Sunday, January 30, 2011

the little country that could

Once upon a time there was a little country. It hadn't always been a little country, but it had for the most part been an outlier in the larger scheme of things. It prided itself on being the 'breadbasket of Rome' but if the Punic wars had gone otherwise, Rome might have been the breadbasket of lovely Carthage instead. Oh well.

When I lived there, the humor in the little country was entirely self-deprecating and perpetuated the idea of smallness and the inability to aspire to anything much at all. My personal favorite being:

if the boat has two captains, all the crew will perish

Which was meant to be sure that the people understood the dangers of a two-party system. It could not be tolerated. Debate was inherently dangerous, and could break the back of a fragile little country like ours.

"Ahna kul kif kif," people would say. "We are all the same." Scratch the surface, and it wasn't true at all, of course. Nevertheless, there came to be not debate but only whispers.

There was a benevolent ruler of the little country, after its mild revolution against the dominant forces of the north. He was proud, but conciliatory. And he wasn't afraid to make mistakes.

One day, he didn't read the fine print, and signed an edict stuck under his nose. Inadvertently, he had just given his country away to the neighbors. Well, oops.

I mean, what do you do with a mistake like that? Run away to Saudi Arabia and hide your face and stash your floos? No, no, no. The wise benevolent ruler was filled with grace.

He got on national TV and announced to the people (and anyone else who might care enough to listen at the time — it was, remember a very little country):

"Somebody," he said quietly and with no hint of animosity,"somebody put this paper in front of me," he said as he waved the paper in the air.

"I'm an old man," he said. "I made a mistake." And he took the decree that gave the little country away to the neighbor, and he ripped it into pieces.

Khalas. That was the end of that. Crisis averted. And what could the hungry ruler next door do? The deal was dead inside of a five minute broadcast. A Minister of the government was thrown into prison for a while, until his inevitable pardon.

It's a sweet little country.

And that wasn't the only mistake the ruler had made. Think of this one:

Early in his rule, a great fasting holiday was approaching, right smack in the middle of harvest season. Our fair ruler feared that in its early days of independence, the fast might interfere with the economic development of his newly independent little state. He got on national television, and did something unheard of at the time (and perhaps more shocking today).

He ate something.

On TV.

In the middle of a sacred fast.

And he gave an awe-inspiring speech citing holy scripture to back up his claim that now was the time for nation-building, and that down the road fasting would be de rigeur again.

There was a collective intake of breath.

Some ate. Most didn't. Work slowed down, but it didn't stop or falter. The point had been made. Our president of the republic did not try it again.

The point is — he tried. There was a lot at stake. And he made mistakes. Big ones. And he survived them — and so did the little country. For the most part, the people went along their merry way, in relative peace and relative obscurity. They ran off to the rich neighbor to work, when they could. 'Bassebor de la lune' they called it, as they snuck across the border at night. Passport of the Moon. Or they managed to get papers and run off across the sea to work in the northlands. There was a large middle class, and an even larger rural sector.

There still were plenty of gourbis — mud huts with straw roofs, and strings of bright red chili peppers hanging from the modest roof, beside the doorless door. Courtyards were filled with women brewing tough as nails mint tea, so strong and sweet that you could stand a spoon in the tiny glass and have it stand erect from all the buzz. Miniscule blue enamel teapots sat in little earthen firebowls in each courtyard, filled with sweet smelling mesquite coals burning hotly. A kanoun, they called it, and the kanoun would be used in the winter to warm the beds, and dry the clothes; to 'bake' bread, and most of all to brew the national brew of mint and gunpowder tea.

As I said, it was a modest little country, with modest little aspirations.

After some decades of national decreasing expectations and increasing self-deprecation, the father of his country still held onto power, did not hold elections and did not step down — until, with ultimate humility and low key style, his prime minister took the reigns out of his hands and took over as ruler. But he forgot to steal the charisma that had so long held the little country together. More decades passed. The country slipped further into the backwaters of international reckoning, where it lay underestimated by all.

And then one day, a young man recognized his aspirations had been crushed. The population of the little country had exploded exponentially while no one was paying attention, and chomage had become not just the national past time, but the primary national vocation.

Hittistes — from the word hayit, or wall, that's what they were called. Though this was a word used more by the neighbors to the west, who had more hittistes standing around with nothing to do. Wall leaning was an escalation from what the previous generations had done — which was to sit in cafes nursing tiny glasses of killer tea, with at least the pretense of doing something moderately productive maybe.

And that one day, that young man — set himself afire, and took more than North Africa with him. And he was no hittiste — he was trying to eke out an occupation, albeit way below his level of aspiration. Time to face the music.

Mohamed Bouazizi from the town of Sidi Bouzid, had had enough, perceived no future, perceived that there was nowhere left to go.

And his moment of private frustration sparked the flame, quite literally, of the youth across North Africa. The youth and citizenry across the Middle East, and beyond, a bit, as well. Business as usual will not continue as business as usual.

Or maybe it will. Tunisia has had only two presidents. Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Do we say a kaddish for the benign neglect of presidents-for-life as we say a kaddish for Mohamed Bouazizi? Do we dare to think that the pattern of governance will change, and not just the face of the ruler on the side of buildings? Can Tunisia pave a path to a different kind of rule.

I've always said no, it couldn't happen. Relying on the eternal wisdom of Ibn Khaldun, I've maintained that the 'oscillation of elites' is the political system on the Middle East and North Africa — not an aberration of it. This is the way governments transition. They don't need elections or two party systems. They don't need democracy, or what we call democracy. That the circulation of elites is as valid as any other way of ruling territory and its people.

But when I look at Tunisia and Egypt today, and even Yemen, maybe more—I think the time has come at last, to say that I'm not sure.

Monday, January 24, 2011

the shekhina and the shikse goddess

The shekhina and the shikse goddess walk into a bar...

I know. It's not funny. And it didn't happen that way, anyway. It's so much easier to think of the two of them separately. As if they just don't belong inhabiting the same paradigm. But there they are, deep in conversation. It doesn't really matter how or where they met.

The shekhina. She's remote. Unattainable. Melancholic. Removed. Horrified at what we've done to the place. Her world, her dominion. The dominion of malkhut. With the shekhina, what you see is not what you get. Or rather, you don't get to see at all. We are blind to her. We've blinded ourselves with pollutants. I'm not sure if her role is to make us feel guilty for-what-we've-done-to-the-earth, or to inspire us to diligence.

One of the strange things about the shekhina that I think about a lot, is that a correlative to her name are the shikunim — slums and housing projects — the urban wasteland. And it's precisely this that grieves the shekhina (at least these days).

When I was little, I had a storybook about the aleph-bet. In each tale, the Hebrew letters go off looking for the shekhina, the sabbath bride, the queen of god. And they cannot find her, for she has disappeared from the world, in her sadness. And when I was older I realized that she had gone into occultation — just like the 12th Imam, although his reasons differed.

Shekhina means 'residence' — the residence of the divine on earth. The dwelling place of the divine on earth. She takes up residence, but then discovers what we've done with the place, and bam, she's gone till we clean up our act. Or maybe she's just gone for good.

But no. She returns. She can't help it. She's drawn back into the dreams of the righteous. Drawn back in at Friday, sundown. She comes to those places where harmony is used to knit the world back together. Voices blend. Or bodies resonate together. For 24 hours, we bring back holiness.

That's what they say, anyway.

I don't think she'd exactly be drawn to the tyranny that the sabbath has become for many of the glat orthodox — a full day cycle of restriction and rigid rules. That's not the spirit of the shekhina, as far as I'm concerned. I think she likes it better when we pick up trash on the beaches, dogshit on the cliffs. But even that's not enough to bring her back into the world any time soon.

Shikse goddess: Now she's quite different. She is of the earth itself, and not beyond. She lives here, she breathes. She has some foreign ideas. She's not running away from anything. Right?

"Take some amaretto," she said, knowing that I do not drink.

"I'm not making fruit salad," I replied, confused.

"Something to drink. You need a drink," the shikse goddess said.

She's an alcoholic. That's what she says, anyway.

Don't get me wrong. She doesn't drink. She hasn't had a drop in almost twenty years. She has 'sobriety birthdays.' And when she reaches exactly twenty years, I think she's going to go out and celebrate. That part actually I just don't get. How can you celebrate sobriety with a drink? But her eyes light up at just the thought of it. And the thought just doesn't go away. Scary.

"You've had a bad day," she says. "A trauma. That's what a good cocktail is for."

Is that some kind of joke?

I stare at her. I know she's trying to help. But the fact is, I've never had a 'cocktail' in my life. I'm still staring at her. She means me well. I know that. I do.

"I'm Jewish," I reply. Which seems to you a non sequitur, but she knew what I meant.

"A cocktail helps you feel what you feel. Connect with your emotions," she said.

"That's what a therapist is for," I answered.

I mean, what would happen if you picked up a cocktail every time you had a bad day? I mean, where would we be then? The shekhina's already in despair over the state of the planet.

The shikse goddess replies, in all her wisdom:

"Maybe what the shekhina needs is a good stiff drink."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

the juchnovetski incident

I met my first cousin recently. He specializes in wills and trusts conflict. I was teaching him how to catalog my biofather's estate. The estate of which my own share consists of the biofather's art supplies (mostly paintbrushes) and his own artwork. Which is pretty funny, 'cause — but I'm not here to talk about that —

It was Poland. Warsaw University. Mid 1990s. I'd been invited to present a paper I call 'The Grammatical Nature of God' at this huge international conference. There were so many countries represented that earphones and simultaneous translation of the papers were de rigeur.

It was the Plenary Session. First day of the conference. The keynote speaker was speaking. I had my earphones on. Even with the translation I was completely lost. Not a clue what he was talking about. So I started browsing through the enormous program. There was a long list of the participants, and one name caught my eye.


I had heard the name a number of times but had never seen it in print before. Always pictured it starting with the letter 'Y' but the 'J' made perfect sense. I had been told what a rare name it was. It was the biofather's name before his father changed it to something more patrician sounding and English. Biofather told me that, yes.

"Nobler than others." An arrogant lot, his line. And proud even of that.

I had never met a Juchnovetski of course. Although, I had been told that there was one of them in Paris. Biofather had tracked him down, but he had recently died. I had thought often of seeing if there were any more of them in Paris. But was there really any reason to bother? I mean, what would I say? Sociophobe, remember?

So. Flipping through the conference program. Finding that name. I started looking around the vast auditorium.

The biofather's face is completely distinguished. In more than one sense of the word. The family 'look' is notable. Stands out. They're tall, with a fairly prominent bone structure. The men have square faces, and most of all, deep dark penetrating eyes. Charismatic eyes. Commanding voices. Sardonic. Sarcastic tones.

So. All this is wrong, of course.

I know that now. I know that today. I learned that yesterday in Los Angeles, teaching my cousin how to properly inventory an estate.

I sat there with the earphones on staring at the Juchnovetski in the program. Not paying attention to the keynote speaker. I looked out at the crowd of academics. Didn't see any square faces or penetrating eyes. Couldn't see much at all, really, because everyone was either face front looking at the speaker, or they were doing what I was doing: flipping through the program and looking around to see who they might know. Nodding, when they caught the attention of a familiar face.

Conferences are all alike that way. Maybe all we really want to do is catch up with our friends and hear what they're working on these days. Oh. And sleep with them from time to time. Most likely these basic conference customs were equally valid in Poland. But I'm not sure. I only knew one person at this conference. And I was being put up at the Anthropology Museum on campus. Just me in this huge empty apartment in a huge empty museum full of long dead skulls and stuffed primates. And a night guard. You'd think it would be a perfect place for a sociophobe. But no. It's much more fun being phobic when there are people around.

So. The speaker is droning on and on in my earphones. And I focussed more and more intently on how on earth I was going to find Juchnovetski in this sea of mostly male Eastern European academics.

When suddenly, the droning stopped. The English translator sounded confused. She hesitated and sputtered. I looked up.

The Program Chair of the conference, Professor Kutchinski, was walking up to the podium. He interrupted the keynote speaker right smack in the middle of a boring sentence. And asked him to move aside. You could see him being asked, but nothing was translated.

And then Kutchinski stood at the podium. Glanced around the auditorium, and said loudly and clearly:

"WILL PROFESSOR JUCHNOVETSKI PLEASE STAND UP." And he looked around, left and right. And then I swear, he caught my eye and looked away.

And out of the sea of middle aged academic male faces, not very far from me at all, this balding, round faced academic slowly stood up. No penetrating eyes. No square jaw. No mischievous sardonic twinkle of the nobler-than-thou variety.

And I got a good look at him, and thought: That's no relative of mine.

And Kutchinski, at the podium spoke loud and clear, and the translator translated, having gotten her act together and doing a better job describing the action.

"Thank you," the Program Chair said, "you may sit down now."

And the obedient Professor Juchnovetski sat down as if nothing had happened. And he continued leafing through his conference program. And the Chair turned to the keynote speaker, and said (with simultaneous translation), "alright, you may continue now," and went back to his seat on the stage.

And the keynote speaker continued his talk exactly from the point he had been interrupted.

And that's the story. That's always been the story. It's a good enough story. I use it from time to time as an excellent example of transmission and reception, when I teach these techniques in my Body, Mind, Spirit class where we explore stuff like this.

Focused attention.
Clear Transmission.
Distinct Reception.
A completed circuit.

We practiced this over and over for three years in George Leonard and Michael Murphy's experiment in Integral Transformative Practice (ITP). And there it was — working for me when I needed it.

But today, the story feels different.

I look at my cousin, the estate dispute lawyer. And he's the spitting image of Professor Juchnovetski at that conference long ago at Warsaw University, when I gave my paper on 'The Grammatical Nature of God' to an audience which included a flock of Polish nuns with earphones on, come specially to hear me, thrilled to pieces at the miracles of the Hebrew language (and not, as I had suspected, having come to throw stones at me).

And I am as certain today that Juchnovetski is indeed a relative of mine, as I was certain long ago that he was not.

And I am certain today that the square jaw and dark, critical eyes I always associated with the biofather genotype are the exception rather than the rule in this genetic line. A fluke of nature, perhaps. Or just the idiosyncratic arrogance of arrogance.

And maybe all that phenotypic looming and booming and fuming aren't actually from the Juchnovetski side of the family after all.

Monday, January 10, 2011

the paintbrush

"What you really want is closure," he said. I had called him knowing I was in peril. I asked him what he thought I should feel. He's pretty good at feeling stuff.

But I'm not so sure he's right. I'm not sure closure is attainable in cases like this. Just as I'm not sure there could be such a thing as forgiveness or redemption.

"You're so detached," she said. It really bothers her. It's always bothered her.

"Detached works for me," I replied. "That, and laughter."

She frowned.

"If you can't get closure for yourself," he said, "then get it for the children."

We were talking about whether I should fly down and pick up my inheritance. And make sure that the children's share was handled properly.

I've always known that this would be it. That were there redemption in the world, this would be a good time for it. And if there were redemption, then there might be room for a little forgiveness.

The sins of the fathers...

"He wanted to abort you," she said. "He and his mother too." She tossed the latter in for good measure. She was talking about the biofather. I'd heard this story about a million times before.

"The way he told it," I said, "it was you who wanted the abortion." I'd only heard this one once. He told me this tale just before he died. He had had a great big smile on his face.

She'd been seething about this all week. Not at him for his version of the story, but at me. She thought I believed his version over hers.

That's when the thing about detachment had come up.

Detachment works for an anthropologist. In my business, who am I to decide whose truth is really true? I'm more interested intead that people tell these things at all. And in this case, I'm afraid laughter wasn't going to work too well. So. Detachment was all I had left. It's a pretty good default setting, in my opinion.

On his tombstone for some reason it is written "Husband, Father, Grandfather." Cognitive dissonance. I keep thinking, did this guy deserve to have these words written on his stone for all posterity — as if, maybe, he took these roles seriously?

What I'd really like to do is tell them there's been a mistake. That must be someone else's epitaph on his stone. They need to get it right. But no. Detachment. Just stand back. Further back. And watch it all unfold.

The house with the swimming pool goes to his wife's brother.

The art and antiquities and the rest gets divided into five parts. Two of which belong to his grandchildren. The kids whose inheritance their dad says I must protect.

For his daughter: his own artwork and his art supplies. He was a Chinese painter. Those long scrolls, with little people climbing up into the jagged mountains. Or pretty birds or flowers. Or just bamboo. He painted one masterpiece. A Mongolian on a horse in the steppe. It won a prize at a show somewhere. The only non-indigenous Chinese Chinese painter to win a prize.

That painting is mine. And the paintbrush he used is mine.

So. Here's what I feel. I feel honored that these things belong to me. They're much much more than I expected.

And when I've got my paintbrush maybe I'll be free. Or maybe it'll be just another piece of junk collected.

He didn't want a kaddish. He didn't get one either.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

techno-bling and the demise of the Qigong master

Sylvester teaches Aikido to 80 year old ladies. And Qigong. And breath work. And energy work. Whole food nutrition. Color and aroma therapy. African-American pragmatism. If it's a healing art — he can convey it.

And the ladies at the North Oakland Senior Center love him. And so do I. He's my mom's personal guru (if I can be so bold) — and you can watch right before your eyes, her energy increase in his presence. He's also gorgeous, I might add. The salt and pepper dreads really work...

But not today.

Today I watched as the great master fell. He fell in the face of his very first powerbook, which he had with him in a nice shiny black case. One hand on the powerbook, the other on his cell phone. No hands with which to heal.

His energy, which is usually spot on on the client, was erratic. It was dissipated, chaotic, and disturbing.

He could not keep his eyes off the screen.

His struggle with the glorious new machine was where to find the copyright symbol in order to print up some flyers for forthcoming classes. My mom showed him how to take a plain envelope, put a stamp on it, and mail his own articles back to himself, to copyright it.

That wasn't the problem, however. He needed a © to be specific.

"Shut the case, Sylvester!" I ordered. I had never spoken to him that way before, but it was driving me crazy.

But the case was open again before you could count to five.

"Wait!" he said. "Let me write that down." And he opened a document in Word, and wrote: FIND SYMBOLS. I had just showed him how to find symbol fonts. But then, like an idiot, I said:

"You know, Sylvester, what you really need is a website..."

Driving home across the bridge there was an interview with a science writer on NPR. I didn't catch her name.

"Over the last 20,000 years," she said, "scientists have found that the human brain size has decreased by about 10%" — which is about a tennis ball's worth of gray matter.

You know the movie, Idiocracy? one of the scientists was saying. Well, it already happened — and is continuing to happen. Apparently, human brains have been decreasing in size since the Cro Magnon.

Well, today, thanks to Sylvester, I believe it. I watched intelligence and energy drain out of a mind right before my very eyes. Healing powers melted in front of me, stolen by glossy irresistible techno-bling.

To be fair, NPR tries to make nice with disastrous conclusions.

Brian Hare of Duke University says there's an evolutionary advantage to decreased brain size. I know that we anthropologists should stick together, but I'm not quite convinced on this one: He argues that smaller brain size is linked to cooperation and the lessening of aggression. His evidence: the bonobos, current darlings of primatologists.

And then there's David Geary, a cognitive scientist. He says we just don't need to be so smart these days. Nowadays, he argues, you don't need intelligence to survive or reproduce. This must be where the Idiocracy reference came in.

But that doesn't mean we have to like it.

I want to take Sylvester's new techno-toy and throw a few stone tools at it. And do it quick, before all of his magic powers drain right down the power cord.

And well shit, I guess the same goes for me. And you, too. Maybe we'd all be a lot smarter if we'd just close the lid and go um, make music or paint something. So. okay, this is me powering down. Right after I hit < save > and then proof read, and then hit < publish > and then check my email first, and then ...

By then, god only knows how many more brain cells we all will have collectively lost.

A kaddish for the Qigong master's brain cells — although he (unlike me) surely believes in reincarnation and therefore has nothing to worry about...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

on not wanting anything at all

So. Foster opened (or re-opened) the question: Is there maldistribution of substantive good? Well of course there is in material terms, but that's not what he's talking about. He's asking the question:

If I have more, do you have less?

We're talking about things like love, truth, beauty, happiness, and satisfaction. And even good luck. We're not talking about land, water, and pecuniary wealth.

Well, that's not quite what he was talking about, and he wasn't asking. He was talking about peasant mentality, and he thinks they're just plain wrong about this one.

So. I clearly have a peasant mentality in this regard. Or maybe I've just been thinking about Foster's work on the 'image of limited good' for far too long, and studied all this 'evil eye' stuff even longer.

To cut to the chase, I think I've had it good. Not perfect. But definitely good. Lots of good. Not goods. But good. The substantive kind. That would be relationships I would be talking about.

I will say this once. It's the New Year, after all. And the old year ended with this issue and I don't want it coming up again. I do not need to be 'fixed up' with anyone, thank you very much. It's thoughtful, it's sweet, but I am not a good candidate for the partner thing. I mean it. Stop and desist.

The reason: I have filled my quota of this particular good.

I know that sounds completely ridiculous in our culture. How could you not want something as glorious as a partner in life? And the answer is, I've done my dance already. And done a damned good job at it. And now it's someone else's turn.

Khalass. End of story. It's pretty simple really.

Apart from obligations that I have already signed on for, I am completely done. And those obligations fill me completely. They are exactly exactly what I want and cherish. Nothing and no one else is needed. I don't get to want anything more.

What I do get to do is to fulfill my obligations to the best of my abilities. And yes, I do use the word 'obligation' — and to me, that's a good thing. I like having responsibilities toward others. It's an honor to hold the commitments that I do have, rather than piling on commitments that I can't actually commit to.

So. Stop and desist, and let me count my blessings. And be grateful for all that I've got.

And here's to a year of commitments and obligations. And be grateful for the things that I'm not.