The musicalized, heat-filled dream of possessing his beloved

I went to Homecoming at St. John’s College this weekend. I got my master’s degree there, but I consider it my alma mater much more than I do my undergrad institution. I had a good time; it wasn’t as transformative as the Piraeus seminar I attended this past May/June, but it was a great opportunity to reconnect with other students, tutors, and an old pal who came to visit on Saturday. I didn’t get to record any podcast conversations during the trip, but did reach out to a few potential guests.

It’s been a busy few weeks for me. Two weekends ago was the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD. The next weekend we had a wedding in Dawson, PA, about 375 miles from home. This weekend was Annapolis. Next weekend I leave to Madrid and hope that the riots settle down enough for me to get to my conference safely.

I took a half-day from work on Friday, after pounding out pages and sending PDFs to the contributors of the new ish, so they can send me their corrections in time for me to get the new issue out by Wednesday. I left for Annapolis around 2 in the afternoon and had to deal with a little traffic on the ride down, but got in safe and sound, albeit unfed.

I checked in at my hotel, then drove to campus, got my registration packet, picked up a powerbar-sorta thing for dinner, and headed over to the Homecoming lecture, The Musical Universe and Mozart’s Magic Flute, by Peter Kalkavage. Peter was the tutor for my preceptorial on Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right. His 1991 essay on the role of Ulysses in The Divine Comedy was one of the things that convinced me to attend St. John’s. (It’s in this PDF.)

The lecture was way over my head, breaking down Tamino’s aria in technical ways to reveal its beauty. I’m not an opera guy and have no musical training to speak of, but I still enjoyed Peter’s exploration of the structure of the music and the effects Mozart achieved from his notes, tones, etc.

I seriously don’t have a vocabulary for this. In the Graduate Institute (the GI), we don’t receive a lot of the instruction that the undergrads do. They have music, languages (ancient Greek & French), and laboratory science. Because of our truncated schedules, we make do with a lot less. (Not that I’m complaining.) I sat with another GI during the lecture. We laughed when everyone in our section flipped the page of their sheet-music handout at the right moment, while we kept looking at the first bar. It’s always fun to be the uneducated one.

Early on, Peter put on a recording of the aria, which he would later play selections of on a piano (and sing particular segments to demonstrate certain progressions). While the recording played, he swayed a little at the lectern. That’s when my reverie began.

I thought of everything that I’ve experienced in the past few weeks. First, I thought about Jaime Hernandez, the cartooning genius, choking up while telling an SPX audience about a scene from a Tyrone Power movie, The Eddie Duchin Story.

I started recalling moments from SPX: meeting people in autograph lines, arguing (gently) with Chris Ware over how “Gill Sans” is spelled, buying art from Jaime and his brother Beto, sitting at a barroom table with the Mt. Rushmore of modern cartooning (the Hernandezes, Ware, Dan Clowes, and Charles Burns were on hand), trying to talk Kevin Huizenga into recording a podcast next time I’m in St. Louis.

From there to Michael Dirda’s house on the way back to NJ. Looking over his bookshelves, noting the UK hardcover of A Frolic of His Own, discovering that third Nabokov collection of lectures on literature, spying the brick of Kingsley Amis’ letters on the shelf behind Dirda while I interviewed him.

A week in NJ followed, with Rosh Hashanah and then the annual conference I help host. Six or seven hundred people come to a hotel to participate in the show, and it always leaves me exhausted, but at least it didn’t leave me in the emergency room like last year’s anxiety-sleeplessness-caffeine feedback loop did.

Right after the conference finished, I drove home, unpacked, then repacked, and Amy & I drove out to Dawson for a wedding: Six-plus hours in the car on 78 and 76, culminating in a dirt road (Lucky Lane) in the dark before arriving at the hotel. Touchscreen cheesesteak at a truck-stop Wawa; a little local bookstore daring enough to have William S. Burroughs’ Queer and Junky on end-cap display (picked up a used copy of The Two Cultures by CP Snow); meeting gin freaks and elderly computer bazillionaires at the wedding; finishing The Good Soldier, on Dirda’s recommendation; watching eight or nine of the male wedding guests gathering in the middle of the dance floor for a bizarre choreographed haka-polka hybrid set to Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business”; passing on karaoke.

Sunday morning, we drove out to Fallingwater, about 40 minutes away, before heading back to NJ. It was impossible and gorgeous and everything I hoped it would be, and it made me feel a little sad to be returning to the standard nine-room bi-level of our neighborhood. I thought about the engineer in Local Hero telling Peter Riegert and Peter Capaldi, “Dream large.” I got another touchscreen cheesesteak on the drive home.

Worked frantically through the next week, punctuated with a 25-hour break for Yom Kippur. In addition to the standard fast (no food or drink), I decided I’d really get out of myself and not look at a screen for that span: no iPhone, no computer, no TV. It was as liberating as I expected. By the time I checked my e-mail after breaking my fast Wednesday night (at Greek City in Ramsey), I had 35 messages on my personal e-mails, only a few of which I wanted to respond to, and none of which were imperative.

I prayed Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon with the Chabad that I visited in past years. They’ve always been accommodating, no matter how slack of a Jew I am. Some of the older gents in the congregation either recognized me from past years or just wanted to introduce themselves and make new acquaintances, which was nice. I’m so bad about joining community; I’m much better with afflicting myself.

At the end of mid-day prayers, we received a blessing from a kohen. I’d never been present for that before. We were instructed to look in his direction, but not to make eye contact during the blessing. It’s customary to cover one’s eyes with one’s tallis during this. The man in front of me set a good screen, however, so I was able to look forward without looking on the kohen’s face.

When I wasn’t at Chabad, I passed the time by re-reading King Lear, since I’d signed up for a 90-minute seminar in it for Homecoming. I hadn’t read it in years, and this reading may have been skewed a bit by the fast, since I was going without caffeine for this stretch.

After mid-day, I drove out to Nyack, NY to walk around and pass sometime. I discovered my favorite bookstore there was gone, replaced by a dry cleaner. I visited another store, the fiction department of which was filled with stacks of trade paperbacks. I tried looking at some back Paris Reviews in a stack, but it started to tip, then bumped another tower of books. I caught both of them and struggled to get them stable again without anyone at the front of the store noticing. A day of affliction can always use a little levity.

And then it was back to work, and then on to Homecoming, where this reverie began. I scrawled these reminiscences all over the backs of the sheet-music handouts. I also wrote down some details of a wonderful dream I had the night before, where I read the profile of an author who wrote a book that, according to a hybrid of Chip Delany, Michael Dirda and Junot Diaz, I would love. The book and the author don’t exist, but I retained the title of the novel, and woke up and wrote it down. I used to dream a lot more about fully-formed works of art, but it hasn’t happened in a while. I’m afraid of what that means.

Among all these notes Friday night, I wrote, “Made PDFs for contributors; put on conference.” Then I wrote, “It’s funny how unimportant those things are, and how necessary for me to live this beauty. How little of work will I remember as I grow old, and how much will I hold onto from everything else?”

Thanks for sticking around. Here are the books I bought at the college store on Saturday:

St. John's College bookstore run

Things Behind the Sun

Late last year, I donated some money to the Chabad house that had taken care of me & my dad the last two Yom Kippurs (here and here). I’d been meaning to do that for a while, but it slipped my mind. After the Mumbai terrorists targeted the local Chabad house for special treatment, I didn’t have any excuse.

My donation led my being added to the distribution list for their weekly e-newsletter, which usually goes out Friday mornings. I skim through most of the contents, but I try to check out the parshah section, which details that week’s reading from the Torah. (For those of you who are unacquainted with Judaism, here’s the skinny: each Saturday morning during sabbath services, the Torah is brought out and a portion of it is read in seven segments. Over the course of the Jewish year, the congregation works through all 5 books that comprise the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. At least, I think that’s how it works. I’m sure my brother or my mom will correct me on that.)

I’m not a practicing Jew, and if I were, I doubt I’d be part of the Lubavitcher movement, the Hasidic sect that runs Chabad. That said, my experiences with them have been rancor-free; they welcomed me and Dad with open arms and demonstrated zero pushiness or guilt-tripping about our religious slackness.

Early this week, they sent an e-mail about a ceremony I had never heard of: Birkat Hachamah, the 28-year-blessing.

See, because the solar cycle is 365 days and 6 hours, it takes 28 years for the sun to be in the same position on the same day of the week. Today is supposed to mark the anniversary of the creation of the sun, so Jews go out within the first 2 hours of sunrise and thank God for creating the sun. (Read the FAQs; they explain it better than I do. And there’s always Wikipedia.)

I didn’t have time to meet up with the Chabad group this morning to pray. Actually, I didn’t have the inclination to do it. I know the spirit of prayer for Jews is that of community, not solitude, but there are a lot of ways I fail to live up to my heritage, so there you are.

Instead, I printed out the prayer & the psalms, put on my yarmulke, and walked around the block to the area with the best view of the rising sun (which happens to be the yard of a house owned by observant Muslims). And in the chilly morning I read:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who re-enacts the work of Creation.

What a beautiful, evocative and mysterious phrase that is: “Who re-enacts the work of Creation”! How better to characterize the sunrise?

(The psalms that followed had a few, um, problematic sections, mainly the ones about ruling the nations of the world. But hey: I didn’t write ’em.)

Once I finished reading, I walked home, trying my best not to look over my shoulder to glimpse the sun again. Yeah, I failed at that, too.

* * *

In keeping with my half-assed Judaism, I should note that tonight is the first night of Passover. My mom’s visiting for the occasion, but we’re going to have our seder on the second night, because it’ll be easier on us and the dozen or so gentiles who’ll be in attendance. To all my Jewish readers, observant or not, chag sameach!

Here are a couple of neat Passover-related links, a little Unrequired Pesach Reading for you:

Take a three-hour hasidic tour!

Ever wonder why how they make matzo?

Israeli Jews & Arabs can work together just fine sometimes!

Update: One of my coworkers told me that the sun-story reminded him of this old cartoon, the Sunshine Makers:

At one

Last Thursday was Yom Kippur, so Dad & I made our return to the Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center in Chestnut Ridge, NY for Yizkor, the prayer for one’s departed parents (and other family members). I wrote all about the JEC last year, so go check out the details and get back here.

Last year on Yom Kippur, I was on antibiotics that were causing me to have paranoid delusions, so I skipped the ritual fasting (no food, no fluid, no nothing for 25 hours). In relatively better health this year, I decided to give it a go. I hadn’t reckoned on how much I increased my dependence on coffee in recent months; Dad came by to pick me up around 10 a.m., and I was already thrumming and out of it. And I had another 9+ hours to go.

Fortunately, Dad made the drive “entertaining” by

  1. talking about cooking shows and food most of the time (his diabetes precludes him from fasting),
  2. talking about how good “that one white player” on the U.S. Olympic basketball team was, until I realized he was referring to Jason Kidd,
  3. employing a GPS unit that was so faulty I named it “SPG,” which led to
  4. getting so lost that I had to bust out my iPhone to figure out where we were and how to get to the JEC.

When we arrived, we stayed in the back of the rec-room/shul. There were 25-30 men present. The rabbi saw us and walked back to greet us in kittel and Crocs (no leather footwear on Yom Kippur), while the chazzan was conducting a prayer. He remembered us from last year and even recalled Dad’s father’s Hebrew name. I’m sure he has to have a good memory for the once-a-year Jews like us.

After shaking my hand and wishing me a good new year, he said, “I’m glad you’re here! We need you to open the ark and bring the Torahs out!”

The lack of caffeine and my blood-sugar wackiness were taking a toll on me. Addled and thick-tongued, I said, “Uh, um, I don’t have to do a blessing, right?”

“No! We just need your muscles!”

“. . . In that case, you might be better off asking me to read Aramaic,” I said, following him up the narrow aisle to the pulpit/reading table.

He directed me to open the fireproof safe on the wall, remove the first Torah and hand it to the chazzan. I took each velvet-covered scroll out carefully, avoiding any contact with the ark/safe as though I was playing Operation. The chazzan, in white socks and flip-flops, carried his Torah into the congregation. I followed him through the shul. Each congregant touched the Torah cover with the corner of his tallis or his prayerbook, then touched that corner to his lips.

We finished our circuit, crossing the partition so the women and children could also receive the Torahs’ blessing, and the chazzan put his on the reading table, while I was instructed to sit down in the front row and hold the second one. The top handles of this Torah were covered by decorative ornaments (rimonim) that had little silver bells dangling from them. I kept trying to find a sitting position that was comfortable, respectful, and didn’t cause constant jingling noises, in ascending order of importance.

While I kept the noise down, congregants were called up to perform aliyah, the blessing over the Torah. Dad was the second or third one called up, and performed admirably. I even began to feel a little of The Resonance, watching my dad recite the blessing. Holding the other Torah against me, I thought about atonement, and what we were supposed to be doing that day. I feel like I’ve already atoned for most of the wrongs I’ve committed against people in my life, but that’s not what this day is about. This is about atoning toward God, and I don’t know how to do that.

Following (I think) six aliyah over the first Torah, and then another over the second Torah, it was time for the Torah reading, followed by a sermon from the rabbi. Now, the JEC’s high holiday schedule indicated that Yizkor was supposed to be at 11:45 a.m., but it was around half-past-noon when the rabbi was wrapping up his sermon. I don’t think this so much an instance of Jewish Mean Time as it was a matter of making sure that less observant congregants didn’t pray and dash.

The sermon consisted of the rabbi telling a story of the Baal Shem Tov telling a story, and in a reverie I wondered if the layers would keep growing, with each storyteller launching into another story of a storyteller, all carrying the theme of Jews’ obligations to each other and God. The rabbi, feeling less postmodern than I was, elected to keep it relatively simple, although his story did rely heavily on the prospect of reincarnation and explicitly mentioned Purgatory as an afterlife destination. His message: live up to the Torah, because you may be in this world in order to “get it right this time.”

After he finished, those of us who haven’t lost our parents went outside, while the others stayed in for Yizkor. The rabbi was lucky enough to be among our number, so we shot the breeze in the backyard. He asked me, “So what do you do when you’re not praying and studying Torah?”

I filled him in on my day job. He asked for details about the nature of business magazine publishing, how we’re adapting to the internet, and why he only sees me once a year. “Because I’m not a very good Jew,” I told him. I thought about some of the others I’d seen that morning in shul, who were even less educated in Judaism than I am, but were still there to pray.

“But you’re here today!”

“I guess I’m a half-decent son.”

“That’s a start!”

We walked over to the main group of people, and the rabbi’s wife told the story about how she once passed out in the middle of Yom Kippur in an overcrowded shul. It turned out she was pregnant with their first child. Someone pointed out that it’s good to keep smelling salts on hand during the day. The rabbi said that they usually do, but he couldn’t find any this year. I mentioned how disappointed I was that there was no snuff circulating the services this year. He laughed and told me to come back next year, and maybe they’ll have some.

Once the prayer was complete, we returned to the shul. The rabbi collected the names of all the dead from the congregants, so he could lead a prayer for them. When that was done, we noticed that others were getting up and heading outside, so we took our cue to leave. The rabbi caught us and took my arm, saying, “No! We need you to put the Torahs back in the ark! It’ll only be another five minutes!”

As he led me back up the aisle, one of the congregants said, “That’s ‘five minutes’ in Jewish time!”

I told Dad that he could wait in the car, figuring that he might be light-headed from sugar-crash and would need to snack on the banana that he brought along, but he stayed. And so we prayed further, and I lifted the first Torah from the reading table. About to place it in the ark, I said to the rabbi, “It’s a 40-day fast if I drop this, right?”

“Right! So don’t drop it. You don’t want that much atonement!”