From Literary Gaffes to Perfectionism

My Aunt Margaret sent me a note today, that she has read all of my Blogs and found them “interesting.” However, she says, and this is why I am writing this, that I got a fact on Dan Rather wrong: he was not a World War II vet but slightly younger. She said it was more accurate to say that though he lived through the Great Depression, “he was a reporter in the late twentieth century and today.” She is right to be such a stickler–as she said, somebody is likely to play a “gotcha” on you if you get even a minor fact wrong and in a published work.

To be honest, though I believe such a mistake is unusual in me together, I am going to make a confession: I was a “B” student who didn’t clean up that GPA until late college. Even then, I didn’t do to well in grad school, although strangely teaching at the mental health club where I worked after grad school did wonders for my ability to read and write nonfiction. Yet I am going to explain what my trouble as a student was: I was too undisciplined. I remember one paper in college I wrote while my stepdad was dying. It would have been selfish not to visit him at the hospital, but I am convinced looking back I could have juggled my time outside of that better. What I did was wrote a long paper on Harry S. Truman. Now, the information was good. Yet here’s the sinker and why I only got a “B”: I didn’t use footnotes or endnotes. You can’t do that in academia. I’m just lucky my teacher was kind and gave me that good a grade (a B). True, I had read the main biographies of Harry S. Truman: David McCullough’s and Alonzo Hamby’s. I also did something I shouldn’t have: I used the play Give ’em Hell Harry, which though I believe is historically accurate.

Most of my gaffes weren’t that bad, but there were plenty of them. The papers that after eight of ten pages, I ran out of things to say. The countless papers in which I did not write outlines for and whose meandering arguments contained lots of good information but not really the power of a forceful premise or conclusion. The fact that it was not until college when I fully ironed out the occasional ungrammatical sentence, such as the run-on or the sentence fragment. And of course, that tragic flaw in any student was mine: a refusal, unless studying a foreign language, to really memorize vocabulary or maps. All I can say about my lackluster performance as a student (in the era of the “gentleman’s B”–or “lady’s B” as the case may be), is that if I thoroughly loved a subject I could study it to death, and learn a great deal–but that if I found it tedious or dull I was the worst student imaginable. I suffered for that “C” in Algebra, but it was one of the few “C”s that was not fully my own fault: I truly am not gifted in math. Ironically, there was however one Creative Writing Class I got in a “C” in for reasons I am embarrassed of till this day: I both turned in a paper that was too short and showed up late to the final.

So how did I change? Well, I sat down and talked to my favorite teacher. I asked her what it would take to write an “A” paper rather than a “B” paper. And she agreed to help me by looking at the paper I would finish before it was due at the end of the semester. I did all of my research for all of my papers that semester early. How do you do that? By starting the research right after getting your syllabus on the first day of class. For each day I worked on a different class, Monday through Friday. On Saturdays–Shabbat–I did all of my “readings” for the next week. And on Sunday I did all of the work that was not done on weekdays or Shabbat. By the end of the semester I got a 3.8 GPA for 5 classes.

Something helps that might surprise the reader. I learned Jewish work skills from Rabbi Aluf and the other Jews on Tuesday nights when I was at the synagogue learning about Judaism for the first time. True, the class was a little Orthodox and the rabbi was neither openminded nor unusually intelligent. Yet without knowing it, those Jews were my support system emotionally whom I also learned what hard work was from. I had, of course, heard–almost everyone has–that Jews are “hard working.” They were. Yet learning things like Kosher somehow translated into learning other skills. And though there were some in the group who did not seem particularly devout–a woman named Elaine comes to mind–when she was at her regular job she worked very hard. Too hard, almost. I sometimes wondered if she did anything fun in her spare time, or if she even had any. Well, I learned the Alefbeth (the Hebrew alphabet) and a few words of Hebrew, and I listened as the rabbi told stories from the Torah and midrash, with a mixture of his own family and travel stories. I did this amidst gossip and jokes. Don’t get me wrong: the poor man had his flaws (I was never convinced as an intellectual he went very deep), but he was a good friend at a time in my life when I needed one. Despite thoroughly not liking a few of the rabbis our synagogue we had afterwards, I feel like I owe the Jewish people a lot. They taught me how to be happy.

At Breakthrough teaching, with the now defunct Kelley Kincaid school worksheet books, I taught elementary math and grammar. Somehow this helped me. Not that I had any trouble with grammar anymore. Yet simply by working hard at teaching students what adverbs and adjectives were, I picked up on things I hadn’t noticed learning grade school and middle school writing and mathematics. By the time I finished I had no trouble writing non-fiction papers of my own. Isn’t ironic? That by teaching you can learn things you never noticed as a student.

I hope anyone reading this does not feel that I have outlined ways to learn which are as daunting as climbing the tall mountain of success. Yet remember: a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.

All By Myself

There is a Charles Dickens quote to his best friend John Forster which, not finding it, I can only paraphrase: “Was there a friend I never had who would have truly understood me?” Well, John Forster and Wilkie Collins understood Dickens as well as anyone did. Even his wife Catherine must have regarded him as a mystery, and I have never had the time to read the biography–there is one on my shelf–about Ellen Ternan–and know if she and Dickens had better luck. (I am less angry at Dickens regarding his first failed marriage because my own parents are divorced and perhaps I buy the argument, “Maybe they just weren’t right for each other.”) Though I cannot answer whether any of my work is as good as his–it sounds like egotism, but I hope at least some of it is–I feel a certain sympathy for his feeling that “nobody understands me.”

I know people think he is self-indulgent. How can a man with so many adoring fans possibly be lonely? I guess, however, that I can see it. I remember a pop song that I listened to about Superman as a kid expressed the universality of feeling lonely,

I can’t stand to fly

I’m not that naïve

The better part of me

I’m more than a bird

I’m more than a plane

More than some pretty face beside a train

And it’s not easy to be me.

It may sound absurd
But don’t be naïve

Even heroes have a right to bleed
I may be disturbed
But won’t you concede
Even heroes have a right to dream
And it’s not easy to be me

(Forgive how this quotation looks. I have trouble cutting and pasting sometimes.)

It helps me with my mental illness and lack of success finding a publisher to know that my hero got lonely, too. It also helps me to know that there are authors like Kafka and Melville whose greatness is not realized until after they are dead–even if I hope to have better luck. As for the song… I used to listen to it in the nineties when I was in high school, or later when I was in college, and I found myself thinking about the tragedy of the human condition is that even when a person has plenty of things and has no hunger pains at all, they can still feel lonely. I had read a book that was quite hard on Dickens, but I wonder if the writer understood something: as loving as Catherine Hogarth might have been–and I have nothing against Dickens’ ex–maybe she wasn’t capable of understanding him for some reason. Even his harshest biographer describes her as “lacking imagination” and that makes me wonder if a truly cruel person (me) might think “dumb as a post.” For me I never believed I could really marry somebody who wasn’t smart. I don’t know… is it egotistical to believe that an author of books couldn’t be happy with a spouse who didn’t understand her reasons for writing? Could talk history and literature and philosophy? Frankly, I felt sorry for Dickens and Catherine both. Why did they need such a cruel book?

I wonder… if I ever had a lover, who would it be? I have asked men out before. They always say “No.” I remember there were two “yeses” from school before and after grad school. Oh, they were both awful. And no, neither realized when I asked that it was supposed to be a date. Imagine the guy you going out with talking the whole time only for you to go your separate ways without meaning anything to each other–and he never realizes that it was supposed to be a date. Then there was the second, “Oh, this was supposed to be a date? That does make me chuckle. I don’t date.” Then there was the guy who did mean it to be a date–but thought after thirty minutes that we should go to his apartment and have sex. I got home unharmed and threw his telephone number in the trash. It is as a Methodist friend of mine in Claremont put it, “It’s like what girls want to tell some guys who only want sex, ‘No, it’s not me. It’s you. I hate you.'” She and I felt that the only question was why we had to be polite to the jerk when evidently all he wanted was a one-night-stand. Those dates were my love life after high school (I had one boyfriend in high school, though while we were dating one other boy who did ask to go out with me).

Anyway, that is my macabre love life. I quit watching romantic comedies years ago and never could stand romance novels. Yet if a man ever came to town to see me… who would he be? Would he be smart? Would he be handsome? Would he have money or be poor like me (it is really because my income is so little that I live with my mother)? He would have to have a college degree. If he needed to find work himself, I could make a compromise: I’d find some low-level job while trying like heck to get the books I’ve already written sold. There’s a Taylor Swift song “You Belong with Me” before she sold out to Hollywood-esque “sophistication” in songs like “Wildest Dreams,” in which she sings a song that could be me as a kid–and now. I had one boy tell me, “I only date models” and another said after turning me down, in what was supposed to be beyond my earshot, “She’s neat but ugly.” The first of these two was not even as good looking as I was. On another occasion he had even told me, “The truth is, Jenny, neither one of us is ever getting a date because of our looks. We have to have something more to say or nobody’s listening.” I don’t know why after that he couldn’t accept that I wasn’t a model, but I guess that’s how guys are. Truthfully, there have been lots of guys who have turned me down in nicer ways. What cuts about that Taylor Swift song is that Taylor Swift even in that song is still pretty. Why does somebody need to be pretty to sing?

I guess if a girl is supposed to put effort into their looks, I am partly to blame for the apathy of most men. I weigh 300 pounds and wear no makeup. My t-shirts, blue jeans and tennis shoes make me about as dressed up as the average guy in Kansas. And I know it: Charles Dickens was shallow about women’s appearances. He didn’t like fat women. Yet there are so many men that way–even the one obese guy I asked out in college who told me that he didn’t date because he had been hurt by two girls back in high school who he had gone out with. I don’t know that we had much in common, but I guess I had to try.

Abraham, Then and Now II

I have a mere 6 pages typed up of “The Call,” part of my lecture series Abraham, Then and Now. I believe I can finish this lecture–projected at 10 pages long–tomorrow. I have written down much of the part on Christianity. Largely this involved a lengthy quotation about the Apostle Paul from Bruce Feiler’s Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. However, I need to complete that part with selections from the New Testament and Early Christian Writings. I also want to write about Islam in another quotation from Bruce Feiler and then some of the Quran. Then I shall see if there is room to write about Thomas Mann’s Abraham, Avivah Zornberg’s Abraham, and Bill Moyer’s Abraham. Looking this over, I may not be finished until Sunday. Yet I will try to finish Christianity and Islam. Throughout I shall be guided by Bruce Feiler and Karl-Josef Kuschel’s Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I am waiting for “Prehistory” and “Sarah and Hagar” to use Jon Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham; Legends of the Jews; the Sefer ha-Aggadah; and Prophets of the Quran. I will Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and Elie Wiesel’s Prophets of God along with certain Biblical and Quranic passages for “The Akedah and It’s Aftermath.” The Bible is quoted in each of the four lectures, as is the Quran.

Looking over this, I am struck–though I shall not be able to expand beyond a certain point–by the many faces of Abraham. It reminds me of an evocative title name to a film whose contents seemed oddly lacking in promise on the back of the take: “The Three Faces of Eve.” I forget what it was supposed to be about. Yet I hope to tease it out of the different sources about Abraham that his personality is multifaceted, and as Whitehead thought God changes over time, so too does Abraham. Perhaps the character of the Prophet Abraham reflects a reality which is constantly reinterpreted by human beings, even as there may never have been a literal Abraham about whom the story remains.

I remember a rabbi telling me that many Jews in Israel who are not religious regard the Bible as “mythology,” much like the Iliad and Odyssey. Perhaps they are half right. I also like to think, as Peter Gomes wrote in The Good Book, the word is “lively” and points to something greater than itself, which is God. I want to believe there was a moment when God reached out to touch the Jewish people–much like the scene in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel where God’s finger touches Adam’s–realized that they had been chosen by God for a special destiny, a destiny which would change the world.

Scholars believe that the Israelites did begin as slaves, whether as runaway Egyptian slaves (perhaps the Shasu) or as ex-Canaanites in the mountains of what would become Israel. Either way they were aware of Egypt, and in their rebellion for God they argued that God could be against the status quo. They might not yet have the idea that all men should be free, but they believed they as a people should be free. This is in marked contrast to the Egyptians, whose religion was almost designed to teach complacency about Pharaoh’s absolutism and the acceptance of a person’s suffering in this world in the hopes of an afterlife in the next. Whatever later Judaism taught about the afterlife, in their zeal to exorcise all things Egyptian from their faith in a previously unknown God, the early Israelites spoke of the need to practice their faith in this world. More, it was Spartan simplicity that they stressed in how they lived. They would learn about the World-to-Come later. In those early days they learned how to be free.

I find the “Many Faces of Abraham,” is an exciting way of expressing some of the ideas I hope to work out in some longer book someday. I admit I am only of middling philosophical talent, but perhaps it will prove useful to somebody. William James quoted G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in Pragmatism, and having read both books I can only say I prefer Pragmatism. Yet perhaps somebody will read it, and it will matter to them. It doesn’t matter whether they are a great philosopher or an ordinary person. Perhaps it will bring somebody back to God without their becoming a fundamentalist of some sort. I don’t mind fundamentalists exactly except that their insistence on attacking Charles Darwin and Julius Wellhausen (when they know the name of the man who formulated the Documentary Hypothesis). Well, that and the apocalyptic form of Christianity.


Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite Hollywood Actors. I know that he was both “way back in the past” and “not the sophisticated Betty Davis or handsome Cary Grant or physically stunning Grace Kelley.” Yet there was something so lovable about him, something that transcends the greatness that these other actors achieves in the parts they played so well. Though not all of his parts were as good natured as the film this article is about–he was equally convincing as villainous and pathetic roles in Alfred Hitchcock films–I think that in all of his films, down to the animated An American Tail: Feivel Goes West as Wylie, he always appeared to be exactly the type of person he was supposed to be in the film. Yet my favorite film he was in was the real Jimmy Stewart–the World War II vet who couldn’t capitalize on his success in the military when he didn’t have to join at all or the married man who was a paragon of virtue during his marriage in an industry where it was not unheard of for a man to have five wives or vice versa–Harvey.

Harvey is my favorite film, even including such greats as the remake of Sabrina and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, because I love the idea of a six-foot rabbit in the head of a “madman” which turns out not to be imaginary at all. Though supposedly less able to help people than Betty Davis’ On Voyager, a film I like for its early interest in humanizing the sick, or Rain Man, the film intended to show the human side of autism, or the classic and breathtaking A Beautiful Mind, I like it even better for its emphasis of something I always see in Cervantes’ Don Quixote in the second half of the book, and Man of La Mancha all the way through: sometimes it is the lunatic and not the world who is right. Jimmy Stewart must have known that mental illness sometimes makes people insightful, for they see truths other people do not. I have not read the book version of A Beautiful Mind yet, but on the back it said that the schizophrenic whom it was about was asked, “How with your marvelous abilities in mathematics could it be that you did not imagine that the things you were imagining were absurd?” and he answered, “Because my delusions entered my mind the same way my best ideas did.” Yes, the man’s illness was harrowing, as were some of the early psychotropic drugs he tried to cure it with, but for him genius and madness were intertwined. That was his greatness and tragedy. He was King Lear.

Elwood P. Dowd, the character Jimmy Stewart played, has the perfect foil in his sister Veta Louise. She is petty though not truly vindictive. She cannot bear the thought of the neighbors knowing her brother is crazy. More, he must be crazy because everyone knows that human beings do not really consort with six foot tall rabbits. Why? Because “Pookahs” or six-foot-tall rabbits simply do not exist. It is the extraordinary that this woman fears. She wants an ordinary, orderly life. It is not enough that Elwood love her, he must conform to the patterns of the average person in her small town. Though not evil exactly, she lacks imagination–until she has the misfortune to meet Harvey herself. Now if you ask a psychiatrist today, all too many will insist that somebody who is truly sick, unless you are in their family or perhaps unfortunate enough to be their spouse, is not capable of giving or receiving your love. Before Freudian analysis and psychotropic drugs, they simply aren’t human. An untreated mental patient is not human almost, and only a doctor can really do anything for them. This is the great lie of the mental health profession, which Freud no doubt did not actually mean to perpetrate in his work.

How does this bear out in a person’s day-to-day life, sick or not? I remember there was a website I was on for some time before finding out they just weren’t “my type of people” for a personal and painful reason. This person on the site was discussing how she was one of two couples, of whom she was married to the man she was then dating. However, she said, of the other couple, the man revealed to the woman that he was schizophrenic, and took pills for it. Now bear in mind: they were engaged to be married. Shocked and horrified, she dumped him. She was scared of the thought of living with a man with such an illness, and–supposedly–betrayed by the fact that he had waited so long to tell her. Though still on strained but speaking terms, they never married, and the two couples were never close again.

Now, bear several things in mind: schizophrenics are statistically less likely to be violent than the general population. Most mental patients, in fact, are not more likely to be violent than people who aren’t “sick.” I am not saying an abusive man might do well to try to get therapy, but if you are in one of the “major mental illnesses” that is no reason for society to ostracize you as a potential abuser or murderer. True, people with Bipolar (my own illness, I am sad to say) are more likely to abuse than their peers but not enough so to say that the average Bipolar patient does. What it really is in this illness’s case the truth is that sometimes when a Bipolar patient goes from a depressed to manic state, she loses (sometimes) her emotional and physical self-control. That is why in some cases they are likely to become violent. However, as I said, the majority are not.

I did not write anything on that Blog or to the person who ran the site about it. Yet I never could return afterwards. For a healthy chunk of my life–before I got my pills–people thought I was immature, I think. So it was I felt for that schizophrenic, whether if we ever met we would have been friends or not. Why was he not the same person after being sick as he was before? Why did this supposedly nice person not have it in her to see he was still the same and it was she who was different. She lacked what Jimmy Stewart had in Harvey. She lacked the ability to love somebody who was “different.”

It is a perversion of Freud to say the sick do not need and deserve love. This may be the only thing that Harvey understands us about it, but it doing so its heart goes deep. By the way, in none of the films I named does a good or well-meaning person slam the door on somebody they disown as no longer human to them. More, when I read Donna Sommer’s (an abused autistic woman’s) Nobody Nowhere, I remember reading that before finding a psychiatrist, there was one kind boyfriend whom she treated terribly–if she had been well enough to realize it–only for her next boyfriend to be physically abusive. Yet that normal boyfriend–I forget whether the woman he was with afterwards was his girlfriend or his wife–allowed Donna to recuperate in his house with his significant other’s help. She had hurt him, yet they both forgave. That is–on a personal level–a model for how the sick should be treated. As for Donna… I never did read the sequel Somebody Somewhere, but she would become friends with Temple Grandin and although she described her illness as a cage, she still bravely seeks to live a normal life–or as normal life as any autistic person can have. She is a survivor.

Temple Grandin herself discovered, however, the one neat truth that on most days is my experience: she insists that without diseases like autism and Bipolar, there might not be much variation in human personalities. We would all be a bunch of “boring conformists.” She says autism is a part of her, and she cannot imagine herself without it. Among other things, it helps her understand animals. With that in mind, I will admit that except on rare occasions when I have the blues (and am Donna), I sometimes imagine Temple is right. I am able to see my Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder as a gift–not a curse–from God.

I have told people often that my illness is like a Kaleidoscope. I see and feel things other people cannot understand. The broken glass which cuts and yet somehow can heal, too, distorts the light that comes into it. People do not really feel sorry for me much of the people who know me. I seldom know if it would make me better if they did. Yet looking through my Kaleidoscope, I am in awe of the beauty I see. And that is what Elwood P. Dowd saw in Harvey, I believe.

Loving God with All Your Soul

Years ago–before 9-11– I was taking Greek History, and my teacher asked us as we read part of Thucydides quoting Pericles, “People ask today, ‘What is it that is worth dying for? Is anything? Do we really know?” She asked this because Pericles is defending the Athenian way of life against the Spartans. He says to live in a democracy–the world’s first–is a privilege worth dying for. Well, I hear him there. When I was thirteen, even though I was a girl I fantasized about joining the marines. I actually watched M*A*S*H* fantasizing about fighting the Korean War with Hawkeye, barely caring that he thought it was a useless war that didn’t need fighting. Well, time past and my youthful desire to join the military faded. Partly this was probably because I was a girl, and also because with all of my pschotropic drugs I am not even eligible for the military. A mental patient on the battlefield is a liability and not an asset. Yet part of me regrets it in a way. When 9-11 hit, could I have “fought the good fight,” good fight or no? (Even at the time I knew that fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t make a lot of since: besides being a two-front war, Sadam Hussein didn’t play any real part in the 9-11 attacks. I hated George W. a lot in fact. I still believe his economic policies led to the Great Recession, too.) Anyway, I didn’t fight.

Yet for me there is one cause holier than even democracy: God. Would I die for him? I may never know. I hope, in a way, that I never will know. Yet I think of Rabbi Akiba. I read somewhere that in fact he may only have died in a Roman jail cell–and it was for reasons of his religion. Yet in the Ten Martyrs, a famous Jewish prayer read on Yom Kippur, he says, “All my life I have wondered why it is that the Sh’ma says that we shall love God ‘with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our might.” Now he knows: the heart in Judaism is the same as the mind, the might is his possessions–but the soul is his very life. Now he could go to God happy, because like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, he has given all he had. Only he gave not to a boy he loved but to God.

Since the Holocaust, Jews have shied away from expressing the faith in a way that emphasized beauty in martyrdom. They were traumatized and cannot know if, after Auschwitz, even God is worth such a terrible sacrifice. Even an Orthodox rabbi I had who was very narrow minded said, “I don’t know if I would die for God. Yet I live for God. I don’t need to know more than that I live for God.” Another rabbi, a Conservative one, told me the Talmudic rabbis tried to discourage Kiddush HaShem–Sanctification of the Name, a form of martyrdom which existed because there were Jews who when Roman soldiers told them on pain of death to violate Shabbat would not do so. Because of the Holocaust, Jews have even seen the Akedah–the Binding of Isaac–not as a beautiful tribute to their faith but as a crime. Who could give up a child that way–even for God? And this is by Jews who still love God, and perhaps as sincerely as Rabbi Akiba.

As somebody who never went through the Holocaust or had a relative who did, I can never fully appreciate the grief this represents. Yet it blames the wrong person. It is not God or Abraham who cause the Holocaust. It is Aldolf Hitler. More, his motivations had nothing to do with the teachings of Judaism nor perhaps even the Teachings of Christ (whether we agree with Christians on much or not); they were formed in the cauldrons of modern race theory. Jews should not feel guilty for the Holocaust. Jews should feel proud that their ancestors would give so much for God. Or if they are not religious, they should feel proud that their ancestors would die for the sake of an idea or a way of life. Jews may yet turn out to be the heroes of human history.

I remember as a child I read Anne Frank’s diary. I loved Anne. She was everything I wished I could be. More, I loved her relationship with Peter. Yet the tragedy of her death has haunted me ever since. Yet it was her basic goodness that moved her. She believed everyone should have a God of some sort. More, she believed human beings were “basically good” even after all that had happened to her. I remember reading about how she went to the camps, and how she saw some Gypsy children, lined up to be gassed, “Lies,” she said to a friend, “Their eyes, look at their eyes.” Her friends said that she told them at last they were together, and in that there was nothing to fear. More, despite the surroundings–think of those poor gypsy children–she was never hardened into not seeing pain in others. That was her victory over Hitler. That and her diary.

I never blame Jews who wonder why I joined their faith. I know that the Jewish people suffered a lot to even survive. More, there is anti-Semitism in my background that I seldom tell them about: my dad’s whole family hated Jews and Catholics in a way that was cruel and selfish. Yet I truly believe God spoke to the Israelites in the Wilderness. I won’t go into what I believe Judaism is based on (sometimes besides being an author in my spare time I am a lightweight theologian–at one time I even hoped to be a philosopher). Yet I really believe that if I am lucky perhaps in Heaven, I shall get to meet the real Anne Frank. I won’t tell her if I think God is something a person should be willing to die for. I will say something else here, though: Anne Frank is worth being willing to die for, and her diary, too.

Abraham, Then and Now I

I have read all of the books that I had to read for my four-class lecture series: “Abraham, Then and Now.” I have already started the writing: a page down in the computer from a few days back, and three written pages which is where I began after I got all of the raw material into the living room. I am not going to have time to read some of the philosophical material I wanted to use (Maimonides, Buber and Brueggemann but also Whitehead, Hartshorne, Hegel), but perhaps after the series has been written I can read those things and then make additions and subtractions from the class I shall give at my synagogue.

You see, I have a theory about the Bible. It is that the meaning of the Bible changes overtime, so that the original meaning of Abraham’s story is perhaps no longer the “true” meaning of Abraham’s story. Perhaps Abraham’s story–which was surely told and retold among many different people at many different times for many different reasons–is really the lived in the life of the reader as they approach the Holy Bible with awe and reverence. Though it is not Abraham’s story, I will suggest it here: perhaps the bush Moses discovered had been seen by dozens of shepherds in the wilderness and they were unmoved, because the miracle occurred only for Moses. Well, the Call of Abraham–the story of God calling Abraham in a dream–perhaps if approached reverently, any reader can partake of the Call.

Perhaps all people who read it read it truly, even if they are like Elie Wiesel, who denounced the story because in his Holocaust experience he thought he saw the true cruelty of sacrificing a son to God. True, he thought he rejected the story in his head, but in his heart he could not, because Prophets of God–his book where he told Abraham’s story–is too in love with the scriptures to actually denounce them. In his last prophet–Job–he pleads his piteous case and proves it just: he cannot accept the second part of the book where Job acquiesces to God and embraces faith again. Wiesel accuses Job of cowardice. Yet he says he must have the first half of the book. His claim: I (we) was (were) good and God let us down. Yet I (we) believe in God’s goodness and want our answer. I (we, Jews) want to know why God allowed the Holocaust to happen to me (us). We pray, but we want our answer.

Well, Ellie Wiesel is dead, and yet I know he is in Heaven with his family. More, I know God has given him his answer. Yet I do not know what it is. I can only hope he is happy with it. I hope I am happy with it, when I get there. The irony, though, is that arguing with God, like Abraham, Moses and David, Elie Wiesel also could not give up on God or on his Bible. That is what the true Jew can never do–and perhaps not the true Christian or Muslim either.

I believe that when a person meets the “text” (I had a Catholic teacher in high school who hated calling books texts), the Torah breaths life but the there is a third “person” there: God. God speaks through the Torah. God speaks to anyone who is listening. Yet sometimes God is coy: it takes more than one reading to truly understand God or the Torah. Plus, it must not be seen as an onerous duty which one “does to go to Heaven.” It must be done joyfully, prayerfully. If it is seen as a kind of drudgery, the Torah will not give up her secrets. Now, let me be fair: I did know of one Christian woman who did not like reading, and who read the Christian Bible from the shortest book to the longest. This worked for her. She was even devout. Yet despite my genuinely liking this woman, I could wish–though it would do no good now–that some friend had invited her to a prayer group where they had read the Bible together, so that she had discovered through the camaraderie that the Bible was more than just a duty. That it like Wisdom was “a Tree of Life.”

All of this is why I am writing the lectures for my first class about Abraham. He is a beginning place for me. I know that despite only knowing a few words and grammatical structures of Hebrew, I know a great deal about Judaism. A friend of mine asked me about a figure in the Bible–the Behemoth, I believe–and I looked it up in the Sefer ha-Aggadah and told him what he said. Yet I realized that my knowledge was selfish. I have read the Bible and New Testament 4 times and the Quran 5 times. I have read other Jewish books, some of them multiple times. Yet I simply know the information and do nothing with it. Well, I am not rabbi material. Yet I went to my rabbi with the problem: is there a way I can impart my knowledge to others? And he suggested I teach a three-session class. He asked me what the subject should be. I decided to start short and simple: Abraham. And he agreed. So this is my first class… It will be January 16 (Sunday) and because I have increased it to four classes, it will end on February 3.

Asparagus Rolls

There is a terrible misconception about cooking. Betty Freidan, though she meant well, is its most famous proponent: Cooking is “drudgery.” This view is well intentioned in its way: Betty Freidan and others who were forced to live in the home came to view its principle occupations, the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning, as things that nobody really enjoys doing. Perhaps for the latter two they are right: I have never particularly enjoyed doing the laundry and only enjoyed things like dusting as a child. Yet cooking, they forget, is the occupation of European chefs, whose special recipes win them money and esteem. This is because real cooking is an art form, and the main difference between it to painting and sculpture is that the object d’art is gone in a relatively short amount of time. It is like and unlike music in that regard. Musical concerts are heard by an audience, who listen reverently and then go home. Yet because the music is written on paper (ala classical music) or recorded (ala Jazz) it has a certain timelessness. (I won’t argue here the merits of pop or folk music.) Evening suppers contain unrecognized greats because only the family of the cook eat them. Yet there is this surface similarity: cookbooks exist, and so do recipes that accomplished chefs compile.

Now tonight I used the kind of improvisation cooks have. I was making a recipe I have in a book: asparagus rolls. It is a relatively simple recipe, but–alas–Mom forgot to get the lemon peels for me and also did not get white bread but wheat bread. Nonetheless, I made passable asparagus rolls. Here is the idea (for once I will cheat the reader by not using the recipe book):

8-12 stalks of asparagus

lemon pepper (as opposed to pepper and two lemon rinds)

4 tablespoon mustard

16 ounces butter (2 sticks)

8-12 pieces of white bread (I used wheat but white is really better)

  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Boil asparagus for 10 minutes or more.
  3. Melt butter.
  4. Mix lemon pepper, mustard and butter.
  5. Brush bread with butter mix (or use a spoon and spread it on the bread).
  6. Place a piece of asparagus in bread and roll bread.
  7. Drizzle top of the asparagus roll with mix.
  8. Put on cookie sheet.
  9. Place cookie sheet in oven.
  10. Cook 25 minutes.
  11. Take out.
  12. Eat.

The original recipe only makes 8 asparagus rolls, and lemon rind–whether as lemon zest scraped from the lemon or from lemon rind from the spice rack in the grocery store–was something I didn’t literally have. Yet I am proud of my “creation” because though I didn’t have exactly the ingredients on hand and boiled all of the asparagus I had, I like to think we had a truly fine supper–and leftovers. I do not know if we shall eat the leftovers, but I do not know. I am afraid, however, I shall not write tomorrow about whether we shall eat them.

To really cook is an act of creation. I know there are people who don’t like to cook who still cook well–but that is the exception. The real cook is the person who loves it as a painter loves and a sculptor his chunk of marble. Though strictly speaking most professional cooks–bakers, cheese makers, winery owners, and chocolatiers–are seen as mere “craftsmen” along with smiths and welders and such–it should be noted that Michelangelo himself could not scoff at good craftsmanship in the form of people who cut chunks of marble for sculptors for a living. In fact, his problem was that as much as he admired them, he could not let them select his marble for him. Part of why it took him so long to make his statues is because he would literally carve his own marble out of the mountains. Nothing was too good for his art. So he did the craftsman’s job and not just the artist’s. That is why each of his famous works is not only well made but involves the very finest marble. He really could pick just the right piece of marble.

The cook, therefore, is doing work Michelangelo himself would not have scorned–at least, not if he were consistent. Italy and France are not only the homes of great art but also great food–and there is nothing inconsistent about this. What is sad is that even in these cultures, the cooks are less than the painters and sculptors. People always take their daily meals for granted, I suppose. They forget that the words “give me today my daily bread” are contained in the Lord’s prayer. Though perhaps it only signifies a person’s need to survive, perhaps it also points to the basic truth that a person’s bread is a holy object.

Jews have always had a peculiar relationship to their food similar to the Lord’s prayer. During Temple times, people sacrificed animals at the Jerusalem Temple. Yet when the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis had an ingénues idea. They said that the table where people ate symbolized the Temple, and the prayers said sanctified the food. More, the Hallah bread represented the sacrifice, and I believe that is when the custom of “salting” the bread began. Why salt the bread? Because in Temple times, the priests at the alter salted the meat as a form of cleansing it. Hence the Temple was domesticated and made portable. And every synagogue, on Shabbat, re-enacts the sacred ceremony we all share with the Hallah. All of this gives an extra religious significance to what we eat.

Jews are not known for our cooking the way the French or Italians are. Yet food–the nourishment it takes to survive–is precious to all of us. Some time I shall have to write about the glories of matzo ball soup or Hanukkah’s latkes or Kol Nidre’s honey cake or the special dishes of Pesach (the bitterness [horseradish] or sweetness [charoset] on “mortar” [matzo]). I shall explain that serving chicken on Friday night was a custom among Jews at one time because it was the only meat they could afford, and they wanted to do something festive for Shabbat Eve. Or rather, I will explain more.

Yet for tonight I will leave my reader with this paltry recipe of asparagus rolls.

Flawed Heroes in Greek and Hebrew

I have often contemplated the notions of Heroism in Greek mythology and in the Hebrew Bible. I will compare two “flawed” heroes. One of them is Achilles. Achilles in the Iliad is flawed because of his pride. It his pride–and not just his heel, though that it is military weak spot–that kills him in the end. He is not even as good in the conventional way as the man he destroys on the battlefield–Hector. Hector would fight for Troy. Achilles simply wants revenge for his best friend’s death. Achilles “wins” the fight. Yet ultimately Achilles loses: when Hector’s father comes for his body, he realizes for once what a cruel man he is. So what is heroic about Achilles? It isn’t his nobility to modern readers. It is his being–to use Aristotle’s terms–“like an animal or like a god.” For to Aristotle the Greek gods are not hemmed in my morality or reason. In this respect they resemble animals. No, these things exist only for humans. So it is that godlike Achilles will eventually realize–before he dies, but not long before–that he is mortal, and not a god. For even to the Greeks, to whom the gods don’t have to be moral, human beings are fettered with the laws of mortality. That is why the heroes of Greece are all “flawed.”

Now, David may seem an odd choice for a “flawed hero.” Yet he is the most obvious one in the book. Despite being a man God calls “after my own heart,” he lusts for a woman, Bathsheba, who is Uriah the Hittite’s. He calls her over to his house and seduces her–and apparently with the promise that her son shall be king one day. Such is his passion for Bathsheba that he ignores all Jews think is decency. When Bathsheba is pregnant, David calls her husband Uriah home from the front, but Uriah refuses to sleep with her. Why? Because Uriah is the saint David is not. Although he loves Bathsheba, he loves his fellow soldiers more. If they are fighting at the front, he must not enjoy the comforts of home. He knows that if one of them dies while he enjoys the cushy spot away from the front, it makes him a coward in his mind. So the plot is foiled. David sends a letter to the front telling General Joab to place the unfortunate Uriah in a place where he is likely to die, and the deed is done: Uriah is dead. So David marries Bathsheba. Nathan the Prophet reveals to David the evil of his deed, and David is punished.

Yet for all that, in the end God forgives David. David is allowed to remain king. That is the difference between the Jewish God and the Greek gods. The Jewish God demands justice–and David is punished before he redeems himself–but the Jewish God also exhibits mercy. It may not look like what we moderns think of as lenience. Yet that is because we do not understand God yet.

God lives both inside of us, “the still, small voice of God” in our hearts, and is emanate. God evolves with us from Imperfection to Perfection. God created us to help him finish the world. The first step he took was freeing the ancient Israelites from servitude. Then he poured his Spirit out upon them. First there was the Law, then the Prophets, then the Rabbis of the Talmud. And God is still working through us, trying to get it right. And he is working through non-Jews, too. For though they may have only a partial knowledge of God to a Jew, they are God’s children, too.

As for David… David is blessed because David is forgiven.

What both of these stories try to grapple with is the Imperfection of Humankind. Yet in Greek thought, the Imperfect man dies of his Imperfection, whereas in Judaism, the Imperfect man can be made whole once more. His brokenness is not the whole point. He can still be the “Greatest King Israel ever had.” That is why though while Greek thought is poignant and moving at times it speaks more to the mind than the heart, the Hebrew Deity speaks to the Heart of Humankind. It is the Hebrew tradition that realizes God could speak to a people in slavery as his “children,” whereas Achilles might be a very rich man in fact. Perhaps despite the Founder’s fascination with ancient Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment, it was the Great Awakening’s spirit that would eventually fell slavery. For if ever America was great, it was her heart and not just her mind. And the slaves–they loved Moses as much as Jesus for his passion for Justice for the Israelite slaves.

The Gradgrind Education System

I remember when I was in High School, Charles Dickens was my favorite writer. To this day, his illuminating spirit guides me in much of what I write. I am convinced my desire to help poorer people than myself began with Dickens (and perhaps even the New Testament). My dad’s second wife would read through everything I wrote, and Mom read through most of it. Yet there were two people who never read a single word I wrote when I was young–Dad and Jim. And if my dad was just apathetic, with Jim it was a worse reason. He told me two things point blank, “If you could write like Charles Dickens today, nobody would read it,” and “You can’t get a job just reading books for a living.” Now I find myself trying to sell The Bible According to Eve: Women of the Torah, and being cursed with the welts on my soul left there by Jim. When book reviews are few and far between, and the money is scarce, I ponder gloomily the fact that the man who raised be didn’t believe in any of my dreams at all.

If Jim had been a nicer man, I suppose what he might have said was, “Keep reading Dickens. You will find your own voice someday. Then you will write.” That is what a kid who wants to write should hear. They should be given books to read, journals, legal pads to write on, and pens. Then they can grow into writers naturally. I am actually convinced that if in childhood a kid writes sporadically that is the sign of future greatness. Why? Dickens himself wrote stuff that was only so good at that age. He was not writing full-length novels at sixteen. Though he blossomed young for a writer, his first novel–Pickwick Papers–was not published until he was twenty-four. Most writers, in fact, do not blossom till later.

I think of the school system in Hard Times by Dickens. Though it was not one of his better books (even great writers have books that if they didn’t have their name on it would not be remembered), it outlined the Gradgrind system of teaching school and running a society. It was his genius to realize the limits of Utilitarianism–that true beauty is more than mere usefulness. Sissy Jupe is the character who Thomas Gradgrind has at her school. She is a happy child despite her poverty–but causes complete consternation to her teacher, because she is not dedicated to her studies with her nose to the ground (in grade school, no less) and is playful and loving. He even sees evil in her desire to draw horses. What Dickens got right to me in this book, is that people are more than simply “useful.” Society should not just diminish hearts and minds to “the means of production” (I don’t really like Marx but the phrase fits).

I was in a college prep program when I was in High School, the International Baccalaureate program. I dropped out of it my Junior year. At the time I thought it was my fault. Yet today I wonder if it was perhaps too hard for any child, and that is even though many of the kids more successful than I was went to Ivy League schools. I remember I had a friend whose hands shook because she was working too hard at her homework. I am certain I would have committed suicide if I had stayed in it. I don’t think that the work load in it should ever be normal in the Public School System, however lackluster the accomplishments of average kids in the Public School System appear to be at the moment. Yes, I want the kids to read David Copperfield, too–but I don’t want their teachers to tell them that they are given a paper to write on Friday that is due the following Monday, “And if you don’t, I will give you an ‘F.'” I have never met a single college professor as mean as some of the teachers in the I.B. Program were. That was the Gradgrind System’s essence. (I hope nobody thinks I am truly lazy after reading this.)

I have one acquaintance who went through the I.B. program who admitted to me that although she got all A’s in it, “I never care if I read another book again.” She now works at Barnes & Noble, but she doesn’t care about the educational miracle I.B. was supposed to perform on her head. She doesn’t even want to go to college. She was not lazy. I am not sure a single kid in that program was happy during the time they were there.

Anyway… I am afraid for me in I.B. Jim thought I was simply lazy and that was why I couldn’t squeeze that 4.0 out of me that I’d never gotten in the Public School System either. The evening my parents agreed to let me rejoin the regular school system’s kids, they had a conversation about it on the porch with me sitting there, listening. I was not allowed to say a thing. Jim was downright mean about the whole thing and Mom was trying to smooth things over without directly contradicting anything he said. I did get out, though.

I did eventually reform in one sense: my work skills are much better today than they were in high school. When I write, I write 1-2 seven page chapters daily, or 1-2 short stories per week. When I “research,” I read 50 pages in the morning and 50 pages in the evening–but no more. I also learned something from a public school teacher: do things when they will need to be done in the future, not when they need to be done or when you want to do them. This has served me well. Yet I still believe the I.B. Program was too darn hard, and that instead of great thinkers it created kids who never wanted to read again.

Truman’s Favorite Poem

I remember as a kid my dad and stepmom showed me a film, Give ’em Hell Harry. It was not very age appropriate, and I suspect as history it is not totally accurate, either. However, one thing is probably true, since I have read books about Truman since. Truman is asked in the play what he thinks the future holds for mankind. And he gets out a section of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” which he says he reads over and over again periodically and has rewritten several times when it gets illegible. I think that this segment of the poem is particularly important to be reread because it shows how the current generation of politicians and pundits and spiritual leaders are letting down America’s best past leaders.

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

I had a history teacher who said part of Truman’s vision was based on the Bible and this belief in the future of humankind was also involved in the United States under him being the first country to recognize Israel.

We as a country need to quit fighting in wars like Iraq and Afghanistan (our modern Vietnam) which were besides being unjustified (Iraq didn’t have the nuclear weapons and we long outstayed bin Laden’s death) tore up our relations with our European allies and were not even in our best interests strategically. That said, what our leaders have lacked goes beyond the pointless wars–it was a lack of vision. America has lost faith in the nobler instincts that went into fight World Wars I and II and their aftermath. And though it was Tennyson who wrote “Locksley Hall,” the dream of a universal law embodied in the United Nations needs to be revived in Americans.

In the Hebrew Bible there are segments which Truman–who claimed to hold both Testaments close to his heart–may have read many times in Isaiah:

[The time] has come to gather all the nations and tongues; they shall come and behold My glory. I will set a sign among them, and send from them survivors to the nations: to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud–that draw the bow–to Tubal, Javan, and the distant coasts, that have never heard My fame nor beheld My glory. They shall declare My glory among these nations. And out of all the nations, said the LORD, they shall bring all your brothers on horses, in chariots and drays, on mules and dromedaries, to Jerusalem My holy mountain as an offering to the LORD–just as the Israelites bring an offering in a pure vessel to the House of the LORD. And from them likewise I will take some to be Levitical priests, said the LORD.

For as the new heaven and earth

Which I will make

Shall endure by My will

So shall your seed and your name endure.

And new moon after new moon,

And sabbath after sabbath

All flesh will come to worship Me

–Says the Lord.

The United States needs to understand that the world IS worth saving. Yet it cannot be saved if we are bad people ourselves. I discovered working with mental patients that only by being a good person could I help my patients. If a patient is not given a healthy environment, he cannot get well. A person who is sick at heart cannot help another. That is why though we must not neglect the world stage, we must look inward and ask if we are really living up to our better angels at home. We must remember that in the early 1800’s before the Civil War, the twin causes of freeing slaves and a woman’s right to vote were not the only way in which reformers wanted to better society. Alcoholics Anonymous was founded then, and so were dozens of societies devoted to bettering the lot of the working class. And all of this was under the blessing of the religiosity founded in the Great Awakening. God was not in politics, but God was alive. People who had been afraid that the “secularism” of the American Revolution, had to bring God to the people.

What Americans need to do is look back at the ideals of both the Declaration of Independence and even their own Christian or Jewish Bibles (or the Quran or other scriptures, for some of them) and find the impulse to create a “good” society. Donald Trump promised to make America “great again.” Perhaps it is more important that we are “good again.” We could start by taking our COVID-19 shots and dispensing them and other medicines (like birth control) all over the world. We need to quit being Uncle Scrooge to the world, just as we need to quit blaming poor people at home. The poor are not the worst sinners in our society. And, yes, society can be saved. I still believe it.