Monday, February 27, 2006

where Mad magazine led me

As for so many of us who did not encounter them in our native habitat, my first exposure to Jews was in the early '60s through Mad magazine. All these nutty, fun-to-say words--ferbissiner, schlep, schmuck, chutzpah--where did they come from? They were Yiddish. The Mad magazine people, the "usual gang of idiots", were Jews, from New York. They were funny in a new way--subversive, outrageous, ridiculous. Poking fun at everything, including themselves.

What a relief to discover that there were other wisenheimers out there. I was not alone. The Three Stooges, another seminal influence on my early worldview were Jewish too, but I didn't realize that till years later.

At St. Newt's Prep we learned more about the Jews including actually meeting some, and watching movies like Night and Fog, about the Holocaust.

I went to Europe in 1975. In Berlin I worked for a month as a volunteer at the Sankt Gertrauden Krankenhaus in Wilmersdorf, a giant state-run nursing home. Many of the patients had been soldiers in WWII--real Nazis. Our job was to feed them, give them their schnapps and their pills, and just provide a bit of humanity. My Mad magazine Yiddish didn't get far but a few knew some English or French. Our primary task was to give them baths. Many were missing arms or more commonly legs. A few didn't want to be given a bath but it had to be done so some wrestling was involved. They were tough codgers and some were pretty big. I picked up a little German to add to my Mad Yiddish.

I spent December in Egypt, visiting friends I had met working in Holland. Then I flew from Cairo to Amman and spent a week in Jordan. I crossed the Allenby bridge and went into Israel where I spent ninety days. I worked for most of that time in Eilat, first for Israelis at the power station, then after being fired, for two Arab brothers who used day laborers to help provision ships docked or anchored at the port. The Israelis were by and large arrogant, abrupt, quarrelsome. They ridiculed and harassed the local Bedouin and had no interest in we few westerners whom they termed "beatnikim", and regarded as dabblers in adventure whereas they were true macho guys and lived the real thing. I took solace in the notion that for all their bluster their country would collapse in a month without massive subsidy from my country. The Arab brothers on the other hand though rough were honest and funny and I got along well with them.

Returning to Jordan over the same bridge on Easter Sunday of '76 I met Peter Jennings in the bus and talked to him. He was returning from a report from the West Bank and was with a blonde woman and a cameraman. Debonair! He spoke Arabic to the border guards. I continued my trip passing through Syria and Turkey. I noted again and again the cordiality of every other group of people in the region, in contrast to the rudeness of the Israelis. Old world manners versus frontier society gruffness. I made a distinction between Jews and Israelis, and developed a prejudice against the latter as a result of my experience with them, that took some time to overcome.

Back in Germany in '76 I worked for five months in Bavaria in the kitchen of a US armed forces recreation center on Lake Chiemsee between Munich and Salzburg. It had been used by the German army in WWII. The baker had worked there since the war. He showed us pictures of Nazis standing out back next to the dock, including him. Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" was just down the road in Berchtesgaden.

One day I visited nearby Dachau.

I saved most of my wages and in the fall travelled through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on the way to Australia. As an American I was popular in Iran. Everybody wanted to be my friend. I had an opportunity to remain there and teach, but declined. Three years later in '79 the revolution came. I was living in Japan and watched the Iranians on TV with their "Death to America" placards and later with American hostages and thought but surely, this cannot be! Didn't you want to be my pal, not so long ago? I realize you must engage in theatre, to say anything the tyrant of the day commands you to say, in order to survive. I understand. But don't expect me to take the sincerity of your outrage seriously, next time.

Over time my anti-Israeli sentiment faded. I appreciated their disinterest in religion, and came to terms with their brusque, unpleasant persona since it is after all a reaction to the docile public demeanor of their European ancestors, which contributed to their demise. The Nazis exploited the old-world manners of the European Jews. Their tendency to be polite and go along, in an effort to fit in to these cultures that barely tolerated them anyway, rather than make a tsimis, led them right into the trains. Thus, never again. Before it was "Don't make trouble!" Now it's "Don't fuck with the Jews". Better to be feared than liked, was the lesson. Fair enough.

And I've come to be wary of superficial friendliness. "Come join me for tea, my very dear friend!" is to be taken as seriously as "You have delivered a grave insult to my religion!" The friendliness and the anger are both ostentatious, theatrical. As if to say look, see how friendly I am! And look, see how angry you have made me! Such talk is designed to obscure the true, underlying motivations. But you can get too suspicious too. Much cordiality is genuine. But when is it genuine, and when is it not? It's hard for the dinky shallow Westerner to tell and you risk offense of course, by guessing wrong.

So maybe you put up with the rude jerks if they make their intentions clear at least. And maybe you put up with the sweet talkers without ever quite relaxing around them. Such prejudices and irritations swirl and simmer and reformulate themselves around the most recent outrage emanating from the region. Who do you trust today? Sift through the layers of history and intrigue again each time. Americans have no natural feeling for these layers that everyone in the Middle East carries in their bones. Bush the typical dumbass New-World simpleton only gets history as far back as cowboy movies. Yer with me or agin me. You're for democracy as defined by me, or you're with the terrorists.

And many in the Middle East who know better choose to ignore the complexity and seek to stir up the rabble for the venal and irreligious goal of remaining in power. To distract the populace from their miserable lot, claim your authority is divinely inspired, and blame an external agent for your shortcomings. The Jews! Though dishonest, it's too convenient a formula to give up. Religion is the opiate of the people, and anti-Semitism is the crack cocaine of prejudices. The addiction to it is completely reliable. Feh.


Saturday, February 25, 2006

official business

Twice last week I received documents via the post, containing, ma foi, official business! Obviously of greater importance than ordinary, unofficial business, I made haste with the letter opener, only to discover that these were alas only missives (one a "public notice", the other a mere "notice" so, presumably not public) from "Suzuki of Lynnway", and Pride Hyundai, also on the Lynnway, urging me to hie myself thither and avail myself of two "three day only" events. The public notice was for a "special market test program". The regular notice was for a once in a lifetime event.

One piece of official business emanated from the "Regional Disbursement Center", whereas the other came from the "Regional Notification Center". Both Centers have a Dept. of Communications, in an Electronic Mail Section. I wonder if they are at risk of consolidation? I'd be worried, it seems like a bit of overlap.

Though from the Electronic Mail Section, the papery feel of the documents indicated to me that these were not "email" in the usual sense. I wonder who handles their electronic mail--the Paper Mail Section?

The information for the Postmaster, if the Postmaster concerns himself with the delivery of presorted bulk mail, is surely helpful. Regulation F010, Section 4.1, remarkably, exists, as does the "official DMM" which is the Domestic Mail Manual. This information provides the Postmaster with the information he needs to conduct the research necessary to direct the letter-carrier, if the document is undeliverable as addressed, to throw it in the trash.

I am especially fond of "Attention Recipient. Deliver directly to addressee". No funny business. Don't put the notice in your pants and caper about. Don't hide it behind your back and ask, which hand! No sir, you must deliver it directly to the addressee.

And as if the recipient and the addressee were two different people! In fact I, as "United States Postal Customer" (Pride Hyundai) and "Resident" (Suzuki of Lynnway), was both the recipient and the addressee! I therefore amused myself at their expense, by passing the documents from one hand directly to the other, and back again! Ha, the joke is on them!

And I think you would agree that threatening the recipient with punishment for obstructing the mail is quite unnecessary and in fact casts a pall over the entire official business. The Electronic Mail Section must not think much of us recipients. Or perhaps it lacks self-confidence and blusters like a bully to cover a fragile ego. Relax I say! I, the recipient, have no intention of obstructing the U.S. Mail. In fact since I, the recipient, have received this document, which perforce I have since I am reading the warning which is addressed to me, I cannot obstruct its delivery to me because it is, at the point I have reached, a metaphysical impossibility.

Oh Electronic Mail Section, free yourself from your suspicion and bitterness! We, the recipients, and the addressees too, await you, arms wide, ready to embrace, to forgive, to love.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Who are we to judge?

Visiting David and Ahmed in Montreal in January, the issue came up of a rather disturbing quasi medical/religious practice, metzitzah b'peh, done commonly in New York as part of the tradition of some nutty religion. Ah but who am I to say--what right do I have to judge! (Check for yourself.)

Thus David who is an AIDS-and-human-rights consultant lent me this book. Though not a subject of interest to the general reader I suppose, Ruth Macklin's writing is unusually clear for an academic. Most anthropology and sociology writing is impenetrable, full of jargon and bloat.

Macklin presents a variety of problems facing human rights workers worldwide. Generally they demonstrate the conflict between the wish to provide "universal" human rights to persons within cultures in which those rights conflict with traditional practice. A common argument against the application of a universal human right that conflicts with local tradition is that it is ethical imperialism--that you (ie the Westerner) have no right to impose your values on our culture--there is no "better" or "worse" set of values, only yours, and ours. You do not have the right to criticize the practices of a culture, from outside that culture. Thus do many customs considered abhorrent by the "west" find justification in this "relativist" rationale.

You can go back and forth on this issue. On the one hand it is useful to be reminded that you are after all a product of your own culture and so cannot think much outside the limits of its assumptions. Much as we think we are independent thinkers, we are not "neutral". Mostly we are merely reflections of the common values of the society in which we happen to live. Just like everybody in other societies.

On the other hand if you refrain from criticizing the practices of other cultures because of this relativism, well there goes any notion of universal human rights. They keep slaves in Mauritania, to this day? Well that's their right. Families in China kill baby girls because boys are worth more? Well, who are we to judge!

So Macklin dives in, and tackles issues like female genital mutilation (keeps the women from being promiscuous!) , informed consent or not, for medical decisions, the definition of death, organ transplantation, the reproductive rights of women, and the rights of individual women vs the rights of their families. Macklin describes each case then picks her way through it, to arrive at a well-argued conclusion.

Now I have an idea what a "bioethicist" does. Since reading the book I have mentioned a couple of the dilemmas described, and am surprised to see how quickly people propose an answer to the thorniest of problems.

For example, anthropologists are trained to observe the culture they study, but not to interfere, so as to avoid potential damage to the culture and to their own research. Feminists have an obligation to help other women. What should a anthropologist who considers herself a feminist do when confronted with a situation in which a woman is being abused, and asks for help?

What can be considered "abuse" from outside the culture is considered normal behavior (eg, wife-beating is common Kenya), inside the culture. Is abuse a universal concept, or relative to the culture in which it occurs?

Asian regimes charge that western notions of human rights have no place in their countries because of the notion of "Asian values", in which the common good supposedly transcends individual rights. But Macklin says "...we should not fall prey to the threat posed by "Asian values" to the universality of human rights because the arguments in favor of that perspective are flawed and self-serving tools of leaders seeking to maintain their power by preserving the status quo."

A western-trained doctor who has an obligation to explain the risks of surgery so that a patient may make informed consent, confronts a Navajo who will simply reject the surgery if he hears about the risk, due to the Navajo cultural prohibition against talking about things "in a negative way". What should the doctor do?

A Laotian woman brings her baby to a western doctor, who notices burns on the baby's abdomen. It turns out the mother has burned the baby in an effort to cure a folk disease, by passing a burning reed dipped in hot fat over the skin. If the skin blisters then the baby will recover. If not the baby needs to be seen by a shaman who must perform a spiritual ceremony. In this case the burns numbered five, but as many as eleven burns may be needed. Is the mother abusing the baby? She means well. Who are we to judge?

The book is full of such puzzles.

Monday, February 13, 2006

winter diving

Diving on New Year's Day with the "Dive Society", at White's Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea near Gloucestor.

Water temp was 41F, air a relatively balmy 27F. Four of the eight of us wore wetsuits, four dry. Wetsuit is okay for one dive--you may be cold when you're done but so what, you're done anyway. That is me 2nd from left.

They go out every Sunday starting January, in winter. I went again on Jan 8, but not since then. Wearing wet gloves I was fine on Jan 1, but hands were very cold on Jan 8. Don't know why. I do have "dry gloves" which attach to the dry suit and are warm. Next time. Fussing with all the gear in the cold before and after, and cleaning the gear at home later, is a lot of overhead for a small amount of fun. After the Jan 1 dive we had a cookout on the beach, and had a big gas burner to stand around while drinking beer and coffee, and eating hot dogs and cake--it was Don the dive leader's birthday. That was fun.

Visibility was for shit but that doesn't matter much because there isn't much to see in winter anyway. The fish are in Boca Raton playing canasta and the lobsters are out deeper. The dive leaders are always upbeat and emerge saying things like, "Have you ever seen so many flanged nudibranches!"

Lots of people get scuba certified locally but only dive in the Caribbean, because the viz there is fantastic, the variety of sealife is amazing, the diving itself is easy. The water is warm and clear so you don't need bulky suits to stay warm, or much weight to get you to sink.

Local divers joke that Caribbean diving doesn't build character. If being scared out of your fucking mind counts then I must have developed plenty of character because I have experienced panic twice and near-panic once by now. I suppose there is something to it. In Bonaire last year though diving four times a day, the word "insipid" crept in. Too much beauty, too much fabulousness? Do I prefer being cold and frightened?

I like diving locally because once you've made the initial investment of $23 million, it's cheap. Unless you go on a boat. I don't care if the viz is more than 10' because usually I'm close to the bottom looking at stuff nearby anyway. I can't bring myself to give a shit about nudibranches, and have no interest in photography which is a specialty the shops push as a means of selling you more gear. Everybody takes the same pictures below so I can just get copies.

I do it mostly because I like the sensation of floating in the silence, listening to my own breathing, and trying to maintain neutral buoyancy. Just being a neutral breathing unit, only kicking enough to move along, feels like a step back along the chain of evolution, to a more contented state of being, mindless yet still aware.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

wakey wakey

Insomnia's diurnal twin is narcolepsy. Whatever sleep I lose at night, there's a corresponding time during the day when my body expresses a strong wish to make up the deficit, and I can konk out in a matter of seconds. Once I nearly fell asleep on my motorcycle on Rte 128, driving home from work in the evening rush hour. I've since sold the bike. I have gotten sleepy scuba diving too.

Falling asleep during the day is distinctly different from nighttime sleep. The sleepiness manifests as a feeling of luscious warmth in the area between the shoulder blades and up the back of the neck, as if the upper spine had turned into warm syrup. It's a luxurious irresistable sensation and the surrendering to it is delicious, unlike any I experience in bed while trying to officially sleep for the night.

Insomnia is an eye-of-the-camel problem. You can only overcome it by not thinking about it. At night while insomniated I read books so boring that they can send me to sleep in less than a minute if I look at them during the day. Insomnia vs boring reading material is a clash of the consciousness titans. Dostoyevsky, Enterprise JavaBeans--no topic is boring enough to defeat insomnia.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

mind control--I wish!

Daniel Dennett from Tufts has a new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He's making the book tour rounds and appeared on WBUR's On Point interviewed by Tom Ashbrook, and on interviewed by Robert Wright. Ashbrook the "interrupting chicken" was completely unable to slow himself down long enough to get any depth out of Dennett. Ashbrook is so jacked up by his time constraints he keeps one eye on the clock no matter what the subject, yet still manages to yammer on:

"Our time here is short! Daniel Dennett take us on a tour if you will, of your sense of what it means to be Dennett in the here and now. Give us the gist, the flavor, the back and forth, the trip into the provocative new journey of ideas that is Breaking the Spell. Very briefly please! Right after this break!"
Wright on the other hand can take his time and actually knows something, so does better. In Wright's interview, in the topic of consciousness, from about minute 2 to 4, Wright and Dennett really get somewhere.

Dennett says that consciousness is merely "fame in the brain"--an ongoing political battle among "contentful events" vying for control. The event that wins at any given moment is what you are conscious of and that, simply, is what consciousness is. It's not that the winning contentful event in turn kindles some further thing that is consciousness.

This deromanticizes consciousness, which is fine by me. And it matches my prosaic perception of my own consciousness. And therefore must be right! No, I do not claim that because I feel or think a certain way, that it is therefore the case. I do not believe I can influence my health by thinking positive thoughts. I think my thoughts do not matter and that they affect nothing. I think nearly all of my thoughts are trite and fleeting, and are only the result of excess processing power of the frontal lobes. I am Homer Simpson, distracted by butterflies.

Sometimes I walk through Lynn Woods alone, along various routes which take a little more than an hour. Recently along one route I found my mind cranking through one "contentful event" of recent years. Events in the past are stored in the brain as narratives burned into the synapses. Once begun memories of the event invoke the same predictable tedious rationalizations and emotional reactions, in the same predictable sequence. Then after a few minutes, it was on to the next contentful event. Which seemed familiar in turn, at a particular fork in the road.

To my dismay, I realized that not only do contentful events replay themselves with remarkable internal consistency, but that when I go on this walk, they occur at the same point in the walk! At minute 17 of the walk, my thoughts are x1, and so my mood is x2. At minute 26, my thoughts are y1, so my mood is y2. And that whenever we engage in an activity that occupies the body but leaves the mind free to churn, the mind is apt to replay its little collection of anecdotes, in the same sequence, again and again.

Do we have any control over this? Can we direct our own minds, for more than a few moments? Can we "not think" some given contentful event, and think about something else instead, by means of the exertion of will? Grrr, I'm not going to... No. You cannot exert conscious control of your own mind for more than brief moments. It runs on autopilot, not under the control of "you". Off it goes at first chance, either to its habitual list if unoccupied, or to the unselfconscious task of solving whatever procedural chore is at hand otherwise.

Recently I met a guy who had been laid off, who said, "I can be sad about what has happened, or I can think of it as an opportunity to explore new ideas." I thought, that's bullshit. You can't choose how you think or feel about things. You do not have that level of control, because there is no place for "you" to stand outside your thoughts and emotions, to exert control over them, because consciousness isn't a separate place beyond them.

What you can do is practice self-delusion. In which if successful is to be found solace. And you can practice vigilance in keeping stray bits of the stream of consciousness from getting through, by using interference--headphones, radio, chitchat about the weather, even meditation. Or keep it occupied with mundane tasks. Anything to avoid hearing your banal little mind recite its paltry repertoire yet again.

No wonder people are so willing to allow some other agent to drive--the imam, the guru, the vodka.

Meat engines, that's us. Smart lemmings, proceeding zombie-like through the days, reacting predictably to the same stimuli, our minds churning endlessly through the trivial detritus of our puny lives, all the while thinking we are so grand and unique with our deep minds and eternal souls. What greater proof of the existence of god do we need, than our own magnificence!