Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Vietnamese Class: Week 3

We had a new member join our Vietnamese class last week. She was a Vietnamese woman who came over when she was three. Her parents speak Vietnamese to her, and she understands it a bit, but she doesn't really speak it at all. The other guy in my class is half Vietnamese: his mother spoke some Vietnamese to him when he was growing up but he never really learned to speak.

We didn't learn too much new stuff in week 3. A couple more introductory dialogues, some new words, and lots more pronunciation practice. I'm feeling better about my pronunciation and awareness of tones, but am also feeling a bit discouraged by the slow pace of picking up vocabulary and comprehension. I guess with Vietnamese you just have to put in a lot of time getting yourself to think about and recognize the various tones before you can go anywhere.

During the class we touched briefly on the intriguing problem of Vietnamese homonyms. Because the romanized script is strictly phonetic, homonyms are always spelled identically, making it impossible to distinguish the proper meaning without the help of context. Part of the problem is that the Chinese ideograms used in written Vietnamese before romanization of the writing system would have made clear the meaning of a particular word: even if words with different meanings had identical pronunciation, the ideograms would have been distinct.

Notes from the 81

Thankfully, it's been raining here in L.A. I was starting to worry that the climate change was going to be more vicious and sudden than anyone had anticipated. Most of January -- which is traditionally a very wet month here -- went by with almost no rain. I imagined everything dying, and the residents of Southern California having to go to war against those snobs up North for more water. Those days are probably not far.

It's hard to tell, but it looks like the 81's ridership has thinned out a bit tonight with the rain and the relative cold (it might be in the low 50's outside). These conditions pretty much constitute extreme weather here in L.A. I suspect a lot of people just stay in bed when it's raining and below 60 out here.

Couples are always hugging on the bus. Is there something about the bus that inspires affection?

The bus driver is talking about the Chinatown "libary". A Chinese man wanted to get off there, and she's trying to explain that we've passed it. The guy just got off and is headed back into Chinatown.

A blind girl and her father just got on the bus; the girl is sitting down now, holding her walking stick, and singing in Spanish.

The girl and her father just got off. As her father was helping her down the stairs, the bus driver tried to help with some commentary: "Take one step down. Take one more step. Now you've got the curb. Okay."

It's quite nice being in the warm, well-lit bus on a rainy night. It's sort of like being in the library on a rainy night.

America the Beautiful

Anti-war protest in downtown Los Angeles, January 27, 2007

There was a march and rally in downtown L.A. to protest the war in Iraq and the escalation this past Saturday. I had heard about the D.C. march earlier in the week, but heard about the L.A. event for the first time around one in the afternoon that day, in the car on my way home from a haircut. It had started to drizzle, and I wasn't sure if I should go. The event started at noon, and was supposed to be over by four.

I got home and looked up some information about the event: the march was going to go by the Democratic Party headquarters, past City Hall, and end in front of the General Services Administration Federal Building downtown on Los Angeles Avenue. By that time, it was raining pretty steadily; I was pretty sure no one would be there. And I wondered what a protest in L.A. would look like: there would be the obstacles of widespread apathy, a fragmented city with no real center, and a populace not accustomed to gathering in large numbers in public spaces.

After a cup of coffee, I threw on a raincoat and a hat and drove the Intrepid the twenty minutes from Eagle Rock to downtown. There was no sign of any mass protest as I drove down Temple toward the Federal Building. As I got close to City Hall, I started seeing some protesters, carrying wet, somewhat limp signs, looking like they were heading home. Most of these people seemed to be smiling and happy, as if they were returning from a vigorous and satisfying day of cross country skiing. The march had clearly ended, but I could hear the voices from the rally coming from down the hill.

I found a parking spot and made my way down to the rally. There was the usual and somewhat depressing assortment of t-shirt, button, and bumper sticker stalls, the chickenhawk card decks for sale, etc. I don't really object to this stuff, but I always find the presence of so many people trying to make a buck at protests and rallies to be kind of a bummer and sort of out of tune with the spirit of things. There was a good sized gathering of people around the stage, which was covered with a makeshift tarp. A large number of people huddled under the shelter of a canopy at the entrance to the Federal Building, waiting for Cindy Sheehan to arrive and speak. I was gratified to see a conga drum, albeit safely stowed in a carrying bag. There was the requisite free copy of a socialist revolutionary newsletter, many people wearing kaffiyeh, a lot of use of the words "brothers and sisters", and speakers yelling too loudly into the PA system. There were quiet, short, and intense men handing out bright yellow stickers advertising the next march and rally on March 17. A man dressed as Jesus walked by with a sign reading "I can only forgive so much, George." Variants of "BU** SH**" appeared on t-shirts, stickers, and signs. A man in a sandwich board reading "YES KUCINICH EDWARDS GORE" listened to another man talk about how there was nothing in the Constitution preventing states from seceding, and that the South had had the right to secede. A police copter flew overhead and landed on top of a nearby building -- we were all disappointed that it wasn't a news chopper, but waved and/or shook our fists at it anyway. A wiry middle-aged man with a droopy moustache smoking a wet cigar stood in the middle of the crowd holding up an American flag.

I left feeling mildly elated. The rally was small, pathetic, and wet, but it was real. I love events like that, where you feel as if you are participating in something truly American: cliched, silly, often dumb, possibly hopeless, but wonderful in some way. It's an amazing feeling, much like the feeling you get standing inside one of those middle-school gyms waiting to vote with all of the people in your neighborhood in a national election. To look around and see the other people that have been moved out of their houses and apartments and cars into the rain by the horrific images on their televisions, the Orwellian rhetoric on their radios, the mass-produced lies quoted in their newspapers, is an amazing thing. There's a reason the founders sought to preserve our rights of assembly: it's a unique form of collective observance of our national religion. (This is why it feels so wrong to me that there are always so many people hawking crap at these events: it feels sacreligious -- these things are supposed to be about thinking beyond self-interest and the profit motive.)

The flag in the rain in downtown L.A. was the same flag surrounding Bush at his press conferences as he misled the nation into war. It's the same flag that's on the shoulder of an American soldier who will die in Iraq. It's the same flag that was painted on the side of the Enola Gay. It's the same flag painted on the side of Voyager 2. It's the same flag that will show up behind Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich over the next few months. And it's the same flag second graders at Eagle Rock Elementary will pledge allegiance to tomorrow morning.

Monday, January 29, 2007

March 17: Protest the Escalation

I caught the tail end of the anti-war march and rally in downtown L.A. this Saturday -- more on that later -- but I wanted to help spread the word about the upcoming march and rally here in L.A. to protest the war, the "surge", and the additional wars the administration seems hungry for: Saturday, March 17 at noon, starting at Hollywood and Vine. See flyer.

March 17, 2007 will be the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. There will likely be protests marches and rallies organized in other cities as well.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Chinese Hell: Now Accepting Plastic

Di Yu, or Chinese hell, is apparently a kind of bureaucratic spiritual immigration control station. Almost everyone spends some time in Di Yu, atoning for sins and wrongs before the judges of Di Yu allow their spirits to be reborn. (Di Yu seems somewhat similar to the Catholic concept of limbo, which was, as you may recall, itself recently banished to limbo.)

Most often, Di Yu is depicted as having 18 different levels, with different chambers for various offenses. Examples include the Chamber of Ice, where children who mistreat their parents are sent to be frozen in ice, and the Chamber of Pounding, where murderers are pounded.

To help the spirits of departed loved ones navigate the underground chambers and courtrooms of Di Yu, relatives burn "hell bank notes". The idea appears to be that the bureaucracy running Di Yu, like so many bureaucrats above ground, suffers from susceptibility to corruption:
Hell bank notes . . . are a special form of joss paper, an afterlife monetary paper offering used in traditional Chinese ancestor veneration, that can be printed in the style of western or Chinese paper bank notes.

In order to ensure that spirits have lots of good things in the afterlife, their relatives send them paper presents, and one of the things that are usually sent to ancestors are Hell Bank Notes – money to spend in the afterworld.

In some mythology, the Hell Bank Notes are sent by living relatives to dead ancestors to "bribe" the King of Hell for a shorter stay or to escape punishment, or for the ancestors to use themselves in spending lavish items in the afterlife. In these more modern times, the creation of Hell Bank Notes credit cards and checks have become very popular. The designs on these "credit cards" vary from the very simple (with just a basic "VISA" stamped on a gold cardboard card), to very elaborate (with custom artwork and names).
Wikipedia. Kind of gives a new twist to Visa's "It's everywhere you want to be" motto

Though hell bank notes present a particularly colorful example, the idea of currency given to aid the dead seems to show up many places. For example, in ancient Greece, relatives would often place a coin under the tongue of the deceased: fare for the ferryman Charon to cross the River Styx.

I find it fascinating that Chinese hell is a kind of Kafkaesque, bureaucratic nightmare. All these spirits floating through endless hallways in some labyrinthine government building, their fates decided by the whims of various corrupt magistrates, trying to grease the wheels of cosmic justice with special hell money, checks, and credit cards. They must play a lot of Portishead over the P.A. system. And the Western Union office down there must be mobbed. I wonder if any grieving relatives ever worry that the Chinese government's efforts to keep the yuan artificially low may be negatively affecting ancestors in Di Yu.

Hell money comes in all sorts of denominations and styles

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Second Coming: Tom Cruise

According to The Sun, Tom Cruise has been told that he is Scientology's modern-day Christ:
The Mission: Impossible star has been told he has been “chosen” to spread the word of his faith throughout the world.

And leader David Miscavige believes that in future, Cruise, 44, will be worshipped like Jesus for his work to raise awareness of the religion.

A source close to the actor, who has risen to one of the church’s top levels, said: “Tom has been told he is Scientology’s Christ-like figure.
Religon News Blog.

UPDATE: It occurred to me tonight that, if this story is true, the Christening, for lack of a better term, of Cruise betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of Christ. Per Christian understanding, Christ not only spread the Gospel, but also sacrificed himself, in body, so that the rest of us could live (eternally). There doesn't seem to be anything in the Cruise as Christ story line suggesting that Cruise will be dying to save us.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Television Notes

The President's hand signing autographs as he maintains eye contact with politicians crowding the aisle. Someone giving John Kerry a soulful low five as he rushes out at the end of the President's speech. Barack Obama lifting his right eyebrow with his index and middle finger to the side of his temple, with Hillary Clinton staring impassively behind him in her new golden hairdo. John McCain looking tired and old, his face asymmetrical. Samuel Alito looking like he still isn't sure how he ended up there. Dick Cheney surveying the People's representatives like a study hall proctor looking to bust kids for passing notes or chatting. At the teleprompter's command, Bush instructs us, and the cameras of every network, to lift our eyes to the gallery, where the First Lady is surrounded by specially invited heroes: Dikembe Mutombo, the Baby Einstein woman, a Marine, and New York City's subway hero, who blows kisses and sends a message of love to the Senators from Iowa and Congressmen from South Carolina turned to smile up at him, applause, the ceiling of the Congressional chamber looking too close, Alberto Gonzalez watching in a safe place somewhere far away for government continuity purposes, and Jim Webb figuring out how to cross his legs before the red light over the gleaming black camera lens goes on. Al Gore sits on a plane over Michigan, reading Milton in the narrow beam of a reading light, the Great Lakes profound and dark beneath him. No one introduces the soldier in the gallery with a ragged pink scar where his right eye should be. Colin Powell roots around his fridge for a Diet Coke.

Monday, January 22, 2007


I was in the Intrepid driving down Sunset, the check engine light had come on again, as it had a little more than a year ago. My brother was on the phone. He was back at college for the spring semester. Classes didn't start for a few days. He was in someone's dorm room. It had started to snow there in Connecticut. Maybe they would go sledding tomorrow. Down the hill from the observatory, down to the baseball field, in front of the library, with its huge three-story windows full of light. He couldn't talk: all his friends were there. I was waiting at a light. Terri Gross was broadcasting on KPCC, interviewing a guy who wrote a book about modern burial practices. Though cremation is generally a greener way to dispose of one's body than standard burial, in the process of cremation, where the crematorium must be heated to 1600 degrees for up to two hours, the metal in our fillings, which contain mercury, are vaporized, and released into the air, where they are carried with the wind, and eventually rain down into the ocean, where the mercury is then absorbed by fish, which are then caught, cooked, and eaten, and the mercury makes its way back into the body: transubstantiation. But the snow in Connecticut was white and gleaming under the waxing January moon, and my brother's friends laughed and thrilled in their collective youth and health in the background as I pushed the Intrepid closer to 100,000 miles on the 2 North back to Eagle Rock.

Return of the Repressed in Athens

I've been waiting for this for a while: it appears people in Greece have resumed public worship of Greek gods:
A clutch of modern pagans honored Zeus at a 1,800-year-old temple in the heart of Athens on Sunday — the first known ceremony of its kind held there since the ancient Greek religion was outlawed by the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

Watched by curious onlookers, some 20 worshippers gathered next to the ruins of the temple for a celebration organized by Ellinais, a year-old Athens-based group that is campaigning to revive old religious practices from the era when Greece was a fount of education and philosophy.

The group ignored a ban by the Culture Ministry, which declared the site off limits to any kind of organized activity to protect the monument....

Dressed in ancient costumes, worshippers standing near the temple’s imposing Corinthian columns recited hymns calling on the Olympian Zeus, “King of the gods and the mover of things,” to bring peace to the world.
Religion News Blog.

I didn't know that the Romans had banned the worship of the Hellenic gods. It always seemed strange to me that the Greeks had given up their worship of their charismatic (and very human) gods, while the Hindu religion persisted. I recall that in studying the connections between ancient Greek and Sanskrit in a linguistics class on the origins of Indo-European languages, there were many suggestions from the linguistic evidence that the Hindu and Hellenic (and other pre-Christian European) gods had common historical ancestors. (Compare, e.g., Indra and Zeus.)

The Hindu pantheon and religion survived the arrival of monotheism in the form of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and continues to thrive today. The Greek pantheon and religion apparently did not survive the arrival of Christianity in Europe, being banned by Emperor Theodosius I in the fourth century.

It was probably just a matter of time until some Greeks began to publicly reclaim their ancient gods and myths. It's fascinating to see this happen: it seems very much in keeping with other returns to nationalistic and cultural essences (for lack of a better term). It very much seems a reaction to the the flattening effects of globalization. (Interestingly, while the official story was that globalization and telecommunications, etc., were meant to tear down walls, it appears that in fact, globalization has given rise to new sproutings of fences and borders, physical and ideological, all over.)

Even more interesting is that the return of Hellenic belief is, in some ways, a rejection of the imported Middle Eastern religion of Christianity (and its original Semitic language roots and often negative view of the body and its functions), and a form of reconnection with ancient ties to related Indo-European cultures (e.g., Hinduism and Sanskrit).

In any event, I'm sure some Athenians are eagerly awaiting the return of Aphrodite's priestesses. (See also, Tantra.)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Vietnamese Class Week 2: Slow Progress, Minor Breakthroughs

Week two of Vietnamese class brought much repetition of the tones we had learnt during the first session. I had spent some time practicing tones and pronunciation with Mrs. Octopus. I’m not quite sure how other Vietnamese students practice their tones: after one session in class, they could go home to diligently practice and hone the wrong tones all by themselves for a whole week. I think you have to use tapes in order to be able to match the proper tones. Strangely, our Vietnamese teacher strongly discourages us from using tapes.

We didn’t learn any big new catch phrases or expressions during our second session. We worked on a few new consonant-vowel combinations, but we weren't ready for any big leap into sentence-making, discussing our hobbies, or handy pick-up lines.

A funny thing I noticed – it happened to both my classmate and me during our session – is that it’s very easy to get thoroughly confused in class when you are not sure if the teacher is correcting your pronunciation (i.e., the pronunciation of the letters in the word) or your tone (i.e., the diacritical mark (or lack thereof) on the word).

For example, a word like duoc (which should have a tiny little dot under the o and little hooks on the u and o) should be pronounced with a short and low tone. If we pronounced or intoned the word incorrectly our teacher immediately corrects us; he doesn’t usually offer any commentary on the correction: he just repeats the word. My classmate and I would often focus on trying to pronounce the letters of the word correctly when in fact our teacher was trying to correct our intonation. We’d keep on repeating the word, trying to get the pronunciation correctly, with increasing frustration and insistence, our tones rising, as we had totally lost track of the proper intonation. I realized this when I watched my classmate get stuck in a cycle of repeating a word like eight times, trying to correct his pronunciation, never realizing that it was his tone that was off. It felt like a very deep realization, in the context of learning Vietnamese.

Perhaps after several months of this I might be able to ask for directions to the bathroom.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hindus Fight Swastika Ban in the E.U.

In a weird twist of the past coming into conflict with the more recent past and the present, Hindus in Europe are resisting a German proposal to ban the swastika across the European Union:
Ramesh Kallidai of the Hindu Forum of Britain said the swastika had been a symbol of peace for thousands of years before the Nazis adopted it.

He said a ban on the symbol would discriminate against Hindus. . . .

He said that while the Nazi implications of the symbol should be condemned, people should respect the Hindu use of the swastika.

“Just because Hitler misused the symbol, abused it and used it to propagate a reign of terror and racism and discrimination, it does not mean that its peaceful use should be banned.”

The group said banning the swastika was equivalent to banning the cross simply because the Ku Klux Klan had used burning crosses.
From Religion News Blog. The swastika was used, and continues to be used as a religious symbol by Hindus and Buddhists, among others.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Something Cuddly to Keep You Company

Many years ago, some friends of mine were going into the stuffed animal business. I was very excited about it, and felt the need to inflict my ideas for stuffed toys on them. I wrote them a long email explaining my idea for a line of stuffed religious figures: a stuffed Ganesh (how cute!), a plush Buddha, a soft set of disciples, a felt Noah inside a big stuffed whale, a sock Jesus, a cuddly L. Ron Hubbard, etc. I considered the Islamic ban on images, and proposed, as an alternative to a plush Mohammed, some plush Arabic characters that would be equally huggable. Sadly, my friends didn't respond to my email. They later gave up on the stuffed animal business and went to grad school.

A few years later, I saw a set of plush philosophers, writers, and economists at some horrific store in SoHo called "Trust Fund Baby". (I've also seen the Jesus action figures, and the Allah action figure (the container is empty -- get it?).) My friends really could've cashed in. Plus, if parents had given their kids sets of religious figures outside the parents' faith, my friends could've helped expand religious understanding in the world.

The urge to hug certainly precedes, or is deeply tied to the latent, prelogical and prelinguistic urge to believe. Cf. William James:
[T]he logical reason of man operates in the field of divinity exactly as it has always operated in love, or in patriotism, or in politics, or in any other of the wider affairs of life, in which our passions or out mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand. It finds arguments for our conviction, for it indeed has to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility.
The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture XVIII.

Looks like someone has beaten me to it. I really want this furry Hanuman.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Octopus Reflections on the Number 81 Bus Home

The 81 takes forever to come. Buses keep blowing by me on Hill Street. A parade of buses flying off to places I don’t want to go. I want to go home. My fingers worry the quarters in my pocket.

A Chinese couple sits next to me at the front of the bus, both holding onto plastic bags, tied neatly at the top. Mexican kids with skateboards horse around at the back of the bus. The driver tells them to “cut it out.” Black kids are doing tricks at some kind of skateboarding tournament on the Planet X program on the bus’s flat screen TV’s. The kids get off at the next stop and skate away into the fading sunlight of Highland Park.

On the bus I’m reading a book by a Russian guy where he and his friend are rapping about being Jews as they fish at a lake resort somewhere in Russia. The obese main character’s nickname is “Snack Daddy” and he’s trying to get the IRS to allow him to go back to his beloved New York. He imagines flying over the city, describing the Bronx, the massive green rectangle of Central Park, the setting sun’s light reflecting off of the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, and I’m getting nostalgic. The bus is trundling down Hill through Chinatown. No one gets on.

A bus passes in the opposite direction. On the side there’s a picture of a woman with six arms sitting on an L.A. Metro bus. She’s got something different in each hand: a phone, a blackberry, a novel, a pen, a newspaper, a little 3-pound barbell, a powder mirror, and an Ipod. She’s looking straight ahead from the frenetic whirl of her six arms about her with a beatific look on her face. Underneath it says: “Multitaskers, Free Yourselves We Commute You.” It’s an ad for the L.A. Metro. I immediately think to myself, “Somebody’s been watching me on the bus.” (For each 20-30 minute bus ride, I generally pack the following: a newspaper, a novel, a work of non-fiction, a magazine, a notebook, a cell phone, and a blackberry. I rarely use all of these, but I don’t feel good unless I have them all with me on the bus.)

To bring us back to our stated theme, I often wonder if Hindus find casual use of their religious imagery in commercial or comic settings – by nonbelievers -- offensive or upsetting. It’s hard to imagine the casual use of Christ on the cross in an advertisement, for example. And we’re all familiar with the totally ridiculous response of many Muslims to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed (even as an agnostic Muslim, I have little sympathy for such overreaction to cartoons). In any event, I have no idea how Hindus might feel about this kind of thing, but imagine some Hindus must feel slightly odd when they see their religion’s iconography used in bus ads.

I was reading a book on Indian art in Bangladesh about a decade ago; my cousins were smoking pot and listening to “Maxinquaye” in the room next to me. One of them came up to me, bloodshot and goofy, looked at my book and said: “You know, I’ve always wondered, why did the Hindus make their gods with all those arms? What was that about?” I didn’t have a good answer; I made something up about the many arms symbolizing the superhuman powers of the gods. My stoned cousin seemed only partially satisfied with that. (Although others have said basically the same thing: “The many arms of Hindu deities are symbolic of the god's manifold powers. Whereas we have limited abilities, a god's power is unlimited, signified by the many hands that hold a variety of attributes and perform myriad activities, often simultaneously. According to noted Indologist Alain Danielou 'the image of a deity is merely a group of symbols.'" From Religion Facts.) I still wonder, though. And is it significant that an octopus has eight arms?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nonbeliever

When I was a kid, I was more of a believer. I remembering praying very hard to God in the dark as I lay in my narrow little colonial-style bed with the drawers under the mattress that contained my winter clothes, staring up at the ceiling, straight through the pink insulation in the attic and the asphalt tiles on the roof, up through the bracing air of the autumnal Connecticut stars and moonlight, straight up to God in his unimaginably bright and clean cloud palace in Heaven, and asking him to give me the ability to fly. (I never got my wish; I got dreams instead: dreams where I hovered over the ground, and if I waved my arms a bit, I floated even higher up, my ascent and descent magnificently gradual and gentle. I still get these dreams.)

It was around this time, or not long after, when my parents were still taking us to a Sunday school in Hartford where we memorized surahs and got G.I. Joe’s for learning how to pray, that I had my first experience with the denial of my belief. Our fourth grade class at my Connecticut public school had opened up to the chapter on world religions in our social studies book. I don’t remember much about that segment of our social studies class. I think we touched ever so briefly on the existence of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, after more detailed discussions of Christianity and Judaism.

At the beginning of our discussion of Islam, our teacher decided it would be a good idea to ask the entire class if anyone present was a Muslim. This was a pretty weird question for her to ask, as she had to know that there were, in the suburban Connecticut classroom in 1983, maybe one or two Jewish kids, with the rest being Christian. I was, conspicuously brown and Indian-looking -- despite the disguise of my blue velour shirt, green corduroy pants, and Keds -- clearly the only possible candidate to raise my hand, though I don’t know that my teacher ever really knew what religion I was for sure.

After she had asked the question, it hung in the air, directly over my head, as my teacher pretended to look around the room for a raised hand declaring belief in Allah. The blond, hazel-eyed, and freckled kids in front of me turned around to see if I would raise my hand (they weren’t sure what I was either). I sat with my eyes fixed on my textbook, specifically (as I remember it) on a little square picture in the margin of thousands of people swirling around the Kaaba in Mecca. My velour shirt suddenly felt very hot and I broke into a sweat. Our teacher continued to wait – I felt her gaze light upon me a couple times, expectantly – as I roiled inside with my first kiddie crisis of faith. Was I a Muslim? Was I willing to out myself in front of my class of clean, virtuous, Easter-egg hunting, Santa-hugging classmates? Would the other kids think I was an airplane hijacker or embassy hostage-taker? Would I have to go to the front of the class and do a show and tell, maybe prostrate to the ground, facing east and mumbling Arabic to demonstrate the mysterious ways of the Muslim – all for educational purposes? Would I be sent to the Principal’s office?

As I remember it, I broke into a sweat as my teacher waited for a response. I swear, she must have waited about a minute, during which time I never raised my eyes. She finally relented, said something to the effect of, “Well, I guess not, then,” and proceeded with the lesson. I was left to remember my cowardice forever.

I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven myself for being too timid to raise my hand in that class. Looking back, I guess it is entirely understandable that I wouldn’t want to single myself out as some kind of weirdo, but my failure of nerve still rankles. I often think back on that moment, and I often wonder if that experience didn’t have a lot to do with my later shift into agnosticism. Probably not – it’s not surprising that someone raised Muslim (or Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish, for that matter) in America in the 70’s and 80’s would eventually lose faith: my moment of cowardice was probably just a symptom, not a cause. Still, that moment has stuck with me, as have my teacher’s and my classmates’ expectant, disappointed gazes, their eyes asking, “Well, what are you then?”

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hola, amigos.

My first Vietnamese class today slightly rearranged the relationship between sound and meaning in my brain. I'm taking the class at a language school way out in Beverly Hills -- it's super far away from Eagle Rock, but it was the only place in L.A. that I found that offered Vietnamese. Today was the start of a new session of classes, and the place was buzzing with activity when I arrived. It was sort of cool: all these people were checking in at different tables, registering for their classes in French, Thai, Korean, or Arabic, and being sent off to their assigned classrooms (there appeared to be about 25 classrooms at the school). Some of the classes, like French and Spanish, looked pretty large, with nine or ten students. I walked into my assigned classroom and found one student and one teacher (the Institute people had told me on the phone that they were planning to cancel the class for lack of students before I signed up).

We spent much of the class focusing on the basic six tones; our teacher did a good job of using a graph much like the one above to show us how to differentiate the tones. The curved lines (for the characters with the tilda and the question mark sign) represent the tones where the voice actually drops and then rises in tone; on the tone with the tilda, one is meant to slightly break one's voice as the tone rises again. The flat tone is a total monotone.

It was during some simple exercise, where I was supposed to pronounce "toi ten" in monotone, but kept on pronouncing them at different tones without thinking, that something clicked, and I began to visualize the six tones as six different levels, with the flat tone as the baseline, and producing the tones started becoming a bit easier. I realized that we constantly shift tones up and down in speaking English, sometimes to express emphasis, or to form a question, but often just to vary our speech, for fun, just so it doesn't sound too monotone. Through some repetition, I became a bit more conscious of controlling my tones.

A few hours later, I've probably already forgotten everything we studied today. It's going to be a long hard road.

Personal forcefields

When I was about eight, my aunt, who was living with us in Connecticut at the time, taught my brother and me that we had to whisper the surah Al-Ikhlas (Purity) three times and then blow into the air around us three times before we went to sleep each night. By doing this, we would be protected from any harm, she said. She also said that if ever we were in any kind of trouble, we should recite this surah repeatedly.

Years later, I would find myself going through the ritual of reciting this verse three times and blowing in three directions not only before sleep, but before basketball tryouts, final exams, and on board planes as they picked up speed down the runway, thereby protecting everyone on board.

I sometimes still find myself reciting the verse. I knew what it meant once, when I was nine or so, but forgot steadily over the years. Reciting simply became a spell I could cast over myself: believing in my old personal ritual gave it power over me.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

When I was growing up in Connecticut, I never thought I would one day live in Los Angeles.

California: sitting in the kitchen of my wife's parents' house in Fountain Valley after dinner, without my wife, just down the street from Little Saigon, stopping by after visiting a client's headquarters in Orange County, still in the gray pinstriped suit I had bought at Filene's while working as a law clerk in Hartford, too warm for the Southern California winter, with a slightly loosened tie I had stolen several years ago from the dozens in my father's closet in Glastonbury, trying to figure out how to eat an actual tamarind pod, drinking green tea my wife's parents' friends had brought back from Vietnam, asking if Buddhist nuns in Vietnam also had to shave their heads, explaining that there is nothing really like a priest in Islam, imams being more like rabbis, in a way, forgetting, after explaining my parents' pilgrimage, what the fifth pillar of Islam was (the pillar I forgot was the profession of faith, or Shahadah, which Saddam Hussein was reciting when the trap door was pulled and his neck was broken), listening to the stories of classmates from Vietnam, the brilliant geometry student ("He didn't draw anything on the paper or blackboard. He just read problems like he was reading a story . . .") who went on to become a chief scientist with Procter and Gamble and hold more than two-hundred patents, including the one for Bounce, with Governor Schwarzenegger on the 60-inch television in the other room, delivering his State of the State address in his absurd but real Austrian accent in Sacramento with his crutches to the side of the podium, and driving home listening to a Chinese language lesson on a CD and mispronouncing Mandarin greetings in my Dodge Intrepid on the 405 to the 605 to the 5 to the 2.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Believing in Tongues

In the burst of New Year enthusiasm, I signed up for Vietnamese classes last Friday. My classes start this week. I'm excited to start a structured course in Vietnamese, which I have been making half-hearted attempts to learn on my own and by pestering Mrs. Octopus for the past year and a half or so. For a time, I was able to say "Vietnamese is really hard," which was a good party trick.

Anyhow, I always find it fascinating to begin figuring out how a new language works, and to see how the new language puts different concepts together, how it categorizes things and ideas. (For example, I love how simple and blunt German is in assembling concepts like so many machine parts to create words: how to describe a glove? It's a "Handschuh". Suicide? "Selbstmord". And so on.) It's a well-worn theory that the unique structure of a particular language will inevitably affect or structure the minds of its speakers. I was reminded of this today as I said one word, and then remembered I had to call someone whose name rhymed with the word I had just spoken. Just as poetry cannot be properly translated, surely religious texts and words cannot be adequately or faithfully translated. The biblical command to "love your neighbor as yourself" or Buddha's final admonition that decay is inherent in all compound things will take on different meanings in the contexts of a different language. (This line of thought brings to mind the Islamic belief that the master copy of the Quran, sitting in heaven on a very nice stand for God's ease of reference, is written in stone in the one true language of its revelation, Arabic, and can only be truly understood in that language.)

(I've always wondered why "los dios" in Spanish is plural: it appears it may be a remnant from the Latin "deus", and, before that, the Greek "theos", which appears to have some connection to "Zeus"; I am not positive, but it appears that "dios" is used as plural because it retains the "s' from "theos" and "deus". Someone correct me if I'm off here. As a further sidenote, it appears that some Jewish Spaniards used the term "El Dio" to refer to God because they thought that the implication of multiple gods in "los dios" was blasphemous.)

In any event, it'll take some time before I learn enough Vietnamese to have any idea how that language may reprogram my brain.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Why Don't Christians Keep Kosher?

This question came up in my mind as I was making a comment on the blog of one of my law school professors. Some quick poking around revealed that most Christians point to the following passage from Acts as the basis for not following the strictures of the dietary laws set forth in the Old Testament, in Leviticus:
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."

"Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."

The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
Acts 10:9-15; see also discussion at Metafilter.

As I mentioned in my comments on Prof. Dorf's blog, I wondered if the New Testament's amendments of the law of the Old Testament meant that other Old Testament proscriptions such as proscriptions on homosexuality were similarly superceded by the new covenant created through Jesus. Some research into this reveals that, according to the Gospels, Jesus does not appear to say anything about the specific topic of homosexuality, but there are statements in other chapters of the New Testament that suggest that the proscription stands. Needless to say, it's a matter of significant controversy between Christians.

One thing that becomes clear: there is no easy reading here. We are dealing with interpretations of multiple English versions of the New Testament, which in turn rely on the understanding of the use of ancient Greek terms such as "malakoi ". It seems that the very nature of the exercise would caution against dogmatism. It does seem to me, though I am not expert, that, on the whole, Jesus' approach was one of forgiveness and tolerance: the basic message seemed to be that the technicalities of what one ate, or what went into the body were not important so long as one was pure of heart and word.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A New Start

image of the Kaaba

This blog has existed for more than two years now. I started it soon after the presidential election in 2004, as a way to vent my frustration with the world. Though I've tried out monthly themes, and, last August, vowed to blog only about bus-related topics, I've never managed to stick to one theme for very long.

Tonight at dinner, Mrs. Octopus and I discussed what religion we would teach to any children we might ever have. Mrs. Octopus's parents are Buddhist, and though she has not been that observant to this point, both Mrs. Octopus and I see signs that Mrs. Octopus herself may become a more observant Buddhist in the future. My parents are Muslim. My father has never been very observant; my mother is more of a believer. My brothers and I have been agnostic for quite a while, and I don't feel signs of becoming more devout anytime soon, but I know that I would want our children, should we have any, to be exposed to the traditions their grandparents believed in. I would want them to learn about both Buddhism and Islam, and to that end, I would want to take them with Mrs. Octopus's parents to the Buddhist temple to expose them to the Buddhist faith, and to learn about Vietnamese Buddhist practice from Mrs. Octopus's mother, who has relied on her Buddhist faith and practice to help her achieve a remarkable grace and serenity, overcoming years of illness. And I would want to take the children, perhaps with my parents, to a mosque, perhaps for Eid prayers, to get a sense of the faith that has been such an integral part of their grandparents' lives, and Bengali culture since the thirteenth century.

America is changing. The new Congress sworn in this week includes the first Buddhists and the first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives in American history. Keith Ellison, newly-elected Representative from Minnesota, and a Muslim-American, took his private oath of office with his hand on a Quran owned by our founding champion of religious liberty, Thomas Jefferson. Our children will be a part of this momentous change, and I want them to respect both of their grandparents' traditions, and thereby, to recognize the beauty that can be found in all the world's great faiths.

My parents just returned from a hajj to Mecca. They called me yesterday morning at work just after they landed in New York. As I spoke to my father on the phone, looking out over a hazy Los Angeles morning, planes landing and taking off from LAX in the glimmering distance, I noticed that he sounded different. He sounded older. His voice was muted, but a with a tone of being at peace. He had been a good man, a good doctor, a good husband, a good father with three grown sons who loved him, and now he had completed one of his duties as a good Muslim. A chapter in his life had closed, and a new one had opened: one who returns from the hajj is given the new name of hajji.

The impact of my parents' pilgrimage did not fully hit me at first, but crept up on me as I began to recognize it for what it was: a final preparation. I was thinking about this tonight after my discussion with Mrs. Octopus and I realized I had found a subject I could live with for a while.

the wheel of Dharma

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Octopus 2007 Resolutions

Late again this year, but here are my New Year’s resolutions for 2007 (note the depressing similarity to last year’s list):

1. Help Mrs. Octopus out more around the house.

2. Spend 20 minutes each day practicing languages.

3. Floss daily. Have been making this resolution for about twelve years now. Never keep it.

4. Figure out what I want to do with my life.

5. Remember my friends’ birthdays. I made this resolution last year and had about a 40% success rate. (Now my friends whose birthdays I forgot are going to hate me.) My problem with keeping this resolution is related to resolution 7.

6. Pick up the piano or saxophone again.

7. Waste less (stuff and time). Included within this resolution are subresolutions “Stop procrastinating”, “Stop driving”, “Don’t buy so much crap”, “Don’t be so fucking lazy”, and “Become more organized” – despite what the NYT article said. I am horrifically, unforgivably disorganized: I’ve been trying for years to fix this. I think I am making slow progress. I cleaned out my filthy, polluted Intrepid and gave it its first car wash in L.A the other week and – stupid as this sounds -- it made me feel like a new man. I felt more virtuous, walked taller, made more eye contact. Speaking of which . . . .

8. Make more eye contact. One of the odder resolutions I have ever made. I don’t know why I make so little eye contact. My cop-out explanations to myself are that my inability to make a lot of eye contact is a cultural thing I picked up from (a) growing up in a South Asian household where eye contact is not a huge thing and perhaps more confrontational and possibly disrespectful than in the West, (b) from living in Japan for a year (similar argument as the South Asian household), and/or (c) living in New York for about eight years, where eye contact is usually a bad idea, especially on crowded F trains. I actually don’t think any of these explanations is really accurate. I think my inability to make eye contact comes from a very deep-seated feeling of guilt. It’s hard to say what causes or caused this guilt; it’s a somewhat free-floating and amorphous thing, a large cloud of unease and remorse. I think I carry around guilt and shame (realizing that these are distinct) for all of the bad things I have ever done (or judge myself to have done), just a little too high up in my consciousness. I often feel like a bad, shameful person. These feelings could be triggered by my messiness, my bad driving, my failure to keep an appointment, my laziness, my unreliability, my stupidity, my thoughtlessness, etc. (You see why I need resolution 9.) I often feel like I don’t know enough, don’t work hard enough, have failed at many things, have let down my parents, brothers, family, and friends. It’s a very profound weight on my mind, and I’m not sure why I feel this way. Not making eye contact is a way of hiding. When I see people doing it, it looks furtive, like the person is being dishonest, concealing something. I’m hoping that if I force myself to make more eye contact, I can help myself get beyond some of these feelings. And now that I live in California, I have no excuse not to look my fellow enthusiastic, bright-eyed Californians straight in the eye.

9. Be less self-absorbed. Included within this are “Volunteer more” and “Shut up and listen more”, and “Respect other people”.

10. Cook more.

11. Write more (outside this blog).

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Joe Lieberman is Never Ever Ever Wrong

The indispensable Glenn Greenwald takes a look at Joe "Joementum" Lieberman's latest clarion call for more war, and his wise and subtle linking of Al Qaeda and Iran. Of course we should listen to Lieberman and his ideological fellow travelers: let's recall that they were so absolutely correct about the fantastic success in Iraq.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The wonders of the information age: You got tagged

My friend and soon-to-be ad man over at Guardedly Optimistic tagged me with this chain-game/viral thing where I'm supposed to list five things you (i.e., readers of the OG, known and unknown (Hi, Mom!)) probably don't know about me. It's hard to know where to start, since I don't reveal loads of personal dirt here, but here goes:

1. I used to be able to dunk a tennis ball pretty easily back in high school. There was a time when I thought long and hard about getting those weird training shoes that were supposed to increase your vertical leap so I could get that extra lift and be able to dunk a basketball. Around that time, I often had dreams of being able to dunk: in the dreams, the dunks were usually the absurd, super dramatic, Dominique Wilkins type dunks, where it felt like I just kept floating effortlessly up and forward.

2. I hate goat cheese. Just can't stand it.

3. I really enjoy repetitive tasks involving paper, scissors, tape, and/or glue. I enjoy wrapping gifts and books I am reading in brown paper shopping bags. After I wrapping the stuff up, I like to decorate the paper with rubber stamps from my extensive rubber stamp collection, sometimes in a variety of colors (I have several ink pads). I'm not sure why or how I got into rubber stamps -- it was 1997, I think, when I was living in Japan: I bought four rubber stamps, with the characters for the four seasons. A few years later I started buying stamps again at Kate's Paperie in New York. For a while, I would look for stamp shops in cities I visited (Seattle had a couple great places). I haven't found a good place in L.A. yet.

4. I went to a "summer camp" at the U.S. Naval Academy during high school and seriously thought about applying to the Academy during my senior year, even after realizing I could not fly jets because of my vision. (I figured life on a submarine wouldn't be so bad.) The Academy's recruiters seemed anxious to attract more Asian, Arab, and South Asian candidates: some guy from the Academy kept on calling our house for several months after I got back from the camp. The week at the Academy was pretty fun, although it did involve a taste of hazing, when the plebes who were our counselors called us all into the hall one night, got up in our faces and screamed at us, made us make strange faces, and ordered us to do push-ups, wall sits, or squats if we couldn't name all the Navy ranks in order or sing the entire Navy fight song. There was a lot of indoctrination, and by the end of the week, I was pretty much ready to get in a sub or on a destroyer and blow shit up. There are many pictures from me around this time sporting my blue heather U.S.N.A. t-shirt. Luckily, I changed my mind and ended up going to some sissy-ass liberal arts college in Massachusetts and majoring in English (and econ) and not blowing any shit up at all (except for the occasional false binary opposition, I guess, but there were definitely no cool explosions -- well, no cool non-metaphysical explosions, at least).

5. I do a very good Scooby Doo impression.

As much fun as this has been, I can't bring myself to extend this chain: no one else gets tagged.

From the print journal archives

The probe glides cold against my chest and my heart is a gold light on a liquid crystal display.

The mitral valve flutters like a dried leaf in a November wind in the flow of my uprushing blood.

This desperate throbbing began decades ago, and never stops until some time that I cannot imagine.

The gold light plays across the nurse's face in the darkened room as my heart squeezes in its perpetual sequence: in, down, up, and out. The mind is nothing, a fortuitous byproduct. This vigorous rhythm -- that is our foundation. It is amazing, frightening, and incredible how these inner, involuntary workings continue to function, second to second, day to day, through the night, and year to year.

[not my heart]

Monday, January 01, 2007

Bonne Année! ¡Feliz Año Nuevo! Happy Year of the Fire Boar!

Safely back in Eagle Rock, recovering from my shock at the measly buying power of our relatively weak dollar* and soaking up some California sunshine after freezing my ass off for much of our time in Paris. Paris was a lot of fun, but it's good to be back in L.A.

I'm finalizing my New Year's resolutions and my 2007 reading list, which, like last year, will be mostly aspirational, but drastically scaled back.

* -It should probably be even weaker.