One funny man
One funny man
Today is the first day of the Jewish year 5782. The most religious Jews believe that HaShem, according to Jewish tradition, created the universe by performing the miracle of dividing light from darkness, land from waters and creating life 5,782 years ago, literally, as it is written. Thus Jews believed two thousand years ago and, so it is, to the most fervently religious, to this day. Other Jews see 5782 as a symbolic number, the bit about God creating all the plants and animals one by one, culminating in his masterpiece, his special children, humans, woman created out of the first man’s spare rib, as so much Biblical poetry.
Religious belief has never interested me, I have no talent for it. My first thought is armies of the fucking righteous, putting the faithless to the sword, century after century. Virtually every religion has had a turn at Holy War. The most righteous of every creed recognize that the reward of an ethical life, some version of heaven or enlightenment, belongs to the righteous of all nations, when they are not slaughtering them.
My second thought is the hotbed of anti-Semitism that was Hillcrest Jewish Center, where, for several years, I was forced to attend classes after the regular school day was over.
Beyond the “fuck that” of a kid who’d just been sprung from jail having to report to another jail for a few hours, especially on beautiful days when playing baseball was much closer to God than learning to parrot prayers, in an unknown language, that were never translated or explained, there was the silencing of all questions. The blotting out of critical thinking was the most intolerable part of the Hillcrest Jewish Center religious experience. It was a gaslighting similar to what I experienced at home, where my very clever father endlessly fought me over everything, generally by recasting whatever else we were talking about as a damning referendum on my character.
Trips to the principal’s office, fucking Frieda Berkman was her name, did not cure me of my need to question things we were supposed to believe, rites we were supposed to perform by rote, mouthing prayers we didn’t understand. After Berkman got sick of having me wait in her tiny outer office day after day under a poster that said “a teacher attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with the desire to learn is hammering on cold steel” (I asked her about that one, she didn’t like my disrespectful question at all), I was sent to wait in the plush outer office of the rabbi, Israel Moshowitz by name. Moshowitz was photographed shaking Nixon’s hand, of course. He was a big deal. I have no recollection of the pious speech he eventually laid on me about being a good Jew and just doing what I was told. I’m fairly sure it involved the Holocaust.
It took me many years to get over the antiSemitism that was instilled in me by my early religious miseducation at Hillcrest. I used to recoil from the well-dressed swarm of once-a-year hyper-religious Jews who congregated at the Yom Kippur service (the Day of Atonement is ten days from Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year). I’d feel real disgust watching them hurry home to break their fast, in a huge hurry, all full of the righteousness of not having eaten in 24 hours. I’d walk to the synagogue to meet my father, shouldering my way past these hungry, rushing, bad-breathed creatures, and walk him home to break our fast.
I had no patience for the meaningless “please rise, please be seated” ritual of the Hillcrest gymnasium, where cheaper seats for High Holiday services were made available to those who were unable or unwilling to pay top dollar for an expensive seat in the sumptuous main chapel. Once in a while, in the gym, people would faint, and fall off their folding chair on to the lacquered wooden floor where, on other days, I’d played basketball.
No need to mention the vengeance of Frieda Berkman, who snarled at me over a loudspeaker during assemblies, or the united fucking by the synagogue itself, first in not presenting me with the Bar Mitzvah kiddush cup I had earned by reciting a few lines of Torah when I turned 13, and then by inviting me to a special service, in the Ferkauf Chapel, where, I was promised, I’d be presented with my kiddush cup. I put on a suit, went down there, “please rise, please be seated, please rise, please continue to stand,” and, at the end of the ponderous droning, there was no kiddush cup. I think of this every time I celebrate shabbat with friends who have their own, and their adult children’s, kiddush cups on the table filled with wine. I also think of how telling it was that my parents never intervened on my behalf.
So ritual for me, for the most part, so much contemptible horse shit. I say this with God Himself looking down on me, only slightly hurt. Worse things have been said by Jews, by Christians, by the otherwise righteous of all nations. If you experience a sense of community and spiritual completeness by sitting in a temple with others of your faith, God bless you, more power to you.
For me, religious ritual just reminds me of the super-religious Amy Coney Barrett, quickly ruling that religious gatherings during Covid-19 must be exempt from all health regulations, because God requires worship, and then, a short time later, ruling that an unconstitutional abortion ban in a state with a notoriously high infant and maternal mortality rate, a law designed to kill more poor women by forcing them to give birth whether they want to or not, is perfectly fine because the unconstitutional law is administratively complex. You can keep the ritualistic, inhuman religion of fanatics like Amy.
I emerged from a scarring childhood of incoherent religious idiocy, years later, to separate the moral teachings of Judaism from the empty rituals. There is a moral core to the teachings of the rabbis that is worth embracing. If you hate something, don’t do it to others. Be not intimate with the ruling authorities. Remember that you were a slave, do not tolerate the enslavement of others – freedom demands it. If you hurt somebody, do your best to make amends. A pretty good set of core principles, I believe.
These are moral precepts I have gleaned, some during interminable services (bar and bat mitzvahs, usually) where I flipped to the back of the prayer book and read Pirkey Avot, Selections from the Fathers, a short collection of pithy sayings that is part of the Mishnah, a vast book explaining every aspect of God’s laws. “Be not intimate with the ruling authorities” is in there somewhere, and it makes a great deal of sense to me. “What is hateful to you, do not unto others” is Rabbi Hillel’s famous formulation of what would later become Jesus’s Golden Rule “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and, to my mind, it provides a much more concrete guide for how to live an ethical life. If you hate something, don’t do it to somebody else. We humans know few things more deeply than what we hate.
Love, on the other hand, while precious beyond poetry, is a much shakier guide for how to act. A woman I used to know, who loved me, once gave me some counsel I argued against following. She countered that she wasn’t telling me anything she wouldn’t tell herself. I told her I knew that, but pointed out that in the past she had told herself to shut all the windows, turn on the gas and put her head in the oven, something I would never consider doing myself. In fact, I’d fight somebody who tried to insist I kill myself. She had the grace to concede that I had a point. Love is slippery as hell, and many of us don’t love ourselves as unconditionally and faithfully as we should, making it hard to love our neighbors as ourselves in the kindest possible way. At the same time, we, and those we love, are all we really have.
So I was happy today to see my smiling friends, regular synagogue goers, video me from a beautiful beach where they are celebrating today. “The beach is our shul this year,” my friend said, smiling from her beach chair, a light breeze tickling the shade umbrella under a perfect blue sky. I told her how beautiful their shul was, as she got up to take a panoramic shot of the sand, sky and ocean, and stop filming our other friend, who’d said hello but, like me, had had enough of the video conference after a short time. “Please be seated,” I should have told her.
In a couple of hours Sekhnet and I will join a Zoom seder for passover. Passover is the holiday when we remember that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, about three thousand years ago, and vow to be vigilant in fighting slavery and injustice everywhere. It is called Passover because, the night before Pharaoh finally let his Jewish slaves flee, all-merciful God Himself, and not the Angel of Death who usually does such things, entered every Egyptian home and executed the first born male child, even if it was a baby; He passed over each Jewish (in those days Hebrew) home and spared Jewish babies — hence “Passover”.
God knew which homes were Jewish homes not by His innate, all-knowing genius or the poverty of the slave quarters (apparently Hebrew slaves in Egypt did not live in glaring, barnyard poverty like our chattel slaves here in the US did) but by the mark over the doorway, painted in lamb’s blood, that told the Holy One that this was a house where the babies should not be murdered.
I have more than one problem with this story. Not the part about identifying with the oppressed, it would be a far better world if everyone cared about and worked to protect the powerless, the weak, the despised. It’s the rest of the story, it’s religion, it’s the maddening righteous double-talk and suspension of critical thought often needed to sustain faith in the infinite mercy of powerful forces we cannot understand. It’s the quiet bigotry that is almost impossible to resist when you believe God loves you more than he loves people with different beliefs. And, of course, there’s God “Himself”, the all-merciful Creator who shows his infinite kindness by killing babies to convince a stubborn king to change his mind, when it comes right down to it.
For purposes of discussing religion and ethics I always yield on the point of God, if it is raised. Sure, there’s a God, fine with me. It doesn’t really change the discussion much, from my point of view. The only way to defend a God who allows continual brutal suffering, atrocity and mass-murder is to devise a Rube Goldberg device that blames humans, we who abuse the free will generously bestowed by the infinitely loving God, to do bad things, things that break God’s heart. A pogrom? Lynching? Insistence that a violent riot to overturn democracy that injured hundreds and killed several was a totally “harmless” love-fest? Nothing to do with God. No, God clearly hates that kind of thing. It’s humans, filthy, sinful, stupid, vain, angry, blaming others, trying to blame God!
I may feel the same way about many humans. Surely a group who breaks down the door of a jail and drags a man out to torture him and kill him– fuck them. Pour out thy wrath upon them, O Lord, as we ceremonially ask God to do, at one point during the seder (the telling of the Passover story and the meal). But no wrath is poured out on them, it’s poured out on the guy whose burnt body is swinging from a tree and on the people who loved him.
We were slaves, subject to hard labor for the eternal glory of rulers who fancied themselves gods in human form. In later generations we were dragged out of our hiding places, tortured, burnt, anti-semites loved doing this on Passover, when groups of Jews singing were easy to find. Hard to remember and identify with these painful things, in your soul, when you live in comfort and safety.
I’m not sure that reminding ourselves every Passover of our duty to see ourselves as though we personally were liberated from bondage really does the trick of changing our behavior very much. It is certainly a good practice to always remember that it is only a roll of the cosmic dice that decides whether we sit in comfortable homes celebrating together or run for our lives to a crowded, disease-ridden refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh.
I know this — it is much easier to not have to flee for your life, or go to bed hungry every night, without shelter. It is a better life when you do not have to face the harsh realities that billions on the planet are up against. We should be grateful to live in comfort, free from hunger, violence and random acts of viciousness, the things that break all-merciful God’s heart.
These terrible things should also break our hearts, but our hearts are not big enough to be continually broken by these things, we could not live with the despair it would produce. We’d never stop crying, looking around at the way things are for so many here in the richest country in human history, in other places were billions suffer such unimaginably awful fates.
So, understandably, we take comfort in our comfort, our ability to look away from all this human pain we never have to directly encounter. It’s understandable, after all, God Himself is able to look away, always has, always will. It’s not His fault, it’s ours. There is no God but the God in each of us. But it is a lot to expect that God to be more godly than the God we praise, over and over and over, in the face of all this human weakness and misery.
Happy Passover, y’all.
At a particularly depressing and anxious time for the human race like the one we find ourselves in now, depression and anxiety are understandable. It is hard to stay optimistic in the face of prolonged social isolation, a still raging incurable disease that can kill you, lies and denial of reality in the service political brutality, cascading climate catastrophe and all the rest. The hanging out with friends, family and likeminded strangers that used to remind us of the other side of life is now dangerous, must be approached with caution, if at all.
Social media, texts and emails are no substitute for personal contact with people you like. People think you are insane (and they are probably justified) if you send them a hand-written letter in the mail. Sekhnet, a self-proclaimed happy hermit, is relatively fine with cheerful random encounters with strangers, by phone or socially distanced and masked. At times I find myself wistful about the ongoing lack of connection with others.
I’ve been aware of not falling into the trap of despair. The world is the world, always full of danger and challenges, and though fear may grab us hard sometimes, and doubt, and all the other dark things of this world, it is best to keep in mind all the rest, the sweetness of life that keeps us grateful for every lifegiving breath we take.
The world is also change, all life is constantly moving, evolving, changing. This shit too will pass, surely, and once the pandemic is over we’ll hang out together to talk about it and laugh in relief to have survived it.
There is hard work to be done fixing a lot of things that are badly broken, I’d like to help. I hope to figure out how to lend a hand, throw my back into it. I feel like I’ve been doing OK emotionally, the usual complaints (the arthritis in my left knee is getting to be a real pain) aside.
Last night I cheerfully dialed an old friend, to check in, to resume my long habit of checking in with distant friends. I’d decided not to talk for long, just hear how he was doing, hopefully have a laugh (he’s a funny bastard) as I exercised my ailing legs outside in what was suddenly a mild evening. I got his voice mailbox, which was full.
I suddenly remembered the weight he carries, responsible for the livelihoods of literally hundreds of people in his badly stressed organization, dozens of whom must call his cellphone daily. It was too late to ring his home phone, his wife goes to bed early and it was already almost 10:00. Figured I’d call the home line tonight, after the dinner hour, see how they’re doing.
Watched an episode of David Attenborough’s brilliantly presented (and beautifully shot) Planet Earth on Netflix, had a moment of despair about what human greed has made of the oceans and deep seas (which contain 95% of the earth’s life, I think I heard), but mostly, we marveled at the weird and wonderful beauty of nature and the gentle, wise presentation of it . Here’s a nice montage from the wonderful limited series.
Sekhnet and I went upstairs, played few rounds of Wordscapes on my phone and I tucked Sekhnet for the night (so she could spend the next hour learning Chinese in Duolingo).
Then sometime after I did a little watercoloring (a variation on the figure below):
washed the dishes, got myself a cold drink and sat down to prop my leg up and watch a dark crime show, I became aware that the Black Dog had crept into the room with me.
I’d truly forgotten all about el perro negro.
“Remember me, motherfucker?” asked the black dog.
I did, indeed. Everything was suddenly hopeless. Why bother calling my friend? I’d destroyed my life, utterly, the whole thing a series of stupid mistakes I’d keep making until the end. Nobody gives a rat’s ass about your precious, polished, meaningless, unmonetized hobbies. The world is only a depressing antechamber to certain, terrible death. Nothing is ever going to work out well, you’ll see. Everyone who ever said they loved you was lying, and they proved it, in spades; everyone you love, dead. Evil triumphs in this world and if you think it doesn’t — fuck you, I’ll slit your ugly face. Look around, asshole.
“Forgot how persuasive I am?” asked el perro negro, stinking faithfully at my feet.
Not for a second.
I took two Tylenol PMs (discovered by Sekhnet’s insomniac cousin recently) and waited for the stabbing in my left knee to subside. Within an hour I was drowsy, went up to bed. Today, no sign of the black dog, though I can still smell his wet, cloyingly pungent fur. I’d forgotten all about the motherfucker, actually.
One from the Random Acts of Senseless Creativity files. After I thought about this track an hour ago I went looking for it, a journey through a labyrinth of old emails and various digital booby-traps. After a few small wrestling matches with the technology, I was able to place it here, where it can be found easily next time. I was happy to locate it and I’m glad to pass it on.
The underlying track for this is called Dog on a String, composed and performed by Paul Greenstein sometime after the turn of the twenty-first century, if memory serves. This was an improvisation I recorded, back on April 14, 2006, apparently. All parts were played for the love of making the track and for that reason alone.
For me this over-the-top jam captures the thrill of interactive invention — the joy of improvising over a groove you’re really digging.
Our ability to find joy and improvise has been sorely tested in the isolation of this COVID crisis. Mutual, playful improvisation, a vital part of human interaction, a free delight of life, fades during dark times, the habit of playing happily — another casualty of the pandemic. Playing together gives us joy, undeniable but easy to forget, sometimes. This track reminds me of how much fun play is.
Paul’s track was a delight, I greatly love that mysterious, soulful Indian singer, all of Paul’s parts are superb (if several lovely ones were drowned out by the overloud distorted guitar, sorry about that). It is also beautifully engineered, everything is exactly where you want it to be in the mix and the EQ. I’ll ask Paul for the original track, so I can post that beauty for you to hear.
Listening to this track I hear my excitement, the enthusiastic variations inspired by the sheer fun of following a wildly idiosyncratic groove.
Sensitive Dog starts with a dog lover’s question for Cesar Milan, who then considers the best way to interact with a dog who is very sensitive. Odd to say, I couldn’t tell you what key it’s in, I had no idea when I was playing it, most unusual for me, I followed the singer as best I could.
There are suboptimal notes, which I can’t begrudge someone inventing parts over a track he is greatly loving as he plays. If you don’t let yourself be distracted by the mistakes and take in the entire 1:56 as a piece, I think you’ll get what I’m talking about.
My only regret is the mix. If someone had been sitting at the controls (there were no controls, the overdub was recorded off the small amp that was also playing Dog on A String) and adjusting the volume on the distorted guitar, to allow Dog on A String’s many subtle nuances to be appreciated, the track would be infinitely better.
To me, the track is still cool, instant time-travel to a moment of great fun. A reminder of a vital thing, sadly easy to forget during dark days — the joy of carefree play with someone you enjoy. I hope you find it so too.
This early pandemic recording (May 2020) seems a good Christmas offering, something about Tony Bennett, the singer who made this lush pop tune popular back in the Eisenhower days, even before my time. 
To me this tune is a great example of a great arrangement, you really can’t do the proper accompaniment without playing the two main parts. The chords are basic and provide a pleasing harmony to the melody. But it’s the line the piano is playing against the chords (a clever arpeggio of the chord), it turns out, that gives the song its swing, its groove. The melody, applied over the top, even loosely, cannot help but be at its most beautiful, set off this way by the other two parts. My Christmas elf’s hat is off to the arranger of this great tune.
To the musically hip, check out a fatal flaw in the underlying loop, every time the top comes around (and dig the riff from Santana’s first album in the bluesy final chorus, and a guest vocal from Sekhnet at the very end).
“I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is a popular song, written in the fall of 1953 in Brooklyn, New York, with music by George Cory and lyrics by Douglass Cross and best known as the signature song of Tony Bennett. Wikipedia
There are things you love to do. You should do them. When things are at their worst, at their scariest, when life on our planet is teetering on the brink of extinction, it is imperative to remember to cherish the things we love and to do them often.
The people we love too, of course, of course, we have to try extra hard to take good care of them. It is more important now than at other times to show them as much mercy and kindness as you have in your heart, and that goes for mercy and kindness toward yourself too in this terrifying, aggravating time. But what I am talking about now is doing the things that make us happiest, that restore us to ourselves. It is super important now to remember them, and do them often.
I love to play music. I am a good guitar player and a limited, though functional piano player. Few things I know compare to the pure joyful relaxation that takes over once the guitar is staying in tune (cold weather, and sudden changes in temperature, can really mess with the strings), the instrument is warm in your hands and the musical sounds emerge as beautifully as you can make them. Take a beat, if you like, swing another beat against it. It’s probably as close as I’ll ever come to taking off and soaring on thermals, or gliding a mile under a perfect ocean.
The words you are reading now, something else that gives me great pleasure to put together. Obviously, I spend time every day doing this. I am compelled, but, also, I love to do it.
Cooking a tasty, healthy meal, something I’ve always liked to do, has taken on more meaning to me during this lockdown as Sekhnet feels up against the daily horrors and it is a comfort to us both to share a fresh meal that is actually good for us. I am starting to love the whole process of making a pot or pan of something good.
Walking is something I’ve always liked to do. Now that I have arthritis in both knees, it has become a necessity for me to walk throughout the day, to avoid pain. An hour or two in nature, breathing in the trees, is always a beautiful thing. I love certain moments of my long daily walk. There is a time, after walking long enough, when the stiffness and soreness in my knees melts away. The pleasure of sitting on a bench after thirty minutes of purposefully striding along — I love it.
Odd to say, though I’ve always loved to draw, and make all kinds of marks on paper, have always carried a drawing book with me, and several of my favorite pens and pencils, I’ve done virtually no drawing or calligraphy during this pandemic nightmare.
I showed a friend’s super-talented granddaughter how to do simple stop frame animation the other day. Under the mounted camera I drew a simple face and quickly showed her the principle of making animation out of two or more carefully registered drawings (or in this case, two stages of the same drawing).
I explained to her that you can later make the drawing as colorful or detailed as you like, photograph it and add the changes to the animation. (We were working outside in a park, so our art supplies were quite limited). At home afterwards I decided to refine the drawing above to demonstrate this idea to her. You will understand at once, I think, why I decided not to send her the drawing.
Who wants to look into those bizarre, hopeless, death-haunted eyes? Certainly not a sensitive seven year-old who is living through one of the worst periods in recent human history.
Shoot, maybe that’s why I’m not drawing these days. More than in anything else I do, my subconscious emerges most freely in drawings. I can play a stiff version of a beautiful tune on the piano, it’s not great music, but it doesn’t have even a hint of the terror in the face above. Perhaps I’ll try a bit of calligraphy later.
For now, do yourself a kindness. Think of something you love to do, maybe have forgotten about in your overwhelmed concern about the simultaneous and intrusive plagues that are upon us now, and do it. You will thank yourself afterwards, I’m pretty sure. Even if you don’t thank yourself (ingrate!) time is never wasted doing something you love to do.
As the president continues to block a rational transition to the Biden administration, at the height of the pandemic, President Trump’s top pandemic advisor, Dr. Charles Atlas, urged the citizens of the great state of Michigan to “rise up”– another incitement to violent overthrow of Democrat Tyranny, in the form of a mask mandate and the closing of businesses to protect residents against a new surge of COVID. (No call to behead the traitorous Republican governors of North Dakota and Utah who imposed similar mandates? Come on, Atlas!)
Atlas is right, of course, about one part of that: we only get what we accept. Bill Moyers published this piece, with the clever “Dr. Atlas Shrugs” (a tip of the cap to the grande dame of sanitized fascists, Ayn Rand) in the headline, which gives more detail for any egghead who might want to go beyond the good doctor’s tweet (which Atlas, shrugging, later denied was any kind of incitement to violence, “rise up”, you know, like “stand by,” LOL!) .
Anyway, fuck Atlas and the whores he rode in on. He’s just another incendiary device in Mr. Trump’s unrelenting blitzkrieg on objective fact, evidence, all that unfair Communist claptrap and folderol. I mean, just look at these complete lies from yesterday’s New York Times!
The “Times” makes it seem as if the Republican Secretary of State of Georgia is being pressured by his own party to resign, or to throw out the fraudulent signature-mismatched votes that gave Biden the stolen, rigged election in Georgia. Well, he is being pressured, sure, OK, that’s just hardball party politics, but it’s not like he’s getting death threats, though, naturally, he reports he is. Which, of course, he would. He’s clearly in on the Biden scam! Another traitor!
OF COURSE THESE “EXPERTS” WOULD SAY THAT! They wouldn’t know fraud it if came right up and DID NOTHING TO THEM!
I’m hoping we don’t have blood in the streets as this FAKE electoral dispute senselessly continues while administration loyalists stand proudly, manfully working up passions for the violent end of electoral democracy in the USA. As things stand at the moment, I don’t think there will be a Second Civil War, but, objectively, it is Mr. Trump’s only path to staying in power after losing the election. Worth a shot, no?
Georgia’s Republican officials disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters since 2017 — purged at least 107,000 eligible voters before their current governor (the man who, as Georgia Secretary of State, unilateraly ordered and oversaw the voter purge) won a 55,000 vote victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams. Soon to be preemptively pardoned Louis DeJoy deliberately slowed mail delivery in 2020 from places like Atlanta, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans. How many votes were undelivered? We’ll find out in the coming months, perhaps.
The Republican party did everything possible to suppress the hated “Democrat” vote in Georgia, including outright cheating, and Biden still managed to squeak out a 14,000 vote win in the great state of Georgia, thanks to the dedication of millions of voters in Georgia who would not be deterred, not take what they were being forced to accept.
I thought of these dedicated voters fleetingly yesterday, as I posed these two candy bars on the cashier’s conveyor belt for their portrait.
The cashier looked confused at first, as I fussed lining up the shot, trying to get an angle that reduced the glare enough to make the labels readable. Then she read the labels. “It’s everything now,” I said to her, “you can’t buy a fucking candy bar without having to pick a side…” She told me, as she announced her register closed, that she’d never noticed that about the Twix bars, until now. I shook my head, tight smile mostly a smirk, turned to put the candy bars back on the rack.
The expression on her face, the cashier was what we in the U.S. call a “black woman” or “African-American”, was that unique mixture of bemusement and bottomless sadness, plus a bit of resolve. Sekhnet and I nodded in agreement. We all wished each other a cheerful “be safe,” and Sekhnet and I went to find the car in the Target parking lot.
Here’s one nice slice, to give you the general flavor of both sides of this “argument” about wearing masks during a deadly pandemic:
During his interview, Dr. Atlas railed against those who refuse to accept facts that contradict what they want to believe. He lambasted people unable to admit that they’re wrong. But when asked about Dr. Fauci’s comment that Dr. Atlas is an outlier on epidemiological and public health issues relating to the pandemic, he said, “I’m proud to be an outlier, especially when the ‘in-liers’ are completely wrong…I’m not afraid to be a contrarian because I know I’m right.”source