Friday, October 31, 1997

Life in the Styx vol. 4, no. 12 (Old Styx)

Life in the Styx vol. 4, no. 12, Oct 31, 1997 (Excerpt):


Yesterday's (Oct 30) House & Home section in the Times has an article about people who collect Beanie Babies. No offense if you're a Beanieoid, but these people are morons. Why collect these things? Yes, they're cute, but they just sit there. The whole "collectibles" industry is just a sign of consumerism gone mad; either that or it's a cleverly designed Idiot Tax.

True, I am a collector too, but I collect things like books and CDs. These things are functional items, though, which isn't collecting anymore, it's just "owning." Big difference. I don't 'collect' underwear, or have a paper-napkin collection.
And, double true, I've read only about 5% of all the books I own, but that's because I buy them for reference -- the key to attempting encyclopedic knowledge is not to know the fact as much as knowing where to look it up. So nyaah.

Collecting souvenirs from places you've visited also makes sense, I don't want to whip anyone into a defensive frenzy here. But the whole Beanie thing was created by Ty Toys to prey on these weak people who have a extreme need to collect SOMETHING. The company would purposefully make things obsolete as a cynical ploy to exploit the psychological weakness of the consuming public. Actually, I'm starting to like these guys the more I think about it.

Collecting is the material equivalent of a cliche. Mundane society (as opposed to the educated classes) quotes cliches the same way that the educated people quote literature. So the monied people collect art, as high culture, the mundanity collect Pez dispensers. [The latter comment should in no way be construed as an attack against Pez. I recently acquired a stash of kosher Pez and I'm happier than a pig in swill. You'd understand my emotion if you've ever had good fresh Pez.]

Tuesday, October 21, 1997

Life in the Styx, vol. IV, no. 10 (Old Styx)

Happy Sukkot in the Styx,

  1. Anniversaries
  2. Seven Samurai
  3. The Top 5 Movies
  4. Cholent-ology
  5. John Denver
  6. Guiliani & Columbus Day
  7. Israel & Extradition
  8. Arab Armies


Sunday (10/19) was the 10th anniversary of the Stock Market crash and Monday (10/20) was the 20th anniversary of the Lynyrd Skynrd plane crash.  Related? Let me see... "Freebird" is the greatest guitar rock song in history and was used in a small but crucial scene in "Forrest Gump" (which, remember, I consider a deep movie; although I am having second thoughts after seeing "Contact") to exemplify the ethic of the 70's. The 70's transformed into the 80's just with a steely reptilian packaging and it took the Stock Market crash and the S & L crisis to whup the 80's back into its greasy grave. Tight. Very tight.

The crash enters into the pantheon of 'critical events' of the 80's and as such my formative youth (don't get me wrong, I prefer to have been raised in the 80's than the gutless whiny 90's or the stringy, bell-bottomed out 70's); the crash is up there with the Challenger Disaster and Reagan getting shot as events you can answer the "Where were you when you heard..."

For the record:
  1. Stock Market: at the end of 7th period, PB's Western Civ class, Ithaca High School; from B. Dunham
  2. Challenger: at the end of Mrs. Twomey's Spanish class; from hearing the wail arise from the first floor open-air library where students were watching the lift-off.
  3. Reagan: on the standing school-bus, waiting to go home from Hillel Academy; unknown speakers rumoring that we may not have to go to school the next day


Well I finished seeing all 200 minutes of Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" all in one sitting. I have been seeing flashing images of half-naked Asians in leather armor in the somnolent moments of my half-awake
existence; this has not put me in a placid state. The movie is Mamish, though, and I do recommend seeing it when you have that much time to expend on a 3 hour long B&W sub-titled Japanese flick from 1954. These are the sacrifices I make to feed the last embers of my only cocktail-party hobby. I rationalize that with all the time I save by not giving a flickering hoot for sports (what about those Jets? Aren't the Marlins somethin'? -- well that takes care of that), I can afford to study the movies as an art form.

[2013 historical note: I decided to give up on movies and take up sports; don't regret it in the least]

Which brings up the question that people have asked about what I consider the Top Five Movies of All Time. As a bred academic I need to qualify my answer. Were I ever a movie-reviewer (which I have given thought to, even more than I have to doing stand-up which was oft recommended to me in my youth; possibly by people who hated me) I need to come up with a ranking system. I love ranking systems. Why reviewers of such renown like The Fat Guy & The Other One would use a polar "thumbs up" system that limits them to a highly imprecise and unhelpful boolean system is just one of the many proofs that the world needs better movie reviewers.

I was considering a the 1 - 100 system of ranking films, or even 1 - 1000 (I *love* ranking systems), but too much precision is unwanted in the realm of aesthetics. Precision may even be counterproductive. Maybe this is what FG & OO are thinking, that there is only Art and Not Art. Naah.

What I then considered is the A - F system we use in education. If it's used in education, it has to be good, eh? There is merit to the matrix, especially when you sprinkle in the + / -, except that it ignores the vast territory of failure. An is commonly ranked as 65 and under; which means that in schools we cram performance into 35% of available numbers.  Why? In a qualitative system, there are as many types of failure as there are success! And failure reveals more about the nature of knowledge, it has texture and smell. Rather than an antiseptic vowel, failures could range through the lower letters instead of leaving off at the F. We could use the real rank letters, misshapen, loathsome consonants like "P" or, ugh, "H."

[2013 Historical Note: I disagree with my younger self, as can be expected after 16 years; I think we need more complexity for good than bad with things that I'm supposed to like.]

Anyway, for now I will use a system of A+ through D-; and when we hit F, we'll go whack-a-mole. For instance, both "Air Force One" and "Batman & Robin," two abhorrent summer movies, had entirely different odors of failure. If someone puts a gun to your head and orders you to watch "Batman & Robin" you should ask what's the gun's caliber. It's that blatantly bad.

But "Air Force One" had many fans out there (it had the highest opening day for any R-rated movie ever) and it takes, uh, reasons to make that movie a stinkeroo. What made me wince for more than half of its playing time went beyond the insipid dialogue and the cardboard acting. "AFO" committed the worst crime of all Theater & Affiliated Audience Based Entertainments -- it violated its internal logic.

I am a good boy about suspending belief when I'm audiencing. I ragged on the nimrods out there who are so intent on scavenging for "movie flubs" that they are forgetting that they are supposed to be witnessing fiction
("there's no way they'd ever have a yellow Windows 95 desktop pattern!").  A movie is allowed to set up their own rules of the universe ("in Star Wars, space-ships BANK and make SOUNDS in deep space, OK?!?!"). With that godlike ability to create reality comes the price: you must be consistent within your wacky rules.

Then there is that movie term, popularized by Roger Ebert but invented by James Blish, called "The Idiot Plot" = "any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly of all of the characters were not idiots." (Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion, p. 816)

Movies with idiot plots are almost always deep in the F zone. And, alas, "Air Force One" was one. I won't explain since there are many who have not seen it, but it is possible to create a thriller and an action movie
without resorting to an idiot plot.


But I seemed to have lost my way yet again. I was explaining the Top Five. Here's the problem; there really is no need for a top five since all movies ranked A or A+ are equal in qualitative value. So what I've done, in order to create the 5, is choose 5 from different directors; and even then, I would need 10 to do this justice. But I am sensitive to the needs of pesak (decisive answer) so I made the list. Other criteria: (a) At least one color movie, (b) I need to have seen it (so no Truffaut or Fellini, I keep meaning to see these puppies but, alas...), and (c) it needs to be a grand example of the medium.

Ya see, each medium of communication has its own unique characteristics; if great movie cannot be just a play on videotape. These 5 are the best because they use cinema's unique strength (what these *are* will await later exposition).

  1. Citizen Kane (1941) - Orson Welles
  2. Casablanca (1942) - Michael Curtiz
  3. Dr. Stangelove (1963) - Stanley Kubrick
  4. Rashomon (1950) - Akira Kurosawa
  5. Apocalypse Now (1979) - Francis Ford Coppola
The last one is controversial; and could be seen as the token movie-of-color (I would have put "Psycho" in there instead since Hitchcock deserves a nod), but Coppola deserves it because of his ability to necromance the modernist Babel of Conrad's work and channel it into purely cinematic form. Also cuz he directed The Godfather.

[2013 Note: This is so cute; that I could think of doing any kind of ranking when I was in my mid-20s.  Ugh]


Ah, the king of Jewish culinary kitsch, cholent. Like with all dangerous foods, stereotype males declare cholent their domain (like Bar-B-Q and liquor). I won't get into the issue about how stereotype I am, considering that my food-o-philia makes me an ally of all victual genres and exempt from this issue's gender typing. As expected, rather than being a cholent practitioner (a domain I leave for Cambridge and Columbia
students), I am more of a theorist. This past Shabbas I posited the dichotomy of Light vs. Heavy cholent. This does not refer to central mass; all cholents have the density of a white dwarf. Rather, I am referring to theories of ingredients.

Heavy theorists prefer to load their cholents with whatever cannot crawl bodily out of the crock-pot. As reported in the seminal MIT paper "Wave variability and high immateriality as reflected in frequency of cholent reagents" (Rosenthal, Ginsburg, Cohen and Van Orenbrecht, 1986), the amount and type of cholent ingredients have no effect on taste or color, only smell.

Since then, many future theorists have experimented with different reagents (hot dogs, barbecue sauce, Jim Beam, bittersweet chocolate) and confirmed Rosenthal et al.'s findings. These are part of the Heavy School.

The Light School, as reflected in my upcoming paper: "Totalistic modal models in constituent cholent elements" (_Cell_ 1997), claims that cholent can be made with only four elements: (1) barley, (2) potatoes, (3) meat & meat-by-products, (4) water. I haven't *proven* the theory yet, I'm waiting for later labwork (and the slides have not been made yet; have you ever tried to use a micro-pipette in cholent?)


I guess I need to comment on every celebrity death. I didn't really care for his music and due to some mental weirdness, I always link him with Kermit The Frog. And I like Kermit. Even his music (he did a great duet with Animal on "Wild thing"). But despite my apathy, or what can be construed as The Indifference of the Cool Towards the Uncool, I defy all attempts to link his death with any underlying character perversions. Even if it turns out that he was drunk, or whacked out on free-based weed killers, or channeling the Doomed Spirit of Amelia Airhart, he deserves none of these mentioned in the moment of tragedy. The New York Times has not learned this elementary moral dictum; in their prolix obit for the fallen singer they mention all of the charity work he performed with his money and fame; and then soil it all with mentioning his brief run-ins with the law for DWI. Its part of the vast journalistic decay where editorials creep onto the front page and 'objective news' is squirted into eulogy. This isn't the first time that NYT has done this; next time I'm gonna whup 'em. John Denver died Sunday October 12, 1997; he was 53.


I don't know why or when Columbus Day was transformed into the Italian Nation Pride Day, but part of that inherent crazed logic seeped into Rudolph Guiliani's brain and made him do something loathsome enough to honk off at least THIS voter. In his inveterate tirade against the terminally pathetic Democratic challenger Ruth Messinger, Guiliani excoriated her for not showing up to the pre-Columbus Day parade Mass. He soon apologized for saying this thing, but only after he was assaulted by a jackhammer piss-storm from the public.

I do not accept his apology because that type of madness cannot be reversed with mere words. The comment, although doubtless propelled by Guiliani's shark honed blood-lust against his dying opponent -- his mad desire to batter Messenger for anything and everything -- reveals a dark side of Guiliani that we never thought could surface in a modern NY mayor. First of all, it shows that his vengeance and Will to Win is so blinding and stupefying that he's capable of uttering inanities and maybe even acting on them.

But it's the rank stench of his comment which alarms me; for it carries the flaming cross of Shmad. "Shmad" is the Jewish term for 'religious war & persecution' and it has plagued us through our history. People are so lulled by the comfort of wealth purchased security that they forget that Shmad exists. The term goes beyond the hazy nimbus of 'anti-Semitism' and hits the root of that pervasive hate -- the religious source for hatred against Jews that starts with Paul of Tarsus and is perpetuated like a blood bomb through the Christian veins of Western history.

When New York's mayor claims that his Jewish colleague needs to sit in Catholic Mass to fulfill the duties of state, it evokes the bleached skull of Shmad.

I will still vote for him because he is keeping the city safe, which is what I care about. But it should remind me, and ya'll, that a politician purchased with Jewish votes is only a mercenary and he can be turned the moment the votes are meaningless (which is one reason why term limits are asinine -- they obviate one of the main purposes of democracy: voter accountability).

True, Messinger could sell her fellow Jews up the river, as is the wont of her type of blinded-liberal Upper West Side armchair tax-and-spenders; and voting purely on the Jewish Issue is a dangerous sport. This is one of the knotty issues we Jewish-Americans need to deal with.


Which brings up the issue of the Jewish Maryland 17 year old accused of brutally murdering and dismembering 19 year old Alfred Tello. The suspect's father was an Israeli citizen in the early 50s and the kid fled to Israel seeking asylum (I suspect). For weeks the united states demanded Israel to allow the suspect be extradited to the U.S. Israel, by law, will not extradite an Israeli citizen. As a Jewish-American, where did my loyalties lie? (ironically our resident Marrano Gadol, Albright, personally asked Israel to extradite the suspect).

The suspect's attorneys claim that the kid killed Tello in self-defense. Notice that they do not deny the killing. So we know he's guilty of something.. But it is against Jewish law to turn over a Jew to non-Jewish authorities (the issur of "moseir"). Moreover, the American legal system is the only chink in the grand armor of our political system; you can send a clear murderer in front of the standard 12 morons that they dig up for juries these days, and the murder walks. I have long debated the plusses and minuses of the jury system (the US) versus the judge system (of Israel and most of the world) -- and I still don't know which is better in the long run; but in the short run I'd rather a murderer be tried in front of a judge rather than a jury.

So with all these pluses in Israel's favor, why do I still believe that the kid should be extradited? I guess it's for the simple reason that while all of the above is true, this is not the case to create the ideological stand-off. The kid is clearly guilty; guilty of a crime so horrible that we do not want it even slightly associated with Jews or Israel. If there are times for exceptions, this is one. Israel should have shipped the loathsome beast back to America and THEN debated whether they should ask for him back. This debate could be low profile and only if Israel thinks they should keep him, they can ask for him back. Again, this shouldn't be normative practice; just in this case or of similar high criminals.

I'm saying this conclusion, of course, because I still trust America's justice system and government. This is not a common American belief, ya know. The stock American distrusts the government and trusts his/her fellow citizen. Jews and other persecuted minorities, usually trust the government -- but especially late 20th Century Jews because we have solid voting blocs. While our neighbors may want to lynch us, the government answers to higher powers; i.e Jewish money and votes. That keeps us safe.

But we should never forget that a whole mess o' our fellow citizens hate Jews -- even when they've never met one before. And citizen-power groups, like the Reform Party, carry this danger. Fundamentally Christian groups, especially the Christian Coalition, are especially dangerous because they combine the Shmad element with the natavist xenophobia so epidemic in the American peoplestock.


On this paranoid note, here's some interesting comparative information:

(IINS News Service -Israel-10/16) According to the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies, the following is the breakdown of weaponry between Israel, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Israel: standing army-175,000, reserves-430,000, tanks-4,300, combat aircraft-448, combat ships-53, patrol boats-29, naval vessels with missiles-21, nuclear armed warheads-100.

Syria: standing army-320,000, reserves-500,000, tanks-4,600, combat aircraft-589, combat ships-?, patrol boats-11, naval vessels with missiles-16, nuclear armed warheads-none, submarines-3 .

Iran: standing army-518,000, reserves-350,000, tanks-1,394, combat aircraft-297, combat ships-4, patrol boats-48, nuclear armed warheads-none, submarines 3.

Iraq: standing army-350,000, reserves-650,000, tanks-2,700, combat aircraft-?, combat ships-2, patrol boats-6, nuclear armed warheads-none, submarines ?.
Chag sameach everyone!

Styx :]

[Posted Oct 17, 2013]

Wednesday, October 15, 1997

Life in the Styx, vol. IV, no. 09 (Old Styx)

Hello out there in the Styx,


To Moshe David Simon whose article about Megillat Esther FINALLY came out in Tradition magazine (vol. 31, no. 4 Summer 1997, pp. 5-27).  The article is entitled , "'Many Thoughts in the Heart of Man...' Irony and Theology in the Book of Esther," (working title: 1001 Recipes with Maple Syrup). If you ask nicely, I'm sure Moshe will autograph your copy.


Someone of Rav Twersky's stature deserves an adequate hesped (eulogy), and I am not one to give it.  He held a special importance for the Boston community of which I have very little contact.  But, being the son-in-law of The Rav Zt'l, I recognize that Rav Twersky had an effect on my community and my definition of Judaism even if for me it was indirect.

Rav Twersky's passing heralds the departure of an era when there were those who triumphantly embodied the synergies of the synthesis of the Torah and secular worlds.  Torah U-Madda is more than just a cheesy slogan for me (and more than a job I now hold), I believe in its possibility to be the height of Torah existence.  It is not a compromise but a confrontation, a struggle towards the complex goals that God intends us to achieve.

Rav Twersky and his generation were able to both understand and attain those goals in a manner that I fear my generation may not, at least in America.  Although I am a committed Zionist, and believe that the only future for Jews is in Israel, I have also thrown my lot in the American community for now, and I fear for the vacuum of leadership here.

Rav Twersky was also a pre-eminent academician as well as a premium talmud-hakham, a shul rebbe and dynastic rebbe.  His students are the leaders of my generation in the academic world.  The conception of being a 'frum professor' was made possible by Rav Twersky.  He may even have been the first.

I am going to be in Harvard for the last days of Sukkot and I am cowed by what condition I expect the community to be in.  I also feel sorry for Rav Twersky's aveilim (mourners).  The Jewish mourning practices contain a proper wisdom in the necessity for both an intense mourning period that gradually lessens over time in stages (1 day - 7 days - 30 days - 11 months).

However, an intervening yom-tov will obviate the rest of shiva (7 days) by counting as 7 full days of mourning.  Since the burial was on Monday, the family will be able to mourn Tuesday and Wednesday before Sukkot starts.  Then they will lose 7 days because of the 1st day of chag, then 6 more days of Sukkot when they cannot mourn, then another 7 days for Shmini Atzeret, then 1 day for Simchat Torah.  By the time the holidays end, the family will have only 8 days left to even mourn for sheloshim.

I recognize that there is still wisdom in this system, but since I have not seen how it works out, I find that I still extend extra sympathy.


I had a blast at Princeton for Yom Kippur.  YK has always been very good at school, but I had never really been able to 'enjoy' it (i.e. use the well-run and well behaved services for good use in personal repentance)
since I would normally have been gabbai-ing at the time.  This time I was the guest "rebbe" and it meant I needed to concentrate on my speeches etc, but it was less minute-by-minute hassle.

[Next paragraph had too many personal names/connections, so the whole paragraph has been redacted]

I gave two drashot, Kol Nidrei and Neila, as well as a shiur on Friday night.  (STANDARD PROMISE, PAY NO HEED) If I get my act together I'll write up my comments.  The shiur, on the Book of Jonah, I thought was so kick-butt that I may try and write that baby up for a journal somewhere (maybe I'll get it printed in a couple o'years after I submit it, see above). [Historical note, as of 2013 none of this has happened, sigh]

What made YK even extra cool was the surprise appearance of an all-star cast of alums.  First there was my brother [name redacted] who knows a good service when he sees it.  But along for the ride was [name redacted] who was representing the Medallin Cartel, wait, no, uh, right, A. D. Little in a job fair on Friday afternoon and swung YK with us.  Even more fortuitous was the appearance of [name redacted] who I hadn't seen for a heckuva long time.

It was a very easy fast (love Joy's cookin') and my legendary allergies were surprisingly docile.  I think this confirms that I am just allergic to Washington Heights.   After YK, Saturday night, I took the opportunity
of great weather to wander around campus and dig up the ol' nostalgia roots.

Whoa Baby did I ever.  I was being smacked with high intensity nostalgia rays all night.  I wandered around Mathey and the Grad College trying to reminisce and maybe slay a few demons (no such luck although I did injure a squirrel).  Since the trip was getting to intense (flashbacks to Tet, Jimi Hendrix wailing in my subconscious) I decided to spend it as a characteristic Princeton evening: I made a 'Wa run for Herr's cheese

They changed the layout in the 'Wa dudes!  I was so confused I almost walked out with some spaghetti-Os cuz, hey, when yer used to buying things in yer sleep you trust your memory of the store layout over any physical appearances (and you certainly can't go by smell in the Wa).

They expanded the deli counter (that night's special: the Fried-Lard Cheesecake Burger.  On a taco) and relocated the Mac machine.  Heathens!

I stayed till the next day in order to have a Yavneh Sunday: davening at 8:30, waiting around till 11:30 in a ravenous torpor, gorging on brunch, and then plundering the Princeton Record Exchange's trove of $3.99 CDs (that last part is my own variation).

[personal data redacted]

Have fun shakin' the lulav!

Styx :]

[Posted Oct 17, 2013]