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January 8, 2005

'How could God let this happen?'


The question that arose instantly, among people all over the tsunami zone, after the December 26 disaster.

"God is always the fall guy," Greek Orthodox theologian Costas Kyriakides in Cyprus told Reuters.

Indeed, this has proved to be so among those of all religious stripes.

In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, imams blamed the catastrophe on lay Muslims who were shirking their daily prayers.

Others said Allah was angry that Muslims were killing other Muslims.

In Israel, Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar called the disaster "an expression of God's wrath with the world - the world is being punished for wrongdoing."

In Sri Lanka, Buddhists wondered which political leader had angered the sea gods.

Sulayman S. Nyang, a Muslim and a professor of African studies at Howard University, said, "God uses nature to remind humans not only about humanity, but sinfulness as well."

In medicine, when there are many remedies for a problem, none of them are really effective all the time.

For example, there are over 100 diferent cures for hiccups in the medical and lay literature.

The only thing certain is that none of them work every time.

If one did, like good money driving out bad, the other "cures" would fall by the wayside.

Similarly with theological explanations for natural disasters: when there are many, there is none.

You might even, if you were prone to the sort of magical thinking I've been accused of - with good reason, I might add - my entire life, extrapolate this way of looking at things to the world as a whole, and your place in it.

That is, nothing you do is really logically explicable, regardless of the reasons you furnish for your actions and behavior.

Ingmar Bergman said, "Explanations are clumsy rationalizations with hindsight."

Bill Broadway wrote the following story for today's Washington Post Religion section about the differing responses to the tsunami.

    Divining a Reason for Devastation

    Followers of Various Faiths Differ on Natural, Supernatural Explanations for Tsunami

    Catastrophes often leave religious leaders fumbling for explanations.

    But there has been no shortage of reasons given for the South Asian tsunami that killed more than 147,000 people, many of them children.

    In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, the hardest-hit area in the world's most populous Muslim country, imams blamed the Dec. 26 tsunami on lay Muslims who were shirking their daily prayers and following a materialistic lifestyle.

    Others said Allah was angry that Muslims were killing Muslims in ongoing civil strife.

    In Israel, Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of the country's top religious leaders, called the disaster "an expression of God's wrath with the world. The world is being punished for wrongdoing - be it people's needless hatred of each other, lack of charity, moral turpitude."

    In Sri Lanka, which recorded the most fatalities after Indonesia, Buddhist survivors told the story of a tsunami that flooded the island kingdom 2,200 years ago when a king killed a Buddhist monk in a fit of anger.

    They wondered which political leader angered the sea gods this time.

    On the Internet, self-appointed prophets said the reason was God's anger at the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries hit by the tsunami, or His displeasure at the number of abortions worldwide.

    Some said the large-scale tragedy was a sure sign that the world will end soon.

    Other commentators were less ready to assign responsibility to an irate divinity, instead pointing to the vicissitudes of nature.

    "I personally don't attach any theological significance to this - I listen to what the scientists say," Greek Orthodox theologian Costas Kyriakides in Cyprus told Reuters.

    "God is always the fall guy. We incriminate Him completely unjustly."

    Such a position begs the question of whether a creator-god exerts control in the world.

    But for many people, the "nature did it" response provides a legitimate explanation for the disaster and the widespread death it has caused, according to scholars and theologians.

    Hindus, for example, generally reject the idea of a vindictive god bringing destruction to the world, said Ariel Glucklich, an associate professor of theology at Georgetown University and a specialist in Hinduism.

    Krishna and other major gods who participate in human history are "always unfailingly on the side of good," he said.

    But in Hinduism as in Buddhism, a powerful force is said to be at work: karma, the belief that a person's fate is related to actions in previous lives and current existence, Glucklich said.

    Karma is a "non-divine mechanism," meaning there is no god keeping track in a Book of Life and doling out punishment.

    In general, people are responsible for what happens to them.

    For example, a tsunami victim whose bicycle broke down, leaving him stranded on the beach, might be at fault because he failed to maintain his bicycle properly - perhaps as a result of drinking too much.

    But karma is also interactional, meaning that children who died in the tsunami might have died because of actions of their parents, Glucklich said.

    Buddhists also look to the natural order when dealing with tragedy, said Bhante K. Uparatana, a native of Sri Lanka and chief monk and founder of the International Buddhist Center in Silver Spring.

    Despite experiencing great sadness for family and friends lost in the tsunami, Sri Lankan Buddhist immigrants in the Washington area have not come to him with the question "Why?"

    Instead, Uparatana said, they accept the Buddhist teaching that everything is impermanent and they look for ways to improve their lives by eradicating bad karma.

    Any natural disaster, whether a tsunami or the four hurricanes that hit Florida last year, offers a chance to learn something, he said.

    "We have to be more generous, more compassionate and show more lovingkindness to one another and respect each other."

    Disasters show how quickly death can come, "that it can happen to me, my family, my friend, my enemy," Uparatana said.

    Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is more likely than Hinduism or Buddhism to view the tsunami as an act of God, a reminder of human weakness "that puts an end to the illusion of human omnipotence," said Sulayman S. Nyang, a Muslim and a professor of African studies at Howard University who has written and lectured extensively on the Islamic faith.

    But the devastating natural event probably will stimulate increased theological investigation into the relationship between humanity and the environment, he said.

    The "religion of the environment" includes such questions as whether the Earth, through God's action or its own force, lashes out because people are poor stewards of forests, animals and natural resources, Nyang said.

    He said it also addresses the interrelationships of nations and cultures, and how war and other violent acts can affect the balance of nature.

    "God uses nature to remind humans not only about humanity, but sinfulness as well," he said. "When humans bleed, nature bleeds, too. And when nature lashes out, it's more destructive."

    Rabbi Michael Lerner, founding editor of Tikkun, a magazine devoted to "the healing and transformation of the planet," presented a similar theme this week in an online newsletter.

    Part of his answer to the question "How could God have allowed this to happen?" includes a point of view that "deserves some continuing attention - the answer from karma or universal justice," he writes.

    Referring to the earthquake that caused the tsunami, he goes on to say, "The tectonic moves of the earth are part of a totally integrated moral system that has been in place since the earth began to evolve.

    That moral system, described by the Bible, tells us that the physical world will be unable to function in a peaceful and gentle way until the moral/spiritual dimension manifest in the behavior of God's creatures coheres with God's will: that is, is filled with justice, peace, generosity and kindness."

    For Mohammed Abu-Nimer, director of American University's Peacebuilding & Development Institute, the important question is not whether God caused the tsunami but whether people of different faiths and politics will work together in response to the crisis and use that goodwill to keep from "going back to the default mode" of pre-disaster conflicts.

    Thus far, the word from Sri Lanka is good, Abu-Nimer said. He has contacts from a five-year period - 1995 to 2000 - when he traveled back and forth to Sri Lanka to lead workshops on conflict resolution.

    Participants included members of various communities in the war-torn nation: Tamil rebels opposing the Sri Lankan government and the Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians often at odds with one another.

    One of his colleagues in Galle, in the south of Sri Lanka, sent an e-mail saying that "new bridges across community are being built," said Abu-Nimer, who before the tsunami hit was scheduled to conduct interfaith workshops in Sri Lanka.

    He hopes the workshops will proceed as planned in March.

    Nyang said the tsunami presents an unprecedented opportunity for the United States to increase its "moral currency" while sending financial assistance.

    The tsunami region is populated by members of the world's major faiths - Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity - and U.S. moral leadership "can be effectively utilized to give a more beautiful image of America not only to Muslims but to all religious groups," Nyang said.

    He calls the opportunity "America's Indian Ocean moment."

    January 8, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Drive Alert Master


    You know how sometimes people grow on you?

    This device grew on me.

    I was planning to mock it, but as I read the copy on the website, suddenly I recalled a sad story that appeared in the Charlottesville Daily Progress a few years ago.

    It seemed the chief resident in general surgery at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center, in his determination to be back for 6 a.m. rounds after the holiday break, drove straight through the night from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, where he'd been celebrating with his family and fiancée.

    He almost made it.

    About two miles from the hospital - after driving hundreds of miles and many hours without sleep - he apparently fell asleep behind the wheel of his car.

    He plowed into the back of a truck and was killed instantly.

    So that's why I'm gonna buy one of these ($19.95) as soon as I finish this post.

    How many of us, driving somewhere, get drowsy, open the windows, turn up the music, sing, drink coffee, and still are in no condition to be on the road?

    I've done it far too many times.

    I have no right to put others at risk, much less myself, because of my determination to get where I'm going and my denial.

    Driving tired is no different from driving drunk.

    That's the long and the short of it.

    I have contempt and hatred for drunk drivers; why not for myself when I drive when I'm sleepy?

    It starts today.

    When I'm driving and this thing goes off, I'm stopping and taking a nap.

    End of discussion.

    Here's what the website says:

      20% Of All Automobile Accidents Are Caused By Sleep Deprivation

      Avoid them with the Drive Alert

      It works like a splash of cold water in the middle of the night.

      At the first sign of drowsiness the Drive Alert will jolt your senses with a LOUD beep.

      Just how important is it to have this simple safety device?

      We've all done it, often times unknowingly.

      You get behind the wheel after taking seemingly harmless cold medication or head home after a long day at work.

      Up to this point you've probably been among the lucky ones who make it home without incident.

      But it only takes one time to fall asleep at the wheel and become a tragic statistic.

      You're behind the wheel late at night after a long day.

      Your eyes begin to grow heavy as oncoming headlights lull you into a state of drowsiness.

      And then without warning you fall asleep at the wheel.

      Luckily this scenario doesn't have to end in tragedy as so often happens.

      That's because the Drive Alert will help keep you awake until you arrive safely at your destination.

      Drive Alert's ergonomic design is comfortable, easy to use and operates with low battery consumption.

      It's also popular with truck drivers who spend many long hours on our nation's highways.

      Just turn it on, adjust the wake-up angle switch and place it behind your ear.

      When you begin to doze off and your head slumps forward the Drive Alert will emit a LOUD, powerful BEEPING sound to wake you up.

      Using the Drive Alert could save the lives of you and your loved ones.

      And it may be the best safety device your car never had.

      Includes one 1.5 Volt DC x (LR44) battery.

    January 8, 2005 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Chawton House - 'A gateway to early English women's writing'


    Chawton House, in Hampshire, England, belonged to Jane Austen's elder brother, who was adopted by childless, wealthier relatives.

    He became their heir and took their name, and as Edward Knight he became a substantial landowner, able to house his widowed mother and spinster sisters Jane and and Cassandra in the small, square bailiff's house in the middle of Chawton village.

    Jane Austen sat in the parlor, right on the village street, and wrote, in secret, on a table the size of a tea tray.

    Time passes.

    Chawton House was purchased in 1987 by Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems.

    She turned it into a study center for English women's writing before 1840.

    The center's library houses the works of almost 1,500 authors; about 50 of the novels are the only known extant copy.

    It took Lerner four years of battling local authorities before she received the permissions necessary to create the study center.

    She's created a wonderful resource, with a superb website, as you'll find if you spend a little time on it.

    On it? Or at it? In it?

    I wonder what the correct preposition really is.

    I'm not sure "on" is correct, the more I think about it.

    Perhaps MBS will chime in and offer her thoughts.

    MBS? Bueller? Anyone? But I digress.

    FunFact: Sandy Lerner quit using email two years ago.

    [via Jan Dalley and The Financial Times]

    January 8, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    Battery-Powered Heated Socks


    No more cold feet, not when you're wearing these tricked-out socks.

    "A battery-powered heating element in each padded toe has low and high settings, and won't overheat."

    That's a relief.

    "The low amperage eliminates any risk of shock, even in wet conditions."

    There's another concern to remove from my check list.

    "The [heating] element is so thin, you won't even feel it."

    Excellent, 'cause my comfort means a lot to me.

    "Socks run 12 hours on low and 10 hours on high."

    Sounds good; should get me through the day.

    Each sock requires one D battery, placed in the fashionable black battery pouch on the outside of each sock.

    That's OK: it'll be like working out with leg weights.

    And stylish?

    Wear these with a miniskirt, and you'll be the belle of the ball.

    Look for these on the runways in Milan and Paris this spring.


    Yo, my Icelandic posse - these have your names written all over them.

    January 8, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    MorphWorld: Lexus ES 330 into Acura RL


    I couldn't believe my eyes the other day as I leafed through the just-arrived (January 3) issue of the New Yorker.

    On the inside of the front cover was a nice picture of the new 2005 Lexus ES 330 (above), all shiny and nice; then on page 10 of the same magazine, there was the same car (below), same silver color and everything.


    Now, I'm used to being treated with contempt by TV advertising, which sometimes features the very same commercial run twice, back-to-back, during the same break.

    But never had I seen this in a magazine.


    When I looked more closely, I realized I'd been mistaken: the car on page 10 was the new, 2005 Acura RL (just above), not the Lexus (below).


    I'll bet designers for both companies are horrified by what they've put forth, much more so than women who find they're wearing the same expensive dress at a party.

    January 8, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    William Burroughs' 10 Favorite Novels


    1. "The Process" by Brion Gysin

    2. "The Satyricon" by Petronius

    3. "In Youth is Pleasure" by Denton Welch

    4. "Two Serious Ladies" by Jane Bowles

    5. "The Sheltering Sky" by Paul Bowles

    6. "Under Western Eyes" by Joseph Conrad"

    7. "Journey to the End of the Night" by Louis Ferdinand Céline

    8. "Querelle de Brest" by Jean Genet

    9. "The Unfortunate Traveller" by Thomas Nashe

    10. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    I've read two of the ten (Céline and Fitzgerald).

    Well, it's not over yet: there's still time.

    [via The Book of Lists (1980)]

    January 8, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Peaceful Chime Progressive Alarm Clock


    I like the name of this item: it calms me down, makes me feel like things are gonna slow down around here for a while.

    We can all use a little more slowness in our lives.

    This clock lets you start your day with the soft ring of a real chime instead of a blaring radio or jarring electric buzzer.

    Also works as a countdown timer.

    From the website:

      The perfectly tuned B note chimes at progressively shorter intervals over 10 minutes.

      It can also serve as a low-profile office clock; use it as a pleasant signal to end meetings or break for lunch; or as a timer for yoga or relaxation sessions.

    Might be nice for a therapist's office as well.

    I must say, I had a little cognitive dissonance on first glance, what with the big digital time display coupled with the age-old sound of a chime.

    But the alarm's audible with the hardwood case closed, so I suppose that makes it OK.

    I guess.

    Plugs in with the included adapter; also operates on two AA batteries.


    January 8, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    Susan Sontag


    Charles McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, wrote an article for last Sunday's New York Times about Sontag, who died last week at 71.

    He simply presented a passage from each of her most highly-acclaimed essays.

    I started to quote from his selections, but stopped when I realized that it would be easier simply to present her distilled, rigorous thought as she expressed it.

    The piece follows.

      No Hard Books, or Easy Deaths

      Susan Sontag, who died last week at the age of 71, was the pre-eminent intellectual of our time - visible, outspoken, engaged.

      The life of the mind was for her something both rigorous and passionate, moral and pleasurable, and she brought to it a lifetime of reading, watching and listening (she was a fixture at concerts and dance events) and a prose style of singular clarity and precision.

      Many of her essays were meditations of a sort, in which she brooded over something - the nature of camp, say, or the seductive power of photography - and then worked out her own thoughts and feelings. In the end, they were almost the same thing.

      Her ideas were deeply felt, her feelings deepened by reflection.

      She was by nature a fusionist - someone who could link high art and low, Patti Smith and Nietzsche - and a distruster of false or easy connections, like our way of using metaphor to talk about sickness.

      An excerpt from her unflinching essay "Illness as Metaphor" appears below, along with selections from other works.

      Against Interpretation, 1964

      Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.

      All the conditions of modern life - its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.

      And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, or capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of a critic must be assessed.

      What is important now is to recover our senses.

      We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

      Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there.

      Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

      The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us.

      Notes on Camp, 1964

      I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.

      That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can.

      For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it.

      To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

      Though I am speaking about sensibility only - and about a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous - these are grave matters.

      Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason.

      They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art.

      But this attitude is naïve.

      And even worse.

      To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself.

      For taste governs every free - as opposed to rote - human response. Nothing is more decisive.

      There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste in acts, taste in morality.

      Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.

      One Culture and the New Sensibility, 1965

      Having one's sensorium challenged or stretched hurts.

      The new serious music hurts one's ears, the new painting does not graciously reward one's sight, the new films and the few interesting new prose works do not go down easily.

      The commonest complaint about the films of Antonioni or the narratives of Beckett or Burroughs is that they are hard to look at or to read, that they are "boring."

      But the charge of boredom is really hypocritical.

      There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom.

      Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration.

      And the new languages which the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to the sensibilities of most educated people.

      But the purpose of art is always, ultimately, to give pleasure - though our sensibilities may take time to catch up with the forms of pleasure that art in a given time may offer.

      And, one can also say that, balancing the ostensible anti-hedonism of serious contemporary art, the modern sensibility is more involved with pleasure in the familiar sense than ever.

      On Photography, 1977

      The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust.

      And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: first, because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally self-devouring.

      The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion.

      Our oppressive sense of the transience of everything is more acute since cameras gave us the means to "fix" the fleeting moment.

      We consume images at an ever faster rate and, as Balzac suspected cameras used up layers of the body, images consume reality.

      Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete.

      Illness as Metaphor, 1978

      The policy of equivocating about the nature of their disease with cancer patients reflects the conviction that dying people are best spared the news that they are dying, and that the good death is the sudden one, best of all if it happens while we're unconscious or asleep.

      Yet the modern denial of death does not explain the extent of the lying and the wish to be lied to; it does not touch the deepest dread.

      Someone who has had a coronary is at least as likely to die of another one within a few years as someone with cancer is likely to die soon from cancer.

      But no one thinks of concealing the truth from a cardiac patient: there is nothing shameful about a heart attack.

      Cancer patients are lied to, not just because the disease is (or is thought to be) a death sentence, but because it is felt to be obscene - in the original meaning of that word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses.

      Cardiac disease implies a weakness, trouble, failure that is mechanical; there is no disgrace, nothing of the taboo that once surrounded people afflicted with TB and still surrounds those who have cancer.

      Thirty Years Later..., 1996

      I had come to New York at the start of the 1960's, eager to put to work the writer I had, since adolescence, pledged myself to become.

      My idea of a writer: someone interested in "everything."

      I had always had interests of many kinds, so it was natural for me to conceive of the vocation of a writer in this way.

      And reasonable to suppose that such fervency would find more scope in a great metropolis than in any variant of provincial life, including the excellent universities I had attended.

      The only surprise was that there weren't more people like me.


    January 8, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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