What Is Religious Conversion?

Is “Convert” Derogatory?

I was led to think about this word when a friend, part of a missionary organization, bridled at being asked not to “try to convert” people at a particular social function. This person said that, (a) they don’t try to convert people, they just tell them about Jesus, and (b) the word “convert” is derogatory.

I sort of understand (a). It’s not so different from what advertisers say when they are challenged as being manipulative. They claim they are simply neutrally presenting information, and that they have no control whatsoever over what people do with it. It all might be completely wasted, after all! Only if folk truly prefer the product after their advertisement brings it to their attention will there be a purchase. This is a defensible position, based though it is on an idealized version of the consumer – the utterly rational homo economicus.

Thanks to the work of Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking Fast and Slow), among many others, we know that homo economicus is a very small and weak part of real-life human beings. Myself, I subscribe to the “post-hoc justification” school of free will. That is, decisions we make are quickly-made subconscious impulses, and then we afterward craft a word-poem describing our choice, which we then assume represents the “reason” for the action. There’s an interesting Wikipedia article on Social Intuitionism that mentions this.

But I’m more interested in claim (b), that “convert” is a derogatory term. The first definition in Merriam Webster is, “to bring over from one belief, view, or party to another.” Clear enough. Nothing especially derogatory about that, except maybe the word “bring” implies a lack of agency on the part of the converted. Getting rid of that would lead to this revised definition: “to persuade one to change from one belief, view, or party to another.” The premise being that you can only convert yourself. This has the ring of truth – even in cases of forced conversion, with a sword to the throat, the victim has to declare that they change their allegiance. If that were not the case, no violence would be necessary – the powers-that-be would simply declare that everyone has been converted.

I don’t know if that has ever happened, historically. Are the Khazars an example? The story as I’ve heard it (mythical? I don’t know. Wikipedia says it is supported by records) is that the king decided he wanted to bring his people over to one of these wonderful new Abrahamic religions. So he listened to presentations from a rabbi, a priest, and an imam, and decided to go with the oldest one, Judaism. He did then convert all his people, and they all (*poof!*) became Jewish.

So, the question here is whether “convert” is transitive (i.e., is something that can be done to someone) or intransitive, like “sneeze.” You can’t “sneeze someone.”

Let’s go with the most generous definition of “convert,” as intransitive. In that case, it really would be inappropriate to tell someone, “don’t try to convert people,” not because it’s derogatory, but because it’s nonsensical. One could say, “don’t talk about religion; it’s impolite.” The backstory of that would be that you believe they are like the manipulative advertiser, whose claim of neutral, expectation-free, information disseminating seems disingenuous. Of course they are trying to persuade people to buy the product – why else would they spend so much money? This gets iffy. The advertiser would have to claim that they are doing no such thing – they have such confidence in their product that they don’t need to persuade anybody. The product does all the persuasion. They just want to present it, make it visible – be in the marketplace of ideas. They expect an ROI because they believe in the product.

Okay, that discussion could go on forever, because it has to do with motivations, and these are fundamentally unknowable. We can only know actions. Of course, we do try to know people’s motivations, that’s a big part of what goes on in courtrooms every day. And we assume people’s motivations are in line with their actions. But this is a subtle difference. And taste comes into play. I might say that no person in their right mind would drink Bud Lite, so the advertising must take the credit of manipulating people into drinking it, despite competitive products that taste so much better. But that’s just me – others may genuinely prefer it. Hey! Could happen.

There are also social mores at play – it is considered impolite (or merely tedious) to discuss money at a social event (though we do it all the time), and religion and politics are considered off-limits as well, because of the chance of strife. This is a matter of politeness. Some folk don’t care about politeness, they consider it “political correctness.” But these standards are malleable and ever-changing. It used to be one wouldn’t dream of using foul language in society, but now it’s common. For better or worse? Up to you.

Why Convert?

If we overlook these cavils, and accept the intransitive “convert,” we get to the next question: how do you know if someone has converted, and why do people convert? Second question first: here’s a preliminary list (these can be true in any combination) of preconditions to conversion:

  1. The other belief system truly represents the physical reality of the world
    i.e., it would be delusional not to convert
  2. The other belief system promulgates a moral scheme that they find more in accord with their instincts
    i.e., converting is the right thing to do
  3. The community of the other belief system is comforting and sympathetic; you actually like them better than your original community, or perhaps you felt that you didn’t have a community before, and this one accepts you
    i.e., you’ll be lonesome if you don’t convert
  4. The community of the other belief system is well-liked, and being part of it will make one better liked
    i.e., you’ll be a pariah if you don’t convert
  5. The community of the other belief system will only do business with its own members, and you want to do business with them
    i.e., you’ll be poor unless you convert
  6. The other belief system offers protection from danger
    i.e., you’ll be dead if you don’t convert

There’s a lot of wiggle room around each of these. Number 6 encompasses converting at sword point, and less imminent danger, even imaginary danger. It might also include someone finding religion to save themselves from, say, drug or alcohol addiction: “If I hadn’t become religious, I’d be dead today.” That might go along with number 3, because you stay sober in part to be in the community, and they offer support, encouragement, and a new community that doesn’t push the same buttons as the old one.

Number 5 includes my great-uncle Rudolf, the self-declared “Baked Bean King of Boston.” I know, that sounds grand – he used to sell little pots of beans, prepared at home, to commuters at the train station in the morning, and collect the empty pots in the evening. Apparently, he did well enough to retire to Hollywood, Florida, where I met him in 1964. He gave me and my sister each a shiny new 50-cent piece. He claimed that he started with number 5, but came to number 3, because after he retired, he stayed involved in his local Episcopal church, and (I heard) bequeathed his property to them. Certainly we never saw a penny! At least, not past that first 50 cents. By the way, thanks to my wonderful sister for that history.

Number 5 is common, I think, where there is a majority religion. Minorities may be excluded from certain benefits – education, jobs, social interaction – unless they declare themselves to be of the majority belief system. You might call that bigotry, or you might call it wholesome community togetherness, giving more weight to those closer to you than to others. In different cultures, different norms prevail. In modern America we see that struggle all the time, most recently in the insistence that corporate religious beliefs ought to, or ought not, determine whether the company needs to comply with the rule to provide health coverage including contraception services.

I have no evidence for this, but I suspect that Number 3 is the most common. If you find a community that welcomes you and provides needed solace, it’s the most natural thing to do things with them, and religious practice would be an important part. So would other things. You’d start to speak like them (interesting research on Jews who become Hasidic adopting speech patterns mimicking those who are born into the community and grew up speaking Yiddish; I read something about this in The Forward – if I find it, I’ll link to it).

Then, after you’re immersed in your new community, you start to find their moral standpoint more logical, and you may find their vision of the universe more compelling. But I suspect these are post-hoc rationalizations. It has more intellectual heft to say that you studied the alternatives (much like the Khazar king) and selected the most intellectually coherent belief system, than to say you were lonely and needed a sympathetic, supportive community.

How do you know if there is a Conversion?

Sometimes, it’s so obvious the question seems idiotic. The individual declares their intention, then undergoes a series of rituals and training. Perhaps they change their mode of dress, and even move to a new location. They become part of a new community. Perhaps they pass through a symbolic gate, often with water. So baptism, immersion in a mikveh, these are pretty inarguable signs. I doubt that anyone would do that, and then claim they haven’t “converted.”

You might get an argument from a Reform Jew who decides to join a Hasidic community. Everything in their life will change – mode of dress, community, daily rituals. They may also subsume their will to that of an authority figure, a Rebbe, who, in exchange, finds them a job, a wife, a home, and tells them for whom to vote. I don’t know enough to know if they’d be expected to undergo a conversion ceremony. But they might claim that they’re not converting, they’re just fulfilling the requirements of Judaism, which they had heretofore ignored. In other words, they might say that they were unobservant before, now they’re observant. No conversion, just a change in level of commitment. The actual God remains the same, they’re just listening harder.

That’s an interesting argument. To my eyes, such a person has obviously converted. Their belief system has changed from one in which observance was optional to one in which it is mandatory. But I can see that the word “convert” here is arguable, if one wishes to argue it. Sure, it looks, acts, walks, and quacks like a duck, but maybe it’s a mallard. I don’t know.

[I've been writing this in part to avoid doing my taxes....  back to it.]

Moody…

It seems I forgot to take my St. John’s Wort last night. Mistake! I’ve been moody and thoughtful all day, without it being particularly fruitful. No fabulous insights, just moodiness and a little obsessiveness, thought-wise.

I had been on Xanex (sp?) for a number of years after I got married – I was having trouble handling my natural depressive mentality in this new family environment. I used to be able to just sit in my apartment, moodily. But now I was in an environment with two young kids and my new wife, and moping was no longer an option. So I found SSRIs, and they were awesome.

But three or so years ago I stopped that, and started taking St. John’s Wort instead, and it seems to work perfectly well. Couple it with the nice climate and it does wonders. If I add in some light exercise, even better.

So, tonight, SJW.

Llewyn vs. Hustle

Abstract: I enjoyed and was moved by Inside Llewyn Davis. I was annoyed and bored by American Hustle. I am irritated by the fuss being lavished on Hustle, and disappointed at the lack of love being bestowed on Llewyn.

I can understand why Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t generating any Oscar buzz – it features a non-lovable central character who is not being played by Meryl Streep. Even for the Coens, that’s a risky move. But it makes me sad. The character wasn’t overtly lovable, but he was dedicated to his goals, and skilled at what he did, though overshadowed by Bob Dylan, and I respected his craft and drive (and he was very nice to that cat!). Aside from the nature of the central character, the film was beautiful to look at, and the music was wonderful. Even if you wouldn’t buy folk music to play on your commute, it’s wonderful in its own way, and the movie treats it with great respect. Mrs. Basch pointed out (I would not have picked this up otherwise) that each song is played in its entirety, giving the soundtrack a central place in the structure of the movie.

I found Llewyn’s story moving and compelling.

American Hustle seemed to me a movie about hair. It seems to be claiming that people at this time really wore their hair like this; it was not. I was there, and I know. Hair, as it is shown in the movie, was rare, and would be noticed and mocked. It’s crazy-person hair. Okay, I have seen some elaborate combovers; that was realistic. Aside from the hair, the production design had a bloated, oily quality (especially noticeable in the posters; I first thought it was the Donald Trump Story, from the Jeremy Renner posters).

As for the clothes, I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone walk around with décolletage down to their navel all the time, as in Amy Adams’ character. I mean, all the time, every outfit! Formal, business casual, sporty… all had the same décolletage! Did the character shop at a specialty clothing store, where every outfit had this crazy décolletage? Frontless Frocks? Sartorial Sterna? (that’s the plural of sternum) Classy Cleavage? (though, to be perfectly honest, Amy Adams has the tidy, discreet physique that doesn’t lend itself to interesting or dramatic cleavage)

As for the plot, the “hustle” part seems to only happen in the end. The rest of the movie seemed full of odd pseudo-improvised dialog, with weird repetitions and boring language. Mrs. Basch noted the resemblance to Scorsese movies (cf. Taxi Driver). I was also reminded of actor friends of mine taking acting classes in the “Meisner” style, where they did these repetition exercises. I was never trained that way (I did straight “method”), but Hustle sounded like those exercises; actors can be very excited about what they do in class, and tend to repeat it in bars, afterward.

I do give credit to Christian Bale for putting on a lot of weight; though I’ve always found it pretty easy to do. I thought he had a plastic torso, but Mrs. Basch tells me that no, he actually put on that weight via food. Well, good for him. I know the Academy loves actors who uglify themselves, especially if they act ugly on top of being ugly – Bale’s waddle to emphasize his bulk does the trick. That way, we know it’s not really him – he’s really slim and fit, see, handsome too. He’s just so devoted to his craft, that he’s willing to be all ugly, in the name of art. And acting.

It would be disingenuous to claim that I think that the Oscars are some kind of meritocratic exercise. Merit is just one of many factors. But still. I’m sad.

Reading: American Nations, by Colin Woodard

I have been reading (full disclosure: I’ve actually been listening, to the very well-narrated audiobook on my hour-long commute to Pasadena) American Nations, by Colin Woodard. After I had listened to the first half-hour, I had to turn it off for a while – the explanatory power of his premise is so profound, so right, that I needed time to let my thoughts and preconceptions rearrange themselves.

I won’t describe the book, as the author has an excellent page here and does a better job than I could, along with links to purchase. I will say that I understand my cultural heritage and those of my parents much better now! I’m a classic New Netherlander, born and bred, and proud of its open-minded, accepting culture – come one, come all! As long as you can sell stuff, you’re welcome to stay! I’m of two minds about its lukewarm commitment to democracy, though. I mean, democracy = good… right? I guess it depends on who’s voting…

My father was an immigrant to New Netherland from Germany, and my mom was from New France. She immigrated to New Netherland but always retained many New French characteristics, harmonious as they are with New Netherlandish customs.

I now live in El Norte (which I would have thought was really the Left Coast – haven’t got my head around that yet), in a neighborhood that seems largely made up of emigrants from New Netherland, the Midlands, and Yankeedom.

My fantasy is that Colin Woodard will work on something with Nate Silver. Mr. Silver is on an unwelcome – to me – hiatus, and seems to be refocusing his attention on sports instead of politics. I can’t tell one ball game from another (well, they use different size/color balls – I can see that), so that’s a big loss for me.

But I’d love to see Nate Silver use his statistical wizardry to measure political movements according to Colin Woodard’s scheme of American Nations, rather than our 50 states. I have a feeling there would be revelations there.

American Nations is an eye-opener. Read it. I hope the DNCC is…

Merry Christmas! And also, Merry Christmas!

On this Xmas Eve, I find myself thinking about words with too many meanings. I went to a French school, and grew up speaking French (though, alas, not very well), and was impressed at how many more words English has. I thought that one could express fine shades of meaning in English with fewer words.

And now, here we are with the War on Christmas coming back like a nasty case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. I just read a Dennis Prager article on how he’s just super happy to say Merry Christmas and sing carols and whatnot. I was irritated that I kind of agree with him on that, since my father’s family (German Jews) celebrated Xmas all the way back to the 1900s (fat lot of good it did them, when push came to shove in the ’30s…).

My mother was a French Canadian Catholic. In addition to being part of our regular Christmas, she’d also sometimes go to Midnight Mass, with a friend. Not with us. She believed we wouldn’t enjoy it, and she didn’t buy the premise (i.e., birth of the Christ), she just enjoyed the theater and ritual.

So there are two Christmasses, which are related, but distinct. And much mischief is done by confusing them. There is the religious observance, which does not feature a tree or presents or even, necessarily, a big meal (but which is influenced by the Solstice and its related pagan holidays; otherwise it would be during lambing season… whenever that is). Then there is the secular holiday which has as much to do with the Christian god as it has to do with druids (the tree), Lapps (the reindeer), or elves (Arthur Lamb? I have no idea…). The secular holiday is a many-layered thing, owing as much to the German romantic back-to-nature movement as to American government fiat, which mandated the federal holiday to encourage a family-friendly holiday, instead of the riotous drunken festivities which used to characterize Christmas until the Civil War.

[Coming up one of these days - other words which have multiple meanings, causing all sorts of trouble and confusion: "Jew" and "theory"]

So the so-called War on Christmas… which Christmas is threatened? Was it threatened by the Puritans who forbade all Christmas festivities except a solemn church service? I suppose it was. Is the religious Christmas threatened? Not really. I suspect millions of Catholics are attending midnight mass tonight, unmolested by throngs of secular humanists, wielding dangerously hot pumpkin spice lattés.

Christmas has become a stalking horse for a right-wing Christian movement that wants to, if not monopolize all American cultural expressions, at least be the gate-keeper. They’ll let us do Hannukkah and light menorahs, but we have to say Merry Christmas, or they’re threatened! And we can even observe (not worship, that would be silly!) the solstice, as long as we’re quiet and polite… and say Merry Christmas. And since Christmas (in one of its meanings) is a secular holiday, it can’t be seen as violating religious liberty!

Nicely done.

So, to the shades of my Jewish foreparents, Merry Christmas!

David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart Podcast

I have enjoyed the You Are Not So Smart blog for a while, and just discovered that its writer, David McRaney, has a podcast! I’ve been bingeing on it during my long commute to JPL from West LA. He studies delusions – cognitive illusions and other ways we deceive ourselves. Highly entertaining, and educational. If you liked Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you’ll enjoy David McRaney.

In each podcast he interviews an author/scholar who studies some aspect of human thought and behavior, such as the Illusion of Knowledge, or Why We Argue (and how to argue better!).

Toward the end of each podcast, he reads a piece of scholarly literature, and eats a cookie. He invites listeners to submit cookie recipes. It’s a super cute feature, though I’m not nuts about hearing someone talk with their mouth full… Sorry, David! I think Jonathan Haidt had something to say about that, didn’t he? But he ascribed the Disgust reaction more heavily to conservatives, to explain their needing to (for example) forbid anyone from engaging in homosexual sex, so they wouldn’t have to know it was happening, or see it happening, or whatever. Reminds me of modesty rules in Islamic and Haredi societies – perhaps not explicitly encoded in their laws, but they act as if it were because, it being so deeply felt, it must be God telling them.

I was particularly interested in David McRaney’s podcast #5, about Selling Out vs. Authenticity. I felt that his guest was somehow protesting a bit much. From my aging hipster (I’m 56) POV, it seems that the issue is not that an activity must have nothing to do with status seeking or capitalism to be authentic, but that it (at least gives the appearance of) not have ONLY to do with those things. It’s like the distinction between being in the business of making something versus being in the business of making money, and the thing you make being secondary. This is why I am skeptical about private equity – a company is in the business, say, of making envelopes. Maybe it’s a family business, or at least privately held, and pays well, maybe with a unionized workforce. Now a private equity firm takes over, and the emphasis is given over 100% to money – not to envelopes, not to workers. From that point of view, if the entire company is given over to paying off the debt incurred by fees for the private equity managers, that’s perfectly okay. Fire the workers, bust the union, even stop making damn envelopes. None of that matters, because of an equation yielding higher dollars at the end.

While the old company was in business, and wanted to make money and a profit, there was a mix of imperatives – quality product, good wages, profit. It’s metaphorically similar to the difference between a rainforest with indigenous peoples hand-planting, or lots of small farms with a mix of crops, or a megafarm with a monoculture of GMO corn. There are elements of capitalism in all of these, but other things as well, except for the megafarm. Nobody wants to plant a monoculture megafarm for the beauty of the thing.

Is the hipster seeking status with his beard and turntable? Or me, with my typewriters and cameras? Sure – I love it when people think they are cool, and hence I’m cool. Is the guy repairing turntables, typewriters, and cameras hoping to make a profit? Sure. But when a big, public corporation adopts the styles, it’s no longer “cool”, because it is now being promulgated by people who don’t love it, who are just doing simple math, and maximizing profit at the expense of absolutely everything else.

To wind this screed up – I think the gold standard of hipsterdom is a pursuit/product that inherently can’t make enough profit to be interesting to public corporations, but can still make a profit for a small producer. Organic food was going to be that, but they figured out how to do industrial organic, which is why Walmart’s organic initiative was not greeted with huzzahs. And that’s why “artisanal” had to take over – so hard to make a profit at it, and has built into its definition that it’s a small operation with a devoted practitioner – their passion infects their product with a certain quality that’s worth paying for. And Monsanto, or Mitt Romney, simply, by their very nature, can not take it over. It’s inoculated against bigness by inherent limitations on its profit.

Anyway, thanks for the podcast, and good luck. We need more voices like yours. If you don’t mind, I’m going to link to you from my website, peterbasch.com. I have a readership of exactly 0. Well, 1, if I count myself. These posts couldn’t be more private if I wrote them with my own faeces on onion skin and buried them in a wetlands.

Hamburg Hostel

I was going to tell this story at The Moth tonight, but it refused to come together in a tidy way. I couldn’t come up with an ending… Life is, after all, just a bunch of middles, and we assign beginnings and endings to anecdotes so they can be satisfying stories.

That said… In 1977 I graduated from Columbia College (subtitled, then, “Columbia University’s Undergraduate Liberal Arts School for Men”), and was bound for graduate school at Berkeley. Berkeley is a top school, and their Physics department is world class, but I had been invited back to grad school at Columbia, with a full fellowship package. I turned it down, because I couldn’t stand being in New York anymore – it was full of my parents.

I didn’t understand at the time that the parents I wanted so badly to escape from didn’t live in a Classic Six on West 72nd Street, but tucked cozily inside my amygdala. No matter where I went, there they’d be. But, with the impenetrable illogic of youth, this is the decision I made.

Before going to graduate school—which, by the way, I was dreading; I wanted to take a year off, but I was not such a great student that they’d let me do that with a guaranteed place; I’d have to reapply, but with a year off to account for—I decided to do the obvious thing which everyone did: a Grand European Tour, with backpack, EurailPass, guide to youth hostels, and a ticket on Icelandic (a fabulous airline, called Icelandair today; every flight stops in Reykjavik, and they force-march you through the gift shop, full of amazing sweaters, books of Sagas, and assorted nordic tchotchkes). I was going to go for ten weeks, land in London, take a train to Vienna, then circle around via Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, and back to Vienna. And all this would cost about $1200. That’s right, travel included.

There were two aspects of this trip that weren’t utterly stereotypical. One was that I would be traveling alone. The same impulse that made me want to leave New York, namely to get away from my parents, made me want to travel by myself. I had only traveled en famille, and it just had too many downsides. Constantly being told where to go, what to do, what to eat, how to eat, how much to eat, when to speak, when to keep quiet, how to dress, when to write Granny, what to write Granny… It was suffocating. However much I enjoyed countrysides and museums and cities (and I enjoyed them, and enjoy them still, a lot), being with my father cast a pall of anxiety and oppression on everything.

[In case of the unlikely event that anyone in my family reads this, I'm more or less over that phobia. I don't mind so much being noticed and focused on... though I still don't like being asked skeptical questions. You know what I mean; the ones that begin, "Are you really going to ...?"]

Yes, I know – first world problems. But they are the problems I had, and I intend to roll around in them like a puppy on a freshly manured lawn.

So, FINALLY, I got on the plane with my backpack, and I was on my own. The freedom was thrilling. Just being free of skeptical or corrective comments was exhilarating. We landed in Reykjavik, and I dutifully browsed in the gift shop (if it had been winter, I would definitely have bought one of those amazing sweaters), then got on the connecting flight to London.

This brings me to the second aspect of my trip that wasn’t stereotypical. I had a lot of friends and family in Europe. This is mainly because my father was European, and I went to a European school, with a lot of Europeans. It pains me to this day that I don’t have a European passport (I do, however, have a Canadian passport, courtesy of my mother, which is some small consolation). Granny lived in Vienna and kept a little studio apartment in Munich; my sister lived in a ski resort in the Italian Alps; I had a school friend in London, and another in Paris. So I could save a bit on housing, though housing was not the expensive part of the trip. Hostels could cost as little as $2 a night, or as much as $11 (crazy!). Of course, I would have to rub elbows with a lot of other people, but I was okay with that, as long as they didn’t talk to me too much. Strangers tend not to comment on your clothes or food as much as family does. Rarely will a complete stranger tell you, “You’re really having a second beer?” Though, of course, the bartender might say something after the fifth. And quite appropriately, too.

Back to my itinerary. I landed in London and stayed with my friend Poor Philippe. Poor Philippe always seemed anxious and put-upon – he also had an oppressive father. Actually, to be fair, his father was much, much worse than mine. M. B___ (he was very French, so I’ll call him Monsieur B___, and the French abbreviate Monsieur as a simple M.) was hypermasculine, a bit like my father, and Mme. B___ had been a model, like my mother. In fact, in the late 1940s, they roomed together in the Barbizon Hotel for Women, when they were dewy young models. M. B___ had four sons, and adored two of them. He utterly despised the other two, Poor Philippe and Alex. He would slap and hit them in front of company. I hated and feared him. My father used to hit me; but, while it was terrible and inexcusable, it wasn’t quite as bad. My father would slap me across the back of the head when he was irritated (and he was easily irritated). M. B___ would slap across the face from the front, in rage. Much more violent and frightening.

Poor Philippe was pathetically accident prone. I remember we were playing in Riverside Park, and there was a round, weathered stone sticking up from the ground about two feet, with a natural slope to it. It wasn’t a very big slide, but it was fun that it was a stone, somehow, and small – built to our scale. Philippe saw the stone, saw its sliding potential, and, instead of walking to the top, sitting down, and sliding serenely down the two feet to the ground, as I did, he took a running dive and slid down hands first, into, as it happens, a small pile of broken glass. Luckily, my house was right across the street, so our horrified housekeeper (Maudie) could wrap up his bleeding hands and call his mom.

After London (where I bought my first pair of Church’s shoes and a Harris tweed jacket that wore like iron for 25 years), I took a train all the way across Western Europe to Vienna, and visited my grandmother. Granny was an amazing lady, gifted with exorbitant energy and enthusiasm. She had, for a while, enjoyed three apartments, in Vienna, Munich, and Berlin, but, by 1977, had given up the Berlin apartment. People thought she was a millionairess, and she loved that, and encouraged the misapprehension by wearing gigantic costume jewelry and ratty minks. She pulled it off, though. She accomplished these feats of high living thanks to three pensions: she was a US citizen, so she got Social Security; she was an elderly resident of Vienna, so she got their old-age pension; and she had fled the Nazis, so she got the charmingly named Wiedergutmachung. That translates, literally, as “make it better again.” And I love the idea of ex-Nazis handing over some money and saying (in a B-movie Nazi U-boat captain accent, of course), “There! All better? No hard feelings? We are all friends now!”

After Vienna, I went to Salzburg, and Granny called ahead to arrange a room for me at the Österreichischer Hof, a grand old hotel where my family used to stay. It was far too expensive for me, but Granny arranged for me to stay in one of the chauffeur’s rooms. The second floor of the hotel was for the guests’ servants and, normally, you couldn’t rent one unless you also rented one of the lavish upstairs rooms. But thanks to her old crony the concierge, I was in, at $24 a night. A lot compared to a hostel, but worth every penny to have an ancient beldame bring me my morning coffee in a silver service, along with a crusty roll with butter and jam.

After Salzburg I went to Munich, where I stayed in Granny’s apartment, at Schönfeldstrasse 14, just down the street from the US Consulate (where my sister and I would go for hamburgers in their cafeteria when we got homesick for American food; which, I must say, did not happen often; I could still eat Brathuhn and Leberkäse regularly).

And then, after three days ambling along the Romantische Strasse in Bavaria, where I enjoyed small local museums filled with paintings of martyrs carrying their severed body parts, I went up to Hamburg. It was on the way to Denmark and Sweden, and my father had arranged with his old crony, Leo Bodenstein, to put me up in his palatial high-rise apartment. Leo was, like Granny, a Jewish refugee who had gone right back to Germany as soon as the shooting stopped and the smoke cleared. Granny went back because she spoke the language and liked the food, and, after all, there were anti-semites everywhere, even in America. Germany, she felt, was no more anti-semitic a country than any other. Leo, on the other hand, went back so he could oppress the pathetic loser ex-Nazis by being constantly in their face and by being the big loud Jew they couldn’t ignore. He wasn’t going to let anyone intimidate him – quite the opposite, in fact.

After I detrained at the Banhof, and found my way to Leo’s apartment, the first thing he said to me, before even inviting me in, is that he couldn’t, as it turned out, put me up. His girlfriend was coming in from London that night. So, he boasted (and Leo’s tone of voice was such that, no matter how trivial the statement, it would sound like a boast) that he would put me up in a hotel. No problem! But, of course, the only hotels he knew about, in his hometown, were the big expensive ones, and he wasn’t going to pay for that. So, to find a cheap hotel, fit for a long-haired 20-year-old, he picked up the phone book, turned to “Hotels,” jabbed his finger at the first one (the equivalent, I suppose, of shopping at AAA Flag and Banner), and called them. He hustled me out the door, and into his car.

I was anticipating a nice, cozy German hotel: jolly innkeeper with luxuriant moustachios, his buxom daughter carrying five liters of beer in each hand, a steaming platter piled high with sauerbraten and kraut. I would have enjoyed that.

Instead, he took me to what appeared to have recently been a doctor’s office. The entrance was on a main street in a bland apartment building. Just inside the unmarked door was the desk – a steel office desk, manned (as it were) by a stereotypical women’s prison matron, but wearing nurse’s whites. Leo walked in, slapped a fat fistful of Deutschmarks on the table, and fled. As his Mercedes squealed into the afternoon sun, Matron pointed at one of the doors off the hall.

The hotel (or club, really, as it turned out) could once have been a periodontal surgeon’s office, but they had stripped out all the medical apparatus. In each former examining room was simply a steel bed and a wardrobe, as in “Lion, Witch, and”, but made of particle board with wood-grain laminate. My room had a window looking out onto an air shaft. And the wardrobe contained two or three outfits, clearly belonging to Ilsa, She-Wolf of, if not the SS, then something equally sinister. There was even a little green felt hat with a feather. [Sidebar: what an odd fashion - as if every German Hausfrau secretly dreamed of being Robin of the Wood]

Well, it was certainly bizarre and depressing, but it was a bed and it was paid for. I wouldn’t be spending any time there. So I locked my door, and went out to sightsee Hamburg.

As much as I drew away from the company of people, I was desperate for sex. I was, after all 20, and as hormonal and undersexed as many guys that age. So I visited the unfortunately-named Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red-light district. I had heard of the prostitutes sitting in shop windows, displaying their various wares for salacious passers-by. Nothing, in my imagination, could be more exciting. When I was actually there, though, nothing could be more depressing. These poor women seemed sad and resigned. I was utterly turned off, and miserable about the entire human condition, and, in particular, my loneliness.

I eventually found my way back to the place, and went to my room, but now there were other guests. There were about six or eight men, in stocking feet, flared slacks, and wife beaters. Or perhaps I should call them ‘sleeveless tees.” They didn’t seem violent, and I don’t think they had wives. They were paired off – one couple was walking tentatively hand in hand, and another – their door was wide open – was sitting on the edge of their bed, also hand in hand, deep in conversation.

It was utterly silent – stocking feet on carpet. They were speaking in whispers, and seemed shy and rather downbeat. Not actually very gay at all.

Now that I think about it, it might have been me. You know that trope about the observer changing the thing observed? It’s possible that had I not been there, it would have been Mardi Gras. But I doubt it.

I had a feeling of being out of my depth and profoundly unwelcome, and in a situation which I only barely understood, rather feared, and wanted to flee. I picked up my backpack, which I had, presciently, not unpacked, and left. They could keep Leo’s money.

I looked at my little guide to Hamburg, found the youth hostel, and for less than three dollars, stayed the night. I left the next day, and this time I found traveling companions – two French Canadian guys who offered me headache hash and worse red wine. But, heck, they were company.

Memories, personality, and stories

Just reading an article in MIT Technology Review about Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist studying memory malleability. Reminds me of Elzabeth Loftus, who got into a lot of hot water (including death threats!) by demonstrating experimentally that the concept of “repressed memory” is not fact-based, and how false memories can be created. [Of course, to a lot of people, having something demonstrated experimentally makes it Highly Suspicious, whereas things like crystal healing, "toxin" cleansing, or any religious story (take your pick), why, those just have to be true... how could they not? *sigh*]

The Schiller article says:

…memory is best preserved in the form of a story that collects, distills, and fixes both the physical and the emotional details of an event. “The only way to freeze a memory,” she says, “is to put it in a story.”

Creating a story, then, is a form mnemonic. Like creating a rhyme, or a song, about an event helps one remember it and transmit it to others – meme-ifies it. Collecting events, themselves with no meaning, into a narrative; giving them a structure with a beginning/middle/end; creates an object in idea-space, just as a solid object lives in our physical spacetime. And by remembering or telling the story, we are doing the equivalent of walking around it and studying it, just like we’d do to a sculpture in a museum.

At work, in the Technical Documentation department at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we are studying techniques to make it easier for writers of proposals to tell their story more effectively. A tricky business! These writers may or may not have any innate talent at storytelling or even writing. But a better story will help whoever reviews their proposal to remember it, and will help the proposal stand out from the pile of competitors. So we are attempting to craft a process that a writing team can refer to which will yield a proposal with a “central character,” a “goal,” a “conflict,” and a “resolution.”

Our challenge is even more daunting because it’s rarely an individual who writes these, but a team. A member of the team may be a specialist with a narrow, but indispensable, technical expertise. Their section may be highly abstruse, technical, even numerical. How do we help that team member to carry forward the elements of the story? They have a lot of work already, and many requirements to fulfill for their section to be compliant with NASA’s demands. We don’t want to be seen as burdening them with even more requirements, and mushy humanistic ones at that.

Schiller and Loftus’s research give us data to support the legal truism that “whoever tells the best story wins.” They don’t only win in the courtroom, they win competing for funds, and they also win in our own minds, as we try to corral our memories into stories with meaning.

 

Comment Spam

So, I got one comment! Okay, it was more of a personal email delivered through the commenting mechanism, by a friend who was mentioned in the post, who had (no doubt) ego-googled.

But, still, one comment.

And approximately 1,000 spam comments. Long weird comments incorporating many references to Oakley sunglasses or designer handbags, short one-line comments with drug names… and the pace is accelerating! Do the math, and the Internet will crack in half in about five weeks, from all the spam comments.

So, there’s that. Also, there are personal limitations on what I can post. I don’t want to write about my family, I can’t broach a topic that might offend anybody at work (and there are 4,500 people at work), so there’s pretty much nothing I can post.

Of course, that all assumes that ANYBODY will ever see this blog, which is doubtful. All it takes is one look, though. It is rare that anyone will google my name, but “rare” is still non-zero.

So, I’ll probably just post something anodyne every once in a long while, just to keep the domain name active and have something for at least me to look at.

Courage, and don’t forget to enjoy the beautiful things around you.

(there, see? that’s what I call anodyne!)

Pour-Over vs. Self-Service Airpot

Instead of no service, where I become your unpaid employee (as in the soon-to-be-late-and-unlamented Fresh & Easy), or excessive service, where I’m paying an extra $1.25 for the pleasure of watching you fuss your brains out with a pour-over, how about I order “coffee”, you pour it into a to-go cup, and I pay you and leave?

Does this make me a codger? A coffee place I pass by on my commute just closed and I am vexed! It used to be called Eagle Rock Coffee, on Alvarado just north of Sunset. It was a funky, one-off coffee shop that seemed always near the brink of chaos – newspapers lying around, hand-written signs for where to pour your “liquids”, community bulletin board, flyers for local bands. Just two weeks ago I stopped in and chatted with the lady about the book she was reading, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. We discussed how much an awful childhood contributes to a career in comedy, and so how do you explain Steve Martin?

Next day, they’re closed, windows lined with butcher paper. Clearly, there was too much chat, not enough profit.

So I drive by today, and I’m confronted by a shiny new shop: Tierra Mia. They have an interesting corporate persona – Latino (lots of Spanish on the menu, walls lined with pictures of happy coffee farmers, faces seamed with the joy of honest labor; presumably these pictures depict their coffee suppliers, but who knows – they might have bought them at Ikea) plus fussy Intelligentsia-style pour-over. I bustled in to grab a coffee for the second half of my commute, and discovered a whole new place – I was supposed to pick a variety of coffee, then wait for a pour-over ritual, then tell them my “lightener” preference (for the record, I take whole milk – cow’s milk; it’s what I call “milk”)… it turned my morning coffee from a pleasant, quick interaction with quirky individualists into a tedious chore dealing with focus-grouped, corporate-scripted, employees. Another thing, both people were hard to understand – and, no, not because of any accent, but just because they had lousy diction, and there’s street noise. The young lady behind the counter had a mouth full of impressive-looking braces, and a lisp like a punctured oxygen tank, and the young man just spoke indistinctly. To their credit, they saw my frustration and impatience, and offered me an Americano, which they said was the quickest thing I could get, so I did, for $2.50.

The upshot was that the coffee was fine, though more expensive than I like for my grab-n-go morning java. It could be that, with the advent of the pour-over model yielding higher profits, that regular coffee shops will go the way of “regular coffee” (that’s the old New York term for a cup of coffee with milk: no choice of sizes, no choice of amount or type of lightener, add your own sugar).

So, at the risk of being a codger, I hate it.