My Inner Sergeant-Major

Less than three months to go before I hand the new book to my publisher, and I recognize the signs.  This afternoon I drove through Christmas traffic to the market, filled up a shopping cart, got to the checkout counter, and discovered I’d left my wallet at home.  (The next stage is finding that I’ve locked myself out of the house, which is why spare keys are judiciously distributed among my neighbors.)  My head is not quite in this world.  Close friends tell me this is how I always am near the end of a book.  “It seems worse this time,” I say, only to have them remind me that this is what I say every time.  I reluctantly acknowledge that they may be right.

The checkout guy knows me, so he let me put the cart to one side and hold onto the freshly-made warm frites I’d bought, or would have bought if I’d had any money on me, reminding me to save the price tag for when I got back with credit card in hand.  The frites were perfect, thin-cut and salted just right, and I dealt with the traffic by devouring them as I drove home, where I gulped down a glass of water (the salt!), grabbed my wallet, and set off back to the market, only to realize that the car now stank mightily of frying oil, and so, therefore, did I.  The glamor of the writing life continually amazes me.

Since I’ve been tussling with big, undefinable things like God, consciousness, and infinity, I guess it was a bit much to expect that I be a normally functioning member of society at this point.  It should certainly have come as no surprise that even as words accumulated in presumably satisfactory numbers, they turned out to be slippery, slithery creatures.

I’d already done all the right writerly things.  Per the admonition to “kill your darlings” (Hemingway? Woolf? — it’s one of those “variously attributed” sayings), passages waiting to be lauded as beautiful writing had been duly slain, a process that left virtual blood all over the keyboard since I find it far harder to delete than to add.  But the surviving words still displayed an alarming tendency to slide around from page to page.  Stubbornly refusing to stay in place, they were acting like a pack of unruly schoolkids.  I could practically hear them shoving and poking each other:  “Here’s where I want to be!”  “No, here!”  “That’s my place.”  “Tis not.”  “Tis too.”

By last week, I’d had enough of it.  “Take charge of the words!” I wrote on an index card, in all caps, and pinned it over my desk.  Forget “being a writer” — I’d become a sergeant-major, and order these green recruits into shape.

I printed out the most troublesome chapter, pushed the computer monitor aside, shoved the office chair out of the way, and stood over the desk, leaning in like a commander about to ream out a subordinate.  I set to, marking up the pages with slashes and arrows, dictating what went where, giving insubordinate words what for.  And though it took a few days, they caved.  They fell into place.  Lined up for inspection.  Reader, it worked!

william jamesAt least I think it did.  I can’t be sure of it.  How could I be?  This is an agnostic manifesto I’m writing, and it hinges on imperfect knowledge, on the importance of doubt, the inhumanity of certainty.  As William James put it (he of The Varieties of Religious Experience):  “So far as man stands for anything, and is productive or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes.  Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe.”

I love James despite his peculiarly Victorian assumption that only men “stand for anything,” and this quote from him survived the slashing.  But there are still times when the writer in me needs that inner sergeant-major to let me know in no uncertain terms exactly what I can do with my maybes.  I suspect James had one too.


Sun Dog

People experience awe in very different ways. One person’s exhilarating glimpse of something infinitely grand can be another’s nightmare, to be denied, even exiled from consciousness.

This happened some years ago, before the ubiquity of smartphones.  It was dawn, the midsummer sun not yet risen, as I sailed with a friend out of Neah Bay, the small native American township at the northwest tip of the United States. I stood at the helm as my companion huddled over charts down in the cabin, plotting our course across the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca where it opens up into the Pacific. The sea was cutting short and choppy as the incoming ocean swell came up against the outflow of the strait, but I was suffused with a feeling of calm. We were the only boat in sight, the only sounds the water against the hull and an occasional flap of the sail. The world, at that moment, was perfect. And then it became more so.

The sun began to rise over the mountains to the east – a large, fuzzy sun, the color of a white daffodil. Mesmerized by its slow ascent, I waited for the moment when it would detach itself from the mountain ridges and assume a perfect, independent roundness. Except it didn’t. Just when I expected to see clear sky between sun and mountains, there seemed instead to be something beneath the sun, pushing it upward, and I realized that there were now two suns rising — two suns of equal size, conjoined, one on top of the other. “A sun dog!” I shouted.

My friend came running up from below, took one look, and froze. “That shouldn’t be happening. That can’t be happening,” he shouted, adamantly refusing to believe the testimony of his own eyes. “That’s impossible!”

I tried to tell him that somewhere, some time, I had read an account of just such a twinned sunrise (in a novel? a short story? I’ve searched since, but never been able to find it again). But he’d have none of it. Instead, he scrambled down to the cabin to bring up an armful of meteorology books, and with his back resolutely set to the splendor of the sky behind him, started leafing frantically through them. “See!” he said, jabbing at a page. “It can’t be a sun dog. A sun dog is a parhelion, a much smaller mock sun, and they come in pairs, at an angle to the real sun. Not this… this abomination!”

Abomination?  I’d never expected to hear that biblical word from this eminently rational intellectual – a pastor’s son turned insistent atheist. “Can’t you see?” he wailed. “Something awful is happening, against all the laws of nature.” I’m not a hundred percent sure if he used the phrase “end of the world” — surely not, though it seems to me he did, and he trembled as though some form of apocalypse was in progress.

I admit I was no help. “Just look!” I kept saying. But he only dashed back down into the cabin for shelter from the sky, leaving me alone to watch as it became still more extraordinary. The lower sun assumed a deeper color and more definite form as it rose, and as the upper one faded, a thick pillar of white light took shape between the remaining sun – the real sun — and the mountaintops. It occurred to me that it may have been as well that my friend was below deck: a pillar of light was so damn biblical. And then that in turn gave way to a huge double rainbow in an ellipse around the risen sun, and I could only stand there shaking my head and laughing, tears in my eyes, knowing that I would never again witness a sunrise as stunningly eerie and beautiful and grand as this. Not even my companion’s panic could change that.

Long after that friendship’s inevitable dissolution, I occasionally searched meteorology sites online. My companion had been right in that most sun dogs are indeed much smaller images at an angle to the sun, but I did eventually find a couple of photographs of two suns, even if not quite conjoined, and horizontal rather than vertical.  I also found explanations of how the acutely angled light of the sun is refracted when layers of ice crystals form barely visible low-lying fog in the chill early-morning air, acting as a kind of mirror.  I could now explain how come I’d seen what I saw. And yet the explanation did nothing to diminish the splendor of the memory. Or the experience of pure wonder. Or the knowledge that what had delighted me, had terrified another.



Who ISIS Hates

I know Muslims are sick and tired of the Islamophobic refrain of “Why don’t they speak out against ISIS?”  Some refuse to accept the terms of the challenge, seeing it as a demand that they apologize for being Muslim.  Others denounce terrorism, to deaf ears.  But it wasn’t until I read this piece by New Zealanders Khareyah Wahaab and Jason Kennedy, who made news a couple of years back by inviting a racist MP to dinner, that I realized how Muslims in the West are doubly threatened by extremism.

[Tim from Timaru, by the way, is the New Zealand equivalent of Joe Bloggs — or perhaps Joe the Plumber.  And it should be noted that before ISIS took to beheading Western hostages, they beheaded dozens of Syrians in Raqqa. They stuck the heads on the points of railings in the city’s main park. Western media paid no attention.]

This may come as a shock to some, but ISIS hates us, a young Muslim couple in the West, with the same vehemence as Tim from Timaru.  Except, unlike Tim, we have many ties to the Muslim community in New Zealand.  It’s a small community and our family is known to most Muslims here, who in turn still have ties to their countries of origin.  This means that if by some freak chance a terrorist group were to put a bounty on our heads for speaking out against them, they have a much greater chance of finding us than finding Tim from Tumaru.

More than anyone else, terror groups seek to punish those they view as apostates of their own religion.  Radical fundamentalists thus hold all Muslims hostage.  Even in New Zealand, where our freedoms of speech and religion are a given, we still live with the risk of terrorist reprisal for speaking out, precisely because we are Muslim.

Terrorism is not aimed only at Westerners;  it’s a daily experience for those who must live among extremists.  Muslims have immigrated to the West in a conscious decision to escape violence and instability, seeking to build a better life, but many fear that if they speak out loud, they and their families “back home” will suffer.  You may call this cowardly, but first ask yourself if you would be willing to jeopardize your family’s freedom and safety if you legitimately feared reprisal.

Many do so nonetheless.  In public gatherings, demonstrations, formal statements by imams, even teenagers posting their frustrations on YouTube, the message is the same:  “ISIS does not represent us.  ISIS does not represent Islam.  We condemn their actions entirely.”  You don’t hear them because they’re not considered newsworthy, but engage a Muslim in conversation, and you are very apt to find someone who feels exactly the same way about extremists as you do.

How can we, two Kiwis who have never had anything to do with the Middle East, possibly answer for the actions of extremists with whom we have nothing in common other than proclaiming to be Muslim?  Like every other Muslim we know, we choose to follow the progressive, peaceful tenets of Islam, and leave the rest to the annals of a long and tumultuous history.

With biblical literalism still prevalent in many churches, it should be no surprise that Islam also struggles with literalism.  Most Muslims in the West gloss over the violent passages in the Quran in much the same way as Christians disregard the violent passages in the Bible.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, they recognize the need for reform.  But Martin Luther’s reform of Christianity didn’t come until the sixteenth century.  Islam, a faith 600 years younger, is now, in the twenty-first century, grappling with the same need.  Progressive western Muslims will certainly lead the way.

And if you haven’t managed to hear it by now, then hear it this time:  Yes, we are Muslim, and yes, we categorically denounce ISIS and all forms of terror.


Shameless Advice

The advice-to-young-people racket is utterly shameless. Even William Burroughs gave in to the temptation, proving that the best advice-to-young-people may be to ignore all advice-to-young-people. Unless, of course, it comes from The Stranger, Seattle’s ornery, Pulitzer-prize-winning alternative weekly, whose annual back-to-school issue confronts incoming freshpeople with all manner of weird, ironic, and occasionally even useful advice on life, love, and… oh yes, sex.

This year, they decided to go for broke and include religion, and who else would they turn to but the Accidental Theologist? — who obligingly came up with ten questions for “young people” to ask if they’re trying to choose a religion:

1. How loud do its proponents talk? If they’re shouting, that doesn’t make what they say truer. On the contrary: There’s generally an inverse relationship between decibels and truth. Besides, do you really enjoy being preached at?

2. Do they know what God wants/thinks/intends? If so, either they are God or they think they are God. That’s called heresy if you’re religious, and psychosis if you’re not.

3. Are they obsessed with sex? If they’re threatened by women or are LGBT-phobic, there’s weird sexual stuff going on. If you’re similarly threatened and phobic, Westboro Baptist Church or Mars Hill Church will happily provide a home for your penis.

4. Do they have good music? Christians might have this one beat (Bach’s Mass in B minor, gospel music…), but if you’ve never heard Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you have an ecstatic Sufi feast in store.

5. Talking of feasts, do they have good food? Communion wafer, anyone? At least Jews have matzo-ball soup and four glasses of wine at Passover. And Muslims get to dine on fatted lamb at Eid al-Adha—but winelessly.

6. Do they cite chapter and verse at you? This is the primo tactic of fundamentalists: cherry-picked quotes, out of context. Try tossing this one back at them: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” (And since they can’t hear you unless you add numbers, that’s 2 Corinthians 3:6.)

7. Do they have any idea what “metaphor” means? If not, gently suggest they sign up for English Literature 101—no, demand it. Do not put up with literalism.

8. Are they into social justice? That’s the essential subtext of both the Bible and the Quran: social and economic protest against corrupt elites. The Big Three monotheisms began as the Occupy movements of the ancient Middle East. Where do you think Marx got his ideas from?

9. Do they insist on your swearing belief/loyalty/obedience? If they lack a sense of mystery and claim to have all the answers, run like hell. That’s not faith, that’s dogma.

10. Are they into joy? Do they celebrate life—in this world, not a next one? Do they make you want to laugh, cry, hug, dance, stay up all night and watch the sunrise? Do they make you happy and grateful and goddamn humbled by this strange thing we call existence? A++ if they do.


For your enjoyment, a few quotes from Thomas Nagel, the philosopher of consciousness who famously asked “What’s it like to be a bat?”  (His answer:  we’ll never know.)

To my mind (as it were), Nagel is one of the most readable philosophers out there.

These are all from “The View From Nowhere.

On death:

         — “I believe there is little to be said for it.”

         — “Each of us has been around for as long as he can remember. It seems like the natural condition of things.”

On truth:

 — “If truth is our aim, we must be resigned to achieving it to a very limited extent, and without certainty.”

— “If you want the truth rather than merely something to say, you will have a good deal less to say.”

 On being human:

— “The human race has a strong disposition to adore itself, in spite of its record.”

— “Our constitutional self-absorption together with our capacity to recognize its excessiveness make us irreducibly absurd.”

 On philosophy:

   — “Philosophy is after eternal and non-local truth, even though we know that’s not what we’re going to get.”

   — “Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up.”

And this:

— “I would rather live an absurd life engaged in the particular than a seamless transcendental life immersed in the universal.”


The Rubble-Bucket Challenge

If you happen to live in Gaza, the one problem with accepting the ice-bucket challenge is that it requires a plentiful supply of ice. After seven weeks of bombardment, water is in short supply in Gaza, and electricity is scarce, so there’s no way to make ice. As journalist Ayman al-Aloul noted, however, what Gaza has in abundance is rubble. In fact thanks to the Israel Defense Forces, it has whole neighborhoods of it. Thus: the rubble-bucket challenge, which I accepted this afternoon halfway round the world in Seattle.  Please consider this an open invitation to take the challenge too:


(The rubble I used came, either ironically or appropriately, from a building site.)

Who Said It?

“Isn’t there a convention that if you don’t know the author of a quote, you can always attribute it to Churchill?” one character asks another in Zia Haider Rahman’s novel ‘In The Light of What We Know.’

“I suppose you’re right,” the other replies.  “In fact, as Churchill himself said, the false attribution of epigrams is the friend of letters and the enemy of history.”

“Churchill said that?”



That’s just an amuse-bouche from Rahman’s novel, which I’ll write more about soon.  But it seems to me that the epigram convention could as well apply to Kafka as to Churchill.  I suspect this might be the case in the following quote invariably attributed to Prague’s ur-existentialist:

— “The meaning of life is that it stops.”

I love the mordant humor of that (and have never heard it attributed to Churchill.)   My problem with it is that I can’t figure out where it comes from.  Was it really Kafka?   Kafka fan sites (a Kafkaesque notion in itself) list hundreds of quotes, but few bother to source the quotes precisely, and even on those few, this particular one goes unsourced.   A friend says it sounds more like Oscar Wilde, and it does have that sardonic Wildean touch.

So herewith, an appeal:  if you know where Kafka said it (or Wilde, or even Churchill come to that), please do let me know, so that I can give credit where it’s indubitably due.

And talking of crediting quotes, I’m still casting my net for the source of this brilliant definition:

— “Forgiveness is abandoning all hope of a perfect past.

At first blush, this sounds quite Wildean too, but it has a resonance — an afterlife in the mind — that speaks of deep sagacity, though the sage in question remains a mystery.   So again, if you know who said it (perhaps that should be written as whoseddit, as in whodunnit), do let me know.

In the meantime, here’s a sprinkling of well-sourced quotes that have been circling my head this past month:

— “I have decided to stick with love;  hate is too great a burden to bear.” — Martin Luther King

— “To be free of belief and unbelief is my religion.” — Omar Khayyam

— “We don’t even know for sure that our universe really had a beginning at all, as opposed to spending an eternity doing something we don’t understand.” — physicist Max Tegmark

— “I look forward to surviving.  If I don’t, remember that I wasn’t Hamas or a militant, nor was I used as a human shield.  I was at home.” — Mohammed Suliman, Gaza City

—  and again from Zia Haider Rahman:  “Listening is hard, because you run the risk of having to change the way you see the world.


lily tomlinAugust 26 update:

That quote on forgiveness?  Identified!

Many thanks to AT reader Nuzhat (see comments), who traced it to…  not Wilde, not Kafka, not even Churchill, but to a wonderful and totally unexpected source:  the wisdom of comedy in the form of Lily Tomlin!


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