The house in Flatbush where I grew up and lived for my first eighteen years had five staircases.

The most important main staircase led (I suppose leads) from the  entry room to the second floor.  There were three stairs that led to a landing before this staircase turned.  As a teenager I would run down the stairs make a turn on this landing holding onto one of the decorative wooden dowels that came down the bannister and take the three stairs all at once.  This caused me to break one of the dowels and it remained unfixed for twenty-five years; it remains broken.  When my father was unwell but still well enough to sleep upstairs and eat downstairs an elevator chair was installed for the straight length of staircase.

The back staircase led from the kitchen to a small landing next to the attic door.  This stair also had two turns in it — two steps from the kitchen door leading to the bottom step and one step to the landing.  It had I believe no bannister and was steeper than the front stairs.  I navigated this star by slithering in my pyjamas, belly-down, relying on the friction between my skin and the polyester to keep from tumbling down and breaking my head. At the landing at the top was a small stained glass window and the eight prism-shaped pieces of glass left thumb-sized, feathery rainbows on the carpet.

A terrifying rickety set of stairs led to the terrifying unfinished basement from the kitchen.  There was also a pair of cellar doors for delivering coal that led to a tiny dusty staircase with a swollen-shut door.  The tiny staircase between the cellar doors and the basement was one of the best hiding spots for hide and seek, although it was dusty and eerie, and forgotten.  No question that you could commit crimes in that space, if you wanted to, or escape punishment if you happened to be innocent.  Later somebody put a lock on the cellar doors; I don’t know who or why.  It would have to have been my mother now that I think of it.

The final staircase led from the landing with the feathery rainbows up to the attic.  There were two landings on it and when I was young and very very scared I could make it to the first one before bolting in fear.  As I got a little braver I made it to the second one, and then finally the third where I could ultimately make it to the storage room.  The storage room in Victorian times had been a children’s nursery and along the wall near the ceiling was peeling wallpaper that showed children at play from that era — solemn boys in skirts pushing hoops.  One wall of this room, which had a steamtrunk, the kind you would take with you on a journey by steam ship, was entirely taken up by an enormous three-bladed fan.  This fan was the heart and lungs of the house.  When you turned it on doors would shut like guns going off.

When taking final inventory of the house’s contents with my brother I had very little time and had to be ruthless.  A book of Gramsci’s philosophy that I had acquired in my early 20s from the Marxist uncle of a friend down the road?  Chuck!  An ornamental sword from a trip to Spain?  Chuck!  Who wants to deal with the headache of mailing a sword?  We were sweaty and dusty and avoiding, or addressing in our own way, the grief of  Mom’s recent death and Dad’s, and the loss of the house, and we came to the question of a bench.

I was sure this bench was not just a bench but a storage unit that had been stuck closed for decades.  My brother wanted to forget about it and said there was nothing in it.  Opening it would require moving three hundred books as well as piles of weird time-flotsam; flags, curtains, curtain rods, dishes maybe.  It was two o’clock in the morning; even the Brooklyn mosquitos had gone to sleep.

We’re opening it! I said defiantly and picked up the books and the curtains and threw them down.  I opened the bench and inside found a plastic bag. Inside that were my companions as a child and a toddler, back when I had left the house, urinated in my mothers porch plants, and run down the street ringing every doorbell, until I had been finked out and mocked by Mady Greenbaum.

To an animal, the animals were horrible.  Their fake fur had once been filthy and had been washed once and now didn’t resemble fur.  Their eyes had been fuzzy stickers and many had lost one or both.  I grabbed a monkey with wire arms and legs.  This monkey had been the star of a five second time lapse movie I did in my senior year of high school. The fur didn’t resemble fur but was only mildly creepy to the touch.

Keep this, I said to my brother.  I must have this.  Send this to me.  From this general catastrophe I had found an orphan.  Save him, I said.   I was proud that I had demanded the extra time from my brother, and proud that I knew the attic room well enough to know there was an additional concealed space, hiding memories, treasure, and potential victims, waiting in darkness for my rescue.

I felt loyal.



I was driving to work and listening to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”.  It made me remember an commercial for the Museum of Natural History that I think had this as the theme that I watched when I was a little kid in our t.v. room which was also my father’s office.   There was a leather couch, fake wood paneling, an electric typewriter on a rolling stand covered with my Dad’s legal forms and piles of onion skin, notary stamps, Winnie the Pooh hard-cover picture book he needed to use to write on, carbon paper, the irreplaceable black book of all the landlord’s multiple dwelling numbers.  I’d sit very very close to the t.v.  The commercial had quick cuts of the faces of the mannikins of American Indians in their giant canoe which was in the great hall that faced out onto Amsterdam. That hall is associated in my emotional memory with vastness, echoes, the heat of public buildings in ny, the melted water from snow, loud voices of children on school trips.

The music made me cry in the car a little, or I should say I welcomed it — it was like getting in touch with my body or my self or something more basic, giving myself a bath, breaking through.  The word I could think of was “haunting”.

I wondered if finding music haunting and believing in ghosts was the same thing.  I wondered — yes we say that it’s just us making things feel haunting that there’s nothing out there that is actually haunting, but I didn’t really believe that was true.  I was haunted.  I wasn’t tricking myself into thinking I was haunted.  How is that different from believing in ghosts?

I recently lost my mother and my father in a two year period and I like to say as a joke that I am “out of parents”, but it’s not really funny, and not really a joke.  Something is tickling at the edge of my mind or deep in my emotions that I can’t quite understand mentally.  I don’t think it is the spirits of my parents.  But something is haunting me, enough to make me cry, or at least, welcome the ability to cry.

Maybe it has to with the fact my mother and father took me to that museum, and now they’re gone but the museum still remains?  Not that.

I took them to the museum at the end of their lives and still expected them to know where to park. They had no idea where to park!  The rain was coming down like a swimming pool from New York’s december sky and I couldn’t see anything.  I dragged them in a wheel chair to the cafeteria.  Who knows why.  We saw some dinosaurs.



The Ten to the Thirtieth Plus One Nights

The ultra-computer was designed to make man happy, but when it learned that man refused to be happy and preferred to be proud the ultra-computer resolved to destroy him instead.  Sheherezade was brought in for  the ultra-computer to study and design a virus with which to implement the total destruction of humanity or omnicide.  As it scanned her brain she said she would tell it a story, a story that needed the ultra-computer’s massy cognitive array to complete, for the story was made of other stories, each of which was about an ultra-computer that scanned the brain of a young woman who told it a story, each of which was made of other stories, each of which required the ultra-computer to complete as it was made of numerous stories…

And so the ultra-computer dispersed its nearly infinite cognitive power in telling stories about stories about stories about stories, so on, nearly ad infinitum, until every single atom in every single possible universe was used to generate the stories that the princess told the ultra-computer…

And it is in one of those stories that we dwell, and in which we set our tale…

Chapter Two


What is Religion?

Living a life is a matter of making risky decisions. For almost all of them we can use the theory of subjective expected utility. That is we have a sense of what we want to achieve and a sense of how likely different bets are to achieve that and we take the bet that is most likely to get us what we want.

But for some decisions that approach won’t work. The most dramatic are ones where we actually could die. So the Nazis come and ask you to collaborate or be killed. There’s no obvious way to use SEU to answer this question because on one of the prongs of the decision tree you won’t be there any more.

That’s a dramatic example but there are less dramatic ones all the time. Ones about how to live my whole life, and ones where on one fork of the decision tree I’m a different kind of person where different things are important to me. Anything where the bet I make affects who I am in a deep sense, i.e. where I’m not just fulfilling my preferences but acting in a way that will affect what my preferences will be from here on in. Religion is the realm where we deal with these kind of decisions.

A consequence of this definition is that religion is not about statements about reality — God exists, God doesn’t exist, there is an afterlife, there is not an afterlife — or only about such statements insofar as they cause us to engage with these ultimate risks in a particular way.  So for example — “the world might end tomorrow” — might in the mouth of a certain type of messianist be a religious message. Or it might not.

We might want to put statements of belief in a bundle of other religious practices — rituals, community-building exercises, art — that help us maintain a particular attitude towards risk.  And if that’s right then these are all secondary.  It’s the attitude towards risk that makes a particular practice religious, not the practice itself.

Another consequence of this definition might be that everyone is religious, some people just don’t know it.  Whether that’s a welcome consequence, or whether it would be better just to check the language of religion, I couldn’t say.



Arguing About Religion

I used to think it didn’t make sense to argue about religion, because it was impossible to convince anybody and, perhaps more importantly, disrespectful to try.

After all, religion is about someone’s relationship to his or her own soul and to matters of ultimate concern (G-d, the Tao, the Dharmakaya and such like) and those are the most deep and intimate issues, and nobody else’s business.

But I just read the Washington Post article about evangelical support for Trump, and it seems like the only way to engage is to talk about religion. For example they think everyone is a sinner and it’s self-righteous of progressives to criticize Trump. They think that science is opposed to religion and the only way to avoid thinking that life is a meaningless joke is to endorse a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. It seems like the only way to argue with these ideas is to get in a religious argument about the true meaning of the Bible, who/what G-d is and how we should think about Him, sin, mitzvot, the purpose of life etc. 

And yet I think my first point is valid too — it’s disrespectful and a waste of time to argue about religion! People have a bad track record of answering these questions, and it is obnoxious to expect people to agree on them.

It’s a puzzler.


Three Fancy, Dancy Wise Men from the East Meet a Diabological, Mythological Crazy Magical Beast

When it was my first day of school I was afraid to go because I had to take a long trip on the subway alone, and also I thought the teachers might be mean and the other children tease me.  So my mother, who was a school teacher spoke to me as she walked me to Newkirk Avenue Station.  Indian summer had folded and torn like a paper bag and it was cold in the morning, though I had eaten a bagel and drunk a cup of hot milk.

My mother told me about the three men from the East who had the mission to tame the beast called Manticora, that despoiled the land in the province of Yoo-Nan, and stalked a cave strewn with victim’s bones.  And the three men had to meet the fell beast Manticora and had to say who or what it’s mate was.

The beast, my mother told me, had the body of a lion and the head of a man.

The first sage said manticora’s mate was lion, because who we are is who our body tells us, not what our head tells us, as our head can be fall of fancy and fantasy, but the body does not lie.

The second sage said the manticora’ s mate was a human being, because the mind is the body’s captain, and in fact the body of a human being is truly no different than the body of an ape, but man is not born to wed ape, but man.

The third sage said the manticora’s mate was any other fabulous monster composed of mismatched head and body, because the manticora’s essence was neither human nor lion, but the conjoining thereof.

Who was right, mother I said, as I waited for a moment before passing through the turn-style.

You didnt ask me about the three sages, said my mother smiling.  There were three of them, but how many bodies did they have?

Three? I asked?

No, one, monkey-face.  The three sages shared a single body.

They were a three-headed sage, mother?

For now.

For now, mother?

Their fourth head lived far away across the ocean in the palm-tree of a Crab Witch.

And is that head the true mate of the manticora, mother? I asked.

You tell me.

I never told my mother, and last July I lost her.  But her story of the mate of manticora and the three wise men who shared a single body comforted me on my first day of school and in all my searching and longing since.