Dream work

I went to a disappointing lecture last night. It was another one of those things I didn’t really have time to do; I should have used the hour and a half in Starbucks reading peer-reviewed papers on the value, or not, of reading aloud to young children: pdfs pulled magically into my little white plastic box through the combined juju of the Starbucks-card free WiFi and the electronic subscriptions of the Mina Rees Library of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  But my pal Dixie had posted (on Facebook, a pattern here?) that she was on her way to hear a neuroscientist talk about God, and (further seductions of that telecom sidestreet) my pal Robin, going as well, found me a ticket.

I’d actually heard of the guy. I have this other friend, Ariel. I think he’s 21 now, which would be odd because he could buy me a drink and I tend to think of him as two or three days old when I brought him a tiny Big Bird in the hospital. Ariel is one of the three or four brightest frum (look it up) people I know, and at his parents’ seder, he was telling me about this professor he’d heard about at Penn who’d found God in the brain. Literally. SPECT scans and the whole nine yards. I went to alibris and bought the fellow’s book, cheap, but I haven’t read it.
Now I won’t. Brought it along to his lecture, but all he really had to say was, you meditate on the oneness of all things and the parts of your brain that take things apart cognitively take themselves a rest, and like Dixie said, duh.
Dixie said she’d hoped to hear something more interesting, like where is the soul with respect to the brain.  She said, he kept saying God, but he didn’t talk about God; he talked about thinking about God, not even that, but the idea of God.  She’d wanted the juju.

I’m not a soul type myself, and I can’t say what I was hoping for, but what I heard was nothing more than square one of my interest in brains: Everything we experience, we experience thanks to a pile of goop in our skulls. So of course something happens in some lobe when you pray. You’re thinking. aren’tcha?
Then three hours reading in Starbucks, then home to bed, and sometime between then and now, another experience, for which only the chemoelectric activity upstairs can take credit. I dreamed of a little girl, the daughter of friends,  8 or 9, and (with her parents’ permission, even in the dream) we were hanging out here and there in interesting places in New York. Along the way, she had her first sip of wine and enjoyed it, met a boy a year or two older and snuggled up, first childishly then with a hint of what was to come, then she’d had enough and we two headed home to the familiar, less exciting, but safe. In the dream, I was so happy to watch and talk with her. It wasn’t, upon reflection, Freudian pleasure, inherent caveman drive for raw experience. It was simple, suffusive happiness, content, the feeling of being ungodly fortunate to witness and be in some tiny facilitating way a participant in her joy.
When I woke, I thought: Now where is that in the brain? I can easily imagine bits and pieces of memory semirandomly wandering tracts of white matter leaving traces of vague narrative, but that’s just narrative. How does some other part of the brain hear the story (feel the story!) and feel plain good about the story, when there’s nothing but chemoelectric activity upstairs to take credit?
Unless there is, ut oh, a soul.

What it takes

A few days back, as I have noted, my having no more to do than memorize a list of discredited psychological theories, settle late-payment-charged bills and bone up on media violence, it seemed a good time to upgrade Donkey School’s iGoogle. How happy a boy was I (as you can see below) to discover that avoidance shame in the blogosphere is now as easy as placing a text-box gadget anywhere on your home page and letting it sit there, gaping, disappointed in you.

Still, as I say, that was days ago.  Unending access to shame was not enough to make me write.  But advanced telecommunications is a sidestreet whose seductions lie behind every shadow. 
Take Facebook.  I don’t think my story is unusual, not for someone who entered this world between the boomers and Generation X and is thereby old enough to remember both clichés.  I mean, it did take a while but I signed up.  I don’t think my story’s unusual: fun at first until someone shows up, not a person you’ve disliked, nor anyone you’d fallen out of touch with and regretfully forgotten that you missed: just somebody, and you wonder what on Earth you were thinking when you tossed your name into the index to tickle other people’s recollection.
Here’s my own recollection:  We were friends (without quotation marks) from Hebrew school, quite literally in short pants, at his 4th or 5th birthday party at the Townhouse on the Green, a restaurant my mother must have let on was pretty slick for a 4th or 5th birthday party, even goyish.  But then my friend’s mother was known to buy his underpants at Saks. (Mine came from Mr. Hank’s, a nostalgically musty dry goods bin on the gritty end of Speedwell Avenue near the other shul.) How my mother knew where Mrs. A. bought R.’s gottkes is a question whose answer, like so many others, to my own alas un-eternal regret, has gone to the grave.
As, apparently, have Stanley and Pearl Schlossman.
I hadn’t thought of R. in thirty years before he decided to renew our friendship through Facebook. It was a small gesture to accept; it would have been petty to decline. And anyway that was that, as Facebook goes so often for so many, ’til just now.
R. wrote on J.’s wall today to ask how well she’d known Stanley and Pearl Schlossman. Facebook’s News Feed made me eavesdrop.   And some circuit in my brain reflexively, spontaneously answered, like a sour note in a recent Philip Roth book.
Sour and sweet: Stanley Schlossman, the dentist. Not ours: That was C. Kermit Botkin, of blessed memory too. (What names the Jews had in New Jersey!)
Stanley Schlossman in the basement social hall of Temple B’nai Or (when last I drove by, it was an office building; the Reagan-era crackpot economist Jude Wanniski, a tenant) late one Friday night, the last notes of my father’s booming aleinu long faded, Rabbi Levy having long since glad-handed every congregant, young and old.   I mean, late: all the richly sugared lemon tea drained from the paper cup in the little hand the Rabbi so recently, so generously shook. As is my custom, I slip my other little hand into the cup, fish out the lovely browned lemon slice and raise it to my teeth for that last marvelous warm fruity squirt.
They were the only words I ever recall hearing from Stanley Schlossman, the dentist, and I can’t say I even recall them, just my surprise (my chagrin, my own parents’ irresponsible child-rearing betrayed, the irrefutable fact).  They were something like, “What on Earth are you doing? Do you know what that does to your teeth?”
This is what it takes to return me to blogging.

The e-mail I just sent

Dear Mr. President:

A year ago I woke up mornings insanely early to stand in the cold outside subway stations on Broadway and encourage the citizens of Clinton country to vote for the man with the funny name and the ability to bring us together, a man I’d heard speak a year and a half before at the Take Back America conference, a man who–I knew then–could.  I can barely believe tonight has come.  Congratulations to you and to us all.

Over this year, I have learned so much more about you, as you have learned about this nation.  I am infinitely proud to belong to a people that’s chosen you as its leader.  I thank you for your hard work, for the application of your talents, and for your persistence.  And I only wish you weren’t so good a writer too, because it just isn’t fair.

Russell Miller

See, if you take away the apostrophe but leave the “s”…

A friend who teaches teachers how to teach reading comprehension taught me a terrific expression: “inconsiderate text.”  Doesn’t that just nail a particular kind of bad writing?  You know, the kind of bad writing in yesterday’s post?

Well, not exactly. That text didn’t write itself.

See, I got up yesterday morning and read this self-satisfied article about leaving out apostrophes.  Now I happen to love apostrophes, also commas, semi-colons, quotation marks (known in England as “inverted commas”), colons, em-dashes–nearly every kind of punctuation except the exclamation point.  I don’t like exclamation points.  I use ’em, but I don’t like ’em. The words are supposed make the point.

Yesterday’s didn’t: his or mine.  My general impression was that he, John Kelly at the WaPo, was making light of apostrophes.

Maybe he wasn’t.  Maybe he was staring down a deadline, saw something blandly provocative, didn’t quite know what to say, and took the easy route: superior and derisive without commitment.

My thoughts, on the other hand, were both furious and clear: “Apostrophes are critical. They’re the difference between being possessed and being multiple (hence the title of this post).  Great balls of fire, man!  These are the details that makes civil discourse possible!”

Start to type, then there’s an eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in my memory.  Then, boom, there it is online, all fat words and convoluted syntax.  Obscure.  Inconsiderate.

And here I’ve done it again, when I could’ve just said: Sorry.

Metastasis of the Plural

This morning’s Washington Post carries one of those local-news bits that make you wonder why columnists get paid.  It’s wry, confident, and breezy in the style that’s dominated feature journalism since Norman Mailer forgot he was a novelist, a style quite naturally embraced by writers whose glasses were frequently snapped by bullies in 5th grade.  As so often in matters determined to be of “human interest,” the piece has no discernible news hook. This establishes the writer as a thinker of high order, because who else at the Washington Post has time to address the small corruptions that nibble at the rustproof-undercoat of life as we know it–in this case, the decline of the apostrophe.

The writer, one John Kelly, conveys both sourcing and sophistication with a deft appositive: “when I rang him up the other day.”   All together, the clause signals diligence; the verb phrase telegraphs that “him” hails from Britain: the founder of an Apostrophe Protection Society, which might’ve been a hook had it not been organized eight years ago. 

Kelly is an editorial dualist.  As if to let us know he knows all stories have two sides, he denotatively fakes friendship, yet stakes out connotative distance, by calling his informant, one John Richards, “John.”   As is journalistic custom, he not only quotes his own questions but conveys their perspicacity by–in his case alone, not in his sources’–eschewing what John Richards might call inverted commas.  So he’s smart.  He brooks no bullshit.  He’s on our side.

I used to work that scam. But somewhere along the line I got thinking that things matter.  Details matter. Intentions matter, but so does execution, so do words. Common courtesy matters, not only in respect for your sources but also, if not especially, in the commonest instruments of communication; and irony is a scalpel (my dermatologist pronounces it “scalPEL”) best kept under lock and key, lest its wee sharp blade graze a Guernica or a Wheatfield With Crows of the heart and rip–for example, in a graphic convention that’s written language’s equivalent of not talking with your mouth full–a wee but unstitchable slit, an insult tiny and potent as an apostrophe.

First day at Donkey School

The other day, a friend reminded me of a conversation I still can’t remember.  My late mother, who as far as I recall never successfully told a joke, once in indirect comment on something I’d said, asked, “Why don’t they send donkeys to school?”  Answer: Nobody likes a wiseass.

All right–I begin in jubilation: We have a president who f*cks up, then gets it right, cleans up his mess, doesn’t stonewall. Incredible.  The last one couldn’t think of a single mistake he’d made (though he “regretted” that they never found any WMDs; so do thousands of grieving mothers).

So Obama’s on the right path, but we’re going to have to be patient: The stable is Augean.  I mean, Tom Daschle?  Jeez, does no one in that town have a decent tax accountant?

Up pipes ol’ tone-deaf John Kerry with some marble-mouthed crap about how, on balance, years of public service mean more than a six-figure tax dodge.  Real clever way to teach folks that taxes aren’t just some government grab, but the way we all pay for the things we all share.  

There’s no ethical line between “professional” and personal. Woody Guthrie got it (at least apocryphally).  Story goes, he shows up for a gig, asks as usual for his check.  Promoter says, “But Woody, this is for a good cause.”  “I don’t play for bad causes,” says Woody.  I bet he got his estimated taxes in on time, too.

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