Bookshelf: Larry Niven

ONE NICE THING ABOUT BEING laid up is the chance to reacquaint myself with some old childhood friends; e.g., Larry Niven and his Known Space series.

For those who don’t know, Known Space is a 60-light-year-diameter bubble and a thousand to a billion-plus years of human history. It’s also a pile of novels and short stories written in a breezy 1970s-Southern-California style depicting a leisure-filled vision of cheap space travel, engaging aliens and lifespans in the centuries.

I started reading Larry Niven when I was eight years old. Then, I didn’t understand much beyond the cool spaceships and moving sidewalks. Now, I can appreciate his familiar descriptives (“The beach was a perfect beer-party beach.” “Ever notice how all spaceships are starting to look the same?”), ledes (“It was noon of a hot blue day.” “Then, the planet had no name”) and occasional asides to the reader (“Harry Kane used a word your publisher will probably cut”). I also like how fannish his stories are, filled with references to everything from filk to fanspeak.

But these days I find I’m enjoying his immortals. Cheap longevity, in Niven’s universe, makes philosophers of us all (except for those it makes bored and master-criminally ambitious), and the dialog between those of double- and triple-digit age captures the instant impetuousness of the former and thoughtful wisdom of the latter. At 47, I’m beginning to understand why it takes so long to acquire wisdom (or something that looks like it) — it can take years of repeated exposure to varied but thematic circumstance before a human being begins not to take the Universe personally. Even then, it’s a crapshoot whether or not he’ll learn what else it can teach; until then, it’s difficult to learn anything at all.

But Niven shows us that learning is easy — as well as fun, and occasionally profitable. Here’s to Known Space and the brave souls which it inspires!

Dinner: Inadvertent Hobbitry

AS HOBBITS AND THOSE WHO love them know, nothing makes a meal like a heap o’ mushrooms. Around here, that usually means skilleted with garlic, onions, tomatoes and a big sausage and lovingly ladled atop fettucine or capellini. But last night, I forwent both garlic and pasta for a little something I call the Inadvertent Hobbit (serves 2):

– Two big Italian turkey sausages (sweet, unless you like spicy)
– Four slices turkey bacon, diced
– Vidalia onion, roughly chopped
– 12 crimini mushrooms, quartered
– Olive oil
– Sherry
– Pinch of rosemary, thyme, basil, salt

Brown sausage on all sides, about 10 minutes. Add enough olive oil to brown the bacon and turn the onions translucent, then do that too. Add herbs to taste (I use a smaller pinch of rosemary than of basil and thyme). Deglaze with sherry and add mushrooms. Revel in the homey aroma, then cover and simmer for another 10 minutes. Line two rustic-looking dishes with the non-sausage ingredients and put the sausage on top. Contemplate life’s simple pleasures, and enjoy.

Between Unravelings

After further conversation, it seems my employer has rescinded my termination — which is good news for a May 19 diagnostic. As the company’s health insurance is now guarded by a fierce COBRA, however, the financial effect is the same, and my suggestion that I be re-fired in order to qualify Ann & I for the 65% discount having met with indignation only one of us is now insured.

But the California towhees are in full urgent voice, and through across-the-creek windows the skyclutching oak is shafted with slantwise gold spilling cloudlike through the cypress behind.

Today, at least, is good.

Leaving room for silence

Of all the apparent opposites which Judaism wrestles to reconcile — free will v. predestination, universalism v. particularism, applesauce v. sour cream — one of the most paradoxically fertile is words v. the Wordless.

Maimonides, the great 12th century rabbi and commentator, wisely stayed out of this fray — he was more comfortable describing God in terms of what God wasn’t than in telling people what God was. Maimonides wasn’t the only one who felt this way; in fact, much of our liturgy describes the indescribability of God at great and poetic length.

Take, for example, the following words of the Chatzi Kaddish, which our ancestors loved so much they used it to mark the transition between different parts of every prayer service (translation from the new Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah): “Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise and comfort.”

Even more to the point is Nishmat: “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues full of joy in countless waves, and our lips full of praise as wide as the sky’s expanse, and were our eyes to shine like sun and moon; if our hands were spread out like heaven’s eagles and our feet swift like young deer, we could never thank You adequately, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, to bless Your name for a ten-thousandth of the many myriads of times You granted favors to our ancestors and to us.”

If that’s the case, then why bother? If God can’t be talked about, why do we keep talking?

One answer, from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is, “A little is also good.” Since nobody can really appreciate God on a Godly scale, that means a level praying field for everybody. But just as each thing helps us understand its apparent opposite, perhaps our seemingly ceaseless God-talk is also one half of a whole picture: and why our most central prayer, repeated twice daily, begins: “Shema … Listen.”

Slow Motion Slide, with Incredulity

SO LAST WEDNESDAY IS 4/8/9. I go to pick up my medication. The pharmacist tells me I have no insurance. The insurance company tells me my employer terminated it 3/31/9. My employer answered the phone two days later to say that 3/31/9 was also when I was terminated.

It would have been nice not to learn it from the pharmacist.

An Apology to Douglas Rushkoff

In my previous, I made a cutting remark about Douglas Ruskoff’s “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism.” While my opinion remains that the book is deeply flawed, as noted by, among others,, I didn’t intend to be dismissive. For one thing, Rushkoff obviously cares enough about Judaism to want to help keep it relevant; for another thing, his book is aimed at people who don’t know that the tradition wants to be questioned. If “Nothing Sacred” encourages even one Jew to say, “Maybe there’s something to this after all” and start studying on his or her own, how is that a Bad Thing?

Perhaps My Brains Have Turned To Sand

(To my friend Richard, who’s been politely hocking me a cheinik about writing this for the past too-long of a while. Title scooped from a Brian Eno lyric.)

Let me just say that the past four months have been, without a doubt, the weirdest %$#@!ing life-interval (pardon my language) that I have EVER experienced.

I may have to rethink my life-long dream of settling Mars; I’ve been more-than-less constantly indoors for nigh on 120 days — half the duration of a Red Planet run — and would be furtively eyeing the hatches at this point in the journey.

A quick summary with lotsa jargon: last November, I began experiencing sporadic and severe pain in the right-upper-quadrant of my abdomen. On December 17, my gall-bladder was removed; a week later, I was back in the ER with near-fatal liver enzyme levels occasioned by an operation-induced liver hematoma. (Oh, yeah, and I had to be defibrillated again. The look on the ER doc’s face is more easily imitated than described.) A string of subsequent diagnoses (and other hospital visits) indicating biliary dyskinesia led me mid-February to the Cal Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco for a sphincterotomy of Oddi, which scared the living bejeebus out of my partner but only relieved the pain for a week. At this writing, a second gastroenterologist is exploring the possibility that the gall bladder surgery damaged my liver; I had a CT scan Tuesday and have a followup appointment next Wednesday for the results.

Quicker still, no jargon: After two surgeries, three near-death experiences, four months and a pile of ER visits, my gut still hurts — to the extent that, even with concentration-destroying meds, I can sit up for only a couple of hours at a time. (It’s taken me two days to write this, for example.) I’ve been off work since Dec. 1 and receiving disability; Ann was laid off January 4, and we have been surviving largely due to the generosity of our community. Meanwhile, career, chaplaincy (see previous entry) and almost everything else is on hold until I Get Better.

It’s been incredibly, terribly (in the word’s original sense), wonderfully humbling to be the recipient of so many wishes and good thoughts, of food and financial help. It’s also been very, very, very weird to need it, as well as to had a gurney’s-eye view of worry-drawn Ann (in San Francisco, collapsed exhausted next to my hospital bed on a pile of blankets) and looming medical personnel and machines that go “ping” and tubes that go everywhere. On the other hand, it helps to remind myself of all the unread books I used to wish I had time to read. There are fewer of those around the house now, with the intention of fewer still. (Most entertaining so far have been Fleming’s James Bond series and Douglas Rushkoff‘s “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism,” which makes some bad arguments in favor of some excellent pints about issues raised as early as 500 years ago by people who hadn’t recently rediscovered Judaism.)

The weirdest part, and this happened right after the Great San Francisco Valentines Day Adventure, has been this near constant sense of … amnesia? Disconnection? As though I’ve forgotten how to be me, or rather of what sort or type of essence constitutes Nealness. It’s a very difficult sensation to describe — an unfulfilling counterpoint to the sort of ego-loss experienced through meditation, prayer, psychedelics or orgasm — but I bet it’s not uncommon among those in semi-isolation. Evidently we need people around us to remind us who we are (just as we sometimes need solitude to remember Who we are). We also need something to do — something by which to define ourselves — something to make the days count, or at least make them different. (Which they inherently are, of course, but that’s not always easy to see.) This, in turn, raises the question — are we more than our social roles or contacts? Do we, like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, vanish in-between scenes peopled by Other Characters? To tell you the truth, sometimes it has felt that way. An uncomfortable thought, that — more uncomfortable, in fact, than the constant sensation of apparent impalement-through-the-right-side.

But on the other hand, I have fingers that can type (sort of) and I can get up and go for walks (briefly) and to the store (if it’s not something too heavy, or requires more than an hour’s travel). Since some poor bastards can’t even move, or have their organs on the outside which they empty into buckets, I’m not doing too badly.

A few years ago, not long after I’d recovered from cancer surgery, I spoke with a sheriff’s deputy who’d just spent six months laid up with a back injury. Comparing our fates, he grinned and asked, “How many cracks are in your ceiling?”

“It’s not the cracks so much,” I said, “as what lives inside them.”