Kolam: The Beauty of Uselessness

Kolam, IndiaThis one’s for Carin Ruff, and by way of answering my niece Kate’s question.

A little more than twenty years ago, I spent a summer traveling around India under the auspices of the Fulbright-Hays program, a summer fellowship grant program for teachers. Over the course of about six weeks, we traveled to some twelve cities, from the very feet of the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.

India seems far nearer now than it was then; when our group visited, the country was in the final days of an old-style Socialist economy, and it was before the boom in the country’s tech sector—which had already started—had achieved a generalized reputation abroad.

It was before India became the home of the world’s customer service call centers, and before the ubiquity of the “mobile phone” revolution: I recall a hot afternoon in Chennai (which was then still called Madras) when I had to walk three blocks to a telephone office and pay in cash to wait for an operator to connect me to an international trunk line.

On that trip, I saw the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, and the erotic temples of Khajuraho—the whole UNESCO package. But what I remember more vividly, and fondly, are the little things: the reusable cups given out by the “air hostesses” on Indian Airlines and the dogs that waited in front of sidewalk shrines where shirtless Brahmin priests performed puja— acts of reverence to the divine—as though they, the dogs, were praying. [Read more...]

Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad

open qu'ran“Strap on a suicide vest? Join a global mission whose leaders preach hatred and acts of violence against civilians? Spurn the traditions of one’s own community in favor of radicalization? Jihadis face a hard sell. By definition, poetry is a way to say what cannot be said in ordinary terms.”

I sat stunned after reading this online last week. The writer knows whereof he speaks; he is Professor Flagg Miller, author of a book on the Bin Laden tapes. Here, he’s affirming the thesis of a chapter in Oxford Professor Elisabeth Kendall’s forthcoming book, Twenty-first Century Jihad. In this chapter, called “Yemen’s al-Qaida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad,”Kendall writes:

The power of poetry to move Arab listeners and readers emotionally, to infiltrate the psyche and to create an aura of tradition, authenticity and legitimacy around the ideologies it enshrines make it a perfect weapon for militant jihadist causes. [Read more...]

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Rosenthal image

Underlying what’s wrong with this picture is where it resides. Not in a museum of racist caricatures. No, it’s on the popular Dentzel Carousel at Ontario Beach Park in my city: Rochester, New York.

The carousel is a special treasure. Built in 1905, it’s now one of only fourteen operating antique menagerie carousels in the United States; it’s also one of only a few that remain in their original location.

Dentzel Carousels, created by the Philadelphia firm G.A. Dentzel, were famed for their delightful range of animals to ride. Our city’s carousel offers not only the usual horses, but also cats, ostriches, pigs, rabbits, plus a deer, a giraffe, a goat, a lion, and a tiger.

When my granddaughters were young, I took them to ride the carousel. They had fun choosing which animal to climb upon. Did they notice the cartoon-style pickaninnies painted on one of a circle of panels topping the carousel?

Maybe not. Maybe so. Who knows what images a child absorbs unconsciously? And if that child is African-American?

So, what’s wrong with this picture? [Read more...]

For the Newlyweds

18428477633_f488b3dd41_zMay you have the courage to let go of everything you know about yourselves—everything you have learned about yourselves up to this moment—that you may discover and create, invent and define new selves, a new braided Self. Like Sabbath candles that, at the start of Shabbat, stand side by side, each its own brilliance, its own accomplishment, may you move toward each other until you become like the braided Havdalah candle, its individual wicks joined to create of several a single, strong flame that is lifted into the sky at the end of Sabbath.

If I were called upon to offer a toast to the newlyweds, this might be the toast I’d offer.

Who dresses in the costumes of their ancestors, who signs the ketubah with the broken healthcare system and the cruel economy and anti-immigrant culture as their witnesses, the groom who is delivered to the mandap in a horse-drawn carriage, the bride who is walked down the grass aisle by her father and mother, divorced and united in love as they deliver their daughter to the huppah, the bride and groom who stand under the huppah-mandap where they vow and circle, circle and are blessed, these newlyweds. These newlyweds whose courtship was complicated by religion and love, politics and love, history and love, America and India and love, personal convictions and love. [Read more...]

Embrace Your Inner Laggard

I’m not as smart as my television. It has hidden panels with mysterious ports. Its remote control has fields of buttons that I dare not traverse, lest I render it completely inoperable and have to summon some nineteen-year-old in a two-toned Volkswagen to sneer at me in my own living room.

So sometimes I just watch a movie, because I know how DVDs work. For the same reason that I rarely buy music, I’ll forsake movies once they’ve all become bits of code summoned from across the Internet—because I am entirely muddle-headed about digital ephemera. Too often something I download on one device gets ignored by my other devices like the redheaded stepchild at a family reunion. Then it gets its feelings hurt and disappears altogether.

I’ve lost entire swaths of the Hank the Cowdog oeuvre this way. I have friends who know how to wire their homes to make their digitalia accessible and cooperative. If they want Hank the Cowdog, they can call up a tale in surround-sound, command pictures of a north Texas landscape to scroll across their TV screen, and simultaneously send enlightening information about various species of dogs to their kids’ digital tablets. [Read more...]


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