The Cost of Doing Business in Berkeley

Today is a sad and painful anniversary for me. Twenty years ago, I was mugged in broad daylight after leaving a restaurant on a bright, sunny autumn day. I was injured and left for dead in the middle of street. It is only by the grace of God that I am alive to tell the tale, for He gave me the superhuman strength to get up off the concrete, and He sent me two of his lovely people to help me.

Of course, there wasn’t even a teeny tiny mention in the local newspaper about what happened. Being a victim of crime around here is as commonplace as the ubiquitous scam artists and the madmen screaming at the top of their lungs at the demons in their heads.

In the world of business, there is an expression, that unnecessary expenses are just “the cost of doing business.” When it comes Berkeley, the black eyes and broken noses, and much much worse, are simply the cost of living in or anywhere near Berkeley.

All of this carnage is a well kept secret. You won’t read about it in the San Francisco Chronicle or in the glossy SF Magazine. You won’t hear about it from the locals, or learn about it if you and your offspring take a UC Berkeley college tour. If a resident dares to mention it, there is immediate denial, obfuscation, and words designed to silence, blame, and shame the victim, e.g., privilege, social justice, imperialism, and the like.

There are no Occupy movements around here protesting the obscene amount of violence; no citizen uprisings, even when victims are women; children; gays viewed as easy targets; college students who come here hoping to become part of the dream; Asian immigrants, who escaped brutal regimes only to find more brutality in Berkeley.

There are no shout outs, no righteous indignation, no tears and no grieving when people are robbed not just of their belongings but of basic dignity. Of course, those same deluded victims will oftentimes excuse the act and defend the perpetuators as victims themselves, thus enabling this vicious cycle to continue.

Silence can be both a beautiful and a deadly thing: silence is beautiful when beholding a sunset, or a new baby; or when worshipping God and feeling His Presence. But silence can be repugnant and deadly, too, such as when the truth is suppressed through bully and fear tactics. Dare to speak out about an obvious fact — the astronomical black on white/Asian crime — and you’ll be called a. . . well, need I say more here? We all know how the game works, the thugs more than anyone else.

Instead of speaking the truth, new versions of reality are constructed; for instance, that no one in the whole wide world is luckier than those of us in Berkeley; and, that we are special, set apart from the unenlightened heathens, with their big families and noisy children and their churchgoing and all of those ridiculous flags displayed on the 4th of July.

Although the amount of mental illness, depression, drug use, muggings, rapes, and general heartache around here far surpasses anything seen in flyover country, still the myths are promoted and embraced. In place of the child never birthed or the love of one’s life never found, these myths keep people in Berkeley warm and secure in the dead of the night.

The suppression of truth in the Bay Area, supposedly the most open-minded place on earth, reminds one of larger suppressions, for instance, in Communist China. There the state runs the news outlets, which are carefully monitored. And then there’s the old Soviet Union, and how, even today, dissidents beg the US to have their papers published or housed in libraries, only to be rebuffed over and over again. Some secrets, I suppose, are too hot to touch.

Berkeley, Oakland, SF are a lot like that: full of secrets, mythology, and outright lies. For instance, no one dare tell the real story behind those fabled anti-war and civil rights movements of the 60s, for instance, the misogyny and the brutality towards women, much of which spawned the angry feminist movements of the 70s.

But the truth about Berkeley, both then and now, is like a third rail; no one wants to touch it, not even with a ten foot pole. In most residents’ minds, the mayhem and madness are no big deal; they are simply the cost of doing business and living around Berkeley. But for some of us, there is an untold cost, one that we can never get over, not even after 20 years.

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Wild Nights are Calling

And all the girls walk by
Dressed up for each other
And the boys do the boogie-woogie
On the corner of the street

And the people, passing by
Stare in wild wonder
And the inside juke-box
Roars out just like thunder

And everything looks so complete
When you walk out on the street
And the wind catches your feet
And sends you flying, crying

Wild night is calling

–Wild Night, Van Morrison

Like most of us, I have sweet memories of my childhood Halloweens. I still have photographs of my various girlie outfits, such as dressing as a princess or a fairy. But come adolescence, my peers and I were over Halloween. We saw ourselves as too grown up and cool to adorn ourselves in silly costumes. Same with college. . .as well as onward into adult years. Halloween was child’s play, a time for kids to just be kids.

Fast forward a few decades. Now Halloween is no longer a day focused on the children. The teens and the adults have gotten into the act. At some point, Halloween became a Wild Night for adults of all ages to let their primitive impulses run wild. College girls unleash their inner hookers, as do some of the boys as well. Playboy bunnies, strippers, French maids. . . nothing is off limits as Halloween becomes about pure, decadent fun.

Of course, it’s also okay nowadays to mock political and authority figures on Halloween; nothing is too mean-spirited as to be off limits. Growing up, it would have been unheard of to scorn those in authority with a contemptuous costume. But the 60’s ended all of this, with its animosity towards police, the military, and anyone else who takes on a grown-up role.

Robert Bly, in his insightful book called the Sibling Society, says that we’ve become a society of siblings, with very few people willing to step up as true men and women. I imagine that in your neck of the woods, there are many grown-ups; perhaps you are one of them. But out here, it’s perpetual adolescence, and a holiday like Halloween magnifies this. Throughout society, it has become harder and harder to find true blue adults. And those who take their places as society’s elders open themselves up to humiliation and scorn.

Why has all of this happened? Why such a drastic change from what was the norm for centuries, that is, appropriate boundaries between the young and the old? There are so many possible reasons why. Of course, the 60s unleashed a genie in the bottle of primitive impulses, most of which are not healthy for self or others. The music, media, and schools have all programmed people to believe that anything associated with the older generation is bad.

But along with the social engineering, there are, I think, other, deeper reasons for the forever Peter Pans. It has to do with un-anchoring people from the parts of life that offer meaning and hope: God, faith, family, love of country. With people left to fend for themselves without any belief system aside from their own, they are untethered, lost. Deep inside, they remain terrified about life and maybe even more than that. . about death.

For so many people this one, precious life means only the now, pleasure, fun. Halloween personifies what we have become as a culture and a people: stunted, shallow, self-indulgent.

Halloween is no longer about children having a sweet, little holiday all of their own. On this day, many lost and lonely souls will create a different persona than their own. . a mask to hide behind, and an outfit to crawl into because this life, and feeling so alone in it, evokes the scariest of emotions. And those emotions are far far, scarier than any Haunted House on Halloween.

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Who Are You?

Every day I get a bunch more people registering for my blog. Even though I’ve gone through long periods without writing, even though my blog is as bare bones as you can get, still I keep getting new registrants. It makes me wonder, “Who are all of you?”

Of course, I could find out more if I posted comments. But been there, done that. The problem with the back and forth dialogue, as wonderful as it can be, is that for a minority of folks it’s a hate-a-logue, with language that would have gotten the mouth washed out with soap in the olden days. So discussion is not on the table for the moment. As Carly Simon sang, “I haven’t got time for the pain.”

So I’ll just have to wonder. I see that you all have usernames and email addresses, which tells me that you’re real, not some computer glitch. It’s kind of amazing to think that you’re out there, and have somehow found your way to my blog. You even took the time to register. It makes me feel a bit like Sally Field in her famous Oscar speech, when she gushed, “You like me, you really like me.” [except, in my case, for the people who hate me, you really hate me.]

I wonder if you have been keeping an eye on me since I wrote in the past. Or maybe you did a google search, “Most horrible place to live in the USA,” and somehow my modest blog about Berkeley et. al, popped up.

So I’m thinking about you all today, feeling grateful, and a bit humble, that you’ve taken the time to sign on. Again, it makes me wonder: who are you? How do you spend your days? What and who do you love? What gives your life meaning and purpose deep in the darkest night, when hope can feel so distant and life, overwhelming?

Having you with me, reading my rambling thoughts about this, that, and the other thing makes me marvel at the connection among all of us. Even if we exist on opposite sides of the political fence, or on opposite sides of the country, we’re all together in this strange and magical thing we call life. We’re all in the Body together. You might be the hands; I might be the voice; someone else might be the feet; with God being the connective tissue that keeps us all nicely stitched together, as much as we sometimes try to bolt.

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Real Men Don’t Yelp

Everyone is Yelping these days, that is, using the website, Yelp, to play critic. But in my opinion, the name “Yelp,” is a misnomer. Instead, it should be called “Whine.”

Because that’s what most people do on Yelp, complaining about this restaurant or that physician’s office. As a bumper sticker I saw aptly put it, “Yelp. Ruining small businesses since 2004.”

Take “Becky from Oakland.” She ordered her burger from the local bistro medium rare, but it came well done. Did she politely speak to the waiter? Complain to the manager? Try to work things out like, I don’t know. . . a grown up?

No, Becky typed out an incendiary attack against the restaurant and posted it on Yelp. In that moment, as Becky seeks revenge for her disappointing dinner, the restaurant owner isn’t a person like her, someone with dreams and feelings. He is just a vehicle for her to unload frustration and bitterness.

Yelp plays to basest instincts for vengeance, imparting a false sense of power and bravado. In that online moment, Becky becomes a mini, online Rambo.

Then there’s Jim. He didn’t like the attitude of the person at the local dry cleaners so decided not to use them. Rather than simply bringing his garments to another shop, he gave the place (which, by the way, he never actually used) a nasty review and one star. In the age of Yelp, business owners can’t be in a bad mood because of a troubled marriage or a sickly child. Every potential customer is now a Secret Shopper, scrutinizing all possible wrong moves.

I suppose Yelp isn’t all that different from many sites on online, with the trolls and the hostile, sometimes obscene, comments. Virtually, people can brandish words like knives to attack anyone who dares to disagree. It’s all anonymous, of course; one can say things that would never be allowed in polite conversation. And the recipient of the abuse isn’t a quite a person, but an objectified, disembodied thing, someone different than oneself.

Maybe I’m touchier about the subject than others. My father owned a very small store post-WWII, when leases were easy to get and red tape nil. I can still recall the worried dinner conversations between my parents when business was slow. My dad fretted not just about our family, but the families of his employees. It hurts to imagine how many lives could have been ruined if Revenge of the Yelpers had existed back then.

Because ultimately, it’s not about burgers and fries or dry cleaners; it’s about something deeper and more essential: dignity, and a culture bereft of it. No longer do we treat each other with basic dignity. The business owner isn’t someone’s father or mother, not a person trying to carve out his little piece of the American dream. No, the other is an obstacle in our way, a barrier to our achieving our own perceived rights and privileges.

I propose something radically different, something that harks back to a bygone era, that is, the one prior to the creation of the World Wide Web. How about if someone has a problem with someone else, that he speaks to them? If Becky doesn’t like her burger, she should send it back. Speak to the manager, if necessary. Worst comes to worst, she can order something else from the menu.

How about if everyone stops Yelping and Whining, and returns to talking to each other with basic respect. We’re all in this human soup together.

In my opinion, real men (and women) don’t Yelp. And real human beings don’t seek revenge on each other, by trying to destroy reputations and businesses on impulse. Real people see that we are all connected in some mystical way that none of us can really understand. And when we operate out of anger and a thirst for revenge, ultimately the person we destroy is ourself.

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Check Out Time at Berkeley’s Hotel California

There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
I was thinking to myself
This could be Heaven or this could be Hell
Then she lit up a candle
And she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor
I thought I heard them say
Welcome to the Hotel California.. .

This is the sad tale of a friend of mine. I’ll call her “Jane.”

Jane came out to Berkeley from a small town in Iowa. She was raised with home grown values: church, school, wholesome activities, and respect for others. An excellent student, Jane chose a prestigious university, Cal Berkeley, for her doctorate in education.

It was hard at first for Jane to get used to what is commonly dubbed, Berzerkely. Jane was surprised by the roughness and the toughness and the whole urban vibe. The road rage scared her, as did the psych patients who torment residents on the street. Eventually, she got used to it all, and what once seemed abnormal was now the new normal.

A year after moving here, Jane met Brian, a native of the area. The two of them started dating and within a year they were living together. Brian was very different than the boys at home: he loved to party late into the night at SF clubs. He also abused drugs. Soon the two of them were using ecstasy and coke. Jane’s grad school studies suffered as she existed under a continual haze of substances.

When Brian wasn’t around, Jane hung out with other boys. She had a few random hook-ups, something that she never did in her small town. Some of the casual encounters ended badly, for instance, the guy who stalked for her for weeks afterwards.

With Jane’s grades plummeting, her advisors spoke to her and told her that she would be expelled from her program unless she cleaned up her act. Unfortunately, Jane was too far gone at this point. She was advised to leave school, and Jane left Berkeley and returned home.

Jane’s story may seem far fetched, unbelievable. How can someone come to the SF Bay Area a relatively stable human being and end up in the drug and hook-up culture? Well, I am here to tell you that I’ve seen many Jane’s (and John’s), a few with even worse stories. For some, the temptation may not be drug and booze but the very dark underground sex scene, with its whips and chains and leather. Then there are those hook-ups with random strangers, as well as the ever present polyamorous and/or gay scenes. Some people don’t get involved in high-risk behavior, but become depressed, even suicidal, from the nihilistic spirit around them.

Such a lovely place
Such a lovely face

It’s not just the females who can go spiraling downhill. Plenty of males get into behavior they’d never even consider at home. The problem with Berkeley is that behavior unacceptable in Kentucky or Utah is not only tolerated here, but promoted — with no accountability.

No activity is too extreme. . . and there’s no reason to feel any shame about living like some sort of baboon in the wild. And if a previously stable person like Jane could spiral downward, can you imagine what happens to the more vulnerable? They, of course, find unlimited ways to feed destructive tendencies.

Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
She said, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”
And in the master’s chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man
We are programmed to receive
You can checkout any time you like
But you can never leave.

Luckily, Jane’s story has a happy ending,

When she left Berkeley and returned home, her sanity was soon restored. Before too long, she snapped her out of her hypnotic trance altogether. She found a great job, friends, and a man who treated her right. Now married with three children, Jane looks back on her time in Berkeley, as in, “What on earth was I thinking?”

Not thinking is Berkeley and SF in a nutshell: people can become so intoxicated by all of this so-called “freedom,” that they are no longer rational human beings. Even though troubles keep mounting, they continue to indulge every primitive impulse and twisted passion. They just can’t stop themselves.

Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year
Any time of year
You can find it here

But the happy ending to Jane’s story is proof positive that one can snap out of the delusion that is Berkeley. The key is to check out of the Hotel California before it’s too late. Given the severe housing shortage around here, this Hotel may appear like the only affordable digs in town. But it comes with a gigantic price. For some people, it is their soul.

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How Berkeley Has Made Me a Worse Person

It was a classic case of road rage that I engaged in not that long ago. It happened when I was running late and en route to a doctor’s appointment at a nearby suburb.

I was in a rush; I was wrong. . and I was lucky. Had I been in Berkeley or Oakland, I may not be alive to tell the tale.

Details aren’t important (and way too embarrassing to recount). Let’s just say it involved lots of road rage on my part, such as, leaning on the horn and making various gestures. (Proof positive that you can take the woman out of Berkeley — but not the Berkeley out of the woman.)

After I arrived at my destiny and my tantrum dissipated, I found a parking space in the medical pavilion. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the driver of the car in front of me was also going to the same address and parked a close distance from me.

Legitimately angry, the suburbanite headed over to me. He chastised me and asked why I kept honking at him. I immediately said that I was sorry. Luckily, he accepted the apology and walked away. I felt appropriately embarrassed and contrite.

Many inspiring stories have been written by survivors of catastrophic diseases and other near-death experiences about how the event made them a better human being. I take my hat off to all of them. But from what I witnessed from me that day in civilized suburbia, Berkeley has made me a worse person.

Now it would be very unfair to blame my bad behavior completely on Berkeley. No one forced me to lean on the horn. But there is something contagious about all the anger and negativity a person is subjected to on an almost minute-by-minute basis.

It’s probably not a coincidence that before heading off to the civilized suburb, some crazed driver swore and honked at me — for no good reason. So I started out my trek in a bad mood. And not a day goes by that someone isn’t shouting and gesticulating madly at each other.

It’s not just driving that inflames the temper around here. People can become unhinged for the slightest reason. A line that takes too long; an appointment that isn’t at the desired time; someone (horrors!) trashing a plastic bottle; anything or anyone can make someone go off the deep end.

To me, Berkeley isn’t just one of the most dangerous areas of the country — it’s one of the saddest. While all of this insanity is taking place right before our very eyes, residents maintain that they live in a sane and safe. . no – a superior part of the world. At least the residents who have the misfortune to live in downtown Detroit are under no illusions that they are “lucky.”

It’s like the story of the Emperor with no clothes. Somehow most Berkeley-ites can look beyond the trash-filled streets, the continual street harassment, the sky-high crime rates, and the hellish schools to boast about their great fortune in living around here. I suppose the alternative is to have to accept that one’s utopian dreams and aspirations are all a figment of one’s imagination.

That day in the suburbs, I had a glimpse of how the other half lives — and a reminder that what is considered normal in Berkeley is not. It was startling and humbling to spend time in an area so different than Berkeley and its surroundings. People were polite — and even smiled. No one looked so tense and frustrated that they were seconds away from blowing a gasket.

On the line at the lab, in fact, several people even joked with each other and laughed. This was a complete culture clash for someone who has spent decades operating Berkeley-style: avoiding all eye contact and assuming the worst about the next stranger.

I realized that while negativity is contagious, so is positivity. From my time in the ‘burbs, I felt more relaxed for the rest of the day. I found myself smiling at people, and being a more considerate driver — even when I got home.

The good news about my bad behavior is that I had the sense to apologize to the other driver. And I experienced quite a bit of healthy guilt afterwards about my immature outburst. I’ve also made it a point since then to try not to be another enraged Berkeley resident. I’ve had my ups and downs on the way. . but I’m trying.

So maybe Berkeley hasn’t made me such a bad person after all.

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Parents, Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Berkeleyites

There once was a popular Indian teacher named Papa G, who drew students from far and wide. People flocked to see him and hear his words of wisdom. One lucky man who was able to attend one of his retreats spoke to Papa G, with camera in hand. The visitor asked the guru what he’d like to say to the multitudes all around the world vying to come to India to see him. Papa G smiled an impish grin and said, “Stay home.”

Papa G’s words remind me a bit of Dorothy, who journeyed all around Oz, only to find that the best place of all was home. This isn’t to say that relocation isn’t sometimes in order. It may be better, at times, to move somewhere different, to see the world, if only to return, as Dorothy did, with a fresh set of eyes. But the point I want to make here is don’t, and I mean DON’T, come to Berkeley.

OK, if you want to do so for a day or two, maybe a week, come on by. Walk the mean, lean streets of Telegraph, Shattuck, and University Avenues. . hang out in SF (our “open psychiatric ward”). . .check out the drug-addled folks at People’s Park. . . and then you can judge for yourself. If you agree with me, don’t, I repeat, DON’T, let your kids or anyone else you care about move here.

I say this even if you have to practice the toughest love imaginable with your beloved progeny. If your son or daughter insists that they want to go to UC Berkeley or SF State, do a Nancy Reagan: Just Say No. I realize that, if they are over l8, they are free agents. But you still have power over the purse strings. If you won’t contribute a dime to their education, they may reconsider.

I don’t say this to be harsh; but to give you advice that may be some of the best you’ve ever heard. It comes from someone in the trenches, who came here and has since regretted it as one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I suppose I should have gotten a clue when the first moment I landed here, a straggly, homeless guy was clearly eyeing my backpack. It was only my New York City street smarts that prevented him from obtaining it.

Now, in my ripe older years, I may not be able to get out of here so easily, unless I win the lottery (which I suppose I’d have to actually play to win). But at least my time here wouldn’t have been wasted if I can warn a few people.

And if you are already here, go home! If you have a parent somewhere else, a distant cousin twice removed, it doesn’t matter, go live with them for a while until you get situated. This is not a good place to settle down. In fact, it is one of the darkest places around.

Stay here long enough, and you may be mugged, maybe worse. Certainly you’ll have a close friend who will be. Rampant street crime is an ever present reality here, like the much heralded fog.

Or, if not outright bloodied, your car will be stolen or burglarized along with your phone and/or computer. (A recent study showed that the Bay Area boasted most of the cities with the highest car thefts; just another reason for the ordinary citizen to feel proud!) Perhaps even worse, you may become so psychically numb that when you see an old man with a black eye, or hear of a friend with a concussion, you’ll just pass that off as part and parcel of living in such a “wondrous” place.

There isn’t just street crime around here, as bad as that is: there’s violence so sinister that it’s pure, unadulterated evil. A teacher beat up by students in her own classroom. A high school girl gang raped and beaten unconscious by a gauntlet of boys. An elderly woman raped, beaten unconscious, and dumped amidst the pile of old tires at a car repair station (she died after being in a coma for a year).

All this crime has been covered up, by the way, by people who don’t want to see what they don’t want to see, and, therefore, have their balloon busted or (God forbid!) witness their real estate values plummet. This is nasty, vicious stuff that can only be explained by a dark force so powerful that it’s controlling much of the place.

It’s not a coincidence, I think, that the Church of Satan opened in SF in the 1960s (the “Hotel California,” was purportedly written about the “church.”). And Patty Hearst was kidnapped in Berkeley, around the same time that the city of Oakland was held hostage by the mayhem of the Black Panthers and other radicals. This area has a long history of extreme violence, much of it excused and tolerated. Not much has changed.

I don’t get the allure of this God-forsaken place. . .oh, wait, yes, I do! It drew me here decades ago. But one of the saddest sightings is a teenage, hippie couple sitting on the streets of the filthy downtown or Telegraph Avenue. They came here from a decent place like Minneapolis with high hopes of peace and love and flowers in one’s hair. Their haunted faces show what they found instead.

Your son or daughter or your beloved nephew may have heard the same hype, that the Bay Area is a truly happening place to be. As I said, reality is suppressed and reconstructed. But if your loved ones are California Dreaming, there are far saner locales. Check out the private colleges down south, as well as nicer public ones: UC Davis, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Diego, UCLA.

But there’s something menacing in the air around Berkeley, and it contaminates the whole place. Mark my words: if you child comes out here, he will change. Even if he doesn’t become part of the darkness, something inside of him will die. Perhaps it’s his spirit or his innocence; but the light inside of him will dim. It may revive if he has the wherewithal to get out of here before it’s too late. But he may never be the same.

So I say this, not simply as someone coveting all the nonexistent parking spaces. I speak out as a veteran of a war that no one seems to know is going on. Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be Berkeleyites. Remember the immortal words of Papa G, “Stay home.”

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Sounds of Silence

Unless you’re a rich cat living high up in the Bay Area hills, most people around these parts hear the BART trains day and night. The sound may be background noise if you’re far from the tracks. If you’re close by, the noise can stop conversation and interrupt sleep. The sound of BART is just one of the many indignities that Bay Area residents face in their extraordinarily overpriced dwellings.

Yet, the other night, as I was quietly thinking and meditating before bed, I noticed that the air was thick with silence, and yet the reason escaped me. I am surrounded by very noisy neighbors. Had the whole crew of them gone away on a 4th of July sojourn? And then the realization hit me: the BART trains are on strike.

It was a strange feeling to realize this. .. an unsettling mixture of relief (finally, some blessed quiet!) and also fear, foreboding, a strange, almost apocalyptic, feeling. It was like the silence bellowed, “This is what it will be like at the end of the world.”

That type of penetrating silence can make a person wonder: How will this world end and when? No human being has any idea when, though some have tried (unsuccessfully) to predict it. I have no inside knowledge. However, things are so bad in this country, so insane and out of control, that one has to wonder when that final tipping point will be crossed.

I wonder what the sound will be like when this world system ends: will it be noisy, as in mass hysteria and chaos; or it will be like the eery and unsettling silence that I experienced the other night? So many people feel unsettled these days. I hear it from people all the time — something just doesn’t feel right, though they don’t know what it is; and then there are others with a pasted smile on their faces or a blank look, who would never admit it, but somewhere inside, in a place they only travel in their dreams, they know it too.

And, perhaps I’ve heard too many conspiracy theories, but I have to wonder if the whole thing is rigged, BART and everything else; if this subway strike, rather than being about money and pensions and other nickle-and-dime issues, is really about social control. Are we in the Bay Area, home to so many social experiments, being manipulated, like puppets on a string, to see just how much pummeling we can take? Are the endless traffic jams and the daily indignities of life in a major metropolis a daily way to remind us how insignificant we are and how significant they are?

And I think of the national push for public transportation; how people are cajoled to get out of their cars and hop on trains and buses. And yet ironically, tragically, those same obedient people who try to save the environment by enduring BART and our bus systems (with their unpredictable eruptions of the deranged; or the more routine leering and touching by the indecent) are being punished by not being able to get where they need to go.

And I envy people in other parts of the country, those saner locales, where people don’t depend on public transit — or insane highways — to get to where they need to go. Amazing to think of people simply getting into their cars, driving on clean, pothole-less roads and — voila! — in less than a 1/2 hour, they are at work, without getting into verbal or sometimes physical altercations with their fellow drivers.

Yet, here, it’s a full-time job to actually get to work, a form of twice-daily Mortal Combat, with Bay Area warriors battling traffic and other angry drivers, all suspended together in space in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s one of the many assaults on the spirit of dwelling in the Bay Area (A tax on paper bags? Really?) which most people cover over with a smiley, “But we’re so lucky to live here!”

This mindset has been called by many names before (“Groupthink,” “mass delusion,” “Stockholm Syndrome”), where people come to accept, even love, their oppressors. Perhaps it’s simply denial. Human beings are simple creatures; we don’t like to see what we don’t like to see.

Meanwhile, what I sense deep down in my bones is this: something doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right, both in the SF Bay Area and all over this country. I’m not saying that it’s Apocalypse Now. I have no special knowledge or insight about such things. All I know is that a creepy silence has descended on this particular area, but not a comforting one as some silences may be. In fact, this one feels downright deadly.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you.”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence

(From the song, Sounds of Silence)


I hope this piece finds you well.

You may be wondering about my own sound of silence. I’m okay: stressed, but blessed. I’ve felt moved to write many times but. . .ultimately, what is there to say? Those who have ears will hear; those with eyes that can see, will see.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to post comments at this time.

Best to you and yours.

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Old Friends

My best friend has been stricken with a catastrophic illness. If the doctors are right (and I keep praying they are not), she will be gone within a few, short years. In the meantime, she will lose all her faculties, including her mental ones.

My friend, “Teri,” is not just my closest friend, but one of my oldest ones. We met the first day of college, and were joined at the hip from that moment on. Other people knew that if they invited Teri to a party, I would be coming as well. Guys wouldn’t be dated unless they passed muster with the other of us.

We told each other all of our secrets, which were many back in the day. Having been raised on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, we did all sorts of things we shouldn’t have, took all kinds of ridiculous chances. And we confided all of the details to each other.

After college, we grew up and moved away from each other. But that didn’t stop the intimacies, and the sharing. We’d speak by phone each week, even as life became more difficult and complicated.

I dealt with various medical issues, as well as a mugging on the mean streets of Berkeley. She had the trauma of nursing her husband through a fast-growing cancer, which left her alone to raise their young son. Fortunately, Teri had her inner resilience and a close extended family to help her through.

Her son grew up to be a happy and confident young man, now starting graduate school. Teri managed to put the pieces together of her life, finding another soulmate. They made each other incredibly happy, having found love again in their later years. And then came the diagnosis, a year ago this last fall.

Her love still comes by, though her foggy brain is having trouble placing him. Teri is losing so much so quickly, but the hardest one is that she’s losing her will to live. I pray for her every night, that she knows that God hasn’t abandoned her. I pray that somehow there’s a miracle, and Teri gets better. I pray for her family, for her son, that they get through this ordeal intact. Mostly, I pray that Teri, a nonbeliever, finds her way to God before the end is near.

A few months ago, I saw an article in a magazine on how to relate to people whose minds are being ravaged by a disease. The author suggested using photographs to help the person to remember.

Towards that goal, I assembled a bunch of pictures of Teri and me throughout the decades. I put them together in a photo book, and wrote next to each picture. I’d write, “Here’s you and me and that hot guy, Jeff, that you dated.” Or, “Here we are looking all young and happy, the world being our oyster.”

I can’t ever imagine losing Teri, not just her but someone carrying our memories. I need someone else to hold with me the remembrances of when we were young, when we were carefree and naive, of all of our adventures and misadventures. I suppose I will one day be the one to hold the memories myself, which I will carry as close to my heart as I possibly can.

I recall reading a poignant book by a man who was suffering from ALS, another devastating disease. He talked about being at a party once and looking around the room, and realizing that in time, every one of these people will be gone, including himself. Even though this realization is common sense, it shocked me at the time, startled me back into reality from the sense of denial that most of us live in.

I have to wonder what the world would be like if we all contemplated this fact every day: that everyone will some day be gone. I wonder if small things would bother us as much; if people would be at each other’s throats politically, rather than realizing that we’re all in this world together?

Would there be such random violence, the flash mobs, the “knock ‘em downs,” the domestic terrorists, if people understood how precious this life is; and that one day it will all be gone and our actions will be judged? Would we overlook an opportunity to be kind and loving if we understood the true nature of this existence?

Sadly, it often takes disaster to snap us out of denial; it generally takes a loss or a potential loss to make us realize what life is really about: love and truth and strengthening our relationship with God every single day. And that true love never dies; that it remains alive in our hearts even when bodies turn to dust.

These days, my conversations with Teri have radically changed. I end every conversation with Teri by saying, “I love you.” And, when she is able to, she says the same thing back to me. When she feels so despairing that she doesn’t know if she can go on, I remind her, “You’re my best friend; I need you. Remember, we never went anywhere without each other.”

I’ll end here with the words of an old Simon and Garfinkel song that keep ringing in my ears:

Time it was,
oh what a time it was,
It was.
A time of innocence,
A time of confidences.
Long ago,
It must be,
I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories,
They’re all that’s left you.

“Bookends,” Simon and Garfinkel

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“Watch for the Man in the Boat”

I was asked recently what advice I would give to someone who was curious about religious faith. I responded that the person should go to a church, any church; that the experience would be different than he thinks. I related my positive encounters at church — how warm and welcoming were the congregants.

Afterwards, I thought of another piece of advice I would give to the inquisitive person. I’d say, “Watch for the man in the boat.”

This advice comes from a teaching story I once heard, years ago, on a Buddhist retreat. Here is the tale:

There is a major storm coming to a town, and the residents are advised to evacuate. A car drives by a neighbor’s house, and the driver yells out to the neighbor. “Do you need a ride?” The man declines, saying, “God will save me.”

The rain becomes fierce, and now the town is flooded. A neighbor paddles by in a boat. He asks the man if he wants to get onboard. The man answers, “No, God will save me.”

The man’s house becomes so flooded, that he seeks safety up on his roof. A helicopter flies by, with the pilot yelling out, “We’ll lower our ladder so you can get on the copter.” Again, the man declines.

Eventually, the man drowns, and goes before God. The man angrily asks God why He let him die. “I’ve always been a righteous man. I never missed church. Why didn’t you save me?”

God answered, “I sent you a man in a car, and a man in a boat, and a man in a helicopter.”

This story always touches my heart. It reminds me of all the times when we expect God to announce His presence through some grand gesture. In the meantime, we may fail to see Him in everyday life — and in everyday people.

It’s also so easy to feel abandoned by God when life becomes difficult. If things don’t go our way, our faith can waver. And yet one thing I am certain of, with every fiber of my being: God is always there, always with us; we just have to open our eyes to the magic of this world.

Personally, I have so much to be grateful for this holiday season. I am particularly grateful to readers like you. You have helped to save me. You have been the men (and women) in boats.

I’m grateful to you for sharing your insights and knowledge. But most of all, I’m thankful for your kindness. My life has been infinitely changed from knowing you.

On the surface, of course, my life isn’t any easier. If anything, I have greatly complicated it.

But, as I grow each day in my incipient faith, I try to remember that with God, everything is possible. When I’m weak, He will send me a man in a boat. I just need to notice when he comes.

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The Real Revolution

I was driving through a rough and tough part of Oakland this morning. I don’t generally travel there but was en route to a doctor’s appointment.

It was a part of Oakland under siege: with no businesses to speak of; where drive-by shootings are common, and drugs, gangs, and thugs rule the streets. As I drove down the busy avenue, I (as well as everyone around me) shut my windows tightly, locked the doors, and made no eye contact with absolutely anyone.

But when I stopped at a red light, I saw an unusual sight: a black man on the corner, bellowing something at the top of his lungs. Actually, this isn’t all that strange a sighting since the crazed and drug-addled will often start yelling, both in Oakland and Berkeley.

But this man was well-dressed, and he also had something rarely seen around here: a light in his eyes. Curious, I took the risk to lower my windows and listen to what he was saying.

Standing amidst the druggies and the passersby averting their eyes, he yelled, “I am different than you. I have God in me. I am a changed person, and you can be too. You can have all your sins washed away right now, just like that.”

Excited, I looked at him and smiled. Though there were hordes of people and cars around, we locked eyes. Although we were strangers, I recognized him, and he recognized me.

Speaking even more forcefully he shouted, “Don’t you want to be forgiven? Don’t you want the love and the hope that can only come from God? Come to God right now. Let Him deliver you.”

We locked eyes again, and I gave him a big thumbs up. Looking pleased, he returned with his own thumb’s up, and continued his message even stronger and louder.

When the red light changed to green, I slowly made my way up next to him. Now I had both my side windows wide open. I waved and he waved back; and he shouted to me with great warmth, “I love you!” My eyes filled with tears.

Where in the world could you see such a sight, of a black and a white stranger communing in a dark, foreboding part of town? And where else would you hear a black man tell an unknown, white woman that he loves her?

There’s only one place — and that’s in God’s grace. There’s only one avenue for true unity and love, and that is God’s mercy. No other vehicle or channel exists.

The left’s philosophy of racial unity via billy clubs is criminal. The true revolution will not come from flash mobs, or Facebook insurrections, no matter how many people lie bleeding.

Force is easy; it’s the tool of cowards. But real power? True power only comes from God.

And that is why my brief encounter with the street preacher moved me so: because I saw in full technicolor, the power of God to change lives and to move mountains.

When God shines His light on us, He brightens the darkest part of town. Black and white and yellow and brown can unite as one, but only if the great conciliator is God.

Because, as the wise street minister preached: it is only God who can heal. It is God alone who can wash away our shame, guilt, grief, and brokenness, and make us whole again.

So I say this directly to you: If anything I have written resonates, even a teeny bit, don’t ignore it. Don’t push what I’m saying under the rug. Don’t wait for a rainy day.

Because one thing is for sure: everyone on this planet will one day breathe his last breath. And we haven’t a clue when that moment will arrive.

We don’t have a minute to lose to restore ourselves before God.

And this: our world desperately needs as many bright lights as possible to illuminate the way during these dark times.

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The One We’ve Been Looking for All Along

I just became a statistic: one of the thousands (millions?) of people whose email address get hijacked by spammers. I discovered this by getting some rejected mail from some of those spammers.

What a creepy world we live in; we not only can fall victim to a random street crime (always a risk in broad daylight around Berkeley); there are knock ‘em down “games” by hoodlums. And now we can fall prey to online criminals, who want to steal our passwords or even our identities.

As for the latter, I’ve had that happen a few times too. It’s another disturbing experience to get a phone call from, say, Bank of America, telling you that someone applied for a credit card in Las Vegas in your name. While, in the past, there were only limited ways a criminal could abuse you, now the possibilities are infinite.

If you’ve read my articles before, you know that I have decidedly mixed feelings about all technology. On the one hand, the computer is wonderful, for instance finding information censored by the MSM. It’s also a way to reach out and touch people all over the world, such as I’m doing right now by writing this.

But just as there are good people on the streets of Berkeley and New York, there are a lot of bad people as well. And this is true about the Internet; there are those using the new technology to help humankind. And then there are those dirty, rotten scoundrels who have no qualms about ripping people off, virtually.

The older I get, the more I become one of those people nostalgic for the “old days.” Of course, those days had their problems as well (though, at this moment, I’m hard pressed to think of anything).

I always shock young ‘uns when I tell them what it was like back in the day: For instance, telephones were landlines, with no answering machines. Either you answered the phone or not. And if the person got a busy signal, you know what? Everyone lived.

I still recall when I first moved to Berkeley thirty years ago and got my first telephone here. Those were the days before toll free numbers and customer service assistants from India.

I went over to the Pacific Bell store in North Berkeley, and patiently sat down and waited my turn. When the salesman assisted me, I had my choice of phones (they were free back then), as well as my pick of phone numbers.

It was the same scenario when I set up my utilities: I went to storefronts, met with live people, and made a human-to-human connection.

I can still remember when things changed: when corporations started gobbling each other up, and 800 numbers became the norm. Rather than interacting with a warm body, you called some phantom person somewhere in the United States. Of course, this has morphed into calling cheap labor oversees. How bizarre and unsettling that people all over the world have your personal information — social security number, mother’s maiden name — at their fingertips.

Most young people these days are fine with all of the virtual people in their lives. And some prefer as little contact with human beings as possible; face-to-face interactions are becoming more foreign and uncomfortable.

There’s a wonderfully wise and witty book on the subject, Talk to the Hand. It’s written by an older woman, who also grouses about how alienating is this Brave New World. She thinks that this dependency on computers has made millions of people functionally autistic. They can message people all over the world, but they don’t know how to look into another’s eyes.

I was talking to a new 50-something friend about this subject the other day, about how strange is the world we live in. We have two worlds to contend with: the real one and the virtual one, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell the two apart.

My insightful friend responded, “There are only two things that I know to be true. One is what is happening right before my eyes. And the other is God.”

So what is real? What is worthy of our constant attention? Is it World of Warcraft, X Box, CNN, or MSNBC?

I think it’s as my wise friend said: only this precious moment is real. . .and God. God is steadfast and unchanging; He is the only anchor in life’s turbulent storms.

And He is here, right now, just waiting for us to awaken from our lifelong slumber. All we need to do is take a moment and look. He –not Obama, not Biden, nor any human being — is the One we have been looking for all along.

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Are We Living in a Post-Christian World?

A friend’s daughter startled me the other day. It was when I asked her if she’s chosen a name for her baby yet.

The woman, whom I’ll call Traci, is due to deliver her first baby any day now. She answered that she wasn’t sure about the name yet but, “One thing we do know is that it won’t be a name from the BIble.”

I asked her why and she shrugged, as if it were a no-brainer. “Because, of course, we’re living in a post-Christian world.”

I’d never heard that term before and it stunned me. I thought about it afterwards. A post-Christian world? What does that mean? And what are the implications here?

I suppose Traci means that she’s a postmodern girl, and has grown beyond any rules or definitions. She and other Post-Christians (PC’s) don’t need gender or anything else, like capitalism; they have no use for the traditional family. They don’t need God and His repressive morality. They don’t need anything but. . .well, what do they rely on actually?

Now this is where I got stuck. If the post-Christian generation doesn’t need anything, not even God, what do they need? What do they rely on; what comforts and nurtures them. . who do they turn to; who do they cry out to, when life becomes all too much?

I suppose they’d say that they rely on “science,” but Darwin and Stephen Hawkings provide limited solace when tragedy strikes. Perhaps they’ll point to social justice missions as their reason for being. However, they’d have to turn a blind’s eye to what happens when humans play God, as in the old Soviet Union, the “People’s Republic” of China; and North Korea.

Perhaps the Post-Christians rely on their bodies, on pleasure. They bow to the god of the Kama Sutra, an Eastern spiritual guide to great sex. But again doesn’t this only go so far? And the unbridled pursuit of pleasure leads to unforeseen consequences: diseases that injure and even kill; one-night stands that hurt body and soul

Maybe the PC’ers would say that they rely solely on themselves. However, how would this work? There would be times they’d be vulnerable, such being blindsided by the news of cancer. And if they choose to just depend on human beings, all of us will age and become ill and die someday, them included.

Perhaps the PC’s have constructed their own religion; they worship the Kabbalah, or the goddess, or Eastern deities, like Shiva or Krishna. Maybe their devotional practice is pagan; they bow to animals, nature.

But aren’t all of these false gods just a weak substitute, a way to fill what St. Augustine called the hole inside one’s heart without the one true God. I suppose it’s hard for the young ‘uns to look into the future. But eventually they’ll become older, hungrier, wondering what this mysterious existence has all been about.

While the PC’s think they’re creating a newer, better world, I have to wonder whether they’re doing something completely different: whether they are, in fact, dragging us backwards in time, to a pre-Christian world. They are forcing us back to a time before Christ came.

They may idealize the pagan years, but there were countless of child sacrifices to the gods. There were many thousands of animals killed, which the eco-freakos and the animal rights advocates among us would not have liked one bit.

Women, and others, were routinely stoned back then for such infractions such as adultery. It was Christ who intervened and uttered his famous words about those without sin casting the first stone. He saved the woman’s life and he did so, significantly, without laying a hand on the persecutors.

The PC’ers are operating under a delusion: that the world was superior before Christ. That people were happier, merrily loving each other, in a utopian existence. It’s a similar myth that progressives of all ages embrace about the 60’s. The old timers look bad fondly at the “good old days.” The young ones erroneously believe that the hippie and radical movements were times of liberation and magic.

Conspicuously missing from the stories is how the Black Panthers created a reign of terror over the SF Bay Area; how innocent people were murdered in bombings; how women were raped in radical movements.

It’s an immature view of the world; one that is frozen in time, like one of those sci fi movie where people never age. Now everything is about immediate gratification, whether it’s checking Facebook yet again, or procuring another bong hit, with an anomymous partner, or some Internet porn.

The PC’s are like thirsting people, standing knee-deep in a free water stream, with all kinds of succulent berries nearby. They need only bend down and drink.

The succor is God, not the pagan one, not the god of nature nor the god of sex. There is only one God who satisfies, who fills the hunger, who offers solace when the worst of life happens and you find yourself devastatingly, frighteningly, alone.

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America’s Baby

March 25, 2011

I don’t like horror flicks and avoid seeing them. However, I recently made an exception and rented the 1960’s classic, Rosemary’s Baby. (Reader Alert: Movie Spoiler)

I saw the movie sometime after it came out, though I was only a teenager.  I can’t imagine how shocked I must have been.  I grew up secular, with no education about God and evil. The movie confused and horrified me.

And yet, the movie wasn’t graphic at all, not the way horror flicks are today. The 60’s was a completely different time, film-wise, before blood and gore were flung in your face — in 3 D. The horror movies back then were understated, subtle, which allowed the imagination to run wild. And, in many ways, this made the films even creepier.

I’m in a time in my life where I’m reading everything I can about spiritual warfare and good and evil. So I wanted to give Rosemary’s Baby a second look. It has got to be one of the most powerful — and spot on — movies about evil ever made.

There were so many touches that would have been lost on me even a year ago.  For instance, Rosemary was raised a Catholic, but her faith had wavered. It would have been a different movie had she been a devout Catholic, rather than a vulnerable young woman, without the protection of God. If she had been Catholic, the film would have been about the desecration of the church. But with Rosemary as a lapsed believer, the message was about how easily people can be violated and duped when they are spiritually unarmed.

I also noticed some fascinating moments, such as when Rosemary’s husband hides the book she received on witchcraft. The camera lingers over other books on their shelves. There are two books by Kinsey, both on male sexuality. I wonder whether the writer of the film, Ira Levin, knew that Kinsey was a pervert, or whether Levin was making inferences about the danger of unfettered male sexuality.

The movie is even more disturbing in retrospect, since we know the evil that befell some of the main players. Only a year after the film was released, Director Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, their unborn child, and several other people were victims of the most demonic mayhem and mutilation possible at the hands of Charles Manson’s “family.” How strange that Polanski made a movie about the Devil, and then endured the agony of having his wife and unborn child brutally savaged in a manner that could only have been inspired, if not engineered, by Satan himself.

Polanski himself was no angel; years later he fled the country after purportedly drugging and raping a l3-year-old girl. Also, in his early 40’s, Polanski had a sexual relationship with an actress from one of his movies, who was about l5 years old.

Rosemary was played by Mia Farrow, who cohabitated with Woody Allen, a grade A slimeball himself. Farrow discovered nude pictures Allen had taken with the daughter that they were both raising, Farrow’s adopted child, Soon-Yi.

And finally, for another macabre fact about Rosemary’s Baby, it was filmed in and around the Dakota, the apartment building where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived. Tragically, Lennon was murdered right outside of the Dakota by crazed gunman, Mark David Chapman.

Rosemary’s Baby author, Ira Levin, was inspired to write his book upon hearing about the creation of the Church of Satan. (Which I’m proud (not) to say was started in San Francisco.) Levin accurately foresaw what would happen if Satanic forces were unleashed, while “God is Dead.” This phrase is from the infamous cover of Time Magazine, an issue that Rosemary peruses in her doctor’s office. It’s also the statement bellowed by one of Satan’s followers during the jaw-dropping, climactic ending of the film.

While the film twists and turns in complicated ways, the message of the movie is quite simple. Without God, we are all vulnerable, not just a young woman like Rosemary, but every one of us. And not simply people, but this country and our entire world.

It’s not a coincidence that Rosemary is chosen to be violated and used in the most demonic manner imaginable. Rosemary is unsealed; she lacks the armor of God. Consequently, she is utterly unprotected.

There are no humans that can protect her. Her husband has such a lust for fame that he offers her up for this ultimate desecration. Even the doctor to whom she turns in utter desperation, and with whom she finally feels safe. . .he delivers her into the Devil’s hands. Without God, Rosemary is completely exposed to evil.

Several decades have passed since the release of Rosemary’s Baby — and Time Magazine’s proclamation that God is Dead. Many atheists celebrate the untethering of people from the grip of God. But what have been the results? Wickedness and depravity that no one would have believed even in the l960’s.

Back then, we would have been incredulous to learn that girls would be gang raped, and their assailants would upload the footage on Facebook. Or that child and violent pornography would be available in seconds with the click of a mouse.

It would have been inconceivable that female conservative politicians would be verbally raped and threatened (it didn’t happen back then) — or that people could pen rape jokes and obscenities and other vileness and then simply load it onto the computer or text or sext it.

Rosemary’s Baby was a cautionary tale of what transpires when people abandon God. When people are left to their own devices, they create a hell on earth, just like Rosemary’s next door neighbors. We don’t have to look any further than the evening news to see what has happened to America’s Baby.

But the good news is that things have gone so far south that many people are turning back to God. I hear it all the time: people returning to church, or those, like me, attending for the first time. Even Rosemary cried out for God, though it was too late.

She pleads, “God help me!” at the end of the movie. One of the demonic people shuts her up, telling her that God can’t help her now. And that turned out to be true for Rosemary, as the movie closes with the implication that she was joining with the forces of darkness.

But that doesn’t need to be the case for the rest of us, for America’s Baby. Not if we have the courage and the wisdom to wake up and seek safe shelter — the only iron-clad protection in this universe — before it’s too late.

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Faith Versus the Evil Eye

In many cultures, there is the concept of the Evil Eye. Unfortunately for me, Judaism is one of them.

Not every Jew grows up believing in the Evil Eye. However, many of us do, especially those with immigrant parents or grandparents from Eastern Europe.

I actually never heard the term, the Evil Eye, until adulthood, when I met another Jewish friend, Barb, in my 20’s. I casually mentioned to Barb that she was lucky not to have caught a nasty flu virus that was going around. Barb responded reflexively by shushing me. When Barb saw my puzzlement, she explained that I must not say such things because of the “Evil Eye.”

Barb explained to me the meaning of the Evil Eye: as Jews, we cannot say something positive or we will tempt fate. The Evil Eye will react by making our worst fears come true. Thus, if I assert that Barb is fortunate flu-wise, the next day she’ll be as sick as a dog.

Barb helped crystallize for me what I experienced growing up, though I didn’t have a term for it. The concept of the Evil Eye explained so many of my family’s odd rituals and belief systems.

While my family never used the term, the Evil Eye, we lived our lives in fear of it. Like Barb, we were discouraged from being optimistic. I had always thought my parents were pessimists; but I realized they were just being superstitious. My family was engaging in an ancient folk ritual to ward off evil spirits.

I do recall my mother frequently talking about a “Kana Hara,” which is another Jewish superstition, a kissing cousin of the Evil Eye. Kana Hara is a Yiddish word for a jinx. By saying or doing something, one may bring on a Kana Hara, that is, a curse.

So, for instance, if my father mentioned that a friend needed surgery, my mother would exclaim, “Kana Hara,” and then spit over her shoulder. (Some Jews throw salt over their shoulder instead.) Whenever we drove past a cemetery, my mother would utter, “Kana Hara,” and then spit. She was attempting to mitigate the bad omen of driving past a gravesite.

Now in some ways this would simply be fascinating to me, grist for the psychotherapeutic mill. The problem, however, that in the past year, I am cultivating a spirit of faith. And everything I learned from my family runs counter clockwise to a life of faith.

For instance: Trust the Lord Your God with all Your Heart and all Your Soul. The ritual of the Evil Eye proscribes doing such a thing. In fact, as the superstition goes, if I dare to express such a desire and wish, the Evil Eye may punish me.

Or if I articulate my gratitude for all of God’s blessings, well that pesky Evil Eye may pay me a visit: “You think you’re so happy. Well, I’ll show you who’s in charge!”

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. That kind of devotion could invite all sorts of trouble. Expressing gratitude each day for the blessings of my life? Uh, oh; the Evil Eye may teach me a lesson.

On the one hand, I understand how absurd is this way of thinking. It assumes that human beings have more control than we do. Interestingly, though, the power doesn’t come from thinking good thoughts or from our relationship with God. Our supposed power arises from repelling evil forces by assuming the worst.

However, the good news is that I’ve already started on the road of faith. I’ve done all kinds of things I’m not supposed to: praying to God, and asking Him for help; praising the Lord with all my heart. And somehow, someway, I’m still alive to tell the tale.

What I realize is this: my family turned to superstitions like the Evil Eye and Kana Hara because they lost their faith in God. Sadly, so many Jews abandoned their religion amidst the atrocities in Europe. Having no Higher Power to protect them, they turned to rituals that offered an illusion of safety.

But I don’t have to live my life this way; in fact, I’ve already left much of this mindset behind.

I can make a radically different choice: to embrace God; and to remember that He is the supreme Force over evil, not humans beings, no matter what words we say or how we say them.

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Faith Like Potatoes

As a new believer, I’m starting to pick up on the language and the concepts; and I’m even, to my surprise, beginning to quote Scripture. But what is the hardest for me is cultivating faith.

This comes, I imagine, from growing up with parents who were serious control freaks. It’s no wonder given their harsh upbringing. Both of my parents were raised by Jewish immigrant parents from Poland who trusted no one. I received that message loud and clear: only rely on myself and don’t make mistakes. In essence, be my own Higher Power.

Of course, perfection is impossible and has led me to become a bit of a control freak myself (okay. . . a big control freak!). However, trying to be perfect has been an exercise in futility. No one is without flaws; we aren’t meant to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about control and surrender, and the struggle to let go and let God, as the expression goes. And I’ve been especially pondering this after seeing an exquisite movie, Faith Like Potatoes.

I found the film in, of all places, the remainder section at Staples. I assumed it would be sweet, though a bit saccharine. I was wrong; it’s actually one of the most stirring and beautiful movies I’ve ever seen.

Faith Like Potatoes is the the true story of a white farmer, Angus Buchan, who, against all odds, successfully grows potatoes, and other crops, in South Africa. He and his wife and their gaggle of kids flee Zambia after a number of racially motivated murders. They arrive in South Africa to find the same dangers there.

Frustrated, angry, and drinking to excess, Angus is at the end of his rope. Though a staunch atheist, he agrees to attend a church service, where he responds to God’s Word.

Not only does Angus’ newfound faith transform his outlook, but he becomes a fervent evangelist. He travels around Africa, Europe and the U.S. to bring people to God, but also to try to heal the racial divide. (Incidentally, there’s a fascinating documentary about the real family in the Special Features section, which shows footage of a huge, healing event Angus conducted for South African whites and blacks.)

To me, what is most evocative about the film is how Angus’ conversion made him place his trust unconditionally in God. Consequently, he takes all kinds of risks because he believes that God is guiding him. One such risk is growing potatoes during a severe drought, where farmers are even losing their hardier crops.

Angus grew the potatoes not just for food, but also to demonstrate the power of faith. When farmers mock him for trying something so foolhardy, Angus explains that potatoes, like God, requires belief; since potatoes are well hidden in the soil, one must trust that the elements are working their magic.

I would love to experience this unwavering faith, though it feels alien to my life story. I wonder: Is it possibly to cultivate the steadfast faith of a person like Angus Buchan? I suppose that even asking the question is a display of emerging faith. Because, deep down inside, in a place that I’m just finding access to, I realize that God has been leading me and carrying me all along.

I will say of the Lord, ”He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Psalm 91:2

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20


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My First Christmas

As a Jewish child, I never celebrated Christmas. I found out what I was missing on Christmas Eve, 1973.

My high school boyfriend, Brian, invited me to join his family for their celebration. The event floored me. It wasn’t just the illuminated tree, the music, and the pleasure of opening gifts. It was the power of the holiday to transform Brian’s ordinary family.

Laughing, singing hymns, praying — they were absolutely radiant. I had never seen them so joyful. And in their presence, I felt joyful, too.

That was my one and only Christmas experience, and it never occurred to me to have another one. But this year’s Christmas felt different. This year, I purchased my first Bible. And I’m now blessed with having friends, both virtually and in real time, who are believers. Given that God has taken center stage in my life, I decided it was time to celebrate another Christmas.

I searched the Internet and found a large Catholic church the next town over. My plan: come early and sit inconspicuously in the back row. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I’d never been to church before, and I had no idea what to do.

With my plan firmly in place, I was as excited as a little kid about attending the 5:00 pm Family Mass. I couldn’t wait to see the Nativity play, both for the adorable children and because I was a bit fuzzy on the plot.

I arrived, parked, found my way into the chapel (is that what it’s called?), and sat down in the last pew. As I watched the immaculately dressed families pouring in, I noticed my first faux pas — a fashion one. I had dressed all in black, while the other women looked resplendent in festive colors, especially red.

I wear a lot of black. It befits not only my salt-and-pepper hair, but also my somewhat edgy New York Jewish vibe. But here, I looked positively funereal. Luckily, the only witness to my gaffe was a very shy five-year-old girl sitting next to me, who looked pretty in pink.

Needing to use the bathroom, I planned to slip discreetly in and out of the room. I walked outside, and had no idea where was the bathroom. After I wandered around aimlessly, the priest himself escorted me to the restroom. I’m sure we were a sight: me in black; him adorned in crisp white robes.

In the bathroom, a woman smiled and introduced herself as Cathy (everyone was so nice and friendly, a radical departure from typical Berkeley life). She asked me whether the other priest was feeling better. The following conversation ensued:

Me: I don’t know. I’ve never been to this church before.

Cathy: Oh, really? Where do you usually worship?

Me (stammering) Well. Actually. I’ve never been to a church before.

Cathy: (puzzled) Oh. Are you here to see one of the children perform?

Me: No. (I want to give her a clear explanation, but given that I don’t know why I’m here, my mind goes blank.)

Cathy: (thinking deeply) So, you’ve never been in a church but decided to come here on Christmas Eve.

Me: Yes. (Her explanation was simpler than the one I would have given: “I’m a cultural Jew who’s never been to a synagogue and then I practiced Buddhism for twenty years, but that left out the God part. And then I became a conservative and now I have all these beautiful Christians in my life, so I decided to attend a mass.”)

Cathy looked at me strangely, but finally uttered an enthusiastic, “Good!”

Given that my plan to blend in wasn’t working, I headed back to the shelter of my pew. I buried my head in the — whatever they call it — the book of songs that’s in the wooden cabinet. (Catholics have a name for everything, and I know none of them.)

I was jolted by a tap on my shoulder. A stressed-out woman who looked to be in charge asked, “Will you hand these out?”

Incredulous, I could not speak. She repeated, slowly now, as though addressing a child: “Will you stand in the aisle and hand these out when people come in?” As if in a dream, I rose from my fortress and took the hundred or so pink brochures while she sped away. I opened the booklets and saw that they contained lyrics to the hymns.

Trying not to panic, I thought, “I can do this. I’ll just imitate the other ushers.” I looked around to observe the others in action. But there were no other ushers. I was the only usher.

Given that I had never been in a church, I was clueless about my role. Should I act like a perky WalMart greeter: “Welcome to St. Luke’s!”? But how could I, who basically wandered in off the street, welcome parishioners to their own church?

Okay, I thought, don’t freak out. I can do this. As a family walked in, I started to say, “Hello, would you like a…?” and then paused. What were these things called, anyway?

I racked my brains for words used by my new Catholic friends: Eucharist, Communion, Homily. So, what do they call the music?

Finally I just said, “Hi, would you like the music for today’s mass?” which was a mouthful and caused some confused looks, but it was the best I could do.

The next thing I knew, I was the go-to person. People started asking me questions: how long would the mass last? Was that row reserved? Are photographs allowed? Of course, I couldn’t answer any of them.

Suddenly, I started laughing at the absurdity of my plight. I realized that God had a playful sense of humor…and that he seemed to be nudging me right into the fold.

I then saw Cathy, from the bathroom, standing in the back watching me with amusement. Wearing some type of robe herself, she clearly was a lay leader in the church. She appeared to find my transformation from clueless visitor to usher quite the mystery.

Just as my gig was winding down, the coordinator returned. With most of the congregation seated, she asked me to encircle the entire church, ensuring that everyone had a brochure.

When she saw my look of raw panic, she took the brochures out of my hands and did the job herself.

I decided to go out into the vestibule for a few minutes to get my bearings back. After taking a few deep breaths with my eyes closed, I was already feeling better.

When I opened my eyes, I saw that a crowd had formed in front of me. Someone politely asked me to move. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. I was simply standing in front of a pretty fountain.

I moved away, and observed that the congregants touched the water in the fountain and crossed themselves. Note to self: Blocking the holy water is another church no-no.

The service was about to begin, so I sat down and watched. It was a magical night, as enchanting as Christmas Eve with Brian’s family. I especially loved observing the children, adorned in their holiday finest. Rather than squirming and fussing, they were riveted. They, like me, knew that this night was special.

To my amazement, the painfully shy child sitting next to me came out of her shell. She started singing her heart out. She was even praying like a pro.

Beyond the music and pageantry, what moved me the most was being with hundreds of people who loved God. Maybe some were questioning His presence or feeling abandoned. But they showed up, and that’s half of life.

It was a stirring night for this wandering Jew who has traveled from east to west, from Left to Right. As the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “This moment in time God has carved a place for you,” and sitting in the sanctuary, I felt that place.

Even though I didn’t know the right words, or the hymns, or how to pray, it didn’t matter. All the differences among people — race, class, politics, even religion — vanished. God, I realized, is the ultimate uniter.

And in a heartbeat, I understood why leaders from Marx to Mao try to keep people away from God, and why they always fail. I flashed to an image of those mothers who somehow find the superhuman strength to lift up a car and free their children.

On Christmas Eve, I learned that this same unstoppable power exists inside all of us, even someone like me. As Jesus himself taught, faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain.

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The Sociopathic Epidemic

I’m amazed by the soothsayers: Ayn Rand, for instance, who warned us fifty years ago of the risk of dictatorship or civil war if collectivism persisted. Or economist Friedrich Hayek, who wrote in the 1940s that we’ll become serfs if we move toward big government.

However, what feels most prophetic lately is an obscure movie from the l970s called Little Murders. The writer, Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer, predicted that the ’60s would unleash a feral, primitive society.

The movie has a checkered history. It started out as a play on Broadway in the mid-’60s that was such a bomb, it closed after seven performances.

Audiences were shocked and horrified by the apocalyptic world presented. At the time, New York’s elite were celebrating the sexual revolution and the loosening of social mores. In contrast, Feiffer envisioned an eventual train wreck — a nihilistic world of little and big murders of the soul.

The failed play was relocated to England, where it became a big hit. It was produced for the big screen in 1971, starring some fledgling young actors, such as Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, and Alan Arkin. A dark comedy, Little Murders depicts a society gone mad, replete with frequent homicides and crushing insults to the spirit. The film’s moral compass is Patsy, a young woman who still bubbles over with optimism and love amidst the madness.

(Warning: I’m going to spoil the ending.)

By the end of the film, when Patsy is killed, her family finally cracks. They, like so many others, degenerate into a violent, ape-like state.

I’ve been thinking about the movie this week and the nightmare-world Feiffer forecast after learning of a horrendous crime near me in Richmond, CA.

There’s so much crime out here that most of the time, the residents are numb. We have waves of takeover restaurant robberies and you barely hear a peep.

And when a teacher was beaten and stoned a few months ago during her class at Portola Middle School in El Cerrito (minutes from Berkeley) a small article was buried in the local paper. Many in the leftist community defended the youths as victims of white privilege, and some even blamed the teacher.

But then, last weekend, there was a crime so evil that no one could brush it off.

At a homecoming dance at Richmond High School (in the same district as the middle school stoning), a fifteen-year-old girl was beaten and gang-raped for over two hours while a crowd from the dance watched, laughed, and photographed the scene. No one called the cops.

The girl was left unconscious, dumped under a bench. She had to be airlifted to a specialty hospital.

The so-called experts fault the usual suspects: absentee parents, indigence, drug-infested schools, and herd behavior. One teacher indicts the media’s sexual exploitation of women.  A parent of one of the arrested youths blames racism. But there was hardship, alcoholism, bad parents, sexism, and teenagers fifty years ago without such mayhem.

And many other countries have worse poverty, but lower crime rates. It’s easier to blame society than face the deep, dark truth: we’ve created a nation filled to the brim with sociopaths (also known as antisocial personalities).

I recently read a book called The Narcissism Epidemic. It reports the high number of narcissists among the young and contends that their condition is aided and abetted by self-esteem training.

True, but the theory feels a bit dated. The biggest danger now is a sociopathic epidemic.

While narcissists are selfish, annoying people, their humanity is still in place. They possess a conscience and can feel guilt and shame. Many people in power have some degree of narcissism.

Sociopaths are a different breed entirely. Here are some common features: callous disregard for others, superficial charm, pathological self-centeredness, lying and manipulation,  irritability and aggression, lack of remorse or guilt, cruelty, ingratitude, and antisocial behavior.

How did this happen, the metastasizing of an antisocial tumor?

Feiffer’s Little Murders offered some clues over forty years ago, such as self-worshiping, moral relativism, and rejecting God and religion.

The movie also sounded an alarm about the resurgence of the Left. The film’s most prescient moment is when Patsy’s husband, played by Elliot Gould, recalls being a college radical who has a change of heart.

In a darkened room, he gravely says to Patsy, “You shouldn’t destroy institutions until you know what will take their place. You might find that you will miss them when they’re gone.” Seconds later, Patsy is shot.

The Left has destroyed the structures uniting this country since its founding. Now, the rules of morality that kept people’s base impulses in check have gone AWOL. Cruelty is the new normal, while the sacred is mocked.

What has been unleashed? A quasi-autocracy where dissidents are silenced and the Constitution is trashed. A government that loves animals, the earth, and endangered birds, but not humans.

Everywhere we look, from the ghettos to the corporations to the pristine halls of the government, we can see people whose hearts and souls are empty. Their antisocial behavior is enabled by a codependent society that gives aggrieved groups the green light to pillage and plunder.

Sociopathy will not wane unless we create a nation of grown-ups. A country where people are expected to take responsibility for their actions. No exceptions.

As long as sociopaths have carte blanche, the U.S. will no longer be a beacon of hope to the world. We won’t regain our standing until our lawmakers start following the law and our teachers can teach without being pummeled…

…and a fifteen-year-old girl can attend her big homecoming dance and not have her life destroyed in the process.

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My Search for Intelligent Life in Berkeley

When I was growing up, my parents forbade me from ever opening up the curtains. It had something to do with their fear that the sun would bleach the furnishings.

If I even sneaked a peek outside, I’d find myself on the receiving end of my parents’ wrath. Just as children become acclimated to all kinds of environments, I learned to live in the dark.  

This habit caused problems with roommates. They’d walk into the house on a sunlit day to find me with the curtains drawn and every light on. They’d groan and deliver a stern lecture about wasting electricity.

It took me years to learn to live in natural light. I remember the day; it was when a friend asked if she could open up my venetian blinds. I had been in my apartment for a few years, always with the blinds tightly shut. My rationale was that the bright California rays would irritate our eyes. But given that the blinding sun fades in the afternoon, there really was no good reason to cloister myself.

My friend having requested it, I lifted up the blinds. A nature-lover replenished by the world, she drank in the sight of foliage as though taking in vital substances.

As it turns out, I have a lovely view out my window of all kinds of trees and, if you lean over and crook your neck, the Bay Bridge. She pointed all this out, as well as the games the light was playing on the rooftops.

Since that day, I open my blinds during the day. That friend quite literally taught me to start living in light.

I now see my years in the dark as a metaphor for my childhood, where I spent way too much time alone in my hermetically sealed room. It is also an analogy for what my life was like before God.

As a child, I received no religious exposure that I remember. We never attended a synagogue or hosted a Seder.  

Now that I have found my way to the Sacred, I look for Him everywhere. But in Berkeley, He’s usually nowhere to be found. Yes, there is the guru of the month and Joy Classes and the latest spiritual craze.  

But the true blue kind — with God front and center? Few and far between.

In these dark times, I spend my days searching for God. Sometimes I glimpse Him in a starry-eyed baby or an exuberant puppy.

Occasionally I see Him in someone around Berkeley, though the person doesn’t notice that He’s there. I’ll recognize a gentle spirit, a tender heart, and a hunger and longing for something, though he or she hasn’t the slightest idea what it is.

And once in a blue moon, the Real Thing appears.

The other day, I went into the biggest and baddest grocery store around. I usually avoid it like the plague, since the place has an excess of attitude.

But I needed something for dinner, so I proceeded cautiously to the chilly deli section. There I found a woman who appeared totally out of place. An attractive, middle-aged black woman, she just glowed. She called everyone “sweetie,” and she smiled ebulliently.

Being third in line, I watched her imbue each customer with her warmth.  To a woman who looked down-in-the-mouth, she asked softly, “Is everything OK, sweetie?”

When it was my turn, I received the same kindness. After she handed me my sandwich, I did something I’d never done in my life.

I said to her the following: “I just want you to know that you have a beautiful spirit.”

Taken aback, she looked at me and then said, “Oh, sweetie, I try, but things are so hard. I was laid off of work and now I’m just working here part time. But I pray and try to have faith.”

I responded, “I’m so sorry to hear about your troubles. But I want you to know that your spirit is still so strong, and that you affect people like me.”

And then I did something that surprised us both. I extended my hand. She took off her plastic glove, and she gently held my hand in hers. We stood looking at each other and holding hands for several seconds.

As I turned to leave, she called out to me, “Sweetie, you have a beautiful spirit, too. But I’m sure you know this.”

I answered, “Thanks. I don’t always remember this.”

I left the store, soaring, lifted up by the power of this woman so infused with God.

But it wasn’t just my encounter with this beatific spirit that fueled my joy.  It was knowing that the Light has not gone out in Berkeley, no matter how hard the Enemy tries to extinguish it.

It was a reminder that Divine Love is alive and well and taking in breath, even in the most unlikely of places.   

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