Snapshots from the Garden of Eden

We went to the Contemporary Jewish Museum today, and I particularly enjoyed Dina Goldstein’s photographs, from a series she calls “Snapshots from the Garden of Eden”: large black and white photographs, maybe three feet by five feet, of staged tableaux showing characters from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish folklore. My favorites:

— King Solomon, looking debauched and slightly bilious, sitting up in a large bed on which are sprawled two partially clad women among disarranged bedclothes (the wicked thought that crept unbidden into my mind: King Solomon as a role model for Judge Roy Moore)

— An unsettling image of a child sitting on a bed completely absorbed in looking at a tablet computer while a strange lights circles around her (the photograph was titled “Ibbur,” but to me it looked more like a dybbuk)

— Rabbi Lowe wearing safety glasses and standing at a bench covered with electronic test equipment, putting the finishing touches on a Golem that maybe he’s going to exhibit at the next Maker Faire

If religion is another mode of cultural production, this is the sort of thing we should be doing: constantly re-imagining religious narratives and metaphors. And by re-imagining, I don’t mean a modernist literalism that, on the one hand erects large granite monuments representing the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courthouse, and on the other hand denies the validity of all religion because religious stories are not literally true; the modernist literalism of both fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists is unable to cope with the uncertainties of metaphor.

Instead of literalism, I like Dina Goldstein’s way of re-imagining religious narratives: both sincere and ironic, both reverent and irreverent.

Performing a poem

The poet Lew Welch wrote: “I like the idea of giving my readers a text they can perform, themselves. Far too many of our pleasures are spectator sports already…” (introduction to Ring of Bone). The way I like to perform poetry is to write out a fair copy of the poem.

A couple of weeks ago, Carol and I went to the city and stopped in at City Lights Bookstore. I sat in the Poetry Room leafing through books and found the poem “Global Warming Blues” by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, in The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015). I almost bought the book, but I just got rid of four hundred books so we could fit into our new apartment; no way I could justify buying a new book for just one poem. So I performed the poem by writing out a fair copy on some watercolor paper. I tucked the poem into my coat pocket and forgot about it.

I carried the poem around in my coat pocket. The paper got wrinkled, and the poem got smudged though it was still perfectly legible. Maybe that’s a metaphor for what’s supposed to happen to poetry: poems aren’t supposed to remain captive inside the pristine covers of a book sitting on a bookshelf; poems are supposed to be out in the world: objects of use rather than useless objets d’art. I re-read the last paragraph:

now my town is just a river
bodies floatin, water’s high
my town is just a river
but I’m too damn mad to cry
seem like for Big Men’s living
little folks has got to die


For the past few weeks, I’ve awakened most mornings aware that during the previous night I had had vivid and intense dreams. I can think of several reasons why my dreams have become so vivid and intense: our new rental is in a much quieter and darker neighborhood and I’m probably sleeping more deeply; my sabbatical has led me to turn inwards in a way that I usually don’t have time for; in the weeks leading up to the winter solstice when days are getting increasingly shorter I usually sleep more, and dream more.

I don’t have any interest in remembering my dreams, and then analyzing them while I’m awake. Nor do I have any interest in dismissing dreams as mere effluvia produced as the brain consolidates its memories from the day. The first approach takes the subjective content of dreams and objectifies it; the second approach ignores the subjective reality of dreams and dreaming. Each of these approaches is a product of the hyper-rationalism which turns everything into an object, and then takes those objects and carefully places them into categories, even though these categories may be divorced from the subjective reality in which we live our lives.

Some three thousand years ago, the oracle at Delphi gave this advice: “Know thyself.” In some ways, we haven’t made any progress from this; we have more technology, and less hunger and famine and disease, and more liberty for more people; but I’m not convinced we know ourselves any better. Mind you, the simple fact that, compared to three thousand years ago, more people are well-fed and reasonably healthy and not enslaved means that more people have enough time in their lives to take the time to know themselves. But objectifying and analyzing pieces of your self does not lead to knowing yourself as a whole.

Hyper-rationalism has given me lots of knowledge, but hasn’t led me any closer to self knowledge. I awakened this morning knowing that I had vivid and intense dreams. Then I got up, and ate breakfast, and went shopping, and did some housecleaning, and stood for a moment just looking out the window. Now I’m writing this. Tonight I will likely dream more vivid dreams that I don’t remember. All this seems to be a better way to follow the advice of the oracle at Delphi.

Portable radio

Michelle and Don stopped by this morning to pick up some amateur radio gear I got from Dad that I’m no longer using. We stood around talking for a while, and Don showed me the prototype of a large variable air capacitor he’s fabricating for use in magnetic loop antennas. So of course I had to show off my latest project: a portable box containing a low-power transceiver, digital interface, power supply, antenna tuner, and antenna.

OK, in terms of raw geek street cred, my portable radio box isn’t as cool as fabricating a large variable air capacitor. But it’s worth something as a small piece of systems engineering that addresses a specific problem that I face: our new house is clad with stucco on wire mesh, which means I live inside what is essentially a Faraday cage; and the landlord does not allow permanent outdoor antenna installations (let’s face it, most visitors to a cemetery don’t want to see a big antenna array). Now I can grab this box, walk out to our fenced-in patio, sit down and get on the air. Mind you, as with any good DIY maker-type project, there is room for improvement and expansion: it definitely needs a door on the front to protect everything; I’d like to add a straight key for Morse code and a space to store an Android tablet for digital modes; I’m thinking of a separate battery and solar cell unit to go with this; maybe someday I’ll add a small linear amp. But in the mean time, this works as is, and it was fun to sit outside in the sun yesterday and monitor the mobile maritime net.