Bob Schwartz

Practices

Practices

Our practices grow ragged
From disuse
Or irregularity.
Don’t fret.
There they are
Patient for our return.
Once a day
Once a year
Once in a lifetime.
Always ready and waiting.

Poem: A Flight of Stuff

A Flight of Stuff

Simple enough
Pack and go.
But what was this airport?
People I knew
And strangers
And strangers I knew.
Narrow passageways
And great halls.
Why was my stuff unpacked
And whose stuff was it anyway?
My companions had headed for the gate.
What time was the flight?
So many bags
So much to review and repack
Or leave behind.
This and this,
I remember this
But this, this,
What is it?
What does it do,
What would I ever had wanted with it?
Had the flight left?
Concerned but not panicked
A whisper of sadness.
The more I looked around
The more there was.
Where was that flight going anyway?
Why had they left me alone
Behind with this stuff?

Istanbul

Istanbul Street

Above is a photo of a street in Istanbul. It is one of hundreds I’ve taken of the city.

Today’s news, a bombing at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport, might discourage visits to this city—a city that depends on its fully-deserved tourism.

Istanbul from the Terrace

Istanbul is possibly the most fascinating city in the West. Or the East. Or in the East and West, since Istanbul is literally the historic and cultural bridge between two worlds. The Christians came. The Muslims came. And then as the Muslim world tried to find its ways in the 20th century, Kemal Ataturk formed a new kind of modern Muslim nation—one that was more Western, one that had its own language instead of Arabic. Rooted in its history, reaching for the future, it has stood apart.

There’s not a lot to say right now. It can be hard for people to ignore the possibility of random terror just to experience this urban treasure. Which is a shame. Because as many special cities as there are, there is only one Istanbul.

Istanbul Cat

Hunter S. Thompson and Political Journalism

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

Hunter S. Thompson developed one of the most original and irresistible voices in American journalism. He killed himself in 2005, and nowhere is his work more missed than in politics.

To sample that voice, you can and should try The Great Shark Hunt, the best single volume collection of excerpts from his many years and areas of coverage. If you just want to see what he did for and to political journalism, read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

We can only wonder what he would make of this political season and of the major party candidates for President. Wish he was here. That would be something. From his first exposure to Richard Nixon, for example, Thompson saw right through to Nixon’s dark soul. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who saw it, but he was the only journalist who would talk about it at all. Talk about it in ways that seemed borderline deranged, because faced with twisted truth, sometimes only the twisted can tell it like it is. Or as Thompson liked to say, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Thanks to him, it’s a little more common now to hear a bit more seemingly immoderate but completely justified criticism of questionable candidates. But not as much as we need and not as much as is deserved. Not as much as Thompson would have handed out.

Here is an excerpt from Thompson’s 1994 obituary for Nixon (“He Was a Crook”).   Note his criticism of the failures of “Objective Journalism” when journalists are faced with the extraordinary.

Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,” according to one scholar from Duke University.

It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Summit for Change: Streaming Online

The Summit

Summit for Change in Washington, D.C. begins today at 6:00pm and runs through Friday. The event is streaming online. Please watch a little if you can.

The Summit is a gathering of 300 leaders committed to changing the world through faith and justice. This diverse convening creates opportunity for building relationships and cross-sector collaboration. Through meals shared together, inspirational talks, and opportunities for smaller group gatherings, The Summit event provides a space for leaders to connect to their peers and find hope for the future.

The roster of featured participants is mind-blowing and uplifting.

If you’ve maybe felt a little hopeless and frustrated about social progress lately, this could be a dose of something you need. It must be possible. James Baldwin, in his famous essay My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, quoted a spiritual:

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

Aesop’s Fables: Defending a Demagogue

Aesop's Fables

I just began reading Laura Gibb’s excellent and highly recommended Aesop’s Fables. With almost 600 fables, beautifully translated, that’s less than a penny a fable. Please read it for fun, education and enlightenment.

You may or may not have grown up on these tiny tales from this famous real or apocryphal Greek storyteller, but they have been streaming through civilization for millennia. You certainly know some of them from our common culture: the tortoise and the hare, the ant and the grasshopper. Each includes a moral (e.g., slow but steady wins the race), which is how they came to be seen as lessons for children, but they were originally for adults, and you might look to their value as teaching stories for everyone. Also, if you are a writer or other creative, they can provide instant inspirational spark.

When I read this fable of the fox and the hedgehog (Fable 29 in the Gibbs numbering), I couldn’t help thinking of current events:

Aesop was defending a demagogue at Samos who was on trial for his life, when he told this story: ‘A fox was crossing a river but she got swept by the current into a gully. A long time passed and she couldn’t get out. Meanwhile, there were ticks swarming all over the fox’s body, making her quite miserable. A hedgehog wandered by and happened to see the fox. He took pity on her and asked if he should remove the ticks, but the fox refused. The hedgehog asked the reason why, and the fox replied, “These ticks have taken their fill of me and are barely sucking my blood at this point, but if you take these ticks away, others will come and those hungry new ticks will drink up all the blood I have left!” And the same is true for you, people of Samos: this man will do you no harm since he is already wealthy, but if you condemn him to death, others will come who do not have any money, and they will rob you blind!’

Poem: My Night with the Sages

Talmud

My Night with the Sages

I found their numbers
Six, sixty-three.
Dispensing wisdom
Demanding action
Citing authority.
Talking
And talking
And talking.
How could they possibly
Help with the night?
Lost in loud logic
Where is the comfort or distraction?
But I called anyway
And they came.
To uneasy free floating
In the bleak
They added gravity
And light
Not quite
In reach
But there.
To sleep.

The Whole Wheat of Spirit and the Millstone of Reason

Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth

Going beyond pure reason is a trip too far for many, to a place where the possible and the impossible seem to coexist on equal terms.

But why not go beyond, at least for a visit or vacation? You never know what you will find or learn there.

Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Oh but mama that’s where the fun is
Bruce Springsteen, Blinded by the Light

To the pious man God is as real as life, and as nobody would be satisfied with mere knowing or reading about life, so he is not content to suppose or to prove logically that there is a God; he wants to feel and to give himself to Him; not only to obey but to approach Him. His desire is to taste the whole wheat of spirit before it is ground by the millstone of reason. He would rather be overwhelmed by the symbols of the inconceivable than wield the definitions of the superficial.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone

Recommended:

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism: Second Edition, Geoffrey W. Dennis

The new edition of a thoroughly readable and accessible compendium of information and insights. Fun for the casually curious, valuable for the interested reader and researcher.

From the Introduction:

Judaism is one of the oldest living esoteric traditions in the world. Virtually every form of Western mysticism and spiritualism known today draws upon Jewish mythic and occult teachings—magic, prayer, angelology, alchemy, numerology, astral projection, dream interpretation, astrology, amulets, divination, altered states of consciousness, alternative, and rituals of power—all have roots in the Jewish occult….

Modern Jews like to imagine that magic has been swept into the dustbin of history by the long, inexorable progress of rationalism. More than that, Jews have been taught from our youth that Judaism has always possessed an essentially naturalistic worldview and that magic, merely a marginal Jewish preoccupation at most, was just an anomaly resulting from our being situated (and corrupted) by the superstitions of our neighbors. But that’s not entirely accurate. It is only in the last two centuries that Jews have fully embraced science, but we have always been looking for ways to change the world for the better, whether it be through science, medicine, or “practical Kabbalah.”

Even today, rationalism has not completely displaced our sense that there is a mystical potential at work in the world; Occam’s razor has never been able to fully overpower the Sixteen-Sided Sword of the Almighty. Millions of people, both Jews and gentiles, continue to believe that the stars influence our lives. Most Americans believe in the reality of angels. Jewish techniques of dream interpretation and for combating the evil eye are still widely practiced today. When you read the entries of this book on topics such as these, you will realize that magical thinking and enchanting deeds have always had a place in Judaism and, however much some might want to dismiss Judaism’s miraculous and wondrous traditions, the presence of Jewish magic in Jewish life has merely been eclipsed, never uprooted; it still has the potential to empower us.

Political Expediency and Conscience

Marcellus and Butch - Pulp Fiction

Now the night of the election, you may fell a slight sting, that’s conscience messin’ wit ya. Screw conscience! Conscience only hurts, it never helps.
Loosely adapted from Pulp Fiction

Political pragmatism is a messy business, especially when it looks like pure expediency. That goes for candidates who are not trusted or liked, and for supporters and enablers who overlook obvious shortcomings and transgressions for the sake of some higher goal. (For Democrats and Republicans who think this is only about the other, think again.)

The best movie moment about expediency comes from Pulp Fiction. Those who know this great movie may know the scene. Those who haven’t seen it should, for entertainment and for Tarantino’s willingness to take on interesting moral and ethical questions. Be advised that the movie is rough, as is the language in this scene.

Boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is bribing aging boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) to take a dive:

MARSELLUS WALLACE:

I think you’re gonna find ­ when all this shit is over and done ­ I think you’re gonna find yourself one smilin’ motherfucker. Thing is Butch, right now you got ability. But painful as it may be, ability don’t last. Now that’s a hard motherfuckin’ fact of life, but it’s a fact of life your ass is gonna hafta git realistic about. This business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers who thought their ass aged like wine. Besides, even if you went all the way, what would you be? Feather-weight champion of the world. Who gives a shit? I doubt you can even get a credit card based on that.

Now the night of the fight, you may fell a slight sting, that’s pride fuckin’ wit ya. Fuck pride! Pride only hurts, it never helps. Fight through that shit. ‘Cause a year from now, when you’re kickin’ it in the Caribbean you’re gonna say, “Marsellus Wallace was right.”

Poem: Between the Waters

Hexagram 29 - Theresa Blanding

Between the Waters

Let there be an expanse that it may separate water from water.
Genesis 1:6

It is a bottomless pit
The waters above
The waters below.
An abyss
A sea without boats.
No ground to stand.
Just falling.

If there is space between
How vast must it be
To contain hope?
Could it be so small
And still be heaven?