Saturday, April 11, 2009

Jesus with the angler fish?

Lee's Holy Saturday post (his blog is excellent, by the way) shows a picture of Jesus standing on what appears to be a rocky ledge, staring down into a hell-realm (or maybe it's just a sea) filled with angry or tortured-looking beings that strongly remind me of angler fish. Interesting image.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter miracle

Yes! You can now huff chocolate!


and how will you be spending your Easter weekend?

I'll be spending a goodly chunk of my weekend working on five documents I got from BK. I'm in the process of passing the torch on to a friend of mine in Seoul; he'll be taking over my proofing while I walk, but I'm still on the job until next Wednesday, after which I'll definitely have to stop working. It's a bad time to do that to BK, because next week is "crunch week," i.e., the week before the 20th of the month, which is the due date for all articles going into the magazine. But them's the breaks: I'm passing the job along to my friend because (1) he wants the work and I can't expect to continue proofing while stuck out in the middle of nowhere, and (2) I don't want to leave BK totally hanging.


put it down

What follows is an edited reprint from a post I wrote in 2005.

Today begins the period known to Catholics as Triduum, the three-day span during which Christ suffered, died, descended into hell, and rose again from the dead.

Good Friday is the day of sadness and shadows, the day when the world loses hope and all seems to be in ruin. Holy Saturday finds us in mourning and loss; it is a day of endurance. Finally, Easter Sunday reminds us that every ending is also a beginning. New life emerges. Hope finds its fulfillment.

Since I and a few people I know are all going through a painful period, each of us for various reasons, I thought it might be good to write about "putting it down."

In Zen Buddhism, the maxim is "don't make anything." Your mind is so often the source of your troubles. You choose to face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune either negatively or positively. Often, at the beginning of a troublesome period in your life, it's difficult to realize how responsible you are for your own choices. It's easier to shift blame to your surroundings. But ultimately, the healthiest route out of the forest of troubles is to start by looking in a mirror. Behold what's actually there; don't needlessly manufacture problems for yourself and others.

I'm not a scriptural literalist, so I don't believe Jesus rose from the dead. But the story of the passion and resurrection nevertheless holds power for me, because it's a story about a man who put everything down, including his own life, for the sake of love. How many of us can claim to be ready and willing to do something like that? Not many, I suspect.

Most of us, like little children, cling desperately to our cherished notions, preconceptions, and delusions, unwilling to countenance truth and change. We face the world with fear, and create clever rationales for our spiritual cowardice. In a crisis period, this instinct intensifies. The ego swells to enormous size-- everything is about getting hurt, everything is about me, me, me. The world doesn't understand my pain, and only I am in pain!

I've felt like that before. I've looked out at a street full of people and wondered why they didn't see my agony, which was plain as day to me. The world kept right on turning, resisting my egocentric interpretation of it.

And there's a lesson in that. Life is change, ceaseless change. All we have is this moment. If we try to keep the past with us, we merely create more suffering for ourselves. If we try to hold on to our anger, or our hurt, or whatever it is we're feeling, we poison ourselves.

It's better simply to put it all down.

People need time to do this. It can't be done immediately. If, for example, you've just experienced a family tragedy, you can't be expected to act like the Taoist writer Chuang-tzu, banging on pots and celebrating your wife's death. No; most of us need time to mourn, grieve, recover. But after that period, we should be ready and willing to move on with our lives, to follow the constant flow of the river, to bang on the pots and celebrate.

You can't see the new life of Easter if you're always looking backward. Easter points simultaneously to the present and to the future, to hope and happiness and fulfillment. Think positively. Embrace goodness where you find it. Actively seek the good, don't wait passively for it.

Whatever your religion (or even if you have no religion), may this Easter find you looking to the horizon with hope and a sense that things can and will be better. May it also find you looking at where you are now, suddenly seeing the good things that have always surrounded you.



good for him

I heard that President Obama hosted a Passover Seder at the White House. Good for him.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

giving each other a look

I recall a moment last September, during that first Spirituali-Tea I attended at Whitman College, when two students gave each other a look while I was talking about the assumption some people make that all religions are basically reaching toward the same absolute reality or the same type of salvation. I had cast doubt on this notion, and the students who had given each other that look explained that they assumed that most people saw religions that way, i.e., as sharing a common essence or goal. Alas (or maybe hooray!), it's untrue that most people possess this conviction: while religious liberalism isn't necessarily a fringe movement, it's certainly not a reflection of where most people in any given religious tradition stand. Religious liberals are decidedly in the minority.

The problem for the religious liberal is here analogous to the problem for the political liberal, I think. The religious liberal wants to assign equal value and legitimacy to different traditions out of a sense of charity, but risks disrespecting those religions by relegating potentially fundamental differences to the realm of "mere detail." Good intentions can thus go awry when such a liberal, without actually having studied other religious traditions, makes a claim like "all religions are talking about God, each in its own way." It's not really a dialogue when you already think you have the answer.

This isn't to say, however, that you should approach dialogue with no convictions whatsoever. To the contrary, it's a good idea to have beliefs, and to be comfortable with the specificity of those beliefs-- to be able to say "No, I think you're wrong" when your interlocutor says something that runs contrary to your worldview. If the dialogue is a healthy one, the interlocutor will maturely accept this opinion without losing his temper.* Disagreement can be fruitful-- fodder for some great discussions-- and agreement is not necessarily the goal of dialogue. It's not even clear that dialogue should have a goal (cf. Raimondo Panikkar's notion of dialogical dialogue).

We should also note that the liberal impulse to make ostensibly conciliatory, pluralistic claims should not be viewed as completely wrong-headed. There is indeed a risk that, in making broad claims about a tradition not one's own, one will offend the Other. But there's also a chance that one's views of the Other's tradition, however well- or ill-informed, might afford the Other a look at his own tradition through another perspective. Reinterpretation by the Other is also part of dialogue, after all.

Anyway, I recall being amused by the students' reaction to the idea that not everyone was as "accepting" as they were. I wonder if they saw that moment as I did. For me, it looked as though they were beginning to realize that the world is a bigger, more varied place than the boundaries of their conceptual bubble had allowed for. That's a good thing, and to me, that's what college-- and life beyond college-- should be all about.

*Mature acceptance doesn't mean the discussion is over. This isn't about agreeing to disagree (see my above-linked post, plus this and this). Here, I'm talking about the acceptance of the fact that people will believe differently, possibly for reasons as legitimate as one's own.


all praise be unto Kim Jong-il

Humorist Frank J. of the blog IMAO (which is apparently banned in Korea... I was never able to access it) writes in praise of a leader even greater than Barack Obama.


Malcolm and dark thoughts

Malcolm links to an interesting exchange over at Dr. Vallicella's blog re: the morality of dark thoughts (you'll recall Jesus' instruction, in his Sermon on the Mount, regarding having lust in one's heart).

On the assumption that who we are is the sum not only of our darkest thoughts, but also of our repression/re-channeling of them (along with the expression of more positive thoughts and behaviors), I've argued, in the case of Mel Gibson's drunken episode, that vino doesn't reveal the veritas, but reveals only an incomplete person. At the time, Dr. Vallicella agreed with me, which makes me wonder how he reconciles his current contention (thoughts can be morally wrong) with that previous position. Thinking charitably, I can imagine a convoluted way to reconcile the two positions, but I'm still left to wonder, then, what our attitude should be toward something like the Mel Gibson incident, especially if unexpressed dark thoughts, as well as those expressed while drunk, are worthy of condemnation.

On the one hand, it's true that a single dark thought, in and of itself, probably won't lead to whatever behavior is indicated by that thought. On the other hand, a habit of thinking along certain dark lines could be argued to exert some sort of causal pressure on behavior, and such habits begin with single thoughts. But even here, bad behavior isn't an inevitable result of dark thinking. If you're interested in the current discussion over the morality of dark thoughts at Dr. Vallicella's place, see here.



I'm moving my flight date forward one day to the 18th, because tickets are far cheaper for Saturday than for Sunday (go figure). Yes, I'm having to buy my ticket, but it's not a big deal.

In other news: the guy who shot up the Koreans at the Ggot-dongnae Catholic retreat center was himself a 69-year-old Korean resident of the center.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Pesto with a twist: fresh basil, a touch of garlic, pine nuts plus pistachios, parmesan plus Gruyère, salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil. My brother Sean, back from Prague (which means Maqz is gone), tells me that, technically, "pesto" simply refers to any concoction made with an herb, a type of nut, a cheese, and an oil. So maybe my pesto isn't as twisted as all that.

Below: charoset. I made it the way I said I would; instead of Passover wine, I made a syrup of Korean pomegranate wine, sugar, and honey. Eminently edible.



More shooting violence, this time in California. Is it the economy?


mutant charoset

A slightly early Happy Pesach if you're Jewish (it actually begins at sundown on Wednesday)! I'm planning on going nuts by making a batch of charoset-- not because I'll be attending a Passover Seder, but because a Jewish coworker of mine, back when I worked at APIC from 1998 to 2001, brought some charoset into the office and got me hooked on it.

There are approximately 3.29 trillion different recipes for charoset (a word whose romanized spelling also seems to vary widely). You can see a few here. What I have done-- and plan to do-- probably doesn't qualify as true charoset, if for no other reason than that I won't be purchasing Passover wine, but will instead rely on whatever alcohol is currently sitting around the house, being consumed by no one (my parents and I don't drink, and Mom sips wine only on extremely rare occasions).

Charoset, according to the above-linked site, symbolizes the brick mortar made and used by the Hebrews during their time of slavery under Pharaoh. It generally has a rough, mortar-y look and feel to it, but it tastes fan-damn-tastic, which is why I suspect my Jewish friends and acquaintances are cheating every time they say they're remembering a bitter time in history-- they should stick exclusively to the consumption of bitter herbs and vinegar.

Anyway, I won't even pretend that what I'm going to make qualifies as true charoset. I simply like the general combination of nuts, fruit, honey, and certain spices or seasonings (wine optional). When I say "charoset," what I'm really saying is "inspired by charoset." A charoset tribute, if you will.

So I know you're wondering: how do we make this bad boy?

Very roughly pulse-chop in a food processor (make pebbles, not sand grains):


Mince or rough-chop:

pitted dates
dried apple

The nuts should be in roughly equal portions. The fruits should also be in roughly equal portions. The amount of fruits and nuts should also be roughly equal.

Take all the above, once prepped, and combine. Add (to taste):

powdered ginger
chili powder

The red pepper was something I learned about from my coworker, who had brought in several kinds of charoset, including a spicy variety. If I'm not mistaken, the idea of adding fire to the charoset is Yemeni, though I suppose there might be other types of spicy charoset. You don't add much red pepper-- you need only enough chili powder to give the mix a slight but palpable kick.

In the past, I've made charoset by boiling the dry fruit for a minute or so, draining it, then blending it almost smooth in a food processor, leaving it up to the nuts to provide any chunkiness. Not this time! This time, I want the whole thing to be as chunky as possible. So I'll pulse-chop the nuts, use a knife on the dried fruits, and reduce any boiling (NB: many charoset recipes call for fresh fruit, with nothing boiled or otherwise heated) to about 45 seconds, just to achieve a slight softening of things like dates, which can be stiff and grouchy. The honey, wine, ginger, and chili powder will still be drizzled or sprinkled to taste.

The mixture won't look pretty, but I'm counting on it tasting very good, especially atop some matzo crackers. If I remember in time, I'll provide a photo of the results of my labor.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Faccia Luna: review

Dad was thoroughly pleased with yesterday's outing to Faccia Luna in Old Town Alexandria, a restaurant I hadn't visited in years. He thought I should write a review of the place, so here it is.

1. Service

It was a Monday night, right in the middle of the dinner hour, but seating wasn't a problem. We were led to a booth as soon as we stepped in, and our server, a young lady, proved to be very prompt and friendly. (The main gauge of promptitude, for me, is how often the server swoops by to refill an empty glass. Ours was spot-on.)

There was one major hitch, however: the kitchen flubbed my brother David's order, adding extra mushrooms to his pizza instead of the sausage he'd requested. David's miscarried pizza was taken away, and was replaced a few minutes later by the proper dish.

2. Ambience

Dinnertime lighting was tastefully dim, but not too dim. The atmosphere struck me as informal and family-oriented, but the bar was a prominent presence: it's the first thing you see upon entering, and it dominates almost half the seating space. Faccia Luna takes pride in their wine selection, and I got the impression that the bar patrons were more of a wine crowd than a beer crowd. The bartender dropped and shattered a bottle of something near the tail end of our meal, which would qualify as a tragedy if I drank alcohol. Dad stepped over to help a person with cut fingers ("I'm a medic," he said-- and he is); his aid was politely accepted.

I think there was music playing in the background; if there was, it was kept tastefully low. The overall noise level allowed for easy and animated conversation; no shouting was necessary. All in all, it was easy to settle in.

3. Menu

I previously described Faccia Luna as a "fusion Italian eatery." The restaurant is part of a chain that describes its restos as "trattorias." I call the place "fusion" because the menu, while predominantly Italian in focus, has French-American highlights. The menu's text certainly features a lot of bad French spelling-- "chocolate noir," from the dessert menu, comes to mind.

The menu itself ran the gamut from a wide variety of pizzas to pasta dishes to sandwiches and salads-- a fairly typical gamut for Old Town Alexandria. While not exactly cheap, Faccia Luna's prices were reasonable; our meal ran about $25 per person before tip.

4. Bouffe

The appetizers were interestingly different: we decided to order an eggplant dish ("Melanzane alla Parma" on the menu) and a portobello-and-pepper dish (Portobello alla Chevre [sic]). They arrived hot and attractive; the eggplant, covered in a generous layer of mozzarella and sitting on a smooth marinara, disappeared quickly. The mushroom dish also disappeared, but the whole cloves of garlic went to Mom who, being Korean, had no trouble dispatching them. Garlic bread came with both appetizers-- not much of it, but enough to swab some of the sauces on both plates.

We all decided to avoid the Monday Night Special, a sort of bare-bones menu prix fixe, in favor of exploring various dishes. My brother David ordered a personal-sized pizza that looked and smelled delicious (La Capra: goat's cheese, spinach, and chicken, with the addition of sausage); Mom had a salmon dish; Dad ordered a chicken breast-on-herbed penne plate, and I had some plump gnocchi with slices of sausage on top (Gnocchi di Piselli). The gnocchi, which were plump and rib-sticking, featured a tomato-vodka sauce.

Portion sizes were satisfactory without being huge. Mom did her usual thing, giving away chunks of food to the rest of the family, which is how I know that her salmon was cooked to perfection-- buttery-smooth on the inside and seared crispy on the outside, in a perfect contrast of taste and texture. Alas, the fish was served atop a pile of shredded and seasoned onions, but that's just a personal hangup of mine, not the restaurant's fault. Dad's chicken penne earned plenty of praise from Dad (strangely, Dad's and Mom's dishes aren't listed on the online menu, which is why I haven't given you their proper names); I sampled a bit and pronounced it very good, indeed.

We were pleasantly full by the end of the main course, but because we had already had a glimpse of the dessert section of the menu, we were tempted. Dad ordered a cheesecake with raspberry sauce; David ordered the tiramisu (or Tira Mi Su, as it's called on the menu), and I swerved from ordering the Chocolate [sic] Noir to having something not listed on the menu: mousse au chocolat. David, who has been to Faccia Luna before, had recommended the tiramisu to everyone, but I once again gave in to my chocoholism. Mom ordered nothing, content to sample our desserts (sort of the reverse of what she'd done at dinner).

I tried a bit of Dad's cheesecake and thought it was pretty good, though not great. David's tiramisu disappeared before I had a chance to scoop into it; it was served in a ramekin, which is unusual for tiramisu. My mousse rocked. It was thicker than the mousse I'd grown used to in Switzerland, and arguably richer, but delicious nonetheless. Mom pronounced it the best of the three desserts.

5. Rating

Faccia Luna rates "happy ending" on the massage parlor scale. The night wasn't perfect: Dad's dessert could have been fresher, and the kitchen messed up David's order, but the overall experience was very positive. Service was friendly and prompt; the ambience was cheerful and struck a good balance between family dining and something more adult. The aforementioned shattering wine bottle was more entertainment than tragedy, as far as I was concerned, and the food was excellent. If you find yourself in Old Town and have a few bucks to spend on a very good meal, then I highly recommend Faccia Luna.


Muggle Quidditch!?

Fans of JK Rowling's Harry Potter heptalogy will be familiar with every wizard's favorite sport: Quidditch. It's like a complicated version of soccer, and it's now available in a Muggle version.

I would have thought that, with networked gaming so popular now, someone would have invented a scaled-down MMORPG-style Quidditch video game, so that the game could be played properly. In Rowling's universe, Quidditch is played on flying brooms, making it a decidedly three-dimensional sport. Only in a computer's brain can you simulate the predatory behavior of the Bludgers-- whose job is to unseat random players-- and the behavior of the Golden Snitch, which flits erratically about, eluding capture by each team's Seeker with startling bursts of raw speed.

A sufficiently complex video game would allow players to try different brooms, each with its own performance quirks-- acceleration/braking ability, turn radius, stability, and susceptibility to magical interference (cheating seems to be part of the reality of Quidditch). Players would choose from among thousands of different magic wands; they'd play in hundreds of different venues, and be subject to all manner of weather conditions and random aerial events (e.g., the occasional low-flying aircraft, flock of geese, or child's kite). That would be Quidditch!

Muggle Quidditch seems so pedestrian in comparison.


Monday, April 6, 2009

42 years and going strong

Mom and Dad celebrate their 42nd anniversary today. They married in 1967, and waited two years before bringing me into the world. "I screeeeeeeaaaamed," said Mom, describing what birthing me was like. She wasn't keen on having another kid right after that experience, so she and Dad waited another seven years before David, the Bicentennial Baby, was born. Three years after that-- Sean.

They went from sitting on the floor in a small northern Virginia apartment, with apple boxes for tables, to settling in suburbia with a nicely renovated home, and three big kids buzzing in and out of their lives-- me and Sean infrequently, David frequently.

I haven't asked the parents what makes their marriage work so well; I'm sure that, if I asked them the secret to a good marriage, they'd say all the usual things: love, trust, patience, and letting the wife win all the arguments.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad, and many happy returns! I love you!

UPDATE: This evening we went out-- my parents, my brother David, and I-- to Faccia Luna, a fusion Italian eatery in Old Town Alexandria, and enjoyed a fantastic meal. I asked the parents what the secret was to staying together 42 years. Dad's reply: "It's not just 50-50. It's 100-100. And when things go wrong, you take care of each other." Mom heard this and said wryly, "He puts in 100 percent. I'm not sure I do." Heh.


Elisson on Watchmen and "Watchmen"

Elisson came to Alan Moore's Watchmen late in the game, reading the graphic novel only recently, then going out to see Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" in an empty theater. Elisson's review of the print and filmic experiences makes for a good read; see here. What makes his perspective unique is that, having given himself so little time between acquainting himself with the graphic novel and seeing the movie based on it, he hasn't had time to build up a raft of fanboy expectations.

I still have yet to see the movie. It pains me that I've missed "Doubt" (already on DVD!) and "Gran Torino," and will likely miss "Watchmen" as well before I restart the walk.

Oh, yes: I got paid and now have an official start date: April 19.


Sunday, April 5, 2009


Today, Sunday, is significant for most Christians, because on most Christian calendars today is Palm Sunday.

Today also happens to be National Pillow Fight Day, a fact I would not have known had my mother not been watching the Korean TV news. There, on screen, stood a Korean reporter in downtown New York City, and all around him was a mob of fighters, their pillows deployed and swinging wildly. Interesting. I wonder what Jesus would have said about that.

On a theological note, I startled Mom when I told her that, according to tradition, Jesus descended into hell after dying on the cross. Much depends on how one interprets the relevant scripture (1 Peter 3:18-20 --I looked it up), which might not necessarily refer to hell (many English renderings say "prison"); the significance of Jesus' visit to the place of the damned is also subject to multiple interpretations: according to one school of thought, Jesus was there to suffer, thereby expiating humankind's sin. Another school of thought claims Jesus was there to proclaim victory over hell and the Evil One. Take your pick, or take none at all.

Hell is just an open mouth away.


one of the boats I missed

I sometimes wish I'd studied criminology, because I'm constantly boggled by what drives a person to grab one or more guns, then slaughter a mess of people. Jiverly Wong's story (told somewhat sensationally here) is a good example; the even more recent family slaughter in Washington-- in which a father killed his five children and then himself-- is another. What makes these people tick? Wong (ethnically Chinese, as it turns out... I never thought "Wong" sounded like a Vietnamese surname) was apparently a coke addict, had trouble learning and speaking English, and was a gun nut. But these factors don't add up to an explanation, do they? Good Lord.


the center cannot hold:
being Christian and Muslim at the same time

I think(?) it was my walk manager Alan Cook who first mentioned the name Ann Redding, an Episcopal priest who entered the Muslim fold while trying to retain her priestly status. At the time, it seemed that she had managed a rare feat, balancing two rival traditions in her personal life, but we now see that the tapestry is unweaving itself.

Get Religion has an interesting article on Redding and the coverage of her defrocking. I note with some surprise that the current trouble seems to be coming mostly from the Christian end: it is certain parties in the Episcopal Church who do not accept what Redding has done.

The common wisdom is that, the more similar two people are, the more likely they'll be in conflict. There are exceptions to this, of course, but I think it holds true as a general rule. The tension between and among the three major Abrahamic traditions is a good example of this. As Islam scholar Bernard Lewis notes in his book Islam and the West, when a Christian or Muslim uses the pejorative "infidel," the interlocutor clearly understands what is meant. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are, despite their major differences, similar in many fundamental ways. Familiarity often breeds contempt, and if not contempt, then at least tension and rivalry, especially between religions with strong missionary components like Christianity and Islam.

Radically different traditions seem to lend themselves more easily to syncretism. Three personal examples come to mind right away: Robert Kennedy (not RFK), his mentor William Johnston, and a Benedictine monk named David Steindl-Rast. Kennedy and Johnston, along with being Catholic priests, are both Zen masters who undertook Zen training and received "inka," a certification of enlightenment that legitimizes their teachings when they speak in an institutional Zen capacity (in Buddhism, the ultimate magisterium is your own experience, so it might not be exactly right to refer to inka as something that grants or signifies "authority" in a conventional sense). Brother David is not, to my knowledge, a Zen roshi like the other two men, but he has undergone extensive Zen training, much of which took place in the context of monastic interreligious dialogue (he co-wrote a book with Robert Aitken, a roshi of the Rinzai-Soto fusion Sanbo Kyodan school, titled The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian).

Zen nondualism probably sits very comfortably beside Catholic contemplative spirituality, which may be why these three men have been able to pursue their Zen studies so deeply without risking a raised eyebrow from the Roman magisterium. Zen also seems to go down easily if you're Jewish, as evidenced by the whole, "JuBu" (Jewish-Buddhist) movement, emblematized in such books as Roger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus (a pun on the Buddhist expression "jewel in the lotus"), a story of Jewish-Buddhist dialogue through the eyes of a Jewish journalist who met the current Dalai Lama along with fellow Jews of different traditions to discuss, among other things, what it means to survive as a persecuted people.

What's your opinion on this sort of thing? Could you (assuming you belong to a specific tradition) adopt another tradition's beliefs and practices while keeping your "home" beliefs and practices? Is this even possible, or are people who try such things fooling themselves? Are such meldings doomed to failure? Why or why not? What do you think of Ann Redding? Is she brave? Misguided? Onto something?

Comments welcome.



In the end, not even Japan lifted a finger against the North Korean rocket, which has launched. You gotta love appeasement. Shame on all of us for allowing this regime to continue doing what it does to its own people and to the world.

"I urge North Korea to abide fully by the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council," Obama said in Prague, Czech Republic, calling on Pyongyang to refrain from further "provocative" actions.

This is a joke, right? North Korea has already violated at least two UN Security Council resolutions (see here and here). It will continue to make demands and give nothing in return. At the very least, we should contemplate closing off all diplomatic and trade/aid relations with the country. When will we learn that the best way to deal with a spoiled, potentially dangerous child is through firm discipline, quickly, consistently, and judiciously applied? If "Go to your room!" doesn't work, ready the leather belt. The country obviously isn't ready to reason with the world, so speak to it in the language it understands. We've been patient since 1953.

I give North Korea full marks for playing us all for fools. We are fools, and the starving, oppressed North Korean population continues to pay for our foolishness.



I want numbers 5, 6, and 8. And lots of ammo.