Bob Schwartz

Rosh Hashanah 5782: Father Time and Baby New Year

It is not traditional, maybe not appropriate to some, to associate the iconic characters of Father Time and Baby New Year with the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah, which begins next week on the evening of September 6.

I don’t see why they can’t be a little part of the holiday.

Rosh Hashanah and the ten days that end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are filled with reminders about the passage of time and with suggestions about how to start fresh and new. So a couple more reminders can’t hurt.

Note that while Baby New Year may not be quite as old as Judaism, the character does go back pretty far. It was first used by the Greeks around the 6th century BCE. So it is very likely that Jews knew about Baby New Year over the centuries, even if it didn’t end up in Rosh Hashanah.

Poetry is to live for

Poetry is to live for

While there are mysteries
There is living to solve
While there is poetry
There are mysteries
About the next line
Or the mystery of
The next line missing

© 2021 Bob Schwartz

The Covid Fall of Magical Thinking

I’m fascinated by magic. Not the sleight of hand, card trick, disappearing kind. The kind described this way:

“Magic is one of those terms for a phenomenon that is hard to define, yet easy to recognize. Magic is the overarching term for a ritual for power involving incantations, symbolic behavior, materials, and/or formulae meant to influence events and/or entities.”

Magic has been with us since antiquity, and will continue forever. Thinking, often against reason, that a magical intervention will affect the course of events is very human. We want to believe that wishing and hoping themselves may have such power.

There is a small chance that this fall may see an immediate gradual or dramatic drop in the impact of Covid in America. But every indicator says otherwise. With so many people still unvaccinated, with so many officials banning or limiting effective mitigation (vaccination, masking, testing), and with a more contagious and deadlier variant on the attack, such a drop is very unlikely. Not impossible, given that the behavior of the virus is still full of surprises, but very unlikely.

Yet there are plenty of people and institutions acting as if that isn’t the case. Instead, they are insisting that normal life as it was in 2019 return—right now. Some might call that unbridled optimism. Some might call that ignorance or denial. It seems more apt to call it magical thinking. If we somehow act as if the threat is not there, it will disappear. Like magic.

Covid is here. Like the worst of our enemies, it lives to hurt us and kill us, to hurt and kill our loved ones. All the magical thinking won’t slow it or stop it. People will believe what they will and think as magically as they will. The only “magic” is the one that science is trying to provide. We ignore and reject it at our most dire peril.

Leading university tells its students “masks are not effective on chins only”

True story.

Fall semester is starting at American colleges, and there is a confusing array of covid protocols for students, from mandatory vaccination and masks to anything goes.

One leading university that is not mandating vaccination or masks but is encouraging them actually included this in a message to students:


“We ask that you please keep a facemask with you at all times and respect others who might have personal or family health considerations. Also, masks should cover your nose and mouth, as they are not effective on chins only.”


It is hard to tell whether the administration is serious or being sarcastic, but it strikes me as possibly funny or possibly sad. Very sad if it is a needed earnest reminder to college students that a covered chin is not a substitute for covered nose and mouth. But as crazy as things are right now, you never know.

Calling

A friend wrote to me today about the choice of living in a desert city, at this crucial climate time. It led me to this by Robert Frost:


Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice


We can no more ignore or discount sense, science and knowledge than we can live unconditionally and entirely by them. People will label the various balance points as enlightenment, pragmatism, rationalism, romanticism, idealism.

Things call to us, we are called, there is calling. The prophets to their caves, the desert fathers and mothers to their wilderness. Most common and human of all, love and friendship, which are not science (despite the attempts to dissect them) but are callings. None of this is stupid, as in a stupor, but soulful.

It has rained in this desert city more than any month in contemporary history. It is only a blip on the current path of heat and drought. The front yard is dirt, rocks and palo verde trees. But the rare constant deluge has grown patches of grass where none were. A deer climbed the hill to munch the grass, having been called by the green.

Rainstorm in the desert

Rainstorm in the desert

Every day the sun
without relief
heats the hills.
Now clouds rumble
explode in torrents.
Even in the desert
it is always raining.

© Bob Schwartz 2021

Randomness and getting outside your self

As noted before, I believe in the value of randomness, and keep a dish of polyhedral dice on my table as a reminder. I frequently quote Gregory Bateson:

“I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.”

We can take action, for better or worse, effectively or ineffectively, and we should try to. But we are not in complete control. According to different philosophies, that other power takes many forms, from people and institutions exercising their own controls, to higher powers intervening, to the vagaries of randomness.

As with all those belief systems, randomness helps get us out of our self. It removes us from the delusion that we can be, or aspire to be, the perfect mechanics of a finite and knowable machine. We are not those mechanics and there is no finite and knowable machine. What you think there is and the role you play depends on what you believe. But believe what you will, randomness is always there to get us outside our self.

Desk

The desk is well worn and love-ly
Surfaces and drawers witness to
Time spent and misspent
On close inspection the gouges and stains appear
Stepping back all you see is the burnished whole
Wholly what it is what it was what it will become
Worn wood arranged to fit a life lived

© Bob Schwartz 2021

Summer Music: The Four Seasons Recomposed by Vivaldi + Max Richter

Summer has arrived and with it the music of summer. Which means music with summer title or theme or with a summer feeling. Thousands of compositions and tracks. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is famous as seasonal music, most successfully arranged in new form by the masterful Max Richter.

Abraham Joshua Heschel on Delusions and Deceptions

“Mendacity is the enemy of man, and yet more and more love is lavished on guile and lies. Truth is homeless in our world.”

From A Passion for Truth by Abraham Joshua Heschel:


A World of Phantoms

For most of us, life is a series of evasions, pretensions, substitutes, and rationalizations. We do not see the world as it is but as a projection of ourselves, and so we are prisoners of delusions that hold us in their spell even after we become aware of their deceptiveness. Gradually pretensions are converted into certainties, rationalizations become entangled, and madness sets in.

So many people become salesmen of their delusions. So few people are fully conscious of the non-finality of our here-and-now world.

In analyzing and discussing problems of Jewish Law, possible solutions are often advanced in the Talmud with the introductory words, “I might have thought,” “I might have been led to believe.” After proving that these arguments are mere suppositions or hypotheses, a conclusion is usually reached.

One must learn to understand thoroughly the precise meaning of these phrases, Reb Bunam said. For the world in which we live is a mere supposition or hypothesis. The conclusion is still to come. “At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).

How did the Kotzker, who was consumed with a passion for veracity, for eternity, look at people whose whole life was spent serving spurious goals?

Falsehood is not merely a discrepancy between what is said and what is meant. It twists and distorts the basis of a man’s life, deceiving him into believing he lives in a reality that does not exist. A person living a lie and taking it to be the Truth moves in a world of self-delusion.

Falsehood is not just a stigma that sullies man’s thinking. A healthy life consists in knowing what one wants, seeing an ultimate goal ahead, and hoping to reach it by means of clearly understood actions. And mendacity is a disease that binds a man’s entire existence. As a result of it, our perceptions are false. We regard as real what can be measured and controlled; what defies measurement and control we reject as irrational and unreal.

In Jewish mystical literature the world here and now is called “the world of falsehood”; each grain of truth may be surrounded by shells of falsehood. Our truths are often half-truths, acquired piecemeal and preserved precariously, their only refuge being the lips of a few dying men. For so many people die for the sake of a lie. So many who profess truth really shun it. Their solemn proclamations are often veiled deceptions.

This is what Abraham did. He forsook community and deception to live with Truth in solitude.

Genuine solitude is the prelude to a new community. However, if you do not withdraw but remain part of “the world,” your supreme effort must be not to deceive yourself. Clearly one of man’s strongest inclinations is to deceive himself.

People do not know whether they are alive and where they are. The world abounds in misrepresentation—lives without design, movement without aim, roofs without walls. They think they dance, yet they are paralyzed. Delusion holds them enraptured. They feel so comfortable in the clutches of their self-deception that when Satan himself embraces them, they think he is in love with them.

Mendacity is the enemy of man, and yet more and more love is lavished on guile and lies. Truth is homeless in our world. We suffocate for lack of honesty. As a result, man dies while yet alive. Who can speak of resurrection when life itself has become death?

Coarse and swaggering, men make insolent speeches and engage in presumptuous dealings. But they are dead, while Truth, though buried in the grave, is alive. Sometimes a voice cries out from underground, and a few isolated individuals sigh and weep.

When a man does not delude himself, he does, at the least, recognize the world’s falsehood. As long as he believes that his delusion is ultimately coherent, that his conceits have final meaning, he lives in a realm of phantoms. Though idle, he is convinced of his achievements. Even as he lies dying, he persuades himself that he is alive.

Each person should wrestle with this question: am I living in a world of phantoms? Is my life, are all my concerns mere delusions?