Thoughts and Musings

Resolutions, Redux

It’s time for New Years resolutions. My last post discussed last year’s; this post will discuss this years. This year, again, I have three. I thought of these last week, before the new year. I thought about them while I was up with my friends in Tahoe over my birthday weekend, loving them and feeling loved. I thought about them on the long ride way back, in 2016, now 26, with a whole new year in front of me. And I think all three are good.

My first resolution is to seek less validation from social media. I have found that over the past year I spend not only more and more time social media—and by that I really mean Facebook—but I also judge some part of my self by the response to my posts. This is unhealthy. I should clarify, though, that I don’t dislike Facebook. I have many friends collected over many years with whom I only communicate through Facebook, and they form a network I cherish. It’s not Facebook I dislike—it’s the way that I use it to feel good about myself. 

My second resolution is to call, not text. So much of the drama in my life this past year has come because of the ambiguities of text messages and my inability to do anything but overthink them. It’s gotten to the point that I have nightmares comprised primarily of the dull double buzz of the iPhone. This year, I’d really like to call people rather than text them whenever I can. The problem, as far as I can see it, is that a call is intrusive: they have to pick it up, or let it go. I kind of need a pager.

My third and final resolution is to ask better questions of people. I often think about the Passover Seder and the Four Questions. The so-called questions are really just four answers, explaining “Why is this night different from all other nights?” to four different children. I have always identified not with the good child, or the wicked child, or the simple child, but with the child who is unable to ask. I am deeply curious about other people—their lives, their thought-worlds, their struggles and philosophies. But I am awful at asking the kinds of questions that get them to talk about those things and, more often than not people think I don’t care. I want to learn how to ask.

Might I add other resolutions, as the New Year approaches and goes? Maybe. Will I keep these, as winter turns to summer turns to winter? I hope so. But even if I don’t, I must believe that taking this moment to reflect and decide how to become better is, in itself, an act of self-care that will itself make me better. What are you resolutions?

Resolutions, Revisited

Last year, for the first time, I made New Years’ resolutions. They were three. The first was to sit up taller. The second was to give more sincere compliments. The third was to talk less about whatever the last thing I read was. Later on, I added a fourth, which was to get more into my hips—mainly for climbing and yoga, but also so that the next time “Hips Don’t Lie” comes on in the club I won’t feel that my hips, honest or not, are betraying me.

They say that New Years resolutions should be precise and actionable, not the sort of vague hope for more or less of something that I set for myself. That’s probably true. I didn’t keep track of my compliments in a spreadsheet, nor did I measure the average angle between by back and the back of each chair. But what I was looking for wasn’t measurable results, but a bit more consciousness. I’ll explain why and whether I got it.

I wanted to sit up taller because I slouch. But more than that, I wanted to sit up taller because I wanted to force myself to pay attention to my body jut a little bit more, to become conscious of it, to remind myself that it’s there even when I get lost in the world that is my own head. And it’s a pretty wild world. 

I wanted to give more compliments because I don’t give very many. I don’t tell people what I like about them enough, and I never tell them that I think they look particularly good. But people like hearing that—I like hearing it—especially when it’s true. But like sitting taller, giving compliments is about disposition. I want to notice more about people because I want to notice the world. Again, I want to get outside the world that’s in my head and be in the world as it is. 

Finally, books. I have an annoying habit of referring to other things rather than saying something new. I don’t usually contribute my thoughts to discussions—I’m too much of a chastened skeptic to think that my opinions particularly matter. But what I do is I cite, endlessly, articles and books and opinion by others, whether I support them or actually introduce them because I think they’ll be fun to make fun of. Living life as a bibliography, however, is just as bad as never getting out of your head. I needed to stop—and, I’m sure, no one I’m friends with necessarily wanted to hear that much about whatever had crossed my desk.

How did I do on these dispositional resolutions? It was mixed. Given some of the events in my life recently, I spend more time focusing on my mantras than my resolutions. But they were always there, telling me to pay more attention and to be more present. And, as I formulate resolutions for the coming year, I will keep both these resolutions and their lessons in view. Because without reflection, we cannot fulfill that greatest of commandments: ἐπιμέλεσθαι σεαυτόν, care for the self!

Oh, and can I dance to Shakira now? Only one way for you to find out...


My problems with Star Wars (SPOILERS)

Last night I saw the new Star Wars. It was fine. Maybe it was because I saw it in an empty theater, or maybe because it had been built up so much by everyone who had seen it before me, but I just was a little…disappointed. It started out pretty good, I guess, but I think that was just because I was excited about Star Wars. Here are, in no order, my complaints.

1) No new themes. My friend told me the day before that his biggest complaint was that there were no new themes. I was confused—good vs evil, fathers and sons, weren’t those the only themes Star Wars has ever had? He meant music. No new John Williams themes. But I think because we had had that talk, I was primed to look thematically at the movie. And there were no new themes. Good, evil, fathers, sons, whatever. The same shit. They couldn’t even bring themselves to do mothers and daughters.

2) Lack of motivation. I just don’t get why most of the characters are doing anything most of the time. Like yeah, I the evil guys are evil, but now we know that they’re actually not all evil. Our dude (I shit you not, I can remember none of these people’s names) is a stormtrooper, but realizes what he was doing is “wrong.” Sure, but how did he realize that? I have no idea. He doesn’t say. I sort of imagine him as John Kerry in like 1971. Also, what does the Empire want? Who are they? Who is the Republic? In the original Star Wars the story was so iconic and such a version of the hero’s journey that it didn’t matter—good and evil were archetypes. Now, though, I think you need to have more.

3) Predictability. Wait, so we have a star wars movie with a young hero from a desert planet who finds a cute droid who beeps with important information and has to take it to a hidden fortress before a planet sized weapon destroys another planet—er, sorry, this time another five planets? I can’t wait to find out whether they will be able to deactivate the shields in time!  Oh—is that a father-son encounter on a bridge? Those have been fun in the past, and, well, I guess they could only sign Harrison Ford for one movie. The new cantina band is also way less rocking.

Look—it was a fine movie. I enjoyed it. I’m glad I saw it, mainly because I was risking being a social pariah if I didn’t. Will I watch it again? I doubt it. Do I think it deserves to be the highest grossing movie of all time? No. It’s all been downhill since Titanic.

One Semester Down

I just finished my first semester as a graduate student at Harvard, a semester that began with me standing in a bathroom, the night I landed, staring into the mirror and repeating the phrase “hello, my name is Henry—I’m a graduate student in History at Harvard University” at least twenty times. It never felt right. I fell asleep to “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads.

Now I’m on a flight back to LA. I’m listening to “Going Back to Cali” and thinking about all the freaks on Venice Beach. I just finished my last paper, a hulking 50-page monstrosity that sprawls over several topics and touches on problems I didn’t know existed three months ago. I’ll email it in when I get home. I’m almost home.

What did I learn? A lot. A lot of history, which I won’t bore you with, but also a little bit about what it means to do history at a high level. Two themes emerge. The first is that we stand on an incredible edifice built with tireless dedication and care by generations of scholars. The other is that the foundations of this edifice are in many places unstable, and the only person who is going to tell you when you are building your parapet on a castle whose foundation ultimately lies in the sand is you.

I also realized that I have a problem with trying to find the truth, with trying to find out what really happened. I don’t know if this is a problem with me and my scholarly constitution or just something I’ve picked up by reading too much critical discourse theory. Was there even something that really happened? I don’t know—I sometimes don’t know if I care. But I want to care. Otherwise, it’s just bullshit.

The problem that I’m having was put quite nicely by a friend of mine. He asked whether I could imagine the people I study—so long ago, and in that other country, the past!—as real people. As moral actors. I thought for a bit and admitted that it was very hard. He nodded. “It’s like they’re just little bundles of meaning,” he suggested, and I assented.

Bundles of meaning. Words on a page. Words on a page that can be logically fitted together in ways determined by rules of historical action that, on some level, determine what is and is not possible. Sometimes you realize that a rule can be broken—ships can sail in the winter!—and the pieces can fit together in new ways. But it’s just a semantic puzzle, and the task of the historian is to try to fit the puzzle together in the most aesthetically pleasing way without breaking any of the pieces. Sometimes you can tell when someone thought two pieces fit and forced them to, hoping no one would look too closely and realize a little bit of the meaning on one had had to be clipped to make it work.  

I don’t want to do that. I want to find out what happened. I want to evaluate arguments, and make my own arguments, based not just on what hangs together as a coherent elegant argument but on my best approximation of what actually happened and why. 

And that takes historical empathy. I have a hard enough time empathizing with other people today, let alone people in the past. Sometimes I sit there and I try really hard to think about what the person sitting next to me on the train thinks about the world, her life, her choices. Sometimes I try even harder to think about what Alaric or Justinian felt like waking up every morning. But I can’t. Was the floor cold

I am building the skills to be a great historian. How to find and read manuscripts, judge between differing interpretations of texts, and use the hottest new techniques of computational philology to discern how exactly someone meant a word. But I can’t imagine what it was like to be that person, and my great project must be to find that radical historical empathy. 

Festival of Confliction

I’ve always had a weird relationship with Hanukkah. First, it’s America’s biggest Jewish holiday, and even though I’m not that religious I always knew that it wasn’t Judaism’s biggest holiday. So it made me feel a bit odd. Second, and more importantly, I have mixed feelings about what we’re celebrating.

For those of you who don’t know the story, here it is, in brief: in the centuries after Alexander the Great’s conquests, the Eastern Mediterranean was divided up among several Greek successor states. One of these Greek successor states ruled the kingdom of Judah, where, since the Persian period, a Jewish theological state had ruled. The Greeks who came in brought all the good things about Greece, like gymnasiums and philosophy and statues, as well as the bad—like prejudice against ‘barbarians.’ The Jews were certainly barbarians—have you seen what they do to their penises?

Anyway, the Greeks do their best to suppress Jewish practices. They outlaw circumcision and establish pagan sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. This is all bad, and the Jews revolt, eventually throwing the Greeks out of Israel and reestablishing a Jewish monarchy. And then there’s the whole thing with the lights and the oil but you all know that I’m sure.

The thing is, though, that the Jewish resistance, led by the Maccabees, doesn’t just attack the Greeks. It also attacks Jews, those Jews who were enticed by philosophy, art, and the whole of Greek culture. The first act of the rebellion was the killing of a Hellenized Jew who agreed to make a sacrifice to a Greek idol.

I’m one of those Hellenistic Jews. I don’t keep kosher. I study Greek philosophy. I go to the gymnasium (just got back, actually). I don’t like celebrating a holiday that is primarily about ultra-Orthodox right-wing Jews killing people like me who don’t really care that much about religion and think that Plato’s Symposium is the most beautiful thing ever written.

But then again, the history of the Jewish people, which leads to me, runs through the Maccabees. If they don’t rebel, the Jews probably go the way of every other little sect that gets absorbed into Hellenism. Which isn’t bad, per se—history doesn’t permit sentimentality—but it would be different. I probably wouldn’t be here.

So I’m a bit conflicted. Tonight, while the rabbi who lives across from me had a huge Hannukah party, I’m making a steak and watching the Lakers. I’m hoping we can have our own Hanukkah miracle—or at least not embarrass ourselves. But that’s unlikely. Kobe is currently 0-7.

Oh, and I just put butter on my steak. Take that, Maccabees!

On Kobe's Retirement

I read Kobe’s poem last night twice, the first time waiting for Brandon to take me to my goodbye barbecue, the second time waiting in the airport to board my flight. I am going to miss him, and not just because of this:

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Kobe has been my muse in the same way that basketball has been his. He has inspired me to not only work harder and be better, but to think about why it is that we work harder and how it is that can be better. I still don’t know if I have in me what he took out of himself for the game he loved.

There’s one other aspect of Kobe that I want to highlight today, and that is redemption. Kobe had a brilliant early career. But then, in Colorado, in a situation that is too complex for me to render judgment on other than great disappointment about whatever happened in that hotel room, Kobe risked upending his career. And he was lucky it didn't—today, for better or for worse, a rape allegation would probably have meant the end of his career.*

But Kobe happened to be accused of rape at a moment where people cared (maybe unlike they would have in the past), but when there was still a little bit of privacy and a little time for redemption. And he tried as best he could to redeem himself, by rededicating himself to his family and to his work in a way that few others have. 

As a society today we don’t have much faith in redemption. We are quick to judge, and slow to forgive. We think that mistakes—and yes, sometimes mistakes are awful and horrible—define character, and that character cannot be changed. We lack the compassion to know that we all fail, quite often, and that sometimes we just need to opportunity to go from Kobe to Mamba. To look on our failures--moral, professional, whatever--and transcend them.

So while I often think of Kobe as an inspirational figure because of the work ethic he brings and the dedication to his craft that he instantiates, I think on this day—above all others—we should remember Kobe at his darkest, and be reminded that we can crawl back to the lights even out of the abyss.

I’ll miss you, Kobe, even though we never met. 

*I should say better if it's true, worse if not, and I generally try to avoid making judgments about which is which when I don't really have any evidence.

Leaving the Party

I have three mantras. The first is to only have conversations once. The second is to never let the sound of my own wheels make me crazy. The last one, and the one most relevant right now, is that it’s better to leave a party an hour early than to leave it an hour late.

I left a party recently—my life in LA. I left my friends, my family, my mountains, my beach. I left behind my gaming group, my yoga studio, Mariscos Guillen La Playita, and a couple unconsummated crushes. I left behind the groundedness that comes from knowing where you are, who you are, and what is to be done each day.

One of my buddies once told me that his girlfriend likes to leave parties early. He doesn’t get it—how can you know when you’ve stayed too long unless you do it? I should say we had this conversation sometime in the wee hours of a summer morning as we left Opulent Temple Presents: Sacred Dance. We definitely left that party too early.

Anyway, I left LA. I wanted to stay. I bought my return tickets before I left. I fell in love so I’d have something to come back to. But I always knew, somehow and in the back of my mind, that at some point the party was going to end, and that when it did I would be happier to have left an hour early than I would be to have stayed to the bitter end. 

Yesterday, looking around my room, I found the notebook I brought to Burning Man, the notebook where I dispassionately scrawled everything I loathed about myself. One of the entries, or one series of entries, was about how little agency I let myself have. How little I choose and act and impact. I never drove much, growing up, and would never have a car. I was at the mercy of others for rides, and so a lot of time when I wanted to leave somewhere I couldn’t. A lot of the time I let not being able to leave lead me to stop wanting to choose when to leave. I would stay at parties until the bitter end, always among the last to leave. There it was, right in my notebook, the notebook where I had distilled the me that I was and the me that I wanted to not be: Henry stays at parties too long.

Anyway, back to yesterday, before I found my notebook. I needed to feel how I felt about leaving LA, living in Cambridge, abandoning a life I knew and loved for the great unknown of newness, adventure, hard work, and snow. I needed to wallow in that feeling.* I left behind a great life—a great party. It’s hard to leave a party when all your friends are there. 

Because I came home for Thanksgiving, I was able to see the party still going and decide whether I made the right choice. That’s rare. You don’t get to do that with the Sacred Dance. Once you leave, you’re gone. The music is over. But the party is still going on here. Not much has changed. Each year a little centrifugal force knocks a couple people away—this time, for the first time, me—but new people show up. They’re usually pretty cool. The party abides.

The last three months since I’ve been in LA have radically changed my life. I am living in a different world with different frames of reference. I told a friend that this past summer was another lifetime, and for me but maybe not for anyone else, that’s true. Try as I might I cannot remember what it was like to live here during this past fleeting Indian Summer of my youth, when I frolicked and flirted like a child with my childhood friends one last glorious time.

Now I feel old, like in these twelve weeks I have aged twelve years. In July, I was fourteen, and in a month I turn twenty-six. The party still rages but I don’t recognize the music. I still recognize the crowd, and I still love them, but I am in love with the them I was so unselfconsciously part of, the them that was really a we. Now I feel outside, and as I sit in the corner I fall back into the melancholy memory of those last glorious rays of sunlight as we hiked Topanga that summer evening, of stolen moments in the dead of night around a bonfire, moments that crush me from inside with a sinking weight of nostalgia, regret, and possibilities past and passed. The rhythm of life here, the rhythm that was for so long the rhythm of my soul, feels foreign. 

I don’t know how much longer I would have had to stay in LA before I would have stayed too long. I do know that I left too early.

“There are places I’ll remember all my life…”




*This is a participle, not a noun

Feelin' the Bern

I have decided to vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Primary. This was not an easy decision; I like Hillary. I find her more than likeable enough. So much of my family—both of the biological and chosen variety—is supporting Hillary, however, that I feel obligated to give some explanation of why I am feeling the Bern. This essay will have three sections. The first is a summary of my current political beliefs, more or less a meditation on the Obama years. The second is my positive case for Bernie, and the third is a response to possible counterarguments. It is not designed to persuade but, if you share my political views, you may be persuaded. Read at your own peril!

I volunteered for Barack Obama in 2008. I worked on his reelection campaign. I count his two election night’s among the best nights of my life.  I think he’s done a heckuva job. Healthcare was huge. Saving the economy was big. Knowing how to be a leader on marriage was smart—especially realizing that sometimes being a leader means not leading, but broadcasting that you’ll allow yourself to be pulled. Think about the DREAM Act. I think he’s done good stuff on banks, that his foreign policy has been better than average, that the Iran deal has the potential to be world historical.

He’s not perfect—he royally fucked up the surveillance state stuff, and I think that in retrospect inaction on climate change may mar his legacy. But for the most part, and in the face of bitter, nativist, racist opposition that has at times put the personal destruction of a fundamentally decent man not just above the good of the country but against all of its traditions of governance, Obama has done well. Fifty years from now he will be considered one of our greatest presidents.

But while Barack Obama has done a lot of good things for the nation, the nation itself is not well. It faces threats from three types of enemies. The first are foreign. The second are domestic. And the third are structural.

Foreign enemies have often threatened the United States, and today is no different. We, and the rest of the civilized world, face a fundamentally barbaric threat in ISIS. It is my personal belief that sooner rather than later the world will fall into a clash of civilizations, not the one drawn on facile religious lines by Huntington et al. but one based on the interreligious lines of fundamentalist intolerance against the liberal post-Westphalian tradition, and in that fight as many Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews as ISIS members will be massed in the host arrayed against us. But, between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, I don’t see too much difference on foreign policy. They are both technocrats who lean away from war—Hillary less so than Bernie—and will defer to the security apparatus and the military industrial complex.

As for domestic threats, those come from the Republican Party, which over the last eight years has responded to its absolute failure of governance during the younger Bush’s administration by shedding any pretense of legitimate political aims and abdicating all responsibility toward the nation. I will not here repeat the litany of obstructions, parliamentary tricks, idiotic policy proposals and suicidal political strategies that the GOP has repeatedly put forward over the last few years. I will just note that John Boehner just quit. The Republican candidates live in a fantasy world, and God help us all if any of them should become President.

So a Democrat must win. Really, any of our candidates would be better than any of theirs, and so by compromising our ability to win we would not only disservice the Democratic party but abdicate our duty as citizens. Why, then, vote for Bernie? Why not vote for Hillary, who must—must!—have a better chance than Bernie to win a national election. He is, after all, a 74-year-old Jewish socialist from Vermont. If voting for him were to make a Republican more likely to win, voting for him would be a dereliction of duty.

But here’s the thing: in a world where Hillary Clinton loses the nomination to Bernie Sanders, things have gone so wrong with her campaign that she would get smoked by Marco Rubio. Hillary Clinton is an awful campaigner. She was bad in 2008; she’s been bad so far in 2016. This isn’t to say she’s a bad politician—there’s a lot more to politics than slapping backs and kissing babies, and she’s good at raising money and building alliances. Everything suggests she’d be great at the actual process of governing. Her head is in the right place, her policies are good, and she would probably get a lot done. But she is bad at campaigning, and if the slow trickle of scandals and the dull drone of flagging enthusiasm mean that she loses to Bernie, well, she wasn’t going to win the general anyway.

But that’s not the reason I’m voting for Bernie. That’s just how I can sleep at night knowing I’m not helping Ted Cruz. The reason I’m voting for Bernie Sanders is because of the third threat. The third threat is a structural enemy. We live in the age of Piketty. We are witnessing the growth of an international capitalist class whose power comes not from promoting policies that help people but from wielding huge sums of money to subvert democracy. I won’t go into the statistics: just watch a Bernie Sanders speech. The world is becoming less equal. While spiraling inequality might not be bad in and of itself (I think it’s fine, as long as everyone is doing better, but they’re not), it points to a greater problem we face: the fates of the elite are, in the short run, becoming less and less tied to the fate of the rest of the nation. 

This again, isn’t bad in itself—nationalism is pretty awful—but I happen to really like America. And if you look back, the untethering of the fate of elites from the fate of a state precedes the end of that state, and it’s never pretty, for the elites or the rest of us. The problem we will face in the future is a disjunction between the fate of the United States and the fortunes of the powerful within her. Like Rome in the waning days of the Republic (speaking of facile analyses) we have a system that is losing the trust of those in it. And we need to make a statement.

I am voting for Bernie Sanders not because I think that anything that he will do in office will be meaningfully different from what Hillary would do. Government will still be divided—gerrymandering has seen to that. State governments will be in the hands of Republicans and the next President will, whatever his or her views (and I still think we should assume it’s a her), have to compromise. In fact, given her ability to be flexible, I think Hillary could get a more done than Bernie. She would probably be a better President. But the next president has only one main job: to keep everything that Obama has done (but mainly healthcare) in place until it becomes permanent, in the face of Republican opposition that refuses to see reason and facts. Both Hillary and Bernie are going to do this and do a good job at it. Anything else is icing on the cake or, hopefully, the arctic.

What a Bernie Sanders Presidency would be is a symbolic victory against the forces of crony capitalism and the dominance of American life by a so-called meritocracy that adopts progressive positions out of a sense of charity towards the less fortunate and a paternalistic discomfort with its own privilege that, in a different age, we might call noblesse oblige. The world that we live in is a hyper-liberal (in the bad sense of the term) world in which money has devalued all other values and the market has become enshrined as a new god. That is awful. We need to resist that.

But we need to resist it in a smart way. Those of my radical friends out there are reading this and thinking that I have developed a false consciousness, that I have bought hook line and sinker the illusion of free choice while remaining constricted within the two party system of the US. I accept those criticisms, and say, ‘so what?’ Politics is the art of the possible. Over the last eight years the slow and steady politicking of my second favorite President has brought more good to the American people than the posturing of radicals has in decades. We need to defend that, and the way to do that is through politics. The way to do that is through a combination of hard legislative work and overarching symbolic victories. Bernie Sanders gives us both.

My friends in the establishment of the Democratic Party will accuse me—have accused me—of two things. The first is making the party weaker by dividing it. The second is equating Hillary with the Republicans. I reject both of those statements. If Hillary cannot defeat Bernie Sanders, she would lose the general. And, as I think every Democrat knows—as I have certainly made clear—Hillary is far better than the best Republican. But I’m not voting based on who I think will be a good President.

I am voting for Bernie Sanders because I am a Democrat who believes in the progressive movement. I am voting for Bernie Sanders because I believe that we stand at a crossroads, where we can either register our complaint with the way that the country is going within a progressive and populist and productive movement, or we can sit back and watch the financial elites of this country carry us to victory on a platform of identity politics and liberal guilt that, although it gives us good policies, does not bring with it the fundamental drive for large scale reform. And even if that reform doesn’t happen—I’m a realist, after all—I am voting for Bernie Sanders because I want to make it clear that those reforms are necessary. And, if and when he loses, I will proudly cast my vote for Hillary.




High Holy Days

The Jewish High Holidays—or, as my rabbi would insist, High Holy Days—are some of my favorite days of the year. They are not easy days, nor fun days. For those who don’t know, the High Holy Days are a period of ten days, beginning on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur, in which we each examine our lives, seek forgiveness for our sins (in Hebrew, nicely, to sin is merely to ‘miss the mark’), and finally make resolutions for the year ahead.  Tradition says that on Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur he closes it. During those ten days, as the prayer Unetaneh Tokef says, he writes the fate of every being for the next year: who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, etc. etc.

Leonard Cohen does a pretty good cover of the prayer.

I have always liked Yom Kippur for three reasons.

The first is that we fast. Fasting is not easy, but it is nice to experience lack of food every once and a while. As clichéd as it is, it makes you appreciate it more when you have it, and you empathize a little with those who don’t. It also just makes you notice food more—how it surrounds you, how it structures your life, the little signals your body gives as to when you want it. It’s also refreshing to be able to tell your body no, to say that today, at least, I am going to endure a little bit and not be a slave to you the way I am every other day of the year.

The second reason I like Yom Kippur is that it provides a communal setting for individual introspection. As a community, we ask forgiveness for an incredible list of sins, and while I haven’t done nearly all of them in the past year, there are always some that I have done that I wouldn’t have thought of without the list. This year, two stuck out to me in particular, especially because they followed on another:

“In the last year I have missed the mark more than I want to admit…

By revealing my heart before those who neither wanted nor needed to see it;

By hiding love, out of fear of rejection, instead of giving love freely.”

And this has been my struggle over the past year and past lifetime. How do you balance being calm, stoic, and there for others with the need to express your own feelings? How do you let people know what you think and feel without overwhelming them with your life when their life is just as important and meaningful to them as yours is to you? On Yom Kippur, I am able to engage with these struggles not as an individual who has come into this world knowing nothing but as a member of a community, the human community, in which this struggle is universal enough to make it into the liturgy. 

It's also vital to remember that none of us are perfect. We have all fallen short of the mark, in more ways than we can imagine and in more ways than we can admite. Every day should be a day taken in awe and reverence of the fact that--even though we are imperfect beings, so imperfect, flawed and weak, who hurt ourselves and others so much even when we try not to--we are alive and as long as we are alive we can get better. And it's not just each one of us.

The final thing about Yom Kippur is that it’s about asking forgiveness, but it’s also about atoning. In the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, we ask God for forgiveness, but Yom Kippur is not the day of forgiveness. It is the day of atonement, and you can only atone through action. You have to find the people you’ve wronged and do right by them. This is a lot harder than fasting, and it’s an ongoing project. It takes self honesty and the ability to make oneself vulnerable to others, to ask them to forgive you not out of the charity in their heart because you have tried to make things better.


Reflections on Losing My Hair

In the abstract, I’ve always known that my hair would fall out. The fact that it would probably happen sooner, rather than later, prompted me to try to grow it out this past spring. It was sort of a joke, but people seem to like it. Right now it’s the longest it’s ever been, but that probably won’t last. Every time I take a shower I notice a few stray hairs come out, and I’m told that process will only accelerate until I have to either invest in a Lebron-style headband or, in the words of Charles Barkley, “come home.”

This change has coincided with some other big changes. I’ve moved across country, and although I was initially very distraught to leave my friends, family, favorite restaurants, and beach behind, I am settling into what will probably be most of a decade in Cambridge, MA. It’s too bad they didn’t found Harvard in Santa Monica, but I have found a yoga studio, a climbing gym, a Chinese restaurant, and an “urban oasis and organic café,” so I don’t feel like I’m missing too much. Except for friends and family and, of course, the beach.

I’ve also been having a reflective week not just because of where I am but because of where I’m not: Burning Man. Last year, I had a radically self-transformative experience in the desert, and much of what has gone on in my mental world over the last year has been an attempt to try to tease out the consequences and significance of that transformation. It was a transformation that was painful in many respects—I realized that the person I am now is the largely formed version of my self and that whatever I do with the rest of my life I will have to do it with and from this self. That doesn’t mean I can’t, in the words of Plotinus, keep carving my statue every day, but most of the marble has been knocked away and I doubt I can turn the rough form of an overthinking intellectual into, say, and instinctive athlete. Not, I think, that I would—but I can’t.

Tonight the Temple burns in Black Rock City. A year ago I promised myself I would do whatever I could to be there. I’m not. I’m disappointed, but I know intellectually that I made the right decision and I, maybe more than anyone should, respect intellectual knowledge even as I struggle against it.

I listened to the Beatles today—“There are places I remember,” the song goes, “all my life, though some have changed.” A few days before I left for Cambridge I went hiking in Topanga with many of my best friends. At one point we stopped, debating whether to go back to where we had spent an idyllic hour protected from the beating sun under the canopy of a massive, low-slung tree. Grayston turned to me and said, “you know, you can go back, but it won’t be the same.” He was—and always is—curious about what’s beyond the next bend, and he convinced me to be curious as well. So here I am, thousands of miles away from the people and places I love.

 I’ve been remembering a lot of places this week. All those places do have moments, of lovers and friends whom I still can and do recall, and as I move forward I hope to remember them and return to them, even though they will never be the same. I just hope that, hair or no hair, I’m someday able to come home. 

© Henry Gruber 2013