Saturday, June 29, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Voices II by Carol V. Davis

Voices II
Carol V. Davis
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

It didn’t matter
whether we believed her or not

the dead kept on speaking:
whom to trust
who would betray her

After the voices stopped whispering
they took to the airwaves but only she could decipher
the code

the way a scientist sequences
genes while the rest of us only see floating quotation marks

I never knew why I landed in her column of dependables
was slightly offended as if I were not as
dangerous as I like to think

the last time I saw her she was
digging up her garden

all that beautiful dying

black tulips tossed on a pile
two-toned narcissus yanked by the stems

purity she wanted a native garden
spiked succulents to shield her
salvia to keep the fires at bay

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Friday, June 28, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Review of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?"

A review of Maria Semple’s novel "Where’d you go, Bernadette"
Carrie Wasinger
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

“On or about December, 1910, human character changed forever. I’m not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless. . . .” ~Virginia Woolf, from Mr. and Mrs. Brown

Virginia Woolf was a clever lady. If in post-WWI London she could discern, with such a careful eye, the subtle shifts of attitude that heralded modernity, one can only imagine what she’d see if she looked at us now, still stumbling through the early years of an adolescent century. Would she see a world beguiled with its own technology? A culture adrift on a digital cloud? No doubt. But I suspect she would see more, too, would penetrate the hard shell of digital hardware and notice that, fundamentally, what has changed is the nature of genius.

And like Maria Semple, she might very well blame Seattle. Maria Semple is no stranger to comedy. Her television writing credits include the well-received Mad About You and Ellen, and the critical darling Arrested Development. A thematic compatriot of all three, Where’d You Go, Bernadette exhibits the same sort of quirky and irreverent but ultimately endearing humor. Nevertheless, Bernadette has some bigger fish to fry than does the typical really smart people cope with a world that’s big enough for McMansions and MMORPGs, but too small for real creativity.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes us straight into the Emerald City, from the pretentious Queen Anne Hill, where under the immense weight of conventionality “you will want to live only in a Craftsman,”to the campus of “Big Brother”–aka Microsoft–that mecca of innovation, where designers are “swallowed whole” and top-secret projects are known only by their annoying fem-bot nicknames. There, we meet a family of extraordinaires: Elgin Branch, Microsoft VP and inventor; Bernadette Fox, ground-breaking architect and former MacArthur Award recipient; and their daughter, Bee, whose particular brand of genius comes in the form of having survived six open-heart surgeries before the age of five.

As now 14-year-old Bee reminds us early on, genius is a dogged, persistent beast in the modern world: “I’m totally fine now, and have been for nine and a half years. Just take a time-out and ponder that. For twothirds of my life I’ve been totally normal.”

“Normal” is difficult to achieve in Bee’s Seattle, where children who attend private schools dedicated to “compassion, academics, and global connectitude” can only sink so far toward mediocrity as to earn a grade of “W”–“working toward excellence.” Bee is perfectly happy to have her genius put on hold, or even forgotten.

As another, more nuanced example of genius put on hold, Semple offers up Bernadette, Bee’s brilliant but anti-social mother. Bernadette’s architectural career took a sudden and shocking turn that must wait half the novel to be explained, so she has followed her husband to Seattle where she spends the bulk of her time shut away in an old trailer conversing with a virtual assistant in India while he’s wowing the world and YouTube, Sir Ken Robinsonstyle, with the fourth-most-watched TED talk ever. When Bernadette does emerge into the sun (and there’s not that much of that in Seattle) she never fails to annoy her overly energetic neighbor, Audrey Griffin, by refusing to participate in the PTA.

When events transpire leading to Bernadette’s mysterious disappearance, Bee goes on a hunt to find her mother, a hunt that takes her, literally, to the ends of the earth. At the core of the novel’s satire lies the antagonism between Bernadette and Audrey, which Semple plays for a number of good laughs (the most amusing of which involves an unfortunate incident with some blackberry bushes, a roomful of kindergartners, and a mudslide). To Bernadette, Audrey represents all there is to hate about Seattle suburban life, and to Audrey, Bernadette is the epitome of privileged self-indulgence. 

Despite occasional moments of touching humor, this tired competing neighbors routine is far too clichéd to transcend slapstick and approach real parody. It just never seems to climb beyond cuteness, and is obviously going to be unraveled in some twist-y way at an opportune moment in the plot.

Semple far more deftly wades into Bill Gates country, taking a knife to the now iconic images and myths that mark our culture of digital innovation. It’s about time someone had the courage to mock TED, the conference that makes innovation synonymous with standing on stage talking smart and funny for all of twenty minutes, preferably with a few electronic gadgets taped to one’s body. Thus amid all the cute humor, the novel raises an important question that betrays, as Ms. Woolf might say, the shift in human character: do our innovations make people extraordinary, or is it merely the representation of the novelty, the viral nature of the rhetoric, that seems to define genius?

To that end, the novel is presented as a series of documents–emails, notes, records, letters, newspaper articles, medical reports–collected by Bee and assembled, presumably, as a means of investigating her mother’s disappearance (although we later find out there’s more to this collection than meets the eye). These fragments of the characters’ digital selves seem to have a life of their own, and in them the characters often grow to almost absurd proportions. It’s no wonder Bee would rather not be known as the little girl who should have died; it’s hard to live when you’re constantly competing with your own genius.

That said, the novel never really lets its genius characters off the hook. Their antisocial behavior, escapist tendencies, and refusal to play with the lesser beings of the neighborhood (i.e. the rest of us) are fun to watch and to sympathize with–which of us hasn’t smirked at the sycophantic admin’s groupee-lust for the boss? but it can’t last forever, at least not without imploding. The single greatest line of the novel is a one-sentence treatise on the artistic temperament: “people like you must create. If you don’t create […] you’ll become a menace to society.”

At the end of every comedy, there’s a return to normalcy following the chaos that has ensued. Relationships are reestablished and renewed. In the novel, Bernadette is eventually found, and her genius put back to work. Bee is allowed to actually be “normal.” But Semple leaves a few loose threads still drifting out there in the wind in a way that tends to make the story feel incomplete, as if this were a sitcom that was unceremoniously canceled.

Where’d You Go Bernadette is a delightful book, but you’re not likely to close the back cover and think it the most significant novel you read this year. Its textual life may be rather short, however. The movie rights have been optioned, and early reports suggest a 2015 release. I suspect it will make an even more delightful film, so I’m eagerly waiting the day I can go in search of Bernadette all over again.

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Drought Conditions by Travis Laurence Naught

Drought Conditions
Travis Laurence Naught
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

Mouths take thoughts and juice them like rocks to create just enough residual moisture to make it
through the cactus lined desert.

Oranges would make better fare, especially mixed with strawberries and bananas in a blender with ice
to cool down the internal fire that drives these thirsty words, but those are not available in Washington
State any more . . . only Florida.

Put some in the mail and see if the miles dehydrate through evaporation process soaked envelopes sent
with the intent to keep a person healthy during unavoidable downtimes that are borderline required to
process all of the new information gathered.

Given that everything is even and those distances still provide a satiated feeling unlike any found at the
bottom of beer bottles, gin and tonics as well as so many other mixed beverages, then there is no
reason to quit pulling frustrated suckles.

Mental pebbles are not the same as a refreshing in person drink, but sometimes lying to oneself by
tasting the spit off of gravel is enough to get by.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Homeschooling, Creationism, and Citizenship by Gina McGalliard

Homeschooling, Creationism, and Citizenship
Gina McGalliard
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

Education has become the hottest of topics in our public discourse. There is much talk about dropout rates, failing schools, the quality of teachers, and how falling standards in American education will eventually affect our ability to compete in the global marketplace. But absent from the debate is a phenomenon that has grown rapidly over the last few decades: homeschooling. In 2007, The US Department of Education estimated the number of homeschoolers at approximately 1.5 million–a larger population than charter school students, and marking an almost half-million increase from 2003.

Unlikely Roots

Although homeschooling has exploded in popularity in recent decades, prior to the enactment of compulsory attendance laws in the nineteenth century, it was common for children to be taught at home. Today most homeschooling parents are conservative Christians who say religion is a primary reason for not enrolling their children in public school: a survey by the US Department of Education found that 83 percent cited providing religious or moral instruction as a major factor in their decision to homeschool, although other reasons were given, such as wanting to provide strong academics and keeping their children away from negative peer influences.

Oddly, the birth of the modern homeschool movement began with the countercultural left in the sixties. Educator John Holt was an advocate of “unschooling,” which he described as child-directed learning without the use of any specific curriculum. Although unschooling adherents were usually hippie types, a friend of Holt was Dr. Raymond Moore, a religious proponent of homeschooling.

An interview on the Phil Donahue Show in the seventies by Moore alongside Dr. James Dobson piqued interest in homeschooling among evangelical Christians. Christian homeschoolers were much more politically active and numerous than their leftist counterparts, and with the help of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), founded in 1983 by two homeschooling fathers, restrictions on homeschooling in many states were loosened.

However, homeschoolers are by no means a monolithic group. There is a strong minority of secular homeschoolers who have their own curricula, conventions, and organizations. Religious homeschoolers include students who attend secular public and private universities after graduation, those who attend religious colleges, and on the furthest end of orthodoxy you have followers of Christian Reconstructionist or Quiverfull philosophies, who often eschew college entirely.

Today, homeschooling regulations vary widely from state to state. On its website, HSLDA divides states into four categories: states not requiring parents to give any notice to authorities of their decision to homeschool, low regulation states that require parents to notify but have no further oversight, moderately regulated states that mandate parents submit test scores or other evaluations of student progress, and high-regulation states with additional requirements, such as curriculum approval or home visits by officials. The total number of states that have either no notification requirement or are labeled low-regulation is 24, while the number of high and moderate-regulation states is 26. However, in all cases, homeschooling allows parents the most control over their children’s education, more so than any other educational option, by allowing parents to choose which curricular materials their children will study.

The Homeschool Marketplace

As their numbers increased, an abundance of materials specifically targeting homeschoolers was published, particularly for the Christian majority. Curricula advertised as having a Christian perspective–often called “worldview” in homeschool lingo–are plentiful, such as Alpha Omega, Bob Jones University Press, A Beka, Apologia, My Father’s World, Veritas Press, Bright Ideas Press, and Christian Liberty Press. Although not as numerous as their religious counterparts, secular homeschoolers also have plenty of options, such as Calvert, Saxon, and Pandia Press, and some elect to use publishers often used in public schools, such as McGraw Hill.

So what does a Christian perspective mean? “A Biblical perspective of education would depend upon the Bible as its main textbook,” says Ellen Dana of the Moore Institute, founded by Dr. Raymond Moore. “That does not mean that the Bible is the only textbook you would see, it means that the concepts of the Word of God would be drawn into all the subjects that you’re teaching.” For instance, Alpha Omega offers a penmanship course that teaches students handwriting by writing out Bible verses. Many publishers also offer Bible studies along with subjects such as math, English, and history.

A brief survey of more conservative curricula reveals some differences in what would be taught in public schools, most notably in science and history. The importance of Christianity is emphasized in many texts. For instance, the second paragraph on the first page of Heritage Studies 5, published by Bob Jones University Press, reads, “The geographer who is not a Christian can discover the wonders of the world, but he will miss the wonderful testimony of God in nature. He will probably also draw some incorrect conclusions. If he accepts evolution as a fact, his estimation of time will be off by millions of years.”

In New World History and Geography: In Christian Perspective, a social studies textbook published by A Beka, stories of missionaries and the spreading of Christianity is woven heavily throughout the text. “Indians were made in the image of God, and after Adam’s fall they inherited fallen human natures. All are in need of Christ as their Savior. Some of the best friends of the Indians have been missionaries. . . . They knew that there is a God Who made the world and all that is in it, but they did not know what He is like. They thought there was one Great Spirit who ruled over many other gods or spirits. Their ignorance of God’s nature led them to the evils of idolatry.”

History is also told from a conservative political slant, and President Kennedy’s New Frontier program is described in negative terms: “Under President Kennedy, government welfare programs were expanded to gain more votes and expand the influence of liberal politicians. Because it is human nature to try to get something for nothing, Americans saw the government borrow more and more money to try to take care of people with needs.” The Clinton administration gets a worse review: “In many ways, Bill Clinton set the tone for America–one that denied principals of honesty and integrity. Many Americans throughout the 1990s turned to alcohol, drugs, and material goods to make them ‘happy.’ The crime rate increased in suburban and rural areas–where many Americans raised their families. Gambling was made legal in more areas of the country, and immoral behavior became even more popular.”

The issue of evolution continues to be an important issue for many evangelicals, and many homeschool science textbooks are written from a creationist viewpoint, such as Exploring Creation with Biology, published by Apologia, and the fourteen volume Wonders of Creation set and Dinosaurs by Design from the publishing house Master Books. Answers in Genesis is another company dedicated to creationist-themed products–for smaller children there is the The Days of Creation Art Book, and for older ones a complete curriculum titled God’s Design for Science. The company also offers a DVD questioning the validity of global warming titled Global Warming: A Scientific and Biblical Exposé of Climate Change.

In Biology: God’s Living Creation, also published by A Beka, credit is regularly given to God rather than evolutionary adaptations for scientific phenomena. Skin color differences are explained in this manner: Why did God just not instruct people to stay out of the sun? After all, Europeans went to Africa as missionaries and did not die from exposure to the sun. The answer to this question shows even more provision for man by his Creator. . . . There is a great balance between the need to be in the sunshine and the danger of getting too much ultraviolet radiation. God’s purpose in skin color becomes especially evident when all of this is known. 

Advances in science are also attributed to God, as opposed to accomplishments of individual scientists. “Since the fall, man has struggled to conquer disease, one of the curses brought upon us by sin; however, only in the past two centuries has God allowed man to make great strides toward curing and preventing disease.” A few pages later, the concept of disease caused by sin continues: “The Bible clearly teaches that disease and death entered the world as a consequence of Adam’s sin. There is no clearer demonstration of this fact than the existence of venereal disease, which are almost always contracted through illicit sexual relations.” The book also contains chapters devoted to debunking evolution.

More Inclusive Voices

Not all curricula attempts to convey such specific conclusions. Sonlight, a literature-based curriculum created by John Holzmann, cautions parents on their website against purchasing Sonlight if they’re looking for a one-sided slant: Though we base our curriculum on evangelical interpretation of Scripture, we recognize that much of history is open to conflicting interpretations. We can’t present many nuances of historical eras in absolute terms. . . . So Sonlight refuses to speak as if there is only one interpretation of historical events. We do seek to give a fair representation of both (or more) sides of any issues concerning which we ourselves are in some doubt.

Their website also states that Sonlight strives to include views that are not necessarily white, American, and Christian. “We seek to show how things looked from the perspective of the peoples who were displaced by European colonists. And we discuss issues of racism (for example) not only as they may have impacted the American Civil War but in other contexts as well. Over the years, we’ve found that this desire for a balanced perspective sets us apart from a large segment of the homeschool curriculum community.. . . If you are looking for a broad-based, internationally-focused curriculum that is deeply committed to looking at issues from all sides, and if you can overlook some of our (usually unwitting) white American provincialisms, we expect we can provide the kind of educational program you are looking for. . . . But if you are looking for a program that will focus more completely on your particular cultural group–and that will speak more readily as an insider of that group–you will probably want to find another supplier.” A quick look at their high school civics course, for example, does indeed reveal mature selections such as John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

As opposed to other homeschool curricula that may have a more American or European-centric bias, Sonlight aims to educate students more holistically about world history. “While we love America and all the things it stands for . . . we’ve spent a lot of time reading about children who are caught in the bonds of slavery [or] people who got stuck in concentration camps,” says Sarita Holzmann, the wife of John Holzmann. “We want kids to recognize there’s a big world with lot of different things kids have experienced.”

Sonlight has largely had a positive reception among homeschoolers, Holzmann says, but some have responded negatively to their inclusive approach. “We never felt like we would be for everybody,” says Holzmann. “We just did things a little too differently. And not everybody’s comfortable with different.”

Unlike other curricula that is strictly creationist, Sonlight also includes both young and old Earth creationist thought–an issue that is hotly debated among homeschoolers. “Young Earthers believe that the Earth is about six thousand years old, and all the signs of aging that we see on the Earth are because catastrophes that have occurred,” explains Holzmann. “For example, the world wide flood that the Bible talks about in Genesis, that had a huge impact on scraping and shaping the Earth as it is.”

An old Earth view, by contrast, holds that God allowed evolutionary changes to happen over a long period of time. “Our instructor’s guides seek to touch on both of those sides, and for people who are firmly young earth that’s very offensive,” says Holzmann. However, scientists would undoubtedly take issue with creationism and evolution being given equal weight in a science course.

Susan Wise Bauer, a homeschooling mother and wife of a Christian minister who has authored her own history and language arts curricula, also strives for a balanced perspective in her materials. As a result Bauer finds both religious and secular homeschoolers use her work, although she had been criticized for not being “Christian enough.”

“We have been kind of polarizing,” says Bauer, who at the time of the interview had just come from a nonsectarian homeschooling conference that even included self-identified atheist and Wiccan homeschoolers. “It looks to me like now there’s a little bit of a shift going on in that the conservative evangelical homeschoolers were the first ones to really get in there and start doing grassroots organization, and for a long time [it] sort of felt like the movement kind of belonged to them . . . people who feel very strongly that homeschooling is and should be a Christian movement have not had a really positive response to what we do. But I think there have been many–increasingly over the past decade–many more homeschoolers who, even if they are or consider themselves to be conservative evangelical Christians, really are focused more on education and not on homeschooling as a way to keep their kids in this particular religious cultural space. And those parents have really just welcomed what we do with open arms.”

What is Neutrality?

While some curricula may encourage nuanced explorations of issues, others seek to train students to defend particular religious and social beliefs. For instance, Alpha Omega offers a Foundations of Living course that equips students “with sound biblical instruction to respond to tough situations they may encounter. This in-depth curriculum discusses the importance of having a faith-based worldview, including man’s purpose in the world, roles within the Christian family, dating, art, education, politics and more.” 

The more viewpoint-specific curricula would undoubtedly draw accusations of indoctrination. However, some homeschool advocates feel that public schools offer their own brand of propaganda. “Indoctrination, if you want to use that term, is going on everywhere,” says TJ Schmidt of HSLDA. “The government schools [public schools are sometimes called government schools among homeschoolers] have their own perspective and their own agenda that they are providing, just as parents are wanting to provide their children with a foundation. But I think most homeschooling parents are providing their children with the opportunity to question, to grow. The perception that home education parents are raising up robots is I think unlikely. You give a child knowledge, and the tools to gain knowledge, and they’re going to obviously be able to make decisions for themselves. I think what many homeschooling parents don’t want is an environment that is often working against parents or an environment that is pushing an agenda and not in fact being honest about the agenda that they are pushing.”

Dr. Brian Ray, a founding member of the National Home Education Research Institute, also argues that public schools are far from neutral. “Curriculum in public schools is largely driven by university professors and state-run agencies that approve or disapprove what may or may not be in textbooks, in films, and so forth and so on,” says Ray. “After a little over a hundred years of institutional state-run schooling as we know it, the curriculum is clearly coming from a particular worldview/philosophy. There are many out there. There is a Muslim worldview. There is a New Age worldview. There is a secular humanist worldview. There is a Jewish worldview. There is a Biblical and Christian worldview. And whatever’s going on in public schools is not a Christian worldview. . . .A lot of people think public schools have no value system driving the curriculum. Well, that’s false. Every curriculum has a worldview driving it.”

Homeschooling and Citizenship

Many question if homeschooling is actually a mechanism for preventing children from encountering beliefs that conflict with their parents’, a question of particular interest in a country such as the United States, which has perhaps greater diversity of viewpoints and religions than anywhere else. It’s also particularly pertinent in our current fractionalized media climate, where unlike in previous generations, when everyone got the news from Walter Cronkite, people of all political stripes can choose to only consume information reinforcing their previously held opinions.

Rob Reich, a Stanford social scientist who has written about homeschooling, feels that in addition to notifying public authorities of an intent to homeschool and regular basic skills tests, there should also be curricular oversight of homeschooling. “I don’t have a detailed plan laid out, but the simple idea would be that when you homeschool, you have to submit your curricular materials to some body or agency or set of teachers in a publicly authorized agency,” says Reich. “You couldn’t just decide, for instance, not to teach math because your son or daughter didn’t seem to like math, or only teach them the particular religious account of creationism without exposing them to ideas of evolution.” An important note: Reich’s support of homeschool regulation doesn’t reflect a belief that American public schools are ideal, in fact, he’s been an outspoken critic of failing public schools and supports certain voucher programs.

“Parents are certainly permitted [and] free to teach their kids whatever they wish with respect to their own values and convictions,” says Reich. “So if they want to teach their kids that other people believe doctrines that are false or ones that will condemn them to hell or are corrupt or sinful, I think parents should have every freedom to do that. But what they must also do is allow their children to learn, if not through the parents then through someone else, that these other people, however sinful they are, are also their equals as citizens and are fully entitled to a participating voice and ideally to an equal place in deliberation on public policy and political affairs. If kids who are homeschooled only learn that which is in strict accordance with how their parents believe [and] never encounter the diverse views of others, much less engage with them, they seem to me to be at a civic disability because what they’ve not learned to do is interact with their fellow citizens on the basis of equal citizenship.”

Some homeschooling advocates, however, believe that the decision of how to present other perspectives and religions should be determined solely by parents. “[Children] should be taught in their own churches that we need to be tolerant of all those other faiths and to be told something about what they believe, and why we don’t believe that,” says Dana. “It’s [the job of ] the parents and the particular church of that family to do that work.”

Although the purpose of education in a democratic country is to prepare students for responsible citizenship, Ray feels public schools fall woefully short. “There is no research evidence anywhere that public school social interaction makes children better citizens,” says Ray. “Number two, there’s no research anywhere that suggests public school attendance reduces crime. . . . Third, the research shows that [of ] homeschooled children, the vast majority are interacting with people other than mom and dad and their brothers and sisters. If that’s what people are concerned about, they shouldn’t be concerned because they’re almost all doing things like co-ops and scouts and soccer teams and church groups and synagogue groups.”

However, because homeschooling gives parents the ultimate authority over their children’s education, there is a school of thought that holds that lack of exposure to differing viewpoints is actually an impediment to becoming an autonomous adult. “With little or no exposure to competing ideas or interaction with people whose convictions differ from their parents’, children who are homeschooled can be raised in an all encompassing or total environment that fails to develop their capacity to think for themselves,” writes Reich in his article “Why Homeschooling Should Be Regulated.”

“Parents can control the socialization of their children so completely as to instill inerrant beliefs in their own worldview or unquestioning obedience to their own or others’ authority . . . in short, children become unfree, unable to imagine other ways of living.”

Given the sheer number of homeschoolers, homeschooling likely will remain a permanent part of the American educational landscape. And there will continue to be those who believe a democratic state has a vested interest in regulating homeschooling, and homeschooling advocates who feel that individual parents should have unfettered choice as to what their children do or do not learn, free from government oversight.

In this sense, homeschooling represents a clashing of two ideals American culture holds in high regard: the individual’s freedom and right to live their lives and bring up their children according to their beliefs and customs, and the interest of the state in regulating education as a means to maintaining an informed citizenry and an environment of mutual respect of others, befitting of a pluralistic democracy. Only time will tell which ideal will prevail.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment with Deb Riggins

A Moment with Deb Riggins
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

December photographer Deb Riggins tells us of her passion for traveling and Henry David Thoreau. fortunately, she carries her camera with her on her journeys.

Empirical: We’re very delighted to feature you in this month’s Empirical. I know you’re in Massachusetts now, but where are you from originally?

Deb: I grew up in the suburbs of Washington and moved to Southern Maryland when I was sixteen.

Empirical: How did you come to be in Massachusetts?

Deb: I became interested in Thoreau a few years ago and began visiting Concord on a regular basis, so I decided to try it out for a while.

Empirical: We love hearing that. Empirical is grounded in classical American philosophy. What did you like about Thoreau?

Deb: I’d had read bits and pieces of Thoreau’s work most of my adult life, but when I returned to college at Penn State I took a literature class and learned more about his life and him as a person. I was just enthralled with his writing and his life. When I read his journals or his books, I feel like he’s there talking to me. I can’t really explain it, it just is. When my sister died, I went to the pond and, this might sound crazy, but I felt he was there. I started to understand his pain, because he lost a brother he was close to. I just felt at peace when I was there. It comforted me for some reason because I was in a lot of pain after she died. It’s a very personal place for me.

Empirical: We’re very sorry to hear about your loss. And glad to hear you’ve found a spot that brings you comfort. Fortunately for all of us, you’re getting a lot of good photographs while you’re there.

Deb: I’ve taken a lot of pictures of Walden Pond. It’s one of my favorite places in the local area. It’s really sort of a mecca. A lot of people visit it from all over the world. Thoreau was so influential in so many ways. I think he would be surprised at the way people flock to see where he lived. It’s a beautiful place–very peaceful. It’s my get-away place. It’s a place to think and contemplate life and society. On days when I’m having a really tough time dealing with life, I can go there walk around the pond, and sit at the cabin ruins and just feel at peace. If you stand at the rock pile and look out at the pond, which is what he must have seen every morning–it is the most amazing site and feeling. I just feel this wave of serenity every time I look out from that point. The first time I came here I was in awe! And I still am. You can read his journals and go to the pond and still experience what he writes about. I guess that is what I really like about Thoreau. He’s still there in so many ways.

Empirical: In the shot of Thoreau’s headstone with “Henry” written on it, did you find the headstone that way, or did you decorate it?

Deb: Yes. . . I set up that shot! The pine cones are from Savannah and Pennsylvania. Some of the rocks and coins were already there. If I recall, it was near his birthday. The rose that I put there was made for me by a street vendor in Savannah. It’s a very interesting craft.

Empirical: When did you start your traveling?

Deb: I married a military guy and we traveled to California, Japan, and Maine. I just moved to Massachusetts a little over a year ago.

Empirical: How did you get started in photography?

Deb: I was pretty much a loner as a teenager and became enthralled with Ansel Adams. I’ve always loved photography and old photos. I loved looking at his photographs and wanted to see the places he photographed. Maybe that is where my love of travel developed.

Empirical: Ansel Adams is one of our California treasures. I moved to California in that same period you’re talking about, and was also motivated by him. When did you get your first camera?

Deb: When I graduated from high school, my parents bought me an SLR, the Olympus OM-1. My daughter still has it–it is what she learned on too.

Empirical: The OM-1 was my first SLR, too. What equipment do you use now?

Deb: I have a Canon EOS 50D and a variety of lenses. My favorite is a 50 mm 1.8 and 24-105mm 1.4. 

Empirical: When did you start to take photography seriously as an art?

Deb: When I moved to California in my twenties, I began taking pictures of the beach, parties, and my kids. They were always my favorite subjects. But when I moved to Japan, I began exploring the culture. I began thinking more like a photographer. I loved Japan. I took photographs of everything there.

Empirical: Can you give us some examples?

Deb: It was here that I began to read about Buddhism and Shinto. I rode around on my bike and photographed temples and shrines all over the area, including shots of the large Daibutsu in Aomori. I photographed the people, who often love to have their pictures taken, and the landscapes. We went to a lot of festivals and I would photograph the people and nature, a lot of nature, since nature is a large part of their culture and lifestyle. There was a tremendous earthquake when we lived there. I took photos of the damage in the local area.

Empirical: Did you get training for photography in school?

Deb: I’m self-taught. I have taken a few classes over the years, but nothing formal. I just read and experimented with my camera, film, and developing. But while living in Japan, I met other photographers who encouraged me to explore my talents. They were other military members and dependents. One guy was a former service member who served in Vietnam. He took pictures of bridges when he was there. One winter we drove around and took pictures of the snow and ice. He was the first person that ever told me he thought I had talent and really loved what I captured on film.

Empirical: So your work began to take off ?

Deb: Yes. I set up this very portable darkroom in the bathroom. I closed off the hallway, taped off the doors, and taught myself to develop and print. I entered a couple of contests and found people were interested in my work. I won first place and honorable mention in a photo contest when I lived there. That was when I began thinking more seriously about what I was doing with my camera.

Empirical: I know that you’re a professional framer, too. How did that start and does your work as a photographer and framer intersect?

Deb: Japan is also where I began working as a picture framer. They had a self-help area where I would frame my photos and they asked me to work there. My framing and photography did intersect there. I taught framing in the self-help area and a few people bought my photos and had them framed there.

Empirical: What kind of projects do you like working on now?

Deb: It depends on my mood and what interests me at the time. A lot of times, I will pick up a book and read projects in there. When I lived in Philadelphia, a college project really got me back into the shooting mode.

Empirical: What class was that?

Deb: It was a class in urban sociology. That was the most interesting class I think I’ve ever taken. The final project was to choose a neighborhood, interview residents, and give a presentation on the neighborhood. 

Empirical: What neighborhood did you choose?

Deb: I ended up with Queen Village mostly because I liked the name. I talked to a few people and walked the neighborhood. Then I went back with my camera. It’s an amazing neighborhood–the diversity of it. Philadelphia is known for its murals so I started there and moved into the houses, row houses painted all different colors. Old firehouses and warehouses have even been turned into row homes. I really got into the culture of the neighborhood and met some very fascinating and amazing people at that time. The most interesting ones were the ones that stayed there through all the changes from the 60s to the millennium. In the 1960s it was a ghetto, falling apart, and some old “hippies,” I was told, bought up some properties and started renovating the area. It’s gone through the typical ups and downs that neighborhoods and areas do. In 2008 when I was involved with this, it was going through a gentrification that many weren’t happy with. People who had lived there for years were being pushed out by a new gentrification. A lot of trailblazers, really, and down-to-earth, wonderful people who lived there for forty or fifty years, were being pushed out. I met a woman that started the community garden there. I could go on forever about that project.

Empirical: What happened next?

Deb: After that I began photographing the murals and public art around Philly and the architecture and the people. Street and park musicians, re-enactors and such. It’s such a busy city with so much activity.

Empirical: Aren’t you a runner, too? Your photograph of some sneakers is one of the illustrations I chose for a short story called “Sneakers” in our August issue.

Deb: I love running and hiking and just being outdoors. I’m usually running in races, but one year I was injured, so I went to races and shot pictures of runners. A friend of mine was getting into triathlons, so I shot some of a race she did in Philadelphia. So, yes, my photography and my other hobbies do intersect.

Empirical: Not too long ago, you were traveling across the country, weren’t you?

Deb: In 2010, after my sister passed away, I drove across country as therapy and took quite a few shots of the country–places I had never been before, national parks, the zoo, and my granddaughter. My sister always wanted me to pursue my talents, so it was for her. I did it with her in my heart. It was kind of a healing. I also just returned from a trip not too long ago crossing the country again. I love to travel. I only wish I could do it more.

Empirical: And when you’re not traveling?

Deb: More recently, I have been photographing local bands and cars. The man I am involved with at the moment is a huge car enthusiast and he also works with a couple of local bands doing sound and lights. I’ve been taking shots of car shows and cruise nights in Massachusetts. I’ve taken some shots of the tribute band “Crazy Train.” Lately I’ve been taking photos of a local band that was popular in the 60s and 70s that is having a rebirth. It’s called “The Barker Gang.” So really, projects just kind of present themselves to me.

Empirical: It’s been great hearing about your world. Thanks for sharing with us!

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Monday, June 24, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The Bridge, the Warrior, and Blue Eyes by Peggy Aylsworth

The Bridge, the Warrior, and Blue Eyes
Peggy Aylsworth
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

The curve and rush of time and water.
Nothing learned as the warrior loses his head.

Blue eyes in the stone face, the subtle smile.
Who will answer this longing? There is

patience in the woman leaning on the wall.
In the distance women walk and talk.

Pulteney Bridge is more than a bridge.
Red Rover, cross over. On the way why not

buy a rose, an antique map or sip a glass
of blueberry juice? And still the women wait

and walk as their day bends toward night. The old
has left its dying wish within the stone: Endure.

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Creative Disruption by John F. McMullen

Creative Disruption
John F. McMullen
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

Whether you spend most of your waking hours on Facebook or try to stay as far away from computers as possible, technology has changed the world around you, often “under your radar,” and will continue to do so at a constantly accelerating pace. The way you do things will be affected; jobs will be lost; companies, even industries, will disappear; and new opportunities will open for people with the proper education and skill sets.

Consider a mall, if there was one near you, ten years ago. There might have been a B. Dalton, a Waldenbooks, or a local bookstore; there were probably a few stores that did film processing; there were probably two music stores that sold cassettes and CDs; a travel agent; and a movie rental store. Somewhere near the mall there might have been a stand-alone Border’s bookstore and/or a Tower Records. As you walked between the stores, if you passed someone alone speaking loudly, you would give her/ him a wide berth, thinking there might be some mental or emotional problem looming.

That was ten years ago–now, there are no more bookstores, travel agents, music stores, film-processing centers, or movie rental stores, and we just assume that the person speaking loudly is on a cellphone with a Bluetooth earpiece. How things changed!

These are the only changes that we see but there is much more going on. Technological advancement can threaten our economy and our way of life; at a minimum, it will disrupt businesses as we know them; shift more responsibilities to us, the consumers; and require much different tools from our workforce. It also will require greater understanding of the long-term impact of these advances that our elected officials have at the present or seemingly want to acquire.

I call this ongoing march of technological innovation creative disruption because it is always based on innovation, imagination, and disrupts the existing ways of doing things. Some prefer the term creative destruction because of the impact it has on some jobs and some companies. I choose disruption because it is a more optimistic term that sees opportunities in these changes.

Innovation has allowed businesses to make us “part of the process,” eliminating many jobs as it provides instant service to us. Every bill that we pay online to our utilities, credit card companies, or mortgages means that we no longer have to address an envelope, stamp it, and mail it. Further, it means that no one at the other end has to open the envelope, check the payment, enter the information into a computer system, and tabulate the checks for a bank deposit.

Every book that we choose to read on a Kindle or a Nook means we can carry it and hundreds of others with it at all times, takes no storage space in our home or office, and usually costs less than a hardcover or paperback version. It also means that the seller requires no inventory, no employees to package and ship to distribution centers or retail bookstores. These stores require fewer retail personnel as they are selling fewer printed books (it also means fewer bookstores).

iTunes is now the largest music store in the world. The downloading of music is the same model as that of books–no inventory and no retail processing. Even if we prefer the physical feel of merchandise, the ordering online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Apple, Dell, etc., once again eliminates the middleman. 

We call this cutting out of the middle man disintermediation.

We see this disintermediation also in the replacement of many travel agents and realty listings with computer services. Firms doing business with government agencies and large companies such as Wal-Mart are required to enter bids, invoices, and statements by electronic data interchange, once again moving the input process away from the large entity. Many supermarkets and box stores now have self-checkout facilities that both speed the shopping process and eliminate retail positions.

We also see more and more replacement of manufacturing jobs through the use of robotics–robots don’t get sick, break for lunch, or make demands and, properly maintained, perform the same task in exactly the same manner all day long. In a New York Times article, “Skilled Work, Without the Worker,” John Markoff wrote, “The use of ‘artificial intelligence’ is not limited to manufacturing but extends also to such areas as automatic security trading (a programming error in such a system recently caused Knight Capital to lose $440 million in a matter of minutes) and analysis of loan applications.”

The impact of technological changes often extends to entire geographical areas. Rochester, New York, for example, is home to Kodak and Xerox, two firms hit hard by changes in technology. It is particularly ironic that Kodak, which invented digital photography, chose to protect its film and chemical processing businesses and did not pursue the digital technology until it was destroyed by it. Similarly, Xerox, which developed many of the important computer technologies (graphic user interface, object-oriented programming, and Ethernet networking), chose to focus on its copier business only to see e-mail and interoffice networking make major dents in that business.

We have just scratched the surface of the technological revolution.

Our amount of available information grows exponentially, causing the disruption to also grow exponentially. (See the “Did You Know” videos, starting with the first–http://vimeo. com/2030361.) It is more than the tremendous explosion of information technology that has brought us to where we are now–it is the confluence of developments in many areas. Some students of the revolution use the acronym “GRAIN,” which I have modified slightly to mean:

G - Genetics
R - Robotics
A - Artificial Intelligence
I - Internet
N - Nanotechnology.
(Note that I inserted “Internet” as the “I”
to replace “Intelligence,” the second half of
“Artificial Intelligence.”)

Each of these areas are now linked together by our understanding of systems and the digital world–and we are attempting to solve problems and/or create “new things” through “programming,” be it the programming of DNA in genetics, atoms and molecules in nanotechnology, microprocessors in robotics and any type of computer system in relation to artificial intelligence and the internet.

It takes only looking at some recent examples to see the disruptive power of such innovation. A recent video (http://www. demonstrates the making of a working crescent wrench by “copying” an original wrench in a 3D copier. Imagine, as this process gets cheaper, the impact on manufacturing if we can simply copy existing tools, furniture, clothing, etc. to make new items. Consider “3D Printing A House” and think of the applications of that.

If these examples don’t either excite you or move you to trepidation, even a basic understanding of nanotechnology should. The manipulation of the world at the molecular level is so full of promise that it boggles the imagination. There are already applications in use by Dockers (the making of slacks that resist stains) and by the Defense Department (production of uniforms that seal on a wound to prevent infection; development of a wearable light skeleton that allows a soldier to carry an incredible amount of weight).

Nanotechnology has allowed the creation of carbon nanotubes, the strongest material made to date. This material has allowed the development of both the skeleton structure mentioned above and is the basis for the planned “Space Elevator,” a rope ladder type of device made with carbon nanotubes that will hang from the “Space Station” over the Pacific Ocean for the transport of material up to the Space Station ( If successful, there will no longer be a need for manned shuttles to deliver material, greatly reducing cost and danger.

If this seems too much like science fiction, it gets even weirder. Medical technologists envision the development of very tiny programmable machines that may be injected into the blood stream to travel through the human body to find infectors, tumors, and malfunctions and correct them.

Finally, there is the concept of the home assembler that may or may not arrive in our lifetime. Presently, Levi Strauss manufactures the majority, if not all, of its jeans offshore. The jeans are then shipped to the US, trucked to regional distribution centers or large stores, and sold through retail channels. Levi Strauss, IBM, and other firms are engaged in research, which has a goal of moving to the following process of jean delivery–the consumer goes online, chooses a style, color, measurements (all possible measurements), provides payment information and, very shortly, the jeans come out of the consumer’s own assembler. The “manufacturer” has collected the order information and developed the proper instructions to send to the consumer’s home assembler–and there are no longer people in Malaysia making the jeans, ships crossing the Pacific to ferry the jeans to the US, truckers delivering the jeans to retail outfits, or retail personnel handling inventory, bagging, and collection! The consumer can now decide to order a toaster or a pillow in the same manner.

So, between now and sometime in the future, we will have eliminated millions of jobs–from the unskilled person opening the payment envelopes at a utility to the very highly skilled Space Shuttle pilot–jobs at every level. Both political parties tell us “When the economy comes back, employment will return to high levels.” This is nonsense and they either lie or just don’t understand. Jobs that have been replaced by technology aren’t coming back. Unfortunately, the people replaced through the elimination of these jobs are often too old, too uneducated, or too unintelligent to be retrained for the higher skilled jobs required in the new workplaces. Even if they are not, we will require massive retraining projects to keep these people gainfully employed.

It should further be understood that as businesses thrive in a resurgent economy, they no longer will seek to add personnel to meet new demand as they did it the past. They will, rather, seek to automate further to reduce personnel. To compete in the worldwide global economy, it is necessary to reduce personnel costs. The US can only compete with foreign worker wages by eliminating workers.

The biggest problem facing us is that there is no long-range planning for these possible eventualities. Consultant William Hugh Murray, a long-time observer of the impact of technology on employment, suggested the following to this writer: “Computers and robots will produce everything but jobs. In the twentieth century, we dealt with the tractor by shortening the workweek from 72 to 42 hours. How about a 25-hour work week?”

Bill’s idea is not new. John Maynard Keynes, in a 1930 paper, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” laid out a case that increases in productivity would result in a work week of 15 hours a week in 2030 to maintain the standard of living that in 1930 required 40-50 hours a week–he estimated that the average workweek in 2010 would be 20 hours a week (In their recent book, How Much Is Enough?, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky use Keynes’s prediction as a jumping off point in their analysis of “economics as a moral science.”)

It seems to me that we are a long way from shorter workweeks because of abundance. Competing in a global economy in which other players either have employees working 50-60 hours per week at low wages or have totally automated workplaces tends to weigh against greater leisure time in the US. What then do we do as individuals and as a society to deal wit these rapid disruptive changes? While there is no single silver bullet, there are some obvious first steps:
  • We must recognize that there is a long-term trend to deal with–no such public recognition is in evidence.
  • Political leaders of both parties must focus on long-range solutions rather than the short-term sound byte pap, which we are fed now. A “space race” type of national mentality is needed and that requires political leadership. We must demand this leadership.
  • Education must be strengthened with a focus not only on technical competence but on the realization that constant change is inevitable and, to meet this challenge, lifetime reeducation and constant adaptability is necessary.
  • We must also recognize that we will have a constant, if not growing, legion of unemployables and we must find a way to not only support them but to insure that they continue as productive members of society (perhaps through paid volunteerism, mentoring programs, etc.).

One of the great technology visionaries of the last 50 years, Alan Kay, is oft quoted as saying, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” If we do not take heed of Kay’s dictum and continue to reinvent all around us, what I call creative disruption will truly turn out to be creative destruction.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Within the Going by Peggy Alysworth

Within the Going
Peggy Alysworth
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

I am where your life isn’t
and yet is,
driving across the world,
eternity at the wheel.
Long, long sky,
raw land,
someone always looking
for the Father
and the Son
of antique earth.
Children are crying
in the land. The baby
coming into his soul through tears
but not of sadness.
Adam was suckled and taught to know.
I wake from the fire into radiance.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Exploring the Rich World of Flexidox Judaism by Emanuel Stoakes

Exploring the Rich World of Flexidox Judaism
Emanuel Stoakes
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical

December is the month in which two of the major American holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah, are celebrated–though Hanukkah sometimes begins in late November. While the former celebration is familiar to most, with its family gatherings, present-sharing, spirit of goodwill and an attendant crush of gaudy commercial mayhem, Hanukkah is a more understated and often more misunderstood–as well as misspelled midwinter festival.

It is apt to include a conversation with Rabbi Gershon in the December issue of Empirical, given the beautiful symbolism of Hanukkah, the festival that to many Jews concludes the High Holy Day season which begins with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Holy Day, also known as the “festival of lights,” celebrates a miracle that occurred in Solomon’s Temple during the second century BCE, after the Maccabees had regained Jerusalem from the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus. According to the Talmud, after the Holy Temple was rededicated, oil lamps were lit in celebration and burned for eight days despite there being only enough sacred oil for one day’s use.

This was a reminder of the love of God for the Jewish people, having once again overcome great adversity and oppression. Since that time, in the heart of winter around much of the world, Jews have lit menorah candles in solemn remembrance of this redemptive moment.

It is thus apposite to mention the story of Hanukkah in relation to Flexidox Judaism, a radically universalist school of thought within the great Jewish tradition. The Flexidox movement celebrates all that Judaism encompasses from the time of the Patriarchs through the era of the Nivi’im (prophets) and great thinkers like Hillel to more contemporary voices such as the Lubevitcher Rebbe. In that mix, Rabbi Gershon also includes Jesus, of whom he says: “He was an early rabbi, a Tanna. He was of Davidic ancestry, possibly the legitimate heir of his generation.”

Drawn from the incomparable history of the Jewish people and religion, Flexidoxy collects the varied lights of Jewish faith in celebration of all it has to offer. The Hanukkah menorah, the nine-branched candelabra lit in gratitude to God, puts one in mind of the Flexidox spirit: a tribute to memory and triumph. I began by asking Rabbi Gershon to describe his understanding of the significance of Hanukkah.

Rabbi Gershon: Hanukkah began as a celebration of a revolution to oppose oppression and forced foreign worship [by the Seleucid empire]. Instead of fulfilling the mandate of the Revolution, to restore the Davidic throne and the Zadokite High Priest, the Maccabees made claim on both traditional, lineage-related offices (the royalty and the priesthood), and then went about seeking to eradicate those with a legitimate claim to either.

Emanuel: How would you define the message of Flexidox Judaism?

Rabbi Gershon: The message of Flexidox Judaism is that every branch of Judaism is legitimately Jewish, equally. It posits that interfaith marriage and families is traditional and to be respected. That proselytizing is always in error.

Emanuel: What is your understanding of the creation narrative in Genesis–do you believe in evolution?

Rabbi Gershon: Yes, I believe in scientific knowledge as telling me how God did it.

Emanuel: What do you understand the soul to be? 

Rabbi Gershon: The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah (breath). When one dies the breath returns to the One Who Breathed it and the body returns to the elements.

Emanuel: What is your position on heaven and hell?

Rabbi Gershon: Both heaven and hell are here on earth, in a person’s lifetime. They are but two sides of the same coin (Isaiah 45: 7).

Emanuel: Do you believe that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God?

Rabbi Gershon: Short answer, yes! And the Buddhist and Hindu as well. Longer answer, the kabbalist Moses Cordovero, writing in the 16th century, put it this way: The essence of Divinity is found in every single thing–nothing but it exists. Since it causes everything to be, no thing can live by anything else. IT enlivens them. Ein Sof [the infinite] exists in each existent. Do not say, ‘This is a stone and not God.’ God forbid! Rather, ALL existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity. But also do not say, ‘This stone alone is God.’ Again, God forbid! For God is not confined in a stone. The Hebrew concept of God is more as the Force(s) of Creation than as a Man in the Sky. Daniel C. Matt writes in his book God and The Big Bang, GOD is a name we give to the oneness of it all. God is the oneness of the Cosmos. But the name ‘GOD’ is a label we attach to this oneness–the ultimate, all inclusive name. In fact, this is exactly how traditional Jews refer to God: HaShem, The Name. . . .God is the oneness of matter and energy, the process through which one is transformed into the other, the nothingness that embraces both. It is when you confine God to place and space, to image, that you are worshiping an idol. That said, everyone who sees that there is some force in the Universe greater than the human force, is worshiping God.

Emanuel: Does reading Genesis with an understanding of Hebrew alter its meaning?

Rabbi Gershon: I do not know the answer to that. I read it in Hebrew most often. Genesis 1:1 does not say “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Bareyshit, the first word, is continuous. The bareyshit is still happening, not “once upon a time.” A better translation would be “When it began to be created.”

Emanuel: So, creation is still unfolding. That makes sense in relationship to evolution.

Rabbi Gershon: Take the second word in Genesis: bara. It actually conveys the idea of a something coming out of nothing.

Emanuel: That is beautiful.

Rabbi Gershon: Your name [Emanuel, a Hebrew name] reminds me of Star Wars’ “the Force is with us.”

Emanuel: So El does not refer to God?

Rabbi Gershon: El does not mean God but a force, a force of nature. Rabbi Gershon Winkler states: Elo’heem sometimes means God, sometimes means angels, sometimes means mortal judges. Hebrew is not a stiff language, but as with most aboriginal languages it is elastic, lending each word to numerous meanings. Elo’heem, the Zohar says, is “Ey’ma D’ila’a,” literally Great Mother, yet it is written in what seems masculine but that is because, again, it is not a word exclusivelyconnoting the divine mother creator but mortal judges, too, as well as angels. El is divine power, Eloh is feminine attribute of divine power, elo’heem incorporates both, because a mother is capable of conceiving and containing both, male and female within her. Females give birth to boys, too.

Emanuel: So El an expression of God’s power?

Rabbi Gershon: It does not mean God to the ancient Jews. It always is an expression of power.

Emanuel: Isn’t it true that the Tetragammaton is the holy name for God?

Rabbi Gershon: Yes, but what does that name mean? Names in Hebrew define what is being named. It means continual existence! Heh, vav, hen means to be–to exist.

Emanuel: Like the I am in the scriptures?

Rabbi Gershon: Yes, the ehyeh asher ehyeh (the I will be what I will be)–always in becoming. 

Emanuel: What is your understanding of the Moschiach or Messiah–would you understand the Messiah as being a person, or a coming age of spiritual enlightenment as some have posited–or something else?

Rabbi Gershon: The Messiah (Moschiach) is an age–not a person. At one time it was a king of the lineage of King David. But, the concept evolved to refer more to the time of world disarmament and equality of sharing the resources so that no one is hungry or homeless.

Emanuel: Is it permitted for Jews to build a third temple on Moriah, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as some groups are calling for, absent the appearance of the Moschiach?

Rabbi Gershon: Yes, and one day it will happen. But it can only happen when Islam and Judaism resolve their difference with each other and then bring Esau (Christianity) back into the picture. A Third Temple will incorporate the Holy Places of all Three Abrahamic Faiths plus create worship centers for those of non Abrahamic religious traditions.

Emanuel: Interesting. I take it you are saying this will happen by God’s will–so it cannot be planned for?

Rabbi Gershon: Insh’allah!

Emanuel: Do you think that increased understanding between the Abrahamic faiths could solve some of the internecine rancor on display in places like the Holy Land?

Rabbi Gershon: Yes. Jews and Muslims lived in the Holy Land in abject poverty for multiple centuries until Western powers saw a benefit in [taking advantage of ] Arab and Jewish nationalism. It has only been since the rise of nationalism that the two ways of viewing God (Allah), both correct, have been used for political purposes.

Emanuel: What is your position on homosexuality? Do you consider it a “sin” as such?

Rabbi Gershon: Sexuality is of no concern of mine except where force or violence is involved. A homosexual is as God made them, just as any other sexuality is as God made that person. Homosexuality is as much a sin as is heterosexuality. It is a sin only when the sex is substitutional or abusive.

Emanuel: What do you say to people who bring up Leviticus 18:22?

Rabbi Gershon: It is good to bring it up as then we can go over it. We read those verses in synagogue today. There is no prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus. It is a prohibition of substitutional sex.

Emanuel: I may be mistaken, I ask your forgiveness–but does it not say “thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman”?

Rabbi Gershon: Exactly, and a homosexual does not lay with a man as he would with a woman. The wording tells you that the perpetrator is heterosexual, not homosexual. He is simply a-sexual. The sex of his partner is not as important as is sex itself. Thus he is substituting a man for a woman.

Emanuel: Thank you. Rabbi Gershon, what inspires you?

Rabbi Gershon: I am inspired by the degree of progress towards equality and Universalism that has happened in my short 70 years on the planet. I believe in the future.

Emanuel: Thank you so much, Rabbi Gershon. Rav Todot.

Rabbi Gershon: B’vakashah!

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