My unremarkable loss of faith story

I have been unofficially appointed “God columnist” for this magazine. Don’t ask me how that happened, because I don’t even believe in it. God, that is. It’s not quite right for me to use gender-specific pronouns when speaking of what, to my mind, doesn’t even exist.

I think my appointment has to do with the fact that I can’t seem to stay away from the subject of religion. Try as I might, I can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere I look. To tell you the truth, I don’t really mind it unless I’m expected to revere it, pay it “respect,” or financially support it in any way other than voluntarily.

Then there are those other itsy-bitsy issues that keep popping up like the National Day of Prayer. Some of my secular friends are bewildered as to why we atheists are upset at something so benign, so negligibly harmless as a government-sponsored prayer day. It may sound silly, but once God gets its foot in the door, all sorts of unsavory things scamper in with the breeze.

I know this because I live in Italy, where the constitution states that all religions are equal, but that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state is governed by the eighty-year old Lateran Pacts. Crucifixes are stuck to the walls of public schools, courtrooms and other buildings. There is even a Catholic religion-hour in school, with teachers handpicked by the Vatican and paid for by the state.

In the eyes of a secularist, this is a bad thing. It means that non-Catholics are put on a separate plane in public life. Where are our symbols, we ask? The answer from the religious apologists is telling, though. No longer are they mouthing off about “truth” and “salvation” in defense of their symbols; now they use more acceptable terminology like “The crucifix is an inseparable part of Italian culture,” or “It is a universal symbol of love.” As some skeptics have pointed out, that is also a working definition of pizza.

But now for my unremarkable loss of faith story. Losses of faith stories are fascinating, don’t you think? They exude an air of epiphany similar to that of religious conversion, at least on the surface. The truth is that I, apparently alone among my countrymen and women, came of age in the United States of America — the most devout developed country on earth — without so much as ever having peeked between the pages of a Bible. In fact, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this (but isn’t that what personal anecdotes so gingerly proffer?), but I wasn’t even aware that the Bible was about the Jews.

Of course, I knew I was Jewish. I just had no idea what that meant on a historical scale. Religion was perhaps the only subject — right next to politics — that was never addressed in our home. Years later, my sister would come to regret this omission. But it wasn’t deliberate. Our parents were simply not religious people, and the enlightened suburb of Baltimore we lived in was not Bible-drunk. In many ways it was the archetypal American secular experience.

It wasn’t until I came to Italy that I realized what I had missed. When I met my wife, she had just gone through an idol-smashing of her own, in which she had managed to break through the wall of traditionalist religion that society and her family had built around her. She had become infatuated with Judaism. That’s when I began to read the Bible, because being Jewish suddenly seemed electrifying and special. This was no longer midtown Manhattan.

I read the Bible, or “Tanakh,” as I learned to call it. I felt I needed to grasp Jewishness at its core. As I read, I tried hard to believe what I read. I began — for the first time — to employ expressions like “God willing” and “Thank God.” I tried praying, although I knew no Hebrew. I would mouth the words I read in transliterated Roman characters: “Baruch atah adonai, eloheynu melekh ha-olam…” Over time I began to make some sense of all this newness. I began to think deeply about God, observe a very personalized form of kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws), attend synagogue on holy days and fast on Yom Kippur. This lasted for about three years. Then, as quickly as it began, it ended.

Looking back, I realize I censored myself at every pass. I constructed an ad-hoc reality for myself out of holy books. I wouldn’t even read novels on shabbat because I wished to preserve some of its holiness. No matter that I worked on that day. God didn’t want me to be unemployed, did he? Then who would praise him? I’d stroll home from work, basking in the glow of the dying sunlight, then dutifully search out the first three stars which marked the beginning of the profane week ahead. It wasn’t much of a Sabbath, but I managed to make it feel special. I knew I could feel the presence of the shekhinah, the divine essence, descending on the world each week.

Or maybe it was just the smog at Largo Argentina.

– Published in The American

The Same Old Yada Yada Yada…

Roberto Vacca calls them "air-claws."

I’m a sucker for memes. This might sound odd to anyone unfamiliar with meme theory, called memetics, but anyone who has been around me in the last few months has certainly received an earful on this tantalizing topic.

What is a meme, you ask? Susan Blackmore, the author of “The Meme Machine,” explains: “When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This ‘something’ can then be passed on again, and again and again, and so take on a life of its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behavior, a piece of information…but if we are going to study it we need to give it a name. Fortunately, there is a name. It is the ‘meme.'”

The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene.” Memes are superficially related to genes in that they are self-replicators. Essentially, memes are like cultural genes. Large groups of them are referred to as memeplexes. Memetics is still a fairly embryonic theory by scientific standards. But, like I said, it’s a tantalizing one that anyone can grasp by simply paying attention to daily life.

Here are a few examples of well-known memes: baseball caps worn backwards; the word “meme”; apparitions of the Virgin Mary; shoe-throwing as political dissent; little green men; Obama-as-Hitler; Obama-as-Spock; designer keffiahs (emblematic scarves popularized by Yasser Arafat); circumcision; cakes with cherries on top.

I remember noticing, in the mid-1990s, memetics in action (though I didn’t think of it in those terms). I was living in New York, which is a great meme-factory. I had been listening to Lenny Bruce’s performances from the ’50s and I was hooked on them. One of the sketches, “Father Flotski’s Triumph,” parodies popular prison-revolt movies of the day. “Dutch” is the gun-crazy criminal who has taken a hostage, and it’s Father Flotski’s job to talk him down. Dutch speaks Neanderthal; his only phrases are amusical variations on the non-word yada: “Yada yada. Yada yada yada, Father!” Mindlessly, I began aping this non-word in company and making friends listen to the Bruce performance. It caught on, at least among those in my circle.

Around the same time, the Seinfeld episode “The Yada Yada” was broadcast. Suddenly everyone was saying “yada yada” at the end of every sentence. “Sharon and I fooled around on her parents’ bed. One thing led to another, and yada yada yada…” That is, you know and I know so why bother with the details?

Yada-yada died out at some point. Today nobody uses it, but there are discussions on Wikipedia over the etymological origins of the term. Did it come from Hebrew via Yiddish? Did it hop the Atlantic from London to New York? Was the term ever recorded before Bruce’s performances?

A more recent meme-word is “truthiness,” thought to have been coined in 2005 by comedian Stephen Colbert, but later traced to prior inclusion in the OED. No matter, however, because Colbert gave the word new life through television. Within a year, “truthiness” had been used in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today… yada yada yada. You get the picture.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that at the time of the “yada yada” craze, I felt that I had actually had a role in the popularizing of this meme (though of course I didn’t think of it as such). It was a coincidence, of course. I had happened on the term thanks to recent reissues on CD of Bruce’s old comedy albums. Is it really so unlikely that a writer for Seinfeld was listening to the same CDs around the same time, and brought one of the gags back to life on America’s most popular television show?

The man behind "yada yada?"

The memes are all around us. We tweet and Facebook ourselves into self-referential tantrums of narcissism. The other night I was having dinner with some friends on Rome’s Via Cavour. “Did you see that article I posted on my Facebook page?” “What about the photos of my trip to Greece?” “Did you read my witty status update?” We soon realized that nobody — not even one’s close friends — reads much of anything anyone posts. Yet we keep posting day in and day out. Blackmore would say we are being manipulated by our memes.

Yesterday, in fact, I was struck by what seemed to me to be a perfect meme just waiting to be coined. Memes, neither good nor bad, just “want” to replicate. Those that replicate and lodge themselves in as many brains as possible are successful memes, and there are probably as many extinct memes as species on this earth. The word I wish to coin is a verb, to quotate. As a working definition, let’s say it means “to make air-quotes with one’s fingers.” In my experience, Italians are always struck by the American tendency to air-quote. I’ve been asked what this is called (in Italian they say “tra virgolette”) but no satisfactory verb exists as far as I know. An example of possible usage:

Larry (making air-quotes): “Our new band is ‘alternative.'”

Marc: “Would you stop quotating, for chrissakes? That went out ten years ago.”

Air-quotes themselves are a rather successful meme, an observation which should require no explanation.

And what about “commenter?” The first time I read this, on Ron Rosenbaum’s blog, I wrote it off as just another ‘knotch’ on his bad spelling belt. Commenter sounds like a deliberate corruption of commentator, coined for purposes of cultural taxonomy. The word probably existed in its own right (though it’s not listed in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate) before blogging made it viral. It has now found a comfortable home, signifying anyone who comments on an online forum.

I plan to push “to quotate” in the following months, and monitor the results. If it ever pops up in a Google search (it doesn’t yet), if ever there is a Wikipedia discussion on the origins of “to quotate,” remember you read it here first. I’ll let you know when I get a call from The Colbert Report.

Published in The American

The Bidet as Metaphor for Healthcare Reform

On trips to the United States, I often find myself detailing the differences between life in the New World and the Old. I’m often asked what I miss most about Italy, and I dutifully list such obvious amenities as cheap, strong coffee, excellent olive oil and bread you can sink your teeth into. Sometimes I veer off on a tangent and mention less obvious things like well-dressed people in public spaces, hugging (and being hugged by) people you hardly know, and the generally invasive nature of Italian social life. In America, I would never dare to embrace even my closest friends, let alone peck them on the cheek; in Italy, it’s de rigueur.

Which brings me to my new favorite topic: anal hygiene. Or, more specifically, the bidet. Americans don’t just hate the bidet, they hate the very idea of the bidet. Say the word out loud and faces sneer up pathologically, as if there were something repulsive about keeping your money maker spanking clean. In America you can talk about anal sex at dinner with your in-laws, but the bidet is branded taboo by even the staunchest liberal conversationalist.

Why do American noses point skyward at the mere mention of this eclectic cleaning device? My mother (yes, her again) expressed skepticism when I suggested that Americans didn’t know what they were missing. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

“You take a dump and wipe yourself with half a roll of Charmin, then diligently wash your hands and Purell them to boot, all the while forgetting that the poop-producing orifice is still unclean. I bet if people actually thought it through they’d come around. In a decade there will probably be a bidet in every new American house. All it needs is a proper sales pitch.”

“I don’t feel unclean,” she said. “Besides, how do you pull your underwear up if you’re all wet down there? I hate wetness. I have to feel dry. That’s a definite setback.”

“But you have a towel. You dry yourself with a little personal towel, then pull your pants up. It’s quite uncomplicated,” I replied confidently.

“All those little towels! What about a public bathroom? How the hell could they have such a thing in a public bathroom? And a woman my age, in my physical condition–how could somebody in my shape pull off a balancing act like that? What, you hover over it while water squirts up into you? And if you fall? How embarassing! Then they find you passed out with a toilet nozzle in your tuches? What will people think? The whole thing is crazy.”

“It’s really not a problem, but I can see your point. You wouldn’t have to use it,” I reassured her. “We still have toilet paper in Europe. It’s not either-or.” I was beginning to equivocate.

“Never. Not in a million years in this country will you see a bidet, except maybe in the houses of the rich, who can’t say no to tchotchkes.”

It was beginning to sound like universal health care. I could already envision the protests, the angry town halls, the Joe Sixpacks and hockey moms stirring up a grassroots revolution on behalf of Big TP. “Don’t take our toilet paper away! The bidet is un-American! The government can’t tell us how to clean our asses!!”

It would never work. Americans are too patriotic.

I decided to take an informal poll of American friends who live or have lived in bidet-freindly countries. One friend suggested to me that Americans just don’t feel comfortable touching themselves “down there.” Another boasted that Americans take showers “like crazy,” as if Europeans bathed once a week in a public bath house (implying the dire necessity of the bidet.) A third responded with an aw-shucksy anecdote: the first time her nephew eyed a bidet, he inquired what a second toilet was doing in the bathroom. Wasn’t one enough?

The bidet, contrary to prejudice, is not a substitute for the shower. It is not a replacement for full-body hygiene. It is used by women and men alike to clean the nether parts when they’re dirty, and finish the job that toilet paper starts. Rumor has it the Japanese–among the world’s biggest bidet maniacs–have largely dispensed with the latter all together. Walking around has never felt so nice. Not to mention sex.

Think about it: it’s a discreet way of communicating with your partner. Instead of awkward interrogations of the “Are you clean?” variety, you just know they are. Someone who washes after every trip to the can cannot be anything else–and if they are, do you really want to be sharing an intimate moment together?

On my recent trip, however, I noticed a slight ripple of change, a tiny snippet in Newsweek arguing that the bidet is not only essential for combating “fecal contamination” (yuck!) but also in terms of green:

“Tossing all the TP in America would save 15 million trees, 17.3 terawatts of electricity, and more than 473 billion gallons of water annually; the environmental impact of bidets is minimal in comparison.”

Which would be good news for everyone, except maybe Big TP.

Published in The American

Waiting to Exhale

It began with YouTube, and a video called “How To Irrigate Your Nasal Passages”. A hirsute, Allen Ginsberg stunt-double prepares a small ceramic pot with salt water, upends it and—voila’—begins to pour the water in one nostril and out the other. Feat accomplished, he repeats the exercise with black coffee, and then with single barrel bourbon, all against a trancelike chorus of “I like to hear the rain come down.” Until the whiskey comes splashing out of his nose like water from a blowhole, and despite the incongruous facial expressions suggesting pain, it seems like a pleasant experience.

April is the cruelest month…T.S. Eliot must’ve been suffering from hay fever when he wrote that line.  Like many Americans, I’ve been suffering allergies and all-around sinus blockage for most of my life. I’ve even had surgery to straighten a severely deviated septum, which did nothing but drain my mother’s bank account. I’ve struggled with pseudoephedrine, nasal sprays of every kind, breathing strips, Claritin…all to no avail. Every year I become more desperate. Every year I become more convinced that no solution exists except another attempt at surgery (an opinion backed up by the last doctor to stare up my nose with a flashlight), which is understandably out of the question.

Leaving New York was the first step. I really believed that not living in Metropolis would have been good for my sinuses, but I discounted the small matter that Roman air quality is not much better than that of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rome, it’s true, has many parks which pump oxygen into the air and make the city liveable—to a degree. But it’s not as if the blanket of green were spread evenly across town. If you live near one of Rome’s huge villas (Pamphili, Ada, Borghese) you’re in luck. If you live along the Via Casilina, however, you’re more likely to see Central Park in June than any of Rome’s green wonderlands year-round.

Even so, spring time is pollen time, and pollen is in many ways more bothersome than car exhaust. In tandem, however, they are deadly. Sleeping has become almost impossible, despite a comfortable new mattress. I’m desperate for a short-term solution.

I don’t believe in miracles. Nor do I waste many words praying for them to occur. But desperation has a way of stoking the irrational in all of us. So I went to the local health food store and asked for a white ceramic pot—called a neti pot— like the one in the YouTube video. Online research had been overwhelmingly favorable, so I decided to give it a shot.

The neti pot blew into town out of nowhere a few years ago after an appearance on “Oprah.” Naturally, I braced myself for a Secret-style sham, albeit an inexpensive one (about €15). The neti has a long pedigree, however, having been used for millennia by yoga practitioners in India. After the Oprah debut, America went neti crazy, skyrocketing the little vessel from yoga-fringe obscurity to Walmart in about a week. The New York Times wrote it up, and hundreds of people uploaded themselves on YouTube with a conspicuous white nozzle stuck up their noses. I felt I’d missed some cultural watershed, like The Twist or Pokemon.

The whole thing works by creating a “subtle vacuum” for “suitable flow pressure,” in the words of Your head must be tilted at roughly a 45 degree angle. The water then shoots up one nostril, swishes up into your sinuses, and pours generously out the other. Often the it is followed by gobs of colored mucus, ostensibly washing away various toxins and irritants. The water must be saline, or slightly salted. Some people recommend adding baking soda, or even mouthwash.

The first time I nettied, if you will, was disastrous. Water splashed all over the bathroom mirror and dribbled down my chest. Half an hour later a second stream came oozing out of my right nostril onto my shirt.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. There is the sensation of drowning for about a second. Salty water comes trickling down your throat and out your mouth. When it’s over, there is a feeling of having loosed a tide of phlegm. Maybe you feel cleaner in your schnoz, but that’s about it.

When I began experimenting with the neti pot, I also began to broadcast the results (and lack of them) to my friends and family. I became obsessed with solving my sinus war. Suddenly, it seemed everyone I knew had a neti pot, or had used one. Some people swore by it. Friends were giving and receiving them as gifts. Almost everyone had a story: “It helps when you feel a cold coming on. It relieves allergies. It saved my life.”

I continue to neti daily. I still want to be persuaded by the majority of fellow sufferers who have found relief in this little ceramic wonderpot.  In short, I want to believe in a miracle. But three weeks after I thought I had found my own personal fountain of youth, I remain a skeptic. The neti pot has not made me sleep better. It has not unblocked my sinuses. It has not saved my life. And that’s nothing to write home about.

Published in The American