Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wise Bugs and the Way to Go

I got my contributor's copes for the February 2011 issue of Cricket Magazine, in which I have four poems, adaptations from the Tao Te Ching.

I knew it would be thrilling to be in Cricket, a magazine I loved as a child.

I foresaw that it would be beautifully typeset and illustrated.

But what I was not prepared for -- and which completely blew me away -- was Cricket, Ladybug, Sluggo, George, and Muffin talking about my poems in the margins!!

If you did not get Cricket as a kid, it may be impossible to explain to you why this caused my heart to stop. There is something about the way that feisty, funny community of marginal characters weaves the content of the magazine together in a way which situates the stories they make fun of, expound upon, footnote, and struggle to understand, in a whole different space than the rest of literature.

I mean, I knew I was in Cricket, and that it was a cool magazine and a nice publication credit and all that sensible adult stuff. What I didn't realize is that I was where Cricket and Ladybug are.

I have written myself into their universe.

This "Tao Te Ching for kids" thing has been a secret project of mine for the last five years or so.

This is how it started: five or six years ago, I read Ursula K. Le Guin's beautiful rendition of the Tao Te Ching. (A "rendition" is when, for instance, you don't actually read ancient Chinese -- so you're not exactly "translating", but instead write poems based on previous translations, and on philological explanations of the individual characters.) I was so delighted with it that I started reading excerpts of it to my kids.

"Daddy," Aviva said, sternly. "I would probably like this... if it were translated into kid language."

So translate it I did. I got, and pored over, a bunch of additional English translations of the Tao Te Ching (including the Mair, Mitchell, and Henricks versions, and some others, including several online versions), and translated all eighty-one poems into Kid Language, replacing spring festivals with birthday parties, uncut wood and raw silk with blank paper and clay right out of the jar, and advice on ruling ancient China with (identical) advice on surviving elementary school.

This resulted in a book called "The Way to Go".

After Aviva and Noah were satisfied with it, I ran it through some critiquers and showed it to a few agents and editors; folks liked it, but the impression I got was that it did not lend itself to easy mainstream publication. There's not really an existing channel for long books of translated, non-narrative, philosophical poetry for middle graders, and I was resistant to the idea of adding characters and a plot (I didn't think Lao Tse would approve).

I really wanted it to be Lao Tse's work, itself, made wholly accessible to kids, not merely a modern kids' book which was a homage to the Tao Te Ching. (You can see where that's kind of a crazy, intrinsically impossible, outsider-art kind of an ambition...)

What this means, I think, is that the NYC publishing industry is probably not the right delivery mechanism for the project; I'd need to find a small press willing to do something quirky, or serialize it in a new agey lifestyle magazine, or figure out a way to turn it into an online project, or a graphic novel, or interpretive dance street theater, or something. At a minimum, if nothing else seems like it's going to happen, I should just blog the poems.

Then, a couple years back, I sold four of the poems to Cricket. That put the project of the book as a whole on ice, because they had first rights, and issues take a while to come out. So I haven't been thinking about "The Way to Go" for awhile.

But now the issue is (thrillingly -- hello everybuggy!) about to come out. What do you think I should do with the rest of The Way to Go?

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

One Hundred and One Lullabies

You may recall from an earlier entry that we sing a lot of lullabies in our house. And not just traditional, rock-a-bye-baby lullabies: pretty much anything that can be sung a capella and downtempo will do. Sometimes songs are rejected as too nightmare-inducing, but then again, sometimes songs that you would think would be nightmare-inducing are apparently not: Noah has been regularly requesting Jonathan Coulton's "Re: Your Brains" lately.

In a discussion about musical eras, we realized that our lullaby repertoire has a very uneven distribution. There are is a small smattering of the occasional Elizabethan (eg Greensleeves), medieval Jewish, or traditional folk tunes (such as the Guggisberglied). Then there are a few songs from the mid-nineteenth century (Amazing Grace, John Brown's Body, etc) and a few late Victorian (Daisy Bell). Then there is a gap until the twenties and thirties, when we have a spate of Cole Porter and jazz standards.

Then it's pretty empty again until the sixties, and then there's a massive spike in the sixties and seventies, which form the bulk of the repertoire (pretty evenly distributed between Motown, folk rock, and British Invasion). Then frequency dwindles steadily throughout the eighties, nineties, and oughts, with us being rather hard pressed to find much from 2009 and 2010. Which partly shows you how much general contemporary popular music we are listening to -- and partly shows you that what contemporary popular music we do listen to tends not to be very lullabiable. Songs with a significant rap component, songs requiring impossible vocal abilities (looking at you, Björk), songs which demand an uptempo handling, and songs in which the vocals interact interestingly with the instrumentation -- rather than standing on their own in some kind of refrain/chorus structure -- do not convert very well to lullabies.

So now my goal is to be able to sing one lullaby (broadly defined) released in every year between 1910 and 2010.

I would be very happy for suggestions, particularly for the periods 1910-1930, 1949-1960, and 1995-2010. Priority will given to songs I already can sing some of and just have to learn the rest of the words to, followed by songs that are relatively easy to learn from, say, YouTube. I am a functional illiterate with regards to musical notation, so sheet music is less helpful than performance, though I guess I could get Aviva to play things for me.

More thoughts after the cut...

Click here to continue reading "One Hundred and One Lullabies"
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Friday, January 21, 2011


Last year, about this time, I gave a dvar torah at synagogue (I believe it was a combined Migwan and Ofek service, if I am not mistaken), in German. I got around to translating it recently, so I thought I'd post it now, since it's once again time for the Torah portion "Jethro", Exodus 18:1-20:23.

A "dvar torah" is an interesting form -- something along the same lines as a sermon, but generally with a heavier emphasis on textual analysis than exhortation. Anyway, here you go -- panic and terror, a trembling mountain, a nervous and terrible God, a mellow and helpful father-in-law: four surprises hidden in the Torah Portion "Jethro"...

Dvar Torah - Parascha Jethro 2/6/10

Oliver asked me to deliver a Dvar Torah this morning, which I am very happy to do. I come to the text as an author myself, and as a postmodern believer. That means that I am interested in how the Parasha functions as a story --in its characters and the plot. And it also means that I am prepared to believe that, as it were, God wants to say something to me, today, with this text -- perhaps something totally different than what it meant for its original readers and listeners.

So, I read the Torah portion again, and I found four surprises.

The first surprise is that the Torah Portion is called "Jethro" in the first place. This is, after all, the Torah Portion in which the Law is given. The People Israel hears the Ten Commandments in God's own voice at Mount Sinai. Why is the title of this Parasha the name of a non-Jewish Arab guy?

Now, of course, Parashot don't have titles in the modern sense. They are just denoted by the first word of the portion. But the proto-rabbis who divided the Torah into parashot (possibly as early as the Babylonian exile) did have some choice in the matter. Someone decided to begin the Parasha of the Giving of the Law with the rather mellow visit of Moses's father-in-law. That's an interesting choice.

Imagine, for a moment, that instead they'd attached Jethro's visit to Parasha Beshalach. Then today's Parasha would be called "Bachodesh", and it would begin like this: "In the third month after the Exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel came in those days into the desert of Sinai." The arrival at Sinai: dramatic! And then God comes and says "I have carried you on the wings of eagles" and "you will be a holy people to me" and "stand ready for the third day". And then the Revelation -- "the whole mountain shook, and the sound like trumpets grew and grew." And then the Giving of the Law.

That would be powerful, awe-inspiring, right? Awe and majesty... and, frankly, panic. Because there's a whole heck of a lot of panic in chapters 19 and 20. "The whole people were terrified". "Don't let God talk to us," they say, "or we will die."

Even God -- here comes the second surprise -- even God is nervous. God says several times to Moses, that the people should not "break through." And then, later, God says, "And the priests, who come before the Lord, the must purify themselves, so that the Lord does not destroy them."

That's interesting, right? Not "otherwise I will destroy them." It sort of sounds like God is not sure of being able to keep these destructive energies under control. God is also apparently sufficiently nervous as to forget the earlier Divine instructions to Moses. Moses responds: "The people can't climb up onto Mount Sinai; You commanded us, make a fence around the mountain and consecrate it." God answers, basically, "Oh! Oh, right, okay, right, no priests, right, I did say that -- okay then, just you and Aaron!"

Now of course we know, nowadays -- after two thousand years of the influence of Hellenistic philosophy on Judaism -- that God can't be nervous. God can't have difficulties with self-control. God is, after all, this bodiless, endless, unchanging First Cause. God can't forget something on account of being nervous. We know this from Aristotle.

The original authors of the Torah, however, hadn't read Aristotle. The divine was, for them, not something benign and predictable like a mathematical formula. Divinity was terrifying; panic and mortal fear were appropriate reactions to the divine. Even God is afraid of God.

So anyway, this would be a very dramatic Torah portion -- our imaginary "Bachodesh", which would start with chapter 19. Arrival at Sinai -- tension mounts -- terror, panic, the Giving of the Law.

So why start with Jethro?

In chapter 18, Jethro comes to visit Moses, congratulates him on the successful escape from Egypt, sacrifices a burnt offering to God, and gives Moses good advice about his legal system. Now here's the third surprise: as Jethro reorganizes the courts, Moses never asks God. Jethro brings reasons; he convinces Moses on rational grounds. Moses says, "the people come to me, in order to ask God advice." But Jethro says, find yourself judges, who can handle all the small stuff. Otherwise, you're going to get burned out. Jethro says, in effect: you can't -- and you don't have to -- ask God everything.

And "Moses did all that he said." He doesn't ask God permission. There is a dramatic difference in tone and mood between chapters 18 and 19.

Fourth surprise: when does this encounter with Jethro take place? Is it really before the revelation? First a quick consultation with the father-in-law, and then over to the holy mountain for the Giving of the Law?

Actually no. At the beginning of chapter 19, they "arrived in those days in the desert of Sinai... and camped in the desert at the foot of the mountain. And Moses ascended to God." But back in chapter 18 it says that Jethro, Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer came to Moses "in the desert, at the mountain of God, where they had encamped."

They are there at Mount Sinai. Chapter 18 and chapter 19 take place simultaneously. The reasonable, pragmatic visit with Jethro, where he says "hey, we don't have to ask God everything, let's just decide ourselves", and the terrifying wedding day between God and the people Israel, at the quaking mountain, where everyone is panicking about uncontrollable divine power. Simultaneously.

So why is this Torah portion called "Jethro"?

I can imagine that it's no accident. Perhaps this juxtaposition is meant to point towards a certain balance. There is the awesome majesty of God -- the majesty of a Universe too huge and powerful, for our primitive human thinking ever to encompass. And then there's human logic, human reason. Simultaneously. God does not fit in our comfortable logic. And nonetheless we must decide ourselves, with our human reason. As Jethro says, you can't keep asking God everything. Shabbat Shalom.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Elsewhere on the web I seem a little blogging-challenged at the moment (there is actually a whole backlog of half-finished posts, but you know how it is), so, in case you miss the silent-sound of me nattering on endlessly about things, I thought I would link to other places I have been pontificating over the last few months:

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