' as fast as they can. Frequently, they're taking their very last class before graduating, and I want to send them off with something pretty special. If I can.

And as with all semesters or intersessions, I think we're on track for exactly that experience ... until I start grading the papers. In this case, the first Midterm of the session. And then all my optimism, desires for a joy-filled, meaningful send-off, and just plain exuberance in teaching this extraordinary material ... just plain falls apart.

Last night I read the following sentence in a short essay, that bore not the slightest resemblance to the topic at hand:

"It's always been taught to me 'it's not what you know, it's who' and I thoroughly believe that."

What a slap in the face at content. At the whole concept of a thoughtful–deep–fun–engaging–paradigm-shifting course. At what I've always thought of as performing cartwheels of the mind. It's a course that can change lives, and that does, if given even half a chance. A course that I'm only beginning to understand after all these years, is really at heart an attempt to understand trauma and suffering, and the lengths people can and do go to alleviate that suffering. Desperate acts, irrational but powerful—when rationality fails. I love this course! It encompasses the depth and breadth of the human capacity to try (something/anything!) in the face of the unfathomable.

And then, that one little sentence tells me that none of it matters.

Which maybe explains why there are more and more failing papers. Or barely passing students. Who, in their own words, "just wanna get outta here." Graduate. Without critical thinking skills. Analytical skills. Without having read the important thinkers (from Ibn Khaldun to Thomas Kuhn). Without spelling and without grammar. Without, dare I say it, a real education. And as if there's something spectacular waiting out there for them without these skills.

"I just need the piece of paper."

I've heard that more than once. More than a dozen times or more. I can turn as many remarkable cartwheels of the mind, but many in those classroom seats just want the grade that'll get them outta there.

I had a colleague once who referred to these students as 'the taxpayers.' That they were the ones who simply helped foot the bill for the few who really were engaged, who were excited by the learning. Whose eyes sparkled with delight and discovery. I used to argue with him.

"I aim," I said, "at the yawners." I figure if I can get them engaged, I can reach anybody. His response: Don't bother. But I do bother, and I am bothered, and the bother never goes away. I want everybody, not just the delighted and delightful few.

So, here's the weird thing. Over the many years that I torture myself over bad writing or the lack of analytical skills, every once in a while I examine the grades and discover that they work out to a fairly normal bell-shaped curve. All by themselves. And I find it shocking. The curve is not constructed to distribute the grades. The bell-shaped curve is simply there. Have I merely imagined that the writing has gotten worse over the years? Have I become more lenient in that hideous task called 'grading'?

The A's make me happy. Thrilled! But why are there so few of them?

Who made that curve? Is it a force of nature? Is it a distribution of innate intelligence? Is it one of Durkheim's 'social facts'?

And I wonder (and this really bothers me) why they can't all be A's? Is there some law of nature that says everyone cannot excel? I find the bell-shaped curve somehow insulting. Like if I'm really doing my job right, everyone in that classroom should be excited, engaged, and jazzed by the material (whatever class it happens to be). If I'm excited about the material, why aren't they?

The psychoanalyst Owen Renick used to say that teaching is a seduction. A seduction of the material, I'm sure he meant—not of the person. The teaching isn't about us at all, as far as I'm concerned. When I'm teaching, I feel like I disappear, and the only thing that's left is this remarkable material. Why bother otherwise? I think Rumi would say the same, although he would claim that what remains is God, not 'remarkable material' (but what's the difference)?

The pessimist in me is deeply offended that not everyone in the room is an A student. It just doesn't make sense to me! Why wouldn't every single person strive to achieve at the highest level? Strive for that Rumi-experience in the classroom? If we're not aiming for the extraordinary, why bother?

The mystical experience I await is the annihilation of the bell-shaped curve. Where every person in that classroom is on the same page, breathless and in awe of the thinkers and thinking produced over the millennia, of the beauty of nature and ideas about nature, of the remarkable diversity of understandings—including right there in the classroom.

We have the best job on the planet that we get to engage in the enterprise of the mind. And then the university ruins it by asking us to grade it...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

how the sages die

Within an hour of his demise, my father looked exactly like a very very dead body. He was already cold. His mouth was open in the midst of his last unfinished sentence. One hour was the time it took me to get there as fast as I could wake up and get across the bridge. My mom was in the next room under her own hospice care. My father died in my mom's bedroom, not even his own territory. Not even his own apartment. His last words were, "Oh, this isn't good..."

When I was in college I took a class in Asian Art and Philosophy, and I remember one thing very clearly from the class, though at times I think I dreamed it. It has haunted me ever since. It was that the Confucian sages were judged by that moment of death. That how they died reflected how they had lived. I've asked about it since, and none of the experts I know have ever heard of this Confucianist maxim. As I said, maybe I dreamt it while falling asleep over The Analects — although the translation I have is by Arthur Waley, my favorite translator at the time. Maybe it was something the professor said, and it stuck.

But it could have been a dream.

I remember tale after tale of how the sages died. And the parable that demonstrated how each one's death was a reflection of his life.

And I remember how scared this made me. How each moment became a potential moment of death, and therefore a reflection of how I had lived. Like Big Mama Cass who, rumor had it, had choked on a chicken bone. And being the control freak that I am, I wanted that moment to really reflect who I am and not be embarrassed about it. So, reflecting on how to control every moment is also a reflection on trying to figure out who I am, really, in Confucian terms. What kind of death do you get for thinking so hard and so long about what kind of death you deserve? Especially when you don't believe any of this crap.

I used to carry the Analects around with me. Of course, before that, I used to carry around Aeschylus' Oresteian Trilogy. And before that, Durrenmatt. And before that Kafka. And before that, Little Peachling and other Japanese Tales — and there we are, back to translations by Arthur Waley. Nowadays it's books like How Markets Fail. Bummer. But wait, we're probably not defined by the books we read, right?

My point is, my dad's dying words were "Oh, this isn't good...". And he died in a room and house not his own. Under the watch of caregivers who bathed him and fed him and helped him stand...

And this is not who he was. Not by a long shot.

"Oh, this isn't good." That moment of utterance may have been the first and last time my dad ever said anything potentially negative in his entire life. I was the negative one. And his constant and consistent response had been, "You have no idea of the good someone will bring to the world, or who they will touch, or influence, or change for the better." And this was in regard to a monster that we knew.

He died in a room and house not his own. My mother's territory. My mother's domain. He was too ill to be 'allowed' back to his jumble of an apartment, filled with art and artifacts, books and manuscripts, and proposals by desperate artists who saw my dad as their possible salvation. He died, trapped by circumstance, far from the realm of the last fragments of history he was trying to protect.

Under the watch of caregivers who bathed him and fed him and helped him stand ... My dad had more 'healthy meals' in his last two months of life than he ever had living his own life. And more baths, sponge baths, and cleaning behind the ears than ever before. And no one had ever helped him stand on his own two feet before. Ever. Not even figuratively.

Now maybe I'm being too literal here, but the point is clear: My dad's death did not at all reflect the way he lived his life. It was its antithesis in almost every way. And in this sense, my father's death has freed me of my Confucian OCD fear that that moment, when it comes for me, will sum me up in some reductionist flash. Whether I really learn this lesson is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, however, the Analects can still be right on target:

"When Yen Hui died the Master wailed without restraint. His followers said, Master, you are wailing without restraint! He said, Am I doing so? Well, if any man's death could justify abandoned wailing, it would surely be this man's!"
"Tzu-Lu asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits. the Master said, Till you have learnt to serve men, how can you serve ghosts? Tzu-Lu then ventured upon a question about the dead. The Master said, Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?" (Analects, Book XI 9–12b)

I'm good at wailing without restraint (in rare but appropriate moments like this one) ... and I'm pretty sure that I know close to nothing about serving men...

Still, on this day, I light a candle for my dad — on this, the first of who knows how many fatherless Father's Days there are to come.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

straight shikse/queer shikse

When I left my husband, we both headed for the shikses. For him, no surprise. He'd had a shikse thing for longer than I'd known him—and I'd known him since I was still a teenager and he was barely 21. So, well, plenty has been written about the Jewish prince and the shikse. No need to go there. But why Jewish women head for the shikses is worth, well, research. I'm an anthropologist, right? Time for a little fieldwork.

It started one Friday night when I had an out-of-town friend over who was looking for action. What are the best bars, bla bla bla — this is after all, San Francisco, isn't it? There's gotta be alotta action in this town. She was from Argentina, and she was used to alotta action. But she was asking the wrong person. I only knew one place to go: and that was 'In Bed with Fairy Butch' — a great lesbian cabaret. My friend was not disappointed.

It was Hanukkah with Fairy Butch. Jewish leatherdyke cabaret. A davenning striptease with payess and pasties. Prayers over the labia menorah, with everyone singing along. And of course, Yenta the Matchmaker. A great night. But at one point, Fairy Butch calls out to the packed (and packing) crowd, "How many of you are Jewish?" And half the hands go up. "And how many of you with your hands up are with another Jewish woman?" And every single hand goes down. Every single one (who wasn't single) was with a shikse. Including me. What's with that?

A worthy piece of research indeed. I started interviewing. Starting with my therapist. She said, go for it! "You could get a major grant from some Jewish organization to fund you — you don't know how many patients I have who want to get their sons away from the shikses!" The shikse problem, she said, was a worthy cause for exploration, especially among the hetero-normative.

But what of the attraction of queer Jewish women to the shikse? Of the women I talked to, here's a small sample:

The Jewish women:

— When like meets like, there has to be some kind of Other—thus, the shikse.

— You can bump into your trick and your Rabbi on the very same block—no problem.

— What is it about shikses? It's those ice-cold blue eyes. And freckles.

— They're exotic! They eat things like mayonnaise, only they call it 'mayo.' And they slather it on, with things like 'fried bologna'! Revolting—but exotic.

— Things are simpler. We don't have to argue all sides of every question.

— Ha-shem is waiting for the answer to that one as well!

The Shikses answer:

— When I do a search on say, Planet Out, and use the word 'intellect' that's what draws them. I don't have to say I'm looking for a Jewish woman. They just pop up in the search.

— I'm drawn to their suffering.

— They are exclusive, chosen, and don't let anyone in — and I WANT IN!

— Shikses are not so demanding. You don't have to be faithful to a shikse. And that's okay.

— I'm German. We have strong bonds between us, the Germans and the Jews.

— I like secrets. What are they doing?

— Psychology tells us that Jewish men demand respect for Jewish women, like their mother. The Jewish woman rules the household. But with the shikse, the Jew can run the household. This goes for dykes as well.

I ended up collecting piles and piles of material on the shikse 'problem' and the more I looked at it, the more depressing it became. When I looked online, I found some of the scariest websites I've ever seen. Mostly about the hetero-shikse problem. Neo-Nazi sites accusing Jewish men of kidnapping, hypnotizing and ruining their women. The poster girl for this being Marilyn Monroe. And equally paranoid Orthodox Jewish sites accusing the shikses of polluting bloodlines and turning Jewish men's heads to mush.

But at Fairy Butch's cabaret, the 'problem' was more palpable. There was Fairy Butch discovering out loud and on stage, that many of the Jewish dykes in the crowd really did want a Jewish partner. Someone they could make shabbes with, light candles with, go to shul with. And Fairy Butch played yenta, and once a year—on Hanukkah—yenta matched Jewish/Jewish couples (for however long it might last), and then went home (or so I imagine) with her very own ... shikse goddess.

Is the shikse thing something as primal as heterosis, insuring hybrid vigor to the next generation, or some kind of reductionist 'Othering'? The appeal, the ambivalence, the aversion are all the stuff of stand-up comedy, not-so-romantic novels, and apparently lots and lots of protracted psychotherapy. More research needs to be done, of course. And what better method than anthropology's participant-observation?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

the fourth rabbi

When M was little, my dad gave him a book of Bible Stories. I think it changed my son forever.

That night I heard this scream from upstairs, and ran up to see what was wrong. He was tucked in bed with the book in his lap, outraged. He got right to the point:

"How could God want Abraham to sacrifice his son?" my only son and oldest child demanded.

Maybe it was my moment of crisis, not his. I'm not really sure. I taught this stuff, you'd think I'd have an answer for my kid. But no. I realized that any answer I gave him would not be good enough. So, at least for that night, we switched reading materials to something more manageable. A real cop out. I'm not sure what we read instead. I mean, what's the antidote to God demanding one's son be sacrificed — when it's your own son reading this stuff. He wasn't quite old enough for Kafka.

I decided to research the Abraham problem. I started to call the rabbis. And I know this is going to sound like a joke, but this, I swear is true. It just sounds like a joke.

The first rabbi I called was the head rabbi at a conservative congregation in the City.

"I tell them that everyone has to make a sacrifice for God," he answered promptly. Like that was going to satisfy my kid.

Before continuing, I should tell you that there actually was something at stake. My son had been begging to go to Hebrew School. I don't even know where he heard about Hebrew School. I had been insisting I could teach him Hebrew at home — along with Arabic. I figured a nice balance was in order for the next generation. My firstborn just rolled his eyes at me. He wanted the real deal.

One day I was driving home form work and the emergency car phone (remember those?) rang.

"What's wrong?" I asked, "What's the emergency?"

"You haven't signed me up for Hebrew School!" he insisted.

"Is this an emergency?"

"Yes!" he answered.

"Ok, I see you're serious about this. I promise I'll take care of it." And we hung up. I still had 45 minutes more to my commute before we could have a chat about the Hebrew School thing at home. But ten minutes later the phone rings again. I'm not even to Palo Alto yet.

"Did you sign me up yet?" he asked.

So, okay, he was that kind of kid. And I figured that the first rabbi who could come up with an answer that would satisfy my son, would get our business in the Hebrew School department. Well, the first rabbi failed.

The second rabbi I called was the head rabbi at one of the large reform synagogues.

"I teach," he said, "that Abraham made the wrong choice. He should have refused." He paused. "But that doesn't really work with the rest of the parsha," he added. And he stopped. Good start, but I wasn't impressed with the lack of follow up.

The third rabbi I saw in person. He was in town running workshops in Jewish Renewal, and I still think of him as my own mentor. The third rabbi was of course, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. And when I've had questions, he has shown me that I also have answers. And so, I asked him my son's question about the Akedah, and Abraham bringing Isaac up the mountain for sacrifice. And I trusted that at last I'd have a satisfying answer.

Reb Zalman got a big smile on his face. He always had a wonderful, wise smile.

"Such a blessing," he beamed, "to have a son who asks such questions!"

I waited.

That was it. That was the answer. And of course he was right, but that kind of an answer wasn't going to satisfy my kid. And so, I went back to my dad and complained to him of this. And here's what my dad said:

"You see, in those days all the deities demanded human sacrifice. So it wasn't so odd that Abraham would just comply. Human sacrifice was well within the dominant paradigm of that era. The importance of the story is just the opposite — that here was a god that seemed at first like all the others — just another ethnic god demanding his due. But this god changed all the rules. The Akedah teaches us that human sacrifice stops now. The paradigm shifts, and animal sacrifice will suffice."

I love my dad. I think he's why I'm an anthropologist. And I thought it was an answer that my son would be satisfied with as well — although it meant I still didn't have any place I was willing to send him for his Jewish education. But at least I had an answer.

So that night, at bedtime I went up to give M his grandpa's satisfying midrash on the Akedah and the end of human sacrifice. He nodded, briefly at the answer, not terribly impressed, and looked down. He had the Bible Stories book in hand, and clearly he had continued reading on his own. He was pointing to the page he was on, and said:

"So why does God kill Pharoah's son, then, huh?"

The fourth rabbi was Reconstructionist. He said, "well, God's got a problem, doesn't he? We all do! And we get to think about consequences of our actions..."

My kid signed himself up and sent himself to Hebrew School.

And then he went to Law School.

Friday, June 11, 2010

mary poppins meets fatal attraction and other adorable stuff

When R was very little, her sitter brought over one of those sweet little Disney films to watch together. It was around the time when she was seeing movies for the very first time. And even as a small child, she was apparently paying close attention to the tube.

I came home ready to take her out in her stroller, maybe to the park, maybe just a walk. She loved being zoomed along the bumpy hills, and she had particular favorite bumps for her zooming. Her great desire at the time was to learn how to fly, and she thought that if I pushed fast enough, she might lift off someday.

But not this time. When I went upstairs to collect her, I found that my precious daughter had made herself a collar from part of one of my shoes, and had wrapped it around her neck.

"Ladies don't go out!" she proclaimed, and refused to go out into the world.

Her plan, like in the movie she was watching, was to not leave the house until she had had puppies. Lady and the Tramp did that to her after one viewing.

Now, maybe that's adorable to somebody, but I had never seen Lady and the Tramp before. So R and I sat down and watched the movie together. In this revolting little horror movie, 'Jim Dear' gets 'Darling' an adorable puppy. 'Darling's face is never shown until the end of the movie, after she's given birth to a child. These are the humans in the movie. Then there are the dogs...

R kept her eye on the female dogs. She paid no attention to the males. There was Lady, who as we have seen, is supposed to stay inside. And there was the sultry Peg — the seductress of the streets (played by Peggy Lee), who ends up at the Pound, about to be euthanized any minute for roaming free on the streets with the boys. Great message to little girls: good girls stay inside; bad girls go out in the streets and get themselves murdered. Even a three year old can get the message in one viewing.

But just in case little girls have missed it, there's Mary Poppins to the rescue. This time, it's the mother who's out on the streets. Horrors! And her children are in desperate need of a nanny. Good nanny stays with the kids. Bad mother is out on the streets. No one ever remembers just what mother is doing out there, but guess what — she fighting for women's right to vote. Bad mommy learns her lesson, however, and at the end of the movie, she tears off her suffragette banner, turns it into a kite, and stays home. Problem solved. Lesson learned.

Around the same time, I happened to see Fatal Attraction, which was all the rage scaring men half to death. But the real horror of the movie is this: Fatal Attraction is just another repackaging of the Lady and the Tramp / Mary Poppins motif — but for the older set, just in case the message didn't get through when we were little girls.

Here too, there are two main female characters — the good woman who stays at home, and the bad woman who goes to work. And here too, vivid, and graphically explicit, the evil working woman gets her due — this time (if I remember it correctly) she is done in directly by the sweet homemaker herself.

Scary movie, yes, but not because Glen Close is terrifying. No, scary movie because it's no different from the lesson little girls can get from horror shows like Mary Poppins and Lady and the Tramp. But it's these latter movies (the adorable ones) that are all the more frightening than films like Fatal Attraction — precisely because we don't notice what they're doing to our precious daughters!

R gave up her longing to fly — but she found another passion: After the Lady and the Tramp fiasco, she started analyzing what she saw on the tube. She was still three at the time. Suddenly, she refused to watch Sesame Street, proclaiming that it was "just for boys." There were no girl-puppets for her to identify with, and worst of all, Big Bird was a cheat.

Big Bird a cheat?

"Big Bird has pink legs, but he's still a boy," she complained. She was incensed by this. It was a real betrayal. Even the color pink had been usurped.

At the moment, my daughter is trekking the Gobi Desert, so I guess she survived Disney. She still pays close attention to the tube. And when she sits me down and orders me to watch, I do just that. Strange as it may sound, I learned my outrage by my daughter's side. She did not, as convention might have it, learn her outrage from me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

say something about veils...

Here's something I'm actually pretty angry about. There, I said it out loud. I'm angry about my great-grandmother's veils.

My dad spent decades scouring the earth for Judaica. To rescue it and give it a home. Not our home, mind you. But something more permanent. A place where these fragmented treasures of our People would be (or might be) preserved this time forever.

I come from a museum family, in which no object —excuse me, artifact— is really personal. History has taken so much from us, my mother would say. We were robbed by the Expulsion, the Inquisition, the Holocaust. And so, my sibling, the museum, got all the attention. History was not our own to be kept, held or savored just in our tiny fragment of a family (or anyone else's family either). It must be preserved — institutionalized — as yet another symbol of the heritage that we collectively lost. Preserved for all to treasure equally. Not for any of us to keep for ourselves.

And so, my great-grandmother's veils, when they were eventually uncovered in my nona's house, went straight to the museum. I only got to wear them once, but I remember how beautiful they were, how delicate, and exactly how complicated it was to wear them. Somewhere, I know there is a picture of me in her veils. But clearly I was not to be entrusted with them beyond that momentary loan.

Besides, my research interests were primarily among Muslim populations (or nominally Muslim, anyway). I keep thinking that perhaps I wasn't worthy of keeping the family veils. I was studying, perhaps, the wrong tradition! The Bukharan veils were all that was left from that particular line of the family. Maybe my parents were right to have them incarcerated. So they could be put on display on a mannequin every five or ten years for little Jewish school children to gawk at for a second or two before moving on to the next exhibit.

My dad collected everything. But he wasn't materialistic about any of the stuff he 'rescued.' What he treasured were the stories they could help uncover. Each object, each bit of junk held a piece of the puzzle. And if you were a good researcher, you could find enough bits of junk to be able to see the whole picture. He was, in his way, an archaeologist of of our fragmented history. And when he died, his apartment became my own excavation site. And it's now my job to find homes for all the remaining orphaned bits of unclaimed culture. And I became the curator of my dad's leftover homeless treasures.

At some point along the way, I started to collect some pretty nifty veils. My travel-veils, I call them. My favorites are the Egyptian ones with all the beaded sparklies on them. They're the closest thing I've found that feel like my noni's veils, though nothing's very close. And when I wear my veils, I feel at home, and safe, and linked up to a line that goes back through time, a thousand years, or two, or three, or longer.

"History is always now," my mom always said. And wearing those veils, well, I can feel it. But truth be told, I really don't like museums very much. It's not just the sibling rivalry. I'd just rather wear my history than stare at it through glass.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

the he-man/skeletor debate

Is conflict necessary? And how long have humans thought about that problem? And is it a problem? Darwin, Freud, Kropotkin, Erikson and so many others have weighed in on the subject. Marvin Harris. Napoleon Chagnon. Fanon. Some of my favorite thinkers. Maybe everyone has weighed in on this one, or some version of it. Such as in the question: When is conflict necessary? Which in its very structure preempts the idea that we might not need it at all.

So, thinking about this, and having a bookcase full of experts positing their arguments on a multitude of conflict themes, you'd think I wouldn't have been surprised to hear my kids immersed in the debate. Actually talking it out.

The conflict, if I may be so bold, was that Big Brother wanted Little Sister to play He-Man with her, and she was holding out. They were sitting in their usual places at the kitchen table munching on their afternoon snack. Raw baby carrots, hummus to dip them in, and some fishies. Big Brother really wanted to play. Little Sister was being obstinate.

"Why do I always have to be Skeletor?" she complained.

Big Brother looked at her, struck to the core. He was He-Man. How could you argue that? It was a fact of nature. After all, Grandma had given him the action figures, not her. He was just inviting her to play. He argued to this effect.

"Well, why does there have to be a Bad Guy, anyway? Why can't we both be He-Man?" she persisted.

Big Brother was beside himself. Little Sister was clearly unclear on the concept. He then went into a stunningly lyrical portrayal of life on planet earth, the nature of storytelling, and the basic dynamics of the human condition. He even, as I recall, threw in the social life of the neon tetras in our 35 gallon fish tank, to punctuate his point. He actually used the words Protagonist and Antagonist. Our private school dollars at work. He was eight years old. She was four.

He explained to her that every story on planet earth had protagonists and antagonists. And that every game there was to play, had the same. It was a rule. There was good and there was evil. That's just how it worked. He gave example after example, laying down the foundation of his argument carefully. Using examples from her own experience to make his point. He was eloquent and he was thorough. She remained unmoved.

Finally, Big Brother quite literally threw his arms up in dismay, and said to her, "Okay, fine. You name me one single thing we can play that does not involve Protagonists and Antagonists, and I'll play it with you!" He was almost shouting in his exasperation with her.

She turned toward him, looked him in the eye, and without missing a beat, said,


He stormed out of the room in a rage. She just didn't get it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

teaching bunnies to fly

I had this student once — I wonder how many tales start that way — and it was a very long time ago. When I was obsessed with being a boxer. Yah. I wanted to box. And nobody would teach me. And I wanted it bad. Just to see what it felt like, to hit and be hit (in some kind of controlled environment). Once. Just once. Let me say right at the outset, that I lost interest in even the idea of boxing pretty quickly after the bunnies...

I was teaching this class at the time called Cultures and Conflict, or maybe it was Cultures in Conflict, I don't really remember anymore. And discovered one afternoon in class that I was a fraud. With a show of hands, every person in the room had had a fight, at least one, physical fight in his or her life — except me. And three quarters had guns, even the nun in the front row. And I was teaching this class?

What I knew was theory. Theories of conflict. I don't actually do conflict itself all that well. Better, I always say, just to run. Just keep running. Passport in hand. After all, we've been doing it for centuries. Millennia, really. It's worked out moderately well, hasn't it?

But this time, I wanted to learn how to fight.

So. At the end of the semester, this student, he told me he wanted to give me a graduation present. That's what he called it. It was, after all, his graduation, and he thought it would be fun. He came up to the City and decided to teach me to fight. Not boxing. Martial arts. My student became my teacher. But that's not what this tale is really about — it's just how it started.

Eventually, he invited us down to his ranch. Me and my kids. He taught my kids to ride the horses his family bred. What I remember most about the ranch were the guns everywhere, leaning against things. Stuck in mattresses, just in case. I watched my kids reach out; little private school urban Jewish children, reaching out ... He offered to teach them to shoot. He was a born teacher.

Mostly though, my kids were drawn to the bunnies. And the bunnies won out over the guns. And at some point, I overheard him telling my kids that his mom taught bunnies to fly.

Driving back, my kids were all about flying bunnies, and they didn't let the subject drop until I promised to find out more. After all, if his mom could teach bunnies to fly, so could theirs. I was a teacher, right?

The life of bunnies, like that of all living things, is a precarious thing. Or maybe, the life of bunnies is more precarious than many of the other creatures who live on the ranch. They require protection. And his family was pretty good at it. Pens and fences and shotguns to keep the bunnies safe (and sure, everything else safe as well). But fine. Safe bunnies. Got it.

But when one died of its own accord, his mom would take it from the pen, holding it up by the feet, climb up to the top of the ridge the ranch stood on, and fling the bunny way out into the wilderness below. And they flew, they really flew. And the coyotes were grateful. His mom, he said, was an expert at teaching bunnies to fly.

And I realize now, although it didn't occur to me then, that boxing or no boxing, martial arts or no martial arts, fieldwork or no fieldwork — and no matter how much my kids might want me to teach them — there was one thing that I would never ever be able to teach, and that was ... teaching bunnies to fly.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

running away together — dordogne

It's not like either of us never went anywhere — though I thought she had me beat in this regard. Her fieldwork took her to what I thought of as the ends of the earth. although for her, it wasn't really all that far — just inaccessible. My own favorite spot was in the deep Sahara, and she would have joined me there in a heartbeat if I had asked. And I had agreed to Jerusalem (with great misgivings) because she wanted us to surprise a friend...

But most of all it was when she was with me, living with me for however short a time it might be, that she said she was most at home. She said she could stop acting, pretending, trying. She could just BE. Her room was always waiting for her chez moi.

We talked of running away together... well she did — I was quite happy where I was. I just wanted her to stay right there with me, forever. But she missed her grouchy little dog. And she had a dream. To be honest, she had many dreams. This was only one of them.

We would buy a village (yes, a village) in Dordogne. One of those medieval towns without amenities (like indoor plumbing or reliable electricity, although this latter did actually matter). One of those places that foreigners were already beginning to snap up. Or a country estate, for starters. And we'd build a Retreat Center for Anthropologists, far from the distracting eye of their home universities. A place where they could write. And think. And talk. And yes, I know, there are plenty of these spots all over the place... That doesn't matter. This was her dream. Her village. Her escape.

I looked at properties online, and found some fabulous deals. I looked at the pros and the cons:

Pros: Be with her. Write.
Cons: Leave SF. The heat.

Trading my house for someplace in rural France? I would have done that for her and her dream. I think. Even knowing that it was only one of her dreams. Her dream with me in it. Our dream. There were others.

And then (you probably guessed it): She got ill. Or rather, she got diagnosed. And well, while life does not stop after diagnosis (although to be sure, it can), it doesn't stay the same either.

Her specialty, after all, was Healing and she was an expert in this regard. And what I found so validating to my own worldview was that it wasn't too much later that she no longer gave a damn about healing anymore. Although she tried it, of course, on one last trip, to South America. It didn't help, or not for long, anyway, and at long last she was ready to go.

Now, as is abundantly clear, I do not have a spiritual bone in my body, so it's not like I'm wishing her a Dordogne afterlife. I know at the end she let go of that dream and most of the others as well. She did care about one thing and one thing only, and in this she was well satisfied.

She said she knew how to die. She just didn't know how to live anymore. I asked to see her. Just say the word and I'd be there. She said 'No' again and again. And then at last, she was ready.

It was the end of the semester, and I was about to give Finals, when she said 'Come!" — and I thought, great! As soon as I finish up the semester I'll fly out. My passport was renewed. The ticket could go on a credit card.

And then, she was gone.

I still think about running away to Dordogne. There are some great deals still to be had, especially in this economy. A village would be nice, for all of us. Or a country estate, for starters. It's so much closer to my fieldwork. And I could drop in on that friend in Jerusalem (despite misgivings).

Pros: Be with her. Write.
Cons: Leave SF. The heat.

In Memoriam — Memorial Day, 2008 —
Rest in Peace, sweetie.
You, and your little dog, too.

Friday, June 4, 2010

hybrid bean entities

My favorite disabling phrase from a student paper, was and always will remain: "hybrid bean entities." It was this phrase that taught me how to deal with the incomprehensible. Though clearly, what I learned at the time has long ago worn off.

I was stuck for hours — like a robot with the power unit shut off — pen in hand, leaning over the paper unable to move, the phrase stunned me so. I tried to picture them, those little bean entities. Hybrids, no less. But they eluded me. Still, I could feel them; they were fully and wholly alive. And sentient. They were thoroughly enjoying their impact. Laughing at me. At my paralysis. I was at an Anthropology of Consciousness conference at the time, being stupid enough to bring papers to grade to the conference, when I read that phrase. I walked into the room next door where all my friends were altering their collective consciousness (while I sat in my room reading student papers) — and I did the only thing I could think of: I handed them the phrase: "Hybrid bean entities" I announced, and started to walk out.

It was one of my most memorable grading moments. Everybody froze, their eyes on me with the same stunned expression on their faces (altered states of collective consciousness is an SAC specialty). The result, though I couldn't have predicted it, was in retrospect, obvious. Or perhaps inevitable. That phrase disabled me the whole rest of the conference. I locked my door (so the little entities couldn't escape), and was forced to join the party.

Maybe that lesson is worth retrieving.

The class was Religion and Anthropology. The assignment was to take one of the concepts we had just covered in class and apply it to something from the student's own life. Turned out, this was what she knew. She worked in a hybrid bean factory. I don't remember anything else from that class. My memory was completely wiped clean. Except for the little bean entities who took up permanent residence in my neural pathways.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

when in doubt — run

I've actually finally gotten fed up with the whole 'grades' thing — which has made me realize that it's probably time to quit. Which has made me realize that when I think such things, I act on them. I don't quit — I run. Fast.

I always knew that it would come to this. That one day I'd read a paper or a phrase or just a misspelled word and it would push me over the edge. It happened this past Winter Session in my Magic, Science and Religion intersession class: a whole semester's worth of the weird stuff crammed into 10 or 11 days. Designed for sensory overload, that's for sure. I don't remember what the line was. Should have written it down. But I do remember the overall subject:

Joseph Campbell.

And the thing is that Joseph Campbell actually does have something worth saying, reading, thinking about — but nobody seems to get that far. Reading Campbell takes patience. It's not just about about heroes and follow-your-bliss. But that's all I ever seemed to get.

Here was the problem: There were not one, not two, but three bloody papers on Joseph Campbell in the stack. And two of them were back to back. And I burned out just like that.
And it was time to quit.

That last sentence, whatever it was, paralyzed me, blinded me — it was that powerful — and I couldn't grade another single paper. It's happened before. Then I read the offensive line to someone else, and they become paralyzed by it, and I'm temporarily cured and can get on with it.

But here's the thing. The very next semester I got hit with something worse. And this time I copied it down. So here's the sentence. From my Middle East class. And this part is true:

"Throughout the history the evil and good has been a religion or its minorities at a time"

You're welcome to translate it for me.