01 October 2015

Of Foxes and Holes

Some things are accomplished and enjoyed with the participation of two people: immediately I think,  of the act of sex. I remember something Woody Allen remarked: that sex between two people was an beautiful thing, and between three it is even better. Now, of course, a person alone can engage in sexual activity quite pleasurably—the pleasures of masturbation are not unknown, but male adolescents at least might participate in communal sessions of masturbatory activity called ‘circle-jerks,’ in which speed or volume (I don’t know exactly which) becomes the measure of success. (I remember once in high school a weight lifter friend entered a remarkably immature conversation about ejaculations and when asked how much he could pump blithely and rather proudly admitted without understanding the context of the question “150 pounds.” I think he became a sex therapist, in fact! I do not know the female activity to parallel the circle-jerk, but perhaps at some point someone will offer me insight. Nevertheless, though masturbation is often understood as a solitary affair, it often becomes an essential part of couple sex.
            There are other activities at which the presence of two (or more) is best enjoyed. Let me name just a few: outings, dates, movie/theater and concert goings, coffee in the ubiquitous coffee houses, visits to family, perhaps; dinners (at which as I age there are many more couples than singles); even religious events, such as prayer. For Jews the requisite number is considered ten. But at all of these events (and many more), two is nice but single is acceptable. At all of these events (and more) couples, families and singles are in attendance.          But I am thinking that there is one activity that indeed, requires complete solitude and results in some pleasure: farting in bed. Freud has said somewhere that a fox smells its own hole first, but in bed everybody can—and does-- smell what is in the hole. I think Freud also said somewhere (I am reaching here through any number of years) that we can accept (and even somewhat enjoy) the smell of our own feces but are vigorously averse to the ordure of others. Yes, we change our children’s diapers during their earliest years, though in the first years of breast feedings and liquid diets there is little or no aroma, but with the introduction of solid foods, defecations takes on a decidedly disagreeable aroma. I think here of parents grimacing after sniffing the rear ends of their loved ones and realizing the necessity for a change of diapers. Or the parents who manage to politely negotiate with each other the relatively onerous chore this time. The winner sits triumphant, continuing to enjoy the activity in which the two had been once together comfortably engaged.
            But the pleasure of farting in bed can only be accomplished alone. Were anybody present to bear witness they would frown, express disgust and contempt, and certainly be averse to any engagement in sexual activity. But I think we fart in bed knowing the consequences, and prepared to not only accept but to find some pleasure in them as well. I wonder if farting in bed returns us to the childhood experience of feeling free to go to the bathroom anywhere and be assured that all we well. Or does farting in bed assert a certain freedom to be your unencumbered self. Farting in bed with another present serves, I think, as an act of aggression, but farting in bed alone hurts no one. Maybe farting in bed marks the hole as your own!

17 September 2015


I didn’t watch the Republican debate last evening. The previous night I didn’t watch the Viking football game. The spectacle was the same: grown ups crashing into each other, air pumping a superb tackle, crowd cheering an end run toward the goal post, and a great deal of grunting. As it happens (or as Bokonon says, as it was meant to happen), the Affordable Care Act, as imperfect as it might be, has allowed millions more to acquire a health plan not quite as generous as that enjoyed by the contenders on stage last night; the economy recovers from the unregulated conditions that obscenely enriched the already wealthy while at the same time robbed cruelly from the poor; and same sex marriage became the law of the land over the protests of too many of the candidates on stage at the Reagan Library. I hold them all in contempt.
            And then I read the following during my study this morning in Soren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony. I thought of our modern times and I was comforted: “Our age,” Kierkegaard writes, “demands more [than a stance in irony]; it demands, if not lofty pathos then at least loud pathos, if not speculation then at least conclusions, if not truth then at least persuasion, if not integrity then at least protestations of integrity, if not feeling then at least verbosity of feelings . . . [our age] will not allow the mouth to be defiantly compressed or the upper lip to quiver mischievously; it demands that the mouth be open for how, indeed, could one imagine a true and genuine patriot who is not delivering speeches; how could one visualize a profound thinker’s dogmatic face without a mouth able to swallow the whole world; how could one picture a virtuoso on the cornucopia of the living word without a gaping mouth?”  And I thought, what could better describe the tenor and direction of last night’s exhibition? Discussion of issues? Honest debate? Presentation and elaboration of ideas? Appeal to the intellect and concern of the voters? Ha! As I read about the debate in the newspaper this morning (because, as I have, said I will not spend my time on such vain and senseless display; and even so I waste my energies), the event seems all blustery storm even before the advent of winter, though the blast coming from the stage was wintry enough. Either everything said last evening was ironic and in the words there was silence, or no irony existed at all in the debate and the words were dung-filled.  My response to all of this derives again from Kierkegaard. He writes, “When it comes to silly, inflated, know-it-all knowledge, it is ironically proper to go along, to be enraptured by all this wisdom to spur it on with jubilating applause to ever greater lunacy, although the ironist is aware that the whole thing underneath is empty and void of substance.” And so for me it is on to the next debate with ironic anticipation and little hope.

03 September 2015

I wear the cuffs of my trousers rolled

I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear the cuffs of my trousers rolled.
          I am sitting in a coffee house doing some work—trying to do some work—and I am observing two young women (late 20s I might surmise) who have met for lunch. Both arrived with their infant children in the ubiquitous carriers that double as car seats. Before the arrival of her friend, the first woman held her child in her lap while she drank her hot latte. I could only envision some accidental move where the cup would empty out onto the infant. I wanted to say something! And having finished her latte she began to eat her sandwich—a fancy egg concoction still with the child on her lap. The melted cheese within her sandwich strung out above the child’s uncovered head. I wanted to say something. Then, having finished her meal she picked the cradled the child in her arms and rocked the child with such vigor that the child’s head tossed with some violence. Of course it was an act of love but it was too hard a love, I think. I have rad enough about damage to the brain of an infant who is shaken, and this child was certainly being shaken. And the other woman who, too, held her child on her shoulder bounced him too with too much energy and the child’s head bounced about somewhat out of control.
          I wonder what infant children experience? I looked into the faces of both as they seemed subjected to a form of what I thought a mild violence and they appeared to me desperate. I suppose it was the panic panic I felt that I imposed on them, but I considered how out of control an infant might sometimes feel being picked up and set down whenever the adult so inclines. And I wonder how that experience of absolute powerlessness will later translate into behavior. Because I can’t imagine it will not have effect later on some unconscious processes.

          And then I also wondered because I also observed: parents are always kissing their infant children’s heads. Are the children aware of this affection? What effect on a child is this show of affection that seems near constant? And what is the effect on a child who does not receive such attention?

28 August 2015

No ouch!

Well, I went ahead and ripped the bandage off—I pulled myself off of Facebook. I have had enough of peering into the exciting, happy lives of every one else. I might say that over the years that I have kept a Facebook page only twice did I learn something that actually affected me, and both times I probably might have found the news out anyway: I did not need Facebook to become informed. If the claim is made that Facebook has made the world smaller, I would respond that for me Facebook has made the world too large. On the one hand I get posts from people who I do not even know. Some time in some past I must have either added them as friends (of which I might have been in need) or they are friends of my friends and somehow their posts end up on my page. There are too many people. On the other hand, the posts from people I might appreciate hearing from either will not ‘friend’ me—my daughters, for example—or refuse to have a Facebook page in the first place. The people I would see are too far away.
          Of course, the people who won’t friend me (thank goodness I mostly say) nevertheless remain in constant contact via text messaging or less often, phone calls. The former seems to be the preferred mode of communication, though how one engages in serious conversation about complex issues poking about on that tiny screen with my thumbs baffles me. The space allows for mostly a full sentence or two, but sometimes I like to extend my talk. Thoreau says that sometimes he must place the chairs on opposite side of the room to allow space for the discourse to roll out, but the little space for text messages on my phone tends to roll me up.
          I am separating from social media and it feels like I am entering a monastery (even more isolating since I am Jewish) where silence is the order. I am anxious (in its several meanings) to see how the silence affects me.
          But I am also preparing to re-enter the classroom. Meetings (argghh!!) begin this week and classes the next. It will be a very slow start because the Jewish Holidays happen to fall on just those days that I teach. This new year seems the most appropriate time to remove myself from Facebook. The classroom and its inevitable connections is for me a preferable way to communicate, and of those who are farther away . . . well, we have always found a way.
          I look forward to the structure the classroom provides me. Not a terribly disciplined person, or at least at this moment without a discipline to direct me, I anticipate having somewhere else to go, a phrase I learned from a dear friend who has no Facebook page. The classroom offers me community, purpose and an environment in which to consider the issues that have long concerned me both professionally and personally. When I enter the classroom I feel at home.

18 August 2015

Moral Equivalents

In Judah Halevi’s The Kuzari,  the King of the Khazars questions the Rabbi regarding the Jewish faith. The King is particularly curious about the Karaites, a sect of Jews who hold to a single interpretation of Torah. The Karaites believed that Tanakh (the Torah:Ta; the Prophets-naviim; and the Writings-ketuvim) was the authoritative text and that the entire Oral Torah—the Mishnah and the Talmud--on which Rabbinic Judaism was based was irrelevant since not the direct words of God or God’s immediate representatives. The Rabbi tells the King of the Khazars, “The Karaites possess a book which contains a fixed tradition on one of the subject just mentioned, and which allows no differences on readings, vowel signs, accents, or lawful or unlawful matters, or decisions” (168). The King admits to knowing nothing about this sect but adds, “I see, nevertheless, that they are very zealous.” I think by zealous the King refers to the Karaites single-minded devotion to a directed (and dictated) way of life.
            But the Rabbi refutes this attribution of zealousness and therefore, the devotion of the Karaites. He says that those who “speculate on the ways of glorifying God for the purpose of His worship, are much more zealous than those who practice the service of God exactly as it is commanded. For the Rabbi, the Karaites have accepted the easier path to worship for they merely follow orders, as it were—though of course, those orders—literal as they might seem, still require interpretation. Written language always requires a speaker. But for the Karaites there remains only a single voice of authority and therefore, I suppose, a single text of authority. For the Rabbis, the text is always open to interpretation and that is a human enterprise.
            And then Halevi’s Rabbi makes an interesting analogy: he says that the Karites are like those who live in a town where they are safe and without opposition, whereas the others are like stragglers in the desert, who are not certain what might occur in the future. In the desert one is fully exposed and vulnerable. Using images of battle the Rabbi says that such stragglers “must provide [themselves] with arms and prepare for battle like one expert in warfare.” And those arms and battle preparations represent the intellectual equipment for textual interpretation based as those tools must be on an overriding ethic to care for the widow the orphan and the stranger in our midst, for once we were strangers in Egypt and God took out the Israelites with signs and an outstretched arm. But the imagery of battle recalled to me William James talk on “The Moral Equivalent of War.”
            In that talk James advocated for a national conscription that would enlist young citizens in a ‘war’ against Nature: against the forces natural and unnatural that breed the hardships, inequalities and injustice that beset the world. This conscription would offer the country numerous other benefits: make visible the imbalances and injustices to which the luxurious classes now are blind and/or indifferent; provide insight into man's relations to the globe he lives on; and to the infinitely available and hard-wrung source of man’s higher life. “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly . . .” This conscription, an early form of VISTA and Americorps, would prepare our youth for a life of service and not of selfishness, of community rather than self-centeredness, of concern for the social good rather than the private gain. James avers that  “As the soldier is disciplined and trained for some albeit public good, so would the citizen be so trained. Such a conscription, with the state of public opinion that would have required it, and the many moral fruits it would bear, would preserve in the midst of a pacific civilization the manly virtues which the military party is so afraid of seeing disappear in peace. We should get toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible, and painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary, and threatens not, as now, to degrade the whole remainder of one's life.” Despite the sexism implicit in James’ charge, his call for a moral equivalent to war insists that this emphasis would produce better teachers and even fathers and mothers.
            Well, it might be a far stretch, but for both the Rabbi and for James (as well as for John Lennon), life doesn’t come easy, and requires strength, endurance and training to achieve some haven in the wilderness. For the Rabbis of the Talmud, the promised land was the realization of the foundational ethic, and struggling with the text was the means by which to travel and from which to seek arrival. James knew that it was the teacher who could provide the tools and means that would provide direction and succor to achieve the higher life.  “ . . . the mind of him whose fields of consciousness are complex, and who, with the reasons for the action, sees the reasons against it, and yet, instead of being palsied, acts in the way that takes the whole field into consideration--, so, I say is such a mind the ideal sort of mind that should seek to reproduce in our pupils.” Halevi’s Rabbi claimed that the stragglers in the wilderness must in their wanderings “look for a fortress where they can entrench themselves.” And I think that what is important in Halevi’s sentence is the verb “to look.” These stragglers must be constantly in search of a place of comfort though they are never assured of finding one nor, indeed, of it being a permanent refuge. Indeed, finally these wanderers must construct their own refuge; they are, after all, in the wilderness. The Karaites, however, “lie down on their couches in a place well fortified of old.”
            I think interpretation is this march through the wilderness. We must find our own way but with tools and means with which to direct and ease our paths.