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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Thursday
Sep192013

You win some, you lose some — and then there’s Claudia Lennear

Everyone seemed to like this essay about how learning to practice religion is analogous to learning a sport, while nobody (at least on Twitter) seemed to like this piece expressing skepticism about giving your children classical-music lessons. I hear that this Times column about synagogues and High Holiday dues spoke to some people ... but it was their holiday season, and they were too busy fasting to drop me a line.

Strangely, people who were angered by classical-music piece (mainly music teachers, I think) were very likely to start following me on Twitter. As if to give me more chances to infuriate them.

Meanwhile, Spotify helped me find Claudia Linnear’s version of “Let It Be,” recorded in concert with Joe Cocker. And that is pretty great. I mean, check it out:

 

Sunday
Aug112013

Yes, religion can make you less creative. I’ll tell you how.

Reading this post by Rod Dreher, in response to a post by Colin Wood, I can only say that I think they skip past one of the major reasons that being religious might make you less creative: if it makes you less fun or irreverent. That is to say, sure, the strictures of religion can paradoxically make you fruitful, but not if they are so strict or rigorous—so orthodox—that you become a pill. Not if you can’t take a joke, about your religion or about anything else. Not if you become so uptight that you can’t abide profanity, heresy, or apostasy.

If your religion prohibits you from using profane words, it might make you more creative, because you have to find fresher and better ways to say what you are trying to say, rather than falling back on hackneyed profanities. But if your religion has so straitjacketed your thought that you can’t even think profane thoughts, then of course it has made you less creative. One might almost say that a huge part of creativity involves lusting in your heart, then finding ways to make art of that lust; but if some brand of orthodox religiosity has worked you over too well, and you can’t even admit your heart-lust to yourself, then as an artist you are probably screwed.

There are other obvious points to make. Much art, if not all, comes from a culture of outward conviviality. Whatever beautiful seeds might grow in a monastery whose inhabitants have taken a vow of silence, we have to admit that its residents are unlikely to produce good theater. In a community that is always policing its music for hints of the secular or profane, there is unlikely to be great music composition. Some religious people have always been skeptical of theater, or critical of lewd dance (which they may see as all dance). I think the point is clear ...

Those who deny the obvious ways that religiosity can stifle art are working from certain Reformed Protestant assumptions, according to which religiosity and modernity can find an accommodation, and according to which fundamentalism is a threat adequately, if not always easily, managed. In the real world, that ain’t always how it works out—not for Orthodox Jews of Boro Park, Brooklyn; not in the Mormon Church (with a poor track record of producing great art); not in Catholic religious life (where it depends vastly on what order we’re speaking of); not in much of the contemporary Islamic world; and so forth ...

None of this is to say that there aren’t deeply religious people who have made great art, art which may have been enhanced by their religiosity. But it can surely work the other way, too.

Saturday
Aug102013

Oh, I just think I’ll be a writer. Just like that.

In tomorrow’s New York Times real estate section—my wife’s (and my) guilty pleasure—there is an article about people who buy an extra apartment in their own building. It begins thus:

Freddie Gershon lives with his wife, Myrna, and his dog in a penthouse duplex with a terrace in Midtown East. The space is plenty big, he concedes — 6,500 square feet.

But apparently not quite big enough. Last month, Mr. Gershon, the chief executive of Music Theatre International, a licensing agency, closed on some additional real estate in his co-op: a one-bedroom 1,000-square-foot unit on the fourth floor.

“I have reached a point in my life where I want to write,” he said. “I have a book in mind, and I wanted a sanctuary that didn’t require me to get dressed and go outside. I wanted to go to the passenger or service elevator and just go to a different floor.”

Mr. Gershon—he of the penthouse duplex that you could fit two of my three-story house inside of, with room to spare—has managed to land squarely in the capital of pet-peeve land, as far as I am concerned. I mean, I cannot be the only one who think it is just ever so charming when amateur writers, people with no reason to believe they have any writing ability whatsoever, decide that they have a book in them. Mr. Gershon manages to demean the writing life in several ways, treating it as something that apparently anyone can do, at the same time that he sequesters writing in that “point in [one’s] life,” that is to say, in one’s retirement, when one takes up self-satisfied pursuits like gentleman farming, or running for the historical commission.

Here let me say that, as someone with a bit of a career as a writer, I actually don’t think writing is that hard. Not relative to some other vocations. If you can speak good, clear English, have an idea or two in you, and know how to read and write, you are well on your way to writing something reasonably compelling. But by that I mean only to say that Mr. Gershon may be able to write a decent 700-word op-ed piece, more surely than he can quickly learn to play lute or win archery competitions. Writing a book, on the other hand, at least a professional-quality book, is hard work. And the skills it takes to write a book, one that people want to read, are not apparently transferrable from other careers. Mr. Gershon works in music licensing—why does he think he can write a book? Does he think he can do particle physics?

For further evidence that Mr. Gershon is off to a poor start, consider this, also from the article:

Mr. Gershon said he had tried working at home. “But then I’d hear the phones,” he said. “Or I’d get distracted by the view of the river.”

I hope that Mr. Gershon proves me wrong—I hope he writes a terrific book that people flock to read. Meanwhile, however, he might consider this other characteristic of real writers: they don’t have the luxury of being distracted by a view of the river. Most of us writers, if we had done well enough to have a 6,500 square-foot penthouse duplex,wouldn’t need to buy an additional studio apartment just to put pen to paper.

Monday
Jul292013

Yes, Reader, you are a Puritan.

Big thanks to Andrew Sullivan for keeping the ball rolling on my New Republic “Fatherland” column of earlier this month, in which I argued that we liberals have sold out our liberal birthright — to be more laid-back than market-driven conservatives — by obsessing over purity and utopian notions of sanitation (among other things). Not just Sully but much of the blogosphere has been peculiarly interested in this topic, and I would have stayed in the battle more visibly if my wife had and I had not welcomed a baby just two weeks ago. But now we’re in the swing of things (hey, it’s our fourth), so I’d like to have my say again.

And to have my say, I need only point to the utter wingnuttery of the reader Sullivan quoted today, addressing my column. See my comments below, interspersed with his or hers:

As a progressive liberal parent, parenting in progressive liberal Seattle, I’m finding the lopsided caricature of liberal parenting presented recently on the blog to be rather unfair. In the specific case of fluoridation, it is by no means proven that fluoride is harmless –  some studies have linked fluoride to disruption of the endocrine system, leading to metabolic disorders and thyroid problems.  Could America’s obesity rates be somehow linked to its obsession with fluoridating its water?  The case against fluoridation is given here.

OK, so science is not this parent’s thing. Everything is toxic at a high-enough dose, but millions of Americans over many decades have grown up with fluoridated water — in fact, Portland is one of the last large cities in the country not to have fluoridated water. We have millions of case studies of the effects of fluoridated water, and the effect seems to be ... healthier teeth. Speaking of which, our country's obesity spike occurred well after cities began putting fluoride in the water. In short, this line of argument is worthless, as well as elitist: note that the author doesn’t seem to care at all about the profound need in poor communities for the dental-health measures that the author can take for granted.

But in general, I would consider being against fluoridation to be a somewhat conservative stance. To me the idea of adding medicines to drinking water seems to be the nanny state operating at its finest (there is no other reason for adding fluoride to water beyond the prevention of tooth decay).  If I want to use fluoride, then it’s super simple for me to just buy a fluoridated toothpaste, giving me a degree of choice and control over what I put into my body that federally-mandated fluoridation just doesn’t give me.

Indeed, I made the point that anti-fluoridation is, properly, a stance of the far right. It used to be, as it happens, a stance primarily of the far right. As to "simple ... just to buy fluoridated toothpaste," this is doubly offensive. First, the author misunderstands the science — having fluoride in the water helps the teeth grow in strong — and, second, the author smugly forgets the children growing up in homes without a regular supply of toothpaste, or supervised tooth brushing. They need this public health measure most.

On a more general note, I’m a firm believer in “you are what you eat”. I don’t think it’s an accident that my daughter is very rarely sick.

 I can only say that millions of parents are laughing along with me right now. “My daughter” — you mean your only child, the one without siblings bringing home colds and fevers to share? When my wife and I had just a “my daughter,” we used to be smug about how rarely she was sick. Now that “daughter” has become “daughters,” we laugh less. They are sick more. And by the way, we’re vegetarians, our kids eat very healthily ... and still they get sick.

It’s because she generally gets her five fruits and vegetables a day.  But I have to be vigilant over what my eight-year-old daughter puts in her body because no one else is doing it for me.  Added sugars, salt, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated fats are routinely added to processed foods, often when you would least expect them. Why do juice boxes require added sugar? Wherever she goes – camps, after school activities, birthday parties – she is presented with an overwhelming abundance of boxed pizza, boxed mac ‘n cheese and processed sugary treats. Try finding a vegetable, or even fruit,  on any kids menu in America. And that’s before we get to the barrage of propaganda on behalf of (government subsidized) Big Ag that she’s subjected to every time she turns on the TV.
Oh boy. I guess I should be grateful this author is proving my point entirely: some so-called liberal parents are totally bonkers, like Lyndon LaRouche, gold standard, Ayn Rand bonkers. “Five fruits and vegetables a day” — what do you do if she goes to bed with only four? Wake her up and force-feed her a cumquat? (Did I spell that right?) You guard against sugar and salt — both totally fine consumed in moderation? In fact, necessary? And no boxed pizza? Is this childhood, or Orange Is the New Black — with Mom as the Porn-stache the guard?
It seems to me that “conservatism” is all about preserving the status quo of Big Ag and Big Pharma, whereas it is we progressive liberals who are seeking to return to and conserve an earlier simpler world where we can all have access to nutritious food grown in proper soil by local farmers. If we occasionally seem paranoid and over-zealous – and we are sometimes – it’s because that simple goal is nowadays really difficult to achieve.
Well, that is one way of looking at it. I was calling on progressives to take a different point of view: that our politics should be, in part, about stress reduction, and that sometime simpler, stress-free living might mean ordering Domino’s pizza (in a box!) and not having to wash off the sin in “proper soil” the next day.
Monday
Jul222013

Roll this column and smoke it, bra

In my latest Beliefs column in The New York Times, I wrote about Hawaii resident Roger Christie, whose defense against a federal drug indictment is that his religion commands him to distribute marijuana (suggested “donation”: as high as $1,000).

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