Sep 29 2017

Recently in Russia: four links

la casa

Recently in Russia: four links

I guess (readingwise) we’re going to Russia this weekend. Here are four interesting reads today:

 


Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)

III. CONVEX

So the literal thesis of the book is Coates (who is six years older than me) warning his 15-year-old son to cherish his physical body. But who else does Coates address in his book besides his son and self-conscious? As a child of the 1990s I don’t feel he was addressing someone like me who:

  • Recalls in 1991 riding in the van with my family past Luby’s in Killeen the day of the massacre heading to the nearby mall to buy my brother a birthday present;
  • grew up in central Texas and one Saturday afternoon in 1993 turned on the TV to learn about the first shots fired in what became known as the Waco disaster at Mount Carmel;
  • heard and saw in 1995 the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing as a response to Waco;
  • amid all of these were things heard and read various school-shootings from the 90s, particularly the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting at Craighead County, Arkansas and the 1998 Thurston High School shooting at Springfield, Oregon so that:
  • when, by the time I was 15 and one day heard on television in its “media language” [1] about the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, such language and the incidents they described had become routine, jejune, unremarkable.

All of these episodes of violence were committed by Americans who were not labeled black by our country’s media, and I mention this only to show that someone from a very different background than Mr. Coates can grow up well-aware of irrational white violence. Coates also mentions an episode where, as a kid he had a pistol pointed at him by another kid, while I had a rifle pointed at me by a peer when I was college-age––an experience that still stings when recalled.

As a reader I cannot blame a writer older or younger than me for not being a part of my own generation, so when I point out that Coates mentions shootings of the innocent by police to his son,[2] but nothing of school shootings, I cannot fault him for the omission. But out of my own curiosity, I seek to understand his silence, for teaching occurs only in silence.[3] I am curious because this particular silence seems a little strange when in the twenty-first century U.S., a classmate can destroy her peer’s body just as quickly as a cop.

But perhaps I’m being too specific. Perhaps I need to zoom out and inspect the broader picture. Here I find Coates’ overall critique is against systems, bureaucracies, and institutions, not individuals, such as the person who threatened him with a firearm.[4] In this sense he reminds me of Václav Havel.[5] Yet a school shooting is a specific kind of shooting, and all shootings (whether by cops or by classmates) damage human flesh, which is the criterion Coates abides by to warn his son. So maybe it doesn’t matter much that he doesn’t mention school shootings.

And Coates does (quite rightly) ridicule grade schools for their institutionalizing.[6] This is where my reading and dreaming have led me to compare him to Thoreau:

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.[7]

(go back to PART II of III)

(go back to PART I of III)

NOTES

[1] Coates: “We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything,” (Between the World and Me 12).

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me 9.

[3] Quoting Gershom Scholem: “Teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence…. Where teaching breaks silence, its relation to life becomes dialectical. The outward history of teaching is based upon this fact.” (Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006) at 208–09.)

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me 18, 78.

[5] As Havel puts it: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.” (“Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § IV.)

Compare also some passages from Don Delillo’s novel Libra. NY: Viking. 1988:

I’ll tell you what it means, these orbiting sensors that can hear us in our beds. It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems [in a novel], the less conviction in people [who read it]. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant…. (p. 77) The Agency is always willing to consider a man in a new light. This is the nature of the business. There are shadows, there are new lights. The deeper the ambiguity, the more we believe, the more we trust, the more we band together. (p. 259)

[6] Coates, Between the World and Me 34.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, “I. On Economy.”


May 27 2017

A Meditation on Tree Trimmings

A Meditation on Tree Trimmings

The other day I was driving to a friend’s home, and, while I was in line at a stop sign I saw a flat-bed trailer and two teenage girls and an older man, probably their father, dragging cut limbs of brush and tree trimmings and tossing them onto the trailer.

Such a mundane scene would not have stayed in my memory except that I noticed the girls were not wearing any gloves, which I prefer to wear when I do that kind of work, but perhaps the things cut down contained no thorns, perhaps the bark and the rest of the biomatter was smooth and could be handled in a carefree way.

Amid getting carried away in these carefree thoughts on tree trimmings, the ghost of Jonathan Swift (who has been haunting me since my return from Ireland, and, in particular my strolling through Swift’s old stomping grounds in Trim, County Meath) urged me to meditate on the brush piled on the trailer in Austin, Texas–and I tried to do what the ghost told me, but I felt inept.

But then I remembered that the best way to think about something is to try and forget about it. So I tried that, and after a while I began to realize: what are my bookshelves at home but a collection of trees dismembered and re-glued together into a Frankenstein-forest?–one that furnishes me with knowledge and escape, wisdom and entertainment, answers as well as questions?

No words to describe this perfect place #Ireland #travel #meath #castle

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NOTES

The eighteenth century #books #Gulliver #london

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Surely some this was inspired by the ghost of Swift, particularly his idea in The Battle of the Books (1697) that all libraries are cemeteries, and the ingenuity of his A Meditation upon a Broom-Stick (1701).


May 26 2017

Michael Morton: a Falsely-Accused Prisoner, Turned-Reader, Turned-Writer

Michael Morton: a Falsely-Accused Prisoner, Turned-Reader, Turned-Writer

I’ve been wanting to read Michael Morton’s memoir of being falsely-accused of the murder of his wife, how the legal system works in Williamson County, Texas, and how he found the ability to forgive his accusers.

There will be plenty to ponder, compare, and write about concerning this terrific book. But for now I will only note that a great surprise was discovering that Micheal Morton is a great writer; and even more surprisingly, an enthusiastic reader:

We devoured everything from the classics to Stephen King, and we passed each ripped and dog-eared copy from cellblock to cellblock, bunk to bunk. As quickly as I read one, I would be handed another. We would wave each other on to or off of a planned selection. We critiqued each author’s work with the clarity and strength of opinion that could come only from never having written a book ourselves.

Reading was the only means of escape available to us. With a book, we could climb over the walls, walk on the beach, meet new friends, and mourn the loss of someone we felt we had gotten to know. We got books from the library, ordered them through friends or family, and eagerly anticipated mail deliveries with book-shaped boxes. We were intellectually starving, and each new read was a feast….[1]

Stacked in my cell, there were always books and authors, characters and adventures—real or imagined—waiting to sustain me intellectually and emotionally, to give me a place to play out my anger, nurture my hope, and indulge my ache for escape. As soon as one book ended, another began. Sometimes, I read two at a time, jumping back and forth from one universe to another. It was the only freedom I had….[2]

Books like The Odyssey and authors like Cormac McCarthy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminded me that even the longest journey has a finish line, that someday I would close the book on this chapter of my life. Reading reminded me that finding justice in the end was possible…. [3]

Inside, I’d been reading so much I felt like I was doing time with Mark Twain, sharing a cell with John Steinbeck, and sitting in the dayroom with Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving. Occasionally Tom Robbins would pop in. Stephen King was always lurking around a dark corner, motioning for me to join him someplace terrifying. They had all become my friends—men I could count on to keep me distracted at night and entertained in the lonely hours when I couldn’t find anyone to talk with who knew how to read. [4]

NOTES

[1] Morton, Michael. Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace. NY: Simon & Schuster. 2014.  pp. 127–28.

[2] Morton, Getting Life 171.

[3] Morton, Getting Life 172.

[4] Morton, Getting Life 131.


May 17 2017

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Part I: Confessions

I have a confession to make: I am no priest, but I receive confessions from others.

I hear confessions from Dale Dudley (a socially liberal, economically conservative radio talk show host in Austin who broadcasts over 30 hours a week on KLBJ fm and KLBJ am). I also daily read confessions from Rod Dreher (a socially conservative, economically liberal (?) writer from Baton Rouge who blogs at least 10 posts a week at The American Conservative).

Like me, they are Southern white men. Unlike me, Dudley is a victim of sexual abuse and religious shame who grew up in east Texas; Dreher is a victim of a bureaucratic resistance to the sexual abuse scandal of the late twentieth-century Catholic Church and grew up in southern Louisiana. But they talk/write about every anxiety/excitement/crisis/joy in their lives on a daily basis. They cannot help but confess.

Although, I recently pretended to be a priest at a Renaissance festival, I generally hate the fake. I don’t want to be an actual priest. I don’t want to be a monk. I want to drink the beer, not brew it as a friar might.

Name of heroes.

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Me pretending to be a priest/monk

It seems like there’s something sick about wanting to pretend to be a priest but not wanting to be an actual one. Perhaps it’s similar to Rod Dreher’s latest book The Benedict Option (2017) whereby he advocates establishing not “literal” Benedictine monasteries but analogic ones. Then what’s the difference between pretend and analogy when both actions strive to not be too literal? On this point, I feel perplexed.

Similarly, I take pretty pictures in cemeteries but I don’t pray for the dead. But also I don’t deny acknowledging the majority in the graveyard while remembering a few outliers who happen to catch my eye. Some ask only to be remembered, and not prayed for:

A unique specimen #cemetery #Dublin #catholic

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Read the Tale of Edward Duffy #Dublin #Ireland

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Part II: Citations

The nineteenth chapter of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728–1774) Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is entitled: “The description of a person discontented with the present government, and apprehensive of the loss of our liberties,” and involves a butler pretending to be the master of the house who wants to argue with his guests about politics. This chapter has the wonderful phrase “apprehensions of my own absurdity,” which may aptly describe my anxieties about pretending to be a priest.

250 years after Goldsmith, George Costanza just wanted to pretend to be an architect:

Aristotle points out in the fourth chapter of the Poetics, humans are imitative creatures, but Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) (who is almost always right) says: “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”

After readings some bits by Alasdair MacIntyre, I wonder: is such pretending part of the lost art and effectiveness of argument? Do we pretend because we can no longer argue with anyone about anything? Or perhaps we have lost only affirmative arguments; because negative arguments still hold strong. Modern moral philosophy, according to MacIntyre, defines itself for what it is not, not for anything it might be.[1]

Is my pretending to be a priest an example of seeking the sacred?––a search for some lost community as mentioned in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age? Do I seek to understand the abstract concept of “community” because I feel like most tangible examples of it have been lost? Or is it something along the lines of what Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs wrote the other day about how part of being in a world that doesn’t feel human is to pretend to be human—and what is more human than being religious?

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

NOTES

[1] MacIntyre Alasdair. “Why is the Search for the Foundations of Ethics So Frustrating?” The Hastings Center Report. Vol. 9. No. 4 (August 1978.) 16–22 at 17.


Apr 27 2017

Farm Noises (a poetic attempt)

Farm Noises

Some chickens scratch, and

The pebbles mumble,

Afore a rumble

Of Santa Fe train.

 

The highway hisses

Beyond the horizon,

Telling me, tempting me

To ignore this one

Moment teetering

Between night and day.

 

Barnyard ragamuffins #chickens #guineas

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Mar 30 2017

A Eulogy to Bookclubs (in the form of Confession & Resolution)

A Eulogy to Bookclubs (in the form of Confession & Resolution)

The few bookclubs I’ve been in have given me the opportunity to network and befriend (at a distance) a few people–but as goes the act of reading (whether for fiction or non) these overall experiences have left me with a bad taste in my mouth– they’ve helped me discover that I don’t read the way other people read, and I’m somehow now resentful to the idea of bookclubs (but not their members) because I feel like an outsider.

I’ve always admitted to being a dilettante, a Tolkien taster,[1] and not a professor, not an expert in anything I’ve ever read or reread.

I have a poor memory, so I take notes when I read, and I reread those notes, so that I can attempt to grasp some inking of the author’s intention upon the page. Then I reread my notes and try to connect them to things previously read (and those notes previously taken).

And I’ve found many good points from a few good people in previous bookclubs and have been exposed to many (not just several) life-changing works I never would’ve discovered on my own.

And yet I don’t miss going to bookclub, though I sometimes miss meeting and seeing some of the people–I now must come up with some way of reminding myself that whenever I take notes on something I’m reading (and I tend to take notes on the things in a book that make me excited) that I must additionally attempt to remember that I am an oddball when it comes to the act of reading–and I must remember that overbearing, out-of-place feeling so oft felt when attending bookclub–a feeling that on reflection later reveals all the things I overlooked in the books I thought I had already read.

NOTES

[1] As Tolkien puts it:

I have, in this peculiar sense, studied (‘tasted’ would be better) other languages since. Of all save one among them [Welsh?] the most overwhelming pleasure was provided by Finnish, and I have never quite got over it.

“English and Welsh – the O’Donnell Lecture – Oxford 21 October 1955” The Monsters and Critics: and other Essays. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. NY: Harper Collins. 1983. 2006. p. 192.

 

 


Apr 26 2016

Adventure Italia: Day 1 of 9

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(porticos of Bologna in the wee morning hours)

After leaving Austin, Texas at 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday, we arrived in Bologna, Italy around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Our host Cosimo was waiting to pick us up. He lives about ten minutes from the airport, so after a short drive we were at his apartment. There we met his girlfriend Chiara and had some late afternoon snacks (almonds and spicy chip-cracker things) along with coffee.

We went out later that night, probably around 8:00 or 9:00, to meet some of Cosimo’s friends: Tosco “The Tuscan” and Giovanni, “the Yugoslavian,” who isn’t really Yugoslavian. We met them at a café on the corner of Via del Partello and Via Paradiso, just across from the Tribunale per i minorenni di Bologna (the juvenile court of Bologna). The entire length of the street of Via del Partello appeared to be located in a bar district with lots of foot traffic. The cafe served pizza and craft beer.

Tosco and Giovanni were not impressed by either the beer or the pizza. And soon enough I spilled the first half of my second beer on the last slices of pizza; so we finished our grub and moved on.

Giovanni said something like: “Texas, eh? Tony Lama boots, right?” and I replied with something like: “Yeah, those are the Gucci of cowboy boots.”

We made our way down Via del Partello for a few blocks until its intersection with Via San Rocco. Here we entered a techno music club–combination record store called Quattro Quarti (Four-by-Four).

I tried ordering a beer at the club, but it was cash only and I had yet to exchange any dollars for euros. So I thanked the bartender but declined the drink, then, about five minutes later, the bartender enters the dance floor (where I was standing, not dancing), hands me a free beer. Cosimo says: “It’s probably because you’re a tourist.”

Later at that same club we were all given a glass of champagne by one of a group of folks celebrating someone’s birthday. We were also offered a spliff outside the club, and later walking home Cosimo noted that, in terms of the crowd and enthusiasm at club Quattro Quarti, tonight was exceptionally festive.

We got home around two or three in the morning, and began a pattern of ending each evening (or morning) in Italy with a cup of tea.

IMAG0017

(club Quattro Quarti)

IMAG0016

(Vinyl from Quattro QuartiI don’t remember a suicide scene in “Rocky”)

 (Read “Adventure Italia: Day 2 of 9″ here)


Oct 21 2015

Texas Hawks & Greek Omens

hawk02-thumb

That’s a broad-winged hawk, making a pit stop here at the University of Texas at Austin, probably before heading to Mexico for the winter.

In literature, particularly the Hellenic variety, bird-is-the-word, that is,  any unusual sighting or behavior of a feathered figure, was taken to be an omen for something:

[230] Then with an angry glance from beneath his brows spake to him Hector of the flashing helm: “Polydamas, this that thou sayest is no longer to my pleasure; yea, thou knowest how to devise better words than these. But if thou verily speakest thus in earnest, then of a surety have the gods themselves destroyed thy wits, [235] seeing thou biddest me forget the counsels of loud-thundering Zeus, that himself promised me and bowed his head thereto. But thou biddest us be obedient to birds long of wing, that I regard not, nor take thought thereof, whether they fare to the right, toward the Dawn and the sun, [240] or to the left toward the murky darkness. nay, for us, let us be obedient to the counsel of great Zeus, that is king over all mortals and immortals. One omen is best, to fight for one’s country. Wherefore dost thou fear war and battle? [245] For if the rest of us be slain one and all at the ships of the Argives, yet is there no fear that thou shouldest perish,—for thy heart is—not staunch in fight nor warlike.

(Homer, Iliad, (XII, 230–45) in The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924. )

Here, Hektor’s rebuke against the interpretation of the eagle-serpent omen basically seems to say, “I have what God/Zeus told me—and because I already have it, signs and omens and interpretations thereof mean nothing.”

hawk01-thumb

The Odyssey is bookend with bird omens, beginning with Book II:

Without atonement then should ye perish within my halls.” So spoke Telemachus, and in answer Zeus, whose voice is borne afar,1 sent forth two eagles, flying from on high, from a mountain peak. For a time they flew swift as the blasts of the wind side by side with wings outspread; [150] but when they reached the middle of the many-voiced assembly, then they wheeled about, flapping their wings rapidly, and down on the heads of all they looked, and death was in their glare. Then they tore with their talons one another’s cheeks and necks on either side, and darted away to the right across the houses and the city of the men. [155] But they were seized with wonder at the birds when their eyes beheld them, and pondered in their hearts on what was to come to pass. Then among them spoke the old lord Halitherses, son of Mastor, for he surpassed all men of his day in knowledge of birds and in uttering words of fate. [160] He with good intent addressed their assembly, and spoke among them: “Hearken now to me, men of Ithaca, to the word that I shall say; and to the wooers especially do I declare and announce these things, since on them a great woe is rolling. For Odysseus shall not long be away from his friends, but even now, methinks, [165] he is near, and is sowing death and fate for these men, one and all. Aye, and to many others of us also who dwell in clear-seen Ithaca will he be a bane. But long ere that let us take thought how we may make an end of this—or rather let them of themselves make an end, for this is straightway the better course for them. [170] Not as one untried do I prophesy, but with sure knowledge. For unto Odysseus I declare that all things are fulfilled even as I told him, when the Argives embarked for Ilios and with them went Odysseus of many wiles. I declared that after suffering many ills and losing all his comrades he would come home in the twentieth year [175] unknown to all; and lo, all this is now being brought to pass.” (Homer, Odyssey, II, 150-75) The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.)

Then again at Book XX:

[240] Thus they spoke to one another, but the wooers meanwhile were plotting death and fate for Telemachus; howbeit there came to them a bird on their left, an eagle of lofty flight, clutching a timid dove. Then Amphinomus spoke in their assembly, and said: [245] “Friends, this plan of ours will not run to our liking, even the slaying of Telemachus; nay, let us bethink us of the feast.” (Homer, Odyssey, XX, 240-45)

hawk03-thumb

Centuries later, Plutarch imparts:

But when they set out to establish their city, a dispute at once arose concerning the site. Romulus, accordingly, built Roma Quadrata (which means square),and wished to have the city on that site; but Remus laid out a strong precinct on the Aventine hill, which was named from him Remonium, but now is called Rignarium.

Agreeing to settle their quarrel by the flight of birds of omen,1 and taking their seats on the ground apart from one another, six vultures, they say, were seen by Remus, and twice that number by Romulus. Some, however, say that whereas Remus truly saw his six, Romulus lied about his twelve, but that when Remus came to him, then he did see the twelve. Hence it is that at the present time also the Romans chiefly regard vultures when they take auguries from the flight of birds.

Herodorus Ponticus relates that Hercules also was glad to see a vulture present itself when he was upon an exploit. For it is the least harmful of all creatures, injures no grain, fruit-tree, or cattle, and lives on carrion. But it does not kill or maltreat anything that has life, and as for birds, it will not touch them even when they are dead, since they are of its own species. But eagles, owls, and hawks smite their own kind when alive, and kill them. And yet, in the words of Aeschylus:—1

How shall a bird that preys on fellow bird be clean?

Besides, other birds are, so to speak, always in our eyes, and let themselves be seen continually; but the vulture is a rare sight, and it is not easy to come upon a vulture’s young, nay, some men have been led into a strange suspicion that the birds come from some other and foreign land to visit us here, so rare and intermittent is their appearance, which soothsayers think should be true of what does not present itself naturally, nor spontaneously, but by a divine sending (Plutarch a.k.a Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, Parallel Lives – Volume I. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb’s: Harvard UP. 1928. 1982. “Romulus,” ix, 3–7, pp. 115–17)

hawk02


Jul 31 2015

The Benedict Option: Cheerleading from the Sideline

bookbread typewriter

Over at The American Conservative Rod Dreher, who has previously written how the upcoming generations have lost faith and trust in all institutions, has now written a post showing that some inside the clergy and clerisy can properly diagnose their own symptoms, so perhaps the Benedict Option is the proper remedy for cleaning house.

As part of the under-40 crowd, I confess to being completely weary of all bureaucracy, a weariness I suspect comes from being institutionalized in childhood by small town Texas teachers, preachers, and coaches.

The feeling of graduating university made me understand the lines from the old time hymn “like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away”—it was (and remains) particularly refreshing to be able to read books of one’s own choosing—at one’s own pace––rather than being assigned a text on the whims of a bureaucrat and having to rush through it.

Now as an adult (or at least one in disguise) I choose to opt out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and am attempting to opt in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while, at the same time, attempting to resist the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions (schools, religions, hospitals, sports, national media).

The BenOp may not be for me, but from the sidelines I’m willing to cheer for anything that actively deconstructs any kind of bureaucracy in its resistance to that bureaucracy.