Saturday, September 23, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dear World!

Niall and I were at the Dodger game last night, erev Rosh Hashanah 5767. Tommy Lasorda appeared, on his natal anniversary, and got a cheery wave and huzzahs from the 45,000 of us. But, of course,– being spawn of a film archivist expert in the dangers of litigation, the benefits of public domain, and differing from more generous-devious country-cute (Gretta so disparaged in “The Dead;” cf. Dev’s nickname not to his long face compared to the ‘Spanish onion in the Irish stew’of the “cute hoor,” cute not being necessarily in either case an Irish endearment) me when it comes to self-defined “fair-use”– well, our Niall observed sagely of we 45,000 unwittingly law-abiding revellers, “they can’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’ since they’d get sued.” Dodgers? Tommy? Us? Still, no one I could hear burst into that iambic quatrain, all the same.

I can attest by observation that Frank McCourt’s wife, being ‘of Jewish origin,’ was not in shul last night but at the park. As were we. Sometimes family trumps even observance. Conviviality deserves its place wherever we can grasp it in this bewildering whirling globe. And, Frank and his wife waved to us– dear Niall in cap of course particularly– as they walked across an empty post-triumphant verdant expanse towards the team bus behind the bleachers (why are they called “pavillions”?); Niall and I had been leaning over the fence 360' back discussing the field’s dimensions as the crowd dispersed. The security guards, at the moment the couple approached, albeit from 50 yards away, shooed us away as if we were perched on a grassy knoll with sniper scopes. A dull game, but we enjoyed the walk to and from the stadium and the fresh evening air.

I had written into my wife’s MySpace a New Year entry but one click of a hurried hand whose manipulator had been summoned to dinner had erased it irrevocably from this Book of Life. So, again my mournful existentialism. Since turning, if a bit later than Dante, this past year into the middle of my life’s way precisely, if I hit 90, I have felt mortality, Big Questions unresolved, the lack of purpose or the hidden reason or the sheer accident of my existence as if nearly constantly. They say when you hit 30, or 40, you’re supposed to, but at 30 I was caught up in the double turmoil of a fresh marriage to begin and a lingering PhD program to finish. 40 I remember by my surprise party at the short-lived Museum of Death in Hollywood, but not any angst, at least no more than the usual heaping spoonfuls ladled into my consciousness before I even remembered. Thus my purgatorial research, my eschatological fascination, my apocalyptic schadenfreude.

Anyway, if you want to read such musings you can pick them with far greater insight up from Camus. I have been meditating, if that’s the word as I loosely apply it, when cutting strawberries at the sink or washing dishes (more since the dishwasher died last week and I ladled out for an hour as if in thimblefuls by the end all the standing water from the bottom of the machine), that scene in Die Grosse Stille when the Carthusian brother’s cutting up the lettuce into the leaves presentable and those discardable. As with nearly all the 2'45" film, the silence magnifies the sound. When viewing this, the cumulative effect of, as Philip Groening sought, time’s passing and its permanence sinks in deeply. I have consciously sought the “be here now” (that Dick Alpert neé Ram Dass sure got the short end of the roach thanks to Tim Leary, although I am only at about 1964 in Richard Greenfield’s Leary bio) when continuing to chop away the fruit and dunk the mug. At least this moment in the day reminds me by my small task of ‘ora et labora,’ the Benedictine injunction of combining prayer into work so, I suppose for monks, they can strive towards their seamless integration into the soul and body permanently, as time passes.

Quite catholic if meant with little “c” along the big. Is it praying? Maybe not as the faithful think it so much as the thoughtful. Not that the two are contradictory: this is one of many manners how “learned” adepts condescend to those without abbreviations after their name. I find as I get older that taking what I can value from a variety of spiritual and intellectual traditions enriches me, however minutely or fleetingly. Pope Benedict mused (before his professorial if perhaps brusque medieval citation of a papal delegate’s critique of a devious Islam that deigns to sway the world by violence rather than by love) recently in his native Bavaria of how in our age that we have amplified our own voices and diminished God’s message. It’s difficult, he mused, and I paraphrase and rephrase, to hear the divine when we clump about the planet as if we own it. Europe, as the nine centuries of Carthusian tradition attest, has a venerable tradition that still calls a few; but what of we many “extramurals”? The way to the Pure Land, to Seventh Heaven, to the Ein Sof, has always been that, as Muhammed envisioned, of the knife-edge we must walk on or slip – at least in his infernal cosmology– into the lake of fire. What use do such metaphors have, however, for those of us who do not reckon such a fate awaits our post-mortem condition?

Most Jews, many Christians (statistically most of all Catholics), and I deduce lots of Muslims such as share my workplace who I see munching away during Ramadan place little if any credence in terrifying injunctions to resist the lures of the secular or suffer unending torment. Secularized Europe, relativistic (no matter what both the left and the right say for varying purposes) America, and in time I suppose the rest of our fellow earthlings all will reach their own entropy. Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, David Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and the reflection I read recently by I think Arthur C Clarke all predict a non-theistic endgame. Clarke in a thousand years imagines that if anyone invokes religious belief, they’ll be shunted off to the loony bin. Still, as with the deifications of Mao and Lenin for purportedly deterministic regimes, the people need their illusions. The pressures of materialist consumerism, capitalist capitulation, and rational thinking all press upon billions. Like the Chinese censoring the Net and insisting upon communist fealty or the Islamists who cannot comprehend the existence of a “liberal” Muslim, perhaps for now the campaigns to enforce by threat or punishment a loyalty to a cause that has receded from instead of beckoned towards ourselves will endure. Yet, if the Church could not command fidelity once technology’s appeal, literacy, and the exchange of marketed ideas and goods began to spread among its adherents, how can a billion Muslims or Chinese be expected, in such another revolution of goods and flurry of messages, to remain behind a wall or a border?

A survey taken in America identified today four types of a God. Those in the East tended towards a critical deity: one who disdains our faults but prefers to mark us down silently for demerits rather than catch us by the scruff of our neck. The South leaned under an authoritarian deity who ladled out condemnations and, if more rarely, approval. The Midwest liked a benevolent God who seemed happy when people followed the righteous path. The West preferred a distant deity, who perhaps set it all spinning way back but who now huddled out of sight off-stage to watch our performance. What would the Creator of the Universe, melekh-ha-olam, say from Sinai if he read today’s copy of the Forward? The mailbox opens, the page unfolds, Matisyahu’s playing on his GameBoy; a black rapper embraces Orthodoxy; a man “of Jewish descent” claims that his Bubba Pig’s Café near Branson, MO’s the target of racial and culinary wrath; George Allen Jr, thanks to the Forward’s etymological hunches about Ladino “macaca,” is found to have a Jewish mother who only told her son a month ago the truth; and thanks to Mexican immigrant initiative, a kosher slaughterhouse is found to have hidden 127 lbs. of pot. Such is our Jewish America, 5767.

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