Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Nine Essential Things I've Learned About Life by Harold Kushner

I don’t agree with all the things that Harold Kushner says in Nine Essential Things I've Learned About Life, his most recent book. The guru of the limited G-d, of the Deity who does not control the world (who was propelled to fame with When Bad Things Happen to Good People) he is extremely humane and kind.  There is no doubt that reading his work is well worth the time.  But in my humble opinion, his view of God removes a vital part of much of what gives Judaism its dynamism.

Of course, if we believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, activist Deity, than 'the bad things that happen to good people' is a problem, for one could and should option attribute our misfortune to the Deity.  Granted. 

Answers that have satisfied some people over the centuries find no perch for Kushner, like the bad things that happen are part of an overall plan that we fail to understand.  Kushner fails to see how needless suffering can satisfy a plan.  Nor would he want to believe in such a G-d who would use suffering like this.  This makes sense. So his Deity is limited in power. God doesn't give us cancer. Kushner's G-d helps us face the challenges of having cancer honestly and bravely.

Again, why not?  I think that is a genuinely helpful way to view   G-d. But the Jewish soul in me resists the notion of a limited Deity. There is a legitimate, and long tradition in Judaism of holding G-d accountable for seemingly unjust actions and events.  From Abraham to Job to the Holocaust, Jews demand a moral accounting from their G-d.  They plead, seek, and rail against a G-d who will not deal justly with (his) creatures.

I want to have full control of my views of G-d.  Sometimes G-d is personal, and I am devoted to G-d like a friend or lover. Sometimes I seek G-d's succor; I can’t take any more of what the world dishes out, and ask for solace and help.  At other times G-d is a force, an impersonal entity, as the Stoics imagine the Divine.  Often G-d is Reality, big R, the sum total of all that is. Sometimes, G-d is absent, nothing, a lack and an ache.  I look for G-d and fail to find him, like a lost child.  G-d is all those things, and more; the mind fails to grasp the Divinity.   We are left with a G-d who wears many masks. Why would it be any other way?  Why should G-d only wear Kushner's mask?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget

Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget by David Wessel is a fascinating, though uniformly depressing survey of the state of the Federal Budget.  Wessel has written an excellent, easy to understand book about the challenges our nation faces.  He picks topics like the military, health care, and delves into specifics, and then explains the overall implications of the cost of government programs and on our massive, intractable debt.

Reading this book, it is easy to see how the US will become a second rate power if our indebtedness continue on this path, that is, unless we make some difficult choices.  And as we all know, as a society and polity, we appear to be incapable to making hard decisions. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Slaughter House Five: 25 years later

Revisiting Slaughter House Five after more than twenty-years is an instructive read.  In this, considered Vonnegut’s greatest novel, you see his strengths and weaknesses combine as a writer work in tandem to make a very powerful statement about the nature of time, loss, and the persistence of human pain. 

Like all works laced with irony, it is hard to know this narrative at its "core"; is the view of the extraterrestrials, who do not see the sequential nature of time like humans, and therefore do not feel loss or pain, an escape valve, a gag, if you will, that highlights how helpless people are in the face of fate?  Or are we to take this seriously as a real ontological view of the world -- almost a new article of faith?

There is no way to know.  All that is certain is that we are trapped in a human world, with a human world-view.  The novel ends in a firebombed Dresden with the chirp of a bird to highlight human helplessness  ­– thousands of civilians are burned to death, a great city lay in ruins – yet life goes on, without an overarching commentary or elegy.  In the face of such destruction, words lose power.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Pig Flies over Snow

Cornell has a long tradition of endangering its faculty, staff, and students, by remaining opening during severe snow storms.  All other institutions close, but Cornell soldiers on, despite the strictures of common sense and nature's mandate to halt human activity.

Well, today Nature won and Cornell lost.  I have worked at Cornell for nearly 18 years and this is perhaps only the third closure (or so? do we count partial closures?) in that time frame. A tough loss for Cornell.  But CU will be back to fight another day.

A message from CornellALERT
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CornellALERT - Ithaca Campus

This a CornellALERT message from Cornell University
Due to severe winter weather, Cornell’s Ithaca Campus will close at 12 p.m. (Noon) today, Tuesday, March 14, 2017.
Please use caution while traveling or commuting home. Classes and exams are cancelled while the university is closed. Essential student and campus services remain in operation.
Visit for more information on Cornell Dining operations. 
The university is expected to reopen Wednesday, March 15, at 12 p.m. (Noon).
Visit for updates on Cornell’s operating status.
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Do NOT forward this message to individuals or mailing lists within Cornell.

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Notes from “The Most Beautiful Place on Earth”

Confession: I owe Cara Hoffman one note of unqualified praise: she was the first person to read through my fiction, mark it brilliantly up with a rosy pen, and then look me steadily in the eye and tell me I was “the real thing.” All this nearly two decades ago.

At that moment I assumed, with good reason, that I had met a rare specimen, the large-hearted person.  She was singularly gifted at the exceptional art of delicate, individual attention ­– a species of consideration that we always crave.  In truth, I would soon learn, praise and blame are twins.  

Our friendship soured.  With distance and a cool head, I could stand in her shoes, and see the world she beheld.  She rotated around the axis of Us vs. Them.  Once I shifted from Us to Them, I found myself in an unfriendly state of existence.  

Looking back, that exile was a blessed occasion.  For Hoffman followed her Us vs Them paradigm with a devotion close to fervor. In her first major novel, So Much Pretty, small town life in Upstate New York is clearly east of Eden – a place beyond the pale.  The heroine of the novel is more intelligent, discerning, and condemnatory than the flat characters which surround her; she flees the “Them” of the weeds and the wilds. 

I skipped her second novel.  Her third, Running, I read in manuscript form all those years ago.  I have not read the current rendition of Running.  What I read in 2001 was definitive: the damaged and drained heroine escapes her all too real life of deprivation; she transforms her defeats into victory through the gathering of secret gnosis. The rest of us, the flock, the hoard, simply don’t get the indefinable “it.” We are doomed

This brings us to the very reason for this post.  In the Paris Review Hoffman explores her relationship to a painting. All is fine and well.  Then my home in the Finger Lakes is stripped of life and sun and joy and laughter of little children, and cast under the rubric of “Them”.  She writes:

I spent another decade in low-wage work, living in the liminal, and largely white, landscape between former industrial cities, among people who would often refer to their towns—because there were lakes there for summer people or because there were waterfalls, or because they hadn’t traveled or didn’t want to admit failure—as “the most beautiful place on earth.”

These chilly words fail to match my reality.  Cornell University never feels liminal; in fact, it is a hub, a dynamic place, not the realm of unadmitted failure.  I look at those around me, my friends, my colleagues, and they are widely traveled folks. They read and think deeply. They can't be described by any blanket statement of status or identity.  They are a varied and beautiful lot and I love them. Arguably this region may not be the “most beautiful place on earth” but it is not peripheral to anyplace or any person. It is central and vital to excellent people.

But for Hoffman, it  makes sense.  For Hoffman, Manhattan is now the realm of Us; she and her partner, the guardians of gnosis, the strident elect, bound down Essex Street like ubermenschen, awash in translucent orange light; their shadows are “tall beneath the flame-blue sky.” She had once more winnowed reality and drawn a line between the tall shadowed people of lower Manhattan and the homunculi of the land of faux beauty. My land.  My people. 

If writing is an invitation to a reader to walk through an open door, Hoffman’s fiction will always contain closed doors for someone, somewhere.  Her stories of travel, deprivation, election and sainthood feed off denigration.  An Ur-tale is being unfurled. She chips at the edges of some literary pathology.  She circles back, again and again, to ennobling those myths she deems enlightening, while demeaning the fairy tales of the lost. 

Unfortunately, this is a visible stain on the garment of an otherwise talented writer.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

Melvyn Bragg's The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language is an entertaining and informative romp into the history, transformations and vicissitudes of English

As Bragg correctly points out, English went through a number of radical transformations while it was the language of England.  When it became the language of America, Australia, and, to an extent, India, the entire scope of English changed.  It transformed from a series of dialects on a small European island, to a world language.

The adventure in the title is journey from the English spoken by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, to that of the internet, the global economy, and the currency and marker of education and advancement on every continent.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Theodore Rex

Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris’ second book in his trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt, deals with his presidency.  I am struck by two things about this work. 

First, Roosevelt came to office after an anarchist assassinated William McKinley.  This effort paid off in placing a man in the White House who employed the executive branch with as much power (if not more) since Abraham Lincoln.  The presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt were either corrupt or eclipsed by the people in American with the real power, the so-called captains of industry.  Roosevelt was the first president to view government as a kind of referee, balancing the competing interests of groups for the benefit of all.  In order to do this, the executive must have real power.

Second, American, despite being over 120 year old, was a young republic.  We were just flexing our muscles on the world stage, and there was a sense of optimism.  Things were just getting started for us, and so many set-backs of American in the modern age were not even on the horizon. If you were young, white, and hardworking, Roosevelt’s America held great promise.