Monday, September 29, 2008

Rosh Hashana

I got lost on the K MUNI tonight. I was on my way to meet Shauna for a Rosh Hashana service at the San Francisco County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park, and the sun was just a wink on the horizon. A number of synapses were misfiring in my brain like fireworks. I was listening to Joan the Policewoman sing about failed relationships and thinking about a Brooklyn boy for whom I've developed an uncanny affection. Then a telemarketer called just as I was arriving at West Portal station, and for the irony of it was I actually wanted to answer her questions, but there was no reception in the tunnel. And then suddenly I was at Forest Hill station, by the Laguna Hospital, and it was dark, and I was late, and I wondered again why I had left the house.

I was thirty minutes late for the service, which we had found on Craigslist, and were drawn primarily because we didn't have to register for it ahead of time (as is the case for most High Holy Day services), and was advertised as "experimental and friendly." Those two adjectives can be quite the wild cards in this city. And yet it was a relief to know that the New Year was entirely capable of starting without me. Religion, particularly Judaism, has always left an almost backward impression on me--that is, the less I technically practice, or the less orthodox my prayer, the more I am struck by the sheer grandiosity of the universe.

And there's nowhere more unorthodox than a half-full room at the San Francisco County Fair Building in late September, sliding glass door open just enough to muffle the sounds of cars whipping by on Lincoln Avenue. The man on my right had a full beard, fuller than Moses', and he repeated every gesture the rabbi made, gesture for gesture. As with many Reform and/or post-Reform services, most of the songs were a series of voices competing for rhythm and pitch. And then something really spectacular happened: we sang the Sh'ma.

The Sh'ma is the most important prayer in Judaism because it carries its most basic truth: that there is one god. The prayer must be sung while standing, and most Jews bend their heads and bow at regular intervals. It is easy to remember, even for us non-Hebrew-speakers who grew up reading the transliterations, because it is only about four or five words. Now, I consider myself an agnostic at best, and even then, I'm not the best agnostic. The very fact that I don't believe 100% in one god cancels out my identification as a Jew in many circles, but that's another story. What happened tonight had less to do with my belief (or lack thereof) in any kind of god, and more to do with the sheer will to believe that filled that crappy little room.

What was different was the way the congregation sang the prayer. Instead of singing it as a whole phrase, or singing each word quietly in a full breath, we all sang each word fully, loudly, in a bizarre kind of harmony that wasn't melodic so much as absolutely willed.







Each note was so full, it was if an entire season was blossoming within it.

The curtains whipped at the open slider doors, and the man next to me bobbed his head on his full belly. And I was glad to be there, glad to have gotten lost on the K line, glad to be an experimental and friendly Jew.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cords and Wires

My life is full of cords and wires.

Lying in bed, the first one I see is the the tubing that goes from insulin pump to abdomen. People are always startled to hear that I sleep with a little pager-like device stuck to my body. True, it is at times inconvenient when I turn over and my pump slides off the bed, and yet it I'm used to it.

Then there are the recreational wires. I (cough) use an iPod way more than I probably should. i have also started the obnoxious habit of failing to capitalize my "i"s. Growing up in the age of radio technology-turned-portable-everything, I can't fall alseep without listening to something. It started back in junior high, when I would just leave my radio on the windowsill tuned in to 100.5 FM, waking up to used car ads and Dr. Drew's "Loveline." Then there was the audio books phase, which also propelled me through the Walkman phase, longer than most, and later on to the Discman ("skip-free") era. In college, there were the carefully-selected mix cds from boyfriends and roommates. There was always a startling difference between the "sleep" cd and the "running / rocking out" cd. And these days...well, my inner nerd has emerged triumphant with the blossoming of podcasts. The highlight of every Monday is downloading the latest "This American Life," "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," "Sound Opinions," "Dawn and Drew Show," "PRI: Selected Shorts," and many more my inner geek is not yet comfortable enough to reveal.

So far both of these cords are both physically close to my body and represent a psychological or otherwise physiological dependency (a bit of a hyperbole for the iPod, but definitely true for my iPump). Even more recent is my very first laptop, adquired this summer through an amazing discount. Never before have I been able to type a story or respond to an email in bed. Genius. I don't trust myself quite enough to take my darling Wangari Maathai (aptly named, I hope) beyond the corner coffee shop. I have taken her to Progressive Grounds down the street, trotting carefully with her tucked away in an inherited computer-carrying case, bringing along yet more cords.

Maybe this is the generation of robots. Maybe the Flight of the Conchords are singing prophesies. Maybe the goal of technology is to get all of us non-programmed beings into some state of wire-and-cord obsession, so much so that our knowledge of small nuts and bolts is greater than that of our own selves. Maybe our intellectual strength is really no more potent than our ability to run a solid battery.

The extent to which I use technology on a daily basis really struck me a few days ago, when I was walking uphill home and felt three hand-size lumps in my pockets, all of which make sounds that indicate different things, all of which I use every day, all of which I could survive successfully without. I pulled them out of my pockets while waiting for the bus and stared my full palms for a moment: cell phone, iPod, insulin pump. Each of them store so much information that I consider vital--medical dosages, emergency numbers, that one dance playlist I spent two hours fine-tuning. Suddenly my phone began vibrating, and I grabbed my pump, accidentally turning up the volume to Ira Glass on my ears.

Wires and cords. They're taking over.