~ Saturday, January 27, 2007 ~
~ Thursday, January 25, 2007 ~
A couple more pages written on euthanasia and then my head runs away to think about something more palatable. That's the way it goes sometimes. Maybe I should have chosen an easier topic to write about, but I still think that this is the most important one out there, the one that reveals most sharply what medicine is for. Still, my mind is undisciplined and weak, and tends to wander. I should have taken classes in meditation back in Philly while I had the chance.
At the moment, though, I'm embracing my weakness. Prayer. What's it good for? The Saint and I were talking about a passage in II Chronicles 30, where King Hezekiah tries to get the people to start celebrating Passover again (they've lapsed), and they attempt it, but they still do it wrong and end up violating a pretty serious law.
30:18 For most of the people...had not purified themselves, yet they ate the paschal sacrifice in violation of what was written. Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, "The good Lord will provide atonement for
30:19 everyone who set his mind on worshiping God, the Lord God of his fathers, even if he is not purified for the sanctuary.
30:20 The Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.
Apparently, prayer is good for intervention. One thing is happening, someone righteous makes a plea to God for it to be otherwise, and God causes it to be otherwise. The people sin and deserve to be punished, Hezekiah intervenes and points out their good intentions, and God is persuaded to make an exception.
But see, why wouldn't God have done that on his own? Why does the story imply that it was only because Hezekiah intervened that God forgave the people? Didn't God know that their intentions were good without Hezekiah pointing it out? Would he really have schmeissed the people for their unwitting sin if Hezekiah hadn't stayed God's hand? If the best thing to do in that situation was to forgive the people, God would have had to know it and would have decided to do it without Hezekiah saying anything. On the other hand, if the best thing to do was to *not* forgive the people, then it's pretty surprising that God would have departed from doing what's best, forgiving them against his better judgement, just for Hezekiah's sake.
I suppose you could argue that the situation changed the moment Hezekiah put forward his plea, kinda like the electron you're observing changes because you're observing it. Hezekiah isn't outside of a closed system; he's in the system, affecting it, just as the scientist's presence alters the data he measures. If Hezekiah's a bad person and his people are all punished it won't much matter, but if he's a good person and his people suffer, God will have treated him unjustly. The people didn't deserve much mercy, maybe, but Hezekiah did, and because Hezekiah showed God that he really cared about them (which is the same as saying that Hezekiah really cared about them, since we're assuming God is omniscient--I mean, Hezekiah didn't have to pray it aloud; all he had to do was care), God relented for his sake. Possible, but it means the people didn't really deserve the mercy they received, and they only got it because H. was in good with God. That doesn't seem like the point of the story. No, the point of the story seems to be something more like "Even if you don't follow all the rules perfectly, do your best and God will forgive you for your shortcomings." So there's got to be some other explanation for what exactly Hezekiah's prayer *did*.
The only explanation that really seems to fit all the data, though, was that Hezekiah's prayer did nothing but prove his own excellent understanding of how God works. When Hezekiah prayed for mercy for his people, he wasn't petitioning. He wasn't saying, "Please forgive them, Lord, they don't know any better." Instead, he was affirming. He was saying, "God will forgive them, because that's just how he is." And he would have been right...but then we're back to where we started: how do we account for verse 20, where God seems to heal the people as a result of hearing Hezekiah's prayer?
I'm partial to the Jewish understanding of prayer (I'm sure you're all shocked), which explains it as self-judgement, or perhaps self-examination. Prayer is a good way for us to take an honest look at ourselves and see what needs fixing. This view happens to be compatible with the idea of God as something like Absolute Reality--coming closer to God means getting past your own filters and confronting the truth of things as they are, which is instrumental in deciding what needs to change. And creativity is an alternate path to divinity, because by bringing stuff into existence, you're participating in Reality's evolution and growth.
Anyway, prayer. If you affirm that something is the case and it wasn't beforehand but it becomes the case by virtue of your affirming it (and believing in your own affirmation), you're creating. (For example, I can affirm that I'm punctual, and if I can manage to trick myself into believing it in spite of overwhelming data to the contrary, I'll be more likely to become punctual, and then I'll start to build up supportive evidence to spur my belief along.) However, if you affirm that something is the case because you've discovered, in a moment of insight, that it is so, then you're acknowledging truth. Both can be types of prayer, I suppose, and both can be powerful for inner work. If I'm going to examine myself for the purpose of becoming a better person, then I've first got to confront what's there and then I've got to transform it, through sheer creative willpower, into something else.
Which one was Hezekiah doing? It looks like he thought he was doing the prayer-as-acknowledging-reality one, but then God reacted as if it had actually been an act of prayer-as-altering-reality. It doesn't help that the verb they use to describe God's hearing Hezekiah is vayyishma, from the root shin-mem-ayin, a.k.a. shama, the same root that you find in the central declaration of belief that begins "Hear, O Israel". This isn't a case of God hearing what Hezekiah said and happening to agree. It's hearing in a more powerful sense, the sort of hearing you do when you're paying attention, when you intend to obey. It's not quite so strong as heeding, but it's still listening...listening and reacting, as if God wasn't going to forgive the people at first, but then Hezekiah spoke up and God changed his mind.
So I don't really have a clever answer to this dilemma. Either God forgives us for falling short of perfection because he perceives our good intentions, but prayer has no effect whatsoever (but then whence that vayyishma?), or God forgives us when we're borderline-acceptable and someone really righteous prays on our behalf, but when there's no one like Hezekiah around, we're all screwed.
I suppose there's one more possibility: Hezekiah could have been praying in public, and his prayer might have affected all the people so powerfully that just hearing it boosted their merit enough to bring it out of the "No Credit" zone and into the "Pass" zone. I think that would conform to all our givens, both about the nature of God (just, merciful, and omniscient) and about the power of prayer (greater than nil), but that's a pretty marked departure from the story, and if that's what the authors meant, you'd think they would have said it.
~ prattled by Miriam at 12:00 p.m. [+]
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Have you seen the SOTU Address yet?
~ Saturday, January 20, 2007 ~
This is not a link blog, and it's not a political blog either, but in this case I can't resist. Not many videos can manage to be devastatingly cute and startlingly sad at the same time.
Well...except maybe the one about the kiwi.
~ prattled by Miriam at 11:30 p.m. [+]
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~ Sunday, January 14, 2007 ~
Back when The Advocate, PZ, JF, and I went to hear Andy Statman at Barbes, they played a song which I liked so much that I described it here. Triple meter, repeating pattern of accents, made me smile, etc. I thought it was called The Old Tin Can. When I got home that night, I played the CD The Advocate had purchased from the band as my birthday present, and it's great, but it's all him on the clarinet, so it didn't have that mandolin song on it.
But! A few days later, The Advocate received Andy Statman's other CD in the mail (she likes him too) and this one had almost all mandolin, so I was really hoping that song would be there, but I scanned down the list of tracks, and nothing about a tin can was there to be found. Lots of other familiar-looking American and Jewish folk tunes, something called 17 (whatever that meant), but no tin can. Sigh.
She played it, and I listened, and when we reached track #6, those familiar A Major chords came through the speakers. It was that song! But it wasn't supposed to be on the CD, was it? It was though, and its title had nothing to do with tin cans. It was called "17". 17? Was that their name for the song because they were too embarrassed to call it something as folky as The Old Tin Can? At any rate, I was delighted to have a recording of it available to me.
The following Monday, thanks to PZ's tip, I went with Rambam and his lady to hear Mr. Statman (if I'm talking about him this much, maybe I should be giving him a blogname) play live in the basement of a shul in the west village, where he apparently has gigs on Monday and Thursday nights. You walk down a street lined with sex shops, and then once you're past all the sex shops, you're on a quiet unassuming block with apartments and a synagogue on one corner, and a whiteboard easel stands on the sidewalk outside the door to the basement of the synagogue, and on the sign is written,
just like that. It's adorable. Anyway, we went, and we heard them play again (same bassist, different drummer) and they were delightful again, though the audience was much more young-frummy-Jews-on-dates than the usual middle-aged hipster you see at Barbes.
They played much of what they did at Barbes, including 17, and afterward I asked the bassist why it had a number for a name, and why it wasn't called The Old Tin Can. "I have no idea why it's called 17," he said, "but as far as I know that's the only name it's got. I think maybe the tin can thing was a joke."
So I went to the front of the room where Andy was chatting and putting away his clarinet, and I asked him directly. "Oh, that one? I just like the number 17. It's always been a good number for me, and it shows up in interesting ways in my life." His answer completely threw me off, I suppose because I didn't expect someone whom I already think so much of to give me an entirely new reason to think well of him. He's a number geek too!
The funny thing is, I would never have chosen 17 to describe that piece. 17 is a fine number, what with the 7 in it to make it all fancy and the primeness to make it all extra-special, but I tend to like numbers that have lots of factors, especially multiples of 6. Maybe it has to do with growing up in a family that first had two children, and then later had three children. I like it when things come out evenly, and 6 is a good number because whether there are two or three people, six things can be divided evenly among them. Also, I like hexagons. They're nice to look at. I think it's also true that if you've got a bunch of circles all of the same size, and you make one your center and arrange the other circles in a ring around the central circle, you'll be able to fit exactly six in the ring around the central circle. I'll have to go try it with m&ms next time I have them.
Anyway, 6 is a good number, and it makes me happy to think about it. When I'm a certain age, I identify with the qualities I attribute to that number, so independent of all the other factors that life throws at you, the years I've spent telling people that I'm 6 and 12 (and to an even greater extent 18 and 24) have been charged with a bit more cheer than the years I've spent saying that I'm 13, 19, and 25. I'm not really a fan of 5s, and I don't much like primes. Not symmetrical enough. How can you evenly divide 13 cookies among any but 13 children? I'm not looking forward to 29, either, but 30'll be okay, since its round divisibility by 6 outweighs its pointy divisibility by 5. (36 is the ultimate, and by the way, happy birthday, Rob!)
The Advocate and I were talking about our respective favorite numbers, and it turns out she's the opposite of me. She loves primes above all, so she was particularly gratified to hear that Andy Statman had titled the song that she also loved with a prime number. I argued that it didn't sound much like a 17, because all the phrases ended so neatly, and 17 isn't a neat number like 18 or 24 are. She pointed out in response that the tune does indeed feel like a prime number because each phrase's end is not so much an end but a catapulting boost of energy propelling the music forward into the next phrase. It's energetic, and it has such energy because it's dynamic. It flits and bounces about in just the sort of way that a 17 would, because a 17, through its inability to be divided evenly, would always be shifting around trying to fill the spaces its unevenness would leave. There's something missing, and it's all over the place trying to fill that gap. The tune has the excitement of chlorine instead of the quiet stability of Argon, and that's why it sticks in my head. The Advocate really does have the kind of wisdom I hope to have some day...as it is, I often forget that for things to be dynamic, they also have to be imperfect.
If anyone wants to hear this little tune, leave me a comment and I'll send it to you.
~ prattled by Miriam at 1:35 a.m. [+]
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~ Friday, January 12, 2007 ~
The birthday weekend finished off with a visit from Rambam and his lovely lady, and then a trek north to see Mr. Fodor & Co.
The Fodors and I went to dinner at a vegetarian soul food type place in Harlem, where Mr. and Mrs. Fodor sat across from each other and I got to sit across from (and gaze lovingly into the eyes of) the adorable Fodor Jr., who has the largest smile in the world.This was him a year and a half ago, as photographed by Mr. Fodor. He's got more hair and teeth now, but the smile is the same.
The place is vegetarian, as I said, but they are also serving soul food, which is apparently a hard thing, because soul food turns out to lose a lot of its punch if you only serve collard greens. As such, the place uses tofu and TVP and seitan and suchlike to make fake meat, including these slightly creepy fake shrimp things that were ornamenting the broccoli-and-fake-shrimp dish that I ordered. Not only does this fake shrimp perfectly capture that sick-sweet taste of rotting meat that made me dislike shrimp even before I gave it up for kashrut reasons, but the texture and consistency was disturbingly shrimp-like, too. Kinda springy, you know? And a little bit dense and unyielding? When you haven't eaten meat in a while, the sensation, even the mistaken sensation, of oh-my-god-this-used-to-be-alive is powerful, and not pleasantly so. I had a bite or two of one piece, and that was all for me.
Fortunately, Fodor Jr. had no such prejudices. "Dimp!" he demanded when he spotted some of what he'd been eating from his daddy's plate on my plate, too. "Shhhhrrrrimp," I said, and fed him a little slice. "Dimp!" he said again. Conversation from that point on was catch as catch could, because there's only so much I can do to concentrate on adult dialogue when a little voice in the background is going, "Dimp! Dimp! Dimp! Dimp!" with increasing desperation. I kept on feeding him shrimp, one little slice at a time, until there was none left on my plate ("No mo dimp," he remarked) while Mr. and Mrs. Fodor supplemented his meal with bits of beans, peas, and rice pinched from their plate and placed directly into his little fingers or his not-so-little mouth.
For dessert, the Fodors had bought two slices of cinnamon-raisin-banana bread, and they gave F. Jr. pinched-off bits of raisin and crust, which he also seemed to like. I had passed on the banana bread, but Mr. Fodor wanted me to taste it, to see what I was missing. "Here, try some," he said, and pinched off a little piece to place into my fingers, only he wasn't joking. I guess when you're a parent, everything begins to look like a kid.
Current Music: They, Jem
~ prattled by Miriam at 9:57 p.m. [+]
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I turned 26 yesterday, and for the first time in several years, I was able to celebrate it on the day itself.* This is not only because it was on Thursday, which everyone knows is the first night of the weekend, but more importantly because Andy Statman, my second-favorite mandolinist, was doing a live show that night at the Hotel D'Orsay, a little backroom performance space in the back of Barbes. Barbes, by the way, is the only bar I ever go to, and I go there not because of the drinks (I still don't drink, not even on my birthday, but I did enjoy a cup of delicious chocolate-vanilla-apple-mango-rooibos tea from the patisserie next door--yum), but because of the excellent musical acts that the proprietor brings into his "hotel" night after night.
I don't know how he does it, but I have never seen a show there that hasn't left me impressed. It helps that the fellow shares my taste for 30s-ish folky music and accordions. The place has had far more than the reasonable number of accordionists come through its door. Rob introduced me to the place, and to countless excellent bands who performed there, while I still lived in the upper west side, so one of the perks of moving in with The Advocate here in the slope was knowing I'd be so close to so much good music all the time. One Ring Zero, those writers of messed-up-pop that I think I mentioned here once before, were at one point such regular fixtures at Barbes that they have their portrait on the rear wall of the Hotel D'Orsay. It was also at Barbes that I heard River Alexander and his Mad Jazz Hatters, the fascinating washboardings of David Langlois, and bands like The Roulette Sisters, Life in a Blender, and Pinataland that people are always trying ineptly to describe with comparisons to other bands everyone's supposed to know well enough that they no longer need to be diminished with comparisons.
Anyway, last night I saw Andy Statman play in a trio with a bassist and a drummer, and it was wonderful. To begin with, he presents himself much more humbly than most of the musical artists who stand up and do shows in small places in New York. They tend to wear things meant to express their hippitude and individuality. He wears the uniform of the traditional Jew--dark trousers, white button-down shirt, tsitsit from the tallit katan peeking out from under the belt, a thick salt-and-pepper beard, and a black velvet kipah. In the same way, when he plays, there's no performative mannerism. It's just him, completely absorbed in playing. He gives the impression of losing himself so completely in the playing that when the song ends he suddenly remembers the audience's presence. When we break through the silence of our amazement and start applauding, he looks surprised that we liked it so much.
The first half was him playing on the clarinet. Most of these numbers seemed improvisatory, like very long doinas with occasional bits of pre-existing melodies sneaking in. It was heartwrenching to hear, in the way that it's hearwrenching to hear a chazzan's supplications when he davvens Hineni on Yom Kippur. I almost felt like I shouldn't have been there, like I was intruding on an intimate moment between him and God.
The show started a little after 10, and by a little after 11, I was beginning to wonder whether he'd ever pick up the mandolin. Just then, though, he did. It was smaller than the ones I'm used to seeing, and he slung the strap around one shoulder instead of diagonally across his back, so that when the tunes started getting more rhythmic and speeding up, I was worried that the instrument would vibrate out of his grip, but he held on tight, and so did we. This was the flipside of the first half, all the private pleading turned inside out and become public rejoicing. I tried to follow his picking pattern, but his fingers were moving too quickly for it to be discernible it, and I tried to follow the ornaments on the melodies, but they moved too quickly for my ears to follow, so I tried to follow the rhythms with my toes, but even that was out of my reach sometimes, and I loved that I couldn't keep up.
The drummer looked like he was having even more fun than I was, like he was playing with the noises he could make on every surface within arm's reach. At one point, he even drummed on the wingnuts that kept his cymbals in place to make a clokkier rimshot-ish sound. They played one song which was (I believe) called The Old Tin Can, a slightly folky tune in triple meter, with a repeating pattern of three accented notes on the last measure of every phrase, and whenever they reached those last three notes, the drummer found a new combination of sounds to accent them. It made me smile every time.
The room isn't spacious, and it was packed full, so now that the tempo had picked up, the temperature did too. Andy was probably getting warmer than the rest of us, with all his lightening-fast picking, and he asked the barstaff if they could turn on the AC for a few minutes. It came on with a barely audible hum. Several songs later, he played a few G chords and said, "Shall we do this one in G? That's what the air conditioner's on." He was right, it was humming a G, though I hadn't even thought to listen for its pitch until then. That seems like the mark of a true musician to me, to be so aware of all the sounds around you that even the music of the AC is on your radar. Apparently he lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn now. I wonder if he ignores the city sounds as the rest of us do, or if he can't help hearing an orchestra every time he steps outside.
Just in case they ever read this, thank you to PZ, JF, and The Advocate for their gifts and for being there to enjoy the evening with me.
*I would be remiss if I didn't mention that my birthday celebration actually began the night before, when Rob and I were letting tea and conversation stretch past midnight, and he quietly arranged for the very capable staff at the tea lounge to bring me a cupcake with a candle in it. Putting a candle in a cupcake doesn't usually take great ability, but in this case the cupcake less dense than usual, and the candle was a tea light, carved by hand until only the core was left. It was taller than it was wide, but only barely. The candle wouldn't stand up on its own in the softish icing, so they stuck a sparkly snowflake cookie into the icing to support the candle. So complete was their artistry that I thought the cookie was only there to be fancy and scatter the candlelight with its sparkles until after I blew out the candle and Rob pointed out how precarious the whole structure had been. Thank you, Rob, for making sure those birthday traditions were covered.
Current Music: Everyone Says I Love You, Pinataland
~ prattled by Miriam at 1:45 p.m. [+]
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