Dislike Dystopian Sci-fi? Then Read On

Five space aliens showed up on my front lawn this very morning. You might think that is too routine a thing to mention, but as they took note of me looking out of my bay window, they bowed and smiled, perhaps to reassure me that they were not of the dystopian sort that I often came across and had to have hauled away. The considerate behavior of these five was a welcome change of pace. They slowly inched nearer, as if taking pains not to startle me. At first I thought they wanted to check me out. But no, it was the window, naturally, because it was made of stained glass depicting impressionistic scenes of mountains and streams. Could it be that they didn’t have windows where they came from?

One of them looked at me as if asking for permission, and started touching the glass, tentatively at first, and then more firmly. I thought I had better go outside and supervise; I did not want broken glass and spurts of fear on their part.

I did not know which planet they were from, much less their language, but they must have hailed from a serene secure society, since they took my presence for granted rather than as a source of concern. I gently motioned for them to stand back from the window and showed them how to just touch and not push on the panes. I then thought how nice it would be to take them inside, so they could see all of my objects and paintings and architectural detail, but they all rushed over to the window to look at the courtyard they had just left, preferring to look out of a window as well as to peer into one.

That seemed to satisfy them, and they each danced a little jig in front of me—a form of thanks?– and they hopped back outside, and they left the premises altogether, and presumably the town, and the planet. What was that all about? Perhaps they had come for the mystery of the boundary between inside and outside. Ha! More likely, they had decided to cross our planet off their list as not containing what they were looking for

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For my microblogging, see me at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Artificial Intelligence and Tender Loving Care

Sure, we chaplains are supposed to be paragons of compassion, but when I heard a scholar talking about the Talmud and its application to artificial intelligence last week, I thought even compassion can obscure one’s priorities. Especially after hearing him say in the beginning of his lecture that climate change, epidemics, nuclear bombs, and artificial intelligence could threaten human survival. And no, he was not talking about robots showing compassion to people. Well, then what? About humans being compassionate to them!

What if, he queried, now or in the future, AI could have feelings, including the ability to suffer? He wonders if it is wrong to “tease” AI for example with a request that would trigger some disruption of one of its programs or even cause it to damage its software. Instead, he said, we should treat AI well, particularly in case in the future (if not already but I doubt that), robots can experience emotions. And I mean “experience” them, feeling pain and joy and so on. What, we have to give them birthday parties so they can be happy?

Whether AI can be conscious or not is a huge question which I won’t belabor my dear readers with. Suffice it to say that if a robot passes the Turing Test, which means a human cannot tell apart the behavior of a robot from that of a human, then let’s give the AI the benefit of the doubt that it/she/he/xe can experience feelings. Well okay, I grant to the scholar who thinks it is immoral to cause robots to suffer that we mind our P’s and Q’s with them just to be on the safe side. It might very well be in the future that at a cocktail party you won’t be exactly sure if that new person you are being introduced to is a robot, a human, or a hybrid of the two.

I think the ethics the scholar raised has more to do with the humans involved if I may say so myself. And who, pray, are they? Exactly two. The creator of the AI (let’s assume just one person) and the consumer interacting with it. I wonder if we are “mean” to a chatbot, for example, because we resent or fear the person who created it: “Darn,” we say, “I miss the good old days where I could ask a real human my insurance questions.” Perhaps if we try to confound a chatbot, the one we are truly disrespecting is the human behind its creation. But that’s no biggie either, unless somehow that human finds out about your snarky behavior. More important is what such behavior signifies about ourselves.

In Jewish mysticism, even an inert object like a rock has, to put it simply, some sort of spiritual status. Minimally, inanimate objects indeed have a form comprised of atoms and they do exist. We might take pleasure in kicking the heck out of a rock on the road or in fooling a bot, but these are perverse pleasures born out of anger or meanness towards what exists in this universe besides ourselves. In “mistreating” anything that exists rather than honestly confronting our own feelings about it or anything else connected with it, we are truncating our own self-understanding and our own experience of being human.

Treats And Poisons in New Orleans

The three ladies who joined me for breakfast at a B and B in New Orleans (in Algiers Point, to be precise) were as cheerful as could be towards me. But the more frolicsome the small talk became, the more I felt as if I were losing mass. I also was losing my appetite as they described foods that seemed to be as fattening as possible and which I was not brought up with. Thus for me, the dishes fell in a spectrum from unappetizing to downright repulsive and nauseating. The women were massive; the one next to me had to be over 300 pounds. I have never felt lighter and more fragile; I wonder if I was going to slide off my chair if she inadvertently rubbed elbows with me. As I was daintily eating my vegetarian breakfast of pancakes, tea, orange juice and cantaloupe slices, they kept talking about all the food they had eaten yesterday, and the food they would be eating today for brunch; some from a cooking class, and the rest at various restaurants like Commander’s Palace, Galatoire’s and The Country Club.

I was intimidated not only by the quantity of food they had been consuming and were about to consume, but by their mention of every kind of food that I cannot fathom even wanting to smell, especially the recipes that compounded more than one form of meat or fish with another in the same dish. For example, the night before, they had as an appetizer Oysters en Brochette, which are fried oysters accompanied by bacon. Then for an entree, Hog’s Head and Trotter Terrine, which includes cheese made from the head and feet. (Um, yum?) Dessert was Bananas Foster. Meanwhile at our breakfast they were consuming several pieces of sausage along with the pancakes. As the meal ended,there was one pancake left, which I offered to my table mate, but she said, “Oh, I could not possibly eat another; I have to watch my figure.”

During the meal, they stopped talking about food long enough to meet my inquiry as to how long they would be staying, which was a few more days. I thought to myself I was doomed to breakfasting every morning in an atmosphere of smiley-face small talk with indigestion as my fate.

At last the encounter was over, and I could walk to the ferry that would go from Algiers Point to the trolleys on the other side near the French Quarter and the Warehouse District. Free to walk in the mild breezes, far from food of any kind and free of those endlessly enthusiastic women. After the five-minute ride, I saw there was a bit of a problem at the trolley stop as I waited on a bench. I saw people giving up and walking away. As I was debating how much longer to wait, I saw other tourists approach. I wished I had decided sooner to give up, as those selfsame three women were part of the prospective trolley riders. (“No way”, you say. “Oh yes,” I say.) Once again I had to engage in insipid chatter and bland smiles as they sat down on a bench. As I stood up and concluded our talk with a warning that the trolley might not come, they nodded at me, giggling at each other about the recent fruits of their shopping expedition, presumably unconcerned with waiting indefinitely.

I swear that every detail of this story is true, except for the precise names of all the dishes they had eaten.

For more offbeat comments, see my micro blog at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

What Complete Strangers Tell Me

Even though I am retired, maybe I carry a “chaplainesque” air about me that gets complete strangers at a social occasion to tell me intimate details about themselves within minutes of meeting them. I was at a birthday party the day before Halloween, and my party mate, seated across the table, was wearing a mostly pink T-shirt with a friendly ghost and a few other guests from the spirit world along with a pumpkin to hammer home that yes, this was indeed a Halloween scene and that its owner wanted to proclaim that she was part of the Halloween fun. After asking its wearer where she was from, I kept the conversation going by alluding to her “neat” shirt. She said, “You know, actually I have mixed feelings about Halloween.” To me that was a teaser, and so I simply could not let it go at that like a normal person would at this hint at darkness and just say “uh-huh” and move on to how tasty the penne vodka was and what her connection with the birthday boy was.

My chaplain radar picked up on some issue lurking behind that shirt beyond a few unwanted pounds. So I said, “How do you mean?” And she divulged, “Well, my father had died a few days before Halloween, but some family couldn’t come the next day, and then there was Saturday, [Jewish funerals do not take place on the Sabbath] and so we had to wait until Sunday, on Halloween.” A little startled at this revelation, I half-kidded, “Gee, a funeral on Halloween. Appropriate in some ways.” And I hastened to add, “But yes, unfortunate, since you are reminded of this every Halloween.” Spooky indeed. Yet there she was with that shirt with its cheerful spin on October 31st.

And that’s not all. A few minutes later, I discovered that she had her own company where she sells air conditioners and heaters, and that sometimes she gets up around 3 AM and has trouble getting back to sleep. I even gave her a meditative remedy for that, and if you are interested let me know and I will tell you.

Not that I was keeping score, but she had revealed at least three big parts of her life, and I myself had revealed nothing. Kind of like it was with my hospice patients, complete strangers all. Once a chaplain, always a chaplain?

PS: yes, the title for this post is supposed to be reminiscent of the subtitle of my book, which is, “What People Told Me Before They Died”.

Sweet Salsa, Spicy Mistranslation

My knowledge of Spanish as a second language was just enough to stop an argument or at least a communication failure between my pal Gary Katz (real friend, fake name) and a waitress at a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan around 50th Street and 8th Avenue. In the English translation section, the menu featured among its breakfast selections waffles with “fruit and salsa on top.” To native speakers of English, “salsa” evokes an image of that red spicy sauce one can eat with most any savory dish such as meat and fish, and certainly with Latino cuisine such as fajitas, tacos and enchiladas. So my friend thought that such a sauce would taste awful on fruit let alone on the waffles, and he told the waitress to please put the fruit on top but leave the salsa on the side. The waitress kept saying, “so you don’t want the fruit on top?” and the friend kept saying, “Yes, yes, I do want the fruit, but not the salsa.” He gave me a look as if to say, “How gross to put tomatoes and chili peppers and garlic and lime peppers on waffles”.

Ah. Linguist to the rescue (Yes, that is I; linguistics was one of my many careers.) I suddenly remembered a discrepancy between the Spanish meaning of salsa and the English one, and figured out what was going on. I said in Spanish to the waitress, you mean the salsa is a sweet sauce with the fruit’, and then I told Gary the same thing in English, explaining that in Spanish, “salsa” means any kind of sauce, whether savory or sweet or spicy. He once again gave me a weary look as if to mutter, “Now really. So much cross-cultural confusion just over getting some breakfast.” He solemnly sighed to the waitress, yes, yes, the salsa on top. With the fruit.

You never know what can cause a misunderstanding across languages.In this instance, it’s not just a loss in translation, but a loss for a word jumping from one language to another. Goes to show you a fellow can’t even depend on borrowed words. In this case, “salsa” took off from Spanish leaving its more general meaning behind as it made the trip to English, with only its spicy meaning intact. Good thing we were not trying to make peace plans or to establish a new energy policy with folks in high places. Just ordering breakfast was trial enough.

My Mind Walks In My Sleep

A Newark, New Jersey poet, Lillian Washington, expresses the moodiness that we all can relate to from time to time:

Living life through memories that are like weeds, weeds

popping up, being here, or over there.

Pieces, just pieces, are all my mind’s eye

can see.

The memories of…. are vague,

nothing is clearly established, to even be.

My mind walking in my sleep,

wonders

what was it I was trying to see?

My mind walking in my sleep

Is it walking away, so that I will no longer be

confused about the life I’m here to live,

here

among the weeds that make my way

so unclear?

My mind walks in my sleep.

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Author’s biography: In her teen years Lillian Washington performed with soul singer song writer Jackie Wilson at the Branford Theater in Newark, NJ with a female singing group called the Vandettes. Later as a member of the Theater of Universal Images she performed various plays at Symphony Hall and Essex County College in Newark. As a part of a comedy duo she did stand-up comedy at Catch a Rising Star in NYC.  Ms. Washington and I are members of the same writers’ group, The Angry Bean Writers. For another work that she wrote for this blog, see https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2017/11/12/her-reality-star/ .

A Magical Temporal Tour

In “Night Meeting”, a fantasy short story about Mars written by Ray Bradbury, an Earthling sojourning there alone asks himself what time smells, sounds, looks like, and feels like. Going through lonely times (a timely pun intended) apparently can generate such questions. He says, time “smells like dust and clocks and people…It sounds like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box lids…It looks like snow dropping silently into a black room…and tonight—tonight you could almost touch time.”

I thought I would have a try at this sensory question myself, guaranteeing you one of my stranger posts, for sure. What is it like to touch time? Time feels like a slippery fish. I learned first hand that fish are slimy and slippery when I went underwater with a specialized helmet on a Bermuda tour years and years ago. The guide had us touch some fish,and I was so surprised at how slippery they felt. But logical, no? After all, that made it easy for them to swim out of the clutches of their enemies. Time, at least each segment of it, just as easily slips away. As for smell, this depends on when. The past smells like bodies of water. The past of all living things began in them, and every being on land continues on with water as a portable carrier of it. The present too, smells of sparkling water bouncing about as it keeps all living things functioning from cells on up. Everything we consume (and let out) must contain water. The future is humid and misty. Time can feel like it’s either closing in on us or carrying the promise of an expanding mystery.

What about how time tastes? I think it is bittersweet. In the present, good memories are sweet, but have a bitter note because they exist no more. Bitter ones have a sweet element when we learn from them or they raise our appreciation of the here and now. The future for all of us will continue with this admixture, in a ratio we cannot know in advance.

As for seeing time, I picture a braid that gets longer and longer as we age, each twist representing the turning points in each of our lives. And sound: it is premusical. I think of the first recorded sounds outside Earth that were picked up by the Perseverance rover on Mars on its microphone last year. The Martian winds sound like a subdued constant distant thunder, a rumbling hum. You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lX5iVyfF3N0

Speaking of fantasy, I wonder how Mr. Bradbury would compare my images with his?

And what about you? What do you come up with when you consider what time smells, tastes, looks, sounds, and feels like?

For more of my writing, see me at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan and drop me a Tweet or a line.

*****

A friend of mine took me up on writing her own version of what Ray Bradbury and I did. This is what she wrote:

“For me, touching time is as if I was touching velvet, satin and fur…it is exciting, comforting and familiar with the expectation of what all present time and future time will continue to bring.

In the “smell” category – when I think of smells I think of mom, home and Shabbos dinners.  The aromas that wafted through the house were inviting, and just drew all family and friends to the table.  Week after week, year after year… The ethereal, almost unearthly invisible pull, to follow the smells to the dining room – never failed.

One can taste time…as one can appreciate flowers.  The anticipation of buds opening to beautiful flowers.  To have no choice but wait for the fragrance of sweetness and vibrant colors to astound.  As time moves on, one can almost taste with fervor the beautiful opportunities that may unfold-like the buds do.  Every new day, new bouquets!!  

“Seeing time” is as easy as seeing the people you care about….and actually – seeing them.  I see time as a friend…some friends bring you sheer joy and others….well, they can be a real challenge.  But, having these “friends” AKA time “in” your life “is” your LIFE…  enjoy every moment of the gift.  I SEE time as a friend to be celebrated! ” By Laurie Dinerstein Kurs

Adam And Eve in An Alternate Universe

What would have happened if Adam and Eve had been more skeptical of that rascally snake that got them into so much trouble? Let’s make a stopover in an alternate universe and find out: Eve is bored (Yes, already, and not having lived even one full day yet) and decides to have a little jog around the Garden of Eden, even though that is the same thing she did an hour ago. Once you eat and look at the animals and talk with hubby, there isn’t all that much else to do. The snake spots her and thinks, “I bet she is bored as hell because she is wandering around this same little area over and over, looking like she is fit to burst. This is a great time for me to have some fun and get her to sin, especially since Adam is not around to spoil things”

“Hey there Eve, why the long face? I have something you could do that would really perk up your life.” Even though Eve was only several hours old, she somehow was smarter than if she had been born yesterday. She gives the snake a look and says, “Well, go on. What is your brilliant suggestion? It says, “You know that tree in the middle of the Garden that God told you not to sample? And that story God make up about dying if you eat it? That’s nonsense; it has the best fruit you have ever tasted, and not only that, you will become as wise as God–that’s why God didn’t want you to have it.”

She is disturbed by this. What, God wanted to always be the top banana? Out loud she says, “You do have a point, but I want to have a talk with God about it first.” In the back of her mind, Eve wonders why God is saying one thing, and the snake another, and this arouses her suspicion that the snake has an agenda of its own. She knows she is inexperienced, and wants more time and more of a chance to talk it over with Adam and of course with God. The snake gives her a look like she has to be kidding, but it figures it will lie in wait for a time. She then returns from her jog and tells Adam, ” You won’t believe what happened. I saw the snake, and it told me I could have some of the forbidden fruit. But what got me was that the snake actually went so far as to suggest that God doesn’t want us to compete with Her/Him.” Shaken, he says, “I’ll tell you what. Let’s talk with God. God knows everything, so he must have known about the snake consult, so no use trying to hide it.”

So after a long discussion about the meaning of life, they go to God, and say, “We haven’t eaten of the tree of course, but we wanted to talk with you about it. We wonder if we can have your permission to eat at least a little bit of it. We seem to be missing something. Like for instance all those baby rabbits and baby spiders and foxes and kid monkeys, and minnows. Well, what about us? We would like children too.” God pondered this, and said He would think it over and let them know later that day. And God did. She said, “you did right to communicate with me and be honest, instead of rationalizing that my edict against eating of the forbidden tree was not valid after all, even though the snake said so. But I must tell you the matter is complicated. You have my permission to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but there is a price: you no longer will be able to eat of the Tree of Life. You will live through your children, but you yourselves, and all humans, will eventually die. This means you will have to leave the Garden of Eden.”

Now it was Adam and Eve’s turn to ask for a time-out before responding. What a choice! Live forever bored or have an exciting and sometimes difficult and above all limited life. During the break, the snake kept trying to sneak in a word or two, but the couple knew he gave misleading or fake information, so they ignored its enticements. When they met with God again, they said they were prepared to trade immortality for lives filled with meaning and relationships (including of course touch), and the possibility for accomplishments, and so they ate and ate as God watched them, musing over the growth that would ensue both for them as well as for God, their Creator.

Moral of the story: If you get at why you are tempted to do wrong and give yourself some time to sort it out, you might avoid the sin, and end up with another alternative.

(This was excerpted with some modifications from a sermon I will be giving during the Jewish New Year this September.) For more of my writing, see me at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Covid Nostalgia

I came across the happiest dogs ever at the beginning of the pandemic during the lock-down in town. We were told to stay put except for emergencies, food shopping, and “solitary exercise” which included walking the dog. Those dogs never had it so good as their owners took advantage of one of the few excuses to be allowed outside. I had never seen so many dogs out for a walk before.

Speaking of walking outside, when I was taking my own exercise, I could hear a greater variety of birds twittering than before, and more often and more stridently. Or was it that the birds sounded louder without the auditory competition from autos and airplanes? I also saw more small critters like raccoons, grown bolder by less humans to flee from. I had visions of how easily nature could take over if humans kept staying out of the way indefinitely. I also had an idea for a horror microstory with the title, “They Are Getting Ready.”

I must admit, I do not have nostalgic feelings for what shopping was like during quarantine. Arriving at the store at 7am to minimize facing the cloaked enemy made me juxtapose the words “grocery shopping” and “scary” for the first time in my life. But it is curious thing to remember seeing customers lined up outside in the afternoon with shopping carts waiting until the number of shoppers inside was low enough to allow new shoppers in. This was ironic because the bunching together of those people waiting outside violated social distancing, and so I fled the scene to wait until the next morning to pluck up the courage to enter the store.

One of the first rules that were relaxed a couple of weeks after the stay-at-home orders were in effect was to allow repair persons to do their work. All of a sudden I saw trucks like Verizon with their repair service logos all over the neighborhood during my solo walks. Wow, signs of life, I thought, in addition to children cautiously waving to me from inside closed windows.

As restrictions eased further, the first time I ate (only outside dining allowed) at a restaurant instead of getting carry out, I was amazed at how beautiful the food looked on the plate, including a serving of rice shaped as a fish alongside my gleaming glazed salmon.

July 4, 2020 was a different experience too. Because there was so little else to do for live entertainment, people started setting off fireworks more days prior to the holiday and in greater quantities than ever before. It felt like the 4th for a whole week. Some neighbors and doubtless many dogs and other pets were not amused.

Finally, “thanks to” Covid-19, I got to enlarge my vocabulary: Zoom (used to mean something was happening fast), aerosols (used to refer to those hairspray cans among other products) social distancing (a revival from prior pandemics, but no longer making much sense, especially given Zoom; too bad it wasn’t updated to “physical distancing”), stay-at-home orders (never knew they existed in a dormant condition and could be invoked by any state in the U.S.), and of course “corona” as a kind of virus. I sure felt bad for that beer company. How would they advertise now?

In this article about Covid-19 nostalgia, there is nothing to sugarcoat no matter how many silver linings there have been in this pandemic. But I think it is worth reviewing oddities and unexpected twists and turns in the minutiae of daily life in the first year of this plague, which have created a treasure trove of overturned assumptions to grow from.

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On a personal note: July 4, 2022 marks the 9th anniversary of Offbeatcompassion.com

On another personal note: I got quoted in The Jersey Journal on July 17 2022 in an article about abortion and how various religions view it: https://www.nj.com/opinion/2022/07/when-do-major-religions-believe-life-begins-faith-matters.html

Wearing Religion On Our Sleeves, Shirts, Shoelaces, Etc.

Seventeen years ago, a reporter from Newsday (a local newspaper based in Long Island, NY) asked me and other clergy, “Is it okay to wear religion on your sleeve?” She meant literally, and included other clothing as well. She shows examples in the article, such as a shirt that pictures a seated cross-legged Buddha with the legend, “Buddha is my om boy” underneath. Another shirt shows a picture of Mary with a halo and the words, “Mary is my homegirl” between her hands which are both making a thumbs up. Another shirt portrays what appears to be an abstract figure with “Proud Muslim” superimposed on it. All of the clergy supported the idea, especially for youth, as a way for them to communicate their religious beliefs and connect with their religion in a positive way.

I gave a positive spin on it too, but addressed two possible issues with it. This is what I said in 2005: “For me, the answer is a simple yes, as long as the religious content does not incite hatred. Perhaps the wearer wishes to integrate religious symbols into everyday public wear as an effort to bring God up close and personal. Since this seems not only harmless but desirable, then why might some people object to religious clothing? Because there is the danger that God is being trivialized. However, I don’t think that is the intent of the wearers.”

Here is what I’d like to add now: An interesting related question is why people want to comment on religion this way. Yes, intimacy is a part of it; after all one’s clothes are next to the skin. It is interesting that some of the wearers such as the ones mentioned, want to feel that a religious figure like the Buddha or Mary can come down to our level and be more relatable. The humor too, is a way to have a more playful relationship with God and less of an intimidating distant one. But I think too, especially the young want to test some boundaries. After all, clothes are public as well as intimate. Another picture shown in the article was of a cap with the word, “Jewcy” written on it. Sure this expresses some pride in being Jewish, but it does um “flirt” with Jewish sexuality. And I remember seeing someone in person who was wearing shoe laces that said, “Jesus saves”. Yes, God may be everywhere and anywhere, but I wonder if my Christian readers find it disrespectful on some level, or demeaning or trivializing regarding such a holy message. What if the shoes become untied and the wearer steps on their laces? How seriously can I take that message?

My point is that the wearers are questing after what their religion means to them. They are probing what needs to be challenged in it to deepen that meaning. They want their religion to be relevant to the times, which are less hierarchical and more informal than in the past. Think about those necklaces with crosses, Jewish stars, and Muslim crescents and stars that have been worn in the past. Those are tame in comparison and pose far less threat to conventional religion beyond hinting to others that they should consider becoming more religious, ideally in the same flavor.

Do you display religion on your person? If so, describe it. If not, why not?