Monthly Archives: June 2013

As anyone who comes around here regularly knows, Friday is my day to relax and share with everyone pictures of the animals I love so much.

If you happen to have the a route that you walk frequently at the same time of day, perhaps you find yourself walking past the same animals all the time. There’s a church on my way to the local grocery store and on the sign in front, there are often Northern Mockingbirds singing. A the risk of anthropomorphizing them, I love these little birds who appear to be so proud of their dull gray plumage. Yesterday, I brought my camera to the church in hopes of photographing them. I must have gone too early because the weren’t there. However, this evening, on my way home carrying a load of groceries, I saw them. So I hurried home and came back  with my camera hoping they would pose for me in during the “magic hour.”

Sure enough, these vain little fellows know that that’s the most flattering light.

Northern Mocking bird perching on a sign.

I leaned against a street sign to keep out of the way of the pedestrians who had little interest in the performance. The bird saw my interest and flew closer, landing on top of the street sign. Apparently, he thinks this is his best angle.

A bird's bottom.

I noticed that I was not the only music lover in attendance.

A skinny cat lurking under a bush.

An American Robin tried to get in on the act.

A robin on a wrought iron bannister.

But the vain Mockingbird was not to be out done. He grabbed the spotlight.

A mockingbird perched upon a spotlight.

Finally, as the sun set, I headed home.

A sunset through some trees.

A friend of mine grew up in a household of committed socialists and committed Catholics in the East Village of New York back in the nineteen-fifties. It was commonplace for her to hear as a child strong critiques of capitalism in the United States. Added to this was the fact that her family saw themselves as Irish. Despite the fact that she had been born in New York City, my friend felt that somehow she was not quite American. As an adult, she was finally able one day to travel to her family’s homeland. She anticipated feeling some connection to the Irish people, of coming home, so to speak. The experience drove home for her how utterly American she truly was. She said it was ironic that she had to go to Ireland to find out that she was American. Ironic, perhaps, but not uncommon.

I probably would not have been typical any place. Certainly, I don’t feel much connection to many things that received wisdom holds to be typically American. I am not religious. I dislike regional planning based on cars. I listen to almost no country music. I am ambivalent about capitalism. I’m a bit intellectual. I am not overly fond of hamburgers and fried chicken. There is one thing, however, that makes me feel entirely American, and that is leaving the country.

They say that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. I have no idea who said that, but it’s a saying that I’ve been hearing since I was a child. Received wisdom is a compendium of many memes, and the inherent vileness of a love of country is one that came down to me. I was born not long after U.S. combat troops were first deployed to Vietnam. The close association between patriotism, jingoism and military actions meant that patriotism was seen as a start down the slippery slope to killing infants in a foreign land. A love of country could lead to a dangerous lack of love for people from other countries.

At the age of twenty-five, I took my first trip to Europe. When I met the friend with whom I was traveling at the airport, she looked at the cowboy boots on my feet and said to me, “Why did you wear those? Everyone’s going to think you’re an American.”

“And do you know what?” I said. “They’ll be right.”

I was not so lacking in perception to not have already known that among sophisticated Americans it was considered déclassé to present oneself in such a way as to be recognized as one, but the boots were comfortable and they were what I wanted to wear. Perhaps there was a small bit of defiance in my choice as well, but only a little.

We were staying in Trieste and one evening we went out dancing. While we were on the dance floor a group of young men we had seen at lunch arrived. We had taken note of them earlier for the not very elevated reason that my friend thought that a couple of them were handsome. The waitress at the restaurant informed us that they were German.

They came out onto the dance floor and one of them shoved my friend. We had gone out many times to questionable locales from Washington D.C. to Boston and had long since developed unstated signals. She got my attention and made a face and a gesture that let me know that it was time to leave. To get to our hotel near the water, we had to walk down a narrow, steep street that was for foot traffic only.  We heard what sounded like people calling after us from behind. We stopped. It was the German tourists who proceeded to surround us and yell at us. The shouted at us mostly in German, so I had no idea what they were saying. One word, however, was repeated enough that it stood out. “Turk.” Then one of them said, in English, “Hey, Israeli, you think you’re so tough why don’t you fight.”

A few seconds later, some Italian men appeared. The walked firmly and confidently past the Germans, took us by the arm and led us away. They appeared to speak neither German nor English, so I can only assume that they were responding to body language and the fact that five men were surrounding two women, the larger of whom weighed less than 50 kilos.

My friend and I puzzled over the mysterious word “Turk.” We speculated that, perhaps, since Turkeys were birds native to North America that Turkey was a German slur for Americans. A few years later, I found myself being mistaken for Turkish when it suddenly dawned on me, with my dark hair and eyes the German men had taken me for a Turk. In retrospect, our speculation was ludicrous, but we were very surprised and confused by the entire incident.

I do not say this in any way to abuse Germans. In all my dealings with Germans I must say that these men were exceptions. What surprised me most about this episode was that I had grown up being told that racism was a uniquely American failing.

Slowly, it began to dawn on me, that many of the failings I’d been taught to perceive as American failings, prejudice, racism, xenophobia, greed, a lust for power, were human failings.

In or about 1999, I went to go hear Noam Chomsky lecture. He is a popular man and the university lecture hall was packed with many admirers. However, there were also people ready to put to him what they believed were pointed questions. One person asked why, when there were so many worse governments around the world, Chomsky criticized the United States so harshly. At least according to my recollection, Chomsky responded that as an American it was where he had the most responsibility and could be the most effective.

A large part of this post, or at least the topic, was prompted by Josh Liefer’s post “Refusing to Stand: On Nationalism and Identity.” At the end of his post he asks:

Or to phrase the question with shameful naivete: I need to live in some country, some place, somewhere in the world. And all countries, or at least almost all countries, are parts of many terrible mechanisms of oppression. How do I justify being anywhere?

I felt much the same way at his age. I would like to modestly suggest that the question is not truly “How do I justify being anywhere?” but “How do I justify being politically active and engaged anywhere.”

It is something of a truism these days, and one that I think is correct, that attempts to aid members of other groups, whether those other groups are other ethnic groups, other racial groups, the disabled, the economically disadvantaged and so on, will be misguided unless those seeking to help have a sincere regard and respect for the people the are trying to help and can see those other groups as autonomous individuals with needs and desires as legitimate as one’s own. A similar ethic should be applied when seeking political reform in a particular country. You can’t help people you despise.

Perhaps it is due to the United States’ association with capitalism, but it seems to me that a dislike for the United States among its own citizens is more common on the left than on the right. When I was younger, I couldn’t help noticing among my own acquaintances that this was often, although not always, accompanied by a sense of superiority. I believe that I can recognize the subtext because I am not immune to the feeling. For those of us who are not professional politicians, politics is about trying to make people’s lives better, our own and those of our neighbors. We can better do this from a sense of love and respect than from a position of condescension and paternalism.

I am an unlikely patriot, but I decided to make patriotism a choice. It’s not always easy to love this country. I strongly suspect that it is not easy to love any country. Many are the days that I want to throw my hands up in disgust. However, the day I do that I believe I will no longer be able to be as engaged in politics. Certainly, I couldn’t expect that anyone would listen to me. After all, would you take advice from someone who hates you?

I know where I need to go, but I’m not sure how to get there, so I’m going to sit down with a glass of wine and try to set the stage for some complicated social problems that would occur in just a few short months.

If you had asked me back when I was fourteen if I liked music, I may very well have said, “No.” I can vaguely remember liking music as a child and I would learn to like it again in college, but my high school years were something of a musical wasteland. Furthermore, music wasn’t about music for my peers. It was a complicated declaration of social alignments and identification. We had entered the years of “Disco Sucks.”

Like a lot of middle-aged people, I’ve become a little out of touch with the current trends in music and totally out of touch with any social scenes that are attached to them. Still, when I glance around me, I don’t see anything that is accompanied by the vitriol that accompanied the rise and fall of disco. Our white ethnic, lower-middle-class town was the territory of “rock.” Not rock-n-roll, and most certainly not r-n-b. Rock, white boy music in active denial of its origins. A beat that was even vaguely danceable was banned. Despite the girl I’d met over the summer, punk was something happening in another country and I wouldn’t see hide nor hair of it again for another couple of years. It’s only in retrospect that I can look back and see how narrow my exposure to popular music was. Journey, Boston, Rush, Foreigner, Kansas. These bands still leave me cold today. Yes, Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull. Musical choices were highly limited. I liked my father’s old swing records more.

This particular teenage subculture went with a style, and I have to say it was far more gender neutral that it is easy to imagine in our current climate of exaggerated gender differentiation in fashion. A pair of jeans, a waffle weave “thermal shirt” with an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt over it, a pair of sneakers or work boots. It was virtually a uniform.

My new friend S had friends of her own, three girls who dressed in exactly this manner. It’s tempting to refer to them as tough girls, but how tough can you be at thirteen? Two of them had boyfriends who lived in the next town over. The boys would ride over on their bicycles, we’d sit around M’s living room and play records and just “hang out.”

One day, shortly after the boys had gone, M looked out the window after them. “Okay, they’re gone. Let’s go to my room.” In M’s bedroom, we stood around while she bent down and reached under the bed. She pulled out Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall like it was a secret vice. And here I was worried that it was going to be marijuana.

S’s secret vice was Bruce Springsteen. Bruce occupied a neutral zone in the battle between pop music and hard rock. He was most certainly a working class white kid from New Jersey, and that was a plus. However, he wasn’t hard rock. Somehow, he was regarded as just a bit lowbrow compared to the overblown art rock that held the most respect among the teenagers in our town. My sister was another devotee of the Boss and we had in our basement all the records he had recorded up until that time. S and I would go down to the basement. Her favorite was Greetings from Asbury Park. She’d sing along and dance around, acting out the stories. I can still see her now, miming flipping her collar up as she sang, “I could walk like Brando right into the sun,” then she’d take a step forward jutting out her bony preadolescent hip. “And dance just like a Casanova.” We were on opposite sides of that divide. If I had a body that looked like a young woman’s, S still looked like a child. She bemoaned many times that she hadn’t yet started to menstruate. “Really, don’t be in a hurry,” I’d tell her. “It’s kind of a drag, if you want to know.”

S’s parents were immigrants from China and by far the most strict. They liked me. I got good grades and if S said she was with me, they would let her stay out longer than they would if she was with anyone else. My parents were teachers and telling her own parents that mine said it was okay worked like magic to get approval for almost any outing. However, S’s parents didn’t approve of the other girls quite as much and more and more I found myself hanging out with M, SY, P and those boys from the next town over.

Boy, do we live in a schizophrenic society or what? I’ve been trying to get a post out for most of today. After reading one by Holly over at Love and Heretics, I wanted to write something to the effect of “Speak for yourself. I love sex. It doesn’t have to be a big emotional thing at all.” That seemed a little too short, so I followed all the links in her post trying to find something more profound to say, or, failing that, at least interesting, or longer.

The first link led me to Holly’s initial post in which she discusses what she feels are the negative consequences of being a virgin on your wedding night. She discusses it pretty frankly and I have to give her a lot of credit for that. It of course put me in mind of my wedding night, which was some of the best sex I ever had. Despite the fact that I was far from a virgin, our wedding night was still pretty special. My now ex did one of my absolutely most favorite things which, as able as he was, he only managed to succeed in doing on a handful of occasions. It’s a real shame that he turned out to be an emotionally stunted mess, because he was great in bed. I can’t help thinking that that might be one of the drawbacks of “kicking the tires” first. Sometimes the tires are so damned good, you don’t notice that the rest of the car is non-functional. Of course, the real reason I made such an oversight is because we were having a long distance relationship. I used to joke that we got married on our fourth date. It was the fourth time we met in person, although we’d been writing letters for over a year and a couple of those visits lasted a week. The relationship reached a point where it was jump in with both feet or end it, and we jumped.

Afterwards, he held me in his arms and was crying and said, “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.” That statement validated my own feelings. Sometimes after sex, when I’ve had a particularly intense experience of what I can only describe as being of a transcendental nature, I find myself wondering whether or not the other person experienced the same thing. Usually, they do. Still, sometimes you find yourself brought back down to earth wondering how much of what just happened was real. As a wiser man than I once said, the sexiest part of the body is the brain. Yes, there is physical stimulation, but a large part of what makes the experience so intense sometimes is in our heads. It can also ruin the experience.

It’s ironic that our wedding night was so intense because the first discussion I ever had with my soon-to-be husband when he was still a stranger on a park bench was about how neither of us believed in marriage. But governments do, so we got married.

After reading Holly’s initial post I followed her link to an article on the Huffington Post, which reminded me immediately of why I never read the Huffington Post. It’s so trashy that I feel like I need to take a shower afterwards. Beneath the article there was a painfully stupid “quiz” about which celebrities postponed sexual intercourse with their significant other until they got married. I was actually relieved that I’d never heard of half the people in the quiz. I don’t like to be totally clueless about popular culture, but I don’t want my head to be totally in the gutter either. The article itself was barely an article. It was a short video clip of interview with a woman who wrote about how taking a purity pledge as a teenager wrecked her marriage. There was a link to an article she wrote that appeared in Salon, which the Huffington Post with its usual low quality incorrectly identified as Slate.

This is where the world gets schizophrenic. Salon may not be as trashy as the Huffington Post, but it’s not exactly the New York Review of Books either. I could barely read the article that had brought me there with the title of another article staring out at me from the side bar. The Worst Porn Ever! Really! Ooooh. Don’t rush over there. It’s sounds pretty banal. Backdoor Teen Mom. Apparently there’s a television show that makes z-list celebrities out of women who have children at a young age and – don’t be too shocked now – one of them has cashed in on her celebrity by making a porn video. Guess what, the acting is bad. You’re shocked aren’t you. And here you thought that Backdoor Teen Mom would be the film that cements pornography as a legitimate art form.

Meanwhile, in our schizophrenic culture, Jessica Ciencin Henriquez was recounting her experience at a bible camp where she pledged herself to Jesus and received a purity ring.

And it wasn’t just the ring. This was a movement with T-shirts and hats and the added bonus of superiority over kids in school who couldn’t keep their clothes on, those sinners.

Missing out on sexual pleasure during her teen years made her feel “superior.” What can I say? It’s a big world and it takes all kinds.

She then goes on to say:

After an intense and very detailed sex talk with my mother , where she stuttered and I blushed and we both used the word “flower,” I was terrified of sex.

This reminded me of an incident that occurred the last time I went to the hairdresser’s. My sister came with me. The hairdresser is about my age and still absolutely beautiful. She is tall and thin, has a huge head of wild hair, rides a motorcycle and just has a look that you expect her to be pulling out a guitar rather than a pair of scissors. Unsurprisingly, she had a story about how the previous night she had gone with a friend to hear a band and ended the evening making love to the guitar player half her age. I said to her, “You say that as if there’s something wrong with that.”

“You don’t think so?” she asked with a leading high note on the last word.

“Well, was it good? Did you enjoy it?”

“Oh, it was great. He’s so good-looking, and he’s great in bed. And he’s funny. We just had such a good time. I haven’t had a night like that since I broke up with my girlfriend last year. It was just what I needed.”

“So, then what’s the problem,” I asked, sensing a negative note in her tone.

“Well, I’m not looking for a relationship with him.”


“Well, it’s my precious flower.”

In perfect unison, the muscles controlling both my and my sister’s jaws relaxed and our mouths slowly opened hitting the bottommost position at exactly the same time. Together, our heads swiveled on our necks, hers to her left and mine to my right, and we said, “Your… flower?”

The hairdresser took a step backwards, visibly defensive. Later my sister told me that she felt bad about her reaction but she had just been so surprised to hear a grown woman talk that way. “Yes,” she stammered, “my mother told me not to give my precious flower to just anyone.”

“Look,” I spat out, “you’re divorced, with two kids. You just ended a relationship with another woman. Please tell me you’re not still thinking of the advice you mother gave you when you were thirteen and everyone’s biggest worry was that girls would have babies before graduating from high school. We’re both of us baring down hard on fifty. If you don’t want Mr. Twenty-Something Rock-n-Roll, send him my way. He sounds like what I need, too.”

I sat down in the chair. As she cut my hair, I tried to reassure her that there was nothing inherently wrong about casual sex. It seemed that her only qualms about the night before had to do with what she was told by her mother over thirty years ago.

Unfortunately, Ciencin Henriquez’s story lacks any truly satisfactory introspection. We learned that she married young, had boring sex for a few years, then got divorced. As a coda, she tells us that she has since had good sex, some casual and some with a new husband. I do believe, do to my own experience and discussions with both male and female friends, that our beliefs about sex shape our experience of it.

What prompted this post to begin with is that in Holly’s otherwise fine post she says:

I think the distinction was made that waiting for sex until you are older and more mature, and the realization that having sex does indeed do things like give an emotional bond between people, and is more than just “causally having a cup of coffee” as sometimes it is tried to be made out to be is an important observation.

Truthfully, I often feel like the sour note in the chorus when I talk about sex because I do think it can be great if it’s casual. Looking back from the perspective of a woman in middle age, I’m glad I first had sex when I was fourteen. I know other people think it’s irresponsible to say that out loud, but that is the truth. I agree with Anthony Bourdain that, “Your body isn’t a temple; it’s an amusement park.” True, sex can be an opportunity for an emotionally bonding moment, but so can sitting up and talking until dawn. Finding a man I can enjoy fucking is easy. Finding a man I like talking to is hard. Everything in society tells me that I’m supposed to be stingy with my body and generous with my heart. Sex, they seem to say, is never an end in itself.

So, everyone seems to worry whether or not being a virgin on your wedding night is good for, or bad for, your marriage. The presumption, of course, is that marriage is the goal – for everyone. To me, sexual pleasure is a good in and of itself. No one asks if this crazy pressure towards marriage has a negative effect on your sex life. It’s marriage that is everything. Your pleasure is nothing.

Towards the end of Ciencin Henriquez mentions that her wedding dress cost more than the family car. This put me in mind of another episode in my life. My sister was getting married. They did have a real wedding. They were even married by a minister since my brother-in-law’s brother was a minister and he agreed to perform a non-religious ceremony. My sister and I had both sometime earlier agreed that spending a huge amount of money on an official “wedding dress” made no sense. If you just go to your favorite store and buy the prettiest white dress you can find without checking the price tag, you will probably wind up buying something that costs a fraction of a dress marketed as a wedding dress. So, one day I went to the store and I saw a pretty dress. I phoned my sister and told her about it. She said buy a size 8. I put it in large envelope and mailed it to her. She looked as lovely as any bridezilla and was a lot more fun to be around. Despite her lack of concern about her dress and the details of the wedding, she’s still happily married.

After all, your wedding day is still just one day. Your wedding night is still just one night. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Sex isn’t even for everyone. I don’t think there’s any one right way to live. I know I’ve done things that I’m supposed to feel ashamed of, but I don’t. One day, I’m going to write all of them down. There’s something out there that lies between thinking sex is not an experience to be valued in its own right, but only a means to an end, and Backdoor Teen Mom.

Oh, yeah, and the hairdresser, as she finished cutting my hair the phone rang. It was that guitar player. Guess he’d had a good time too.

At The New York Review of Books, they highlighted earlier this week an old essay by one of my favorites, Gore Vidal. In it, he discusses all the books that were on the best seller list at the time. I considered trying a similar exercise, but a look at the current best sellers convinced me that it would be too painful – three shades of Fifty Shades of Gray and The Alchemist. What the hell is The Alchemist doing on the list? Was it made into a movie or something?

I came across an interesting video on The New York Times website about the life of people who have to register as sex offenders who have no place to live other than a small, isolated community. Most people who know me well, know that I do not take the matter of sexual assault lightly. However, I have not liked many of the laws requiring people to register as sex offenders. They seem to me to not have been well thought out as to the consequences. The video itself is a little troubling because it appears to want to make the men seem too harmless. For instance, one man refers to sex with an underage girl as “consensual”, indicating that he still doesn’t understand that the law regards minors as being unable to give consent. Would he, continue to prey on juveniles if he had access to them? It’s hard to say. Furthermore, the end of the video makes the statement that no sexual crimes have occurred in “Miracle Village.” Since most of the residents appear to be men who were found guilty of statutory rape and there are no underage people in the village, this outcome is unsurprising. However, it’s hard to see laws that do not allow for rehabilitation, and eventual reintegration into society, as being just.

A story in The New Republic, tells about how, when some Islamists took over Timbuktu and burned shrines and the library, a group of librarians saved the books from the Ahmed Baba Institute, a bright moment in an otherwise depressing incident.

Yo! Your chiefness. Not for nuthin’ – but I’m from Jersey, exit 154 off the Parkway if ya really gotta know. (Yeah, I know. I’m a snob. And what are ya gonna do about it?) Yeah, that’s the “New” Jersey. I guess we prahbly lack the “grAHvEEtAHSS” of the old Jersey, which is like… a cow or somethin’. Whatevah.

So, you’re worried about the fucking barbarians? You see any barbarians around, send ‘im our way. We’ll give ‘im a little talkin’ to. Get this barbarian problem straightened out in no time. Trust me on this.

Hobbes, Spinoza, Voltaire, Nietzsche. So, it seems like you prefer your atheists dead. Lots of people like their opponents dead. Let’s see. Voltaire… hmm, you talkin’ about the guy that said that Jews “are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.” That Voltaire? I don’t want to be presumptuous, but aren’t you, like, Jewish? I mean being a rabbi and all. That’s kinda weird, no offense. Me, I’m always on the verge of liking Voltaire when I remember that shit, pardon my French, and that crap about Africans being dumber than apes. And Spinoza, you mean old Benedict? The guy that was thrown outta your tribe? And Nietzsche… I dunno what to say about Nietzsche. We hadda read a few of his books back and school and, no disrespect, but I got the feeling he wasn’t too right in the head. And Hobbes, okay, ya got me, I only ever read Leviathan, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we’ve gotta nail down what ya mean when you say “atheist.”

So, ya got yer preferred atheists. Didn’t see my name among them. S’okay. I got my preferred Jews, and I’m not gonna hurt anyone’s feelings by making the list public, but let’s just say, no disrespect, but your name’s not on it. Whatevah, my list of favorite atheists is prahbly diffrent than yer list. S’okay. At least we got that Spinoza fellow in common.

Ya got me on that sub specie aeternitatis thing. I’ll be straight wit you. I hadda look it up. Sorry you feel it’s been dumbed down. Can’t really address your problem unless you can be more ‘pecific. Who dumbed it down? Where? And yeah, I’m tone deaf, so what of it? Letting me sing Christmas carols, that’s my definition of Christian charity. As far as the book of Psalms goes, I understand what ya mean. Me, I always feel bad for people who think Robinson Carusoe is a children’s book, also for people who don’t get the profundity of Wilke Collins’ The Moonstone. As far as transcendence and the miracle of being, I’m not sure if you really want to go there. The first time I got laid, that was fucking transcendent. I kid you not. Really. It was fucking great. To be totally honest wit’ ya, I sometimes suspect that real religious people didn’t get good mind-blowing banging at the right age. But, hey, that’s just an opinion. And as far as that drama stuff goes, just between you and me, I could use a little less drama in my life. I’m just sayin’.

Not bein’ a reader of The Spectator, I s’pose I could leave it like that, like you say. But I’m not gonna, ’cause I’m kinda a pain that way.

So now we’re back to Nietzsche. So, he said that, without the Christian faith, Europeans whose ancestors had for a time been Christians, would cease loving their neighbors as themselves (which I’m glad they did ’cause otherwise they might have had some progroms or crusades or somethin’, just sayin’) and the strong would dominate the weak – good thing that shit never happened. Hallefuckinglujah and praise Jesus for that.

You know what that put me in mind of. The first page to Harvey Kurtzman’s The Jungle Book. A classic. One of my favorites, like the book of Psalms is one of yours. It reads “UP FROM THE APES! / (and right back down) / In Which Are Described / In Words and Pictures / Businessmen, Private Eyes, Cowboys, And Other Heros — ALL EXHIBITING — [THE PROGRESS OF MAN] / From the Darkness of the Cave / INTO THE LIGHT OF CIVILIZATION / by means of Television / WIDE SCREENMOVIES / THE STONE AXE / and other useful arts.” Okay, I’m gonna be honest wit ya. I never really had a favorite Jew list. I nevah even thought about it. But if I had a favorite Jew list, Harvey’d be on it. Which makes me wonder. Why aren’t the New Jews like the old Jews? The old Jews were funny, clever, intellectual-like. They questioned the assumptions of society. They weren’t afraid of barbarians at the gates. They WERE the barbarians at the gates. Why can’t the New Jews be incisive and intellectual like my favorite Jews? Why can’t you, Rabbi, be more like Harvey? Harvey was fuckin’ great. There was some gravitas in Annie’s fucking Fanny. If ya can’t appreciate the wisdom of Harvey, what can I say, some people are tone deaf and maybe I oughtta leave like that. (For the humorless – I’m parodying Mr. Saks’ article. I don’t actually believe there are “New Jews” and “Old Jews,” just like there aren’t really “New Atheists” and “Old Atheists.” However, Harvey Kurtzman was truly one of the greats of the sequential arts – and that’s no joke.)

So, you say, “Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation.” Nice sleight of hand there. First we’re talking about Christian ethics which has suddenly become the Judeo-Christian “sanctity of life.” I’m not really sure what that means. Do you mean that people who do not, and perhaps never did, worship the tribal god of Abraham’s people do not have the concept of the “sanctity of life” and there is “nothing to contain the evil men do when given the change and the provocation.” I mean really. What the fuck am I supposed to say to that? Have you ever read Bartolemé de las Casas? Do you know anything about any culture that existed beyond Europe and parts of the Middle East? Do you truly believe that in the Americas, in Africa, in Asia there was more evil than there was in Christian Europe? Really, ya gotta get outta the house more. Jerry Coyne gives you far too much credit when he says, “Sacks could have been a scholar, a surgeon, or any number of professions that are actually useful.” Personally, I’m glad you’re not gonna be operating on me anytime soon.

As far as where morality comes from, well, other people have addressed it. Honestly, from my point of view, it isn’t my problem. Here’s a problem for you. If the tribal god of Abraham is the source of all morality, what is the source of morality for people belonging to other cultures? Or do they not have morality?

Personally, I don’t believe we should worship anything at all, certainly not the market. However, do you believe that coddling of the banks by governments around the world after the financial crisis was a result of atheism? Do you believe that failure to understand the work of Keynes and respond to the crisis with sufficient stimulus was a result of atheism? Do you believe that atheists have caused the crony capitalism which is spreading through our governments? Is this all the work of atheists? Are there no Jews and Christians working at those banks or numbered among those CEOs?

Being from Jersey, the new one, I don’t know about the “mild Christian Britain.” Here, we used to have something called “genteel anti-Semitism.” As someone who can pass for Wasp, let me tell you, there’s nothing genteel about it. It just throws me for a loop when Jews wax romantic about the past. Really? You want to bring back the days when Jews were excluded from certain occupations, from certain schools, certain clubs. Damn! I don’t want to bring that back and I’m not even Jewish.

Humanity hasn’t been here before. Take a look at the growth of the material well-being of the average person over the past couple of centuries. Only the comfortable and insulated can deplore this as materialism. For most people this means decent food, decent housing, medication, education and many practical things. It is individualism that brought Jews out of the ghetto, that made slavery undefendable, that allowed women to choose their own future, to make hereditary rule inexplicable. My own struggle with the liberalism promoted by the Enlightenment is why, without leftists and radicals, it has been so weak on the questions of social justice where I feel it should be stronger.

Rabbi, you and I will never see eye to eye on a simple fact. I do not believe that people should be chained to the group to which they were born. I believe that people should have the freedom to live the life they feel called to live. I believe this for the reason that I want this for myself. Your beliefs, if they were followed to their logical extreme, would send Jews back to the ghetto where you could be prince of the paupers. The segregationists in the U.S. tried to promote the idea that separate can be equal. It can’t be.

Finally, at the end, you mention the barbarians you first named in your title. It was a long time coming. You are so vague, I would have had no idea about whom you are speaking except that other people have identified these barbarians as Muslims. After many paragraphs complaining about atheists, it seems that the real threat is another group who also worship the tribal god of the people who trace their lineage to the mythical figure of Abraham, specifically, those among them who are most fervent in their worship and who most believe in the absolute truth of their holy book. This is… how do I say this… odd. You denigrate atheists at length because… Muslims.

Honestly, at this point I can only guess at what you’re trying to say. Enlightenment Liberalism will not defeat Islamism? Is that your argument? Rabbi Saks, I’m afraid you wrote the most incoherent mess of nonsense and I’m not sure why I spent so long responding to it. The only reason I’m publishing it is because I am already behind on my posts.

It never ceases to amaze me whenever someone with a magnificent crown of fluffy, frizzy or curly hair straightens it. I was born with a topping of lank, limp strands that hang straight down into my eyes. Neither thick nor thin, and too shiny and slick to tie back easily, it slips out of knots and buns, and, no matter how tightly I tie a pony-tail, the elastic slips down to the end, so it feels as if I’m constantly fussing with it.

I mentioned how my sister had taught me to dress in the popular mode. Slowly, bit by bit, I was turning into a teenager. As a child, I had some unaccountable obsession with my hair. I wanted it to be as long as possible. I’d scream when my mother tried to cut it, so eventually she stopped trying. At one point, it was long enough that I had to move it out of the way to sit down. Then adolescence came.

The late seventies. Farah Fawcette and hair that swept away from the face in patterns known as “feathers” and “wings” were all the rage. My sister got her moderately curly hair cut and she spent every morning with the blow dryer. Her hair is naturally thick and she managed a big, fluffy, Farah Fawcette ‘do quite well. The next step in my transformation was being dragged to the hair dresser’s. I went willing since I had already learned how some small changes in footwear or brand of jeans could make one’s life so much more pleasant. With the right look, you could live at the library and no one would care. If clothes are unimportant, I reasoned, why get beaten up over them?

Off to the salon to have my long hair cut to a length just below my shoulders, still officially “long” hair, and to have my hair cut to form bangs, with would be angled and layered in preparation for the final step of blowing them into “wings.” My hair was too straight for the massive feathering like my sister had and the look did resemble the avian anatomy for with it was named. Perhaps if I actually found the style attractive I would have been less bothered by what followed. However, I had taken on this look for social, not aesthetic, reasons.

The next morning, I was in for a surprise. My slick hair was exceedingly reluctant to stay in the flipped back position into which it was blown. Fifteen solid minutes in front of the mirror making the right side go back. Then fifteen minutes on the left. Now they were noticeably asymmetrical with the left side higher than the right. Back to right side for five minutes. Now that one was higher. Back to the left. After about forty-five minutes I was finally able to leave the bathroom with hair that wouldn’t lead to endless mockery and social ostracism at school.

At the end of the day, my straight hair had reverted to its natural shape, just as it always had, and I arrived home with my hair hanging in my face, a stray bit of the angled bangs defiantly curling inward and poking me in the eye. I sat on the floor, hiding on the other side of the bed where no one would see me and cried. I didn’t cry because I disliked the way it looked. I cried at the thought of spending forty-five minutes every morning playing with my hair. Over five hours every week. Two hundred and seventy-four hours every year. I was horrified by the thought of so much of life being wasted looking into a mirror.

The official school picture was taken that week. In it, I’m glowering like a typical maladjusted teenager. I was angry, angry everyday that I had to spend time playing with my hair. What to do?

I convinced my mother to give me money to go back to the salon. My mother, a former cheerleader, felt that my new interest in my appearance was a positive development, so it really wasn’t the indulgence it would seem to be to someone outside our family. I sat in the hairdresser’s chair. The hairdresser was a young, perky, slightly flaky woman for whom I had a natural liking. She asked what I actually thought did look good. Another woman who worked at the salon was a small bird-like woman with a big poodle’s mane, like a 1970s rockstar, was working behind us and I could see her reflection in the mirror. I said, “Like that.” She ran her fingers through my hair. “We can’t do exactly that, but we can do something similar.”

“Will it be difficult to style in the morning?”

When I heard that it was about the easiest thing I could have chosen short of a crew cut, I said, “Great! Let’s do that.”

Of course, like all other beauty treatments, this was a time-consuming process. My hair was tightly wrapped around dozens of tiny little plastic curlers. Then a foul-smelling chemical was doused all over the top of my head. While I was sitting baking under the dryer, my scalp started to itch and my ears felt as if they were on fire and I started to wonder if I hadn’t gone out of the frying pan into the fire. I was seriously contemplating how that crew cut might look.

After a half an hour, the hairdresser took me out from under the dryer. She unraveled one curler. Back under for another ten. Ten minutes later, the ritual was repeated. Back under for another five. She started to get nervous because she was afraid to burn my hair off. In the end, my stubbornly straight hair needed fifty minutes to be forced into a curl, but finally I had a head like a poodle.

The next day at school I was greeted with “Hey what happened? Did you stick your finger into an electric socket.” No one could claim that suburban middle school students are original. I must have heard that jeering line fifty times that day. I didn’t care. That morning, I bent over at the waist, toweled my head dry, fluffed it up with my fingers and was out of the bathroom in about two minutes. Maintaining this style would take about two hours once a month. Two hours times twelve months, that’s twenty-four hours. Comparing that to the nearly three-hundred hours for the wings, I tossed my new corkscrew ringlets over my shoulder and turned my back on the people laughing at me.

The joke about the electrical socket got old really quickly and by the third day, when someone said it, another kid said, “Jeez, that one’s old.” Then a funny thing happened. A few days later, someone else showed up at school with a big head of curly hair. Then two. Then three. Eventually, even my big sister, who had taught me how to dress, went to the salon to get her hair cut in layers that would make her naturally wavy hair look curlier. Soon enough, all the girls in my school were looking something like Peter Frampton on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive!

It might seem like a rather trivial incident about hair, and in a way it is. But I learned something really important about negotiating social situations that week. If you can brave the initial mockery, other people often come around in the end. The key was that I didn’t apologize or seek to explain away what I had done. I was proud of it and showed it off.

It would be another five or six years until I’d get that crew cut.