Tuesday, November 28, 2006


When I was a teenager, one of the more pathetic things about me was that I let my sense of being “cool” affect the music I listened to. Even if I liked a song, I would talk myself out of it because it wasn’t “cool.” And yes, I realized that I wasn’t alone in that regard. Fortunately, as we get older, most of us grow out of that stage. That means we can admit enjoying things a lot even if they’re ridiculed by others.

My last blog-post involved two movie directors (Kubrick and Tarentino) whose movies are, most assuredly, cool. People who don’t like their movies almost have to apologize for “not getting it.” By contrast, many Hollywood flicks are so commonly insulted that it’s embarrassing to admit to liking them. You Got Mail or Sleepless in Seattle are examples. Fortunately, I hate those movies. J What I don’t hate, what I in fact like a fair amount, is James Cameron’s Titanic. It’s not a cool movie – in fact, it’s quite uncool – but I find it compelling just the same.

From a critic’s standpoint, Titanic is easy pickings. Let’s begin by the fact that there has to be something seriously wrong with any movie about a horrible human tragedy that a TV network (TNT) could show three times on Thanksgiving weekend. (What are we giving thanks for – not being on that boat?) Titanic is a little too artificially upbeat for my taste, given the situation. I’ve always been put off by Hollywood’s “Happy Holocaust” movies that want to talk about all the “inspiring” stories that emerged from the Holocaust; I’m definitely more of The Sorrow and the Pity kind of guy when it comes to my people’s greatest tragedy. And I would have preferred more despair and less pseudo-uplift in the making of Titanic.

I also can’t help but mention the singer of the anthem that is played at the end of the movie. If I had to be honest about my taste, I find Celine Dion’s music generally nauseating. Her singing alone makes the movie uncool. And yet … I have to admit that I really like that one song. In fact, playing that tune on the trumpet while standing on the back porch of my house during the remnant of a hurricane a few years ago was one of the best little pleasures I’ve had in a decade.

Yes, “my heart could go on” insulting the movie. Too much romance. Too much schmaltz. Too much Hollywood. Too much pop pablum. But for me, all of that is outweighed by various images that I found compelling.

The portion of the movie that I loved the most was the time after the boat hit the iceberg. That’s when the human drama truly unfolded. There were so many images that show people at their most disgusting as well as at their best – and for the most part, I found those moments delightfully realistic.

My favorite moments in the movie involve the shots of the elderly couple lying in bed, holding hands, surely knowing that in a few minutes, they were about to drown. Maybe I’m crazy, but I actually can imagine people in that position behaving just the way they were behaving – as if the only thing they experienced in life is a romantic love devoid of all ephemeral infatuation and nourished almost entirely by the understanding of, respect for, and contentment in, each other’s spirit. Of course, if it were me on the boat, I’d be way too neurotic to be able to peacefully lie with my wife. But not everybody is a type A personality, thank God.

A similar, but wonderful moment involved the mother reading to her children – all of whom were about to drown. Yes, that’s a shame that she didn’t run for the lifeboats, as the three of them presumably would have survived. But I mention the example because it was another situation where we saw a person being willing to live the rest of her life expressing nothing but love for other human beings. Pure love. And it’s totally realistic that a mother in that situation would feel not a selfish bone in her body until she breathes her last. Sorry, but I find those last two sets of images pretty damned moving.

And what about the conduct of Jack and Rose when they were floating on the surface of the water after the boat sank? Realistic? In a sense, yes. Jack hadn’t met Rose until a day or so before, but I could imagine teenage infatuation being so strong that all a young man would think about is saving the life of his beloved girlfriend. She personifies beauty to him, and to save her would not only affirm his self respect but reflect a love of beauty that all healthy people have in spades … if only they allow it to flourish.

Still another magical moment of love involves the string quartet. Do you remember when the leader of the quartet mentions that “It has been a privilege to play with you tonight.” What a great word choice: a privilege. Dude is about to drown, and the combination of his affection for music and his appreciation for finding other likeminded people makes him feel privileged. What a cool thought – Spinoza and Nietzsche would love it! If we’re truly enlightened, we could find a positive emotion for any occasion. And then there is the designer of the boat – never resentful, always classy, and unlike the bumbling but ultimately decent captain, never without a modicum of poise. His character was also well done.

OK. There were dark characters in the movie too, and you better believe they lent the flick some realism. Rose’s fiancé was a total schmuck and, for the most part, believable. True, it was an inappropriate Hollywood-like touch to make him try to shoot his fiancé and her new boyfriend with a gun … and similarly unnecessary to tell us later that he put a gun in his mouth and shot himself during the Depression. But it was hardly unrealistic to show him ignoring a crying baby until he realized that the baby would be his ticket to survival.

Similarly, I loved (to hate) the character who demanded that the boat speed up in order to break some record. Yes, in this tale, he was primarily responsible for the sinking of the Titanic, and he knew it too. Yet that SOB couldn’t bring himself to go down with the ship. Even realizing that there were only enough lifeboats for a fraction of the passengers to use, he weaseled his way onto a lifeboat. And the look on his face was perfect: “Yeah, I know I’m a weasel. But I don’t have the courage to die. And if that means I’m a classless bastard, so be it. I’d rather be ugly, truly ugly, then dead.” Again – very realistic.

Is Titanic one of my all-time favorite movies? No. It was too flawed, too Hollywoodish, for that. But few over-the-top Hollywood vehicles have enough going for them to allow me to look past their inadequacies. And Titanic is definitely in that category.

I forgot how old I was when I started to resent the concept of cool. But I remember that it was one of the most liberating feelings I ever had. And then it hit me: what cool really means is to not give a damn about what others think is beautiful. The sooner you do that, the easier it is to open your eyes to beauty … and enlightenment.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Recently, I slipped while running on the wet grass and strained a calf muscle. As that happened on a Saturday afternoon, I had nothing to do that evening but ice my leg and watch the idiot box. Flipping the channels, I came across a movie that I refused to see in the theatre. Its reviews were pretty good, but it was nevertheless portrayed as a mindless – if stylized – portrait of ceaseless violence. And it wasn’t just violent; it was a tribute to those God-forsaken kung fu movies that I have come simply to loathe.

But the movie was the product of Quentin Tarantino. So I watched and recorded it. And now it finds itself in my relatively short list of movie obsessions.

I’m not saying the Kill Bill movies – which are really one movie that was released in two parts -- should go down in history as among Hollywood’s finest. But I did realize when I watched them how much I appreciate the genre, and how few movie makers have been able to master it. No, I’m not talking about the kung fu genre, which continues to bore me. (I love athletic competitions – violent or otherwise – but only if they’re unscripted. The idea of choreographed sports is, to me, an oxymoron.) The genre that I have in mind was mastered by the great Stanley Kubrick. And Tarantino, I’m now convinced, is one of Kubrick’s only true disciples.

Kubrick’s three masterpieces – A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Dr. Strangelove – set the standard that I have in mind. All the films are hysterical, even though only the third is generally touted as a comedy. All the films are brilliantly acted, which they’d have to be, given that Kubrick would keep the actors around for take after take after bloody take until they finally created the precise scene that he had in mind. But above all, what makes these films are their characters. Whether we’re talking about a young punk (Little Alex), a narcissistic computer (Hal), or a deranged scientist (Dr. Strangelove), Kubrick gave us a singular portrait of both excellence and depravity at their highest extremes. Somehow, god and demon found themselves combined in the same organism – or, in Hal’s case, in the same computer.

Excellence, you ask? Consider each of the above characters. Little Alex, the central character of A Clockwork Orange, was more than just a sadist who would beat up old hobos and rape women while forcing their husbands to watch. He was an extremely disciplined fighter, a lover of music at its highest levels, a master of the Queen’s English, and a dashing charmer – at least when he wanted to be. Hal? Sure, he, or should I say, “it,” was a cold-blooded murderer that took itself way too seriously. But the downfall of this “ultimate computer” was the fact that it had become such an amazing machine that it ultimately figured out how to develop emotions of its own – including the deadliest of all, pride.

Then there’s the good Dr. Strangelove. OK – he’s probably responsible for the destruction of all sentient life on planet Earth. (I’m speculating there, but once the bomb blew up the USSR, and they retaliated, and we retaliated, and then some Russian satellite retaliated … you get the picture.) But remember: he was a brilliant scientist who had the ears of the President of the United States. He also had the supreme chutzpah to posit that despite being deformed in his eyes, legs and arms, he possessed sufficient mental power to merit the job of breeding with five or ten of America’s most beautiful women, all in the name of eugenics. If only we all had such an exalted opinion of ourselves.

The moviegoer leaves a Kubrick flick overwhelmed by the power of the characters, the acting, the visuals, the music, the jokes, you name it. Everywhere you looked, you saw and heard evil and insanity. And yet the genius and humanity of the very sources of evil and insanity were equally apparent. Kubrick’s characters are always morally ambiguous – victims as well as perpetrators, lovers as well as haters. But they’re not ambiguous because they’re full of grey. They’re in fact vivid contrasts of black and white in their starkest possible contrast.

Thought provoking? Perhaps not. But Kubrick movies aren’t about thoughts or concepts. They’re about visions and sounds. They’re about portraits – persons painted in multiple conflicting ways. And above all, they’re about the potential of every living person to reach the highest pinnacles of excellence, or descend to the deepest circles of Hell. Each of us has that power. Just consult your id, and you might see it for yourself.

I enjoy the fact that my favorite movie director, Kubrick, and my favorite rock singer, Mick Jagger, shared the same birthday – July 26th. They also share the fact that neither appears to be capable of generating any more great art; Kubrick happens to be dead, and Jagger … well, if any of you heard him sing at the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, you know what I’m talking about. But just as rock n’ roll had to continue even after the Stones and Beatles stopped generating classics, so too must the genre Kubrick mastered. For a while, I couldn’t tell if anyone would pick up the mantle. Now, I have to give the nod to Tarantino.

I wouldn’t deny for a second that Tarantino’s movies lack the depth of Kubrick’s. It’s also surely true that he refuses to take on the same grandiose themes as Kubrick. Kubrick made movies about the savagery of war, the centrality of free will to human morality, the dangers of technology; Tarantino makes movies about violence, violence, and more violence. No doubt, Kubrick was far and away more intellectual than his disciple. But in this genre, great themes aren’t necessary. What is necessary is a gift for dialogue, a sensibility for music, a heck of a sense of humor, and above all else, a commitment to characters who blow us away with their sharp internal contrasts.

I could go on and talk about the characters of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill in the same degree of detail as the great Kubrick characters, but I won’t. Tarantino’s characters aren’t nearly as compelling. And yet nor are they forgettable. In each case, you find yourself sympathizing with them. Their humanity is readily apparent. So are their talents. Then again, so is their depravity. Tarantino paints these characters, as Kubrick did before him, in a manner that makes them almost seem realistic. That, of course, is the key. They are both icons and lunatics, but ultimately, they are human. I cannot help but find them captivating.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


It must be so easy to write op-eds for a living. Because when you finish your piece, you send it to your editor, and … voila … your work is published. By contrast, when you’re writing blogs on the side – meaning when you’re not doing your day job or your main avocation (novel writing) – you can’t afford to post on the same day you write. So you write a bunch at a time, then store them … like Joseph from the Bible stored grain.

Well, this practice finally came back to bite me yesterday. Attached, I will show the blog post that I wrote yesterday, November 20th. Then, I will supplement my post with some fresh material.

November 20th Blog Post --

Like everyone else, I was amazed at the chutzpah at one Orenthal James Simpson for the idea that he can (a) murder his ex-wife, (b) create a new meaning for the phrase “your waiter will be with you shortly,” and then (c) write a book explaining how he committed the two murders … if it is assumed that he really did commit the murders … and then got away with it. What didn’t amaze me is that given OJ’s willingness to write the book – an act of depravity that would make Charley Manson jealous –a mainstream TV network would be willing to hype its publication.

But isn’t it particularly delicious that the network happens to be Fox News?

That’s right. The “conservative” network, the one that caters to the family values set, has decided to run a two part interview with everyone’s favorite killer-confessor-halfback-escape artist. This is the same network whose talking heads couldn’t handle Murphy Brown having a baby out of wedlock. But apparently they can handle giving tons of free publicity to a man who wants to be rewarded, and rewarded handsomely, for brutally ending the lives of two innocent young adults. No doubt, the network has a rationalization; I’m just not sure I have the time to hear it.

That the OJ “confession” – to quote his publi$her – is coming out now may seem like innocuous timing to most, but to me, it is a grim reminder of the hurdles that I personally face as an author. I expect that his magical publicity tour will take wing right at around the time that I begin the process of doing book talks/signings in the D.C. area for my own book. In my case, though, there’s no publicist willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on publicity, let alone a TV network preparing a two-part interview to discuss the book. In other words, there are books, and there are Books. And for reasons that can’t possibly have anything to do with literary quality, OJ’s is about to go to the head of the class.

Each of you must decide for yourselves whether it’s appropriate to tune in to OJ’s interview or read his prose. But consider this: to stay away, even if you’re curious, sends a message to the publishing industry and to the “fair and balanced” TV network: those who control the publishing, distributing and marketing of literature have a sacred trust to consider values other than the almighty dollar. This can be taken both in the sense of fostering virtue (which was what I had in mind when I wrote a novel about education, politics and religion) and in refraining from encouraging vice (e.g., pay a man handsomely to describe how he got away with multiple murders).

Personally, even if I weren’t an author, I’d feel duty bound to avoid paying attention to OJ’s latest venture. Given that I do write, I am doubly passionate about the issue.

For those of you who are looking for an alternative to the twisted crap that Fox News apparently views as “literature,” my first D.C. area book talk will be at Olsson’s Books and Records, 418 7th St., N.W., at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 28th. That’s a couple of blocks south of the Gallery Place Metro stop, between D & E Streets, right smack in the heart of downtown Washington. Even if you don’t live in the D.C. area, if you know people who like to read, please let them know. I can’t promise that The Creed Room will satisfy their passion for depravity. But it might provide an example of how school teachers can inspire their students, how a divided society can unify on behalf of important political objectives, how the modern soul can fall in love with “God” without deluding ourselves, and how a romantic person can identify his or her soul mate.

I know, I know. That kind of junk won’t sell. People told me when I started to write it that I would never even get it published. They were wrong, but perhaps they knew more than I did. It’s one thing to get a book published, it’s something else to create a work of literature that is well known throughout the land. To do that, at least in this society,

you need lots of luck … that and a knife and some gloves.

November 21st Blog Post –

Wouldn’t you know it? Fox came to its senses. OJ might still get to share his story with the world, but it won’t be care of Fox. And do you know the “hero” in all this? Mr. William O’Reilly. That’s right, every liberal’s favorite neutral talk-show host put his foot down. No, he didn’t threaten to leave the network – where would else he go? Goebbels’ propaganda ministry is no longer hiring – but he did threaten to boycott Fox’s interview with OJ as well as all companies that advertised on it.

Honestly folks, you’ve got to give O’Reilly some credit for that one. He took a stand against the hypocrisy of Fox News. Good for him. It might be a stand on a narrow issue, but at least it’s a start.

People like me love to note the hypocrisy of the religious right. We love to laugh at the idea that people who don’t care about universal health care can be “pro life,” people who don’t care about economic equity can be disciples of Jesus, or people who leave their spouses on their death beads can be supporters of “family values,” etc. But in this one situation, we have to applaud the rank-and-file right for taking a principled stand in favor of the values they claim to uphold.

I still won’t defend Murdoch and his company. Clearly, those executives willing to go ahead with this disgusting idea until they experienced a sharp backlash. They were dealing with this issue from the type of bottom-line standpoint that I discussed in my post from yesterday. But the reaction they received gives me hope that someday, in the not so distant future, cultural conservatives and liberals can find some common ground on an issue with a whole lot more importance than the publishing aspirations of OJ Simpson.

I’ve always thought that “values voters” on the left and right have a lot more in common than they currently admit. Perhaps, with the encouragement of political leaders who are genuine students of moral and religious philosophy, spiritual leaders of all stripes can come together in some sort of ecumenical summit. At that summit, they can address the issues that divide the religious left (I'm including secular humanism as a religion) from the religious right, as well as ways to bridge that gap. Perhaps such an endeavor would prove a waste of time; then again, perhaps it would spark a few deep areas of agreement.

We once had a civil war that was quite hot and bloody, and lately we’ve been living through a civil war that's bloodless and cold. Thankfully, Lincoln steered us past our first civil war. I pray that, soon enough, other politicians will steer us past our second.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Introductory Note: Before reading this blog-post, please read my previous blog-post, entitled “Objects of My Sympathy.” It will establish the context for what you are about to read.

This is a tale about a 13 year-old girl named Rebecca. She’s a lover of animals and a person who can’t pass by a homeless person without trying to find a way to give him or her some money. She has a sweet voice, and has used it to chant Hebrew several times this year in front of our entire congregation, including on Yom Kippur. She’s a fine athlete, and an impeccable student. Most importantly, she’s very emotionally secure, so much so that she’s authorized me – her father – to tell the following story.

Last year, Rebecca was the only person in her middle school to make the county band. She made the band as a tenor sax, however, and this year, she took up the challenge of trying out for county and state band as an alto, where the competition is more fierce. The state band tryouts were scheduled for last Saturday from 10-12, the same time that she was supposed to attend her friend’s Bat Mitzvah. After we pointed out this problem to her school band teacher, she changed Rebecca’s tryout time to the 8:30 -10:00 slot – which was just perfect.

The tryouts were in Howard County, MD, about 35 minutes from our house. When we arrived, we were told to go to the practice room, and there we found literally dozens of kids practicing their prepared songs. There were several alto saxes in the room, but two in particular impressed Rebecca with their skills. They didn’t just play their songs flawlessly; they had the songs memorized. They also seemed nonchalant about the whole experience; it was clear that they had been through this drill before – no doubt, with a successful outcome.

After about a half an hour of waiting and practicing, a woman came in to give the kids instructions on where they should go to play for the judges. I remember being struck by the woman saying that she hoped all the kids there would have a positive experience that morning.

Positive experience indeed. For Rebecca, it got off on a bit of a sour note when, after she performed her first set of songs, she looked down and accidentally saw one of the judge’s scorecards: she got a “10” on a scale of 1-15. Then she walked back to the practice room and awaited her second and final performance. She listened to the other two sax players who I mentioned before, and decided that she wasn’t in their league – that, presumably, explained her so-so grade in the earlier performance.

That probably wasn’t the ideal mindset to have before the second performance. But fortunately, she walked in and blitzed through some of her songs quite well. But when she got to the “fast” song that she had prepared and played reasonably well literally dozens of times, her nerves caused her to start the song too fast, and that resulted in her screwing up the part of the song that was supposed to be played most quickly.

That leads me to the key part of the story.

After Rebecca’s performance was over, she walked out of the room and saw the two afore-mentioned saxophone players waiting for their turns. Both of these young virtuosos were able clearly to hear Rebecca’s performance. And as they made eye contact with her, they each had the same expression on their face: a smirk.

They didn’t have to say anything. The smirk said it all. “Who were you kidding? When I go to Harvard, you’ll be at the state school. Deal with it. You’re out of my league. Maybe some day, when I go out to eat, you can take my order at the table.”

Rebecca was disappointed by her performance, but hardly devastated. She hadn’t counted on making the state band, and after hearing those boys in the practice room, she hardly thought she deserved to make the band over them. But she couldn’t help but notice a bit of irony.

“Last week,” she said, “the same thing happened at County Band tryouts. The boy who played before me was terrible and I remember him walking out of the room after he was finished.

“How did you react?” I asked.

“I smiled at him,” she said.

No doubt, it was a warm smile. Rebecca, you see, has internalized the importance of a seemingly irrelevant quality known as empathy. It’s a quaint notion. It doesn’t help you get into a good college. It isn’t tested on the SATs. It can’t create points on the soccer field. Nor does it assist a young musician with her tone quality or her rhythm. In short, when yentahs are bragging about their children or grandchildren and the “excellence” that they have demonstrated in their favorite field of endeavor, empathy is the last thing they have in mind.

I can think back to when my daughter was playing “Classic” level soccer – before she went “down” to recreational soccer because she missed her old friends. The single best player I’d ever seen in that league was so far above her competition that it wasn’t funny. But what I remember most about that girl was that when one of the players dropped to the ground with an injury, the best player was the only one who didn’t similarly drop to the ground in an expression of sportsmanship. No, the virtuoso played on – and scored unopposed. It was but one of several goals that she scored that day. Surely, her parents were quite proud: she did what they taught her to do. But as for me, the incident simply reminded me of the relationship between “excellence” and empathy … as if I needed the reminder.

I’ve tried to imagine the two smirkers rejoining their parents once their own performance was over. I’ve tried to imagine them describing this “crappy kid that played before me.” What I couldn’t imagine is what the parents would have said next. Something tells me they could care less if their children responded empathetically. They might – I repeat, might --have warned their kids not to visibly show a smirk, but as for taking the next step and showing a warm, heart-felt smile, that would not have been necessary. It has nothing to do with “excellence” – at least as that term is defined in our status-conscious society.

So what are the values that we’d like our children to develop in our society? Do we want them to value above all else, the need to excel – be it in an academic discipline, in an art, in a sport, or preferably, in all of the above? Or do we want them to value, above all else, the need to be warm and caring – to ensure that people can count on us for emotional support?

Theoretically, you can have both – you can be the most brilliant, richest, kindest, fastest … Blah, blah, blah. We know that’s not realistic. We know that there are always choices in life, always priorities, always tradeoffs. That’s where values come in: they separate what’s most critical from what’s merely preferable.

I told Rebecca after the incident with the state band tryouts that there were three kind of experiences in life: meaningless experiences, joyous experiences, and learning experiences. The tryouts were definitely a learning experience, and for that reason alone, I’m glad she went through it.

But what exactly did she learn? Obviously, she learned that if she wanted to be a top musician for her age, she had to practice more at home and play with the efficiency of a machine when it counts. Yet that wasn’t the most important lesson. She learned something that morning about what it means to be “excellent.” If you want to be an excellent saxophone player, or an excellent mathematician, or an excellent soccer player, or an excellent performer at any skill that yentahs value … then concentrate on your own skills and drive yourself to be the very best performer you can be. If, however, you want to be an excellent person, the kind of person that is worthy of the place we went to after the tryouts (if you can remember that far back in this story), then concentrate on your compassion.

And if you want to be both … you’ve got your work cut out for you.

As for the state band, I’m reminded of the fact that this band is run by school teachers, who work for school administrators. In my last blog-post, I discussed the kind of environment that these individuals are increasingly creating: one that is fueled by tests, tests and more tests. I wish that they could consider stories like this, when they realize the effects of the culture that is emerging in their hallowed halls. Are they trying to foster excellence in the virtuosos’ sense of that term, or in the sense more closely akin to Empathic Rationalism? If they’re not sure, they should reflect on this simple fact: if those virtuosos had responded with a smile, instead of a smirk, maybe, just maybe, Rebecca could have had the positive experience the state band wanted her to have all along. As it is, all that rotten experience accomplished is that it sent us to the Bat Mitzvah with a greater appreciation for the fact that there exist places like synagogues for people who grow tired of the rat racetrack that has become the modern schoolhouse.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


In my last post, I mentioned the existence of an age-group whose members especially deserve our love and sympathy. They find themselves in a difficult situation. And what makes it painfully difficult is that they know, we know, everyone knows, that their situation is needlessly difficult.

Am I talking about octogenarians? They’re commonly placed in extremely dire straights. Then again, that can be attributed to human biology. Our bodies -- including our brains – often begin to break down during that decade, if not earlier (personally, my body’s been breaking down since I was 18). So yes, it can be extremely painful to watch the trials of widowed, sick 88 year olds, but there’s a limit to what any of us can do about their plight. If only the same could be said for the situation of the modern suburban high school student, poor things.

I have vivid recollections of high school at two other points in history. I attended high school in the mid 70s and taught high school at the end of the 80s. In both cases, the last term I’d use for the experience is pressure packed. Yes, the students were given letter grades in each class. Yes, many of the students hoped that if they succeeded at school, they could attend selective colleges. But they were still kids. They had plenty of free time after school. They weren’t expected to study for standardized tests (at least not in the 70s). And their teachers had plenty of time to teach what they wanted to teach, rather than to focus completely on what the standardized test-makers would require them to teach. The 70s were a very, very different time in which to grow up.

Today’s high schools can opt out of the rat race if they so choose. They can, for example, cut down on extra-curricular activities, like the ones people join because “it looks good” on the college application, rather than because the kids enjoy the heck out of them. They can also avoid all the G&T schools, magnet programs, SAT prep classes, summer math tutors, etc. … and live like kids used to live in the 70s.

But there’s only one problem: in the 70s, you didn’t have any pressure to live differently. You didn’t know what you were missing. Now, you do.

Please don’t misunderstand me -- I’m not saying that the pressures we’ve added in recent years don’t accompany greater opportunities as well. There’s a lot to be gained from increased academic rigor, or from engaging in constructive extra-curricular activities throughout the school year. By contrast, there’s very little to be gained from engaging in some of our favorite after school activities from the 70s, like playing buzz-ketball. That involved buying quarts of beer (yes, it was easy for us to obtain), drinking them quickly, and then dunking baskets at the local elementary school, where the rims were only eight feet high.

Perhaps we high school kids were a bit too cavalier in the 70s about our responsibilities. Perhaps my school did us no favors when it allowed the senior class to vote for the titles of Mr. and Miss Beverage. Then again, I’d say the pendulum has swung a bit too far in the other-direction, wouldn’t you? Let’s assume for the moment that we don’t give a damn about the pleasures to a high school kid of hanging out with our friends or relaxing alone in front of a TV. Let’s assume we don’t give a damn about our high school kids enjoying life at all, and that we’re considering the situation solely from the standpoint of what kind of human beings we want them to become as adults. I’d assume, then, that we’d all agree on this point: we’d want our kids to become educated in the deepest sense of that word. What does it mean? If I may borrow a definition from a Stanford prof, whose name escapes me, an educated person is someone who can entertain ideas, entertain others and entertain himself.

If that’s the standard, are our elite academic programs succeeding? I doubt it. Don’t the “best and the brightest” need as much time as anyone else to sit back and simply collect their thoughts? Isn’t that time crucial for what intellectuals call reflection? Don’t the “best and the brightest” need to appreciate the value of spontaneity? Isn’t that, as much as variety, the spice of life? More to the point, once we’ve turned these kids into grade grubbers, crammers, and status-conscious future Ivy Leaguers, what have we done to their ability to entertain? What have we done to their ability to cultivate enjoyment in the voyage of the mind?

There really is no good choice for today’s adolescents. They can dumb down their schedules and watch their peer group outrace them to the land of opportunity. Or they can scurry about from assignment to assignment, activity to activity, along with the other rats. Neither path is terribly appetizing.

Fortunately, this age group is strong and resilient. Except for the relatively few that battle severe mental illness or drug addiction, they will come out of this stage more or less in one piece. But I still think they will leave a part of their souls in their AP classrooms or, in the case of the kids who opt out of the rat race, perhaps they will leave a part of their egos when they wave their high schools a final goodbye. Once all is said and done, many members of both groups will get to move on college. And there, without so many crippling requirements and constant assessments, they can resume the task of truly living.

Will the former paper chasers ever love learning for its own sake? Perhaps not, but they will learn to love themselves and other people. They might even learn to love their jobs -- which was the whole point anyway, wasn’t it?

And what about the ones who “screwed around,” didn’t worry about all those AP or IB credits, and found their way to the non-honors programs of public universities? Will they learn to love learning for its own sake? I don’t know. I’ve never sampled that trajectory. But sometimes, I think it’s more attractive than the alternative. Coming from an academically-minded workaholic like me, that assessment is truly a sad commentary. And in my next blog-post, I hope to provide a concrete example to support what I've been saying here with abstractions.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


If you listen to all our politicians, this is supposed to be a time of bi-partisanship -- a time when Republicans and Democrats come together, when liberals reach out to conservatives, and vice verse. Allow me to do my part in ushering in a new era. Below, I shall argue for a position that is generally considered to be “conservative,” even though I am a liberal. I encourage any of you who comment on my posts to do the same: pick an issue in which you agree with people whose political views/values are typically quite different from your own.

Many people who affirm the separation of church and state do so as a way to combat the power of religion. But historically, in the United States, that wall of separation was advanced more to protect religion from encroachment by the state than the other way around. I sympathize with that old-fashioned perspective and would like for measures to be taken to ensure that the government is giving religion its proper respect.

Does that mean that I want the public sphere to establish one sectarian approach to religion above others? Hardly. In a pluralistic society, that doesn’t sound religious at all. It sounds irreligious – as in, some of us feel that we have a monopoly on ultimate truths and everyone else should shut up and listen to us. Like I said, irreligious.

Moreover, the idea of a government promoting one system of worship over others isn’t my only concern when it comes to determining the proper relationship between religion and government. I’m also concerned that the government could promote religions that worship a traditional God-concept over those that wish to throw the idea of the divine into the scrapheap. It’s not the place of the government to dictate to people how they should think of God. In fact, I would go further to say that it’s not the place of the government to take sides on the whole question of God. Secular humanists can be even more religious, in the true sense of that word, than “devout” Christians, Jews or Muslims. Secular humanists tend not to advocate killing innocent people in the name of populating the Promised Land, carrying out a Crusade, or conducting a jihad. Moreover, secular humanists tend not to absolve themselves of responsibility for the healing of their planet. Since there exists no God in their heavens, they must take on the sacred duty of public service that many “devout” people assign to Providence. Maybe these secular humanists choose not to use the word “sacred” to refer to their social service, but a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Suffice it to say, then, that I’m not a huge fan of the establishment of any church or religious tradition by the government. But I am also concerned about a government that abridges the free exercise of religion. I’m concerned about a government that shows such disdain for the whole domain of religion that it wishes to keep religion – in the broad sense of the word – as far as possible away from the public sphere. My specific concern is the public schoolhouse, where children sit for hours on end gulping down that which the government decides is worthy of their consideration. We want them to learn science. And math. And literature. And a foreign language. And history. And art or music. And physical education. We even require that they learn about human sexuality. And that makes sense to me. But what of religion? Are they required to think about that? Nah. “Too dangerous,” we say. “Let the parents teach them outside of school.”

In the name of religion – not sectarianism, but spirituality – I find the above priorities offensive. Spirituality is every bit as important as any of the above disciplines. In fact, it’s arguably as important as all the other disciplines combined. So why don’t we pay it any mind when we are deciding how to educate our children? Some are concerned about the danger of the slippery slope: once we require instruction in comparative religions, won’t we open the door to teachers taking the opportunity to preach incessantly about the wisdom of their chosen religion and bad mouth any alternative faiths? How, for example, can we trust a traditional Christian teacher to speak fairly about the Jewish assertion that God never took human form? Do we want our Jewish children to sit in a classroom in Lubbock, Texas listening to a Christian teacher lecture about the Jewish faith in a classroom composed almost entirely of Christians?

I’d be willing to take more chances than most and advocate requiring comparative religion courses in public schools. But, for the moment, let’s not talk about taking chances. Let’s just talk about the idea of moments of silence. What if, for kids who are in middle school and high school, the first and last class periods of every school day began with one solid minute of compelled silence? And what if that minute of silence was introduced by a statement from the teacher to the effect that we believe it is important to take some time either to pray, or if you are not one who prays, to at least spend some time meditating or reflecting on what is really important in life? How can that possibly be considered an inappropriate establishment of religion?

Some might say that two daily minutes of silence would be merely a waste of school time. But to me, that attitude shows a hostility to religion that un-becomes a free society. The kids spend 45 minutes a day on science. They can’t spend at least two on religion? Some kids would actually take the time to pray – and yes, the official minutes of silence are a way to remind them that their prayer is something that we in society respect. But to those who don’t pray, they are also being given an opportunity to relax and collect their thoughts. Lord knows that we should respect the need for that as well.

Sorry, but I have trouble appreciating the other side of this issue. And spare me the slippery slope argument that moments of silence will turn into opportunities to make atheists feel out of place. I was an atheist as a child, and I would have felt fine with the notion of meditating or relaxing while my religious friends prayed … at least if they prayed silently and an introductory statement was made that a “prayer” is not necessary. Nobody’s talking about minutes of indoctrination; I’m talking about minutes of silence.

So let’s say that a law was passed mandating two minutes of silence per class day. How might I spend such minutes? Well, in prayer, hopefully. But I tend to take a dim view of traditional, petitional prayers. (“Dear God … do this for me, do that for me, etc.) Accordingly, in my next post, I’ll suggest a group – other than ourselves – that could use our love and sympathy. This group contains rich people, poor people, sick people, healthy people … they run the gamut in all respects except one: their age.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


My law school class was divided into four sections of 140 students each. In my section, we had three class clowns. All were nice people, and all three made people laugh. But that’s where their similarities ended. One was funny because he kept cracking jokes even though none of them was clever, witty, shocking, interesting … in short, the jokes were stupid, but he became a comic character for his perseverance. The second class clown was funny because he was, well, he was nuts. And in a place as boring as a law school classroom, an odd duck cracking crazy jokes is pretty darned hysterical.

That brings me to the third class clown. He was a cool guy who always loved to laugh. He loved obscene jokes most of all, but he couldn’t tell those so much in the classroom. So in the classroom, he just figured out a way to laugh at his fellow classmates – only in a way that even they had to laugh with him. This guy, you see, didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was just a super nice person who appreciated the basic human principle that we all need a good laugh, and the zanier and dirtier the joke, the more visceral the laugh.

He frequently called me up and made all sorts of obscene, sexual propositions that made no sense, given that we were both heterosexual males. He used to scream out the window when his wife was approaching his apartment walkway: “Get out of here bitch, my wife is coming!” He would hold parties in which, instead of playing music, he would play Rodney Dangerfield albums. He gave many people absurd nicknames that have lasted with them the rest of their lives. One time, when a friend named Jon was scheduled to answer the professor’s questions in Corporations class, he arranged to have people chant Jon’s first and last names, and then to rate Jon’s answers on a scale of 1-10. He gave the lowest possible rating.

In short, at Harvard Law School – otherwise known as sober environment that takes itself way too seriously – he was an antidote.

Last year, on November 11th, he was driving alone to his home in the Catskills, his family having recently moved from the NY City Area. He and his wife now had three children, and he had a successful practice as a bankruptcy lawyer. Alone in his car, sober and seat belted, he drove off the road on a rainy evening, fell down an embankment, and died. At his funeral, nine people gave eulogies. And well over 100 people had to stand, for all the seats in the synagogue were filled. I missed the funeral, but saw his surviving family the next day. Many of the neighborhood kids were there – despite how recently he moved to the area – and all of them referred to him by his first name. He was just one of the boys, to them. Totally unassuming. Totally friendly. Totally fun.

When I first heard the news of my friend’s death, my primary emotion was shock. I likely didn’t immediately perceive how much this would affect my life -- after all, while the two of us had spoken a few years back, I hadn’t seen him since we graduated from law school more than 20 years earlier. As soon as I learned the news, I instinctively took a shower, and that’s when the news really hit me. In fact, I started to bawl my eyes out. I felt badly that my friend was gone. I felt badly for his family. But most of all, I felt badly for my world, that in an environment where most people would live well into their 70s, this guy of all people would never reach age 47. He was so vivacious, so much fun, so full of love. And now, he is gone.

The police report said that he was exceeding the speed limit at the time of his accident. So is that the lesson here – that we should drive slowly? That’s one lesson. We could add other clichéd lessons like: (a) you never know when your time is going to be up, or (b) make the most of your days, because they are scarce. But those are not the deepest lessons I’ve taken from the episode.

First, I’ve realized that when people are both loving and vivacious, and particularly when they have a knack for making other people happy, they will be deeply appreciated in ways that most of us can’t understand. This man left quite a mark, didn’t he? In that sense, even someone who dies young may be said to have lived a full life.

Second, this episode reminded me of how much I not only loved my friend but life itself. It’s precisely because we adore life so – at least those of us who don’t set off suicide bombs – that we feel so awful for a person who dies before “his time.” Life may not be as fair as we’d like, but it is every bit as precious.

Third, one of the most beautiful things about my (Jewish) culture is how it deals with death. Last year, I was able to celebrate my friend’s life with his whole surviving family because, in Judaism, the family spends a full week together at home to remember and mourn the dead. This year, several of my classmates from law school are going to get together in my synagogue to honor our friend. We will be standing up in unison when his name is mentioned. And this will go on every year on or around November 11th, which will allow us to keep him alive in our thoughts during the weeks and months ahead.

Last, but certainly not least, this episode reminds me, as if I needed a reminder, that what goes on in this world is not the product of a great puppeteer manipulating human events. Out of respect for my friend, I refuse to believe that some deity made a conscious decision to take him away at a young age from his loving wife or his three adoring children.

Of course, that deity could have viewed his murderous decision as some sort of off-color joke – “Let’s allow all the cut-throat, status conscious pricks to live, and take the life of the guy who makes everyone happy. Yeah, that’s the ticket!” If that’s really what’s going on, maybe someday, in the spirit of my friend, I’ll figure out how to laugh at death. As Mary Richards said at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown: “a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.” In other words, the more awful life gets, the more viscerally we can laugh at its absurdities. Frankly, that’s one of the truths that have kept Jewish culture alive through crusades, ghettos, pogroms, Holocausts, and above all else, our own stupidity.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


The title of this post concisely states the message that the electorate sent yesterday. The exact power of the message may depend on a few thousand votes just south of the Potomac, but the nature of the message is unmistakable.

Clearly, this wasn’t just a simple break; it was a compound fracture. First and perhaps foremost, everyone is tired of the corruption – it was one thing to learn of the existence of an unbelievable hypocrite, Mr. Foley, and it was quite something else to see his disgusting conduct covered up by the leaders of America’s majority party in the House. Democratic partisans might explain the cover up on the fact that Republicans are evil. But that’s not the story here, folks. The Republicans just got fat, that’s all. They got so used to tasting success that they became unaccountable, gluttonous, ruthless and, ultimately, humiliated. Truly, there’s nothing wrong with the Republican party that a vegan diet couldn’t solve. It’s worked for me – I’m now down to 6’ 170 pounds … but I digress …

Why do I think that the GOP lost its compass and pretended that we had, not a democracy, but a one-party system -- one in which the majority party is justified in doing anything it takes to consolidate and expand its power? Consider the election of 2004. At the time of that election, we had virtually as much info as we have now about the Mess-o-Potamia (to use a Jon Stewartism). But what happened? The President who brought us the war got substantially more votes than he did four years earlier. If you were a Republican leader, wouldn’t you feel a bit omnipotent in response to those results? Wouldn’t you feel that your power was a tad absolute? Anyway, we all know what happens with absolute power.

The second fracture manifested last night involves the situation in Iraq. People really want that repaired, and they trust the Dems more than the GOP to repair it. Fair enough, but believe me, fixing that mess is easier said than done. Iraq, before the war, was an egg, and not just any egg. It was a smelly, rotten egg. So what did we do? We unscrambled it. Now, the American public wants it scrambled again. That would be fine, except that the last time I checked, Superman wasn’t on the ballot last night. And say what you want about Nancy Pelosi, but even her defenders admit that she doesn’t have telekinetic powers. She can’t read minds, she can’t lift objects with thoughts alone, and she can’t cause sounds to be seen and sights to be heard. In short, we’re screwed in Iraq and no election can change that. But at least our electorate is now smart enough to recognize the need to do something, anything, to alter our course.

That brings me to the third fracture. It’s called excessive partisanship. For those of you who haven’t read The Creed Room – remember, you can walk your fingers right over to Amazon.com and order it faster than I can say “they’ve declared a victor in Virginia” – perhaps the greatest lesson any of us (including the author) can learn from that book is that we as a society can’t take on any of the major problems in this country or in this world unless we can reach some kind of relevant consensus. Global warming? Poverty? You name it. If this country remains splintered, polarized, and unwilling to listen to “the other guys,” we’ll never muster the power we need to fight those foes. Last night, the electorate seemed to recognize this fact. Last night, they seemed to calling for an era where moderates are being taken seriously, and nobody is allowed to roll over half of America.

9/11 proved that we can come together to battle a group of enemies who gratuitously killed thousands of our citizens. But there are other ways of destroying societies than with military means, and right now, we’re incapable of joining together and battling those enemies. Just look at the global warming situation. Al Gore tried to demonstrate why this is a huge problem – pretty persuasively, if you ask me -- and half of the country reacted simply by laughing at the story teller.

Folks. We have a problem. And that problem cannot be solved by one party rule, at least if that party doesn’t go out of its way to embrace people on the other side of the aisle.

Fortunately, the electorate is on to the above problems. And I, for one, will sleep better accordingly. To those who are afraid of Speaker Pelosi, I would simply say to get over your sexism and recognize that a woman doesn’t have to be a shrinking violet to be worthy of your affection. To those on the other side who are afraid of recounting votes, I would say that at the end of the day, it matters less who controls next year’s senate than that we feel we live in a functioning democracy. And to those who perpetrated those disgusting racist attack ads, let me say that I have no words for you that contain more than four letters. Perhaps I should learn to love my enemies, but I’m still working on that. For now, all that I can say is that your names should be identified, the media should do major exposes on who you are and what you are, and never, ever again should anyone feel free to peddle the type of filth that you peddled during the past several weeks.

For a utopian like me, even when everyone else is celebrating, there’s always time for a Jeremiad. And so, I will end this post with one. Those Democrats out there who are rejoicing, and who are contemplating the day that they can become as gluttonous and complacent as the GOP had become, just consider this: The RNC ran adds with a white pseudo-slut winking at a black candidate. And now, not coincidentally, you continue to live in a country that has never had two black senators in office at the same time.

There’s still work to be done, folks. Plenty of work. But at least some people woke up. And progress, even baby steps, is always appreciated.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Some cable network played 1776 on TV last night. I watched a few minutes during halftime of the Monday Night Football game. That's one movie I never grow tired of watching. And no matter how lousy the choices, I never grow tired of voting either.

Whatever you do today, don't forget to vote. If you're around other people, feel free to remind them too. I swear it's not a waste of time. The state of political apathy in America is such that many people who would vote are probably likely to forget if they're not reminded. So feel free to remind them even if you would be insulted if someone reminded you.

Optimally, instead of simply voting, we would all spend the day lit dropping, making phone calls or picking some other task in support of the candidates and party of our choice. Since I'm busy novel writing today, I'm unfortunately not spending my time helping people's votes get counted. But that wasn't the case two years ago, and I doubt it will be the case two years from now. Working on election day is one of my favorite pastimes.

Who's going to win today? I feel quite certain in this prediction: I don't have a friggen clue. This country is so polarized, and almost evenly so, that it has become virtually impossible to predict the results of an election. Of course, that makes election day that much more exciting. I'm envious of my friends on the West Coast who (a) might actually know by the time they go to bed which party is going to take the House and the Senate and (b) give a damn. There are a few people I know -- even a few friends -- who fall into the first category, but not the second. I'm not envious of them.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


Thus sayeth that legendary philosopher, Tony Montana, when he received a proposal that would have seemed daunting to anyone without Olympian ambitions. But Tony was a man of such ambitions that no challenge was too much for him. Whether it involved killing statesmen, killing cops, killing drug dealers, or killing brain cells … he was always the man for the job, regardless of its scope.

So, with the inspiration of that great cultural icon at my side, allow me to tackle what is supposed to be one of the most difficult and profound problems facing humankind. I’m referring to the so-called “problem of evil.”

Anyone who is steeped in religious literature is surely sick of the phrase. You see it everywhere. And if you attend church or synagogue, you hear it over and over again during lectures or even from the pulpit. How can this world be so full of horrible things if God is as “good” as the sages say He is? And if God isn’t so good, or isn’t so powerful as to prevent the parade of horribles, then what kind of deity are we worshipping?

Oi gevalt. You want to kvell about God, but instead, His world leaves you kvetching!

Well, maybe it leaves you kvetching, but not me. And not Tony either. We realize that the problem isn’t with “evil,” it’s with God. More to the point, it’s not with the idea of divinity; it’s with the concept of God that’s been bantered about for the past several thousand years.

Let’s first of all agree on this much: those who posit the existence of a “problem of evil” are correct about one thing. This world doesn’t appear to be the product of a single omni-benevolent, omnipotent deity. What, you mean you’re so happy that you don’t know what I’m talking about? You haven’t encountered enough suffering to know why this “evil” thing is such a big deal? Just walk on down to the Vietnam Memorial – or if you don’t live in my town, fly out here and then go visit. Start saying the names of the dead soldiers one at a time. When you’ve said all 50,000, just remember: more than 100 times that number were killed by Hitler. And all of them died just as senselessly.

You might, of course, contrast those deaths with the “sensible” ones that take place in nature every day. Lions killing gazelles. Wild dogs killing wildebeests. Sensible? Perhaps. But horrible nonetheless. The death of any mammal is heart wrenching, and not just to the deceased but to their families as well. Life is full of those little tragedies. Not one minute goes by without one.

So call it “evil,” or call it “sad,” or call it whatever you want – there’s no question that this world is nearly as replete with sadness as with joy. The question is why any God worthy of the name would allow so much of it to continue? Those who ponder the problem of evil ask themselves the question: if they were God, would they have permitted Hitler to attain such power? Would they have permitted the Serengeti to become so filled with carnivores? Would they have sent us earthquakes in which dozens or hundreds of children – innocent little children – are literally buried alive? Of course not. So what does that say about God? Has he no more heart than Tony Montana, or at least no more power?

Actually, Tony Montana and “God” have the same degree of heart. And the same degree of power. None at all. That’s because they’re both fictional characters. More specifically, they are both fictional people.

The concept of Tony Montana doesn’t frustrate me because he’s a fictional person based, loosely, on real flesh-and-blood men. But “God” is a fictional person that is supposedly based on something that transcends humanity. Why, then, do we continue to paint human portraits of God? Why do we consider it a problem if the world doesn’t resemble what it would look like if it were the product of a benign, human-like ruler?

Seriously, either God is transcendent or God is person-like. Which is it? Can we please stop trying to have it both ways before every intelligent teenager in the world who takes a close look at religious philosophy starts to ask why the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes?

The “sages” are to blame, you know. They’re the ones who continue to perpetuate the idea that God should be analogized to human beings. Maybe it made sense 500 years ago, but now that the terms “free thinker” and “atheist” are becoming synonymous, you’d think that we would realize the dangers in attributing human personality characteristics to the source of all Being.

I heard a justification for divine anthropomorphisms just a few weeks ago from a Jewish writer whom I respect very much. “We’re human beings. We speak in a language that’s inevitably tied to our humanity. So if we want the idea of ‘God’ to have any meaning, we have no choice but to discuss God in human terms.”

Yup, there it is. The rationalization that’s been used by theologians from time immemorial. It’s almost as eternal as God – and very nearly as tragic as God’s world.

There are no profound and yet easy ways to grasp hold of divinity. Sure, we can personify divinity all we want, but while the rewards for our own little egos might be great, we can assure ourselves that we will have lost divinity in the process. Even if you accept as I do that God exists, by fashioning God in our idealized image we have rendered God into a pure fiction. Indeed, by talking about God at times as the Ein Sof – the unknowable, eternal unity – and at other times as the cosmic “person” or the great “father,” we’re essentially admitting that we would rather appropriate God’s name for our own parochial objectives than respect and honor God for what God is. In short, we would rather utilize the name of God than honor it.

And we call that spirituality?

Let us, then, cast aside all the unpalatable rationalizations of the elders and start only with principles they espouse to which we clearly can’t object:. Here’s one: to be human is to be limited in our use of language and in our capacity to conceive of truth. With that principle in mind, let’s play a game based on the idea that we must pick some kind of anthropomorphism to conceive of the divine power. Try this one.

Stop thinking of this planet as the product of a single, omnipotent, omni-benevolent human-like will. Stop thinking about God as a being who deliberates at Time X about how to improve His world, decides what to do at Time Y, and then acts at Time Z in accordance with His ever-benign and yet ever-rational desires. (Some religious people might think that all that happens prior to the commencement of time, but for our purposes it hardly matters whether God is “deistic” or “theistic” – both seem quite implausible given the facts on the ground in Auschwitz and the Serengeti.)

Instead, think of this entire universe – everything we can perceive, measure, or even contemplate measuring – as a single dream of a God who has infinite dreams, though in this case, the dreams have impact on the physical world as well as the mind of the dreamer. Think of reality, in other words, as a multi-verse that expresses not the will of God but the way of God, a way that isn’t so much conscious as supra-conscious. That term connotes that the mind can achieve a state that somehow transcends consciousness, an idea that is common to Eastern spirituality, but is quite foreign to the Western mindset, which worships the will as the highest possible quality of mental life.

The God I’m positing here didn’t choose this world as an expression of love. God simply expresses all the thoughts/desires/impulses, etc. that can possibly be dreamed, or expressed, in one universe or another or another. In the words of Spinoza, God “lacked not material for creating all things from the highest to the lowest degree of perfection, or , to speak more accurately, the laws of his nature were so comprehensive as to suffice for the production of everything that can be conceived by an infinite intellect…”

Does that conception satisfy our hearts? Does it make us feel quite as warm and cuddly about our “Lord”? Does it make us feel that we are living in a world that comports with our ideas of justice? Does it allow us to see God as a trusted “father” or “partner”?

Perhaps not. Then again, if we’re talking about honoring God, we’re not so concerned about asking what God can do for us. We want to know what we can do for God. And we should start by opening our eyes as far as they can open to the realities of a world that is not the product of an idealized super-human creator.

Problem? No problem. What we consider to be signs of “evil” are just manifestations of the infinite manifestations of an infinite mind ... one that is capable of love, hatred, and every other emotion under the sun and beyond. You see, the God I’m talking about exists through us as well, and when we experience love, you can honestly attribute it to God as well. I don’t distinguish between “God” and “reality” except God refers to the infinite, eternal, and ultimate source of reality (Being itself), whereas specific finite beings are mere fragments, mere manifestations of that universal substance.

But let me not let this descend into metaphysical speculation. Some of these points are highly questionable, but others are not. It’s a fact that the “problem of evil” seems to be such a difficult problem precisely because we view God primarily as a super-human being. It’s also a fact that we need not view God in that way in order to practice monotheism or pursue spirituality. We make that choice because our ancestors have done so, and despite the fact that so many of our youth are being turned off to religion because of the illogic of our ancestors’ philosophy.

It’s a challenge worthy of Tony Montana: Say hello to my little friend. It’s called: Reason. When you hear someone fracture enough of its precepts, ask yourself whether that’s really necessary. Isn’t there a better way out of the maze than either blazing the same old trails, or standing in awe at the difficulty of our task? Let’s reserve the emotion of awe for when it’s really deserved. Let’s not posit false dilemmas and label them profound simply because we can’t stomach any of the obvious possible solutions.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


I was getting rather annoyed by politics lately – by the media coverage, by the political ads, and certainly by the job that our current Congress is doing. I was lamenting that the lions of politics – Jefferson, Adams and Lincoln, or for that matter the Kennedy’s and M.L. King – are all long gone, and they left us with a pack of rodent-like statesmen instead. So then I began to wonder, could it be I’m just not getting the point of all this? Maybe the problem is that I don’t drink enough. I certainly don’t have anywhere near the red wine that medical research advises us to consume. Maybe I should also be drinking more beer, or taking more shots of Jack Daniels. Presumably, if I started to drink heavily – kind of like a college freshman back in the American golden age of substance abuse – then I’d get in the proper spirit.

So here goes. [The sounds you’re hearing are the sounds of someone drinking a “virtual” six-pack with a double martini chaser.] … Now, I’m beginning to get the idea. … It’s all becoming clearer. This political season makes sense after all. In fact, it’s really quite festive, once you have the proper perspective.

Let’s start with my man, Macaca. He could be talking about why he doesn’t appreciate being called a Jew. Or point out how strange it is to see swarthy types in real (meaning rural) America. For that matter, he could have been talking about the issues. But this guy’s cool. He wants us to focus on his opponent’s novels. It seems they had some nastiness about women. And I for one would much rather think about tawdry fiction than, say, global warming. Wouldn’t you?

What did you say? Macaca’s just jealous? He resents Webb for being able to write novels, when in fact Macaca can’t even read them? That’s nonsense. Macaca can too read. He just would rather hear his favorite books – like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – on tape. Reading is so, well, it’s so five years ago.

Then there’s that awesome senate race in Tennessee. Oh my God, did you see that chick in the Ford commercial. The one who was winking at Harold, and asking him to call her. Maybe I’m drunk – alright, so I’m definitely drunk -- but damn, she’d look good to me sober. No wonder Ford put her on that commercial. I mean, it’s so cool that he, a politician, gets invited to Playboy parties and that hot chicks like that want to do him. I know some people will say this is irrelevant to the job of being a U.S. Senator, but I’d like to have senators I can relate to – guys who care about more than antitrust and energy policy, and boring crap like that. I want to have people who truly represent America. The Americans I know wouldn’t just show up at a Playboy party if invited; they’d call that blonde back and, well you know … they’d spend some time with her.

[Someone whispers in the narrator’s ear, before spilling some virtual beer on his pants.] What did you say? That commercial was a Republican hatchet job against Ford? Seriously? Are you telling me it was trying to remind southerners of the image of black sexual predators chasing white women? That’s a load of Macaca. What’s next, you’re going to claim that the sinister sounding tom-tom drums in that radio ad about Ford was meant to suggest that he was some sort of malevolent jungle bunny? Please. The Corker campaign couldn’t in a million years intend such a thing. He surely never made the connection between sinister sounding tom-tom drums and stereotypes about his black opponent. This is Tennessee, folks. There’s no racism in Tennessee. Elvis played rock n’ roll. Where do you think that music came from anyway?

That leads me to another Senator. Good ol’ John Kerry. The first thing that pisses me off about Kerry is that he never talks about his sex life. Idiot. This guy is a Democrat who ran for President, has served a zillion years in the senate, and yet he somehow refuses to talk about his sex life or his private parts. Does this dude know anything about history? Jimmie Carter talked about having lust in his heart. He was President, at least for one term. Bill Clinton talked about being a boxers guy (or was it briefs?), and then, for good measure, he hoses that fat chick – spare me the oral-sex-only stuff; he hosed her! And look at him? He was two-term Presidential material. So now, here’s John Kerry, with a face that’s made of wood, who doesn’t know the first thing about how to introduce his lusts to the American public, and he thinks he can be elected President from the Democratic party? Pleeeaase. He’s just the latest in a long line of seemingly-celibate losers: HHH, McGovern (talk about light in the pants), Mondale, Dukakis … Not one Harold Ford or James Webb in the bunch.

But that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. I can’t believe Kerry would tell a joke and botch it up. Christ, that’s never happened to me. OK, so when I’m drunk, I mangle a few syll-aables. But he shouldn’t be drinkin’ and stumpin’ at the same time. Moron.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. He didn’t really tell a joke. He meant to say that only idiots – like he was when he was a kid – would be stupid enough to serve in the military. In other words, he meant to insult the troops. He couldn’t possibly have meant to insult the President; that would be disrespectful. Besides, he didn’t do any better at Yale than Bush did, so why would he insult Bush’s intelligence? Kerry’s not exactly Einstein either, and by now, you’d think he’d know that.

Well, you’re wrong. He meant to tell a joke, he botched it up, and media was wise to cover this story round the clock for days. The last thing we need in this country are celibate Democrats who don’t know how to tell a damned joke right. Talk about one boring place to live.

Politics should never be boring. That’s one lesson that should be taken from the Kerry flap. Macaca gets that lesson. So does Corker, or Ford, or whatever great mind came up with those cool ads in Tennessee. The liberal elite can whine all they want about things like the “low level of political discourse,” but my fellow Joe Sixpacks don’t give a rat’s ass about political discourse. We want images. Images like Clinton’s undies and Lewinsky’s dress. Images like big bad Willie Horton given a “get out of jail free” card and using it to terrorize white people in Southie. Images like seeing that hottie at a party, picturing her talking to us, and having her whisper “hey, call me.”

I’m just sad it all comes to an end on Tuesday. But when the elections are over, at least we’ll have the memories of this festive season. And should we invade another country for no apparent reason other than to promote democracy, at least we’ll know it will all have been worth the costs.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


There are only two celebrities I ever recall discovering for myself. The first was a girl who hit a little yellow ball. I happened to be watching her on TV play a minor tournament when she was about 15 or 16. It was a weekend afternoon, and yet I was alone sitting in front of the tube watching this un-hyped tourney. I really can’t say why I was watching except that I loved the sport. But that day, I wasn’t just a spectator; I was a fan. The brilliance of this child’s game dazzled me, and when I heard her interviewed after the match – and I saw her as a shy, unassuming, yet intense prodigy -- I was captivated.

That was the first tourney she won in the U.S. She went on to win 22 major tournaments, and I watched nearly all of her major tournament finals. One day, years later, I walked out of my own house because I couldn’t cope with my mother-in-law rooting loudly for this lady’s opponent in the finals of the French Open.

This lady’s name is Steffi Graf. And I am what you would call a fan of hers, wouldn’t you say?

When I first came to appreciate Graf, I was convinced that nobody outside of the tennis world was aware that she even existed. But when I first came to appreciate the second celebrity that I “discovered,” his name was already well known by even casual observers of the American political scene. The difference, I convinced myself, is that most of them knew only his name and a few superficial facts about him. I, on the other hand, felt I instinctively understood his raison d’etre as a politician.

This second celebrity may be called “The Tiger Woods of Politics.” Or, if you prefer, “The Natural.” I choose to believe he will become first African-American President of the United States. His name, of course, is Barack Obama. And my discovery took place during the Democratic Convention of 2004.

At the time of the Convention, I had been working on an early draft of The Creed Room, a novel that very much involves the intersection of politics and religion. I came to the conclusion in the course of writing that book that this country needed to fall into the hands of progressive politicians whose spirituality and values were beyond question and who recognized the need to align progressive politics with the interests of the business community (i.e., in that sense, they should be more like Clinton than either Reagan or Bush). I also decided that the country needs to be led by visionaries who aren’t swayed by whatever is politically expedient at the moment (i.e., in that sense, they should be more like Reagan and Bush than Clinton). In other words, I decided that this nation needs politicians who could demonstrate to the society that religious values are harmonious with liberalism, not antithetical to it, and whose liberalism is infused with such guts and passion that they feel the need to accomplish feats on the grandest of scales. Then I saw Obama speak, and I realized that this was one dude who hardly needed to read my book (at least its sections on politics), because he already knew everything I did and, no doubt, so much more.

Since the Democratic Convention, I’ve followed Obama’s career fairly closely. But obviously, I missed something, because in no way was I prepared for him to indicate during recent weeks that he is actually considering a run for the Presidency in 2008. My initial reaction to learning of his musings was disappointment. You see, I’m convinced that he will, not might, but will be a two-term American President. And I would like to see him serve when the sum of his experience, energy and charisma levels are at their peak. In short, while he might think that he needs America to achieve his greatest ambition, I believe that America needs him more than he needs us. We need someone to rally the country in support of a war on global warming … or a war on poverty and crime … or a war on sectarian strife throughout the world. We need, as someone else once said, a “Uniter, not a Divider.” Other politicians can talk about these goals, but only a rare political genius can conceive of actually delivering the goods. Barak Obama, the handsome, moderate-liberal, born-again Christian, bi-racial former President of the Harvard Law Review -- who Lawrence Tribe called his second best student at Harvard in 30+ years -- appears to be such a genius.

If he is indeed a genius, if he is indeed a “natural,” then why not assume that he knows the best time for a Presidential run? If he says that time is 2008, then why shouldn’t I defer to his judgment? Given that he’s in his mid 40s, Obama wouldn’t appear to have the experience or the gravitas to reach his optimum leadership level until well into the following decade. But appearances can be deceiving, particularly when you’re talking about men whose genius is so great as to defy conventional wisdom.

I almost convinced myself that a 2008 run would be sensible. But then I came across “Run Barack Run” op-ed pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I’m not talking about pieces by liberal columnists like Richard Cohen or Frank Rich. I’m referring to pieces by their conservative counterparts: specifically, Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks.

Krauthammer’s piece was well reasoned, and it never once offended me. He paid tribute to Obama’s talents, and then concluded that Obama should run in 2008 because it would help him get elected in later years. In other words, the 2008 was more like a debutante party in front of the nation that would later come to embrace him when he was more seasoned. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “that’s a perspective I hadn’t considered. It might make sense.”

Krauthammer’s columns rarely offend me because the man is as advertised: someone who is almost always going to take the right-wing perspective on any topic. If there’s a right-wing perspective on whether maple trees are better than oak trees, or whether miniature poodles are better than bichon frises, Krauthammer would stake it out. I know where he stands, and more importantly, he makes no attempt to deceive any of his readers --at least that’s what I’ve always thought.

With David Brooks, however, I can’t make quite the same statements. There’s something about his columns that make me gag. Unlike Krauthammer, he tries to come across not as a hard-right guy but as a conservative who is fair and balanced. He constantly attempts to throw bones to the progressives. But that’s what they are – bones! The meat, he always leaves on the right side of the table.

Moreover, unlike George Will, who might actually be a learned man, Brooks comes across as only making pretensions in that direction. Indeed, everything about his style seems to me pretentious – and I fear that some people might actually buy that he is an intellectual and a relatively moderate voice in public affairs. That’s what gives me the creeps.

I might disagree with Krauthammer 99% of the time, but my reactions to his columns rarely reach deep into my heart, let alone my viscera. When it comes to Brooks, however, you could say that I have a physical allergy. I don’t sneeze, I don’t break into hives, but all of my synapsis reflexively question whatever conclusion he’s espousing. Recently, one of those conclusions was that Obama should run for President in 2008.

Brooks’ column on the topic was, characteristically, humorous, though unintendedly so. He sang the praises of Obama for the first 75% of the column, and then said near the end – quite gratuitously – that Brooks himself might not support Obama’s candidacy. Ya’ think? By the time I finished the column, I immediately wondered whether this was all a set up. Why are yellow-dog Republicans urging a Democrat to run? Could it possibly be that they knew something about the perils of such a candidacy that I didn’t – that even Barak “The Natural” Obama didn’t?

Then I found my answer. I took it from women’s sports – not tennis this time, but golf. Perhaps Krauthammer and Brooks were analogizing Obama to that other “natural,” Michelle Wie. Wie hasn’t won a tournament in years because she thrust herself on the major stage prematurely. Whereas Tiger Woods at 15 and 16 had the insight to play other kids his own age and get in the habit of winning, tournament after tournament, Wie has learned simply how to play great shots but, invariably, figure out a way to lose. Sure, she’s demonstrated herself to be a prodigy in the process, but the young Tiger Woods demonstrated himself to be a closer par excellence. Not surprisingly, as an adult, he closes out tournaments better than any golfer in history.

Perhaps the GOP knows that you only have one chance to make a first impression – both with your country and with yourself. Perhaps the GOP knows that 2008 is perhaps Obama’s only chance to screw that impression up. He’s so damned gifted as a politician that his ascendancy seems almost inevitable, but that assumes that he seizes the right time – a time when he is experienced enough to claim what is rightfully his. I am more convinced than ever that 2008 isn’t the time.

So, Barack, if you’re listening, here’s my advice:

“Patience, patience, patience. Tiger started out winning multiple U.S. Amateur titles and he now appears poised to play his best golf a full two decades later. Remember that. And remember, too, that whereas Tiger was allowed a seemingly unlimited number of years to ply his trade at the highest level, you only have eight. We need you to pick those eight years judiciously. We need you to pick a time when this nation is ready to come together in support of a major, transformative initiative. We need you to pick a time when this nation is ready to place you as part of its pantheon – right next to the man who purchased Louisiana, won the war between the states, or beat back the Depression. Have you decided what cause you’re ready to take on? Do that first, and formulate a plan for achieving your goals. Don’t pull a Rumsfeld.

“Finally, whatever you do, don’t pay attention to the advice of pseudo-fans who won’t even promise their support if and when you throw your hat in the ring. Listen to those of us whose support is already in the bag. I never rooted against Steffi Graf; I won’t root against you. And in that regard, I’m hardly alone.”