Fan Letter…

I want to write a fan letter to Sandra Tsing Loh. Innocent enough, you’d think. I picked up a copy of her best-selling book, Depth Takes a Holiday, at a yard sale at an Obon festival at a Buddhist temple downtown. I went for the tea ceremony demonstration, but stayed for the yard sale and the pupusa stand, and to be a tourist in the Arts District of downtown LA (try Pie Hole – it’s great!). The book is so funny and witty that I want to read it aloud, in order to create an illusion that it’s actually me that’s smart and witty (typical actor!).

But how would my letter be viewed? Would it be creepy? I mean, let’s unpack what one expects from a fan letter. First, the recipient will be charmed, and read my note once, then again because they find my turn of phrase particularly original and piquant. They’ll think about whether they should write me back. They’ll want to, of course, but don’t want to seem desperate. But then they’ll decide it’s not every day they get a note like this, what the hell – they’ll write back.

Once I wrote to Caleb Deschanel, the legendary cinematographer (and father of Zooey), who directed a movie called The Escape Artist. I watched it on TV late at night (at the dawn of cable, in the late 80s or something), and was strangely moved. I wrote him a brief note, and a few weeks later I got a letter back! It was personal and hand-written, and grateful for my having noticed his movie! I was thrilled. I had touched, if not greatness, then certainly goodness.

I had never met Caleb Deschanel, so my note was perfectly anonymous. I wrote a fan note to Jim Woodring, the incredible artist of the hallucinatory Frank comics. They are so detailed and dense with hinted-at meaning that it feels less like a comic than a window onto a wildly alien world, yet perfectly plausible on its own terms. He wrote me back, which was exciting, and even broke the veil of perfect anonymity by asking if I was related to the photographer Peter Basch (yes, I am – he was my father). So I felt we had bonded. I keep thinking I want to offer him one of my father’s photographs (perhaps a portrait of Stan Lee) in exchange for original art.

But writing a fan letter to someone I’ve actually met, but not spoken to in years, seems maybe a little weird.

Backstory: I had a brief two-year stint taking meetings in Hollywood. Chronologically, I was a youthful 40, but emotionally I was a troubled 19. Besides, I was swinishly ignorant about the industry. No fault there, we’re not born knowing how sitcoms are produced, or what a hiatus is, or when pilot season is. I certainly didn’t know that I’d have to write a kick-ass spec script every three months in order to be taken seriously. I may have a lot of virtues, but that kind of work ethic I haven’t got. That’s why ex-lawyers make good TV writers; they’re used to all-nighters. Not me. What my representation (agent + manager) should have done, if they had wanted me to have a career as a writer, was recognize that my ass and my elbow were, to me, indistinguishable, and encouraged me to get a job as a writer’s assistant. Instead, they wanted me to hit it big right away – a dicey proposition, and with a likelihood of (in retrospect) 0%. Maybe they thought I was too old to be a writer’s assistant. Maybe, but I would have been great at it. Oh, well, life paths not taken…

ANYWAY, one of the things that happened in that period was I was introduced to Jeffrey Lane, a legendary showrunner, who asked me to write a freelance script for his show, Ink, with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen (I know, IMDB lists Diane English as the showrunner; that’s because a month after I met Jeffrey Lane, he was separated from the show, and Diane English brought on; didn’t help the show, and it certainly didn’t help me; she didn’t share Jeffrey’s interest in a NY playwright). Jeffrey’s co-executive producer was Jeffrey Klarik. He was perfectly nice to me, and when I pitched a few jokes, they got into the show (which never made it to the air; my jokes are in a vault somewhere, on 3/4″ tape, I suppose, never to be seen again).

Later, Jeffrey Klarik, along with David Crane, created Episodes, one of the funniest shows ever to be on TV, and certainly the funniest one on now (it’s about to start its fourth season). I love the show, so I wrote him a note. I reminded him that we had met, told him that I wasn’t in the business any more, that I am a tech writer at JPL, and that if he ever wanted a tour I’d be thrilled to show him around the rockets and stuff.

He never wrote back, and naturally, being an unregenerate solipsist, I assumed it was because he did remember me and was embarrassed by the whole thing; after all, in a real way I had failed – I had come to Hwood, taken meetings, and not made a career. On sober reflection, he probably doesn’t remember me, or if he does, he doesn’t care one way or the other. In fact, he may never have received the letter, because I sent it to his agent.

Back to STL (Sandra Tsing Loh; I love her idea of renaming the San Fernando Valley SFV to make it hipper, so I’ll call her STL). I met her in around 1996 at the HBO New Writers Project, when she was developing her one-woman show, and (as I remember) experimenting with different performance styles. STL is a magnetic performer – impressively tall, energetic, expressive, very pretty, and has little lightning-bolts of intelligence sparking off her head. It’s like her own micro-weather system of charisma. Yeah, okay, I got a little art-crush on her. But I was ripe for that at the time – I soon met my wife, who shares those characteristics (except for the tall part). So, as I contemplate writing STL a note, I worry that it would have to be so short and innocuous as to provoke no reaction at all, or be a little longer and make her think I was creepy. And how does it sound, to say I bought your book at a yard sale, and think that you were really funny back in 1996? Not the way to a writer’s heart. And if I add that I saw her on the Bill Maher show recently, it veers into the stalkerish.

As my kids would say, 1st world problems.

Happy 4th!

A colleague at work said that we should observe the day by wondering what it would have been like had the Revolutionary War not been fought. Since I’m a loudmouth, and have never quite internalized the truth that if I never spoke at all, everyone would probably be better off, I said that it would be like that dystopia, Canada.

Immediately a rather conservative colleague mentioned Canada’s reduced deficit, and how great that is. I can’t go into that (because I don’t know much about it, frankly), but I brought up their healthy banking system, too. It’s boring and regulated, and therefore very healthy and contributes to the strength of the nation instead of latching itself to it’s host country’s vitals like a parasite, the way ours does. Then I was immediately sorry I responded to him. I really want to not have any political or religious debates at work.

As proud as I am of Canada’s health care system, its sane immigration policies, its politeness, its good treatment of its native peoples, and Quebec, I am also kind of embarrassed by the Harper gov’ts being such a snivelling toady to the extraction industries, to the point of closing science libraries! Shocking.

Anyway, happy fourth. Let’s learn something from Canada’s politeness.

More Story Ideas…

I went for a haircut yesterday, and my “stylist” (barber? haircutter?) and I were chatting about my job for a NASA lab. We were talking about “ancient astronaut” theories, and I deride those who think that just because they, personally, couldn’t have built, say, a pyramid, then aliens must have done it. She agreed with me, and added that those who say that stories of angels were actually based on alien sightings were equally misguided. I said nothing. She said that of course we had a celestial realm, just as surely as the Egyptians had engineers, and that it was silly to put it all down to aliens.

Made me think. If there’s a celestial realm, there’s also an infernal realm. It stands to “reason.” And if there are aliens (and she believes in aliens, as do I – why would we be the only ones? Even if intelligent life is a one-in-a-trillion chance, there are way more than a trillion candidate planets out there)… if there are aliens, do they have their own celestial and infernal realms? And do we share said realms? Or are their angels as alien to our angels as the aliens are to us? And what would our demons think of their demons?

And, of course, if they have their own transcendent realms, do they have their own creators? Is the presumed creator of the Universe really just a local creator? There would then be all sorts of creators out there? What would they think of one another? Would they each claim to have created everything? I suppose that a creator god would say they created everything that mattered. After all, didn’t the god of the bible start out as the god simply of a mountain? And then used Moses to expand his reach and compete against the dominant franchise of the time, the Egyptian gods?

Talk about disruption!

The French Left and the FN (National Front) and the European Elections

I am a fairly typical American in that I have absolutely no idea what the powers and responsibilities of the European parliament are. Do they make laws that all member nations are subject to automatically? Do they have that much power? Do they draft recommendations that member states are then expected to consider as possible national laws?

No idea. But from what I saw in my one week as a tourist in Paris, is that the general feeling was one of disinterest, which resulted in big wins for the National Front.

For those unfamiliar with French political parties, the FN (Front National, in French) is the far-right xenophobic party, formerly led by Jean-Marie le Pen, and now by his daughter, Marine le Pen. The FN has always been xenophobic, but seems to be trying to distance itself (by denying) its antisemitic history. In fact, I believe they were big supporters of the Vichy regime.

Am I wrong about that? I know it’s a big joke that, in retrospect, all French folk were in the Résistance (cue La Marseillaise…).

One thing I did notice is the election posters for the FN were all of the “Vive la France!” variety. No details, just flattering and positive. Why the left can’t learn to do that, I don’t know. I only get a very superficial view of French political culture, but from the two satiric newspapers I read, Le Canard Enchainé and Charlie Hebdo, the attitude of the left seems stuck in a pouty, defensive, pessimistic mode. Just right for cigarette-smoke-shrouded arguments in a café. It doesn’t take a genius to see how unattractive that is to the electorate at large.

They could really use an image consultant. I’d be available for business-class airfare and a place to stay, plus a modest per-diem!

In Copenhagen

I love Europe. Sensible design, a noticeable lack of hucksterism. And I’m at the airport which is an entirely commercial space.
It’s just … better. Expensive, though. I am enjoying a strawberry smoothie, nicknamed the “Pick Me Up”, and a double espresso. It’s running me 74 kroner… not sure how many $ or even Euro that is. Not sure I want to know! It’s expensive because it’s in Europe, and because it’s in an airport. I’m certain I’m getting ripped off royally, but still.
How lucky to have the opportunity to do this. To have a good job, to have the time, to have the background enough to know Europe.
My people are from here (well, not Denmark, but close – France and Germany) and it feels very right and better than normal. I’m from New York, but that’s got a lot of Europe in it, after all.
I’m reminded of the Onion article about a post 9/11 country music concert, with the bellicose theme, “You can’t hurt the USA by bombing NYC!!” And basically taunting the terrorists to bomb NY again. Funny… because it’s true.
This post is being sent froppm my T-Mo Samsung Galaxy SIII, with the help of my trusty folding bluetooth keyboard – it’s a Dell-rebranded thinkoutside. I’ve had it since I got a Palm III, but I’ve only started really using it with my Android device. Spiffy.
Anyway, that smoothie did kind of pick me up, after all. Or maybe it’s just the double expresso. Either way, money well spent.
Next, Rome.

Drone Swarms

As long as I’m on the trail of bits of ideas, here’s one.

Take a UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle. Or drone. Make it small. Done, right? We’ve got those little hobby quad-copters you can get for a few hundred bucks in the B&H catalog.

Now, make it smaller. Like a dragonfly. It can land in the palm of your hand. Super light, super small, solar powered. And it comes in swarms. Each individual dragonfly has a small underpowered low-res camera or other sensing gear, but the swarm as a whole can process all that imagery together into a high-res image.

You get them in what looks like an ice tray. You peel the foil off the tray, and in each pocket is a little ball packed in cotton wool. As it sits in the sun, each little ball slowly unrolls, spreads its iridescent wings, and initializes. The user gives the command, and they fly off in a swarm. They have distributed sensing and data processing, and send a datastream back to the mothership. If they can’t reach the mothership… good question – how much storage do they have? I suppose they could have a lot the way memory is shrinking. And they could distribute it in a kind of RAID array, where you could lose a few and not lose much capability.

What would you use it for? Finding minerals (i.e., gold in Australia is my favorite idea), mapping, ecosystem study, military scouting.

If one is found, it could self-destruct by dissolving. They could be tasty and smell good, so if one fails and falls to the ground, it could be eaten.

Anyway, more on that later.

Uncompleted Projects

As long as I’m thinking about writing projects, and as long as I’m confident that nobody will ever look at this (thus possibly getting me in trouble), here is another writing project. I’ve actually put pen to paper about this and started something, but I have no idea where it’s going to go. It’s “speculative fiction”, I suppose, in that it takes place in a near future America. It could even be called dystopian, except that the term is problematic. every dystopian scenario serves someone. Even the government of Oceania in 1984 no doubt made some people feel safe. Winston Smith was a troublemaker!
Here are the principal characters of mine: first, offstage, Madame President. She was a former New Age spiritual guru with many thousands of followers, and many best-sellers. As she moved up, she re-imagined herself as a “thought leader” and “author”, dropping some of the more arrant bullshit. She stopped wearing sari-inspired dresses, and started wearing sober pantsuits. Among her followers (now, “constituents”) are powerful lawyers, CEOs, heirs… mostly, but not all, women. Also, many wives of powerful lawyers, CEOs, etc., who have moved beyond just yoga into the vast spirit-osphere. I’ve called her (tentatively) Aurora… though, perhaps that was her name before, and now she may have moved to her birth name, Diana, shedding the woo-woo stuff.
Of course, any resemblance to anyone living or dead, is purely coincidental.
So, Diana won a seat in Congress, made a speech that garnered national attention. [Here it gets vague] She has figured out how to triangulate among hippies, seekers, Christians, the labor Left, and the angry, frightened white Right. Her language encompasses nurturing Mommy and Angry, vengeful Daddy. She runs for President against a weak Republican who makes mistakes and whose vote is split by a crazy-ass Far Right Tea Party candidate.
During her first 100-day honeymoon, she gets a rattled Congress to pass a national service law, but not all military. It is arranged such that the young volunteers are the most fervent Dian-ites. They are taken away from their homes and distributed, seemingly at random, around the country. But it’s not random – they are posted where they will feel the most threatened, where their bond to Diana will be all they have to hold onto. They are given a small “care package” with a picture of Diana and a book of her sayings and tenets. They will have no allegiance to the locality or community where they are posted, and will carry out her orders. And they will KNOW that they are doing right. The little care packages are individually tailored to the volunteer, even down to the picture of Diana, which will be nun-like for some, and borderline cheesecake for others. All volunteers are given exhaustive testing before deployment, and an elaborate, detailed profile is constructed, by which they can be fully manipulated. Psychology is a fully tested science, with predictable techniques.
So, good. We have our President, we have a corps of acolytes all over the country ready to do her personal bidding.
On her right hand is her “chaplain”, a beautiful young man who was born into a secular Jewish family but has discovered Christ. He proves that the country can unite in Christ, because, my goodness, if the Jews can be made to come over, then that’s everyone (almost), right? and there will be no need for strife. Diana brings us all together for the common goal of spiritual enrichment, not materialism.
This young man, Joshua Berliner, seemingly (and probably actually) celibate is pure tabloid fodder. Who is he seen with? Is he as virtuous and smart as he seems? Yes apparently.
His mother, Leah Berliner, is a scientist – a psychologist whose specialty is memory. She got into trouble a number of years before by conducting a study showing that false memories can be implanted, and thus beliefs changed. Our beliefs are formed by our memories and stories we tell about ourselves, after all.
Again, any resemblance, etc., etc., coincidental.
In fact, she received death threats from followers of (then) Aurora, for having testified against her in a court case regarding “recovered memories”. Aurora lost and had to pay quite a lot to a family had been wracked by rumors of Satanic ritual and sexual abuse; all found scurrilous.
So, wonder of wonders, irony of ironies, Diana (then in Congress) sees this young man at a National Day of Prayer thing and recruits him. He had been living hand to mouth, but now had quite a lot of money. His weakness is clothes… he travels with Diana to Paris and spends a lot of money on bespoke tailoring. His excuse is that he’s public now, has to look good, and has trouble fitting in ready-to-wear; his shoulders are too broad, etc.
Josh doesn’t understand his mother’s sense of betrayal. He sees himself as a peacemaker. If there’s still resentment, well, that’s just sad. Diana, he maintains, is over the whole thing. It was, after all, just  money…
Here we are, today, and Diana’s grip on the nation is very tight. Her Dianites are the equivalent of the piety police in Iran, or the secret police in Soviet Russia.
And Leah has angered them all by a speech she made in which she calls this out, and hints at anti-Semitic trends. Joshua is enraged – Diana couldn’t be less racist, and any Jews who feel that the nation is turning against them always have the option of turning to Christ, whose arms are always open, ready to forgive, if only one would come unto him with humility. That’s really all it takes.
Leah is now under a kind of informal house arrest, and the Dianites have taken away anything that could be used to “harm herself,” such as knitting needles and kitchen knives. Since Leah was a dedicated cook and knitter, this is terrible.
Her son, Josh, comes by to talk her into recanting. He’s not going to pressure her to accept Christ (he doesn’t like the word “convert,” it’s derogatory), but he’s ready if she feels it in her heart.

Unfinished Projects…

In line with my belief that NOBODY will ever read this, I hereby store a list of unfinished projects. Some were really good ideas that time has enervated, some would have long been thrown away even if I had finished them. But I think a leitmotif in my life is the Unfinished Project. I may not finish this list!

  1. The Cutty Sark—This was a model boat which my Uncle Bob bought me at the South Street Seaport, ca 1970, when it was a seaport and fish market, not just another mall with Yankee Candles and Gaps. This was not a plastic model – it was wooden, with a roughly finished hull which I was supposed to sand. It was hellishly complicated, and I remember being utterly stumped by the rigging. The unfinished model sat on my dresser looking more and more like the Flying Dutchman. I suspect that it even had its little ghosts of disappointment whiffling in and out of its portholes.
  2. Raytheon VoltOhmMeter Kit—One day my father took me to visit some guy at RCA. I don’t remember his name, or what he did there, but he had an office and a desk, so that counts for something. Since everyone my father knew was “the top man” at wherever, or “the most important” whatever, it was always hard to tell truth from puffery. All I remember, aside from being vaguely miserable the whole time, as I tended to be with my father, since he was an indefatigable source of criticism and low-level anger, is that this guy gave me a kit. This was along the lines of the old Heathkits, but was Raytheon. Very exciting! I loved to solder things, just as I had loved to do copper enameling. Just being around a white hot coil thrilled me. I started putting it together, carefully following the instructions, but was missing a couple of parts, including a “selenium rectifier”. I wrote to Raytheon, and it took the two months that things took in those days. I got the parts, but when I put it together, it just did… nothing. It didn’t work at all! I even took it to school to show the guy who ran our science lab, and he had no idea. Looking back, I expect that my solder joints were lousy, but I’ll never know.
  3. Prof. Rainwater’s Experimental Physics Class—I actually did finish this, one day before I graduated. A good example of the energizing power of deadlines.
  4. Graduate School—I look back on this as a particularly tragic one. I should have stayed at Columbia (I was invited back with a full fellowship) but wanted to get away from my parents (like you can do that; THEY’RE IN YOUR HEAD, YOU IDIOT!). I should have stayed at Berkeley, but was in a state of near-constant misery/panic the whole time. Also, my legs were covered with hives; I put on calamine lotion and wore shorts – I can only imagine… They didn’t give out SSRIs then, and I wasn’t good at looking for therapists. Also, I wanted attention/love, and grad school didn’t seem like the place for that. So I stayed for nine months, and came back to NY. Right back to the parents which whom I wanted nothing to do the Spring before.
  5. Acting Career—Hard to say about this one. I think I just didn’t give it the kind of push that’s needed, but I also think I wasn’t all that great. Oh, I was OK, even sometimes quite funny or moving. But, generally speaking, meh. On the other hand, it’s not like all aspiring actors are Oliviers, right? Even mediocre actors make money if they push. I just didn’t have it in me to push. So I’m calling my acting career unfinished.
  6. Sci-Fi Novel—Never had a title for it, but it was/is interesting. I totally foresaw tablets (though not apps). Here’s the idea. We’re in a future where the US is mostly desert, with a few arable areas, with widely-separated villages. There are a few rough, unpaved roads. There are also rails, but no way to travel on them. Some smart person built a sail driven, wind-powered wooden train. Our ensemble is a traveling theater company, doing Toby shows (American comedia), with iconic American characters – Tricky Dicky is the clever, tricky servant, Marylin is lovely ingenue, Elvis is the romantic lead, etc. The actors and their audience have no memory of where these characters come from, but they love it when the show comes to town. Our heroes have a manager who also directs, and they all write the shows together. Mostly, they’re traditional. Our crew is on its way to a tiny village, when the young comedian, sneaking up on the marylin, accidentally breaks her most prized possession, a mirror. He’s in deep trouble! Also, he was sweet on her, and now she hates him. Anyway, they get to a town, find a rival manager who has lost his Show, due to bandits. He scorns their plays as rustic foolishness, and says that if they went to legendary New York, they’d be able to find real Plays, old Plays. Literature. Our hero, ends up going to NY with a sidekick, but just as the rest of the country is mostly desert, New York is mostly water, just rotted husks of buildings, full of wildlife. They are chased by a representative of one of the few prosperous, successful populations of the continent, the First Americans, or Inuit. They have technology, and an Inuit aristocrat is on a hunting expedition in the hollow abandoned towers of NY. She sees our two heroes, and chases them into a building, where he finds stacks and stacks of rectangular mirrors, made of a kind of unbreakable, bendable material! He not only can replace Marylin’s, but he can sell whatever he can carry. He’ll be rich! They take whatever they can carry out of the building, but when the mirrors are exposed to sunlight, they turn matte black. Useless! what he doesn’t know yet, is that they are absorbing sunlight and charging up. The next day he picks one up, and it talks to him. It learns his language, and teaches him how to use it to access the entire corpus of world knowledge, which is still housed in satellites. He goes back to his Show, and they start to do Plays. Oh yeah, and civilization starts to reboot.

Well, that’s it for now.

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.]


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.