26 September 2011

A Memory

One Rosh Hashanah I remember clearly. It was a late Oedipal appearance.
My parents lived at the time in Rego Park, and my father had purchased his balcony tickets for the High Holiday services. As many seem to know, in the Fall season many Jews dust off their spiritual identity and make their way to services for the High Holidays. Many, many seats are sold. This sale of tickets serves as a very important fund raiser for the religious establishments, and for a community as large as the Rego Park Jewish Center, to accommodate the many, many Jews desiring entrance, services are held in a number of venues and tickets are required for admittance. Ticket prices vary with the proximity to the main sanctuary where the tickets are at a premium and are very expensive. My father always bought tickets for services in the main sanctuary, but the tickets in the downstairs were always sold at a very high price and were often reserved for the shul hierarchy, and so my father always purchased his seats for the balcony. For this year he had purchased two tickets, one for himself, of course, and one for either my mother or his eldest sonme. When I was younger the children were always dressed in fresh clothes and the women sported the newest, stylish apparel. When I was younger, women’s sported the newest hats of the season, and those who owned them removed their fur coats from storage. The High Holidays were always a fashion show.
In Rego Park my mother no longer wanted or needed to purchase new attire for the holidays; not did she desire to display that which she already owned. Her attendance was minimal. She would usually arrive to sit with my father during the Rabbi’s sermon and leave not long after he finished.  On her way out I would make my way in: she would surreptitiously hand me her ticket as she exited and I entered. There were rules against sharing tickets. On Rosh Hashanah this move was not very complicated, but on Yom Kippur after the Rabbi’s sermon the Yizkor service was held and there were lines of people stretching down the block for the opportunity to say Kaddish for their loved ones. The crowds made finding each other troublesome.
On this particular Rosh Hashanah, I arrived in shocking blue hand painted painter jeans purchased at Canal Jeans when it still existed (now it is a Bloomingdale’s department store), and a copy of Thoreau’s Walden in my backpack. I had on a sport shirt and a clashing tie and wore no sport coat.  I slipped into the row in the middle of which sat my father; he turned to me and I knew at once that he viscerally disapproved of my attire. I had succeeded.
But I was not finished. While he pored over the prayers in his siddur wrapped in his tallit, I pulled out from my book bag my worn copy of Thoreau and opened it to one of the chapters—maybe “Reading.” And it was this act that proved too much for him. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “Put that away.” I think my father was afraid that God or someone else would see that I was not engaged in prayer, and my father would be humiliated or blameworthy.  I objected insincerely, but then obeyed. It was a short chapter anyway.
Why do I recall this now? Today, I go regularly to shul, participate actively in the services, and sometimes lead a class of unruly and even ungovernable middle-schoolers. I know how to read Torah in a variety of tropes, with a little practice can chant haftorah and any number of different parts of the service. I am still a bit uncomfortable in the sanctuary, but I have learned to engage in it in search of some spiritual space. I think my father would take great pride in my engagement in Judaism; ironically, it has exceeded even his knowledge, but alas, he died twelve years ago, not a few years before all of this development. I’m sorry he won’t know, because in his unhappy life this might have given him happiness. I recall this Rosh Hashanah now because I have two children. Both have read Walden.
Ophelia says, “We know what we are but not what we might be.” And Hillel says “If not now, when?” Both of them seem right to me, but now I can only ever do what I am now. Fortunately, it is never enough.

23 September 2011

Rosh Hashanah, 5772

I received today a New Years greeting from the Rabbi whom I knew more than fifty years ago. He had officiated at my Bar Mitzvah, a participation that I think is not the same as officiating at my wedding when his involvement would actually change my status in the public world, but his presence there raises our connection above the mundane. I mean, to become bar mitzvah is to accept the obligations of an adult as a member of the Jewish community and be responsible for caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst. These days there are too many of them. For quite some time I have understood my Judaism as an ethical attachment to the world, and I engage daily with that stance in the world. I suppose if nothing less, then the Rabbi represents some butterfly’s wing moving the air I have breathed.
     When my daughter was in Israel in the Spring of 2010 I visited with he and his wife: they had retired and lived now in Jerusalem. It was a lovely visit with my past. The Rabbi and his wife had discovered a pizza restaurant within walking distance of their home (they refused to drive in that city where the drivers were ‘crazy’) that approximated the fare at any number of New York City establishments, and I suppose the regular repast served as some link to a long life as a pulpit Rabbi in the environs. I did not ask but I imagine he was eighty years old or more: he had lost considerable weight since I knew him and though his beard was grey his face appeared as I imagined it would look when I had made the date to meet. Our conversation concerned mostly the present; he expressed disappointment that I had not brought my children along to the meeting. Perhaps meeting them would have closed some circle for him, but I think it was more my past I was interested in opening there.
     I have learned now in a number of various contexts that there is interest and value to return over long spans of time and great distances of space to relationships once experienced. I think in such voyage I forge links from then to here and from here to then: like the latent content of the dream, the emotions that stir in the event offer me some clue to my presence in that past. These emotions transcend the actual physical occasion and offer a clue to the nature of the life I lived then and give some perspective on the life now lived. I learn a few things.
     I enjoyed tremendously the visit with my Rabbi, because that is how I experienced him at our lunch. And I enjoyed the pizza in Jerusalem.
     It is another new year—5772—I am glad to receive word from 5721.

20 September 2011

Common Threads

I’ve completed screening the second and last season of Joan of Arcadia, the CBS television series that aired in 2003-4, or somewhere in those years.  I’ve written about Joan of Arcadia earlier, but I am clearly not finished with it.
I have enjoyed viewing this show again: I recall watching it weekly Friday nights with the children when it broadcast originally, and I’m not sure what inspired me to look at it again now, but I am pleased that I chose to do so. The children are presently following the episodes along with me though this time not at my side. Nevertheless, we talk about the individual episodes, and often find in them relevance to our lives. Even as I wrote ‘relevance’ I recognized that the word I originally intended to use describing the relationship between the show and our lives was ‘connection:’ the issues which the show explores and not simply issues of what do in life but why to do things in our lives. The show deals with interesting philosophical one doesn’t normally see on mainstream television.  The episode “Common Thread” concerns connections: God, this time a young girl not a little older than Joan, tells her, “All creation shares a common thread, like your scarf, Joan. How you use that thread becomes the pattern of your life.”  Such is never the theme of Seinfeld, or Friends or any of the ubiquitous Law & Order series that appears regularly the screen.
Joan of Arcadia was one of the few shows on television that dealt regularly with serious philosophical issues. For the two years that the show ran Joan received regular visits from God—who was always just one of us—who told her to do certain things—perform certain acts—that were not part of Joan’s regular life. She learned over time to trust that God’s lead would involve her in difficult, complex issues, but that her engagement in events, painful though they often were, would deepen her understanding of life and make her strong. The show was filled with pain and joy, and there were never any simple or easy answers in Joan of Arcadia: the questions were always interesting.
I remember watching the final episodes in 2004. In the last two episodes a character, Ryan Hunter, was introduced who too, had received visits from God, but unlike Joan, chose not to follow any of God’s suggestions but to assert his free will and do whatever he chose. “”My life is a gift? Thanks,” he says, “You can’t take it back.” When Joan asks if Ryan minds that God might be upset by Ryan’s response to God’s direction, he says, “I just don’t care,” Opposing God, Ryan acts out his rebellion destructively, vandalizing a church and burning down a synagogue. Nevertheless, he becomes also a well-respected citizen of Arcadia with ownership of the newspaper, friends on the police force, and membership on the local school board. He is a worthy opponent to Joan whose faith in God offered her strength, understanding and faith.  I think in the third season Joan might have been tested by the appeal of Ryan Hunter to resist God and to go it all alone: the Ayn Rand approach to life, I think.
I dreaded meeting Ryan Hunter again. Throughout the program Joan learned faith and strength, but with the appearance of Ryan, Joan’s faith would be severely tested and she sorely tempted. I think learning faith is easier than having that faith called into question. And now that the show has ended I wonder about my own faiths.
But it interests me that in the penultimate episode “Common Thread,” Ryan leads Joan’s ex-boyfriend Adam to safety down the mountain during a ferocious storm. At the cabin at the mountain’s base Ryan meets Joan who he knows has also talked to God. And in the midst of the storm at the bottom of the mountain, Ryan says, “I wondered why He wanted me to go hiking on a day like this.” Despite his claim to absolute independence, Ryan had listened to God; he was there to find Adam and meet Joan. In this episode the assertion that “connections exist before we are aware of them and they’ve always existed and always will” suggests that even the rebellious are part of the common thread that is humanity, and that the illusion of total free well on which Ryan Hunter has based his life is only thatan illusion. We are all connected, even the evil, and any dropped stitch affects the whole scarf. It need not be God to whom we ascribe causation; it is enough to know that we are all connected and one cannot move without affecting someone somewhere.  It is hubris to believe that we may act as if we could ever act alone. Emmanuel Levinas tells us that violence is be found in any action in which one acts as if one were alone to act. Joan of Arcadia consciously enacts this philosophy though it is not Levinas they quote. But then, what other television show regularly and seriously quoted Hegel, Kiergegaard and St. Augustine, Heisenberg and Einstein among others. What other television show takes its viewers and their lives so seriously. I miss this show and the attention it paid me. 

14 September 2011

How They Know

During a long-ago sabbatical I began to bake bread at home. For several years prior, I had used the ubiquitous bread machines to produce my loaves, but the luxury of the sabbatical and my re-reading of Thoreau’s Walden inspired me to learn how to bake bread from scratch and by hand. Well, almost: I do have a Kitchen-Aid appliance, and though originally I hand-kneaded the dough, I soon discovered that the machine did it better than I ever could. I justified the decision by acknowledging that if Golde, Tevye’s wife, had a Kitchen-Aid appliance, she would certainly have appreciated the ease with which it mixed and kneaded her dough and relieved her from the back-breaking work of preparing the bread. She would have used the Kitchen-Aid without question!

So for almost twelve years now I have baked most of the bread for the household, and for the most part, my output is much more than passable and considerably less than bakery-quality.

And there are left over quite often the heels of the loaves, and sometimes we do not eat enough bread during the week and the bread goes stale. Occasionally I employ another labor-saving device that Golde might have appreciated—the food processor—and I make bread crumbs, but usually I give the left over bread to the birds. I serve them meals in the mornings and the evenings, when I am active in the kitchen. Mostly crows are my biggest customers. I step out of my backdoor at dawn or at dusk, my arms filled with bread to feed the birds. The backyard is always empty and where we live, the day is always quiet. But suddenly, from somewhere, a crow caws vigorously, and the call is followed soon by a like response, and in no time there is a great deal of squawking amongst the trees, and these big, dark birds start flying into the trees immediately in the backyard continuing their call and response. I return to the house and the birds descend onto the lawn where the crumbs have been scattered and they partake of the feast. I think they do not discriminate between my various breads; they seem to enjoy them all. The crows don’t even seem to mind the bread than has gone a bit moldy, and they seem quite fond of pizza crusts, because yes, I also make my own pizzas.

But what puzzles me is how they know I am even there. The first caw does not occur in the immediate vicinity of my backyard; often the bird seems dozens of yards distant. And if I have stepped out of the back door and the birds are sitting in a tree towards the front yard, then how do they know I have left the house at all. They do not respond if anyone else exits the door—only at my appearance does the conversation begin. And if the birds rest atop the trees dozens of yards away, how do they know it is I who have arrived with my armful of bread. And what exactly are they calling out to their fellow diners?

Animals know something even if we don’t recognize their knowledge. And if they have consciousness beyond my ken, then to what else out there am I not privy? How much goes outside my understanding? The possibilities give me hope.

11 September 2011

11 September 2011

Today is September 11, the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center a horrible event in which thousands of people died. Many more would become sick as a result of the destruction and the newspapers and airwaves have been filled with accounts of the events and of plans for the tenth year memorial. It is quite apparent that nothing more is occurring anywhere in the world.

These days of memorial and prayer are mostly veneer. Today we remember the event and memorialize the dead. Today we offer our respect to the firefighters who risked their lives in the minutes and hours following the attack, but tomorrow the governors of certain states will attempt to reduce or even eliminate the salaries and benefits for which the unions of these men and women have bargained over the years. Indeed, these government minions will attempt to eliminate those unions. Today the flags are at half-mast, tomorrow we will not notice them, except for perhaps the school children who will pledge their allegiance to the flag, even though they will understand not a single word of the promise they utter.

I’m trying not to pay too much attention to the ceremonies today. I remember where I was when I first heard of the attacks; I remember the days subsequent. I know how the world has been changed for my children as a result of the vents of September 11. I also remember the days following the assassination of President Kennedy when I sat glued to the television set watching the events unfold. It, too, was a time of national grief. And what was gained and what was lost? I hear the demagogue-cum-candidate Rick Perry say about Ben Bernanke: "If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y'all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous – or treasonous in my opinion," said Perry. I wonder what he means when he says “we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas.” Or maybe I don’t really want to know. I seem to recall that Texas is where Kennedy was shot; I think it was in Texas that an African-American was tied to a car and dragged along the ground where his body was ripped to shreds. Isn’t it Texas that sets the record for the largest number of executions? Is that what candidate Perry means? Is this what we have learned from our history? Does this man—and anyone who supports his candidacy or any other office-seeker of his kind—think he is humanly (and caringly) qualified to be President? Does Rick Perry and others of his detestable ilk have the right to address the events of September 11 except to acknowledge their complicity in making possible the conditions that allowed the United States to be a target for such attacks as occurred on September 11. Those such as Rick Perry have little interest and less calpacity to ensure a safe and prosperous world.

A day of prayer should make for repentance, but today’s events are mostly about posture and show. I am mostly disgusted by the empty words of the politicians. On a day like today, silence and action would be more appropriate.

I have argued for ten years that that it is not what we do on September 11 that defines us as a nation but what we do on September 12 and the days that follow. I believe this still, and I remain contemptuous of anyone who does not now act to make the world safe not only for my children but for all children. Hamlet knowingly says of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “They fool me to the top of my bend.” Hamlet knows they would deceive him and he will not be deceived. Oh they think they fool me to the top of my bent, but they will not play upon me.

May the memory of those who lost their lives at the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 be a blessing for us. May the memory of those who lost their lives a the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 inspire us to make a world where such events and loss of life do not occur.

07 September 2011

Random Thoughts

I’m clicking about on the internet tempted to spend money and desperately resisting the urge. One alternative might be a trip to the local Dairy Queen for a hot fudge sundae with a twist or an Oreo mini-blizzard®  Yes, I would have to pay for the treat, but it is a minimal charge and a perfect exemplar of instant gratification. Actually, I have found the mini-Blizzard® insufficient, and the regular Blizzard® too much. I have suggested to both of my children that they send letters to Mr. Dairy Queen recommending the introduction of a ¾ Blizzard®, but neither has taken my suggestion seriously. 
I find the immediate hour or so after dinner particularly unsettling. I am not quite ready to slip on my jammies and call it a day, but neither am I prepared to fully engage in a serious project. When the semester is in session I devote this time to on-line class discussions and usually this activity settles me into the evening. At some point I would leave the conversation,arise from the desk chair, go into the house, slip on the jammies, and pick up the book of the moment. At the present it is Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope. I am enjoying the narrator in this novel: a bit satirical, even sardonic, whose insight into the petty behaviors of the characters makes for wonderful irony. But perhaps included in his irony is an awareness that the narrator is a part of the society he criticizes. Certainly the book itself lends itself wonderfully to an analysis of class relations, and offers interesting perspective on England in the latter half of the nineteenth century. I’m enjoying the vacation there.Next I plan to re-read Tristram Shandy, a book I studied almost thirty years ago. I have fond memories of the experience. Indeed, it is great fun to return now to books I read then. I have recently reread the early first Zuckerman trilogyThe Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson, and found there a richness I did not earlier know. I even re-read Portnoy’s Complaint.  I was so much older then. Roth seems to me to be obsessively concerned with the relationship between art and life, between writing novels and living life. He seems to want to keep the two domains separate. Interestingly, this is the same critique Zuckerman makes of Roth’s autobiography The Facts: Zuckerman accuses Roth of deception by attempting to report only the facts, when, in fact, the facts he offers obscure the life that the novels portray and that derive from just the facts.

I am fascinated by the life Nathan Zuckerman narrates; he seems to want to keep wholly separate the life he lives and the life he narrates, even if the life he narrates derives from the life he lives. He discovers that clearly this is not at all possible. As the novels progress, Zuckerman retreats farther away from the world even as the world continues to intrude itself on him. It assaults him at the delicatessen, oppresses his body,; it literally passes by his window (I Married a Communist) or storms through his front door demanding he write someone else’s life (The Human Stain). And though compelled to write, Zuckerman is unsure it has meaning for anyone but himself. And I do not think he considers himself worthy enough.Fall is still several weeks hence, but the mornings are crisp and fresh, and I sleep with the comforter and quilt snug warm in my jammies under the covers. 

05 September 2011


She appeared in my dream in the early morning hours after an already full night of dreaming. This hour or so of sleep seems to me an unfocused time when consciousness starts to assert its presence but sleep has not relinquished psychic control. My dreams here are always brief and close to the surface and possess a reality that approaches that of the daylight hours. 
But she was not merely in the dream: she was the dream. She was why I dreamt. And it felt true to be in her company, to be not so much with her but with her in that room. It was she and the room that composed the dream. No dialogue took place. I recall that she smiled, and though it was I who watched her with some expectation, I remember nothing but a patient calm. The space was vaguely familiar, an odd conflation of rooms painted by Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Hopper, but this room conveyed no sense of threat nor cold; the colors were warm earth tones. In fact, I cannot locate the space at all; it was no place with which I am familiar. I stood in the door leaning casually on the jams looking in at her who lay on the large bed fully clothed wearing a flowered peasant dress, her head resting on her crooked arm, and a knowing, warm smile on her face. But there was no invitation in her look, and on my part no inclination to move towards her in any sexual manner. I could say that the room was the womb to which I have tried too desperately to return with little success, thankfully, but that would turn the girl into my Mother when in fact neither she nor my feeling reminded me at all of her. Nor did I feel enclosed by the room; in fact, in that space at that moment I felt as I do on certain summer days when the temperature of the air is so perfect that there exists no resistance to it and I do not move through the air but am one with it. 
That was the entire dream. And when I awoke from the dream I felt fulfilled and prepared. I think that it was Desire I had seen in my dream. Because that is, I think, who she was: my desire. She was lovely and inviting, exciting and unthreatening. It was lovely to see Desire, but she would not be had, in fact. She was without judgment, but what she offered to me was warm comfort and acceptance. I felt at peace in her presence; she lay on the bed but did not invite me to it. I didn’t care. Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood? 
I do not meet my desire out here in the waking worldto see it I must dream itbut out here I am free to place it somewhere—and then, so situated, it leads me forward, as Abraham must have felt his Desire and departed from Ur. Upon awakening I experienced a certain peace: it was time to see the dawn. 
Who was she? The girl from the red river shore? Dylan says that “Sometimes I think no body ever saw me here at all except the girl from the red river shore.” Desire allows us presence, and no one ever sees us except our desire. And maybe we only see our desire. I am glad she was so pleasant to view. 

01 September 2011

Barchester Towers

So familiar isn’t it? In Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers (I am but ¼ of the way through) the bishopric of Barchester goes to Dr. Proudie though Dr. Grantly, the son of the recently deceased bishop, fully expected and was deserving to receive the appointment. Unfortunately for him, a change in the party in power resulted in the seat being awarded to a candidate more in political sympathy with the new party in power. Competence and sentiment had nothing to do with it. And to be honest, even Grantly desires the bishopric because he did “desire to play first fiddle; he did desire to sit in full lawn sleeves among the peers of the realm; and he did desire, if the truth must out, to be called “My Lord” by his reverend brethren.” Yes, position is mostly about pride and vanity. 
The newly appointed bishop, Dr. Proudie, brings with him his own chaplain, Dr. Slope, who in his first public sermon vows to replace all of the traditional practices of the town with the more contemporary religious beliefs. That is, speaking for the Bishop, Slope announces the end to all precedent and to the imposition of a new, foreign, even hostile order for which the people care not at all. Then Slope insists that Mr. Harding, the administrator of Hiram’s Hospital, a retirement home for older and poorer men, to institute a Sabbath requirement, a Sabbath school, to paint the premises inside and out every so many years, take out the garbage, and to accept a sharply reduced income. “Work is now required from every man who receives wages; and they have to superintend the doing of work, and the paying of wages, are bound to see that this rule is carried out.” It is not the idea of work that truly disturbs him though the job had been rather pleasantly easy up until now; rather, “any antipathies of which his heart was susceptible, were directed against those new, busy, uncharitable, self-lauding men, of whom Mr. Slope was so good an example.” You see, conservative as he might be, Harding despised Republicans and Tea Party members. 
When Dr. Harding refuses to accede to the new requirements and conditionsthis was wormwood to himSlope replaces him with a candidate more amenable to his demands. That is, Slope advocates for Quiverful until Dr. Slope discovers that Mr. Harding’s widowed daughter receives £1200 per annum. At which time he decides that Eleanor Bold might make an excellent wife, and to facilitate his courting of her he advocates to the Bishop that Harding be re-employed as warden of the hospital even under the older conditions and that the new candidate be sacked. Slope has no sincere principles really. 
You see, politics and personal aggrandizement motivates the characters and not concern for the public weal or the integrity of any profession. Indeed, the personal and the political seem here coincident and they are both quite dangerous: for these figures the public serves merely as a screen on which to project their own avaricious visions and desires as they grasp for power. And what occurs in Barchester has nothing to do with sincere belief or civic improvement: vanity and cupidity motivate action. So, too, does it seem in education today: nay, madam, I know not seems. The conversation is all about who can grasp the most power and demand subservience from the greatest number of subordinates. The question of the day is not how to improve education but with whom should this one sleep to attain greater power. 
No, politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows: it is strange fellows who believe that getting into bed with those with whom they deeply disagree will make for a night’s sleep or a good lay.