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.