The Schlep

Out at my folks this weekend, where I helped haul twenty or so boxes of dishes down from the attic to replace the usual dishes for Passover.  It’s a common tradition among orthodox Jewish folks, and though my family is fairly secular most of the year, this is one of those traditions that has remained.  The rickety ladder to the attic should probably be used as a prop in some horror movie.  Kind of reminds me of the spiral staircase in the 1964 version of The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  It groans and shakes and complains, and one suspects the ladder will collapse at any time.  Ghosts haunt the attic too, in the form of toys and papers from my and my sisters’ childhoods.

While we were unpacking the dishes I noticed a few loaves of bread sitting on the kitchen counter.  I said, “Um, Mom, aren’t we replacing all these dishes based on the idea that they haven’t touched leavened bread?”  She shrugged.  “It’s fine,” she said.  Never mind the chametz in plain view, it was the idea of the dishes being changed that counted.

I have a hard time imagining some judgmental God sitting on his heavenly throne and looking down his nose at us and nodding his head.  “My good little Jews!”  I mean, it seemed to me we weren’t doing this for God at all, but for each other.  Rituals are what bring people together.  It’s when you mistake the ritual for the meaning itself where you run into problems.  We might just as well have been told that in order to be good Jews on Passover we had to replace all our underwear.  And we’d do it and wouldn’t think, “How odd!” because that’s what our parents did and theirs before them.  (Just imagine!) But if we mistook the actual act of switching underwear for the part that was holy, we’d be missing the point.  It’s the sharing of the ritual with others, the bringing of people together, that gives it purpose.  I think that’s why I can enjoy this holiday even though I think most if not all of it is patently fiction.

Later, more on the Exodus!

Sybil’s Garage Update

Hi folks!  It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything to the blog, but I just wanted to give everyone an update on Sybil’s Garage.  There will be an issue this year, in 2011 (issue 8), but I don’t expect to begin reading until June at the earliest, and most likely mid-July.  The issue will debut sometime before the end of the year.  This is later than usual because of time constraints (work, personal, etc.) .  As usual, it will contain an eclectic mix of fiction, poetry & art, and again we will be releasing it as a trade-paperback.  For all intents and purposes it’s become an annual anthology (with magazine-like contents) and I’m happy with that.  Please feel free to spread the word & thanks!

Thinking About the Deity

So lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about religion and the notion of God.  Some of it is research for the novel-in-progress, but most of it is just my own curiosity.  It seems to me that most forms of religion originate with the central question of meaning.  Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  And what will happen to us when we die?  The universe, science keeps telling us, just keeps getting larger and larger, and humankind’s place in it smaller and smaller.  I’ll be the first to admit that the prospect of human existence being just a random event in a seething Cosmos that cares little for our daily agitations on this little blue orb quite frightening.  It’s much more comforting to believe that there is some grand purpose in human existence, and some meaning behind all the cycles of suffering we humans have to endure.  (The tragedy unfolding in Japan is one such example.)  I’ll admit that such a belief is not based on any evidence other than my own subjective experience, and therefore by all scientific methods, useless.

But I’ve also been exploring Atheism.  I was raised in a Conservative Jewish household that kept kosher and lit candles and said prayers on Friday night.  My father still wraps himself in tefillin (ritual phylacterites) every morning.  I fast on Yom Kippur and have, with the exception of perhaps two years, abstained from leavened bread during Passover.  There was one time, during a particularly intense Yom Kippur, where a troublesome problem I was having vanished after praying about it; perhaps it was placebo, but it has not returned.

There were times in my childhood where I spoke to God regularly (though I never heard him speak back to me with words.)  And I did believe he answered some of my prayers.  That sounds kind of kooky as I write this.  I remember a girl I met during my freshman year of college who told me that Jesus had unlocked her front door when she forgot her key and prayed to him.  I thought she was wacko.  But I suppose then how different am I if I think that God saved my dog from death after he’d ingested a splintered bone?

As I got older I started to question my religious assumptions, the assumptions of the faith of my upbringing, and tried to reconcile the contradictions and inherent illogical ideologies.  (There are many.)  I moved East (metaphorically) and found in some of those traditions a more rational exploration of the human condition.  (The mind-exploration of Buddhist deep-meditators comes to mind.)  I’m not sure I can fully wrap my heart around the notion of renunciation, the total acceptance that all things are transient and therefore not worth the attachment we give them.  I accept transience as a course of life, but I still believe that emotional attachments allow us to experience joy, love and — yes — sadness.  I don’t wish to disconnect myself from the vagaries of life.  That is where life IS.

But this is partly besides my point.  One thing occurred to me the other day while thinking about these things, and atheism in particular.  (For those who may think this is some sort of apologist screed in defense of religion, I would say that right now I’m probably closest to a Deist with atheistic leanings, and have no intention of convincing anyone, but, anyway–)

We thought that earth was the center of the universe, and then along came Copernicus.

We thought that our Sun was unique, but telescopes revealed it’s just one of trillions.

We thought our Milky Way was the only galaxy, but Hubble discovered it’s one of countless billions.

And even as a species on this earth, we’re finding that many animals share our capacity for higher reasoning and tool making.

Over and over again we find that we do not reside at the center of the Cosmos.  So, my question is, why should we assume that we are the highest form of consciousness in the Cosmos?  If we are to use the past as a guide, we should see that our notions of superiority and uniqueness are always flawed.  I’m not suggesting that this is “proof” of any creator god (I don’t think such a thing is possible) but only that perhaps this universe is filled with minds we can scarcely imagine.  We do not reside at the top.

So what’s above us?

Library Journal praises The People of the Book

The People of the BookLibrary Journal reviews The People of the Book and says:

“From Rachel Pollack’s distinctive retelling of the story of Joseph (“Burning Beard: The Dreams and Visions of Joseph Ben Jacob, Lord Viceroy of Egypt”) to Matthew Kressel’s far future tale of apocalypse and historic preservation (“The History Within Us”), the 20 stories in this collection reveal the Jewish experience through the medium of fantastic literature. Contributions by Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman, Peter S. Beagle, Michael Chabon, and other authors demonstrate the rich literary tradition of Jewish culture. ­

VERDICT From tales of golems and dybbukim to stories that touch on the Holocaust, this sampling of tales from the last decade will appeal to both sf fans and readers interested in Jewish literature.”

I Am Not My Data

I’m growing very tired of people telling me, “Well, my system says that…”   I’ve called up the bank, to argue about an error they made, and the answer was that “Well, I’ll look into it, but my system says that there’s nothing we can do.”  (Never mind it was their fault.)  I’ve been awaiting an MRI for three months, and when I call to query, I’m told that “Well, you’re in the system…”  (Which somehow implies that all is well.)  I called Verizon, to inquire about a DSL line for a client, to be told that the order my client had placed weeks before could not be fulfilled.  (Never mind they hadn’t contacted us of this problem.)  Why can’t my client get service?  “Our system says the service is not available in your area.”  At the drugstore I was told I had never been a customer there (even though I had used their pharmacy several times.)   I was not in the system.

It’s happening more and more lately.  To any fan of science fiction, this isn’t new.  There have been plenty of stories and more than one campy film about our data superseding our actual person.  But in my experience, never have I personally seen this phenomenon so widespread.  It’s as if the customer’s own experience is less valuable than the data about them.  I am not really as important as the numbers, stored in some computer data center somewhere, about me.  Never mind what I say; it’s the glowing numbers on the screen that tell my real story.

I find this frightening.  I don’t like to generalize, but I think we’re breeding a generation of people who trust what they see on a computer screen over their own experiences, their own senses.  Yes, phone operators, help desks, tech support people, etc., are all trained to read and recite numbers.  They’re not trained to be critical thinkers.  But I feel that when we trust computer data over our own senses, we lose something vital and important, namely our humanity.

Like I said, this is nothing new.  It’s just something I’ve noticed cropping up more and more in my life lately.