A Month of Reflection | 7 | The Harry Potters Audio Version

by Glenn on November 8, 2018

It’s hard to believe that Harry Potter is now a 20-year phenomenon. The first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1998. (The British edition, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997.) I’ll admit I was late to the HP party, but once I showed up had (and am still having) a great time. My reluctance to read Harry Potter was based on the assumption that something so popular surely can’t be that good. It turns out, these books were both good and popular.

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SS No. 66 | Haydn: Symphony No. 94, “Surprise”

by Glenn on November 8, 2018

Franz Joseph Haydn | Symphony No. 94 in G Major, “Surprise”

Adagio—Vivace assai
Andante
Menuet: Allegro molto
Allegro di molto

The main surprise comes in the second movement, with that pretty good-sized bang. Of course, after you’ve heard it, it’s no longer a surprise, but that moment and this symphony always seem to delight.

Haydn’s music is so refreshingly upbeat and cheerful. Read the rest of this entry »

A Month of Reflection | 6 | Scott W. Berg: Grand Avenues

by Glenn on November 7, 2018

For the past eleven years, we have traveled for work at least once a year to Washington, D.C. Whenever possible, we take some time on the edges to do some sight-seeing or be part of something related to life in the capital. We were in the capital just after the election in 2016 and watched a performance of A Christmas Carol in Ford’s Theatre. The play was great, although it existed in the shadow of Lincoln’s assassination.

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A Month of Reflection | 5 | Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters

by Glenn on November 6, 2018

In some musings earlier this year about the author’s voice on the screen, I wrote, in passing, about the Clint Eastwood film, Sully, based on the book Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2009). I decided to listen this book earlier this year when I had a long trip.

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Captain Sullenberg (with some attributed help from Jeffrey Zaslow) did a masterful job of telling his story. This is not a work of literature (it doesn’t pretend to be) and you get the sense that writing a book about his life was pretty far from anything Sully thought he would ever do, but I really enjoyed listening to this.

When something like the safe water landing of US Air Flight 1549 happens, you expect a memoir about it. We like stories about the hero who, against all odds, prevails. Additionally, there was a palpable sense of “we needed this” back then. I didn’t pay attention to the book when it first came out, but decided this would be a good companion to the film.

These types of stories can be a little predictable, i.e. there is a formula you follow: (1) the story opens on the fateful day and leads up to the climactic moment, then (2) we go back in time to tell the author’s life story and how everything led up to this moment, and then (3) we finish with the climactic moment and the aftermath, with an afterword of lessons learned.

This book is crafted a little differently, which I appreciated. For one there is a feint right up front as Sully talks about “a flight you’d never forget,” but it’s not the flight we’re thinking of. It’s his solo flight as a teenager:

“The flight lasted just a few minutes, but so many of the details are rich and vivid to me.

“The wind was coming from the north not the south, which was unusual for that time of year. And my wheels made a distinct rumbling sound as they rolled across the rural Texas airstrip.”

One of the things Sully does in this book is place this one moment of a safe water landing of a passenger plane on the Hudson River which made him famous, in the context of his entire life, which has been about flying:

“A pilot can take off and land thousands of times in his life, and so much of it feel like a speeding blur. But almost always, there is a particular flight that challenges a pilot or teaches or changes him, and every sensory moment of that experience remains in his head forever.

“I have had a few unforgettable flights in my life, and they continue to live in my mind, conjuring up a host of emotions and reasons for reflection. One took me to New York’s Hudson River on a cold January day in 2009. But before that, perhaps the most vivid was the one I’ve just described: my first solo flight, late on a Saturday afternoon at a grass airstrip in Sherman, Texas. It was June 3, 1967, and I was sixteen years old.”

As a military pilot, Sully once had a problem with a plane that ended without incident after an emergency landing. As I recall, this flight makes it into the Eastwood film in a dream sequence.

There is part of Sully that is quite extraordinary—cool under pressure, for sure—but it’s this relentless commitment to being a good pilot that distinguishes him and prepares him for the day that made him famous. For Sully, flying planes wasn’t a job; it was a calling, and he approached that calling with engineer’s brain and an evangelist’s heart. Throughout the book you read about his continual study. I get the sense that his commitment to read extensively and focus on flying is unusual. How many pilots are/were as committed as he is/was to safety to the point of studying crashes to learn what went wrong?

Sully is in a rather exclusive club—he “crashed” a plane on water and everyone walked away from it. I get the feeling he might not have written the book had there been casualties. (Maybe he said as much.)

One of the themes of this book is what happens to a person who orchestrates what is perceived as a miracle? In his mind, he was just doing his job, what needed to be done in the moment, and suddenly national attention fell on him and his family. (This becomes a major theme of the film.)

There is a certain amount of anonymity that comes with being a pilot. Sully assumed we would end his flying career in that kind of anonymity. He would a guy who had been working and now he wasn’t working anymore, but that’s how it is. Now he can’t go anywhere without being recognized. (I don’t think he’s complaining. It’s more of an exploration of the mystery why, when this extraordinary thing happens and his ordinary attention to detail results in a happy result, he is the recipient of so much attention.)

Apparently, airline travel is so safe that over the course of a career, most pilots will never experience any sort of trouble with even one engine. It’s extraordinary, then, that he had a double engine failure. Sully stresses the value of checklists. And here was a weird little thing: Cost-cutting measures at the airline meant that the tabs to help you find pages quickly had been taken out of the books. So it took a little time to find the checklist.

Something that comes through is that he never expected to write a book like this. In the aftermath of 9/11 he had seen his industry struggle. He and his colleagues at US Air had seen pensions cut and benefits reduced, even to having to take his own sandwich on the plane because the airline wouldn’t provide meals. What you don’t hear is bitterness or vitriol. The voice is one of professionalism. And the great impression you have of Sully is how utterly normal and extraordinary he is all at the same time.

He doesn’t offer a lot of pretense and grandiosity about himself. He’s a guy with financial worries, has to work at communication with his wife, struggles to be a family man when so much of his life is spent on the road.

He talks a lot about the volume of mail he’s received. The moving ones were from passengers and their families. But one that gets special mention is from a Holocaust survivor who saw the plane going down and told Sully that when you save a life you save the world entire.

Sully is quick to offer praise to his team. I recall him referring to them routinely as trained professionals. His flight attendants were older because the airline had a hiring freeze at the time. While he was working in the cockpit, he could hear the flight attendants shouting, “Brace, brace, heads down, stay down.”

The most serious injury was to the flight attendant at the rear of the plane. In an interview, I believe just a few weeks after the event, Doreen Welsh is clearly struggling with it all. It wasn’t pleasant in the back of the plane. The tail of the plane hit the water first and when water began filling the back of the cabin, she thought she might die.

For the film, Sully, Clint Eastwood did his homework. So many little pieces about the individual passengers get into the film.

Eastwood does, of course, have to do some modest transformation of the story that Sully tells to make it work on film. An event followed by months of investigation is compressed into a single moment. For example, in the book Sully talks about how in the weeks leading up to the flight, he and his wife were trying to figure out what to do with a piece of commercial property that was vacant and was affecting their bottom line. In the film it becomes part of a phone conversation after the landing. In the film, you are led to believe that the NTSB hearing happened just shortly after the event. In reality, it was months.

I remember watching an episode of Nova called “City in the Sky“. At any one moment, a million people are up in the sky in planes traveling somewhere. It’s a weird thing to think about. What’s remarkable about that is how safe it all is when compared to, say, the more than 30,000 deaths that happen in the U.S. each year from motorcycle accidents.

In interviews, and perhaps in the book but I don’t recall, Sully gives credit to first responders, especially the ferry boat captains who took decisive action. Our technologies make us vulnerable. 155 people in a jet following take-off were nearly taken out by a flock of geese. When technologies break down, it can take many people coming together to save the situation. That was the case here.

A Month of Reflection | 4 | Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work

by Glenn on November 5, 2018

Sarah Kessler. Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.https://i2.wp.com/weltbild.scene7.com/asset/vgw/gigged-222639709.jpg?w=500&ssl=1

This is a book about the “future of work.” In particular, it’s about this relatively new idea of taking work, breaking it down into chunks, and finding people through web programs and apps to do those chunks of works. It’s called the “gig economy,” based on the idea that people don’t really want jobs—those are way too confining—they want flexibility, the ability to pick and choose what they will do, when, and for how much. That’s the idea at least. And it is true of me for this particular season. I read this book to help me understand what’s going on in this part of the economy a little better.

There are a couple of sides to the gig economy. On the company side, the greatest expense in business is often employees. We come with a lot of costs. We want to get paid well. And on top of that we want vacations and time off for sickness and health care and retirement. Employees are expensive. It would be great if you could do business without employees, if you could break the work into small tasks and farm those things out.

Enter the “app.” Kessler introduces us to a number of them. They are fascinating. For example, in 2012, Instagram was purchased by  Facebook for $1 billion. While 30 million people used the service there were only 13 employees managing it (including the co-founders). 13 people “serving” 30 million people. Impressive for the investors.

In terms of the gig economy, the first big app was Uber. Rather than hire employees, Uber found “independent contractors” who were matched up with people needing rides. For Uber this was great. You didn’t hire someone for a shift, you contracted people one drive at a time.

I remember when Uber started. I work with an organization that, three times a year, flies my wife and I to various parts of the country to provide some technological support for their conferences. Originally, when we arrived in a city, they had arranged for a car service to pick us up and take us to the hotel. That was pretty nice. At some point, though, to save money, a car service was no longer provided and we were asked to use Uber (or a taxi) to get to the hotel. The primary benefit of using Uber was reduced cost. (Ultimately, I wasn’t paying for it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to costs.) As a Uber passenger, you could revel in how much cheaper this ride was as compared to a taxi. But it also meant that the other person in the car, the one serving you, was not getting paid very well, especially considering that only a portion of what you were being charged was actually going to the driver.

On the “independent contractor” side of things, there were (are!?—I think some of these things have been or are getting worked out) some problems. The main one is that, as noted above, you’re not paid that well. When you think about the time involved and the fact that you are providing the car (which must be maintained) and the fuel, you’re not getting rich. To make a decent income requires a huge amount of time with considerable overhead. (There was something Uber did early on that seems particularly troubling. They required drivers to have new cars, which makes sense, but if someone didn’t have one, they set up a leasing/purchasing system whereby you could go pick up a new car and Uber would deduct the car payments from your earnings.) There were other things. Uber has a “constantly shifting compensation model.” This means more or less is charged for rides depending on consumer needs. But as a driver you can’t really predict how much you’re going to be paid. When you picked someone up, you had no idea where they wanted to go. If they wanted to drive an hour out of town, the return trip was on your dime. And of course there was the problem of “deactivation.” If your reviews weren’t high enough, if problems about you were reported, you could be left outside the system without recourse.

Uber was the start for many kinds of app-based businesses, so that when people tried to explain a new business, they would often call it “Uber for x.” Kessler notes that by 2015, 4% of adult Americans were earning income through the web.

The gig economy has a fundamental tension. On the one hand workers get freedom to work when they want. On the other hand this work means “insecurity, increased risk, lack of stability, and diminishing workers’ rights.” While the selling point is independence, flexibility, and freedom, this seems to favor the company more than the worker.

This is certainly not an activist sort of book. Kessler is taking a journalist’s perspective, reporting on what she has found. But it seems to me that many companies are behaving disingenuously, treating people as employees while classifying them as contractors. For certain high-level skills, the gig economy may work well for some people. If you’re poor, the gig economy is not going to get you ahead (assuming you are able to manage the technology). Kessler offers this note on the stunning vulnerability of half of our country:

“According to a report from the Federal Reserve released in May 2015, 47% of Americans could not cover an unexpected $400 expense with their savings or credit card. There’s no cushion between those people and a total free fall.”

She quotes one person who says “wealth perpetuates wealth and poverty perpetuates poverty.” I think that’s another way of saying the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And there are no easy answers for the problem of what to do about this.

*   *   *

This summer I started working as “an independent contractor” for a messenger (delivery) service. When you sign up, what the company refers to as “onboarding,” you receive an Independent Contractor (IC) Guide, and the company is very careful to stress that this is not an employee manual and that those of us who drive are not employees. The manual begins:

“Unlike some courier companies that hire drivers and subject them to rigorous rules and grueling schedules, we provide professional services for independent drivers who want the freedom and flexibility of running their own business.

“As an independent contract driver, you choose when you would like to drive and how you would like to best meet your client’s needs. [The Company] is NOT your employer; we are YOUR CLIENT.”

While it doesn’t take much to get started with this company (I would say “to have this client begin to work for me,” as the IC Guide emphasizes), somehow the wording of that second paragraph doesn’t seem completely accurate in terms of capturing the situation. I do most of my work for one particular company that has contracted the messenger service to manage their deliveries. Both the company (albeit through the messenger service) and the messenger service give all sorts of direction for how the work will be performed (or, I assume, I won’t be working).

I do think it is helpful to think of myself as a business in competition with other businesses, but the way you begin working does feel a lot like applying for a job. And if the application process isn’t very strenuous with this company, it’s primarily because no chance is being taken on me. If I do the work well, I can keep working as much and as long as I like (although there’s a lot of uncertainty—no guarantees—in that “as much”). If I don’t, then the messenger service can simply choose not to work with my company. “I lost a client” does sound a lot better than “they fired me.”

The work I do is not terribly sophisticated. It is like any other delivery service where you are given some packages, you deliver these packages (because it’s “my business” I use my car and my gas to do so), and you get signatures from the people receiving the packages. This doesn’t require a lot of skill. Basically, you need a car, you need to pass a drug screening and a criminal background check, and you need to be able to use a delivery tracking app (for which you are charged $20/month).

I’ve noticed a different sense of competition in me as I do this. In a traditional job, you’re trying to please your employer. If the boss is happy, you’re happy. This work brings out a different sort of competitiveness in me. I want differentiate myself (my company) from other people (other companies). Working at this kind of skill level, it’s relatively simple to do so. I’ve noticed that if you can be where you say you will be, dress presentably (there are no uniforms, because that would indicate we are employees, but it’s interesting to see how sloppy it can look when the standard of dress is casual and left to individual choice), follow directions, and be polite (any sort of personal charm is, I think, a bonus), you can find some consistent work with this company. There is some technology involved, though, and it’s sad to see how some people simply don’t have the wherewithal to manage it.

At first it was a little challenging trying to establish anything like a schedule. Jobs are posted onto the app at which point whoever selects the job first gets it. So you need to have your phone in front of you constantly so that you can be ready to take it when a job gets posted. This is stressful and it makes it tough to do anything else while you remain ready to click. Eventually I was able to take some regular/recurring routes and I now no longer have anxiety around grabbing jobs as they pop up. (I think some of this happened because of the differentiation I described earlier. Someone who will remain nameless, as this individual began with “You didn’t hear it from me,” told me about a route that was opening up. My inquiries about that route resulted in regular hours, which are a blessing.)

I feel fortunate in that the work I am doing right now is on a regular schedule (I have regular routes six days a week) that I am able to manage, but for many people involved in the gig economy, it’s not like that. They either can’t get enough work or they are overworking, neither of which don’t feel sustainable.

Kessler’s book gives a broader understanding of this field, but more importantly, gives some insight into what it’s like for people trying to make a living in this way.

I don’t feel like I’m getting ahead financially, but think I am very fortunate in that I drive things and not people around town. That means I have some control over what I am listening to. For some time, now, I have for the most part given up listening to both news and talk radio as well as music, and begun listening to books. I consider this a real gift right now. So that while I am not paid spectacularly well, I can frame it as “I am getting paid to listen to books,” which feels pretty good right now.

 

 

 

A Month of Reflection | 3 | Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

by Glenn on November 3, 2018

We were on a family vacation back in June. My father-in-law took his three daughters and one grand-daughter and their husbands(!) on an Alaska Cruise. At our stop in Victoria, B.C., we popped into Munro’s Books, a really delightful independent bookstore, a cathedral for books, really, with some of the most unique, beautiful, and sophisticated wall hangings I’ve ever seen (visible in this photo I found here). The artwork is by Carole Sabiston, who specializes in textiles. It was there I found Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018.

The title was certainly provocative. This is not a long book, just 146 pages and it didn’t take too long to breeze through it. But the scale of what he is suggesting is massive. The central question of the book is,

“How can you remain autonomous in a world where you are under constant surveillance and are constantly prodded by algorithms run by some of the richest corporations in history, which have no way of making money except by being paid to manipulate your behavior?”

His Ten Arguments are these:

1. You are losing your free will.

2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.

3. Social media is making you into an a******.

4. Social media is undermining truth.

5. Social media is making what you say meaningless.

6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.

7. Social media is making you unhappy.

8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.

9. Social media is making politics impossible.

10. Social media hates your soul.

Lanier refers to “social media empires” as “behavior modification empires.” You are not the customer, “you’re the product.” Especially when the app is free, there is a price being paid and we are the ones paying it though we may not be aware how.

We put our thoughts and images and memories into an app on the internet. Among the many problems for Lanier is that these thoughts, images, and memories aren’t transferable across platforms. You can’t move them somewhere else. And even if you could, you would be leaving behind the people who you engage with and who engage with your content. At the same time, these companies are bad actors and the only way to get them to change is for masses of people to quit entirely. Lanier argues,

“To free yourself, to be more authentic, to be less addicted, to be less manipulated, to be less paranoid . . . for all these marvelous reasons, delete your accounts.”

Clearly, Lanier has thought this through. He suggests a clever acronym for social media, “BUMMER,” which means, “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” He contends, “If you use BUMMER platforms, you’ve probably been changed at least a little bit.” He describes six moving parts of BUMMER, but here was one disturbing thing about using these apps:

“Everyone is placed under a level of surveillance straight out of a dystopian science fiction novel. . . . Spying is accomplished mostly through connected personal devices—especially, for now, smartphones—that people keep practically glued to their bodies. Data are gathered about each person’s communications, interests, movements, contact with others, emotional reactions to circumstances, facial expressions, purchases, vital signs: an ever growing, boundless variety of data.”

That is disturbing, to say the least. It gets worse. This data is being used to manipulate us in ways we are probably not even aware of. Actually, this whole book is  disturbing. Ultimately, Lanier’s arguments for me were compelling enough that I did close my social media accounts.

It was easy to let go of Facebook. I don’t think I ever made a single post. I thought it was the creepiest one for loads of reasons. For example, one day at work, a co-worker and I were talking about how nice a pizza would be for lunch. Not ten minutes later, there was an ad for pizza in his Facebook feed. I would say it was coincidence, but on another occasion, I mentioned a car problem related to tires. He mentioned a local tire company. Like before, an ad for a tire company, in this case the actual company that he mentioned, popped into his Facebook feed. We assume somehow we were heard. How? I had a similar experience with Instagram and was alarmed to think that I was being spied upon. It was gross.

I closed my Twitter account as I felt self-conscious and ridiculous trying to be clever for a handful of “followers” and was too cheap to invest the time (and perhaps money) to accumulate more. (It’s interesting—I don’t have any expectations that anyone is going to read this or anything else I write on my website. Perhaps because of that I have less emotion attached to creating and posting it. I want to write. I do write. And some of the things I write I put on my blog. But there’s no internal drama around “Will anyone ‘like’ this?”)

Instagram was the hardest one to close. I had a hundred followers (obviously nothing compared to Gal Gadot’s 25 million) and received likes most times I posted anything. Of course posting came with the pathology of “needing” to check to see if anyone had “liked” what I posted. That was pretty gross. Every once in a while I have a feeling of wistfulness, thinking I was on the inside when it comes to the lives of people I followed, most of whom I didn’t know. But that also felt at times like voyeurism, which isn’t good. What is gone, though, is that compulsion throughout the day, whenever there was a pause, to “check” Instagram.

I see the great need of my life these days to focus, to concentrate on things that matter deeply to me, reading and writing for starters. For me the social media platforms are distractions from that attention. It’s not always clear that these “free” have no cost but they come with a price.

My next task is to figure out life without Google, particularly Gmail.

Of course, now that I’ve gone through the book again to see what I marked, I learned that an app I’m now required to use for work, WhatsApp, “is part of Facebook; even if it sometimes feels like any other texting platform.” Hmm. Do I have to quit work to quit social media?

And I also haven’t thought about the implications of using services like Uber, where Lanier notes,

“We’ve taken as a fact of nature that if you want the benefits of an app like Uber—using the latest tech to improve coordination between drivers and people who need rides—then you must accept that a few people will mostly own Uber and some of them will become obnoxious oligarchs, while drivers will have less security than old-fashioned cab drivers, and riders will be spied upon in humiliating ways.”

Thoughtful living requires thinking through the implications of our actions. It feels like we’ve created a binary “click on this” world. Things are up or down, only, which means they lack nuance. Politics certainly feels that way. I suppose I would like to inhabit a “consider this” world, instead, thinking deeply about things rather than simply reacting to them.

A Month of Reflection | 2 | Translating the Bible

by Glenn on November 2, 2018

Two books I read this year dealt with the complexities of Bible translation. This summer, I read The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible by Aviya Kushner (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) and this past week I finished Sarah Ruden’s The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017).

Both books are excellent and offer insight into the difficulty of translating Hebrew into English. It’s somewhat unsettling to learn how complicated this is and how much choice is involved.

The few years of Spanish I took in middle school made it seem like the only challenge in the translation process is that you need to know some grammar and vocabulary, but that otherwise it’s relatively uncomplicated and straight-forward, a matter of time more than anything else. “I want coffee with milk, please,” becomes “Yo quiero café con leche, por favor.” Word-for-word. Simple, really.

This is not how you translate the Bible.

The Hebrew of the Hebrew Scriptures is a different affair because the Hebrew language comes from a different world. For starters, we’re translating across and not within language groups and doing so across time. The language of the Hebrew Bible has been compared to lego building blocks, so that while the opening line of Psalm 23 in English is nine words (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” is how the King James presents it), in Hebrew it’s four building blocks, literally, “Yahweh | pasturing-me | not | I-will-go-without.” Further, these bricks of text are made up of only consonants, and so “vowels—dots and dashes located above, beneath, and inside letters—[which] frequently determine meaning” (Kushner), must be added as you read or translate.

These were both enjoyable books to read. Kushner and Ruden are both brilliant and understand well the challenges of bridging the gap between ancient Hebrew and modern English. I think both would agree that, as Kushner states it, “The Hebrew text . . . is beautifully unruly, often ambiguous, multiple in meaning, and hard to pin down; many of the English translations are, above all, certain.”

I believe Kushner would concur with Ruden’s conclusion that “as a reader of ancient literature, most of what I see in English Bibles is loss: the loss of sound, the loss of literary imagery, the loss of emotion, and . . . the loss of thought and experience.”

So what do you do about this challenge of bringing the Bible into the modern world? The mindsets of the two authors separates these books.

Kushner, who is Jewish (I want to state more clearly that she is a Jew, as I think she might say so, but that expression sounds almost racist or, at the very least, pejorative), grew up speaking Hebrew and I sort of see her shaking her head at the idea of people taking this text into other languages. (When she refers to the Bible, she is only speaking of the Hebrew Scriptures.)

Her book began at the suggestion of her writing teacher, Marilynne Robinson, who, as I take it, offered a kind of warning. According to Kushner, “she asked me to keep one thing in mind: even if the translation was inaccurate at times, and contained errors, she wanted me to remember that the Bible in English is holy to millions and millions of people.”

I’m not sure she’s made her peace with that tension and there is a tone of condescension when it comes to the English Bible. Still, Kushner’s observations about it are fascinating and her complaints about translations are compelling. For one thing, she notes the English Bible “has a lot of punctuation. It affects tense, sound, and sense, but it also makes everything read slower. Way slower.”

Another problem is names. Kushner writes, “From Adam onward, at nearly every turn in the Bible, the names of men, women, and children have clear meanings, and they often represent physical reality and emotional destiny. Yet the meanings of these Hebrew names are lost in translation because the names are usually simply transliterated—not translated (although Eve’s name is neither; it has no relation in sound or meaning to the Hebrew).”

The discussion that accompanies the text of the Hebrew Bible is forsaken in translation. This is to say that not only is there a Hebrew text, but there is Hebrew commentary on the text. This gets alluded to in the New Testament. In Luke 4:16–30, Jesus did what other Jews in synagogue did. He read a passage, in this case one from Isaiah. But at the time he was, as I understand it, supposed to comment on the passage by referring to what various rabbis said about it, Jesus upends the whole thing by saying that his life was all the commentary needed. He was the fulfillment of the text.

I think it comes down to this: Kushner believes the Hebrew Bible belongs to the Hebrew people and that when others try to experience the Bible in another language, English for example, they don’t get it right (and never will). The feeling I got from reading the book is, “Give it up—why are you even trying?”

One of her concerns is that translations encourage conversion. Here’s a story she tells:

“When I first bought the Oxford Annotated bible, the first English-language Bible I ever owned, I carried it around in a brown paper bag. I grew up with the concept of marit ayin, or how things look to the eye, meaning the naked eye; for example, a person who keeps kosher might not go into a burger joint to buy a coffee, even though black coffee is definitely kosher. Walking around with the Old and New Testament doesn’t look like a Jewish activity; it looks suspiciously unkosher. A person passing by might not understand. The first place I went in Iowa City with my brown paper bag happened to be Hillel, the Jewish student center, and an older man I met there, who saw the Oxford peeking out—we were both volunteering our time—commented that he was sure I had better things to do than to read the Torah in a Christian translation.

“‘It’s not a good book for you,” he said quietly.’

“The older man was echoing the Talmud’s warning about the very idea of the Torah in a language other than Hebrew. The concern is simple: The translation will be used to convert Jews to Christianity. It will be used against the Jewish people, as in fact it has been for hundreds of years.”

Near the end of the book, Kushner takes us into the dark history of the Holocaust. In discussing Psalm 42, she quotes the line that reads, “I have been young, I have been old, and never have seen a righteous man begging for bread.” Kushner writes,

“The word ‘bread’ is associated with what a just man can expect from a just God. I will never forget sitting at a Shabbat lunch in Jerusalem at which several Holocaust survivors refused to recite this line. They had seen just men, hands out for bread, utterly desperate. I think of the kind of desperation those survivors must have experienced, what scenes they must have witnessed, the longing they must have felt and known, as well as perhaps anger, but also longing for God—not only to be seen but to act—whenever I read Psalm 42.”

One chapter later, she refers to “the large hole of the Holocaust,” into which so many of her ancestors were pushed. Part of Kushner’s story is that she is lucky to exist, having a grandfather who survived the war but who lost “his four siblings and two parents to Hitler.”

*   *   *

Sarah Ruden’s story is a little different. While Kushner says, in effect, it’s impossible, so don’t even try, Ruden says it may be impossible, but it’s worth the try. Her goal is to “bring a fuller and more nuanced discussion of the Bible.” Where Kushner portrays Bible translation as walking through a minefield, Ruden seems to view it as playing in a garden. (There seem to be some temperamental differences between the two writers.)

Ruden is a translator of ancient languages who decided she wanted to learn to read and translate ancient Hebrew, a language where she had no expertise, because she came to a point where she learned that the Bible “was a book that profoundly mattered, more even than ancient pagan literature,” an area where she has some significant competences in translating.

She is self-deprecating about her ability to translate Hebrew even as the more she writes, you understand that she knows some things:

 “I can only read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek and give my impressions—all the while remembering that old stricture: ‘Using a language doesn’t make you an expert on it, any more than spending money makes you an economist.’”

For her, translating Hebrew to English is a problem to solve. She approaches it as an explorer, “Let me show you what I’ve found,” as opposed to Kushner’s stance as, perhaps, a guard: “You shouldn’t be in here.” And where Kushner bemoans the loss of the commentary aside the text of the Bible, Ruden demonstrates how a person, in English, might have a dialogue with and about the text. (Ruden does appreciate the way “Jews seem never to have lost the sense of interactivity that their most important texts invite, whereas Christians—don’t get me started.”)

The name of God is a subject in both books. But while Ruden routinely uses the name Yahweh to refer to the name of God, Kushner says, “No one I know from the Jewish community says Yahweh.” Interesting how point-of-view or, perhaps better, point of origin with its traditions, determines how you approach the task of translation.

One of her best chapters, I thought, dealt with the subject of Jonah, which she portrays as a comedy. This had never occurred to me. Ruden observes, “In the Book of Jonah, everybody seems more ready for a relationship with God than does the prophet himself . . .”

Ruden takes on both testaments. Her approach was effective. She took a passage from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament and placed them together in a sort of juxtaposition, to see how one might inform the other. She also did something that Kushner avoids—she provides her own translation of the passages she is referencing. For example, here is how she renders Psalm 23:

“1. The Lord is the one pasturing me:
I will never go without.
2. He will always invite me to stretch out in pastures full of green shoots;
He will not fail to guide me to a lace of rest, where the water is at peace.
3. He will bring my life back to me.
He will lead me along wagon-tracks of fair dealing—he would not be who he is if he did otherwise.
4. I tell you, though I have cause to walk through the valley of deadly darkness, there is nothing fearsome there, nothing for me to fear,
Because of you, you there with me. Your weapon and your crook—I see them, and I know I am safe.
5. You arrange a feast on a table where I sit, though my enemies loom on the other side.
You refresh my head by bathing it in oil; you will my cup again.
6. Certainly goodness and unfailing mercy will chase after me everywhere I go, as long as I exist.”

It’s worth noting that Ruden’s translation of this psalm also includes three footnotes to explain choices she made.

Among the thing I really enjoyed about Ruden’s book is the way her personality came through. She is funny and quirky (in the best possible sense).

I am grateful for two brilliant women who have opened my eyes to the challenges of Bible translation. Some lessons:
1. Bringing the language of the ancient world into English is no easy task. (It was also dangerous one early on.)
2. The translator inevitably influences the translation.
3. There is often more than one way to express something in English.
4. There is great value living in the company of commentators.

What I take away from the experience of reading these two books is that I need to be a little less uptight about whatever particular translation I have in front of my eyes and recognize that while there are parts of the Bible that may be perfectly clear, there are others where reasonable people will come to different conclusions as to its meaning. Some care is called for before and when we say, “The Bible says.” Unless (or, I suppose even if) I learn Hebrew, there is value in reading many translations. Both writers stress the importance of dialogue. The Bible is a book we talk about. What we say about scripture is in no way as important as the scripture itself, but perhaps talking about scripture is the best way to understand it. The need for and value in preaching is the ability to bring insight and understanding to explain what an ancient text means today.

A Month of Reflection | 1 | Growing Up Bernstein

by Glenn on November 1, 2018

It’s been a good year for reading. I heard someone (Neil Postman?) say that there isn’t much of a difference between someone who can’t read and someone who doesn’t read. I agree at least in terms of the effect. Perhaps the person who can’t read would like to and would actually read if they had the ability, whereas the person who doesn’t read has chosen to make other things a priority. I think the term for the latter person is “functionally illiterate.” That’s no good. Read the rest of this entry »

You lose won, then you win one | Stanford Women’s Volleyball vs. Oregon (10.21.2018)

by Glenn on October 31, 2018

The Stanford Women’s Volleyball team is having a great season. If they continue on the path they are, they should have a great post-season. Four of the starting freshmen from the 2016 National Championship team (Jenna Gray, Kathryn Plummer, Audriana Fitzmorris, and Morgan Hentz) are now juniors and continue as starters for this 2018 team. The team seems focused on getting back to the Championship. Last year, they came close, but there was a disappointing loss in the semi-finals to Florida. Read the rest of this entry »

Eventually … Resurgam | Eric Ball | “I shall rise again”

by Glenn on October 19, 2018

I think this is true: the music we experience in childhood is music we identify with in adulthood. If your parents listened to jazz, you probably like jazz. If your parents played rock, you listen to rock. I’m not saying there is an exact correlation, that we only like the music of our childhood, but as adults we often have an affinity for certain kinds of music because of our early experiences with it.

Among the great things for me growing up in The Salvation Army was the brass band music that was part of it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Story of Esther

by Glenn on September 30, 2018

I know someone who was given the assignment to read through the Bible and summarize each chapter. I decided this would be a great project to co-opt to increase my own understanding in a disciplined way. So far, I’ve completed the Old Testament. My plan is to type up my notes and do some reflecting on what I’ve learned. When the lectionary for the Book of Common Prayer recently took me to the book of Esther, I thought this would be a good place to start—a shorter book, easier to get my arms around*.

For the book of Esther, I had already written a sentence to summarize each chapter. As I re-read, I wrote a haiku to explain each chapter.

Chapter 1

Vashti won’t obey
could be trendy for women
so she is deposed

Queen Vashti refuses to model for the guests of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) so she is banned from the king’s presence as a lesson to all women on how to behave.

Chapter 2

Miss Persia pageant
to find Xerxes a new queen
Esther, a Jew, wins

Cousin Mordecai
reports a conspiracy
to kill King Xerxes

A beauty camp for virgins is created to find Vashti’s replacement. Esther, who keeps her Jewish identity secret, is the king’s favorite, becomes queen, and reports a plot on the king’s life overheard by her cousin, Mordecai. (Esther is an orphan raised by her cousin, Mordecai.)

Chapter 3

Haman convinces
King Xerxes to kill all Jews
13th of Adar

Haman is promoted to chief official. When Mordecai, a Jew, won’t bow, Haman decides to kill all the Jews and receives the king’s permission to do so.

Chapter 4

Mordecai fasts, asks
Esther to approach the king
“such a time as this”

As the Jews mourn, Mordecai puts on sackcloth and ashes and asks Esther to help. Esther agrees to talk to the king and asks the Jews to fast.

Chapter 5

Esther accepted
prepares banquets for the king
and Haman who plots

Esther is granted a wish by the king. She has a banquet for the king and Haman and invites them to another banquet. Haman creates a gallows for Mordecai.

Chapter 6

Xerxes’ sleepless night
brings Mordecai to mind
Haman unaware

The king is reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty and, without telling him why, asks Haman how to honor someone. Haman assumes it’s he who is to be honored and inadvertently elevates Mordecai.

Chapter 7

Esther’s prayer answered
Xerxes has Haman impaled
stunning reversal

Esther asks for the life of her people. In a stunning reversal, Haman is executed on the gallows he had built.

Chapter 8

one more petition
Mordecai elevated
Jewish people saved

The king empowers Esther to revoke the order to kill the Jews and there is great rejoicing.

Chapter 9
turned tables revenge
Jews strike down their enemies
Haman’s sons impaled

the feast of Purim
established to remember
sorrow into joy

A second reversal: Those who intended to kill the Jews are killed by the Jews. Haman’s sons are executed.

10
Mordecai the Jew
second in rank to Xerxes
spoke up for all Jews

The 14th–15th of Adar is a holiday. Pur = “lots”. Festival of Purim.

*   *   *

Without having done really any formal study of the book of Esther, here are some first thoughts:

—This is an intriguing, compelling story. It’s a page-turner. Things are a matter of life and death. Actions have consequences.

—It’s also a disturbing story. There are aspects that are quite uncomfortable for me to think about: Life is cheap; racism is rampant; women don’t have it so good.

—In addition to the dark moments, there are some funny ones, too.

—Isn’t it a little odd that in this book of the Bible there is no mention of God?

—Interesting to think of this story in the context of the larger story of God’s purposes. In a way, this is a story of revenge: “What you intended for evil, we gave right back to you.

*   *   *

The story opens with a crisis in the court of King Xerxes (Ahasuerus in the ESV). Xerxes had a large kingdom (127 provinces) and decides to throw a giant party to show off “the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty.” As a kind of finale to these extended festivities, Xerxes decides to have a seven-day-long banquet complete with open bar and no limits (obviously not worried about drinking and driving).

At the end of seven days, Xerxes decides a great thing would be to have his attractive wife, Queen Vashti, come in “wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.” There is something more than a little creepy about this, in what I think we can agree today is a misogynistic command. Perhaps Vashti thought so, too, as she refuses to do it.

This is a problem. When the king commands, you obey. It doesn’t really matter who you are. The king doesn’t know what to do, so he decides to consult “experts in matters of law and justice . . . wise men who understood the times.” These guys conclude that Vashti’s behavior is a big problem on two levels. One is the basic disobedience to the king. More importantly, is what happens when other women around the kingdom get word that Vashti didn’t obey her husband? What if they take her lead and don’t obey their husbands? Their conclusion: “There will be no end of disrespect and discord.” And so a law is created “which cannot be repealed” deposing Vashti who can never again enter the king’s presence. This law is circulated around the kingdom just to make it clear to everyone in the kingdom (mostly the women) who’s in charge around here (the men).

Eventually Xerxes calms down and his personal aids decide it’s time to have a Miss Persia contest to find a replacement for Vashti. If what was asked of Vashti was a little creepy, this contest is on another level entirely. A search is made throughout the kingdom “for beautiful young virgins for the king.” They are to be given beauty treatments and the one who “pleases” the king will get to be the new queen.

One of the young women found was a Jewish girl named Hadassah (also known as Esther). She was an orphan raised by her cousin Mordecai. The text says she “had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” But the text suggests she was not just beautiful, but savvy as well. Esther and these other women are brought to the palace and placed “under the care of Hegai.” Esther, for reasons not explained, “pleased” Hegai who “provided her with her beauty treatments and special food.” She was also “moved … into the best place in the harem.”

By a prior agreement with her adoptive guardian, Mordecai, Esther doesn’t tell anyone she is Jewish. For twelve months each girl is given beauty treatments and then “she would go to the king,” which I assume is euphemistic for a sexual encounter. (The Miss Persia contest feels a lot like a prostitution ring for one client, King Xerxes, with the proviso that the winner gets to become king. No explanation what happens to the runners up.) The end result is that Esther won the king’s favor, was named Queen, and a big banquet was held in her honor.

Meanwhile, Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, has been hanging around the king’s gates to stay in touch with Esther. He overhears a plot by two of the king’s officers to assassinate King Xerxes. He tells Esther who reports it to the king. An investigation ensues and when the truth is discovered the two men “were impaled on poles.” Best not to think about that too much.

The story shifts. King Xerxes decides for unknown reasons to honor Naman, one of his officials. He is elevated above everyone else and, by command of the king, everyone else in the kingdom has to bow down to him. Mordecai refuses. And when people ask him about it, it comes out that he is a Jew. The text says Haman was “enraged” and decides that he wants to figure out a way to destroy not just Mordecai, but all of the Jews in the kingdom. A lot was cast and a date was determined for this annihilation—in the twelfth month, Adar.

Haman goes to King Xerxes with his complaint:

“There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8)

And then Haman throws in a bribe. If Xerxes will issue a decree to destroy the Jews, Haman will put ten thousand talents into the royal treasury. This is a staggering sum. The NIV note says this is 375 tons, which my math says is an eye-watering $176,640,000 (375 tons x 2,000 pounds per ton x 16 ounces per pound x $14.72).

The king agrees but says Haman can keep his money. He gives Haman his signet ring, which gives him the power to create laws. Notices are created which are sent around the kingdom: On the 13th day of the 12th month (Adar), all the Jews are to be killed. This is horrifying, to say the least, especially with our knowledge of the Holocaust of the last century.

Mordecai goes into mourning. He “tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.” And not just Mordecai. As Jews around the kingdom hear about this decree announcing their demise, each engage in similar practices. They have a death sentence and there’s seemingly nothing that can be done.

Esther, living inside the palace apparently doesn’t know anything about this decree. When she hears that Mordecai is “in great distress” she sends him clothes, but he refuses to take them.

Finally, Esther sends Hathak, one of the king’s eunuchs (now there’s a job), out to ask Mordecai what’s going on. Mordecai explains the situation and passes on the message that Esther should go see the king. Esther explains that this may not go well for her. Anyone who approaches the king without being summoned runs into a law that says you will be “put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives.” Esther further explains that it had been thirty days since she had been in the king’s presence. It feels risky.

Mordecai responds to her:

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13–14)

Esther replies:

“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)

After three days, Esther went in to see King Xerxes. When he saw her, he extended his scepter, sparing her life. Phew. But it went better than mere acceptance. Xerxes then asked her what she wanted and because she pleased him so much said he was willing to give her up to half of his kingdom. (I’d call this hyperbole, but he will repeat this statement.) Esther simply asks that the king and Haman come to a banquet she had prepared. At the banquet, Xerxes asks Esther again to tell him what she wants. She says that if he and Haman come to a banquet the next day, she will tell him.

A couple of things happen now that make things very interesting. First, Haman goes home bragging that he is so favored in the kingdom that the Queen wanted he alone to attend these banquets with the king. But he can’t enjoy his status because he can’t get “that Jew Mordecai” out of his mind. Haman’s wife has a great idea to set up a 75-foot tall pole to impale Mordecai on. That made Haman feel better.

Meanwhile, back in the palace, the king can’t sleep and asks that the records of his reign be read aloud to him. (Is that so he will go back to sleep? Or is this one of those tasks he engages in on sleepless nights? Answer unknown.) In those records is the story of how Mordecai had once prevented his assassination. Xerxes asked what had been to honor Mordecai. When the answer came back, “Nothing,” Xerxes decides to call in his highest official Haman to figure out what should be done.

Coincidentally, Haman is already coming to the king with the idea of asking permission to impale Mordecai. But before Haman can ask about Mordecai, Xerxes asks Haman, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor.” It’s too soon to talk about “the moral of the story,” but I think we can at least observe at this point that’s it’s bad to assume. In the case of Haman, bad is going to mean deadly. Haman assumes, incorrectly, that when the king is wondering how he can honor someone, that he is referring to him, so he decides he better not hold back—if the king really wants to honor him, then here are some things he could do:

—let him wear a robe the king has worn once
—let him ride a horse the king has ridden once
—let the horse have a royal crest on its head
—let the man with the robe on the horse with the crest be led through the streets with somone proclaiming, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”

The next moment is hilarious. The king says, “That’s great. Go and grab Mordecai, the Jew, and do this for him.” It’s not recorded in the Bible, but I can imagine Haman saying, “Wait. What?” And so Haman leads Mordecai through the streets of the city shouting, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!”

Haman later goes home in a panic. He tells his wife, friends, and advisers what has happened. Haman’s wife, Zeresh, states the obvious that since Mordecai is Jewish, he can’t oppose him. Not recorded in the text, but somehow I think Mordecai at least thought, if not said aloud, “That much I know.” Before they can get any plan together, Haman is taken by the king’s eunuchs to the banquet Esther has arranged.

The king reminds Esther that she can ask for up to half of the kingdom. She asks that her people be spared. She says that she and her people are going to be “killed and annihilated.” Xerxes, apparently unable to put two and two together demands to know who has “dared to do such a thing.”

Esther holds nothing back: “This vile Haman.”

The king in a rage leaves the room. The second funniest moment comes next as Haman, realizing that he is in a world of hurt, goes to Esther to beg for his life. The king returns to the room and sees Haman with Esther and concludes that Haman is trying to molest her.

In a stunning reversal of near ultimate proportions, Haman was impaled “on the pole that he had set up for Mordecai.” When Xerxes calmed down, he gave Esther Haman’s estate. Esther approached the king again, and after the scepter was for a second time extend to her, now pleaded, with tears, for Xerxes to save her people. She asked that an order be sent out to countermand the one calling for the death of the Jews. Mordecai was also promoted to second-in-command in the kingdom and given the king’s signet ring.

On the 13th of Adar, instead of death for the Jews, the Jews attacked their enemies. In the city of Susa, 500 men were killed along with Haman’s 10 sons, who were also impaled on poles. Around the kingdom, the Jews killed 75,000 of their enemies, though they didn’t take any of their property.

The Festival of Purim was establish “as a day of and feasting” to celebrate “when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration.”

 

 

*Easier as compared to some other books of the Hebrew Scriptures, but not in any way easy. The Bible is an incredibly complicated book.

“Where Were You?” at Imago Dei Community, Portland

by Glenn on September 27, 2018

This summer (18 July 2018) we visited Imago Dei Community here in Portland. I feel lucky that we happened to be in the service that particular Sunday because the message was particularly good. It was titled, “Where Were You?” from a series called Questions God Asks Us. It was a meditation on the book of Job. “Where Were You?” is the question God asks Job near the end of the story. The speaker was Michelle Jones, the Associate Pastor for Spiritual Formation. Read the rest of this entry »