Friday, October 24, 2014

"Conversation Number Five - Pre-Civil War Imaginings"

This is also not the post I was looking for.  But it's a two-parter, meaning that I can post one part today, and Part Two on Monday, so I can have a day of jet lag relief (we came home yesterday) and start fresh, writing a new blog post on Monday to appear in this venue on Tuesday.  And there you have it.  You are now entirely privy to my strategy.

To give you just a glimpse of my horrendous blog titling policies, I could not find the follow-up to this post, because, even though it was the second of a two-part story, I had actually given it any entirely different name.  Ah, yes.  The immeasurable cleverness of me.

Anyway, this one's pretty good.  Though it can't hold a candle to the one I can't find.  That one was amazing!  

Anyway, enjoy this one.  Abandoning thoughts, if you can, of what might have been.


THE TIME:  Early 1861



A secret meeting has been arranged at an undisclosed location between a high-ranking representative from the North and a high-ranking representative from the South, in a last-ditch effort to prevent the Civil War.  However, since the location of the meeting was also not disclosed to the participants, resulting in their having no idea where to go, a second secret meeting was arranged (referred to in history as the “First Secret Meeting”, to erase the embarrassment of the original “First Secret Meeting” debacle.)  With the necessary adjustment, an encounter, whose location was disclosed to its participants but to nobody else, was finally held.


As the notes of the meeting were taken down in quill pen and the participants spoke too quickly for the secretary to keep up, the following record survives as the most accurate, though less than complete (as the participants kept talking while the secretary reloaded his feather) accounting of the proceedings.  (There was also a substantial blot in the middle of Page Three, because, when you write very quickly with a feather, there’s a better than average chance of an inky lake at some point in your document.)  

(HISTORICAL DISCLAIMER:  THERE IS A STRONG POSSIBILITY THAT NONE OF THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED.  THOUGH THERE IS NO ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY THAT IT DIDN’T.)

The names of the two participants have been lost to the ages.  Which is probably for the best, since, as – this is not giving anything away – a bloody Civil War did, in fact, take place, it would be regrettable if their descendants were to suffer post facto recriminations for their forebears having failed so miserably in their efforts to stop it.  

What follows is a recently discovered document, offering the “minutes” of this historic encounter.  (As imagined by the author.)

SOUTHERN REPRESENTATIVE:  I trust your trip here was not overly arduous.

NORTHERN REPRESENTATIVE:  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Though it appears that my carriage is due for a thorough re-springing.  And you, sir?

S:  No serious difficulties, although our received instructions did take us directly into a swamp.  Only later did we realize that the swamp itself was the location for this meeting.

N:  That is no way to talk about our Nation’s Capital.

S:  Perhaps if our delegation’s suggestions had been more seriously considered, our Nation’s Capital might have been situated in a more congenial location further South.

N:  Would you have preferred it in Philadelphia?

S:  Touche, suh.  And therefore, we arrived at a compromise, defined as an agreement both sides can live with but neither side actually likes. 

N:  Precisely.  No mutually-acceptable agreement is truly arrived upon until both side are equally unhappy with it.

S:  And so we conduct our nation’s business in a swamp.

N:  Which is fine, as long as the windows are closed, and we get out of here in the summer.

S:  A compromise.

N:  Just so.

S:  Now, suh, to the business at hand, introduced, propitiously, I would hope, by the discussion of compromise in which we have just recently engaged.  I, suh, have come here to offer a compromise, which I pray will permanently forestall the advent of what appears to be the inevitability of war. 

N:  The North, sir, would like nothing better.  It would be a terrible shame to submit our American brothers to the South to a costly and ignominious defeat.

S:  And, of course, we feel likewise, replacing “Brothers to the South” with “Brothers to the North.”

N:  Hah!

S:  And “Hah!” back at you! 

N:  And “Ha!” again, with increased ferocity!

S:  Kind suh, I believe you’ll agree we are getting nowhere with these dueling “Hahs!”  Let me therefore suggest a moratorium on our rapier-sharp repartee and a return to the undertaking before us – averting a civil war.

N:  A reasonable point.  And one I agree to, overlooking the impetus, fully justified in my opinion, for my original “Hah!”

S:  Be that as it may, we have, as they say in my part of the country, bigger fish to fry.

N:  We say that where I come from too.  However, in the service of our attention to more serious matters, I shall forego my indisputably winning argument as to whose part of the country said it first.

S:  You are very generous, suh, without actually being correct.  Now, suh, getting right to it, a particular sticking point, though, it is possibly not, as historians will debate for decades and possibly centuries to come, the central incitement of the impending unpleasantness, is the longstanding institution in our region of the country known as slavery.

N:  We do not care for it one bit.

S:  And we currently need it, lest our agrarian enterprise falls on irreparably difficult times.  Plus, it’s none of your Northern business!

N:  It is, if we’re one country.

S:  The “one country” issue is what is currently under debate, and if not dealt with congenially, its resolution will most certainly be determined with muskets, cannons, and I believe one of us has developed an underwater torpedo.

N:  I hope it’s us.

S:  And I hope the opposite.  So here I am, offering a last-minute, disaster-precluding proposal.  And I think you’re going to like it.

N:  I’ll be the judge of that.

S:  You support compromise, don’tcha?

N:  Always.

S:  Well then, we’re already home!  Congratulations, suh!  We have just averted the Civil War!

N:  One minute.

S:  Is there a problem?

N:  May I know what the compromise is?

S:  Forgive me.  Did you not just say you were always disposed to a compromise?

N:  I did.

S:  Well that’s exactly what this is. 

N:  That’s all well and good.  But I’d still like to know what we’re talking about.

S:  All right if you insist, though, in the context of compromise, you may like to revisit your assertion of the claim “Always.” 

N:  Go on.

S:  As you wish.  I have been authorized – as a gesture of good faith, and in a desire to preserve the Union and prevent the most certain unhappiness that will otherwise occur – to propose a compromise by which the slaveholders of the South will provide their slaves with full and free emancipation…

N:  Why, sir, this is wonderful!

S:  For one day a week.

N:  I’m sorry…what?

TO BE CONTINUED…

S:  You can pick the day.

N:  Are you out of your mind?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Conversation Number Four - The Three Wise Men Discuss Gift Giving"

Yesterday, it was a conversation  between two recently converted Christians.  Today, it's a "Nativity" story conducted by three Bedouins on camels.  (Full Disclosure:  This is actually not the blog post I wanted to reprise, as it was reprised just last Christmas.  But the blog post I wanted I can't find, and this one I could.  Maybe I'll find the other one for tomorrow.  If not, I may have to re-post this one yet again.)


Who invented holiday gift giving?

“A guy with a store.”

Too cynical?  Maybe.  Though perhaps not entirely off the mark.  Historically – if we can regard the Bible as history, and who’s to say it’s less accurate than anything else written back then – the gift-giving tradition originated on “Day One”, if by “Day One”, you mean “Day One” of A.D. rather than “Day One” of B.C.  I actually don’t know when “Day One” of B.C. was.  Billions of years ago?  It was way back, I know that.  Anyway, that’s got nothing to do with this story. 

Hovering over the event, from that very first occasion, there loomed the darkening presence of gift-giving anxiety, the gut-eating worry that your gift will resoundingly fall flat. 

Allow us now to peek in on that initial foray into heartfelt but emotionally turbulent generosity.

Ext.  Holy Land – Night 

(Note:  In the Jewish tradition, which was in force on this first day of Christianity, all holidays begin on the night before.  I don’t know why.  Maybe they couldn’t wait.)

THREE WISE MEN ARE CAMELING TOWARDS THEIR MIDDLE-EASTERN DESTINATION.

(Note:  Because I have no idea of their actual names, the Wise Men will herein be designated by the gifts they are delivering:  Gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Sorry for all the Notes.)

THE NIGHT IS QUIET, SAVE FOR THE SOUND OF THREE CAMELS, CLOMPING OVER SAND.

FRANKINCENSE:  I could use some reassurance here.

GOLD:  What about?

F:  (STANDING FOR FRANKINCENSE, SO I DON’T HAVE TO KEEP WRITING FRANKINCENSE EVERY TIME)  I’m a little worried about my present.

G:  (DITTO ON THE INITIAL )  How so?

F:  I’m concerned about its appropriateness.

G:  What is it you’re giving them again?

F:  Frankincense.

G:  And remind me what that is?

F:  It’s an aromatic gum resin.

G:  Uh-huh.  And you believed that was appropriate because…?

F:  Frankincense is known to have soothing properties.  I thought after the turbulence of childbirth, the participants might appreciate a calming influence. 

G:  I suppose.  But have you noticed how quiet it’s been? –  a starlit firmament, the absence of a breeze, not a peep out of anything?  If I were a Weather Man – or a songwriter – I’d say, “All is calm, all is bright.”

F:  You’re saying they won’t need a calming influence?

G:  It seems somewhat redundant.

F:  You’re right, they’re going to hate it!  I know exactly what’s going to happen.  They’ll be all nice about it and everything.  “Look, Joseph – frankincense!  What a beautiful present!”  And then, angling for reassurance, I’ll say, “Are you sure you like it?  I could take it back.”  And they’ll say, “Oh, no, it’s perfect!  We were just talking about how we were really low on frankincense and my husband said, ‘Maybe I should pick some up’, and I said, ‘Hold off a little.  We might get some as a present’, and here we are!  It’s like a miracle.  I mean, it’s no ‘Virgin Birth’ or anything, but it’s still amazingly timely.”  I despise that excruciating charade.  I wish I had brought something else!  

MYRRH:  You wish.

F:  Oh, yeah, I forgot.  With you around, I am guaranteed no worse than “Second Most Terrible Gift.”

M:  Well that’s not very supportive.

F:  Your gift makes no sense whatsoever.

G:  What was your gift again?

M:  Myrrh.

F:  Terrible!

M:  It’s not that bad.

F:  Oh, really?  First of all, myrrh is also a gum resin.  I mean, three gifts, and two of them are gum resins?  These guys are going to have to be really good actors.  “You can never have enough gum resin.”   This is a train wreck!

G:  A what?

F:  It’s bad.

M:  It may be okay.  There is actually a substantial difference between my gum resin and your gum resin.  Yours in an aromatic gum resin.  And mine is a bitter gum resin.

F:  (TO G)  You know what bitter gum resins are used for?

G:  No, what?

F:  Embalming.  He’s bringing them a burial spice.  (TO M)  I hope you kept the receipt. 

M:  In a little pouch inside the myrrh pouch.  But the store’s in Samarkand.

F:  Remember now, you promised.  I give my gift first.  I go after you and it’s like, “Oooh, more gum resin.”  No way.  I want to be the first gum resin they get.

M:  I don’t know, after my bitter gum resin, aromatic gum resin might be a step up.

F:  I’m going first!

M:  Okay!  Okay! 

G:  You know, you Wise Men – and your behavior puts the title into question – are both making too much of all this.  Remember:  “It’s the thought that counts.”

F:  Spoken like a man who’s giving gold.

G:  What!  It’s simply what came to mind.

F:  Yeah, right, you big showoff.

G:   You could have brought gold.

M:  “Gold, gold and myrrh.”  They’d certainly remember me then.

F:  Why do you always have to be better than everyone else?

G:  That’s not how I thought about it.

M:  “Let’s see.  What gift should I bring them?  I know.  Something that makes everyone else’s gift look terrible and cheap!”

G:  It’s not a lot of gold.

F:  (To M)  Did you see the pouch it’s in?

M:  The pouch alone is better than my present.

G:  If you’re so unhappy with your gift, you should have brought them something else.

M:  Like what?

G:  I don’t know.  Booties.

M:  “Gold, frankincense and socks.”  That’s much better.

F:  Why didn’t you get booties?

G:  Because I brought gold!  Dear Lord – who was just born.  Do I have to apologize for being the only one who’s bringing a decent gift? 

F/M: (TOGETHER)  YES!!

F:  You know, in truth, we have no idea who we’re bringing this stuff to.  They could be loaded.  They could open the pouch and it’s like, (BLASÉ)  “Oh, gold.  Throw it on the pile.” 

G:  Unlikely.

M:  F’s right.  Your gift could be the least appreciated gift of all. 

F:  “He put zero thought into it.  ‘Gold.  Done!’”

G:  I think we should stop talking for a while.

F:  You’re the boss, Mr. Moneybags.

THEY CAMEL ALONG IN SILENCE.  FINALLY…

M:  Are you sure we’re going the right way?

G:  I am following the star. 

M:  Maybe we should stop and get directions.

G:  That’s not necessary.

F:  Oooh, Mr. “Gold Giver.”  Too good to ask directions.

G:  Directions to where?  Are you kidding me?  We have no idea where we’re going! 
 
M:  Okay!  Take it easy!  You’re turning all red.

F:  (TO G)  Would you like a little frankincense to calm you down? 

M:  I’d like slip him some myrrh.

F:  Oh.  For “embalming.”  I get it.

G:  (DRYLY)  Hilarious. 

M:  You know, all this bickering.  It’s because of the presents. 

F:  You’re right.  If only we could honor special occasions in a less competitive manner.

G:   A celebratory song, perhaps.

F:  Could that be because you’re an exceptional singer?

G:  Well…

F:  He won an encampment citation.  The guy never stops.

M:  Let’s just stick with the presents.  And hope that they’re big resin gum fans.

F:  That’s gum resin.

M:  Oh.

THE THREE-CAMEL CARAVAN PROCEEDS ON TOWARDS BETHLEHEM, AND INTO NEW TESTAMENTAL HISTORY.

G:  (TO HIMSELF)  Everybody likes gold.

F:  Not if they’re loaded.

CURTAIN.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"Conversation Number Three -'How The Jews Lost The Lead"

This is my favorite "conversation" of all.  It was actually reprinted in "Tikkun" magazine, a legitimate Jewish periodical.  I have a sense it has "weight."  But with my writing, "weight's" when the needle says, "I think there's something on the scale."  Let me know what you think.  I'm in Turkey.  But I will look at it later.


           Once upon a time, there were twelve Christians.  Well, not “Once upon a time”– this isn’t “The Three Bears” with Christians, it’s real.  There was a time when there were twelve Christians.  Thirteen, if you count Jesus, who came and went, and then came back.  Twelve, thirteen, maybe some girls who hung around, not a large crowd, especially for a religion.  Tell your boss you’re in a religion with twelve people in it, and you’re unlikely to get the day off for one of their holidays.

Of course, if you follow religion at all, you know that Christianity, whose followers once numbered in the teens, grew bigger, and now, well, they’re huge.  Not that I’m saying that’s surprising, or undeserved.  Christianity’s a fine religion, with lots of comforting and inspiring things in it.  People seem to like it.  And I say more power to them.  They’re a big success and that’s great.  And I mean that.

It’s just…

Okay, I’ll admit it.  There is this tiny tinge of envy.  But be fair, can you blame me?  Christianity grew out of Judaism.  We came first.  Though it’s hard to believe today, there was actually a time when there were a lot of Jews and no Christians whatsoever.  Not one.  There were restricted golf courses and nobody was playing on them.  Now they’re this enormous, superstar religion and, well, we’re still around, but really small.  And to be honest, it’s tough to take.  The sturdy, older brother watching his quietly charismatic sibling zoom past him.  You’re standing there wondering what happened?

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a minority religion.  We’re on the map, people have heard of us.  When they say Judeo-Christian, we’re Judeo.  It’s just that once in a while, you can’t help imagining what it would be like to be the majority, and have the President – a Jewish president, because we’re the majority – come out on the first night of Chanukah and light a huge menorah on the White House lawn.  

            But maybe I’m being ungrateful.  When you think about it, it’s a miracle we’re around at all, considering the more than occasional efforts to wipe us out.  Jews log in at a perfectly acceptable thirteen million worldwide, which, though not hundreds of millions like you know who, is better than nothing.  Ask the Hittites or the Ishmaelites if they’d like to have thirteen million descendants walking around, instead of nobody.   When’s the last time you took in a Canaanite movie, or picked up some Philistine take-out?  Everyone’s gone, except us.  And I’m certain, way back, betting was very heavy in the other direction.

Still, one can’t help hearkening back wistfully to the era – a short era I’ll admit, but an era nonetheless – when there were more Jews than Christians.  In that brief period during the B.C.’s, if you leaned theologically in the direction of one God that nobody can see, Jew was the only game in town.  Everyone else was sacrificing virgins and praying to cats.

Then, came the A.D.’s.  The A.D.’s meant more than counting the years up rather than counting them down.  The A.D.’s brought Judaism a new baby brother, a brother who would one day leave them, at least religious popularity-wise, in the dust. 

Change was in the air.  Trouble in the Holy Land, the Romans pushing everybody around.  In times like these, Jewish tradition calls for a messiah to show up and straighten things out.  And, to be sure, there was no lack of applicants for the job.   Messiah candidates, usually badly dressed, with wild eyes and crazy hair, would stand on some high place where everybody could see them, and proclaim, “I’m him!” or, more loftily, “I’m Him!”   (Of course, the grammatically correct version is “I’m He”, but people rarely warm to a messiah who’s smarter than they are.)

They were all fakes, every one of them.  They’d draw some early heat, earning a free meal or a place to stay, possibly a complimentary pair of sandals, but sooner or later, reality did them in.  They’d prophesy things and they wouldn’t come to pass.  Or some sick person would cry, “Heal me!” and they’d just look at them.  Game over.  After that, they were just irritating pests, who eventually had to go out and find a job. 

But then, someone came along who, to this day, is viewed as the genuine article.  We’re told of an ability to heal with a touch, walk on water, and make a small amount of food go a really long way.  Jewish onlookers, desperate for a messiah, couldn’t help but take notice.  The right guy at the right time.

He got twelve followers.  Not too impressive considering the things he was pulling off, but Jews, even desperate ones, are a highly skeptical people.  When you tell Jews there’s this guy out there doing miracles, the standard response is, “Go away, I’m busy.”  Or, if they’re funny, “Let him try selling flannel in the desert.  Now that would be a miracle.”

Of course, you can’t blame early Jews for not viewing with awe a religion that had twelve people in it.  For a religion, twelve is a precariously puny number.  Romans sweep through in a bad mood – goodbye, Christians.  A plague wipes them out in twenty minutes.  Followers get jobs out of town, they start families and can’t make the meetings, another messiah shows up giving away camels, these guys were hanging by a thread.  Borrowing a desert metaphor, when you’re in a twelve-man religion, your membership card’s written in sand.

A larger membership was urgently needed.  It was grow or go.  And growing wouldn’t be easy.  The problem?  To convince Jews, stubborn people to begin with, to abandon a religion of thousands of years, and throw in with twelve zealots proclaiming that theirs is the one true way.  Oh, and one more thing.  If the Romans caught you being one, they nailed you to a cross. 

I imagine – and since I wasn’t there, imagination’s all I can go on – that there had to have been some sort of committee.  A marketing team, devising strategies for attracting Jews to the fledgling faith.  Maybe later, they’d present their suggestions to the whole congregation, but to hammer out the basics, I see a smaller contingent.  Maybe two people, say, Matthew (formerly Murray) and Simon (formerly Sol).

If this meeting had been recorded, we’d know what it was that saved Christianity from extinction, and paved the way to the great success it enjoys today.  Since it wasn’t recorded, I’ll have to make it up.  We open on an early A.D. gavel pounding on a table, or just a hand hitting an indoor rock.

“I call this meeting to order.”

“Murray, it’s just you and…”

“Excuse me.  It’s Matthew.”

“What?”

“When I was Jewish, I was Murray.  Now I’m Matthew.  With two ‘t’s’”.

“Sorry.  Matthew.  What I was saying is it’s just you and me.  There’s no need for protocol.”

“You’re right, Sol.”

“Simon.”

“Sorry.”

“Okay.  Now, what we’re here to do is to come up with appealing ideas to win converts and swell our ranks.  Because if our ranks don’t swell…”

“…we’re headed for oblivion.”

“That’s a depressing way to put it.”

“But it’s true, isn’t it?”

It might be.  But I’d prefer a sunnier attitude.

“May I be candid?  I never wanted to be on this committee.  My strength is picnics and outings.  I don’t even know where to start.”

”It’s a tough assignment, no question.  Why don’t we start by looking at the things that make us different.”
“We’re certainly qualified to do that.  We used to be Jews, and now, we’re this.  By the way, what is this?

“What is what?”

“What we are.  You know, like our name.  Jews are Jews.  Who are we?”

“There’s another committee working on that.”

“Good.  ‘Cause it’s embarrassing when someone asks, ‘What do you call yourselves?’ and I say ‘I don’t know.’  It shows a lack of imagination.  Maybe we should have a temporary name.  Like we wear these fish emblems, maybe we should call ourselves Fishtians.”

“I think we’re wandering here.”

“Sorry.  What’s our job again?”

“To convert the Jews.”

“Right.”

“And to do that, we need to consider what is it that makes us different?”

“I know a difference.”

“What’s that?”

“Their Sabbath is on a Saturday, and ours is on Sunday.”

“I don’t think you’re getting the concept.”

“You wanted different.  I gave you different.”

“Think about it.  Do you really think the opportunity to pray on Sunday instead of Saturday will send Jews flocking to our midst?”

 “Oh, I see.  It’s not just different.  It’s different and better.”

“Exactly.  Maybe we should draw from experience.  What was it about us that made you want to switch?”

“That’s easy.  Pork.”

“You switched for pork?”

“Never underestimate the power of forbidden foods.   A lot of Jews eat it already.  They chew peppermint leaves, so you won’t smell it on their breath.”

“I may be wrong, but I don’t see a huge cross-over from pork.”

“How about ‘Sunday’ and pork?”

“Will you stop with ‘Sunday?’  ’Sunday’s’ nothing.  I mean, when it comes to days of rest, Saturday’s the better choice.  It’s a day sooner.”

“I always thought it was too soon.  I wasn’t tired yet.”

“Look, we’re talking about frills.”

“Frills are important.”

“We’re bigger than frills.  We’ve got a great religion.  Something so meaningful, people risk death to be part of it.”

“I wouldn’t bring that up at the recruitment sessions.”

“But that says something.  It says it’s worth it.  Now, think.  Go to the essence.  What is it about us you really like?”

            “I like Jesus.”

            “Good.  Why?”

            “He’s nice.”

            “Lots of people are nice.”

            “Not as nice as Jesus.”

            “But isn’t there something more than his niceness?”

            “Well, he says if you believe in him you won’t die.  Which, to be honest, I find a little confusing.”

            “Why?”

            “I thought if you believe in him, you do die.”

            “Not always.  And even if you do…wait a minute.  I think you’ve hit on something.”

“Forget the whole thing?”

“You just said it.  Dying isn’t bad for us, because we’ve got…”

“…what?”

“You know this.  We’ve got…”

“I have no idea.”

“Think.  Something we’ve got that they don’t.  And that thing is…?”

“Look, just tell me, okay?”

“Heaven!  We’ve got Heaven!”

“Jews have heaven.”

“Very hazy.  I asked my Dad about it.  He was barely coherent.”

“Any he’s a rabbi.  Wait, I get it.  If we’ve got Heaven, and they don’t…”

“…we don’t really die....”

“…and they do!  That’s perfect!  Heaven.  Heaven’s great!”

“Better than lying in the ground.”

”Way better.”

“You know, when you think about it, our whole religion’s more people-friendly.  With them, it’s ‘The wrath of the Lord…’, and smiting, and ‘…Cast a pestilence upon the land.’  We’re not like that.”

“I was kind of sensing we weren’t.  But I was wondering if it wasn’t just, you know, like a come-on, and the wrath came later.”

“I don’t think so.  Our religion is wrath-free.”

“Wait. Didn’t Jesus yell at some moneychangers…?”

“Okay, so we’re not wrath-free.  But we’re definitely reduced-wrath.”

 “Then, that’s it.  That’s what we sell.  A reduced-wrath religion, Heaven at the end, and pork – and Sunday, for those who prefer it – as a bonus.”

“I like it.”

“It’s good, isn’t it?”

“It’s very good.  But we need one more thing.  A deal clincher.”

“No circumcisions?”

“Simon, I think we’re there.”