My Occidental Face

When my Asian wife and I were first married over 55 years ago, I quickly recognized a fundamental difference in the way we started each day.

My face has two definite sides, and I wash each separately, first one side and then the other.  The Wicked Witch of the West has a similar face, and she must do the same.

My wife’s face, however, has only a front. She looks straight into the mirror and washes her face in one continuous circular motion. No giant schnoz gets in the way.  That one step gets it all, while I need twice the effort.  Seems like hers is a better design.

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“American Nirvana,” by Adam Gopnik. The New Yorker, August 7 & 14, 2017.

I don’t recommend this article to everyone. Adam Gopnik is a prolific staff writer for The New Yorker, and has a great mind, but a mind often too great for most of us. When I saw he wrote this article, I knew I had to read it, but also that I had much work ahead.

The article is a book review of Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright, but he mentions several other books on Buddhism for comparison and additional insight. I understand Buddhism is of limited interest, so I will only mention two gems that got my attention.

He admits he is not flexible enough to meditate in the lotus position, but:

Meditation, even the half-assed kind, does remind us of how little time we typically spend in the moment. Simply to sit and breathe for twenty-five minutes, if only to hear cars and buses go by on a city avenue—listening to the world rather than to the frantic non sequitur of one’s “monkey mind,” fragmented thoughts and querulous moods racing each other around—can imitate the possibility of a quiet grace in the midst of noise. . . . (Yet many sounds of seeming serenity–birds singing, leaves rustling—are actually the sounds of ceaseless striving. The birds are shrieking for mates; even the trees are reaching insistently toward the sun that sustains them. These are the songs of wanting, the sounds of life.)

And another gem. To the common challenge that science, too, is ultimately based on faith:

Is it fair to object that most of us take quantum physics on faith, too? Well, we don’t take it on faith. We take it on trust, a very different thing. We have confidence—amply evidenced by the technological transformation of the world since the scientific revolution, and by the cash value of validated predictions based on esoteric mathematical abstraction—that the world picture it conveys is true, or more nearly true than anything else on offer. Batchelor [author of another book Gopnik scrutinizes] tap-dances perilously close to the often repeated absurdity that a highly credulous belief about supernatural claims and an extremely skeptical belief about supernatural claims  are really the same because they are both beliefs.

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Bat Catching

Most evenings in reasonable weather, winter and summer, I walk counterclockwise around the Unitarian church across the street before I go to bed. I cut through their side parking lot, through an adjoining parking lot belonging to an MRI medical facility, and turn left onto the sidewalk along Concord Pike. I am facing the oncoming traffic. They pass me only a few feet away doing 50 mph. I unrealistically think I could leap out of the way of an out-of-control car. I carry a walking-stick for stability.

Traffic is sparse. Fast, but sparse. The malls close at nine, and I am usually out later than that. The customers have already left, and the ones driving on the pike are the salespeople who have closed out their cash registers, clocked out, and are anxious to get home.

I turn left again at the first street, Whitby Drive, and left once more back onto my own street, Halstead Road, that leads back to the church parking lot. All of the streets have sidewalks. The trip sounds longer, but it is only about 1/2 a mile.

The streets are silent of any human sounds, except for the hum of an air conditioner at each house. The sidewalks are deserted. The summer is running out for the cicadas and crickets, and they frantically call for a mate in the dark trees, but I am barely aware of them. They are not calling to me. Lightening bugs timidly blink their lights over the grass. A single airplane glides low overhead, engines throttled back, wheels down, the landing lights on, heading for the Philadelphia Airport. The cabin lights flick on as I watch. I imagine the passengers bringing their seat backs forward. securing their trays, and closing their cell phones. A cabin attendant is walking down the aisle with an open bag, collecting any remaining trash.

Click, and the red traffic light at the corner of Whitby Drive and Concord Pike turns yellow, pauses, then, clicks again and turns green. For no purpose. No cars are waiting to turn onto Concord Pike. Only I change color as I walk by in the colored lights.

The Unitarian church entrance faces Whitby Drive, and they have placed a very nice wooden bench along the sidewalk. The bench is mainly decorative to mark the entrance, but I often rest there for a short time, watching the passing cars back on Concord Pike and the occasional car that slowly drifts down Whitby Drive.

Above me is a light on a pole high over the bench. Tonight, I looked up at the light, and I am ten years old again on a humid summer night in East Lansdowne, and it has just turned dark. I am passing the few minutes with my friends until my mother calls me in for my bath. Bill Scott and Eddie Vetter are there. We are gathered under a streetlight filled with hundreds of insects frantically circling the bulb.

A dark shadow skims through the insects. I know it is a bat. The light attracts insects, and insects attract bats. Many people think they have never seen a bat on the wing, but they have, often, without realizing it.

Long ago in East Lansdowne, we caught the bats by putting a stone in a knit cap, and throwing it up into the light. We had to throw it several times, but, eventually, the path of the falling hat would intersect the path of a skimming bat, and both would come tumbling down together in a tangle of wool and bat fur. The bat was stunned and confused, but unharmed. We examined it, marveled at its ugliness, and released it.

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Speaking German: Sun Tickle

Years ago, while I was lifeguarding part-time at our local Jewish Community Center, a German lady would come into the pool almost every day. She was very proud of growing up in Berlin, and would constantly tell everyone, even strangers, of this in the first minute. She was very cleaver at working this into the conversation

No one objected, but we did think it a little strange. After all, we’re a Jewish Community Center. Didn’t she realize some could be offended? But all of this is beside the point.  She was a native German which was all that mattered to me.

The sun shining in my eyes causes me to sneeze. It always has. It is an inherited trait, and does not affect everyone. I understand it is a tickle as the iris muscle closes in reaction to the bright light. Only one of my sons inherited it. The other son thinks we are both crazy.

I told this woman that I once worked with an old German guy who mentioned a German term for this trait, but that was years ago, and I forgot what he said. Did she have any idea what it was?

She thought for a moment, then said it probably was Sonne Kitzein, literally, sun tickle. I thought that sounded right, and thanked her. (It is probably spelled as one word in German.)

I did not see her for about a month, but when she again walked into the pool area, I waved and called out, “Sonne Kitzein, Sonne Kitzein!” She looked very puzzled and somewhat wary. I was probably mispronouncing it.

Sonne Kitzein,” I called out again. “Remember? Sun tickle?”

She burst out laughing. “Oh, yes! I thought you were saying Zunge Kussen, tongue kissing.”

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Where Have All the Infomercials Gone?

We diverted our attention for just a brief moment and in the blink of an eye they were gone. (Well, not entirely gone; just not as ubiquitous as they once were.) In the past, when sleeplessly tossing and turning well past midnight, I have gotten out of bed, gone to the kitchen for a snack, and settled down in front of the living room TV and watched my choice of several late-night infomercials.

The people were so friendly, so eager to help, so positive, so intent on sharing their discoveries.  I loved them all.  In the studio, the small audience of invited participants nodded excitedly with every claim. None of them walked out or even rolled their eyes in skepticism. They showed us a perfect world. Any late-night viewer in a dark, silent house, dressed in his jammies and gnawing on a cold chicken leg, was certain to benefit from whatever they were selling.

But for the past year, I could not find any broadcast at the times I was up. The late-night programs I had to chose from consisted of ancient re-runs of Welcome Back, Kotter, repeat news programs recorded earlier in the evening, and old, bad, movies. I love old movies, but not the Bowery Boys.  Most of the late-night movies shown are only meant to provide movement on the TV screen for an hour or so.  Nobody watching at that late hour cares about the content.

But I have recently found the infomercials again: the joys of a pressure cooker, a cream to cure “creepy skin,”  free seminars on how to make a fortune in real estate. Whatever is your problem, someone has the answer—in four easy payments, shipping and handling not included (or even divulged).

My favorite is when they say order one and they will send a second one for free, just pay a separate shipping and handling fee.  Surprise! taking one off the shelf and sending it to you will cost more than making it.

They are all on Sunday morning public TV, just as I remembered them—just as clearly as I remember those good old days when public TV had no advertisements.

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The Man Who Invented Sex

“The Invention Of Sex,” by Stephen Greenblatt. The New Yorker, 6/19/2017.

Just a guess of his appearance. Other portraits differ.

Of course, sex was invented by St. Augustine, at least as a moral issue. We all know the story. He lived a wild life—sampled all of life’s pleasures (I needed a dictionary to understand what all he did)—until he got religion in about 370 A.D. (which would have been at age 16) and changed Christianity ever since.

Even as a child, he was recognized as unusually intelligent, and his parents made sacrifices to properly educate him. He was born in the city of Thagaste, in what is now Algeria, but was sent to a nearby town for his early education.   He eventually became a Christian and rose to become a bishop in the Catholic Church.

Early in life, despite his reputation as a rake, he settled down with one mistress and remained faithful to her (he claimed) for 14 years. He does not even tell us her name, but such liaisons outside of marriage were accepted at the time, even considered respectable. Marriage was only a legal device to define inheritance.  Love was not part of the equation.

After his early education, he returned to live with his now-widowed mother, Monica, an over-bearing, pious Christian woman with sexual problems, a real piece of work, and to study law. As Augustine was growing up, his mother took pains to insure he recognized God as his true father, not her husband, his biological father.  Augustine records the death of his father when he was 17, but in unemotional terms. His mother at first was reluctant to accept his return, not because of his mistress and now a son, but because he had picked up the views of the Persian heresy of Manichaeism, a form of Gnosticism that held there were two forces in the world, one good and one evil, forever at war with each other. (Sound familiar? That view was incorporated into Christianity.  It is not Biblical.)  After a short time of living at home under his domineering mother, Augustine sneaked off to Rome with his own family, without her.

(Manichaeism was a major religion in the time of Augustine. Augustine was a follower of Manichaeism before he converted to Christianity.  Since Mohamed was not yet born, Islam did not yet exist in Algeria or elsewhere.)

He acknowledged his mother’s suffering from his leaving, but attributed it to the vestiges of the sins of Eve still in her. Later his mother tracked him down in Milan and moved in with him, his mistress and son. She then forced the mistress to return to Africa (was she black?) so he would be eligible to marry a good Catholic girl.  She seemed to think she was the best candidate for her son’s wife.

At the loss of his mistress, Augustine writes,”My heart which had fused with hers, was mutilated by the wound, and I limped along trailing blood.”  Pretty words, but he still had enough blood to soon take on another mistress.

As you would expect, the toxic mix of wife, mistress, and mother, forced him to rethink the nature of sexuality. He wanted to understand the peculiar intensity of sexual arousal that led to intercourse, which he realized was necessary for reproduction. His revelation came to himself and his mother together, when he was 32 and his mother 55. He describes the episode in his book, “Confessions,” as a simultaneous climax rising to a moment of ecstasy, that he said was the most intense in his life, and then it was over. A few days later, his mother fell ill and died. (Whoa! I am only reporting on what he wrote.  No questions from me.)

He rationalized sexuality by considering the curious story of Adam and Eve in the Garden as a metaphor for arousal in sex.  Arousal, whether by voluntary subjection or involuntarily as in a dream, is evil, yet is necessary for reproduction. The desire to have children is not evil, but the process is. We cannot escape it. All of us were conceived in a state of arousal, even those who now live in celibacy. This is the original sin that we are stuck with. It stems from the old Manichaeism beliefs of simultaneous good and evil. Submission to sexual arousal is what got Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden, not the apple, not the Tree of Knowledge, not the snake, except as metaphors.  Only Jesus was free from the lust of original sin because of the virgin birth.

This explains why the virgin birth is so important in Catholicism.  Without the virgin birth, even Jesus would be stained by original sin.  If he was stained by original sin, how could he absolve the rest of us from it?

Paul, much earlier, also believed in original sin, but did not know what it was. He attributed it to some mysterious contaminant that got passed on through the generations.

Adam and Eve still have sex in Paradise, Augustine reasoned, but do so by conscious control of their bodies, stiffening this, relaxing that, with no more passion or arousal than brushing their teeth.  (That’s Paradise?)

Augustine discusses this in “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” that took him 15 years to write. Lesser known than his “City of God”  and “Confessions,” it has been the cornerstone of Christian belief ever since.

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Feet Almighty — And Still Growing

Our feet keep growing as we age. I was always a size 9 through high school, college, and many years after. Then I found 9 ½ to be more comfortable. More recently, I went to a 10, and now even that is too small. I need to go to a 10 ½ or an 11. Will it ever stop? Will my shoes someday fit Shaquille O’Niel?  No and Yes.

How could this be? Everywhere else on me seems to be shrinking. I understand as we age, the plantar fascia, that large, flat tendon that covers the bottom of our foot, relaxes and spreads out, making our feet both longer and wider.

Back in grade school days, my mother took me to a special shoe store to get especially narrow (expensive) shoes. Those days are gone. For awhile, I was happy that standard, average-width shoes fit, but I’ve gone past that point.

The lesson is don’t buy high-quality shoes, expecting them to be worth the expense in the long run. There will be no long run. If they fit now, they won’t later.  I wish someone told me this earlier, so I am telling you now. I have a pair of almost-new LL Bean waterproof shoes that I will have to donate or give away to someone younger.

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