Cogito, Ergo Sumana

Categories: sumana | Religion

Hinduism, LDS, and other religions


: Pretentious And/Or Portentous: Ramble ramble ramble, in rather an autumnal tradition.

Leonard and I bought a new wall clock Saturday. The thing about living in a super walkable but not absolutely gentrified neighborhood (that is to say, our corner of Astoria) is that we don't have a Williams-Sonoma or something like that within walking distance, so we satisficed pretty quick. For $2.18 (including tax) we got a thing that is nearly certainly made under terrible labour conditions, which now sits above me and sweeps past the seconds.

Later we watched the "In the Cards" episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Leonard's favourite) and a couple episodes of the 1990s animated Superman TV series. It's so much less interesting than the contemporaneous Batman, which I loved and can still enjoy! I've always preferred Batman to Superman, in that I find stories about extraordinary humans more interesting than stories about gods. More suspense, better balance of power, and more wit. I think Batman:Superman::Yudhisthira or Arjuna:Rama, in that no one in the Mahabharata is as perfect, as much of an idol as is Rama in the Ramayana. But a few years ago I came across some litcrit suggesting that the big interesting question the Ramayana addresses is: how do you reconcile conflicting obligations? And at its best, Superman does that too, e.g., Red Son which shows the urge to utopia leading to tyranny.

I want to describe my internal state, which is a generally optimistic one, but find the words don't come easily. I don't usually think in images but I consistently come back to this imaginary scene, of a grimy encrusted clump breaking up to allow for an unobstructed flow. I've taken to attending a meditation class regularly, and at one session I confessed that I find meditation scary -- what if I let myself change and I do? What if some bit of me that constituted an important part of my identity slips away, because I let it go, or because I looked at it too hard?

And one of the other fellas in the class, who practices meditation to deal with his anger, responded (and I'm paraphrasing): but isn't that the goal of meditation, traditionally? to let go of the illusion of self, to get rid of the ostensible divisions distinguishing us from the other? I took his point, on an intellectual level at least, and then he said, "The less you carry, the further you can walk."

Yes.

In 2012 my colleague said, offhand, "You're an everything person, you just don't know it yet." Which is to say that it's okay to say yes and try something new, that I don't have to run a TSA-style inspection on every new experience or feeling or idea that wants to come inside me. Then, this year, Christie Koehler's advice (in podcast form as well!) about leaving old commitments so as to make room for new ones spoke to me; I left some mailing lists, I changed my job, I left the Geek Feminism bloggers, I limited how much time I'd put into the Outreach Program for Women career advising, and so on. And then a couple of months ago I heard, "The less you carry, the further you can walk," just a little bit before I really did experience that, again, walking (for instance) thirteen hours in a single day, away from the internet, "taking away the usual stimuli so I can hear the susurrations of the self beneath".

And I decided to leave my job, the best job I've ever had, working on the infrastructure of one of the world's most important intellectual resources. My last day there is the 30th and when I go to Wikipedia I can't believe that in just a few days I won't be able to say "we" the way I do right now.

The Hacker School sabbatical last year, the meditation, the practice at letting go of projects and expectations, the Coast-to-Coast walk, all of it contributed to this ongoing disintegration of the anxious mental and emotional hoarding I've been doing since I was a little kid. I am dropping a great deal, really, carrying less and less, and I don't have an Ordnance Survey map to highlight tomorrow's route on each night at dinner. I have skimmed some guidebooks but I think there are things they aren't telling me, elisions and oversights I want to rectify for myself.

How do you reconcile conflicting obligations? To yourself, to the great work, to your household, to those who admire your work and ask your advice? How do you use your power, and your time?

The old clock just had an hours hand and a minutes hand. This new clock we bought has a red seconds hand that sweeps smoothly past the seconds. I counted along with it, one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand, five-one-thousand, because that red needle seemed to be pivoting just a bit fast. But everything seems to be in order. I am in my mid-thirties now. I have perhaps 40+ years to go. At the moment that I write these words I feel closer than I have for many years to a rapprochement with the fact of mortality; I'll do my bit and then pass on, the choir will take over, and that's okay. Practically speaking, it'll have to be, as none of us get much of a choice.

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(4) : Tessitura: Do you miss bloggers from five and ten and fifteen years ago? I especially miss Flea and John-Paul Spiro and Fugitivus. One of the things I learned from Fugitivus:

I had one professor explain it to me really well; she said, you don’t need to be trained to interpret dreams. You just ask a person, "How did this make you feel?" and when they tell you, you ask them, "What else in your life makes you feel this way?" And voila, you now know what that thing in the dream represented.

I can now add a corollary to that. If I feel disproportionately emotionally affected by something, I can ask myself, how do I feel? and what in my childhood made me feel this way?

As long as I'm plumbing my depths, a few other artifacts from the last two weeks:

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: Rest In Peace, John Morearty, 1938-2012: Sad news.

STOCKTON - John Morearty, the "peacenik carpenter" who led weekly anti-war rallies on Pacific Avenue and helped found the Peace and Justice Network of San Joaquin County, died at home Thursday morning.
John was 74. I got back in contact with him this year, learned he was ill, and went to Stockton to see him and his wife several times. We said our goodbyes, but right now it doesn't feel like enough.

I was watching a film with Leonard yesterday and saw a wipe transition, and remembered how proud I was of making a particular clever transition work on Talking it Through With John Morearty: Dialogues on War and Peace, when I was technical director. John trusted a teenager to run sound and cameras on his show. Am I living up to that example in the community I manage?

He was my introduction into the modern social justice movement. He loved to talk religion with my dad -- they'd both delved deep into Hindu and Christian theology -- and now they're both dead. His voice, that deep rumbly thoughtful voice, I'll never hear that voice again.

Except I will. Before he died, John asked me to work with his friend Jeanne to serve as his literary executors. Some of the works we'll curate are text, we also will be dealing with many hours of audio and video, including dozens or hundreds of episodes of Talking it Through. So I will be hearing his voice again -- the voice I remember from his prime, not the weak whispers of his deathbed. And he gave me permission to upload them to the Internet Archive or Wikimedia Commons, under a license that promotes sharing and translation and teaching.

He made a CD of himself singing peace songs. I can't bear to listen to it right now but it comforts me to know it's there. I'm thinking of his rendition:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul--
How can I keep from singing?
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(3) : The "Cordial" Part Of "You Are Cordially Invited": Today my uncle, aunt, and cousin drove around Bangalore with me to hand-deliver invitations to my sister's upcoming wedding. The usual ritual: we arrive and take off our shoes and come inside and sit down, we make small talk, I present the invitation to the oldest available person (I think) along with some sanctified dry rice and some gifts (sari + standardized fabric pieces for making pants, blouse, or shirt), and -- if the recipient is a woman -- kumkum powder for her to apply to her forehead. If the recipient is especially old, I kneel before him/her and s/he blesses me. More small talk. The host offers something to eat, then coffee or tea, then Bournvita/Horlicks/Boost/milk, and we negotiate down to water, or claim inability to ingest even an atom. A little more small talk, then a woman gives my aunt & me some turmeric and kumkum to apply to our foreheads, gives us some ritual gift (usually a chewable leaf, some fruit or a coconut, and a tiny denomination of money), and we the visitors get up, put our shoes on, and leave.

Avoiding substantial food intake at every visit requires finesse and outright lies, both of which my aunt spins easily. "We JUST ate lunch!" "Oh, I can't have sweets at all, the doctor says." "She's still unwell from the airplane trip from America and can only eat soups." Of course all the hosts know you might be lying, and thus one ends up turning down already-poured glasses of juice and multi-food snack platters. Such an arms race. You know those job ads that say applicants must be able to lift 50 pounds unassisted? Per day, wedding invitation delivery personnel should be able to eat 50 meals unassisted.

I have memorized the Kannada phrase "dhaivittu nun ukka-ge mudhave bunnee," or "please come to my sister's wedding." I have nearly said "please come to my wedding" and "please come to my sister's wedding now" (I usually heard "bunnee" with "eega" attached, when I was a kid, because my parents were saying "come here right now!").

My uncle, aunt, and cousin are great -- loving but not smothering, and patient with my questions without making me feel dumb. I learned today that kumkum powder is just turmeric with added colouring, and that "sanjay," pronounced almost the same as the similarly spelt guy's name "Sanjay," means "evening." The latter came up when my aunt, speaking Kannada, mentioned to someone that I'd arrived on an evening train, and I thought, "why is she talking about my cousin Sanjay? He wasn't with me..."

Today we passed by a shop called Cake of the Day, which I internally sang to the tune of Moxy Früvous's "Kick in the Ass." Also I made use of hand sanitizer, a phrase that I sing like "Smooth Operator" or "Smoke on the Water."

Also seen today: a cafe's sign inveigled us to "enhance your glam quotient," and an AirTel ad stapled to a tree said "IMPATIENCE IS THE NEW LIFE."

Allergies suck. However, my nose-blowing amused a child at one home, because my nose-blowing sounds all trumpety, and I waved my arm in front of my face like an elephant's trunk. If tech management doesn't work out, I may have a career in children's parties. Later I (think I) impressed a sixteen-year-old boy by singing along to the Green Day he was playing on his Nokia N97. He looked very earnestly at me as he then played his Linkin Park and Eminem. (In case you were wondering, Linkin Park sounds even less distinctive on a cell phone's speakers.) But he doesn't like Coldplay! He's clear on that! He, my cousin and I played music for each other on our cell phones as, in the next room, the adults watched the hit singing competition show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Singing Superstar. ("Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa" is the Indian equivalent of "Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do.")

"My sister didn't start off liking Green Day," he said.

"Oh, she'd get along well with my husband," I said. "He doesn't really like Green Day either. I think he sort of makes fun of me for liking it."

"Why?"

[pause] "Because he's pretentious. [then several sentences of backpedaling, rock/pop distinctions] I respect his opinion! though it is wrong."

Sort of failed at role modeling there. I played him the They Might Be Giants "New York City" in a giant cultural imperialism move.

On another trip, I duly impressed a sysadmin/network engineer with Leonard's credentials; he half-joked that now he must come to the wedding to meet him. We also joked about how verbose Java is. "I don't mind the length of Java code, it's the breadth," he said, stretching his arms apart, as though scrolling through a 200-character-wide line of Java were like catching an improbable trout. I returned: "You know that IDE they have to use? Eclipse? They call it that because Java code is so huge it blocks out the sun."

So, Leonard, when you arrive for Nandini's wedding, you may have to answer questions about your work for Canonical and defend your musical honor. Honour, if you localize. Localise. Hmm, I guess all my international travel blogging is documenting my internationalisation; I'm transliterating my encodings, discovering jarring UI paradigm differences. "You would think that internationalization and localization would be opposed goals, but no, they're aligned."

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(2) : While Reminded of Resonance: Steam engine, lamppost, and benchThe day before I left Melbourne, I rode Puffing Billy, a restored steam engine that goes a few miles per hour. To get there, I took commuter rail/subway east of Melbourne, like an hour's ride, and then I was in Belgrave, a little town that reminds me of bits of Marin, or West Portal in San Francisco. While in Belgrave, I also visited Limerence and bought a necklace and a pin; more on that later.

When I got on Puffing Billy, upon the platform as we were about to depart, a conductor walked the length of the train, calling "all aboard" and ringing a bell. The bell sounded exactly like a Hindu temple bell, which in retrospect is unsurprising. It's brass, the same size, probably the same ratios of clapper to airspace to wall thickness.

Sumana in front of a steam engineBut it was almost gratuitously evocative, the blue-suited-and-hatted volunteer walking before the anachronism, mist and wood and iron grill and forest all around, shaking a bell to call us to devotion. The priest rings that bell, for example, at the moment in the prayer ritual where we stand and rotate three times clockwise, hands pressed in Namaste (Namaskaar, in Karnataka) in front of our chests. The chant starts "Yani kani chippa pani," which has a mathematical elegance to it. You're supposed to pray, but I always concentrate on not being utterly clumsy and stepping on someone's foot or falling down in my sari. After three turns you kneel and pray, the way you see Muslims do in those great massive photos of hundreds of Muslims in mosques: arms and back stretched out horizontal, legs folded in at hips and knees.

Steam engine turning around a bendA very restful pose after the dizziness, and perhaps that's the point, to provoke one's own disorientation and then conflate relief at its cessation with gratitude to God. A calm moment with my thoughts, prayer stripped of some of my inhibitions and intellectual wariness. So many religious rituals are about taking away the usual crutches so you have no choice but to trust-fall. And sometimes self-discovery rituals, like going off to Belgrave to ride an ancient steam engine alone, are about taking away the usual stimuli so I can hear the susurrations of the self beneath. Turning off wifi, going to the command line, the world shrinking to the 17-inch diagonal of white text on black...


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(4) : On The Other Side Of The (Snow)Globe, Upside-Down And Shaken: I was so young when I went there that I only remember this because of a photo. It's me sitting in a "tub" with solid clear plastic bubbles, next to a static Ernie and the rubber duck. The theme park people sold us the photo as a big plastic-and-metal button someone could clasp to their clothing, not that I've ever quite understood who would do that, or why.

Close-enough-to-thirty years later, Sunday night, after the Hugos, after hanging out with James and Jed, in a room party full of Perthians, I met someone who'd lived fifteen young years in some corner of Pennsylvania. "Did you ever go to Sesame World?" he asked.

Sitting on a red-carpeted step in a hotel suite's unsafely narrow staircase, I said no. Sesame World? Sounded made-up. Then he described it and my jaw dropped with recognition. I could see the button, a memory that had lain dormant for decades. And I could see my interlocutor's utter pleasure at watching my recollection emerge and unfold, my disorientation, my wonder.

I wonder if anyone will be asking me, when I'm sixty, whether I ever visited Melbourne, Australia, whether I ever saw a particular piece of black-dripping-cityscape-silhouette graffiti that reminded me of World of Goo, or ate at the Green Tambourine in Brunswick, or knew Avi at Of Science and Swords in that Elizabeth Street arcade. My crinkled eyes might crinkle again as I sifted through those years and mentioned that sunny, sprinkly Friday when I walked from Parliament, calling my mom and sister along the way, and ended up spending hours at the glass-walled scifi bookshop, talking about comedy and alphabetizing shelves.

It's been so long since I worked at Cody's Books that when I saw something out-of-order, I reflexively mistrusted myself, and had to flash through that bit of alphabet to reassure myself that yes, D does come before K, and M before S, McCaffrey before Modesitt, Stephenson before Stross.

Last night, I went to the Wesley Anne in Northcote with Steph, Danni, Em, Jo, Emilly, and Neil. We saw Justin Carter (fine) and the Rosie Burgess Trio. Singer and guitarist Rosie Burgess is self-contained and perfect, a woman whose essence I wish we could copy and send into space to let aliens know what humanity aspires to be. Drummer Sam Lohs deploys so many instruments masterfully, including her born comedian's face and wit. And Sophie Kinston, on electric violin: she did a solo at the end of "Skin and Bones" that left me gasping. I think I understand music now.

Oh God, please help me remember this. Help me remember being transformed.

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(1) : Getting Personal: I went to sleep at a reasonable hour, for once. My mother and I slept in the same bed -- the one in my room, since her bedroom seems to provoke my allergies. She isn't used to sleeping in a bed alone.

Then, around two, we both awoke, hearing a sound like a toilet running or water pouring. It didn't stop. We checked around the house and didn't see any plumbing fails, and my mom concluded that someone was refilling a water tank. I decided to believe her. Sure, that echoey bit could imply that liquid's being poured into a vessel, not onto a flat splashy inadvertent swamp.

Then some dogs started barking. Intermittently, of course -- nothing I could block out. I tried listening to some Michael Masley (remember the cymbalom guy from the streets of Berkeley?) via headphones, but only succeeded in a bunch of calm thinking. So, up and to the living room with a borrowed computer, Foo Camp water bottle, and Ubuntu tote bag that happened to have some American snacks.

Oh the snacks Leonard packed for me! They help keep me sane. Dried apple rings, dark chocolate, cookies, fruit leather, licorice, trail mix. Nearly all the food I've had here in India is tasty, but my relationship with Indian food carries heavy emotional baggage. These foods, the snacks, I've only ever chosen.

People used to ask why I'd majored in political science. I told them it was because polisci is the study of power, and growing up I'd felt like I had none. As I said to a friend recently: glib, but a species of true. Or, as I said to Leonard ten years ago: Idiotic, yet resonant.

It's so important to me to feel like I've chosen my burdens, like I knew ahead of time what I was signing up for. Or at least it has been, historically. My mom, a recent widow and as busy as she's ever been, is understandably not that great at telling me a day in advance that the housepainters will be going in and out of my room, or that such-and-so will stop by. I want plans, I want advance notice, I hate being in the dark when it's avoidable, when I feel like the other party could be giving me information but negligence or tight-lippedness is keeping me from feeling informed. If I can't have control, I'd at least like a dashboard display.

So I clutch even harder to the few familiar certainties I have. My music, my food, my tee shirts to wear to bed. I ask Mom a hundred questions about the next day (Are you expecting anyone? Are the painters coming? Is anyone else coming, like a plumber or electrician? Are we doing community service? Do you have any appointments outside the house, like at the bank? Do we need to go anywhere? Has anyone invited us anywhere?), interrogating her as I'd ask ultra-specific questions of a client, trying to draw out her mental map so I can copy it down, getting all waterfall. I cannot go with an unknown flow, not here. Agile, after all, works with explicit introspection and negotiation, with clear schedules and disciplined use of an explicit process to constantly change those schedules (Moss, fix my simplifications in comments?). It works when we trust the process and each other, and I barely even trust myself.

There are so many strange annoying stimuli here, and -- since my defense mechanisms are intellectualizing and humor -- I have been stepping back and analyzing why some bother me and some don't. The Hindu rituals don't, perhaps because I have a great deal of practice in spacing out through them as one does through dentist visits. People tell me what to do, I do it, my mind wanders, sometimes I make mistakes but they're always fixable, and it makes my mom happy. I can appreciate the beauty in an abstract way, or if I look at the flowers and incense from the perspective of one of my non-Hindu friends, imagining a travel writer's or photographer's eye.

And then there is the communication stuff. There is lots of shouting and interrupting that doesn't mean anger or scorn. People repeat redundant instructions and I get irked at the implied lack of trust....except that it doesn't mean lack of trust here, it means care. If I tell you information and then leave you alone, or remain emotionally detached, that is scorn! The preferred Indian behavior seems to break two of the Gricean maxims, to my ear. It grates.

Relatedly: like a backend programmer hearing complaints about UI, I get peculiarly angry when I hear someone telling me to be in good spirits, not to freak out, not to stress out, to smile more and relax.

And then there's food. But I've talked about food enough already. And I'm sure I'll do so more, again, soon.

This is messy and loose-threaded and lit by the early early streaks of dawn. Most of the above I wrote around six in the morning. Now, after lunch, my mother naps; she couldn't even finish her rice and stew, her head was nodding so hard. I go in to check on her every once in a while, watching her for a moment, standing very still so I can watch a fold of fabric on her chest rise a few millimeters, and fall.

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(4) : My & My Sister's Eulogies For Our Father: At yesterday's service, several people spoke. My eulogy follows, then my sister Nandini's.

I am Sumana Harihareswara. I am S.K. Harihareswara's younger daughter.

I learned so much from my father and I'm only realizing some of it now, as people tell stories about him. He taught me, by example, how to get completely obsessed with a topic. He was enthusiastic and he started things and made things happen. He wanted to teach everyone everything he knew, about theology and literature and Kannada and editing and history and even engineering, if you asked, or even if you didn't.

And I'm like him in so many ways -- I've been remembering his quirks, and seeing myself in a new light. He'd get so focused on a project that he forgot to eat, until Mom called him. He loved meeting new people. He liked good signage and clear directions. He liked impressing people.

He collected papers and books and started so many projects that he couldn't possibly finish them all. But they all tied into each other -- it was as though he was working on a grand unified theory of everything, his endlessly creative mind using a hundred perspectives to make sense of the universe. He got mad at things that didn't make sense, but then he'd go to sleep grumpy and wake up completely fresh.

He always wanted to be doing more.

The best way to remember my father is to outdo him. I urge all of us, including myself, to cherish his memory by practicing his virtues: his intellect, generosity, and hard work. Let yourself be carried away with joy and love. He lived a full life, and if we carry on his work, it will overflow into ours.

Nandini:

Dad always wanted me to write. He was always begging me to publish this long fiction story I wrote in the 7th grade. I remember it was a murder mystery set in Jamaica (I'd never been there) and I wrote it on this old-school Apple computer we had in our basement. Dad stayed with me on this project and helped me write it and edit it, late into the night before it was due.

It is hard to believe he is gone.

One of the best things I've ever done was in 2003. I took a year off from work and school to live with my parents in India. In that time, my father and I became friends. Our relationship changed from one of parent and child to friends that would ask each other for advice and discuss philosophy and edit each other's works. He was more relaxed, and I was more relaxed. I understood him, and why he would get mad and why he'd become happy. And he began to understand me.

We would sit at the dining room table and argue and discuss the various points of philosophy. Sometimes he would tell me stories, of every day things like how nosy people are at the bus stop. He would tell me how some guy started talking to him and asked what he did, how much money he made, how many children he had, were they married? If not, why not? What to do with the girl that was unmarried, etc. And still he enjoyed it. He loved living in India, in Mysore.

I came to Mysore to laugh. My father was hilarious. He would make fun of people, situations, and best of all my, mother. He, slowly, as the years went by, would also laugh at himself. I would make fun of his books, and ask him "who will read a Kannada book about sparrows?" And he'd laugh good-naturedly.

So much of who I am comes from my father. He was a philanthropist. He was a philosopher. He was a comedian. He was deeply spiritual. He was a writer.

Because of all of this, because we were friends, because he was happy with his life, because he died painlessly, I can live on. He taught me that there is so much to live for, so much to do. So many people to help, so many things to celebrate. In his death, I will continue to follow my father’s footsteps and continue writing, making friends, and improving the world.

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: Important Distinctions In Kannada: "Kaali" (empty) vs. "Ka(r)li" (a goddess of death). "Thali" (plate for food) vs. "tha(r)li" (necklace married women wear). The (r) here indicates just the slightest hint of an "r" before the L; linguists, feel free to remind me of the proper term.

"Chinna" (gold; "chinnu" is an endearment) vs. "chunni" (dupatta/sash)

"Bejarru" = sad or bored; "kopa" = angry; "hedthrike" = scared; "thoondhare" = troubled/troubling. When I was growing up, I thought "bejarru" meant "angry" and "thoondhare" meant "scared." Then again, when I was growing up, I basically heard all these as functionally equivalent: "If/when you do [thing you want to do], I feel [negative emotion]."

I also thought "mamouli" meant "trashy, dirty, or disgusting." Turns out it means "ordinary, common or usual." There is a slang derivative, "mamoulu," that (to be simplistic) means "bribe."

"Barthini" = "I'll be coming" or, idiomatically, "See you later," since traditionally when leaving someone's house you are making only a provisional goodbye. Leonard compares this to "au revoir." Many people say "hogi barthini," meaning "I'll go and come back."

While "santhe hogu!" is sort of idiomatically equivalent to "go to hell!" or "piss off!", and includes "hogu" which is the imperative second-person for "to go," "santhe" actually means "market," not "hell." "Go to the market!"

"Oota" is a meal with rice. Lunch or dinner would be forms of oota. "Thindi" is any other meal or snack, such as breakfast, that might have rice-derived foods in it but doesn't include actual cooked rice grains. Leonard immediately got my drift, which is that a host will act like, oh, you aren't hungry? You can't possibly eat any oota? Well, surely you could have some thindi, though, right? Just a little thindi... and then foist upon you a meal's worth of food items that somehow don't count since they aren't rice.

Legends whisper that Kannada has words for "enough" ("saku") and "a little" ("sulpa" or "wundh churru"). You can use the "a little" words and phrases as softeners when making a request, which confused me when I was a kid. "Will you, a little, turn that light on, please?" doesn't imply "somehow conjure that binary switch into a dimmer." Anyway -- perhaps "saku," "sulpa" and "churru," as modifiers on food-related information transactions, rarely work for me. I like pretending that they are archaic or ultra-formal or only understood within a certain dialect of Kannada or something. In fact, of course, it's just the rhythm and etiquette of this community's hospitality that devalues these requests. The host offers, the guest initially demurs, and they play out an enjoyable dominance/submission ritual that builds and reinforces trust and affection. In theory.

You'd think that "sum'nay" ("only" or "simply") would be easy to mishear as my first name. That doesn't happen, thank goodness. Girish, Nandini's friend (a native Kannada speaker) who's helping me keep this entry accurate, pointed out the doubling-for-emphasis construction "sum-sum'nay" which leads native Indian English speakers to literally say "sim-simply." This reminds me of x, gix.

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(3) : Two Business Ideas: First:

I am wearing a lot of long tunic-drawstring pants-sash combination outfits here in India. Depending on where you are, you call them "pyjama juba" (whence comes the English word "pajama"), "salwar kameez," or "chudidhar." Women in India often find ourselves scrambling around with two-thirds of a matching outfit. It's especially common to find the shirt and pants but not the sash ("dupatta") because it's fallen somewhere. Someone could make lakhs with a tracking or storage solution that keeps the three pieces together or otherwise manages inventory. (Somehow the safety pin hasn't proven sufficient.)

Second:

Today my sister, aunt, mother and I served lunch at a school for deaf and blind children. My mother was exhausted so she sat as my aunt and sister and I passed from plate to plate, placing Mysore pak (butter + sugar = dessert) and bonda (spicy fried snack) on each. Caterers served out the bisebelebath (spicy veg-rice stew) and yogurt rice. Just as in ASL, deaf Karnatakans wave and wiggle both hands above their shoulders to signal applause.

If we had been performing the post-mortem rituals traditionally, each of these days we'd have left a meal outside for crows to eat. Evidently you simply have to sit nearby and wait and wait for a crow to show up and partake; you can't just leave it and hope. We made a plate of stew and yogurt rice and bonda and two desserts and left it on a patio, and sure enough within minutes a crow flapped by and grabbed one of the sweets.

But what if you're not so lucky? Mayhap there's a market for a keeper of trained crows to guarantee quick eatin'.

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(1) : My First Seder: Yesterday evening, our friend Beth hosted a Passover seder that Leonard and I attended. She and Dara had created the haggadah by splicing together elements from three haggadot, including a few moments where (as Beth explained) "this page is in here because Dara wanted everyone to see this amazing illustration of the locusts with lion heads." When I mispronounced "paschal" as "Pascal," Beth suggested that we could call the matzoh "paschal's wafer," possibly the most awesome pun I've heard yet this year.

Lucian said that many Jewish holidays revolve around the theme, "they tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat." And in that context of prayer, remembrance, and celebration, there is something touching and amazing about hearing your friends sing a song, in a language you don't know, that people have been singing every year for thousands of years.

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(1) : Refracted Light: Glurge is a certain kind of inspirational story. It's unattributed, it's a honed anecdote honoring goodness and generosity and loyalty and stamina and often faith, and it has a kitschy feel that irony-aligned people of my cohort are allergic to. Gives Me Hope made tears come to my eyes, but the saccharine gets to me after a few pages.

And then there's another kind of inspiration, from another direction, a different color of light. It's the way someone tells their specific story, or celebrates an achievement, more expository than persuasive. The author didn't write it specifically to inspire the reader to generalized goodness, but basic empathy leads a reader to consider the lessons mentioned, perhaps raise her sights a little.

Things that made me want to up my game recently:

Mel, as always. In this case, the way she actively seeks out uncertainty, and her ability and willingness to frankly say that she's good at things. My reflexive self-deprecation nearly won't let me think I'm good at things, and certainly wouldn't let me say it out loud. I need to work on that.

N.K. Jemisin, principally on a clash between an amateur writer's and a professional writer's mindset, but more profoundly on feeling secure in your past choices:

See, I think a lot of the angst surrounding this debate is happening because some folks -- particularly newer writers -- are caring about the wrong things. They're basing their sense of themselves as writers on extrinsic factors like which markets publish their work and how much their work sells for and whether they've got any sales at all, rather than on intrinsic factors like belief in their own skill. So of course they get upset when someone disparages a market they've sold/hoped to sell their work to; this feels like disparagement of them, and their skill. They take it very personally. And thus a conversation that should be strictly about business becomes a conversation about their personal/artistic worth.

This will sound cold-blooded. But the solution is for these writers to stop caring. Or rather, care better. I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation -- from caring about what others think to caring about yourself -- is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional, perhaps even more than pay rates and book deals and awards and such. It's a tough transition to make, I know; how do you believe in yourself if no one else does? How do you know your judgment of yourself is sound? I could write ten more blog posts trying to answer these questions. But for pro writers -- and I include aspiring pros along with established ones in this designation -- it's an absolutely necessary transition. Otherwise you spend all your time caring about the wrong things.

A kick in the butt to care about the right things.

Desi Women of the Decade. I bet my sister will be on this list in ten years. I love seeing us achieving in politics, arts/entertainment, science and business. Kind of hilarious that Parminder Nagra got on US TV to play a doctor. Maybe that's only funny to Asians.

I saw this seven-minute documentary about an aspiring comedian via the Best of Current video podcast. We all know the glurgy slogans: the lessons of adversity, no pain no gain, that sort of thing. But it is a different thing to see this man on stage, and then find out where he was before, and to think, of course the worthwhile thing is hard. I am comfortable and I need to reexamine my little lazinesses. And more that I don't have words for.

Yesterday, in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, I ran across these lines from Rabindranath Tagore, which somehow get past my kitsch shields because they are personal, confessional, yearning, desperate:

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.
....
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.
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(2) : Pick: I recently read Linda Gordon's The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard University Press, 1999). It's an edifying and engrossing read. Let me quote the publisher's blurb:

In 1904, New York nuns brought 40 Irish orphans to a remote Arizona mining camp, to be placed with Mexican Catholic families. Soon the town's Anglos, furious at this 'interracial' transgression, formed a vigilante squad that kidnapped the children and nearly lynched the nuns and the local priest. The Catholic Church sued to get its wards back, but all the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled in favor of the vigilantes. In resurecting this shocking tale of the American West, Linda Gordon brilliantly recreates and dissects the tangled intersection of family and racial values, in a gripping story that resonates with today's conflicts over the "best interests of the child."

Here's a biting excerpt from Chapter 5, "The Anglo Mothers and the Company Town."

These clubs were exclusively Anglo, and included Jews, Irishmen, Slavs, and Germans. As always in Clifton-Morenci, the line grew fuzzy as you moved further south in Europe. Some Italians were in. Spaniards usually were not. The first Mexican got into the Elks in the 1950s. The Catholic Church was not unhappy with this particular form of anti-Mexican discrimination, as it detested and feared the attraction of these orders, all of them, in its view, tainted by Freemasonry. Father Mandin described the Anglos in Clifton as either Protestants or Freemasons. (The Mexican Church had long experience with Freemasonry, a germinator of anticlericalism, so some Clifton-Morenci Mexicans would have been familiar with the movement. Mexican Masonry was not a working-class movement, but some of Clifton-Morenci's Mexican businessmen might well have liked to join.) Many fraternal orders today flirt with racial ambivalence and attraction to the exotic, such as the Shriners with their Muslim names and imagery. In 1904 Arizona, the Improved Order of Red Men insinuated, not at all subtly, the temptations of the forbidden: Dedicated to preserving the customs, legends, and names of the Indians, the lodges were called tribes, met on a lunar schedules, in wigwams, where they lit council fires, referred to money in their treasury as wampum, and named every "paleface" member for a bird, animal, or other natural organism. Their ritual consisted of stagings of imagined American Indian rites. Claiming to be the largest fraternity of purely American origin, its bylaws provided that the "Americanism of the order is the true American spirit which ... stands for equal rights for all." Red Men were required to be white.
pp. 188-189

There's a great chapter musing on vigilantism, lynchings, militias, and American political theory and values; I wish I could quote the whole thing. Overall, Gordon is thorough and thought-provoking on the intersections of geography, race, class, religion, and gender. Gordon's discursions on theory of history, her footnotes (Las Gorras Blancas? I'd never heard of them), and her narrative style are accessible and intelligent. Thanks for the recommendations, Crooked Timber thread.

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(1) : Happy Deepavali: As Leonard suggests, celebrate by reading Jeff Soesbe's near-future scifi story, "The Very Difficult Diwali of Sub-Inspector Gurushankar Rajaram."

I'm surprised at how much it meant to me, emotionally, that President Obama personally celebrated Diwali this year. (My family calls it Deepavali; regional variation.) They got a nearby Hindu priest, whom my dad very well might know as a professional peer, to come chant mantras. Obama lit a flame. They partook of a ritual I grew up with (even if I don't give it that much attention as an adult). Is there a more universal ritual than that of lighting a flame to ward off the darkness?

Is this what it's like for a Christian to hear him say "We worship an awesome God"? "...and nonbelievers." "I will be your president, too." Goddamn, but pandering works on the ears and the heart and the throat. And now I understand -- what you call pandering, I can now call healthy inclusion.

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(5) : While Listening To Kraftwerk: The votes all request the New York As Religion hypothesis. So here goes some analogizing. Actual ethnographers, please correct the hell out of me.

The phenomena I wish to explain:

  1. New Yorkers feel at home when they can give directions.
  2. New Yorkers feel righteously angry when someone acts inefficiently.
  3. New Yorkers, upon visiting a less systematically coherent urban ecology, express condescension or angry bewilderment.
  4. New Yorkers feel numinous experiences of being at one with their city (yes, I know that happy residents of all places feel this as well).

What are the two things that specifically and disproportionately make New Yorkers angry?

  1. People moving slowly in public spaces and impeding others' efficient use of spaces and services (e.g., blocking escalators, getting to the front of a line and not knowing what one wants)
  2. Systems that have not been properly thought through (e.g., "It's just stupid that they don't have a sign up," "Don't waste my time doing x when you could just tell me y because you already know z")

New York is a city you can trust, the way you can trust certain rock-solid pieces of software. Millions of people have been using it to its limits every day; anything you want to do, someone else has tried. There is a blazed trail, a user interface, a well-known list of features and longstanding bugs and workarounds. Via intelligent design (grid of streets, subway system) and evolution (ruthless market forces for 400 years), this city creates an expectation in its users that things will make sense.

And New Yorkers grow to believe that systems should make sense, big systems like the subway and smaller systems like theatres or meetups or gardens. They live in a city where there is usually a reason why you are being inconvenienced, or why that restaurant has the following it does, or why that bit of infrastructure works the way it does. The explanation might refer to history, or to an arbitrage opportunity, or to the peculiar and customary crystallizations of our struggles with entropy. But, once you're thinking on the macro scale, things tend to make sense. It's unlikely we're on the efficient frontier, but we feel close to it.

Instead of feeling as though we're going it alone, in individual cars with routes we choose (ignoring the massive social structures embedded in car-based transit), we use openly social constructions. We depend on the subway and the line at the bodega. We do a hundred trust falls every day, delivering ourselves unto each other. No one New Yorker earned this trust, but we all gain from it. We have the smugness that comes with believing: the world makes sense and has a place for me.

So when someone or some organization does something that does not make sense, it's not just inconvenient, it's heresy. Inefficiencies go against the natural order of the world. It breaks the trust.

Visiting other cities, more "laid-back" places where people and organizations tolerate more inefficiency, we either pity the poor dears or get irritable and bewildered. We get angry, or we laugh, or we try to convert others, or we must consciously adapt to a new lifestyle. There is something in our preferences that we privilege above mere tendency, that ties into values and identity.

When others come to us, when tourists stand still on Manhattan street corners with maps, some pity the heathens, and some grumble that they're blocking the sidewalk. But some of us give directions. We get to show off our knowlege of the beautiful, elegant cosmos. We hope to convey the splendor of the grid, and its hospitality -- there is a path already laid out for you, and we made it for you before you ever thought to come here at all. We Witness.

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: The Latter Link Includes Dick Van Dyke Non-Pun Joke: Today, looking at the tax documents, I saw Leonard's name next to mine and felt awe again that we're really seriously married. Mega-married! proclaimed Leonard. We conjectured that maybe the government should let same-sex couples get married but reserve MEGAMARRIAGE for heterosexuals couples. This is in keeping with John Holbo's thinking. By the way, here's a great comment in that thread that explains the rhetoric of same-sex marriages "contaminating" the shared marriagestuff pool.

And one of my new favorite blogs does a good Sarah Haskins impression in taking apart advertising narratives for laughs:

Oh, and do complete the circle of gender obliviousness, let's not forget the countless "home security service" ads pitched, hard, on men's programming about how your hot-looking but down-home wife is by herself in your big house with all the glass windows and no curtains and she's lovingly wiping invisible crumbs off the some-kind-of-expensive-substance counter and there's a man behind her, and because she's cleaning the kitchen with no lights on it's too dark for her to notice, and he's got ropes, or an ax, and he's really big and the music's getting all dumm-dumm-doom-y... and... oh if only you had locked her inside a secure perimeter before you went... wherever it was in that big SUV and/or first-class plane seat and you keep dialing and dialing to warn her about the big guy who's right behind her right now only she's deaf and... and...

And meanwhile on average women are safer when there aren't men there to protect them. Because ... the number of 911 calls about home-invasion injuries is dwarfed by the number of plain old-fashioned domestic violence calls.

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: A Secular Catechism:
A More Perfect Union from Andrew Sloat on Vimeo.

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(2) : Commemorating The Memorable: I wish a happy birthday weekend to my sister, who has been having multiple melas to celebrate. Nandini's birthday and that of India itself nearly coincide. Coincidence? Semantically, sorta!

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, but probably not Nandini because she will be out with friends, Nandini will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the friendship of Nandini and her people and to the still larger cause of Nandinanity.

I saw an Indian Independence Day parade today on Madison Avenue. It was so Indian that the NYPD opening of the parade (guys on horses, South Asian contingent of NYPD walking & waving) preceded the community-run floats and processions by a full ten minutes. It was so Indian that the Federation of Indian Associations of NJ and NY marchers were sort of milling around at an average speed of one foot per second, "Guest of Honor" sashes barely visible, families and Important Community Leaders blocking the visibility of the banner or keeping lagging marchers stationary in the intersection for one more photo. The one-off PVC cordon, held by leaders on either side of the FIA procession, was supposed to keep the rear at the same pace as the head. It broke.

I love my countries.

A New York City parade has marchers and floats who are in some way relevant to the day being celebrated, as well as hangers-on who get in on that parade action. Marching bands? Break dancers? Sure, why not. We cheered for politicians, Western Union, banks, temples, airlines, calling card sellers, aid organizations, satellite TV networks, and the feminist, casteless, antipoverty legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, India's Madison. The banner read "ARCHITECT OF THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA" and listed his many degrees between two portraits of him, in a move sure to please his mother. A fellow Columbia grad!

I got a little Indian flag and waved the heck out of it. Yay for the best of India! Democracy, Gandhi, hiphop mashups, rice with buttermilk and pickled lemon, yoga, Ganesha, Buddha, Birbal, Amar Chitra Katha, the Mahabharata, Chamundi Hill in Mysore, an energetic press, infinite diversity in infinite combinations. And my family, of course.

Maybe the Pakistan Independence Day parade was in Brooklyn.

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(2) : Aside: I'll be offline for much of this weekend at a retreat in San Antonio. It looks like my 10-year high school reunion, scheduled for next weekend, is cancelled for want of RSVPs. I'm managing three to five projects right now, double the number I had last month at this time. Dance Dance Revolution seems to be getting harder, probably because I've raised the difficulty level to Difficult. I want to talk with my California friends sometime soon. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin is thoughtful and funny and helps me understand artistic innovation. I've been reading Making Light comments by Abi Sutherland, especially for insights about software testing and motherhood. And Susan McCarthy's Becoming a Tiger is refreshing my love of life -- not just my life, but of rambunctious, smart fauna in general.

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(6) : 19th Century Slang Help Request: I'm reading Trollope's autobiography and need help understanding this passage:

The [clerical] critic, however, had been driven to wrath by my saying that Deans of the Church of England loved to revisit the glimpses of the metropolitan moon.

What's a "metropolitan moon"? Ever since I heard that you can anagram "subtext" to "butt sex" I feel slightly more foolish for assuming things I don't understand are about sex, but -- is this about sex?

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(6) : San Antonio?: I've never been to San Antonio, even though much of the Walch clan lives there. I guess the time was never right with school and all. Then today I saw Gordon Atkinson invite me to a Franciscan retreat at his church in San Antonio. Given that I look on with yearning at Rivka's SUUSI reports, this retreat could be a good way to ease myself into the spiritual retreat scene. And it would be an excuse to visit Kristen, Aaron, Lily, Gunnar, Anne, and who knows who else?!

Now I just need for my company to send me to conferences in Salt Lake City, Tallahassee, Seattle, Portland, Portland, Chicago, Bryn Mawr, Boston, Atlanta, London, Cambridge, Charlottesville, Mysore, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Raleigh-Durham, Radovljica, Baltimore, and I suppose Los Angeles, so I can piggyback all my friends-and-family visits. (Tell me if I missed you.)

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: Tax History Saved For A Future Post: In the last few months, I've seen and read a few things and had opinions on them. Here we go.

I Chose a Parson is a 1956 memoir by Phyllis Stark, an American woman who went to Gustavus Adolphus College, married a seminary student, had two kids, and helped her husband as he rose to a bishopric in the Episcopal Church. I got it for a few bucks at Sam Weller's in Salt Lake City, in the cheapo-books room crowded with out-of-print manuals and histories and children's primers, where the pipe on the ceiling's dripping into a bucket on the floor. Never was there a greater diamond in the muck. Stark writes with the dry eloquence of the Brits and the earthy humor of the Midwest, and every page has a great anecdote. I kept reading stuff to Leonard:

In the original list of repairs new pews had been included, but later that item had been deleted because, as usual, expenses were exceeding the original estimates. I felt very strongly, however, that the new beauty we were seeking to achieve would be completely lost if the crude and wretchedly uncomfortable pews were to remain. With the hope of persuading Leland to press the point, I presented the case to him a good many times, but without success. Then one day I decided to drop my reasoned approach and try instead a more feminine technique.

'Darling,' I said sweetly, 'I've got my heart set on new pews.'

He pulled me up short with the trenchant reply, 'That, my dear, is the only part of your anatomy that will ever set on new pews.'

I'm glad to say, however, that the other members of the committee were more amenable to my importuning, and before the repair work was finished, not only did we have new pews, but also new kneelers upholstered with the best quality surgical foam rubber!

I think Rivka and Rachel would especially like this book. And I have more to quote from it in another entry.

Ratatouille is good. The animation of water is amazing. I got creeped out by all the rats. The critic's flashback is moving.

Juno is not the most comfortable movie to watch with my Mormon in-laws. The banter is great and all the actors were spot-on. I could have done with a less monotonous soundtrack. For the first half of the movie Jason Bateman is basically Michael Bluth, but he and Michael Cera really break out. Ellen Page makes me want to see the upcoming Smart People which is evidently this year's Little Miss Sunshine. Some people find Juno's choice to bear the child unbelievable, but I can see a bunch of reasons, implied strongly or subtly, why she'd do that. However, I do want to find a comedy-drama that is specifically about abortion, just to see if it can be done.

An Affair To Remember: Leonard and I saw the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr version. All the annoying plot devices of screwball comedy without actual chemistry. That Italy scene takes forever! And the second half is a huge Idiot Plot. From my recollection Sleepless in Seattle is a much better film.

An American In Paris: I had an argument with Will Franken about this movie. I couldn't stand it because the lead, Jerry Mulligan, is a sleazeball stalker. Evidently Will wishes men could be more "romantic" in that manner today and feels castrated by feminism and the need to take a single rejection as a final rejection. I pointed out that I've been the aggressor in every romantic relationship I've ever had, and have been rejected many, many times. And yet somehow I got a husband without stalking him! And lots of men and women find each other without sexually harrassing each other!

Will asked, basically, what if it's love? What if you're in love with someone and they don't love you back? Isn't it just and true to persist in professing your love? The answer is no and it's a contradictory question anyhow. One-way romantic "love" is obsession, infatuation, lust; love is a conversation, two minds meeting as one. And how can you love someone if you don't respect their wishes (namely, "stop asking me out")?

The average Futurama is better sci-fi than the average Star Trek: Voyager.

Scott Westerfeld's Uglies is great, easy-to-read teen-focused sci-fi. The characters make sense while growing and displaying new depths, the worldbuilding is exciting, the action scenes and dialogue are all page-turners, and now I have another trilogy to finish, which I can't afford right now. See you again in May, Westerfeld.

If you can believe it, The Matrix was on American Movie Classics the other day. This is kind of embarrassing for me. I taught The Matrix enthusiastically in my Politics in Modern Sci-Fi class and in my prior Politics of the Midlife Crisis class. I still think the plot and visuals are fun and interesting, but most of the dialogue and acting hasn't held up well for me. I do still like Keanu Reeves's part, though.

The September 11th film anthology was on Sundance and I TiVo'd it mainly to watch Inarritu's segment. It was unbearably evocative and I couldn't watch the whole thing. The whole collection is worthwhile: see it with Brendan and followed by the original Shall We Dance?

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: Condolences: My condolences to my LDS family and readers on the death of Gordon B. Hinckley.

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: OMG Squee: Yesterday I got David Neeleman's autograph. Rock! I was just stretching my legs walking the aisle around hour three of the flight when I saw a familiar-looking man in a yellow sweater talking with kids and flight attendants in the back of the plane. I approached, and it was him! Oh, how fannishly I gushed. A little while later he did the gladhanding walk through the plane.

Neeleman is LDS, and his religious values are part of why JetBlue uses distributed call centers for customer service (think eBlocks). He thought it would be good for families if moms could work from home and earn money while taking care of their homes and kids. Lots of JetBlue customer service personnel are housewives in Salt Lake City and environs.

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: Goodwill: Another response to an old pal, this one more than a year in the waiting.

Last year, Zed Lopez criticized me for being -- as I perceived it -- pro-happiness, pro-togetherness, pro-tolerance etc. I'd enjoyed some language in a speech by Barack Obama on religion and politics. Mr. Lopez, among others, was unhappy with the talk because they thought he was being too soft on those who want to increase or legitimize the role of Christianity in public life.

I don't dispute that religious fundamentalism is real and dangerous in the US. And it's not like I've always been on the winning side of the culture wars.

At the time, I was basically happy with Obama's speech because of my preference for civility and hope -- Mr. Obama had made a speech that I read as pro-hope and pro-connection, as Walter Holland put more eloquently at the time. Andrew Sullivan* in The Atlantic Monthly this month:

To be able to express this kind of religious conviction without disturbing or alienating the growing phalanx of secular voters, especially on the left, is quite an achievement.

But Mr. Sullivan's not getting that right, because Obama did alienate secular voters with that speech. And Mr. Lopez was one of them. He saw the speech as "advocating not being so darn persnickety about keeping religion out of school and government." What? No! At least, 90% of the speech wasn't about that. More on the other 10% in a few paragraphs.

I think part of what Mr. Obama was saying was that we have a natural tendency to listen better to people who make an effort to connect to our legitimate sentiments. To take that further, I have a natural tendency to listen a little better to people who don't literally insult me. In explaining his distaste for Mr. Obama's message, Mr. Lopez linked to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who, admittedly as a wounded person the day after the 2004 election, blew up at me for no fault of mine. And scorn, cross words, etc. are usual for him. So I was discounting his opinions pretty heavily (despite earlier progress).

This fall, Leonard got to hang out with Mr. Nielsen Hayden at Viable Paradise, and says he's an all-right guy. So I'm taking that into account now. And from a later comment of his, praising Scott Rosenberg's work, I can tell that "f*** you" doesn't mean to him what it does to me; part of the reason I had been offended was on behalf of my old colleague's honor. And Scott Rosenberg can obviously defend himself.

This is maybe why this post has been germinating in my drafts pocket for a year and a half; I wanted to disengage from the hostility I felt and that one of the participants in this dialogue expressed, but still address it.

Now, 17 months later, Mitt Romney has said bigoted things about nontheists. Not just our party's values share roots and expression with religious values, but

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom....Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

The followup: "A spokesman for the Mitt Romney campaign is thus far refusing to say whether Romney sees any positive role in America for atheists and other non-believers..." Wrongheaded, delusional, and completely the opposite of Mr. Obama's speech; dividing America instead of reaching out. If you think the Democrats should watch out for the slippery slope of reaching out to religious constituents, listen to Mr. Romney:

We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders - in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history...
Well, he's eliding the deism of the founders, and the fact that "under God" got inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, and that our currency started its God-fearing ways during the Civil War, and that of course there's no way to teach world or US history without talking about religion and no one is seriously arguing that mentioning the Quakers in a public school is going to get a teacher fired. But more than that: these are government policy proposals and positions. Not just possible implications, not just likely or unlikely readings, but flat-out stated "the government should do this." And gah!

Okay, we disagree on how we read Mr. Obama's speech. But he's Michael Newdow compared to Mitt Romney. And this is including the most disagreeable passage in Mr. Obama's talk:

But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation - context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase "under God." I didn't. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers - that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.

I can see both sides of the latter two points, but come on about the Pledge. It's just idiotic to think that "under God" belongs in a required public school pledge; it's there because of inertia and because it's a wedge issue.

The really important places where church encroaches upon state are like the ones Mr. Lopez mentions -- atheists, Jews, etc. harassed at public schools and the Air Force Academy, denied jobs or promotions at state and federal agencies, and so on. Those are obviously wrong and all reasonable people understand and object. The borderline bits that Mr. Obama mentions above are more controversial, and get more press, frustrating and dividing moderates. Mr. Nielsen Hayden had a similar problem with Mr. Obama's speech ("yes, I caught his obligatory dance-of-even-handedness....what aspects of his speech got covered in the national media?"): he believed it played into the hands of bigots.

How problematic is that? Well, it seems I've come across both sides of Postel's Law. I need to work on being more open and sensitive in my readings of other people's thoughts, and I (especially powerful I twenty years from now) need to take exceptional care in my words and their implications.

Perhaps the best symbol of church-state transcendence is the secular sainthood my generation has draped upon the Rev. Fred Rogers, as evidenced in the comments for the goodbye video from Mr. Rogers. He saw that TV was crap, so he worked to improve it for the sake of children everywhere. On his public television show he never proselytized, though he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. And talk about Postel's Law! He listened to kids' fears so he could comfort them, which is why he sang that song about how you don't have to worry about being sucked down the bathtub drain. And just try to find an instance where he said an unkind word to anyone, or something that even out of context sounds bad.

He listened and spoke carefully and well, even when addressing political issues (PBS funding, Sony v. Betamax). I gotta get on that. Right speech is part of right living. And that's what I've been struggling with over that 17-month-old keynote. Did I divide myself from a friend by celebrating inclusiveness? If most of its ideas are technically correct or even incisive, but an effect of it isn't, then is it right speech? And then there's the basic skill of calmly listening to people who disagree with me. Which reminds me of the bit of that controversial speech that I liked the best, and quoted the first time around:

A hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.

* Note that Sullivan's article mistakenly places the speech in June of 2007, not last year.

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: Also, Bikram Seth's Ultra-Steamy "A Suitable Boy": Patrick McKenzie has a funny story from Palm Sunday, with a child's suggested revision of the holiday's name. I pointed out to Leonard that this child has an admirably meritocratic view of holiday-naming, where the person/thing that did the work that makes that holiday special gets name credit. By that standard, should Good Friday be Pilate Friday? However, I accidentally said "Pilates" instead of "Pilate." Pontius Pilates: the killer with the killer abs!

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(1) : Ugly Bags of Mostly Water: "What about taking Communion moves you so much?"

In one gesture it sort of sums up the craziness and beauty of human life, which is that you are a soul in a piece of meat, you know? You are a soul in a body. You are bound to other bodies by the fact of your body, by eating and drinking, which are among the most basic human functions. And yet you are also a soul.
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: Epistemology, Utilitarianism: Sometimes I ask, "Is this true?" Sometimes I ask, "Is this useful?" But in either case I wonder whether my actions are true or useful.

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: Quizzified: A US woman has the last name as a pretty durn famous US theologian, and has never heard of him.

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: Wanted: An eruv for free speech zones.

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: "How do you remember a truth that will cause clinical depression?": Are these the lessons of Auschwitz? What else must I be sure to recognize?

Our moral hearts, like our physical ones, are weak and prone to disease. If we acknowledge this and determine to exercise them, we have a chance to live. If we deny it and insist our hearts are failure-proof, we let the disease in at the door.

Like fragments of a hologram, each of us contains an image of the whole of our species; each of us participates in all of the beauty and all the evil of being human. We all participate in the music of Mozart and the murderousness of Mengele. If, in the morning, you look in the mirror and you say, "I have the face of a murderer," you have placed yourself in a position to begin the work that needs to be done.

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: Julia Sweeney Coming Back: Julia Sweeney's amazing show "Letting Go of God" is returning to Ars Nova starting Oct. 19th. It closes on Oct. 29th. I'd love to see it again.

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: Temple Management: Leonard and I had another wedding ceremony on Sunday; my parents were in town and wanted to see us get hitched Hindu-style. We capped off the rituals with a visit to a Ganesha-centric temple in Flushing. As I watched my parents pay a cashier, then show a receipt to a priest to request a ritual, I thought about how many temples don't even have that level of organization. Business-speak follows:

Hindu temples, like many organizations, would like to switch from cash/paper payment systems to more efficient payment tracking mechanisms. As they grow, priests stop having personal relationships with worshippers, and become labor in centralized, scheduled ritual performance. Retrofitting existing temple payment and scheduling systems for growth, efficiency, and electronics is frustrating. Most of these places face zoning and funding barriers. Right now there's a Hundi (donation box) next to each idol; donating money towards a particular god has important ritual meaning. But how much time and trust has to be spent in collecting and counting that cash money?

Temples need a holistic evaluation of their needs to determine where technology could help. Perhaps all worship stations could come equipped with smartcard-reading kiosks. Or maybe a centralized point-of-sale station, accepting credit cards and cash, could print receipts, horoscopes, ritual-completion certificates, and lists of suggested rituals. The solution must allow for at least some cash donations, non-native English speakers (preferably with support for all 14 Indian languages), and a greasy, smoky environment. (Ix-nay on the touchscreens?)

Ben suggested that such a system could even email worshippers to remind them of Today's Sanskrit Chant To-Do List. However, he and Leonard both noted that temples don't think they need this system. Talk about a barrier to sales.

So if I wanted to use this idea for my Master's project, I'd have to spend time learning this domain from the people who run Hindu temples, and whom I don't find the most likeable people in the world. And then I'd have to consider educating them about their needs so I could sell them on my whiz-bang POS or whatever. I find this opportunity technically and socially interesting, but not enough to overcome the business and social irritations. NEXT.

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: Means of Production: The Poor Man says funny things about Mel Gibson and Daniel Davies causes me to enter this post in three of my four blog categories (Comedy, Religion, and Taxes).

If Leonard leaves the house, I find it easier to clean. Why is this? Other people who live with spouses or significant others: can you comment?

Anyway, that means that I had a spasm of cleaning today. Also, today I wrote and almost finished a new column on a funny problem with a naturalization exam study sheet. Well, that's where it starts, anyway.

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: Reality Check: Residents of the USA: 2/3 self-identified white, around 76% self-identified Christian. In both cases, lower than I'd thought.

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: Barack Obama's Prayer: "A hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all." From a speech that I he wrote specifically for me, it seems.

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: Sumana Dismisses Dilettantes, Including Herself, in MC Masala: When your religion is someone else's tourist attraction.

I once told my mother that I was becoming a Buddhist and renouncing worldly things. This was fine with her until I declared that this also applied to eating dinner. My ploy to avoid eating failed spectacularly.
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: Hey Catholics: Zed linked to something hilarious re: Catholicism and that Dan Brown novel. Brendan already knows about this LiveJournal, but Claudia might not.

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: Old Religion, New Tradition: U.S. Muslims Confront Taboo on Nursing Homes. One community leader is building a nursing home attached to a mosque, to make the transition easier. Good for him.

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: Sunday Politics/Church Lecture: On my brother-in-law-in-law's blog, some people got to wrangling over the LDS church's position on a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage. Some proponents of it played the religion card ("The prophet speaks, I obey," said one). My response:

See, policy we can debate. Even values we can debate. But once epistemology enters the picture, there's no way to be polite. "Your method of deciding what's true is wrong" or "I believe God is telling me the inerrant truth" has no place in civil discourse, yet religion's influence in politics means we have to deal with it all the time.

Once people have beliefs that we hold dear, that we specifically guard against change no matter what we learn or hear, how can we know they're true?

Critical thinking is our immune system against nonsense and fallacy. HIV kills the immune system - that's its dark genius. When your beliefs tell you that doubt is a moral danger, there is no way to have any kind of productive discussion, because you won't let yourself be changed.

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: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.": "[Mr. Rogers] did tell me that he considered the space between the television set and the viewer holy ground..."

"...[I] saw that my son's eyes were darting, the way they do when he is nervous. He'd researched, made a decision and spoken it aloud. This had cost him."

And then, found because a Joel Spolsky fan said "Verba Volant, Scripta Manent": a liberal blog reminding us of a Borges line:

Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.
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: A New Theodicy: "If you don't like it, file a bug with God."

"That's it! The reason that bad things happen is that God doesn't have a copy of FogBugz."

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: MC Masala Reprint: This week's column got published Sunday, Christmas Day. So they reprinted the column I'd written back in July, about my interest in Christianity.

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: The Irregular, Finite, Fantastic Golden Braid: When I was in sixth grade, I got a bookmark at school that displayed the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in American Sign Language. Somehow, starting with that, I have now filled and overflowed a shoebox with hundreds of bookmarks. I doubt I'll have time in the next few weeks to properly sort and label the things. Someday, after I put up my travelogue for the first time I ever visited New York, and after I've moved there.

What a tremendously baroque civilization we have! At first bookmarks were ribbons sewn into the bindings of books. Then they were pasteboard advertisements for patent cures and the like. Now they are paper and plastic and metal, ads for everything and nothing, fanciful clips, inspirations and tassels. So much human energy has been poured into my little shoebox, so much effort to keep me from having to dogear or remember a page number.

The Holy Tango of Poetry. Search requests in a certain order. Sometimes the beautiful complications of the world that we've created together just overwhelm me. I should lay down and rest in this beautiful world.

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: The Escalator Of Reason: Hasidic Rebel (who redesigned and started writing again this month) once found himself explaining to his more orthodox wife that learning the arguments against her beliefs might change her beliefs. Perhaps wisely (for her own peace of mind), she told him to keep them from her. I'm reminded of that curious conflict -- which I probably first saw articulated in a tiny story within the ancillary material in a copy of Candide -- when I read this bit of Peter Singer. For good and for ill, it's quite difficult to retreat from unpleasant yet logical conclusions once you start thinking clearly.

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: Articles You Might Enjoy: At http://www.insidebayarea.com/bayarealiving/ci_3278439 we have my new MC Masala on sitting on BART with my eyes closed. "....I'm not very disciplined, so I have to close my eyes to ignore the outside world...." And at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/04/magazine/04coach.html we have a NYT story about college football, which sounds boring until you find out that it is by Michael Lewis. It is hysterical.

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: Links For A Long Weekend: Last year, I received a holiday present from an person I'd never met, sent to my work address. It was We, a dystopia by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It was a great gift, catering to my interests in Russia, sci-fi, and politics, despite the fact that I had already read We. So, the moral of the story.

When are church members, especially bloggers, allowed to criticize church leaders? There was a guy named Martin Luther who answered this question rather a while back.

Hugo Schwyzer, in telling us that atonement theory drew him to Christianity, wrote: "I first came to love Jesus because He died for me, not because some progressive preacher told me that he 'successfully embodied a radical new ethic of inclusiveness and community!'." And that reminded me of something Seth had written: "One thing I notice is that only a tiny percentage of people who call doctrines they don't believe inspirational will spend any significant amount of time studying them for inspiration."

Finally, two of the most appealing pop-culture Christians of recent times -- Fred Rogers and Johnny Cash.

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: Bay Buffet: Just talked to my mom about, among other things, Hindu temples in San Francisco. It's good to know which ones are run by Hare Krishna/ISKCON, which ones are rabidly Vaishnavite/Saivite/whatever, and which ones are primarily spaces for intellectual contemplation. The temples in Livermore, Sunnyvale, Fremont, etc., which the nineties Indian diaspora built, are places where kids run around and Indians chant while dripping ghee onto idols. A "Vedanta Center" is more like a garden/bookstore combo where white people learn yoga. In my experience. Mom says I could enjoy the Palaniswami Temple and Shri Swaminarayan Mandir.

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: Comedy = Tragedy + Paradigm Shift: Leonard's relative Nate Oman is always saying interesting things. Example: "I have always had a soft spot for Prometheus. I figure that to a greater or lesser extent we are probably going to basically fail at most everything that we do. That being the case, fail big. Set yourself a monstrous goal like toppling divinity and go down heroically, I say. The remarkable thing about Mormonism, of course, is that it takes the Prometheus story and retells it as comedy."

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: Didion on Schiavo: You have probably already read Joan Didion on the Schiavo case and watched Didion illustrate, but carefully leave unanswered, more precisely formulated questions about that particular tragedy and the end of life. That piece makes me want to read Life's Dominion and The Year of Magical Thinking.

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: Memoirs Of A Puja: MC Masala for this week takes you to a suburban house in boomtown Silicon Valley, a generic place where I remember spending every weekend in the 1990s.

Kids ran around the house, shrieking and playing, too young to behave for the length of the puja. But at the end their parents brought them back for the aarthi: Someone held a tray of oil lamps and moved around the room to bless each person by moving the tray in a clockwise direction three times. The flames danced and blurred. Everyone ate the prasada, the sweet communion pudding. Parents coached their kids on standing still, performing aarthi and giving and receiving with the right hand, never the left.
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: The Pearl Of Great Price:

I will own any label you please. Crackpot, dreamer, shoddy thinker, weak-minded. None of these matter for I have found the pearl of great price. And the transforming power of that discovery and of that joy lies at the center of my life.

Oh yeah, non-Mormon Christians have a PGP reference too.

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: Phillip Robertson Is Braver Than I'll Ever Be: I have the freedom to yammer on about literature. I'm not in Iraq.

Hajji Qais had been on Al Mutanabbi street for 10 years and the vendors all knew him. He sold greeting cards for births and anniversaries along with Christmas and Easter gifts, cologne and pens. He wore a beard and was also known as a devout Sunni who had no problem hiring Shia workers or spending time with Christian colleagues. Aside from stocking a few items related to Christian holidays, there was nothing unusual in his shop. He wasn't a known member of any political party, and he was, according to his neighbors on Al Mutanabbi Street, a generous man who often gave money to the poor.

No one in the district will speak openly about who killed him, including his own son.

Ahmed Dulaimi, a young guitarist for Iraq's only heavy metal band, told a story that has been going around Baghdad these last few weeks. There was an ice seller selling ice from a small shop on the sidewalk in the Dora neighborhood. One hot day, a man came up to him with a gun and said, "You shouldn't be selling ice because the Prophet Mohammed didn't have ice in his time." Then the gunman shot the ice seller dead. This story terrifies Iraqis but they often laugh when they recount it, because it is absurd that anyone would get killed for selling ice or shaving a beard. It is also true that the ice-seller anecdote follows a pattern of killings around the capital where Islamic militants have regularly assassinated Iraqis for violating strict, and utterly random, codes of behavior. The point of the ice-seller story is that now, anyone in Iraq can be killed for any reason at all. After Hajji Qais was killed, more than one person mentioned these spontaneous assassinations, and they spoke about them the way they'd describe a sandstorm, an all-encompassing thing that no one can stop.

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: Christmas Column In July: Today's MC Masala has second and third paragraphs that the Bay Area Living editor, Cathy Schutz, much improved. Thanks, Cathy.

In "Interfaith Dialogue Runs Aground" I recollect a party where I conversed with a former Christian:

The more we talked the less we understood each other. How could he sit with me, a block from the Mission District in San Francisco, eating Christmas pie, and not understand that my conscious citizenship in Western civilization demands that I get a handle on Christianity?
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: Sunset is to Nightfall as Insomnia is to Wikipedia: Wowie zowie, there are some crazy people out there.

Other related modern theories involve Hitler having escaped to the Antarctic, where he joined with a subterranean dinosauroid master race, with whom he now travels inside UFOs underground, generally beneath the South Pole or throughout the center of the hollow earth, but sometimes to a Nazi moon base as well.

Includes the "avatar of Vishnu" theory and its proponent, who went on to write "a fictionalized autobiography and memoir of her favorite cats." Title: Long-Whiskers and the Two-Legged Goddess, or the true story of a "most objectionable Nazi" and . . . half-a-dozen cats.

The history of the swastika is a brand manager's nightmare. Imagine you run a minor hockey team or a beloved cereal or an infantry division, and you've chosen as your logo lightning breaking jaggedly through a circle. Then the jihadists start using it! And off to CafePress you go.

What if some distasteful political movement started using swooshy corporate-style logos? What would it take for PBS or Coke to give up and flee?

Finally: Om saha naavavatu is one of the two mantras I know best, but I'd never seen it written down before. I've only heard my father cajoling large groups of Hindus into saying it before we dug into potluck dinners. Are there prayers like that for people who grew up Christian? Do you remember whether you said or sung them?

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: Eminem Domain: More John on Kelo!

I'm glad y'all got a good price for the land. (I thought "arable" meant "good for farming.") But maybe your uncles were, you know, attached to the land. Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth taught me a little about that. The investments people make in land are not just monetary, just as a job is not just an exchange of time for money. We're humans and we make social and emotional attachments to pets, careers, neighbors, possessions, co-workers, and land. Cemeteries, places of worship, and awe-inspiring natural beauties are sacred land publicly, but each man's home is just as sacred to him.

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: Still No Punchline: I still have no punchline for the set-up "Asra Nomani is standing alone in Mecca..." But you can read my review of her book.

It seems unfair to judge Standing Alone in Mecca as a memoir when it's clearly unfinished. It tells us the history and the recent dispatches of battles within Islam, but the story's barely begun.
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: C.S. Lewis in Boulder, Colorado: Celestial Seasonings rooibos tea features, on the box, a very calm lion drinking drom a teacup. Leonard observed, "So he is a tame lion."

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: The Trendiest Thing Ever: Open-source Islam!

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: This Morning On Diversity BART: On my left, a woman read the New Testament on a PDA, probably a PalmPilot. On my right, a man with a yarmulke and a prayer shawl on his head strapped tefillin to his arms, prayed quietly, and then removed all his accoutrements and packed them away. He had a tattoo on one arm, which intrigues me, since I thought Orthodox Jews refused tattoos.

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: Bookishness: At Sam Weller's bookstore in Salt Lake City, as I bought books to read on the train ride back home, I considered getting a copy of Pilgrim's Progress to read for the first time. Then I realized that I'd want a copy of the Bible next to me so I'd get all the references. Like many US public school graduates, I don't know nearly enough about the Bible to get all the Biblical references in great works of literature. Mr. Hatch in American Literature ameliorated that but not enough. I was too dumb to understand what he was trying to do and how hamstrung he was.

I bought and read Twain's hilarious Roughing It, which I enjoyed for the whole ride. Am now reading Margaret Atwood's Orxy and Crake, which takes about three paragraphs to get going. My review of Douglas Coupland's new book is up at Bookslut.

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: This One Goes In the "Comedy" And "Religion" Categories: While in Utah, I got to meet many of Leonard's relatives, including the Omans. I got to tell them that I really enjoy Nate's posts on Times And Seasons. Today I read just such an example.

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: The Title Is Much Dirtier Than The Reality: Bookslut needs columnists (check the left-hand sidebar). Many writers who read this journal would be ideal as Bookslut reviewers and columnists. Heck, Bookslut even accepted my review of Good Catholic Girls (the typos aren't mine).

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: Happy Purim!: I hope those of you who celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim have a good time. I remember evincing amazement when my freshman-year roommate told me she was supposed to booze till she didn't know good from evil; now that seems completely normal to me. Oh no, I've defined deviancy down!

During some services on the "Jewish Mardi Gras", you get to boo when the rabbi mentions the villain's name. That's pretty awesome.

It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to perform plays and parodies, and to hold beauty contests. I have heard that the usual prohibitions against cross-dressing are lifted during this holiday, but I am not certain about that.
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: We All Fall Down: "A woman's battle for the soul of Islam" and "A 'virtuous pagan' looks at the priesthood" make it seem that every week Salon interviews an interesting woman who's thinking about Abrahamic (Judeo-Christian-Muslim) faith. I think that isn't true, but should be.

Emily Proctor quotes an Indianapolis bishop as saying, "Of course the church messes up. We have to mess up or else we would have to believe the Inquisition was a good thing." I love seeing officials of organized religion admit fallibility. Religious officials as a group tend to emphasize obedience and belief too much for my taste. For example, Bill Keller of LivePrayer will say that he's an imperfect servant of the Lord and that we're all depraved, sinful, and far from the mind of God, which rather makes me wonder why I should listen to him in particular when he tells me that he knows what the Lord wants from us. (His usual defense: circular arguments involving the Bible.)

I think it's a good thing that there is no one Pope governing Islam. Asra Nomani's local mosque isn't being very flexible (and ShaBot would not approve), but Islam as a whole can be. Witness the Spanish imams' fatwa against bin Laden and Nomani's Muslim Women's Freedom Tour.

Maybe a schism is coming. Maybe we'll have Sunni, Shiite, and Nomani Islam. Maybe the new flavor will descend into rigid hierarchy and one of its sects will launch an attack aginst an alien community on Mars. When I speculate about the future of these organized religions, I can't see how they can escape their cycles of schism and fundamentalism.

Geeks say of using "regular expressions" to solve certain computer problems that "now you have two problems." When politicians and religious activists try to solve problems, I feel lucky if they only double them. How do we finally get the bubble of air out from under the wallpaper instead of just moving it from side to side?

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: Question Marks: Unitarian Universalist jokes and a Satanism joke: "Satanism seems to be an elaborate prank designed to annoy Christians while having some good parties ... rather than a system one could practically live by."

The classics AND contemporary media sometimes show people doing immoral things, and sometimes we see that these actions lead to their downfall. Kristen, you ask why certain books become classics, and whether classics that portray immoral behavior are smut. I've never understood what smut is. I think smut would be pornography that didn't care about a story or characters. The classics care about story.

Literature explores different ways of being human, as my old English teacher said. I realized, after reading George Eliot's classic Middlemarch and finding in Rosamond's character a reflection of myself, that I should be more emotionally independent and not a self-important parasite like her. But that's not because the story punishes her. It's because Eliot describes Rosamond so precisely, wittily, and devastatingly that I wince at recognizing myself.

And TV shows have taught me stuff, too. Sitcoms teach me that lying and hiding stuff never works; if I'm straightforward and honest with people, my life gets a lot easier. The elegant plot structures and wordplay I remember from Seinfeld (probably a classic) and Mad About You taught me about art before I ever read Fitzgerald.

I'd argue that the movie The Matrix is a classic; if anyone wants me to expand on that, shoot me an e-mail.

Compare-and-contrast: the CAPAlert guy who marks a movie down for portraying sin, even if the movie shows the sinner punished for his sin. His justification is that the very portrayal of the sin might influence a child who had not previously considered that sin. I'm not certain there are any edifying stories that don't depict bad behavior; there has to be a Goofus to make Gallant look good.

In our everyday lives, sometimes good things happen to bad people and vice versa. So morality plays for children will have to be somewhat unrealistic, and stories for adults, aiming to recreate the familiar, will depict these dismaying outcomes. (I hesitate to say the word "unrealistic." I've just read C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, and his scorning comments on the secular world's use of the word "real" to mean "most unpleasant, whether material or notional" make the word "real" stick in my throat. What a funny, disorienting, doubly-directing book, Lewis's Christian edifications feinting behind the Devil's decreasingly convincing instructions.)

Last night I saw Camus's The Just, a hundred-year-old play about terrorists aiming to overthrow the Tsarist Russian state. [Spoilers ahead.] In the end, only one of them dies, but one goes mad. We as adults watching the play know that none of these people comes to a happy end and Russia never gets free, but within the play there's very little explicit punishment for the plotting and murdering. [End of spoilers.] Does that make the play immoral? I really doubt The Just encourages anyone to become a terrorist.

But the main point of your post, Kristen, was about teaching ourselves to act responsibly and accountably. If I could change one thing about the way my parents raised me, I'd work on that very aspect of my rearing. If they'd let me make little choices and suffer the consequences of choosing wrongly, I'd have been more prepared for the stormy ocean of adult life. I think.

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: Or Possibly Joke-hovah: Today's a really unusually wonderful day, weatherwise, in San Francisco. It just calls out for an earthquake from Jerkhovah. Leonard: "I'm still God, and I hate you!"

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: More Theology Comedy: I've never seen Dr. Who and yet all references to Daleks crack me up. Also Triffids.
He'll say it for all of us.
Calling Steve Schultz: this one mentions Ultraman!

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: Best Email Opening Ever:

Dear Sumana
Anyone as prompt as you are will surely go to heaven.
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: More On Usury, & Eric And Dylan As Shylocks: I have not yet seen the new Merchant of Venice movie. While considering watching it, I came across an essay on Shylock.

....The Magna Carta, the basis for English constitutional law, is itself a testament to the growing unpopularity of Jewish money-lending activities. Two clauses in the 1215 document state that if a debtor dies before his debt is paid, neither his heir nor his widow will be responsible for repaying the debt....

In Shylock's final scene, Shakespeare had him act out another stereotype: a ritual murder. Of course, there is no mention in the play that Shylock would use Antonio's blood in any religious ritual. But the audience would have immediately associated the stage action with the myth. Shakespeare seemed to be giving his audience exactly what they expect from a stage Jew. In Portia, the audience got the means to stop the ritual murder because she would not let the Jew shed one drop of Christian blood. The text specifically says "Christian," reinforcing the "blood libel" legends....

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: There Is A God (yes/no): Part of my reason for my interest in religions is hereditary; my father, a Hindu priest, has always been a student of world religions. My sociological interest trumps my personal quest for meaning (as I implied to John while misjudging his offer to assuage curiosity). How do people figure out how to live? Well, sometimes religions tell them what to do, but lots of people only follow religions part of the way. They obey some rules but not others. Why?

Anyway.

Here's the PowerPoint description of Judaism. Includes "God has favorites and some nations have a special deal with God", as well as:

The children of this congregation also have taken field trips to other religious services, including a Reform Jewish Shabbas.

They did not give us the little caps to wear. If we come back, we would probably want to weat them. Do they have a basket of loaners, or would we have to buy our own?
The spirit was a bit different at an Eastern Orthodox Easter service.

We visited on Sunday, May 17th 1999, which was the last Sunday beteeen Easter and Ascension. This meant that a major element of the service was the repeated triumphal hymn of Easter: "Christ is risen from the grave, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!" One of our adults commented later that this was not unlike a stadium of football fans greeting the home team: "You know you are visiting the winning team."

Our kids were more impressed by how long the service was. Two hours is a long, long time to stand when you are 12 years old, and some of them may not go on another field trip after this.

What do you believe? Choose!

There is a God (yes/no)
There are many Gods, each person can decide which to pray to (yes/no)
There are many Gods, but only one of them is good (yes/no)
Do pets go to Heaven (yes/no)

Currently I'm interested in the huge multidimensional Venn Diagram describing what I believe and how those beliefs fit into other religions. Evidently I am a Unitarian and I didn't even know it!

"Seeker-sensitive" actually does appear in the descriptions of nondenominational Christian churches in the SF Bay Area - I had previously only read that term in a Real Live Preacher anecdote about conferences among clergy.

In the course of this rambling I found a listing for the SF Quakers and found out how they run their Meeting for Worship, which has no pastor or priest. (I'd love to watch their meetings to check how they avoid the Tar Pit From Hell.) The Quaker meeting description includes the line "this is not a discussion group", which should also be in that song about the country club and the disco as well as the song about the wife and the beautiful house.

The Quaker listing is on the best GeoCities page I've ever seen. Martin Marks recently made me laugh:

Oh yeah, memo to Dan Brown: your novels read like extremely compelling Geocities pages. Please, please, please go take a writing course at your local community college. You are hurting the children.

(I do not know whether Leonard would mind if I embraced a stapler on camera to indulge Mr. Marks. Would it have to be a red Swingline à la Office Space?)

Anyway.

Had a long and interesting conversation with Seth last night. I surprised him and myself with my passionate denunciation of deliberate rootlessness as inflicted on children, in implicit defense of raising children in a religious tradition. So there is some personal quest here, as well as the "look at cute or clever or puzzling things I have found on the web" aspect. I don't know how I want to live my life and all I can do is be honest about it. Wish me luck, if you believe in luck.

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: Finally Created A "Religion" Category: Gordon Atkinson has his Nativity story up, and a posthumous baptism discussion that is pretty cordial even if the word "libel" escapes my lips.

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: I'm Turning Into A Secular Mormon: Garments and fashion! Baptisms and mission policies! Brigham Young's Gandhi-like concern with home industry! I can see that Times and Seasons is opening LDS up to me in a highly interesting fashion.

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: Aside From Saints, Psychopaths, And Children: We're also living in fear.

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: Aiee!: Gordon Atkinson! (she squeals as though he is the Beatles)

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: Unitarians Be Walkin' Down The Street Like This: Instant Messaging with Leonard about religion:

Sumana: I found out why they don't take vows and oaths
Leonard: uus?
Sumana: no, Quakers
Sumana: sorry
Sumana: no, UUs don't take oaths because they don't believe anything is true
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: It's Pompousness Night Here at Sumana's: Which is worse - listless lost apathetic purposelessness or strangled forced direction? The anchor that drowns or the loosed sail that any wind can blow away?

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: I Experience Cinema, You View Film, He Watches Movies: I should have checked CAPAlert before taking my mom to Ray; it would have warned us about the excessive sex. Probably the only major movies out that I could comfortably watch with my mom are The Incredibles and SpongeBob SquarePants and my sister wanted to see neither. I believe the last movie that my entire nuclear family saw together was Air Force One in 1997.

While we pored over the free DC weekly paper's movie listings. I saw some arty Iranian film and commenced to needless mockery of Kiarostami. "Oh look, I put a camera in a truck and drive it along a dusty road for two hours and that's a movie. They're all named The Children of the Olive Groves or something. I'm Iranian, I'm censored, look at me."

I think it would be funny if Kiarostami were helping the Iranian reform movement by lulling the hard-liners to sleep with his boring movies.

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: It's A Faaaaaaake: Leonard and I watched a bit of an America's Test Kitchen about Chicken Diavola, which does indeed mean "devil-style."

CHRISTOPHER KIMBALL: So tell us a little bit about Chicken Diavola. Diavola. Am I saying that right?
JULIA COLIN: Yes. It's "Diavola," meaning chicken of the damned. To make this requires that you damn your soul to hell.
[pause]
KIMBALL: Okay, what do we do first?
COLIN: Well, there's this oath that you sign in blood.
KIMBALL: Does it have to be my own blood?
COLIN: Not necessarily. We actually found that pig's blood works best. It has a certain viscosity that we really liked.
KIMBALL: Uh-huh.
COLIN: We tested about fifteen different bloods. A lot of people think virgin's blood would be the blood you'd use here, but that's actually pretty thin. You don't want something that'll just run off the page. Pig's blood really has that earthiness and stickiness, so that's what we use.
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: Wish List: Life is suffering, as Gautama Buddha and George Orwell both said, and the less you want the happier you'll be, to paraphrase Buddha but probably not Orwell. That actually worked for me when I was younger, I think, but today I have been letting strangers get to me -- which means I want their approval -- and haven't meditated on nonreaction.

Susanna, Leonard's sister, has now twice requested a wishlist from me. Sorry for the procrastination, Susanna. I keep this wishlist and try to update it before my birthday and before Christmas. I'm glad that I've cut down on the size of my wishlist over the past few years.

I think I wanted for nothing once, at least nothing tangible, and I miss that. I was ignorant, and didn't feel in charge of my own life. How long does desire take to die when you never feel agency? I remember coming to the dorms and feeling the most enormous pleasure at choosing my own food in the dining commons. Now Leonard has spoiled me; I have tasted his fairy food and might waste away for the want of it. I've gotten picky, the way Ben Franklin bragged that he never did. I wish I didn't know how bland mediocre food is, how much more interesting other jobs could be. I want to forget everything extraordinary so I can be content.

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: Deepavali, Dipawali, Whatever: Happy Diwali!

While dressing up for work in a shimmery pyjama juba, a.k.a. salwar kameez, I discovered that I don't have any kumkum, a.k.a. kunkuma, a.k.a. bindi, a.k.a. the red dot you wear in the middle of your forehead or between your eyebrows. I used a marker instead.

Diwali usually celebrates the day Rama comes back to Ayodhya (don't get me started on temples and mosques in Ayodhya) after defeating Ravana, a ten-headed demon. I'm reading the first book of Ashok K. Banker's passable fairy-tale retelling of the Ramayana right now; I should time my reading so that I read that part of the story a year from today.

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: Not To Mention The Original Big Book: Two of my favorite Christianity bloggers: Real Live Preacher and Slacktivist. I imagine that the Preacher, a.k.a. Gordon Atkinson, would enjoy Douglas Coupland's book All Families Are Psychotic, and now I find that Fred Clark of Slacktivist enjoyed Infinite Jest. Leonard read that recently and I acted irrationally hostile towards him and it whenever I saw the book. I get irrationally angry at people who are doing things I don't have the guts to do. In this case that's both the reader and the writer of a Big Book. When did I stop reading huge books? When I started commuting on BART?

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: Worldview Correspondence: Yesterday I engaged a Christian evangelist (I'm assuming Protestant) on Market Street in conversation. He said that the Bible is literally true, that theories of evolution cannot explain the complexity of the human body, that people who were born and died before Jesus but didn't have a chance to hear about the Gospel went to hell, and that all the good works in the world won't save a nonbeliever. I didn't get a chance to ask for his theodicy. Also recently Susie, Kristen, Joe, Frances, and John have been very helpful in explaining bits of LDS theology and practice to me. Thank you all!

Evidently I am also obsessed with Catholicism. First I read all of James Morrow, now this: The Archbishop of Denver (which to Leonard sounds like the title of a novel) shows us the entire transcript of his interview with a New York Times reporter. Interesting bits:

In Dogma, Kevin Smith's mouthpieces say many funny things about religion, specifically Catholicism. If I recall correctly, one says the doctrine of papal infallibility is what got them all into the current mess. Certainly I find it hard to believe that something supernatural happens to a guy once he becomes Pope and everything he says and does from then on is unquestionably right.

[Update: Thank you, Seth and Zed, for pointing out to me that this is an exaggeration. More information on Wikipedia and at a Catholic Encyclopedia - you pick your authority! More accurately,

...the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility...

As Leonard put it, the Pope can put on an infallibility hat. Still hard to swallow. ]

But then again, I find many bits in Christian theology as a whole hard to believe, which is why that preacher on Market isn't having much luck with me.

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: Lots Of Puns And Theodicy: Done with Blameless in Abaddon, thus 2/3 of the way through The Godhead Trilogy. Enjoyable enough. Alexei, I think you'd like it.

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: Media: Read Y: The Last Man, Volume I: quite entertaining. I need more! Finished Morrow's depressing This Is The Way The World Ends. Yeah, he is obsessed with submarines and silly names and big show trials. Still reading the better Blameless In Abaddon.

Have now (deep breath) actually started Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. (If I were incredibly hardcore, I could finish that and The Confusion by the time The System of the World went on sale tomorrow.) I was afraid to start Quicksilver and vaguely thought that I had to study the history of currency and the Enlightenment to prepare before reading it. Well, I'm fifty pages in and enjoying it, and of course Stephenson is exfoliating, I mean expositioning enough to keep me not-too-confused (i.e., it's not the cursèd Name of the Rose which is nigh-impossible to read without annotation if you didn't grow up Christian (I said nigh-impossible so you don't have to write me with exceptions)). I did say "gah" at the same thing that annoyed Leonard, but he assures me that it gets better.

I must admit that the Stanford college radio station is pretty good and, unlike the UC Berkeley station, has an MP3 stream as well as a RealPlayer stream.

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: Did You Mean: C.S. Lewis or Philip Pullman?: I've read James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter and Bible Stories For Adults and now I'm reading Towing Jehovah. Like, say, Stephenson, he loves naming things, "Father Thomas Ockham" for one. Lots of great analogies: "A choral gurgling filled the air, as if the museum were honeycombed with defective storm drains." As for Towing Jehovah (which Leonard insists on singing to the tune "Waltzing Matilda") specifically, the World War II re-enactment subplot bores me, but I still like the main plot so far. On the whole, I like Morrow, and taught a very interesting short story he wrote in my sci-fi class. His Christian and ethical fantasy amuses me, even if it's uneven. The similarly themed stories in Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others are consistently good. I want to read more by both.

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: Books: Reading The Greedy Hand by Amity Shlaes, a WSJ writer with whom I vastly disagree, which means John might like it.

Also reading James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter, in which Jesus Christ's sister is born to a Jewish bachelor in Atlantic City in 1974. James Morrow loves probing ethical systems and religions in the context of fantasy.

I'm sure tonight I'll dream of a booming voice directing me to render unto Him what is Caesar's.

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: More Silly Movie Review Reviews: Ebert says a bloggy thing in a 1998 review of a half-star flick: "The plot involves ... excuse me for a moment, while I laugh uncontrollably at having written the words 'the plot involves.' I'm back."

The CAPAlert guy CAPAlerted me to Extreme Days, "an extreme signal to an world saturated with extreme vulgarity." His review included the note: "This movie could have very easily been rated G. Indeed, it earned a score of 92 which is midrange of the CAP scoring range (100 to 87) earned by G-rated movies. I suppose it was given a PG because of the 'thematic elements': open submission to God's Wisdom and Will."

Curious, I looked for more info on IMDB, and found many user comments. Most are enthusiastic young Christians saying that the movie is not too preachy, and great for youth ministries, and perfect to watch with friends, saved or unsaved. (Example: "good youth group movie, or just to watch at your house w/ buds. you don't have to fastforward through anything. oh yeah!") A few comments call it boring and repetitious. (Example: "If this is the only video remaining in the video store, walk away!!!")

Neither set of comments swayed me; in any case, I know I won't see it because it has "Extreme" in the title.

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: Father Blog Stories: I've been reading G.K. Chesterton; his Father Brown stories tickle my fondness for high-concept mysteries, and his style is great, but the preaching gets on my nerves. Here's a modern mystery tale of weblogs, secret meetings, skulduggery, and betrayal. (via Electrolite)

In other links, Frances might enjoy Teresa Nielsen Hayden's guide to "judging the dubiousness of saints", and Rob Walker goes a little nuts over new Humvee ads. Walker cites Gregg Easterbrook with coining the category "FUV" in "Axle of Evil", a monster article explaining reasons why SUVs are abominable.

"What does it say about the United States that there are now millions of people who want to drive an anti-social automobile? Huge numbers of Americans will pay thousands of dollars extra for vehicles that visually declare, "I have serious psychological problems." (Though maybe we are better off having this declared.)"
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: Yes, this week's Enterprise had such heavy-handed allegory that I'm surprised it didn't implode upon reaching critical mass. But I liked it anyway. "Look at the brave, stoic face that these Palestinians, er, Japanese, er, Suluban put on in their internment camp!" They were all so earnest -- I miss that.

Marisa and I discussed our favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes before Linguistics discussion today. I forgot to mention that one from maybe the sixth or seventh season, where Riker thinks he's going mad. "A Matter of Point of View" or something? Oh, I miss TNG.

The West Wing from this week isn't even worth discussion. Instead -- hi, Camille, Mike Popovic -- I'll give you my take on the most recent 7th Heaven.

First of all, Ruthie's preternatural, Cassandra-like (hi, Angel!) power of knowledge is getting scary. As Leonard put it, "In every episode, the sinister hand of Aaron Spelling can be found." Is the WB planning an Angel crossover (which would, of course, not be canon)?

[Oh, that reminds me: tonight, during the West Wing interviews-mixed-with-show-clips metashow, which now that I think about it reminds me of Shades of Gray (the awful TNG episode, not the Billy Joel song, which I like), Leonard said that we could infer the show's internal chronology from the people we saw interviewed. I said, "That's not canon!"] Back to Seventh Heaven.

It's Melrose Place crossed with Wodehouse, this show. All the scheming! The deceptions, well-meaning and no! (Case in point: the Wodehousian "Gemette" scandal this week.) The silly romances! The people who gape in astonishment! I see more interesting facial expressions in an hour with Seventh Heaven than in a year with my family.

Now, the Jew factor. What the heck is going on here? Sarah's family is even more sitcom-wacko than the Camdens. And doesn't it weird you, faithful viewer, that Sarah, the Jew, is the one who really wants the ring, the valuable object? Why is Sarah the greedy Jew? Is it just because she's used to wealth? And why is she so wealthy, anyway? Are rabbis rich? Disturbing questions!

Mary and Lucy. Who else can't stand them? Are you with me? They aren't pretty, they're man-hungry, they lack common sense, they're vain, and yet I suppose one is necessary to counterpoint how basically good the other characters are. But I could do without, say, Lucy.

In the next episode, Minister Camden basically says, "you two aren't married, so you shouldn't have sex." I assume that Matt's not going to make the principled "premarital sex isn't necessarily wrong" stand. Pity.

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: I found myself watching The Full Night of Seventh Heaven tonight. Matt got married! To a Jewish girl! Her father's a rabbi! And their families don't know yet, and think they're just engaged! Next week: Matt's father, Minister Camden, blows up at Matt's conversion to Judaism!

My Lord, this show is great. The best trash I've seen in years.

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: I still have to clean the kitchen floor, and I have less time than I'd thought because of the silly time change. USians have a Daylight Savings thing going where we switch our clocks twice a year, in case you didn't know.

Leonard and I watched Keeping the Faith (his first time) and Casablanca (my first time) over the weekend. Casablanca is the Hamlet of film -- I kept reminding myself, "that wasn't a cliché until they did it." Of course, it was quite enjoyable, although I wish I hadn't known the ending ahead of time.

By the way, while renting the video at Reel, I asked the clerk whether my copy held the letterboxed or reformatted version of the film. He informed me that movies' aspect ratio only changed to the current (widescreen) format after the advent of television, and as such, any video of Casablanca is neither reformatted nor letterboxed, but in its original, TV-shaped format. I had forgotten those bits of trivia, and slunk away, shown up as the cinemaphile poseur I was.

I am surprised at how well Keeping the Faith held up to a second viewing; I even noticed a running end-of-scene bit of camerawork/cinematography in which the camera stays focused on a space which a character has just left. I'm not sure what that motif means, but it's there.

The last time I watched that movie I was a Hindu and I saw it with Dan. Now the "that's what faith is" speech makes me wince a little. Right now I miss believing -- knowing that there's a God, as I did just one scant year ago. I don't know who to call out to anymore.

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: Short -- books and religion, basically: Yesterday I finished reading Angela's Ashes and started reading We.

Catholicism appeals to me, in the same way as I imagine it appeals to a lot of people, what with the unconditional redemption and state of grace and all. I think Maxine Hong Kingston and/or Maya Angelou commented on this.


First published by Sumana Harihareswara at http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2001/6/25/84014/2922
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