Ode to my head

Last night I had a dream in which I could take my head off my body. I could open it up at its “seams” and fix various things.

At one point I wanted to turn it over to see what it looked like where it was normally fastened onto my neck. I felt my head’s weight in my hands. It felt about as heavy as I would expect: ten pounds or so. I felt its thickness and its warmth. It seemed solid and alive. It had dirty blonde hair, as I do.

I turned it over and saw that it was sewn up under my chin and back to where my spinal column would be, so that no blood would spill out.

Then I realized that I’d better put my head back on or I wouldn’t get blood to it and I’d lose consciousness. I suddenly wondered how I hadn’t blacked out already. I saw on my head that my eyes were closed as though I was sleeping—peacefully—and at the time I didn’t question what eyes I was using to see that the eyes on my head were closed.

I started to feel lightheaded in the dream. I didn’t know how I would get my head unsewed or affixed to my neck again so that blood flow would resume. I placed my head back on my neck, and at that point my entire body felt like the one I was dreaming with.

Soon after, it seemed, I awoke.

Now, as I write, I am tempted to exhort myself, “You really should get your head examined.”

But I already did that.

Last night.

In my dream.

photo: ElissaSCA; from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

dominion

‘Howard Freeman (2)’ appears on one of the Firefox browser window tabs and, along with the other seven or so tabs, constitutes a small but growing and ornery press corps at 6:30 this morning.

The ‘(2),’ I learn when I click on it, indicates that on Facebook I have a Friend Request waiting (that’s good, as long as it’s not one of the always-slender women from Eastern Europe whom I don’t know, who appear to be photographed with a 1970s Polaroid, and have only male friends and no mutual friends with me—I can only surmise they found me because I listed Darren Aronofsky as one of my favorite movie directors) and also a comment added to something I’ve written—a news item I posted to my Wall, or piggybacking my comment somewhere else…or whatever. Some notice of some thing (if ever there was a good use of that word that all English teachers mark off points for use of) that warrants a number on the display in front of me that requires attention now. The hand from the press corps crowd is sticking up, or rather down—from the menu bar.

But wait! There! On the icons in the dock (some of them doing the put-your-left-hip-in Hokie Pokie out from the screen’s edge to warn me that I have forgotten some thing), and on my iPhone, my life consists of responding to white numbers in red circles. They all tell me I am running late.

Other tabs include my Chase Bank account (which I’ve set to send alerts to my mobile phone if certain things happen, so now I can be warned from several directions and with several tech indicators at once—as though I am Helen Keller and need a strobe, tone, and shifting parquet floor to get my attention), my work email (on which I now respond to a concerned message instead of continuing coffee with the First Lady, who was sitting contentedly on the couch next to me but now turns to her iPad. She plays ‘Godfinger,’ a game where she controls little Wii-looking figures who all do what she says and ‘worship’ her, accumulating her ‘Awe’ in the lower right corner…I have no such currency), my Google calendar (whose full window, with unabashed seniority, itself occasionally pops open in front of any other open window to remind me of an event happening now, much like Helen Thomas, whose diminutive frame—short and wide like the tab—doesn’t limit her from making her agenda known to the 6’2” men around her and to her primary audience, the man facing her…the powerful man in front of her who must listen, patiently, and then, patiently, respond. With a finger he could silence her, but he doesn’t. She is, after all, Helen Thomas, and she is the media. With a finger, he could play ‘Godfinger,’ the way the First Lady still is; he could fling her like a Wii character upwards of 340 metres across the White House compound landing her somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue and she would go back to farming, and worship him, and give him Awe…but instead all his fingers rest on his keyboard—like a podium—which has become the place of finding a false equilibrium and foundation rather than dominion or even dominance.).

Speaking of Google, Reader is on another tab. I avoid looking at that grey rectangle, knowing that the lecture hall found on its window will only lure me in to discussions that will never end. I do care that Bill Gates wants to overhaul America’s schools, but it’s not something I have time for. I need to get dressed in twenty minutes. I spot a snippet from Arts & Letters Daily, my favorite news aggregator, that ‘Economic and scientific innovation helped propel the West past the East around 1770. So did Islam. Timur Kuran explains….MORE,’ where the last word is hyperlinked. It would be so…easy…to just click that four-letter word and learn from Timur about the innovation that Islam helped propel 240 years ago. I didn’t know about this! And If I don’t read all this stuff, I won’t be like the editors who put together these aggregators, like Denis Dutton of Arts & Letters, or even Matt Drudge, or Mr. Reader himself. But I have to get dressed in 19 minutes. BBC News has ‘1000+’ unread items. Same with Christian Science Monitor. Prior to a 2008 trip to Asia, I had signed up for the South China Morning Post to get familiarized with the issues. Now, this paper’s three feeds I subscribe to (I had a choice of so many more!)—Business, Property, and Hong Kong—remind me that we are no longer on such great speaking terms, and the relationship is strained. Among the three, there are 1378 unread items. The last time I actually went through and looked at news items, I read one or two and marked the rest ‘as read,’ summarily dismissing the collective work of approximately fifteen thousand man-hours of journalism. (Could have been more; not sure.) If I read each item from SCMP in summary fashion—using the Reader feature of scrolling down the headlines, which move from bold to roman after a couple seconds hovering over each, I can cover perhaps a few hundred of them in an hour. It would be the ‘receiving line’ of getting re-acquainted: working the rope and shaking hands long enough to smile and wink and let them know I have not deleted them without acknowledging their fleeting existence.

Along the row of tabs also are articles I have not read but want to, intend to, all with lengths approaching that of a New Yorker essay, which means that these tabs are carried over from day to day until my computer restarts at 3 a.m. one night (because it needs new system software to keep up with the bandwidth I require to keep in play the items I do not address immediately). The articles that disappear when this happens are forgotten, and I am not the worse for it. They had been temporary lusts that slithered toward me, waiting to strike, and whose venom is given an antidote by Mac OS X. The next system upgrade from Cupertino should be called Mongoose.

There is a ‘+’ sign to the right of the tabs, reminding me I can start a new conversation anytime. Invite more people to the press conference. Perhaps I do this, and the others—while they don’t fall completely silent, especially not Helen Thomas in the front row, who raises her voice about every 30 minutes—are shushed by the increasing din of the current conversation. My ‘Favorites’ also perch in a row above the current tabs, like gargoyles, waiting to be affirmed as named. They know they will be called on at some point; that’s why they’re Favorites. At one time, I had the power to name them and place them there; now they with the name and position hold the power. If I delete them, I would have to find them again, or at least I’d have to email the IT guy to get the URL to access the work server remotely. This is unconscionable.

I get up from my computer to get more coffee for me and the First Lady—who is happily subduing and having dominion—but it is not quiet that I experience.

It is deafness.

photo: kees straver

Morning vignette #4

A young black woman in maroon hospital scrubs walks behind the wheelchair on 23rd Street and 9th Avenue.

Her arms are coffee brown, smooth as the skin on eggplant. Her eggplant-skin glistens in the 80-degree sun. Her hair is in corn-rows, tightly woven and neat.

The woman in the wheelchair has wiry grey hair, like steel wool that has been left under an enamel kitchen sink in an abandoned tenement. Her cheeks, with marbles in them, jiggle as the wheelchair hits the bumps and pocks in the sidewalk concrete. Jutting from her mouth, a white lollipop stick points down the block to where she’s heading.

artwork: J bradford

Tears at the altar

I am not Jerome Morrow.

Somewhere between discussing the new Battlestar Galactica with my brother Jim, getting un-friended on Facebook, and witnessing the wedding of my cousin Isabel, all within a span of 48 hours, I gained a new appreciation for the human race. Or at least that segment of our unique species that doesn’t un-friend me.

When Jim and I were kids in the 70s, he recalled as we drove to our cousin’s wedding in Babylon, New York, the Cylons were chrome robots with side-to-side roving red eyes and a deep-pitched humming that riveted your 12-year-old eyes to the tube, waiting to see what Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Starbuck would do to save themselves and the060609.Mirovarda42 others. Now, apparently (for I have not watched an episode of the new series, only heard Jim’s reports and logged onto the show’s website), some revamped Cylons look more like Miss California. On top of that, Jim mentioned that at least one expressed her “faith in God” and her “place in God’s plan for humanity.” The show’s Executive Producer went so far as to suggest in a blog that the Cylons represented an Al Qaeda-like group, but if you read their lingo, especially Number Six’s, it sounds more like that of an evangelical Christian.

Now before you get to snarky comments about theistic blonde robots, let me get to my point.

Jim: “So, this episode brought up the whole question about, ‘What does it mean to be human.’”

I considered Jim’s question as I drove past exits to Lindenhurst. My brother and I have discussed faith issues since college, and while we disagree on some key aspects, he is probably one of the more thoughtful and gracious debaters I know.

“Well…” I ask, “do you think faith in God makes us human?”

“I think that it is one thing that can make us more human, yes.”

We agreed on this. Nevertheless, I wanted to go a step further. I wasn’t quite sure if I knew the territory I was entering, but as I said, Jim is gracious.

“Well,” I said, “what we know from the Bible is that God created humans with his image—the imago dei. The image of God. We don’t know whether the angels have this quality—the Bible says that we are made ‘a little lower than the angels’—but it’s unclear whether this means they had the imago dei and more, or something different altogether. What we do know is that humans are alone among creation in having the image of God, at least according to the account in Genesis.”

Animals and plants and rocks are beautiful, some are sentient, and some capture our hearts, like Karen’s dog “Bruter” did hers. However, they don’t have eternal souls as some belief systems posit, again, according to the Hebrew Scriptures. This can be a tough issue with some, especially when dealing with children who, when they ask whether their dead pets have gone to Heaven, it is usually best to answer, “Sweetheart, would you like to go out now and buy that Xbox we said you couldn’t have last week for your birthday? No…no, you don’t need to change out of your pajamas.”

I suggested to Jim that it is this imago dei that makes us fully human and makes only us human, and not other species, whether below us in the food chain or above. For while it is conceivable that a robot could obey an unseen Master out of “faith,” trusting that she should do so because the Master is her “Lord,” it is also apparent that pointing to faith—active or inactive—as the key indicator that makes us human (again, Jim suggested only that it was one of many indicators) leaves the comatose patient, the unborn baby, and atheistic recidivist criminal out in the cold. For me to argue that my faith defines me as a human immediately separates me from those groups above and unwittingly gives me rights to treat them as less than human. However, if I make the imago dei the litmus test, then indeed I cannot treat anyone—no matter what state they’re in (unborn, comatose, or terrorist)—as less than human. Each has dignity, and my first responsibility—whatever my ultimate action—must be to decide my interaction with them based first on their status as reflecting God’s image. The reflection may be but a glint from a mirror shard, but it is a reflection nonetheless. The imago dei is nothing that I choose for myself; it is what God chose for me. Whatever violence I do to myself or others must be done with the realization that I do it against this divine image and, therefore, against God.

When my friend un-friended me on Facebook because of a video I posted that offended him, I didn’t think about the image of God. In fact, I couldn’t at first put my finger on why I was so angry or upset. I am slowly realizing, though, that my friend was looking at me as a collection of beliefs and actions—things that largely I am in control of—rather than as a person. Follow me for a minute. My beliefs and actions matter: if they are truly hurtful, then I need to turn from them and seek forgiveness from those I hurt. But I am more than my beliefs and actions. I assume that while this friend un-friended me and effectively eliminated me from his virtual world—a world, I must admit, that will be a whole lot less funny without me and will contain fewer links to the Wall Street Journal and Red Sox news stories on his home page, if a little less offensive—this same friend, if he saw me lying comatose in a hospital bed, would never in a million years pull the plug out of hatred for my beliefs. That’s because of the person I know him to be and also because I as a person am made of more than my beliefs and actions. He and I, further, have a common history that spans from 1985 roughly to 1990. Similarly, you can’t suddenly call a family member “not family.” You can disinherit them, a legal action, fine. If you’re on Law & Order: SVU, you can say, “I don’t know you anymore!!”—cue the music—to indicate your intention never to sleep with the lover who turned out to be a longtime serial murderer and hid it from you all these years. But you can’t un-realize a relationship that exists in reality because of certain biological facts that will remain true no matter your actions. Note that in war, it is always observed that one side must “dehumanize” the other side in order to kill them. They must look past the beliefs and actions of the enemy and negate even that which transcends these controllable qualities. They must, in fact, deny that the imago dei exists in the enemy in order to have the ability to kill what is “less than human.”

So I’m sitting in the pew at St. Joseph’s church in Babylon on an unexpectedly sunny Friday afternoon watching the groom Billy walk up the aisle before my cousin Isabel does, and I am not thinking about being un-friended, Battlestar Galactica or the imago dei. Rather, I watch as Billy walks forward in his blue-and-white stripe seersucker suit, navy bowtie, and tan-and-white saddle shoes. He gets about even with my pew and his face becomes more flushed. Behind his glasses he’s squinting and begins to cry. His smile, while maybe a bit forced, is forced because he seems to want to cry more than he feels allowed to with some 150 onlookers. Like he’s trying in this beautiful church to uphold a convention of being held together, controlled, stable, solid. “Manly.”

Isabel starts up the aisle. She is…resplendent. Her face is calm. Eyes set toward the altar, occasionally she glances into a pew to smile at a friend or family member. I long to have her catch my eye; I want to grasp the joy that she now feels, the ineffable union of two people who make promises to stay together no matter what. I recall my wedding day with Karen in March 1997. There at St. Joseph’s it is a moment in which many of us transcend our workaday worries and gaze into the imminent union: we leave our pews and are at that altar, staring into the eyes of one who wants us forever, who will love us despite ourselves.

At the end of time, I believe that Jesus Christ—called “the bridegroom” in Scripture—will watch his people—“the bride”—come to him and there will be an eternal wedding resulting in a forever marriage, and somehow I can’t imagine that he will weep at the sight of us. We are not worthy of his tears, for we have done so much to offend him. And deny him. God’s tears offend my sensibilities: that the Author of history would care so passionately about such seemingly insignificant characters. God’s tears challenge my sense of self-worth: that an All-Powerful Creator of the Universe would stoop to become involved with a flawed creature like me. It seems un-right. Until you realize that we have something in us, about us, governing and defining us, making us who we are no matter what we do, which nothing else in creation has. The image of God.

God is re-capturing and grafting in that which is god-like. God weeps joyfully when there is re-union and bitterly when there is separation. For what is lost is eternal.

As, too, is what’s found.

photo: Mirovarda42