Friday, July 29, 2011

JoeTalk Attempts Humor - Smokey the Fox - Fiction

"Trust me. This will work." 
"Trust you? Trust you? Last time I trusted you I ended up high on acid fighting a towel because I thought it was a monster. And then I almost gnawed my own hand off." 
"I know. That was awesome. Dude, you were flying high then. Why do you want to stop flying? Don’t you miss that feeling?" 
"I do miss that feeling, but this seems a little rash."
"How could you live being so lame? Seriously, how do you wake up and look at yourself in the mirror and still go on? I couldn’t do it." 
"Just because I don’t live in squalor like you, Dan, doesn’t mean that I’m lame." 
"Who we kidding, Ed? You’re lame. Totally. You’ve still yet to experience anything remotely dangerous. Or exciting. Oooh software programmer. Look at me wearing sweaters without shirts to work. I am so dangerous.  Look at me using a Mac even though I work for Microsoft. I am totally a bad ass. La dida"
"What the fuck you doing?"
"Oh, that’s just my Ed is a lame piece of poop dance. You like it?"
"Make fun of me all you want but you wouldn’t be able to live your decrepit and deranged lifestyle if it wasn’t for my sweet Microsoft paycheck, and even if you are right this is completely ridiculous."
"That’s the point. No thinking; just doing. You always say you think too much. That you wish once you could just stop thinking and if you would stop thinking so much you would be happier. In fact you bitch about it all the time. ‘Dan, I wish my life was more exciting.’ ‘Dan, I’m always bored.’ ‘Dan I think too much.’ ‘Dan why the hell are you eating from my garbage?’ Well here is your chance. No thinking. No worrying about the consequences. Just doing it."
"I don’t think this is exactly what I meant." 
"Oh god for once in your 26 years of life just stop with the stupid and constant inner monologue that you indulge constantly. Yeah, you don’t think I notice, but you always have inner conversations with yourself. That stupid face you make trying to trick us into thinking that you’re paying attention to what we are saying when you are just listening to yourself think: 'Should I live more like Dan, oh, wait, but he doesn’t have purpose, yeah but he is happy, but what is happiness anyway, is it fun or contentment, am I even content?' and all your friends are just sitting there waiting for you to come back down off your judging box and start chilling with us." 
"Judging box? Seriously, judging box, not like seat or anything?"
"See there you go again, why don’t you just let me say whatever the hell I want. Who the fuck cares if I say judging box instead of chair or seat?" 
"Ok, I see your point there, but are you sure this is the right way to go about it? You don’t think it might be better if we had some sort of weaning program, you know like if I start small, maybe light some doody on fire and put it on some person’s porch, or I egg something, some creative use of toilet paper or graffiti, and build up to something like this?" 
"You’re doing it again. Am I sure about this, of course not, but if I did things I was only sure of I wouldn’t really do anything besides like sit home get high and watch anime, which by the way, you should totally try that sometimes, but no I am not sure, but that’s the point." 
"But this is illegal and dangerous, seriously you don’t think you can find anything better than me burning down some old and abandoned farmhouse? Seriously, have you thought about the consequences of this at all, destruction of property, wildfires?"
"Wildfires, are you serious? who the hell do you think you are, Smokey the Fox?"
"The fox, oh come on man, you knew it was a bear, and seriously though, this shit is majorly illegal, and obviously dangerous." 
"You know what else was illegal and dangerous, huh Ed? Know what else?"
"No Dan, I don’t know what else is illegal and dangerous – prostitution, cocaine, hanging out with you?"
"No Ed, freeing the fucking slaves, Lincoln freeing those slaves was not only illegal but it was dangerous, man. But it was worth it." 
"Do you even listen to yourself when you are talking or you don’t have the attention span to even pay attention to that, because that makes no sense. Like that is up there for some of the most inane things I have ever heard you say." 
"Of course it does, now will you please burn this damn farmhouse down? I am getting completely bored." 
"You sure no one lives in it. No like homeless people squatting or something like that. Or maybe like some couple on a tryst?" 
"What the fuck is wrong with you. ‘Tryst?’ Who even talks like that? No, there are no couples in there on a tryst, and no one is in there. Stop being a wuss and just burn this place. Now, I took care of most the leg work. I covered the place with alcohol and gasoline so all you have to do is light this torch and throw it into the house and then—boom—explosion. It will literally blow you away and surgically remove the wussy from your body. It’s now or never bro." 
"Ok, ok, breathe... shit, I cant do this."
"Yes, you can. Here is the torch and here is the lighter. There’s no one for miles, believe me. I done shit like this before. Nothing happens. Just some explosion, some burning, and us drinking beers while a house goes down in flames. Keep it simple." 
"This is simple? Ok, fuck you, ok, ok, I can do this. Give me that damn lighter and the torch." 
"Hell yes. Here we go. Now when you throw the torch you want to get away as fast as possible because gasoline is highly flammable." 
"Oh, gasoline is highly flammable is it now? Wow, thanks for the heads up.”
“Ok, jeez, chill, I was trying to be helpful." 
"Shit, I am doing this. I am really doing this. This is it. Torch, check. Lighter, check.  Hands shaking, check. Weird erection, still check, I’m set. AAHHHHHHHHHH." 
"Holy shit. Did you see than, Dan, did you see that." 
"Of course I saw that. That was a good start."
"Start, are you fucking crazy? That was ultimate. I just torched a building. Look at it. Look at it burning and crumbling. It's oddly gorgeous, the beauty of destruction."
And as I saw it burning I couldn’t help but think of the facile symbol being displayed before my eyes. A house burning. A house that looks eerily similar to my childhood home. My childhood home burning. I am recreating myself. I am burning the crap that is left from my childhood. Exploding it and leaving it behind, and like some animal that is born out of the fire, like the mythological phoenix, I am born anew. And in my metamorphosis I shed my fear and embrace a life of danger and uncertainty. The house is on fire and there is no owner to put it out, because I started the fire. Fuck you Billy Joel. I hate your music and always have. I am the owner of my life. I am liberated. Look at the beauty of the destruction, look at the raw power that I am capable of unleashing…"Ed"…look at what I have wrought…"Ed!...Ed!...Dammit Eddie!"
Eddie! Wake the fuck up." 
"You’re doing it again, dammit." 
"Doing what?"
"I could tell you're doing your thing, you have that annoying look on your face. In your mind you are having some stupid conversation with yourself probably about some stupid abstract shit trying to instill the moment with purpose and meaning and value, and all those fancy words, and you are totally missing this moment. The house is burning right in front of you and you are off probably thinking what it symbolizes when you are missing the fact that it doesn’t symbolize shit and it is just a burning farmhouse that you are not experiencing." 
"Oh, right, sorry. Thanks Dan." 
"No problem. Just have a beer." 
"So…you said you’ve done something like this before?"
"No fucking way, man. I would never do something like that. That’s like a fucking felony. You just blew up a building. You’re crazy." 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Indoctrination Vs. Education - Add on to Shul Hopping #3

In my most recent shul hopping article I brought up the tension between indoctrination and education. In this blog post I want to expand on some of the points I attempted to make. I believe we must grapple with two issues. The first, the question of what is the difference between education and indoctrination generally, and the second, where does religious education fall in the spectrum between education and indoctrination. The second question rests upon our ability to distinguish between education and indoctrination so let’s start there.
Before that, let’s get one point out of the way. All education on some level entails indoctrination, but we usually refer to this process as socialization. We don’t ask children if they want to learn how to count, or how to do math, or if they believe that hitting isn’t right etc we just teach it to them without providing any tools to question these facts of life. So yes, all education on some level entails enforced teaching, but that is just a fact of society. You cannot live otherwise, but this does not nullify a real difference between education and indoctrination, our initial question.
The answer seems obvious, but at first glance, if I just asked you to tell me the difference between education and indoctrination it wouldn’t be so easy to answer. We might initially assume the difference to lie in the content of what gets taught. Education entails the teaching of truth while indoctrination entails the teaching of falsities. For example, teaching the Revolutionary war is educating, but denying the holocaust is indoctrinating. This handy definition/delineation falls apart at the seams when we start to get into questions that we cannot easily answer. We know facts of history, we know mathematical facts, but do we know facts about religion, metaphysics, or morality in the same way we know facts about math? Some people believe in Jesus as their lord and savior, some do not. If I then choose to teach my student about the greatness of Jesus, or Moses, or Mohamed or any religious figure did I just encroach upon the territory of indoctrination? Can we distinguish between knowledge and belief? Maybe education entails the teaching of knowledge while indoctrination entails the teaching of beliefs. Maybe though, we cannot qualify anything as indoctrination if the teacher presents it as a belief instead of knowledge. That makes sense, it seems. However, if we accept this definition then much of religious education (question 2) falls under the category of indoctrination, unless the teacher qualifies each statement as I believe etc, which most teachers do not do. Additionally, we must account for the relativity of knowledge. Not that I believe in moral relativism, or skepticism as a way of life, but each society believes in different cultural norms, in different versions of history to a certain extent, and in different moral codes. Some might level the claim against Western societies that we indoctrinate our children with the belief that selfishness is good, the oil of a capitalized society etc. while we claim that socialists indoctrinate their students against certain ideas etc. If so, then we fall into the trap of blurring the lines between indoctrination and education.
Perhaps the line between indoctrination and education rests not upon the difference in content alone, but also in the method of teaching. Perhaps education entails offering all knowledge as tentative, all knowledge as up to the student to accept as true or false while indoctrination entails the assertion that what the teacher says is always correct. Hence, even the teaching of truths like gravity, or 2+2=4 can be indoctrination if not explained why we believe these facts to be true, or if there is not room for questioning. But maybe not, maybe you need both untrue statements and forced upon statements. Still according to this definition, much of the religious education in our midst performs indoctrination because it does not at the same time offer critical analysis of its dogma. Its central stance is the correctness of its outlook and hence all questions are most likely answered with apologetics, at best, or not even asked. (For me, I am thinking mostly of Biblical criticism, a discipline that is not even taught at Yeshiva University’s master’s program in Biblical Studies.)
Others might define indoctrination as coercive education that involves coercive action. Under this definition, religious education only borders on indoctrination because we don’t necessarily force people to act in ways they do not want to. Though most schools I know of do “force” their students to pray, but not all, and this definition seems extreme.   
Besides these more conceptual questions, the question of education vs. indoctrination touches upon numerous practical, moral, and religious questions. For example, the American ideal of education is to teach how to make analytic decisions about life and knowledge i.e. we to how to think, we teach the value of freedom for each person to have the ability to make their own decisions in life. Religious education teaches the opposite both in content and in manner of education. It teaches one path, the path of that denomination, and while it provides room for questioning it does not provide room for choosing another path. (You can decide to leave a right wing school and go to a less right wing school, but the school forces your hand to leave or accept what we have to teach. Additionally, teaching all the different religions would allow for the best choice to be made, not simply giving the right tools to analyze one religion…) This sounds anti-American and slightly nefarious, but I think part of our discomfort with this issue stems from our the implications of the word indoctrination.
When we think of the word indoctrination we think of evil people forcing people to learn idiocy or to do stupid and even harmful actions. We think of indoctrinating people to hate, indoctrinating stereotypes. To then put religious education in this group smacks of blasphemy. But maybe indoctrination gets a bad rap because it has been misused. Originally, the term was innocuous not pejorative as it simply meant the teaching of doctrine, and perhaps, there is no way around the need for indoctrination in a traditional society (In the military, as per Wikipedia, the military calls the first stage of psychological training indoctrination, in a non-pejorative manner. One of the main purposes and goals of a traditional society is self-perpetuation. The question then is how best to accomplish this goal, but we cannot get around that if your goal is to pass on certain values then an effective way of doing that is presenting that value as the only value, and providing the experiences that rest on that value. If I grew up all my life thinking in creationism it will be hard to convince me otherwise. The tradition will survive in me, most likely.
Let us say you believe in the value and values of Judaism. Let’s say you think they allow a person to self-actualize, and they provide a path of happiness. You want your child to continue in this path. Now, it would seem that the only way to do that is to provide a strong foundation, both intellectually and experientially in Judaism. Without either component then the student will lack what to connect with or to. Yet, on the other hand, the American in you knows the value of choice and of exposure, yet the danger, a danger we’ve seen come to fruition time and time again since the enlightenment is that this openness allows for assimilation and acculturation. (This isn’t a judgment of either of these phenomenon, but rather a description of its process.) What are our options? Either we take the right wing approach, which appears to border on indoctrination, or the left wing approach which will create tenuous bonds to any one form of living, or the middle approach, some sort of amalgam of both. What would that look like? That's a question for a different day. Here I would just like to point out the tension.
Part of the reason we seem to chafe at religious education is that religion to many of us has become so personalized that to give over any tradition robs a person of their right to choose their own path in life. If more people felt that religion was like science, as many used to think, ages ago, then we would not feel such distress at the question of indoctrination.
Where does this leave us? It appears that according to the American value against indoctrination we feel biased towards certain types of religious education, but perhaps we simply need to rethink our stance and feelings towards indoctrination. Perhaps.
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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Movie Review - Point Blank - An Intelligent Action Film

Recently, I had the privilege to see a screening of the new French action thriller, Point Blank (An Official Selection of the 2011 Tribeca International Film Festival,) of which I enjoyed immensely. However, I can only explain my enjoyment in providing some background to my relationship with action movies. Simply, I grew up on action movies. I didn't choose this genre as my obsession. Rather, my father chose to unwind from a long day of seeing patients in therapy with an engrossing action movie. At the fragile age of 11, I was watching all the Die Hard movies, all the Lethal Weapons, and even the intelligent, slightly campy, and ridiculously inappropriate, but excellent movie the Long Kiss Goodnight. I knew the rhythms of an action movie, its cadences, and the components: The explosive opening, the set up of a protagonist that plays by his own rules, dammit! An attitude that inevitably destroys his marriage and his relationships; the evil person, probably ethnic, an enemy doing something truly nefarious and possibly creepy (thinking of the opening of Die Hard 2. Yikes,) the stakes raised to fever pitch heights, the lone heroics despite dismal odds, unless of course, this is a buddy movie then the clichés change, and to top it off, the unlikely outsmarting of the better equipped or more fearsome ethnic enemy all with a catch phrase as the cherry on top. Take that outline, plug in some witty lines, add explosions and some models running around and viola, you have a blockbuster.
I quickly learned to differentiate between a clever movie and one that pandered to our desire to see stuff blown up (looking at you Michael Bay). This isn’t meant to denigrate the films that allow us to simply indulge in what David Foster Wallace coined FX porn. They serve their purpose, almost too well. These films penetrated into my personality. I walk into a room, check the exits, and size up the crowd for any possible terrorists or security threats. I scan the room for any makeshift weapons in case of a fight (a magazine, a pen, a fire extinguisher,) and consequently see opportunities for heroics at every turn. In an elevator, I simply assume that if need be I will climb out of the top, and then crawl through the air ducts to safety, or climb out to foil the plans of the bad guys who outnumber me 20 to 1. This borders on paranoia if not for the fact that I welcome the chance to display my heroic abilities. I simply take it for granted that if the situation arose I would know how to act because of my schooling in all the Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Seagal, Willis, Ford, and Gibson movies. Nowadays, though I watch less action films, I treat these movies as my comfort food. They provide the comfort of nostalgia and the simplicity of a world with obvious evil and obvious good. This overload of action films, besides altering my world view, allows me to sniff out an intelligent action film in the opening minutes.
Consequently, it is immensely refreshing to now see an action film that surprises me, that keeps me guessing and riveted to the very end. Taken, a great, "bad" movie, works for exactly the opposite reason. It caters to the viewers’ basic desires for an easy, linear obvious narrative, full of bad assery (He shoots his friends wife! Though only a flesh wound,) that never ceases. Additionally, the script is smart enough to realize the visceral pull of a father fighting for his daughter against the morally non-complex evil of trafficking women. It taps into some evolutionary drive that demands we protect our family at all costs. We simply enjoy each person Liam Neeson kills in some strange vicarious way. I enjoy it so much that I’ve seen it now over 15 times and have created a drinking game in its honor (Drink every time we see Neeson’s oddly grotesque hands, every time his daughter runs like an idiot, every time he says, “My daughter” in a very serious manner etc.)
Point blank, a film by Fred Cavaye, that follows in the footsteps of Taken, and the less well known Johnny Depp film Nick of Time, manages to overcome its derivative nature through its intelligent writing, deeply human characters and ultimately, through its compelling love story.
The film relies not on explosions, expensive stunts, fancy fight scenes, or riveting car chases to capture the audience but instead leans on the fine acting and writing of the film. To give away any part of the story is somewhat of a shame, but an outline should suffice. Samuel, played by the subtle, compelling Gilles Lellouche, a male nurse in training, stops a murderer from killing a patient. Then, someone attacks Samuel at home, kidnaps his gorgeous, feisty wife (The delightful, impish Elena Anaya,) and demands that he free the patient if he wants his pregnant wife back. I must say, though a slight cliché, the chemistry between the two lovers sparks immediately from their first interaction. Something about her ravishing beauty and his more subtle handsomeness, something about his immediate care for her and her playfulness bring their relationship to life within seconds. From there, I recommend that you see the movie because how it plays out is a lot of the fun of this brisk, thrilling action movie. What I can say is that the complex interplay between the different characters, especially between the criminals and our protagonist carries the bulk of the film. Sartet,  played by Roschdy Zem, the criminal at the center of all the trouble, shines with his stoic yet urgent performance. He says little, but speaks volumes of pain and revenge with a small snicker, or twitch of his eye.
The humanity of the movie distinguishes it from other larger than life action movies. The film captures what feels like a true, almost bungling attempt of a normal human being plunged into an inhuman situation. With movies like Taken, we must swallow the convenient pretense that the kidnapped daughter’s Dad just happens to have been a CIA agent with very special skills, but in Point Blank we see the real struggle of a deeply human person, one without a plan, one without any set of skills to stop the much more powerful men and women chasing him. Therein lies the pure fun and excitement of this movie: it portrays a real person dealing with an insane situation, forced to make choices that most of us could not fathom. (Also, without giving away too much, one scene, towards the end in a police station, portrays some of the cleverest action writing I have seen in a while, all with a jaunty sense of humor.)
The director allows us to focus on the performances of the actors with a healthy balance of interest in the story by leaving certain details of the story in the dark (Looking at you again Michael Bay. Tone down the ridiculous back story and just show us some Transformers fighting. Know your strengths. Revisionist history is not one of them.) In retrospect, the background details do not contain importance because the movie is about the urgency of the here and now, about fighting random arbitrary fate with simple human effort. I cannot think of the last action movie I could confidently say that about. The directors focus on certain parts to the detriment of other side stories heighten our attentions to this here and now, but also mimics the arbitrariness of life itself where we do not conveniently receive explanations for the randomness of life. Awful events just happen for no good reason in the movie, as in life, and even at the denouement of the movie we receive the barest of explanations of why everything happened the way it did. For that reason alone, if not for the numerous other reasons, see this movie. At 84 minutes, the movie might serve as that antidote to summer movies that require no thought, movies which leave you the moment you exit that beautifully air-conditioned theater.

Point Blank opens in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday July 29th and then will open all over the country.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the Nature of Nature - Add on to Shul Hopping #2

Nature and humanity live together in a complex relationship. We seek to both dominate and be dominated by nature. With science, that progressive march towards power and control, we attempt to bring nature under the dominion of Man. Some see this venture as bestowing dignity upon man, while others view this dominion as a manifestation of Man's hubris. Instead, this latter group believes, man’s dignity arises when we humble ourselves before nature (This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t create new medicine or new technology, it’s more a question of attitude.) As modern people, we espouse both views. At the same time we try to use nature we attempt to preserve it. At the same time we lord ourselves over it, we also look to nature to make us feel humble, to make us feel small in a way that allows us to transcend ourselves. I touched upon this topic in my most recent Shul Hopping piece(See interesting stuff on the side of this blog), but I presented the relationship with nature in a slightly simplistic manner, in a way that minimizes our problematic modern conception of wilderness.
In certain ways, the problem with privatized religion mimics the issue with our conception of wilderness. This makes sense in that the attraction to both wilderness and a personal religion stem from the need for elemental autonomy. As Professor Robert Cronon points out in his essay The Trouble with Wilderness, we live in a mire of irony in regards nature. Into the wild we dash to seek certain, by now, formulaic experiences: experiences of escape from the fetters of the modern world, experiences that reconnect us with the elemental aspects of human nature. We look to nature to breathe, freely, untainted air, both physically and mentally. Nature provides an experience of independence, of self sufficiency, and importantly, of awe, of a connection to the magnitude of all being. Sit before a stream, a tiny stream that wraps around the trunk of towering tree, and allow your bare feet to dance with the individual strands of grass as they insinuate themselves between your toes. Lie down and look up. Stare, but really just stare for just five minutes, and likely, you will stumble upon the experience of the sublime, of something transcendent. Yet, the problem with these ideas, the problem with thinking of the wilderness as a haven, similarly to a privatized religion, is history’s persistence in impinging on our pleasure. 
The heavy irony of today’s wilderness experience stems from the fact that we needed to use the tools and values of modernity to create a haven from modernity. No true wilderness  exists for us anymore. We get there in our cars, use our industrialized tools: coals, tents, plastic utensils, flashlights, sleeping bags, bug spray all to make the “elemental wild” palatable. Untamed wilderness, as Cronon points out, before the industrial period stood not as a symbol of elemental, independent, God infused living, but as a symbol of the terror at the core of life. Cronon has no intention of deflating our enjoyment of nature, or of the wilderness. He seeks to enlighten us to our complex relationship with nature. Because wilderness is our creation, he claims, we can seek similar experiences even within our modern city. He believes that in setting up this dichotomy between civilization and nature we tend rationalize our treatment of nature within civilization, a claim that twenty years ago echoed more truly than it does now simply because of the boom of interest in the environment.
            Besides this more complex view of our relationship with nature, I believe we need to flesh out the complicated relationship between nature and religion. I will let the experts chime in on this topic. Pascal wrote his Pensees (thoughts in French) as a book of Christian apologetics. The fame of this book stems from Pascal’s famous wager, but he writes beautifully on a range of religious topics. Here, in part 4, he describes the relationship between nature and religion:
In addressing their argument to infidels, their first chapter is to prove Divinity from the works of nature. I should not be astonished at their enterprise, if they were addressing their argument to the faithful; for it is certain that those who have the living faith in their hearts see at once that all existence is none other than the work of the God whom they adore. But for those in whom this light is extinguished, and in whom we purpose to rekindle it, persons destitute of faith and grace, who, seeking with all their light whatever they see in nature that can bring them to this knowledge, find only obscurity and darkness; to tell them that they have only to look at the smallest things which surround them, and they will see God openly, to give them, as a complete proof of this great and important matter, the course of the moon and planets, and to claim to have concluded the proof with such an argument, is to give them ground for believing that the proofs of our religion are very weak. And I see by reason and experience that nothing is more calculated to arouse their contempt.

Pascal claims that nature will act as a mirror to your preconceived notions. If you believe in God you will see his hand everywhere in the natural world, but if you do not, nature might arouse awe, but awe at the enormity of the universe, perhaps even at the arbitrariness of the universe, but not awe towards a creator. Pascal takes his claim further and asserts that the scriptures themselves never attempt to use Nature as evidence of God for that exact reason:

It is not after this manner that Scripture speaks, which has a better knowledge of the things that are of God. It says, on the contrary, that God is a hidden God…
This is what Scripture points out to us, when it says in so many places that those who seek God find Him. It is not of that light, "like the noonday sun," that this is said. We do not say that those who seek the noonday sun, or water in the sea, shall find them; and hence the evidence of God must not be of this nature. So it tells us elsewhere: Vere tu es Deus absconditus. [Is. 45. 15. "Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself."] It is an astounding fact that no canonical writer has ever made use of nature to prove God. They all strive to make us believe in Him. David, Solomon, etc., have never said, "There is no void, therefore there is a God." They must have had more knowledge than the most learned people who came after them, and who have all made use of this argument. This is worthy of attention.Why! Do you not say yourself that the heavens and birds prove God?" No. "And does your religion not say so"? No. For although it is true in a sense for some souls to whom God gives this light, yet it is false with respect to the majority of men.

While we can disagree with Pascal’s assertion regarding scripture and its mode of proving God, I believe this sentiment rings true for many a modern person. We watch Planet Earth, or Oceans, and we feel something, but for many of us it triggers emotions not of God, but of the randomness of nature and the infinitesimal stature of man. Often, people will claim that atheistic scientists cannot feel awe at the beauty of nature, but this is a specious claim. One need not believe in God to feel the contrast between our everyday modern experience, surrounded by man made creations, and the experience of the wilderness as something completely Other, something that appears to care little for the needs and desires of Man. (Think of all the natural disasters that has ravaged the world in the past few years.)
It’s interesting to note though, that one of America’s most beloved and venerable explorers of spirituality disagrees, despite the fact that she searches and doesn’t necessarily profess to believe in God as a creator. Annie Dillard in her seminal Pilgrim At Tinder Creek writes of this duality inherent within the experience of nature itself. 
That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we are also created. In the Koran, Allah asks, “The heaven and earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?” It’s a good question. What do we think of the creative universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction? ... Pascal uses a nice term to describe the notion of the creator’s once having called for universe, turning his back to it: Deus Absconditus. It this what we think happened? Was the sense of it there, and God absconded with it, ate it, like a wolf who disappears round edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey? ... It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly at its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the, God, ‘set bars and doors’ and said, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?

Dillard here makes a unique claim. God is not obvious in nature, as others might claim, neither for believers nor for non-believers, nor does nature necessarily hide God completely. Rather God, it appears, hides in nature so we can search for him, not because through the search we will necessarily find him, but we must try, because we might find traces of his existence, because we feel the stirrings of something, something that demands further exploration. This argument falls into the category of the unfalsifiable. You cannot prove it one way or the other. Therefore, I find this argument interesting. Is nature simply a mirror for our beliefs or can it arouse something in us we never thought possible? Is nature ambiguous at best, or the greatest place to experience God? Cronon points out that Nature, with the rise of industrialism became more and more associated as God’s home, but does this assertion point to the ambiguity of the natural world, or did industrialization allow us to see nature in a new light? It depends, I guess.
Besides these viewpoints, regardless of how much of God you see in nature, I believe the experience of the wilderness can allow us to feel emotions that we normally associate as religious. In that way we can either expand our range of emotions, or practice for a relationship with God the same way that human relationships allow us to practice for a different type of relationship with God. For example, on this past camping trip, a friend and I walked through the pitch dark park. The clouds jealously hid the moon so we are talking plague-like darkness. We walked, hoping for our eyes to adjust, but they couldn’t. We continued on, slowly, feeling for the first time in my life, a sense of utter and complete precariousness. It then occurred to me how infrequently I feel this in modern life, how much of our lives entail an attempt of control. It felt good to feel completely out of control. I also realized that this experience mimics the dependency religious people feel upon God. For many, every moment of every day is a walk in complete darkness if not for the flashes of God’s light that lead the way. Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed gives a famous parable in regards to the secrets of life and prophecy, but a parable that works for our experience of nature:
Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case. At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night.
On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day.  By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think,
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Friday, July 15, 2011

Simon and the Question of Jewish Social Justice - A Generational Gap?

Lesson learned: Talk about David Simon as much as I can. That man truly elicits some deep emotions and visceral reactions to his artistic output and statements. Some, from the comments I received, view him as a visionary, a genius, even in his politics, and others, see him as a kook, a blind outsider who doesn't understand the Jewish community and its needs. This post will not attempt to tackle Simon's public persona, or even the specific issues he brings up. Rather, I find it fascinating that the issues he brings up in regards to the allocation of Jewish charity highlight a dividing line between the older generations and the current one.
A recent Jewish Week article reported that those Jews who do choose to volunteer, volunteer largely outside of the Jewish community. Interestingly, many of the comments from the older generation regarding Simon echo their comments regarding this phenomenon. Essentially, the complaint against Simon and against this universalizing trend is that we/him do not understand that if we do not help ourselves, no one will. We, the tiny nation that could, the nation of Maccabees that continuously beats the odds against our survival, both with God's help, but also with our ferocious tenacity, cannot afford (in both senses) to start solving the world's problems when endless problems plague our world (Assimilation, infighting, poverty, attacks against Israel etc.) Apparently, this difference, this sense of urgency in regards to internal issues, or lack thereof, touches upon a generational gap.
These sentiments came to the fore a while back when Jack Werthheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at JTS, criticized the trend to use philanthropy for non-Jewish causes. He lamented that many Jewish Foundations give mostly to non-Jewish causes, which is not an inherent problem per se, but it fails to realize the whole host of monetary issues plaguing the Jewish community. (Tuition alone for Jewish education will eventually costs an astronomical amount for just a family of three etc.) Again, I don't believe I can add much to the back and forth regarding this point, but I do think it highlights an interesting generational gap that needs more attention, because the less we focus on the fact that our generations struggle with different issues the more we will talk at each other instead of with each other.
         Each generation, religious our not, deals with unique issues, asks itself different questions, and seeks to accomplish different goals. In terms of religion, the previous generation felt the real fear of extinction and of rebirth ,whether first hand, or vicariously through the Holocaust generation of their parents. Their experience, besides partaking in the tension of modernity we all partake in, entailed a fight against anti-Semitism, a fight for Russian Jewry, a fight for their way of life, and a fight for equality in the workplace, basically a fight. Our generation, thankfully, and mostly in part because our parents and grandparents already fought for it, does not fight for our Judaism, at least not externally. We draw our battle lines on different grounds.
      Our generation, instead of monetary inheritance, or cultural heritages of songs, dances, and recipes, mostly have received heritages of sadness, hate, revenge, and national insecurities. We are a generation that buckles under an unwanted sense of chosenness. We see little dignity in difference and wish to forgive the atrocities of the past so we can live in the pleasures of today. We embrace apathy more out of resignation than rebellion. Like no generation before us, we feel squelched by the decisions of our elders without the proper tools of rebellion, or appropriation. We realize the opulence of our lifestyle, the ghosts of our collective memories haunt our hedonism, but we lack any real struggle to connect to our pained past. We have fought no wars for our state’s existence, no social battles for our physical safety, and no political campaigns for our right to exist. Acceptance, acculturation, and assimilation serve as our battle grounds and it is a fight we rarely understand the reasons for, and consequently care little about. We do not feel the exigency of the need to fight for Jewish continuation because on a whole we feel ambivalent about the parochialism in this idea. Many of us simply struggle to define what it means to be Jewish in this age of total freedom of choice, in which we can choose any lifestyle, easily.
(Anti-Semitism bleeps on our radar with the faintest of noises, an echo of the last generation. I realize that anti-Semitism rises with every passing year, but this anti-Semitism, for our generation, is forever out there, not impinging on our placid existence. Our religious struggle focuses on apathy, not on attaining validity in the face of hostility. Our battles lies against materialism, hedonism, and nihilism as opposed to any real physical danger.)
Consequently, it would seem, we care about different issues than our parents and grandparents. We might more easily side with Simon because as two generations removed from the Holocaust, living in a time in which the question of the existence of the Jewish state is less urgent than it used to be, we don’t feel the threat of non-existence as previous generations did. The previous two generations, in fighting for their Jewishness, both physically, emotionally, and politically, consequently, do not understand the choices of our generation. They see the veering of wayward generation as a suicidal act of rebellion, or at least a ignorant act of rebellion, as opposed to a search for a way to connect meaningfully to a tradition on our terms– and this is the irony of a post-Holocaust Judaism.
Many survivors thrived after the holocaust so as to continue the great chain of their lofty tradition. To do so they created a world of a stable Judaism, which has led to unprecedented comfort in Jewish life.  However, one of the central components of the deep threat to the viability of Judaism today arises from the comfort with which we live as Jews. Comfort breeds ease. Ease, begets apathy. It is this comfort, amongst many other factors, that has caused many of the issues the previous generation now focuses on. Besides apathy, many Jews now feel they can find no compelling reason to choose the path of Judaism over the other paths of lives we are exposed to on a daily basis. We live in this influx of information age in which we gain exposure to the range of lifestyles whether from our friends, our classmates, the media, the internet, and we become hard pressed to explain why Judaism. When you must fight for your identity, you dont have the luxury to ask why Judaism because Judaism is forced upon you from the outside. It is long been known that one of our greatest assets, ironically, for Jewish Unity and continuation has been a common enemy. Today though, our generation lacks a common enemy, for the most part. In fact, I imagine most of us would find the idea of a common enemy as simplistic and beneath us. The irony then is that the greatest revenge against Hitler: creating a free space in which Judaism can breathe, in a circuitous route, led unknowingly, to a sort of spiritual destruction (in the previous generation’s mind) of the Jewish religion.
In a sense, this explains why for so many young Jews today we look outwards, we look towards universalism to provide meaning for our lives. I believe, and this is highly anecdotal and simplistic, that this difference might also explain other generation gaps. Again, anecdotal, but our generation does not appear to react to assimilation, or intermarriage the same way the previous generation does and did (Other differences can be explained with this idea, but not for now). In these cursory remarks, I am not commenting on who is right or wrong, but rather hope to describe the current situation so as to open up a dialogue.
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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

JoeTalk Takes a Break from Seriousness - The Eating Contest

Sometimes even JoeTalk needs a break from serious matters. My mind hurts from questions of religion, of justice, and from an obsessive need to spread meaning and purpose in life. Let's try something different today. I want to discuss humor, but it is a Fact that discussing humor, or at least deconstructing humor deflates its fun. So here it goes with the something different. Though I hope to stay away from personal stories, this story isn’t about me. Rather, I served merely as a spectator to one of the crazier spectacles in my life. Hope you like the story.

I wonder who started the first eating contest. Do you think that any cave paintings portray early humans competing over who could eat the most food in an allotted period of time? Ok, probably not. They were most likely worrying if that sound signified a predator, or whom to club etc. Either way, in my mind, eating contests do not flow from any necessity, or any logical aspect of life, or even any of our pre-conceived notions of fun.  As a competition, they lack the grace of competitive sports, but they do allow us to indulge in the more animalistic, greasy aspects of our existence.  It’s easy to mock their popularity, but watch a video of an eating contest, a real eating contest, and try not feel drawn in. You will understand the popularity. So popular in fact that when Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, an American, took down the 4 time reigning champ a while back in the international hot dog eating contest (66 in ten minutes) he was greeted back home with calls of, “Way to bring pride back to America”. Looking back, we, as a bunch of high school juniors going through our long hair stage, felt the same.
My friend and I, the organizers, decided that three large Kosher delight deli sandwiches with three large helpings of fries or rice, three large sodas, and three sides of gravy would be enough for our attempt at an eating contest. This wasn’t so much a classic eating contest of one person against another, but one person against the food. The contestant, the rules stipulated, must finish all three sandwiches with all of its trappings in 90 minutes with no bathroom breaks. The spectators, of whom we had no trouble in collecting,  would bet on his ability to finish or not. The first choice seemed obvious. I mean come on; we were talking about Aloysius P. Quentin here (Real names changed for obvious reasons). This is the same kid that would only stop eating off strangers plates because we were already ten minutes late for class.
The big day had come. Kosher Delight had never been more packed at 12:15 in the afternoon. At least fifty students, all guys, dollar bills in their hands, packed into the store.  EuroTrash, the friendly cashier, whose name is completely self explanatory, was more excited than I had ever seen him. This was going to be huge. Aloysius was seated prominently in the middle while everyone watched him start his road towards victory. “Yeah, this would be a piece of cake”, we thought, “look at him go, it is only twenty minutes in and he is already halfway done”.
But then it happened.
There is a popular TV show, Animal planet, which documents animals in all walks of life,  including death. I never imagined that I would watch an elephant slowly die, but then again I never imagined that I would be shown a wombats private parts, but I was shown the wombats ‘gina as Steve Irwin (R.I.P.) so eloquently put it, and I did see an elephant slowly die: A fallen mountain.  I desperately tried to get rid of the dying elephant memory, but watching Aloysius try to finish his 3rd sandwich brought the memory roaring back. His (both the elephant and Aloysisus) breathing became short and heavy, emphysemic, walking around with an oxygen tank type breathing,  and it was only the start of the third sandwich. “Ok” we thought, “That’s not such a big deal he just needs to take a breather, who wouldn’t need one, right?” He started eating again and promptly stopped. This time on top of the heavy panting, he undid the two top buttons on his shirt. “Again, no reason to worry, he just needs some air” someone shouted from the corner. Another bite. Now he unbuttoned all the buttons his pea green shirt.  “Ok, this is a little weird”
It almost seemed like he was playing strip poker with the sandwich and he was getting his ass kicked, badly. Another bite; now his whole shirt was off, leaving him dressed in just pants an old plain white t-shirt, “Ok this is just insane, but again, this is the same kid who sings with his mouth oddly wide open so this oddity is just standard”. Another bite; no clothes off, “Alright, were back in it. Take that evil sandwich,” we shouted.
“But wait, where the hell is he going, hey, Aloysius, going to the bathroom is against the rules, come back! Remember, if you vomit you lose!, Wait, no you cant leave, hey, come back here, good, he’s coming back, wait, is he crying, oh my god, he is crying, holy crap, why is he crying, please, stop crying, wait, why is your undershirt off, oh my god…are those man-breasts?” 
True story. 
End of round one.
Round two. Ok, the Quentin thing was a fluke. He wasn’t even a real eater in the first place, but William Powers, man that kid actually eats the leftover gel from gefilte fish jars, and it is even rumored that he ate those sticky hands just because he was hungry, so yeah, this one is in the bag. Again the place was crowded, and again the eater sat in the middle surrounded by his adoring fans, but this time EuroTrash and Zamal U (source of name unknown) didn’t seem so happy, which seemed understandable after the male breasts fiasco, but who can say no to that much money?
Things were looking good. There were no buttons unbuttoned, no shirt taken off, and best of all, there were no man breasts revealed, and we were already done with two sandwiches.
And then it happened.
I kept seeing the elephant gasping for air as it lost its coordination hitting the hard floor with a dull thud.
There was the slow and heavy breathing, top buttons were being unbuttoned, and the cameras were out waiting to capture another shirt off situation, but it didn’t get that far. We were back in it.
There was now only a half of sandwich left, some rice, and some orange soda, and William had a big smile on his face, but this salami sandwich wasn’t going down easily. You could almost hear the salami sandwich saying, “Come on William. You think you’re so great. Go ahead. I dare you. Take another two bites. Let’s see what happens”, but William couldn’t hear the imaginary voice of this salami sandwich and brazenly continued.
The tears came earlier than with the first round, but at least there was no shirt off. He began crying as he rushed off to the bathroom, which required climbing about 20 stairs. He made it to stair number 12, at best. He lay there moaning, crying out in a barely audible voice, an animal's groan more than anything else, muttering something that no one understood.
“What Will, what the hell are you saying?”
None of us really wanted to go closer for fear of vomit, but someone had too. I slowly tiptoed towards the downed elephant.
“Hey Willy, how you feeling?” I said in my kindest voice, attempting to hold back laughter.
“I want my mommy”
“What? Will, I can’t hear you”
“I WANT MY MOMMY”, and now he bellowed it with all the strength he had left even with the tears streaming down, and saliva lazily hanging from his mouth.
“What’s he saying?” the group called up, desperate to know.
“He wants his mommy”, I called down.
Eventually someone else came up and we carried him down the stairs. As we were leaving the store, Willy, in the fashion of a fallen hero who failed his devotees, turned to his admirers, and with a sullen face and a barely audible voice said, “Now I know what death feels like”. 
True story.
Round three. Time for the big guns. No one thought that it would come to this, but we would have to go to The Rabbi. There was no other choice; the sandwich had to be conquered. Rabbi Blumenkrantz begrudgingly accepted, but we were all skeptical. “Ok, he appears capable, and maybe in his younger days he could contend, but he is married and probably washed up, but we have no other choice”.
It started like all of the other rounds. We were more scared than ever of the undershirt fiasco. Maybe even more scared than EuroTrash and Zamal U, but on January fifteenth at 12:42 p.m. Rabbi Joseph Blumenkrantz finished all three sandwiches in 27 minutes. That is less than ten minutes per sandwich. Six stacks of meet(the sandwiches were cut in half), 12 slices of bread, rice, three large sodas, and heavy gravy. There was nothing left. No rice had fallen and no drink had spilled. He didn’t unbutton any buttons, nor did he have to stop to take some deep breaths. The gravy bowls looked like they were cleaned by the staff and as he finished he just took the napkin out of his shirt, looked at us and said with a tinge of disappointment, “You guys call that an eating contest?”
True story.

Also, because we could always use laughter here's a bunch of Zach Galafianakis quotes/stories. (Yes, much of this comes from the Rolling Stone article)
1. “I saw that Ke$ha woman the other day,” he says. She’d e-mailed him about getting a drink, and a few days later, he ran into her in a bar. “She was sitting by herself, and I walked up to her and said, ‘Listen, I got your e-mail. Your music is really bad! I don’t know who listens to it, but I imagine it’s, like, six-year-olds – and it’s a bad message.’ ”
2. “I’ll be honest with you: I’m not adjusting to it well. I don’t mean that as a complaint. Most people wouldn’t be well-adjusted. I just get confused by people asking me questions. For years, nobody asked me a question, ever. So now when someone says, ‘Oh, you’re going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone,’ my first reaction is, ‘Ehhh, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I mean, it’s cool – but does it have to be the cover? What’s Blink-182 doing these days?’ ”
3. When Sean Penn called to offer him a role inInto the Wild, Galifianakis told him he had an appointment at Arby’s and to "send my Jews the script
4. His longest job was on a Fox drama calledTru Calling, about a mortuary attendant played by Eliza Dushku who could commune with the dead. He tried his hardest to get fired. He’d tell Dushku she was eating her way to cancellation, or stand up after a table read and say to the writer, “Great script, Karen,” and throw the script in the trash.
5. I once walked in on my grandparents making love...And that's why I don't eat raisins.
6. My brother has ADD, which is weird because he drives a Ford Focus. I told my brother that joke but he didn't laugh becuase he got distracted by my shoe strings.
7. I don't mean to be gross, but the only time it's good to yell "I have diarrhea" is when you're playing Scrabble because it's worth a shitload of points.
Thanks for reading. Watch the internet series Between two ferns if you havent already. Have a great day,