Sunday, July 30, 2006

I thought I found God in a Hamburger

I thought I found God in a hamburger. I don’t mean in the sense of seeing the Virgin Mary in a knothole or Jesus in some cheesecloth. I mean I found a burger that moved me -- and everything around me – to the point where I had to lift the bun to see if there was something visibly different from the countless previous burgers I’ve ingested, to see whether doing so would reveal, well, who knows what?

To be technical, it wasn't actually a burger. It was, per the menu, the Royal Hamburger Steak Deluxe with cheese, salad, Canadian bacon and frites on a plate. Lifting the top bun showed nothing out of the ordinary. Brown on the edges with the occasional charred spot, pink inside with a slender horizon of red running precisely through the center, a slight bit of mayo on the underside of the bun with a tomato and some lettuce with just a splash of dressing. It was undoubtedly well-prepared, and for $18 it should have been, but there was nothing apparent in it, on it, or around it that suggested it was anything very special. It looked like a burger.

And yet somehow it transcended my notion of what ground beef between two slabs of bread could be. Not only that. It altered the course of an evening. It kicked up a cross breeze on a hot Paris night and drew it through the corner of the brasserie. It cooled my brow and coaxed the rosé into a dance across my tongue, caused it to linger in the back of my throat far longer than what is normally possible from a house wine. With each bite, the vinegar on the lettuce gently pulled at the sides of my cheeks. And as I chewed, the patrons around me smiled, the sun lingered late in the sky, and my mind ran free with thoughts about happiness and curiosity and motivation and challenge and luck and gratitude. In the course of the meal, I read a piece by Nora Ephron in the NYer, slowly flipping the pages through a beautiful tale of her decades-long affair with an Upper West Side apartment building, and I realized that Nora and I – and my burger and her loft – were having a moment.

Two days later, I returned to the brasserie to experience the holy grail of burgers again. The waiter remembered me. He knew my order before I crossed the threshold. Of course he did. I had only been there once, but I had become a regular, an enthusiastic consumer of the $18 ecstasy burger. But when my burger came (that’s it, in the photo above), it was merely a piece of meat…and a bit dry, at that. The room was hot, the patrons around me were smoking. With the first bite of my burger, I kinda wanted to leave. Same scenery, but all the details had been swapped. I eventually did leave, disappointed; my relationship had become a one-nighter.

In the following two weeks, nearly every day I obsessed over the Royal Hamburger Steak Deluxe with cheese, salad, Canadian bacon and frites on a plate …wondering how the first one could have hit such heights only to be followed by something that was described the same way on the menu and yet was, paradoxically, infinitely ordinary. My expectations had changed. I yearned to love the second burger just as much the first. But I didn’t, and so I started to miss that first burger and everything that came with it. I wanted that moment back.

Ultimately, I decided it was time to move on, and slowly I grew content to remember the experience and became grateful to have had it once. Then I arrived back in Cambridge and I had a tryst with a raisin.

The Very Rich Foundation arranged a presentation on mindfulness meditation. The lecturer walked us trough the basics of the discipline and its effectiveness in cognitive therapy, and then moved the class outside for a workshop. He placed a few raisins into the right palm of each fellow, distributing them the way a priest hands out the Eucharist. We sat close, huddled in the shadows of a nearby building and out of the intense rays of an afternoon sun. For the next 5 minutes, I sat with two raisins in my palm and for the first time in my life stared into the workings of a dried fruit.

I peered into its folds, seeing the way they cast shadows upon each other, how the raisin glistens in some places, and in others, retreats into darkness. I twirled it between my thumb and forefinger, imagining myself on a bobsled ride through its contours. I placed it on my tongue and tasted – nothing. It sat on the tip with an almost imperceptible weight. As instructed, I began chewing slowly, ripping it between my incisors, moving it back between my molars and rolling it around. And then, something interesting happened. Having worked up my saliva, I took the first swallow, and in one incredible moment, as the spit worked its way back through my mouth and toward my throat, it lit up my mouth. I found the point at which I taste raisin. I don’t usually eat raisins this way, of course. Generally, they come a handful at a time and impart not a point or a moment as much as an overall raisin-ness. Not this time. This time, I had a singular raisin moment. And it wasn't unlike my hamburger moment a few weeks prior.

As I begin to write this post, I’m on a plane headed for San Francisco, 32,000 miles above a frozen sea dotted with icebergs and crossing over to the airspace above a barren mountain range draped in a dense wooly blanket of clouds that occasionally gives way to reveal a series of high-altitude cobalt lakes. Snow scribbles run along the mountaintops, white fingerlings against lifeless black peaks. As I finish writing, I’m sitting at my dining room table, reflecting on everything that has happened in the last two months, culminating in the last 12 hours…in the moments when I re-realized how incredibly beautiful Heather is, and how seeing Ulee for the first time in 60 days makes me weep, and how he shows happiness through his wagging tail, but also through his lapping tongue, which makes me wonder about the point at which he tastes raisins.

And now here I am wrapping up what may be my final SOG post (at least for a little while), and I feel like I need to say something significant…for myself and for the couple dozen loyal readers who have followed along. Sadly, I don’t know that I have anything like that in me. Let's be honest -- it was only two months...enough time to clear my head, but hardly a hermitage.

So, with a clear head, I guess I’ll just go with this: I may not have found God in my hamburger, or anywhere else in Europe over the last 60 days, but I do think I found something important. I found an individual moment. And another. And another. And with that series of moments, I have renewed my sense of wonder…and in it, maybe, discovered a bit of greater meaning.

One friend implored me repeatedly before I left SF to find the meaning of life during my Summer of God. And she made me promise – if I ever felt like I was close to having such an epiphany, that I’d write it down…because if I didn’t, I’d forget it.

This, then, is making good on that promise. The cliché says that our lives are short, that time passes us by, and that eventually we regret that it all happened too fast. But I think maybe our lives are longer than we will ever remember, densely packed with innumerable glorious happenings -- of Godburgers and raisins and beautiful wives and dog's tongues -- and that our ultimate regret comes at not having been fully attuned to them all. I think maybe the meaning of life has something to do with awareness. That is to say, finding meaning in the whole may be less a matter of ascribing everything to some larger force than recognizing the complexity of its components, the wonderousness in each moment: realizing, for example, the point at which your tongue tastes raisins. Because you can throw them in by the handful and still get the overall sensation. But the pleasure comes in sensing that true raisin-ness, or burger-ness, or, indeed, happiness, in each one.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Artificial Morality
An autonomous machine performs an unethical act. Who takes the blame?

This is the hypothetical premise of the presentation I made yesterday to the directors of the fellowship and to the 11 other fellows. I really drew the short straw with my time slot -- 2p on a Thursday. In a way, it was nice to go late in the week, because it allowed me time to develop a powerpoint (having worked solely on the actual paper while in Paris). But as each of the other fellows made their presentations, I became increasingly envious. One by one, the anxiety on their faces gave way to a look of calm relaxation, quiet comtemplation, and the obvious desire to go out drinking. Plus, the room was probably 85 degrees when my turn came around. (I wish I could say that the temperature explains my choice of dress, but, well, I do my best work in this outfit).

The other fellows spoke on a wide range of topics ranging from the effort to prove precognition in dreams to the "right of conscience" in healthcare (should a pharmacist have the right to refuse, on religious grounds,a morning-after pill to a rape victim?) to the role of religion in AA, and the search for the nature of consciousness. My piece was a mix of artificial intelligence and moral philosophy. I argued that our progress in robotics development is driving us down a dangerous path where "autistic robots" can and will do great harm to humans if left unchecked. Rather than focusing on human-grade intelligence, as AI researchers tend to (and which I think is still a long way off), I argued that we need to make the machines moral. To do this means deconstructing the nature of ethical decision-making and allowing machines to learn to be moral.

This was all very troubling to a couple of the directors because of the suggestion that many of the commonly perceived prerequesites for morality (consciousness, intelligence, religion) are completely unnecessary. A few of the fellows also jumped on my argument (Kant would roll over in his grave!) and asked some pretty tough questions -- which have helped me think my argument through a bit -- but everyone was complimentary of my idea, my style, and my argument. (We were all encouraging of each other, and deservedly so.) Several said I should turn this idea into a book and take the show on the road. One of them thanked me for shaking things up and said, "It was like you threw a molatov cocktail into the room." Ha. At least no one fell asleep.

Most importantly, when I was done, one of the administrators walked up and handed me an envelope containing a check for $5,000. One of the other fellows called it the "Italian wedding moment." I'm calling it my 42-inch plasma moment!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

No One Here Gets Out Alive

This is a story about Pére Lachaise, Brett Favre, me, and the Lizard King.

It's been 35 year since Mr. Mojo Risin "died" of an apparent drug overdose in a Paris apartment at the ripe age of 27. In the three-and-a-half decades since his death, the final resting place of the lead singer of the Doors has become the city's fifth-most visited tourist attraction. Each year, 5 million visitors make the trek from all over the world to come to Pére Lachaise cemetery, which has enough trees to be officially considered Paris's largest park. Surely, a few of the gravewalkers are intrigued by the tombs of Oscar Wilde, Camille Pisarro, Edith Piaf, Georges Seurat, and countless other titans of European culture, but most of them, no doubt, are -- like me -- here to see Jim.

Pére-Lachaise is a big place, spanning 44 hectacres (whatever that means), and containing 70,000 burial plots. If you're scouting out one headstone in particular, you're gonna need a map. I drew one, popped it in my back pocket and we jumped on the metro to the 20e arrondisement in search of my high school idol.

My sketch, while incredibly artistic and revealing the obvious anthropomorphic layout of the cemetery, quickly proved to be, sadly, of almost no use. I didn't label the roads or mark the surrounding plots. I guess I wasn't thinking...or wasn't thinking that I'd really need that kind of detail. I felt like I would just know where the gravestone was, or that Jim would give me a sign. Worst case, I'd listen for the lyrics from L.A. Woman as I walked up the hill from street level (Keep on Risin'. Risin'.), until I honed in on the spot.

Alas, nothing. It was Saturday morning and almost, well, deathly quiet.

No sooner did Heather and I resort to a desperate line of thinking -- "What would Mojo do?" -- than the legendary quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, Brett Favre, appeared in front of us like an archangel descending from the heavens to guide the way. I thought to myself, what an incredible stroke of luck. Not only was Favre here in the cemetery, but he was wearing his game day jersey so I could recognize him, AND he had an official map of the grounds! And then I thought, no, this is all too much of a coincidence. This isn't luck. Jim sent him.

So, I told Heather, "That's Brett Favre, the legendary quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. I know why he's here." Heather seemed dubious, but agreed to accompany me as I followed the man, knowing he'd lead us to the headstone like he was driving toward the end zone on a 2-minute drill.

Favre showed the kind of determination that has made him an NFL legend. He barely spoke with the woman on his arm (he was kinda slumming, I must say), except for a quick T.O. when they sat curbside to consult the playbook one more time in preparation for the final march. I knew we were within spitting distance when I saw a stringy-haired squatter in a black Doors concert t-shirt leaning against a nearby tomb. I turned the corner, and there he was, James Douglas Morrison.

Heather and I reflected, mumbled a few lyrics (I wanna tell you about Texas Radio and the Big Beat). I thought about how scuzzy the flowers on the grave looked, and how it was kind of weird (and maybe a bit pathetic) that they were draped with a ribbon that said someting in French followed by "The Lizard King." And then, having breathed in all we could of the late great Jim Morrison, we set out to find a few other gravestons and loll around for a while in the enormous cemetery-slash-park.

Brett Favre had his fill of Jim right about the time H&I started walking away (hardly a coincidence, I hasten to add. His job was done.). No. 4 and his favorite wide receiver made their break -- a textbook slant pattern -- just ahead of us. And as they crossed our path, Favre launched a zinger that I'm sure he's been waiting the entire offseason to unleash. "What a waste of talent," he said, shaking his head, as his lady friend drew him close, nodding in consolation.

Damn, he's good.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Bienvenue Paris Plages!
Bocce ball! Boardwalks! Sand! Swimming! No, we haven't left Paris for St. Tropez. We just stepped outside our door....and onto Paris Plages. For a month every summer, the city of lights closes the road that runs along the Seine, imports 3,000 tons of sand, 300 lounge chairs, 240 parasols and 40 hammocks (meubles courtesy of IKEA), tropical plants, trampolines, spray misters, and even a swimming pool, and plops it all down by the river on a 3K stretch that begins in front of our flat and ends a few blocks past Notre Dame. Along the way, there are cafes and restuarants, souvenir stands, boardwalks, a bookstore, and a lot of French people burying each other in the sand, playing beach games, lazing around on benches and hammocks, drinking wine, smoking (of course) and just strolling casually, looking as though they're not a bit bothered by the oppressive July heat. We hit the Plages last night after dinner at Paradis du Fruit and a gelato in the Latin Quarter. I optimistically put on my swim trunks and flip-flops and we walked beneath the misters, gazed longingly over a guard rail and into the (closed) swimming pool, wondering whether we'd be able to take a dip before it's time to leave on Sunday. It was a rather civilized evening. Heather wondered how the same thing might go over in New York, and my mind immediately flashed to Jones Beach...or even Coney Island. We sort of just let the notion hang.

Programming note: I finished my paper for the fellowship. Hallelujiah! 4500 words on artificial morality. I was in full lockdown mode there for a few days, but I think it turned out pretty well -- or at least not bad -- especially considering I don't have any real scenes. Now I just need to come up with a 90-minute presentation in the next couple days. I'm not too worried. There are a lot of robot movies to show (Does anyone know the running time of T2?). Good news is that my new boss tells me he's definitely interested in the piece, and I'm hoping to do some on-site reporting once I get home, which I hope will make it that much better. Oh, and a bit of other news...another big magazine wants me to write up my "Summer of God" for publication. They said I could do it however I wanted -- travelogue, essay, whatever. I decided that if I'm going to do it, I should actually do some more research. So, in the last week I've been bombarding scientists all over the world with a survey I created on the relationship between science and religion. I've received about 50 completed surveys back so far -- some really insightful, some incredibly snide, some pretty angry. Writing about religion is almost as bad as writing about Apple. I'll keep you posted on the results. In the meanwhile, Heather and I are off to pay our respects to Mr. Mojo Risin'. Au revoir.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

London Stag-Do

I hopped on the Eurostar this weekend for the 2.5 hour train ride to London for Bernhard's bachelor party. It was the first time I've traveled to another country for one night with the sole intent of getting exceedingly drunk. Even my runs to Montreal during college would last two nights (well, except for that time when Emu had the crap beat out of him -- literally! -- and we all got kicked out of our hotel and had to drive back home at 5 a.m. But none of that was intentional, and besides, it's not like Canada's really a different country. But I digress.) You can do these kinds of things when you live in Europe.

I can't quite describe my unexpected relief upon arriving at the Waterloo station into a cacophony of English. Generally, I consider it good advice to shy away from Americans abroad -- and even the English -- because my fellow countrymen tend to be unruly and lured-in by tourist traps. But after a few weeks of pointing at menus and muddling my way through pleasantries (Heather tells me that bonjour does not, under any circumstances, rhyme with car door), it was relaxing to know that I could walk up to almost anyone and just speak. Not that I had a lot to say to a thousand total strangers in a foreign train station. But still.

Another surprise: London didn't offer much of a relief from the heat. Paris has been on a serious sun bender for the last couple weeks. 90s every day. No a/c in the flat, and when you seek relief in a movie theater or museum or, um, a food court, you're more likely to get a warm breeze than the frosty cold that comes blowing out the doors of a Manhattan department store. Knowing a lot about dreary July days in San Francisco, I've always empathized with Londoners who complain about their summers. And I was rather looking forward to some of that fog. No such luck. 85 and humid when I arrived. I'd have to make do with the inner chill that came from oh, about 14 bottles of nice Portuguese rosé.

Bernhard's friend and former colleague, Jim, arranged the night for about a dozen of us. We met at a pub in Notting Hill and walked to a nearby "vegetarian unfriendly" restaurant with a two-item menu (they could have reduced it to one simple question: do you want meat?) and a dozen-page wine list. You don't order food, really. You just get a plate, fill it up with whatever vegetables and rice you need to build a foundation, and then the circling waiters continually carve various types of rotisseried animal flesh off their swords and onto your plate. Sausage, beef, lamb, pork and, among other things I couldn't recognize and so politely refused, chicken hearts.

The night ended back where it began, outside of the Notting Hill Bar with Bernhard and several other American expats railing to the polite locals about the inefficiencies of the English subway, the crookedness of Italian government, the self-righteousness of the French ... You know, the type of stuff everyone talks about in Europe. It was a thirtysomething-style bachelor party whose biggest crime was inducing a profound grogginesss the next day. Which was OK by me. Sometimes you just have to find your inner fog.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Day at the Pompidou
Working in Paris has been just about what I imagined it would be. I get up around 9, lolly around for an hour or so, have some coffee, maybe go for a run to the Arc du Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower, head out to do something cultural, come back to the flat in the late afternoon -- just as the East coast of the U.S. is getting to work -- do a few interviews, read the news, open a bottle of wine around 10 or so when the sun's going down, have dinner, maybe a bit of email or a DVD before bed. Refresh. Redo.

Sure, that's not everyday. On some days, I'll have lunch with a moral philosopher at Closerie des Lilas, a famous old Hemingway haunt by the Jardin du Luxembourg, and discuss the infamous Zidaine headbutt incident for a few hours (while mixing in a bit of Kantian ethics and computer science, for good measure). On other days, I'll have a morning call with a professor at Cambridge or a late night call with a researcher on the West coast. And sometimes, it's just so damn hot that there is nothing left to do but go to a movie. (And when we get there, the only thing playing is Poseidon.)

Having just about completed all my interviews for my paper -- I have one more scheduled on Monday -- H&I decided to hit the Centre Pompidou yesterday for a day of modern art. We spent most of the time in the special exhibits -- one on Los Angeles (circa 1960-1985ish), another on the work of the architectural firm Morphosis, and a few others. We were decidedly split on the LA effort. I don't think raw expression qualifies as art. No, actually, what I mean is that I don't think raw expression should be enough to gain entrance into a place like the Pompidou. Showing a white hand stroking a black scrotum on a black & white TV, or a guy covering his face in what appears to be shit, just doesn't do much for me -- even if it has been captured for eternity on film and invokes some larger sense of race or taboo. Heather might claim that I'm picking on the two most sensationalist pieces and using them to belittle the entire exhibit. That's probably true; but most of the rest of it was just kind of boring.

And yet, it was still a great day. Museums make you think, they allow you to try to get into the head of an artist, help you appreciate talent and ambition and alternative viewpoints and, if you're lucky, they inspire you. But all that can be pretty hard work. Every now and again, it's great to go to a museum full of whimsy and have a bit of fun. And that's what the Pompidou was about, at least to me. We smiled a lot. And afterward, we had a late lunch and completelyagreed about the quality of our sandwiches. C'est Bon!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mostly, We Build Churches
We engineer awesome bridges to span impassable waterways, blend them with landscapes, and polish them endlessly in the name of celebrating our environment and getting ourselves from one side to the other in the most beautiful manner possible.

We construct government palaces, gilded totems to make the elected officials inside feel comfortable and important while the make the difficult decisions necessary to guide our society. We architect impressive museums where we can celebrate our creativity, ingenuity, audacity, inspiration, and unlikely histories. We erect monuments where we can gather to marvel at the stories of yesterday's fallen heroes, enigmatic leaders, courageous thinkers, and brave soldiers...and to inspire the next generation. We design elaborate universities, sprawling campuses that invoke learning and foster the quest for knowledge.

But mainly, it seems, we build churches.

In light of everything else we build, it's perfectly in keeping that we put so much effort, so much blood, sweat, and money into impossibly detailed tributes to God. If God is bigger, better, and smarter than us, as we're so often told, then, well, he deserves all the attention. But what about the part about God preferring humility to ostentation, paupers to princes?

I appreciate beautiful churches -- in the same way that I appreciate Grand Central Terminal or the Golden Gate Bridge. These cathedrals aren't just striking; they add to the character of their surroundings. Can you imagine Paris without the Notre Dame or Sacre Coeur? Rome without St Peter's or even New York without St Patrick's? Just as the art world would be much poorer if the church hadn't inspired so many incredible artists, so, too, would be the world of architecture.

But I can't honestly believe that these buildings are about God any more than a beautiful bridge is about traffic. Each time I walk into one of these cathedrals, with 20-foot stained glass windows, fancy altars, master statues, and 80-foot ceilings -- but few or no worshippers -- I think, this building needs to be this big. They had to make room for all the irony.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Weekend Mailbag
Interested in what some of the other S.O.G.s are thinking? Time to check the mailbag.

Q: God, you are long-winded. I went to your blog intending to read every word since the Iceland episode but I couldn't do it.
A: It is interesting how the length of my posts is out of control. I think it's because nobody in real life lets me go on for so long. But on a blog, there are no social cues. You just never know when someone gets up and leaves the room.

ou don't seem to understand faith. You need to find out what it is like to have really found God and to have lived with faith. Your conclusions about spiritual life seem hastily fabricated out of limited personal experience. If I told you that everyone loved going to Giants games because they liked eating garlic fries and trying to catch fly balls and you had spent your entire life going to Giants games and had never done either - what would you say? If I'm telling you something with certainty about where you get your most powerful experiences in life and you know it's laughable- what would you say?
I've had faith. There was a time when I couldn't imagine what life would be like not believing in God. That's no longer true. But my faith was real -- just as real, I'd argue, as the faith of those who "have really found God." Think about it: When someone falls out of love, does that mean the love was never real to begin with? Of course not. I think it's rather pompous to suggest that I don't understand faith. It's not that complicated, really. But even if I don't, I can clearly observe its manifestations. As for your baseball analogy, I'm not sure I really get your point, but let me try to work it out. I wasn't suggesting that any particular aspect of church makes people believe in God. We humans have a basic desire to understand our purpose -- it's a natural byproduct of high-level consciousness, I think - and "God" is a simple, palatable explanation. Also, as I suggested, we're social animals. Church ties these two aspects of humanity together and in so doing, propagates faith. I don't consider this a controversial notion, really. Let me stick with baseball as the working analogy. You like the Giants. Were you more or less of a Giants fan after the first game you saw at the ballpark? How about after the second game? The third? I suspect that with every game you attended, you became more of a fan...not necessarily because every game was better than the last or because you had an epiphany about the sport and its place in your life, but because you were there on warm summer nights, you had a couple of beers, maybe you were on a date and had a hot dog or stood up and sung a song in the seventh inning or high-fived the guy behind you, laughed, and did the wave. All that ritual made you feel a part of the group all around you. And every time you go back, you like the Giants more. This is not an accident. If going to the baseball park didn't make you like a team more, there'd be no point to the experience, and people wouldn't go. And compared to organized religion, baseball is the minor leagues. Yet it's more controversial to talk this way about religion because people balk at the suggestion that they're being brainwashed or that, somehow, this makes faith seem less real. You can be religious or a skeptic and still appreciate (or loathe) religion for the way it influences people.

I too have a philosophy about religion and God. I think we pray to something bigger than ourselves, but in reality we are only praying to ourselves and relieving all the pressure of being moral and frail. So really churches are like therapy and we're all just trying to build our self esteem. I don't go to church much but i do pray, normally when i'm scared.
I found myself in a similar situation, and that's when i started to wonder about religion. When i stopped believing in God, I stopped praying and lost what I can best describe as a release valve. I began processing stress differently, internalizing it more...and that wasn't good. And then, i remembered how praying would ease my mind. And so I did something that felt almost shameful -- I began to pray. Not because I thought there'd be someone on the other side listening, but because I was trying to invoke that inner calm. It was meditation, really. And that's when I started to think about all of faith in the same regard. Why would 90+ percent of us claim to believe in something so inherently unproveable and unlikely as an omniscient, omnipotent being? (you have to grant me that the notion is unlikely, even if it's true). Maybe the act of believing is a release, a relief, in and of itself.

The blog's been tres amusement, btw. I spit up a little coffee reading the union jack thing. Wonderbras aside (bra metaphors are so cliche, o'brien), your post about religion and separation made me think of something I read this term, from Pierre Bordieu. He talks about a sort of sleight of hand in the way that religious rights of passage like confirmation draw our attention to the distraction in front of us -- between boys and men, say -- when what really drives them is the distinction outside the room, between Catholics and non, for instance.
Interesting point. Another sleight of hand: Have you ever had a couple mormon kids come to your door looking to work their way into your home, do some Bible-reading, and try to sway you? Of course. And you dealt with them by either politely excusing yourself or slamming the door. You've probably wondered, Does anyone actually let them in; does anyone actually listen? Well, the answer is not many, as you suspected. But that's not the point of the exercise. A number of cognitive psychologists have studied this routine and realized that the act of walking door-to-door is less about courting believers and more about strengthening the faith of the preachers themselves. Every slammed door works to stiffen their resolve, increase their degree of separation from the "other" and strengthen the bind to their own community. I was reading about this in a restaurant recently and on the walk home, in a downpour, saw two mormon kids standing in their suits, no umbrella, trying to convince a young woman to come over to their side. She was flabbergasted. Once upon a time, I might have been disgusted. But instead, I was intrigued. So, next time, go ahead and slam the door with a clear conscience.

Just a quick note to tell you I'm really liking your blog -- but mom and dad are pissed about the religion thing. I think you might be OK, though. They just kind of chalk it up to you living on the West coast.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Nous Sommes Arrivés!
Have you ever carried a baguette through the streets of Paris, the length of the bread naked to the elements but for a small tissue wrapped around the center? It's impossible to do this and not feel French. (And nearly impossible to do so without poking anyone walking the other way along a narrow sidewalk.) I will never be as thin, as good-looking, or speak like a local. But give me some pointy bread to wave in the city of lights and I feel completely at home. Heather's no slouch, either. Just look at that attitude, that confidence. She's armed. She's Fronsh.

And so, we have arrived. 16 Quai du Louvre, 1er arrondissement. We're all unpacked and stretched out in our loft, whose three sets of windows open onto a balcony right above the River Seine. If you crane your neck and look between the trees and beyond Pont Neuf, you can make out Notre Dame in one direction, the Eiffel Tower in the other. We're a block from the Louvre, just across the bridge from the Latin Quarter/Saint Germain. The first few days have mostly been about getting our bearings, stocking the apartment with staples: pasta and serrano ham, eggs, fresh vegetables, and many bottles of rosé to take the edge off the extremely hot days. We've also been dealing with minor tragedies (a botched internet connection meant two days to shop for and install a wifi network in the apartment, a stolen credit card -- the numbers, not an actual mugging -- meant lots of back and forth with Visa), going for long walks, trying to squeeze in some work, and, of course, keeping up with all the World Cup madness.

If you hadn't noticed, Europe digs football. Through sheer happenstance, I was in England when the English were winning, in Italy when it was clinching the division, and we arrived in Paris on the day that France beat Brazil...and of course were here last night when they toppled Portugal. It's hard not to get caught up in the excitement -- or at least in the spectacle of the excitement. I can't
really think of anything in the US that would draw the entire country together in the same way. Sure, we all root for the same hockey team during the Olympics. But do you feel compelled to dance in the streets when they win? I read a bit of (American) speculation the about why the US, the land of opportunity, prefers games with more chances to score, about how soccer is really a metaphor for the European plight -- a lot of drama and buildup about the intermittent, fleeting chance around the goal, followed by the inevitable wide-right or off-the-crossbar shot and a lot of arm-waving, face-grabbing disappointment. I don't know about all that, but I do know that everywhere we've been, people have been going nuts. Every day feels like a Superbowl, except the games are all competitive (if indeed, low-scoring) and the experience seems more inclusive.

For the most part, we've been enjoying the games at a safe distance, as visitors. Rather than going to a bar to watch, we go out for dinner, and catch glimpses of the games from the streets -- where people are lined up 10-deep to peer through a window at a flatscreen on the wall. Rather than hitting the Champs-Elysses after the Portugal victory to see the fireworks and avoid the M-80s going off in the alleyways, we went as the game was just getting started, watched the riot police unload from the paddywagons and fall in along the sidewalks. By halftime, we were safely back at the loft, halfway into a bottle of Gigondas and eating steak frites as the masses below waved their flags and prepared to pour beer all over each other. And that was just fine by us.

Today is shopping day. Heather tells me something about how sales are regulated in France. They only occur twice a year, and we just so happen to be here for one of them. Lucky us. It's a curious notion...the government dictating when and how a store can mark down its own inventory. It must completely change the wholesale buying/distribution process. Whatever price the retailer decides, it's stuck with for six months. Weird. But that's an issue for another day. For now, we're all about scouting out the bargains, trying to spend these thirty pieces of silver burning a hole in my pocket.

There are a couple of bottles of rosé in the fridge and a nice burgundy on the counter. The combo on the front door is 19-b-20, and the wifi's screaming fast. Come visit. Come with a baguette. And carry it like you belong.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Praha is Smokin'
As the Brits prepare for the recently approved ban on smoking in English pubs and restaurants, (following varying degrees of prohibition in Ireland, Italy, New York, and of course California, among many others), you might think there are no remaining black lung bastions in the world. Not true. This past spring, Czech voters struck down a bill that would have eliminated restaurant smoking, and in the process sent a very clear message: Prague is for smokers.

"What do you think the rate of lung cancer is here," Heather asked this morning as a woman stood outside the tiny paneria where we were eating breakfast and blew a cloud through the open door and onto our table. Whatever it is, it's gotta be on the rise. As of 2004, about 40 percent of all Czech men and 30 percent of Czech women smoked, and those numbers have been rising steadily since 2000. Narrow that survey to Czechs who live in Prague and eat out, and I bet the number would go as high as 75 percent. I've never seen smokers so emboldened. They walk into restaurants with lit cigarettes and puff away as they order food, throughout the meal and before during and after espresso. The city center consists almost entirely of (elaborately decorated) cobblestone streets -- with cigarette butts wedged between the blocks. I saw my first no-smoking sign last night. It was taped on the door of a storage closet in a restaurant basement.

Smoking isn't the only cultural clash we've experienced here. It's been almost 20 years since Czechoslovakia underwent its Velvet Revolution, peacefully abolishing communism and, not long after, splintering into two countries. Since then Prague has fallen to another significant revolution: consumerism. Within walking distance of where we're staying in Old Town are thousands of restaurants, cafes, cinemas, shopping malls, "massage" parlors, glass shops, vinotecas, beer halls, sausage vendors, and row after row after row of makeshift tchotchke stands. If you're in the market for gaudy crystalware and "Prague Drinking Team" t-shirts, welcome to nirvana. What saves Prague from Coney Island cliche is its history and arresting architecture. I'm not a huge fan of the Gothic and Baroque styles that predominate the city -- it's all just so pointy, dark, and dripping with detail -- but nevertheless can't stop marveling at it and wondering how the city managed to escape the WWII bombing that decimated so many other parts of Europe. Everywhere you look, there's a cathedral, synagogue or palace that's older and more garish than the one you just came out of. I don't mean that in a bad way. This is Disneyland for Cure heads.

Dining has been an interesting experience. Sausage, goulash, and beer are the staples. You know about at least a couple of the Czech beers -- the original Budweiser Budvar and Pilsner Urquell. I've had some terrific Staropramen, which brews a dark ale right here in Prague. All the beer sells in restaurants for about 25 korunas (crowns), or a little more than $1, for a pint. Finding good Czech wine is more of a challenge. The local red grape, Frankovka, is, as far as I'm concerned, Czech for "Robitussin." But there's a decent selection of Italian varietals, and I've had some nice Montepulciano and Valpolicella. As for the eating, well, I wouldn't exactly call the town vegetarian friendly. Heather and I have walked by countless beer halls and sausage stands in search of the lonely baguette with mozerella and tomato. But it's good to go hungry every once in a while. It keeps you alert. And it's not like we're starving. We've had a few very good meals (we've spent anywhere from $30-$50ish on a nice meal for two, including wine...not dirt cheap, but not San Francisco), including one last night at a restaurant called No Stress. It aptly described the service. And my mood -- save for the angst I was feeling about all the cigarette smoke.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Has Anyone Seen This Dog?
I'd love to hear of his whereabouts. If you are in contact, please tell him I miss him and give him a treat for being such a good boy.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Why Am I Here?
It's a big question that we all ask ourselves pretty regularly, a question that can lead down a rabbit hole of subsequent questions -- about purpose, free will, the human mind, the nature of consciousness. But I'm asking the lower-cased version. As in, why am I doing this fellowship? And, what do I hope to accomplish? Think of this as question number one in a SoGFAQ.

The day I announced that I was leaving Wired for good -- the same day I actually left Wired -- a colleague congratulated me and said, "The only reason anyone ever applies for a fellowship is because they're looking for a change." It's true. I needed a break. I had to clear my cluttered head. My first inkling to apply for the fellowship came late last year when I received an email from the selection committee at Very Rich Foundation notifying me about the program. When I read the email, I thought 'two months in Europe!' I've long dreamed of moving to Europe, but have never been able to swing more than a couple weeks at a time. But science & religion?

I have a complicated religious history. At least it's complicated in my own mind. Here's the road I've traveled over the last dozen or so years: Roman Catholic --> Cafeteria Catholic --> Lapsed Catholic --> Religiously Indifferent --> Agnostic --> Catholic Antagonist --> Religion Antagonist --> Atheist --> Curious about Religion (and, I hope, religiously curious). If that sounds like I might be coming around the bend and that some day I'll end up back at all the wisdom that I started with, well, I suppose that could happen. But I doubt it. I've traveled a long way, and I'm no longer even all that intrigued about the existence of God. But I am intrigued by the near-universal human need to believe in such a Being, and am fascinated at how religions have evolved over the centuries to reward, reinforce, and foster faith. And that's part of the reason I'm here.

A British evolutionary psychologist named Robin Dunbar compares religious practice to being in a pot circle. Every aspect of the experience reinforces the experience itself -- the actual drug, the laughing, storytelling, camraderie, the smells, the music -- and makes you want to come back for more. I think religion is like a Wonderbra -- it elevates and separates. Let me explain (not about the bra; you know how that works). I agree with Dunbar that nearly every action you make in church is crafted to bind you closer to the people around you. Shaking hands with the neighbors in your pew, singing verse, chanting, dancing (in some cases), praying, kneeling on's all very rhythmic. When in church, we look around, think about what everyone's wearing or what they're thinking or what they're like or how we should invite them over for dinner even while almost automatically performing our regimen. We don't actually need to like the people around us (though often we will) to feel close to them. Our neighbors are just like us. All of this makes us feel part of a group, part of a community, comfortable. Humans need to belong. Church gives us this. In return, we give church our time, energy, money, and most of all, our faith. And the more money, time, energy, and faith we give, the greater a sense of community there is. That's the elevation.

Then comes the separation -- the part where we come to think of ourselves as special for being part of our adopted community, the part where we're being told repeatedly that we're the 'chosen ones' or, in many cases, that anyone not part of the community should be pitied or converted or, worse, punished. Islam has taken a lot of slack recently for the way the Koran tolerates or even prescribes hatred and violence toward nonbelievers, and it is particularly nasty...especially given how literally Muslims regard the Koran. But Islam isn't unique. Most religions have the potential to foster violent divisiveness. What is a community if not a haven from intruders, a place where we feel welcome, among people who make us feel safe? Would you fight to protect your safety, your family's? Of course. Taken to an extreme, any sense of community can do damage. Religions often do. (So does nationalism, but that's another topic.) I'm not saying religion is all bad. There are beneficient effects. Chief among them, I've always thought, is that religion helps us live to a higher moral standard than we otherwise would. Being part of a community makes you act better toward the people around you. And then there are all those rules that every religion has about morality, and the notion that if you do the right thing, you'll be rewarded in the afterlife. It's an undeniable formula for goodness.

The pictures on this page are of a 17th century thatch cottage (the thatch roof lasts 40 years but is extremely expensive to replace) about 5 miles outside of Cambridge. It belongs to Kevin Dutton, a Cambridge University neuroscience/psychology professor who's on leave to write a book about psychopaths, and his wife Elaine, a PhD in emotional psychology. Together with their friend, Louise, a Phd in moral philosophy and a Cambridge professor, we gathered to drink several bottles of Australian shiraz, eat a home-cooked meal, and talk about the nature of morality. It's a subject I've become increasingly interested in over the last few years because while I've fallen out of religion and faith I don't think I've become less moral. In fact, I'd argue that I'm a better person now than I was ten years ago, and, I think, less selfish. Being irreligious means I choose my actions not for the consequences they may bring in an afterlife, but rather, solely because I know my actions affect the people around me. If we all live by a similar code, my reasoning goes, the world is a better place to live. So, I've been wondering, if I can simultaneously live a moral and irreligious life, what does religion really have to do with morality?

You might suggest that my moral code was established in my youth by my religous upbringing and by my parents' religious beliefs and by the laws put in place by our government, which were influenced by religious mores and convictions. And that may be true. But is it necessarily true? Could morality be a dominant property that has been naturally selected in humans for the larger good of the species? A related question: Can we create/construct morality -- artificial morality, you might say -- without religion? Can we make ethical machines? (This is what I'll be writing about while in Paris.) Kevin was sufficiently intrigued by these questions to invite me over for dinner on one of my final nights in Cambridge. And we had a great conversation into the wee hours...not to mention all the food and wine.

I'll tell you more about it in part two of this post -- but I owe some news from Prague, where Heather and I are now. That'll come next. Na shledanou for now.