“Waking Up” by Sam Harris

Sam Harris has finally acknowledged his spiritual side. Now, before you throw down your Darwin fish in disgust — or wave your rosary in triumph — you should know that the name-brand atheist still doesn’t believe in god. What he does believe in is humans’ capacity to achieve the levels of awareness, clarity, and wonder that the faithful so often attribute to a deity.

In his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris, a neuroscientist, explores how meditation can help nonbelievers strive toward enlightenment (or at least a more satisfying state of consciousness), and then offers a somewhat disjointed roadmap for doing just that.0wakingup

Anticipating blowback from all sides, he starts off by defending his use of the term “spiritual”: “The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning ‘breath.’ Around the thirteenth century, the term became entangled with beliefs about immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, and so forth.” In Harris’ hands, it is brought squarely back into the realm of the empirical.

Having set the semantic stage, he moves onto a frequently hard-to-grasp treatise on the principle of “self” and the nature of consciousness. “The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished.”

Were he a believer, Harris could shorthand 50 pages by dubbing these inner workings “the soul,” but he were not. Instead, he labors to define consciousness and the duality of the brain, occasionally losing me in the process.

The one description that resonates? Imagine a mirror. Now picture an angry reflection and then a happy reflection in it. Those reflections, like feelings, come and go, while the mirror — consciousness — remains constant. Consciousness is irreducible; it’s a state of simply being, one that offers tangible benefits for those able to quiet their minds long enough to experience it.

Harris is among the lucky. A longtime student of meditation, he recounts many seminal moments where he achieved such a state, including during a trip to the Sea of Galilee.

“As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished…Only the world remained.

“If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms…If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the eternal Self…If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the ‘dharmakaya of emptiness,’ in which all apparent things manifest as in a dream. But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being.”

Alas, he doesn’t always make his best effort when focusing the scope of this book. Although its subtitle suggests a secular self-help guide, Waking Up is really more of a memoir-cum-scientific-text-cum-hearty-endorsement-of-meditation. Each of these topics has merit, but strung together, they feel, well, strung together.

For example, along with protracted discourses on Eastern meditative practices — Harris has studied under several teachers — and Western brain physiology, the author throws in a Meditation 101 how-to box. After long stretches devoted to squishy, esoteric topics, he shifts to a nuts-and-bolts look at choosing the proper guru, the fallacy of near-death experiences, and the risks and rewards of seeking enlightenment via LSD and other mind-altering drugs.

Spoiler alert: Bad trips are bad.

Overall, Harris’ book has much to recommend it, but not so much that it should be anyone’s first stop on the road to secular spirituality. Atheists will cringe at his sometimes woo-woo accounts of transcendent states; the churched will bristle at his refusal to credit a god’s hand in those states; and English majors will struggle to keep up. But few will disagree with his assertion that reaching a place of pure consciousness is challenging.

“An ability to examine the contents of one’s own consciousness clearly, dispassionately, and nondiscursively, with sufficient attention to realize that no inner self exists, is a very sophisticated skill,” Harris writes.

By the end of this book, I still didn’t possess that skill, but I understood it a little better. It was kind of enlightening.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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“The Serpent of Venice” by Christopher Moore


Remember that renowned Shakespearean work where Othello, Desdemona, Jessica, and King Lear’s fool team up to foil Iago, Lorenzo, and Antonio — all with a little input from Shylock, Emilia, Portia, a snarky Greek chorus, and a horny sea monster named Viv? (I know what you’re thinking, but it’s a myth that sea monsters are frigid.)

Probably not, because the Bard never wrote it. Imagine how much more fun AP Lit would’ve been if he had. Instead, this brilliant mash-up of the Merchant of Venice and Othello — with some King Lear and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” thrown in for giggles — comes courtesy of Christopher Moore, whose The Serpent of Venice reads like something Shakespeare could’ve written, if only he’d had a proper IV-drug habit.

Set in Venice “a long, long time ago,” the story starts with Pocket of Dog Snogging (a.k.a. Lear’s fool and star of Moore’s hysterical earlier novel Fool) being plied with glass upon glass of a wine “which tastes a bit of pitch” by Iago, Antonio, and Montressor Brabantio, a band of villains determined to drag the city into a fabricated holy war while seizing control of its wealth and the Venetian Senate in the process.

The trio sees Pocket, still mourning the loss of his beloved Cordelia, as an irritating speed bump on their road to victory and decide he must be dispatched. Soon knocked out, walled up, and left for dead in the dank dungeon of Brabantio’s palazzo, the fool awakens to discover he’s not alone. Somewhere in the serpent_of_venice_review_314_475blackness, a dagger-clawed undersea minx emerges and proceeds to have her way with him. Repeatedly.

CHORUS: And so, chained in the dark, naked and bedeviled by a hellish creature unknown, after five changings of the tide, the fool went mad.
I am not mad!
CHORUS: Fear did twist the jester’s tiny mind — stretch it past the limits of sanity until it snapped — and shivering and pale, he went mad.
I am not mad!
CHORUS: Stark, raving mad. Bonkers. Drooling, frothing, barking mad.
I am not bloody mad, you berk!
CHORUS: You’re shouting at a disembodied voice in the dark.
Oh, fuckstockings. Good point.

Happily for Pocket, Viv turns out to be a scaly whore with a heart of gold (at least in her dealings with him). And before he can say, “I’ve just been rogered six ways to Sunday by a Gorgon,” Pocket finds himself released from bondage and washed ashore on La Giudecca, a small island separated from Venice by a wide waterway, where Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, takes pity on the half-drowned harlequin and helps him recover.

What follows is an exquisitely raunchy, occasionally bloody series of twists and turns in which Pocket seeks to avenge Cordelia; Jessica plots to sneak off with Lorenzo; Iago conspires to topple Othello; Shylock demands his pound of flesh; Antonio secretly pines for Bassanio (who openly pines for Portia); Marco Polo (Marco Polo?) hopes to escape a Genoan prison cell; and Viv just wants to be held.

(If you’re rolling your eyes at the absurdity of all this and can’t loosen up enough to enjoy the ride, take a moment to consider why nobody ever sits with you at lunch.)

It gives nothing away to reveal that, as in Moore’s other laugh-out-loud-funny novels — the superb Lamb, A Dirty Job, and the aforementioned Fool among them — the good guys in The Serpent of Venice mostly triumph, the bad guys mostly don’t, and almost everyone ends up bedding somebody (or something). The beauty of this latest work is that it doesn’t just throw Shakespeare’s plotlines into the scrum. It throws his characters in, too.

In other words, don’t assume each player will stay true to form. Is Othello still a jealousy-fueled murderer? Is Shylock obsessed with revenge? Does Antonio conduct business honorably? Will Desdemona remain loyal to the Moor? Are Portia and Nerissa still heavy into cross-dressing? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

“Iago rose and went to Bassanio, offered his hand. ‘Then you’re the one we need to speak with.’ He led Bassanio to the table as if leading a lady to the dance floor. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘The rest of you can fuck off now.’”

Okay, so that’s a tiny spoiler. Iago is still a wanker.


This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Welcome Back to Snake-Handling Preschool!


Dear Parents,

It’s September again, and you know what that means—back-to-school time! We’re so pleased that you’ve entrusted the education of your little one to the Church of God the Redeemer Preschool. As the only fully accredited snake-handling worship center in the tri-state area, we here at CGR understand our unique role in nourishing your child’s mind and spirit.

While most school policies are outlined in our brochure, “There are No Small Sins, Only Small Sinners” (check your mailbox), please keep the following in mind as we prepare for what’s sure to be an uplifting year:

• Drop off time is 9:30 a.m., with pickup at 2:00 p.m. sharp. Remember: God loathes the habitually tardy!

• Dress code: children are required to wear collared shirts, clean slacks or skirts, and reinforced, knee-high leather boots (no sandals!).

• In addition to safety scissors, Elmer’s Glue, and a 64-count box of crayons, please make sure your child’s knapsack contains at least one pediatric tourniquet, available at most medical supply stores and the I-34 Walmart.

• We ask that all students bring Kleenex for the classroom. Additionally, children whose last names begin with A-M should bring a 64-ounce bottle of Bactine, while those with names N-Z are asked to furnish gauze.

• The Lord loves volunteers, so sign up early! Our fall fiesta is just around the corner, so we expect all you moms and dads to bring in lots of cupcakes, fruit punch, and cookies. Also, anti-venom.

• As announced, we’re taking a broader approach to language arts this year. In addition to discussing The Little Golden Book of Sodom and Gomorrah, youngsters will be encouraged to “think outside the box” by making freeform Play-Doh sculptures of Hell.

• Finally, nothing matters as much to CGR as your child’s eternal soul. Through interactive Bible teaching, dramatic play, and the regular taking up of serpents, we intend to nurture God’s tiniest henchmen. And if the unworthy walk among us—as they surely do—don’t worry. We’ll find them. Anaphylaxis doesn’t lie.

So let’s make this the best school year ever. Get your youngsters to bed early, make sure they drink plenty of milk, and have those liability waivers notarized!

Tetanus boosters couldn’t hurt, either.

See you next week!

Yours in Him,

Donna Magdalene

Director, Toddler Program

This piece originally appeared in the White Shoe Irregular.

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Are Quality Book Reviews a Dying Breed?


Is the literary universe rudderless? According to a recent op-ed in the New York Times, it sure seems that way.

Plagued by the usual suspects – decreasing readership, risk-averse (and resource-depleted) publishers, a glut of celebrity-driven titles, etc. – the world of books feels more fragile than ever.

And its decline, says Colin Robinson, author of the Times piece, is only being hastened by a lack of high-quality book reviews, the kind that steer readers to hidden treasures they might otherwise never discover.

“This variety of channels for the expert appraisal of books has been replaced with recommendations thrown up by online retailers’ computers,” writes Robinson. “But as with so much of the Internet, the nuance and enthusiasm of human encounters is poorly replicated by an algorithm.”

Which is where the Washington Independent Review of Books comes in.

Since 2010, we here at the nonprofit Independent have dedicated ourselves to bringing our readers the very appraisals Robinson fears will soon be extinct: intelligent, insightful opinions on everything from bestsellers to mid-list gems.

With no corporate overlords to serve, we’re free to guide readers toward what we feel are the most compelling new books out there. We’re also free to ignore whatever pop-culture-driven Flavor of the Week may be lining the shelves.

Does this devotion to providing comprehensive, well-reasoned book reviews in a world obsessed with all things quicker, shorter, and snarkier make us different? Probably. Is that a bad thing? No.

We’re firm believers that there will always be thoughtful readers out there, and that those readers deserve equally thoughtful and entertaining reviews.

So while we agree with Mr. Robinson that the literary world is growing less hospitable to writers – and readers – by the day, we have to insist that rumors about quality book reviews’ death are greatly exaggerated.

This piece originally appeared in, you guessed it, the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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The 5 Best Books. Ever.


You probably have your own ideas about which are the world’s greatest books, but what do you know? Here, in no particular order, are the five best books. Ever.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  •  Mila 18 by Leon Uris
  •  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  •  Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings

Did I miss any? Didn’t think so. Happy reading!

This article originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, where commenters somehow disagreed with my choices. Weird.

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A Classic to Avoid: “On the Road”

OntheRoad“On the Road is the quintessential American vision of freedom and hope,” gushes a review on Amazon.com. “[It] is a book that changed American literature and changed anyone who has ever picked it up.”

It sure changed me. It taught me that reading time is precious. And the hours I spent plodding through this “quintessential” novel?

Yeah, I won’t be getting those back.

What’d been hyped as a transformative story about a young man finding his way in post-World War II America turned out to be, as far as I can tell, a travelogue about two underemployed guys binge-drinking their way to Mexico.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But still.

Overly long by 100 pages, On the Road felt tedious where it should’ve been taut, redundant where it should’ve been revolutionary.

Does the novel contain flashes of brilliance? Sure.

Will I be diving back in to find them anytime soon? Only if I lose a bet.

(By the way, that scroll in the picture isn’t the Torah; it’s the manuscript of On the Road as Kerouac wrote it.)


This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Chicken Soup for the Pedophile’s Soul

Mr. Warren Summers, ChickenSoupInmate #5381

Terra Haute Federal Correction Complex

Terra Haute, IN 47808

Dear Mr. Summers,

Thank you for your continued interest in Health Communications, Inc. Regarding your inquiry into our decision not to purchase your book, Chicken Soup for the Pedophile’s Soul, allow me to address a few of your specific concerns:

  1. First, while it’s true your manuscript speaks to an underserved, potentially lucrative niche market, we’re not convinced that “Jack Canfield’s formulaic gold mine,” as you put it, is appropriate for this particular segment of the literati.
  2. Second, our attorneys advise us that it would be a felony merely to allude to chapters four through eight, let alone to publish them.
  3. Yes, even in Bangkok.
  4. Though we appreciate your frustration at incurring significant research-related expenses, it has never been our policy to offer unsigned clients an advance against bail and/or court costs.
  5. Finally, we realize that your deposition from case no. 345-87-L, “W. Summers v. the Jefferson High School Varsity Chorale,” was forwarded to us in error; it will be returned forthwith.

Again, thank you for your interest in Health Communications. Although we politely refuse to accept from you any further written correspondence, phone calls, or email, we wish you much luck in your future literary endeavors, as well as with the Indiana state parole board.


Mitchell Jenkins

Associate Publisher

Health Communications, Inc.


This piece originally appeared in the White Shoe Irregular.

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A Stranger among Us

file0001362503108My daughter is Wink Martindale. She wakes up fluttering near the edge of nirvana, and her mood surges steadily upward from there.

Naturally, her father and I are horrified.

It’s not that we don’t enjoy our daughter Sadie, it’s just that we don’t know where she came from. Obviously not from us. We aren’t terribly joyful people. While the optimism train was pulling out of the station, we were back at the terminal trying to buy Excedrin.

When our first daughter, Anna, was born, she didn’t cry; she brooded. She was pensive, reserved. Exhibited a hereditary disdain for all things giddy. She was one of us. Then a few months ago, our second child, Kathie Lee Gifford, pranced into our lives, and the world lost its comforting shade of grey.

It had to be a hospital mix-up. A “switched at birth” scenario would explain how the Addams Family ended up with Strawberry Shortcake. This Disney character couldn’t be ours. Surely our real baby was off by herself somewhere, wearing a black Onesie and reading The Little Golden Book of Sylvia Plath.

But, no, the nurse insisted that Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm belonged to us, and not to the Cleavers in the next room.

We spent an entire month blaming Sadie’s first smiles on gas. Alas, they were genuine. The hours I’d spent listening to Pink Floyd during pregnancy had proven fruitless; I may have been comfortably numb, but yummy yummy yummy, she had love in her tummy.

Even Anna, who understood that life was fraught with doom, couldn’t change her.

Not that she didn’t try.

During those first few weeks, Sadie became her Waterloo. If anyone could cram a healthy dose of reality down the baby’s throat, it was the Gloom Nazi. She could reduce Barney the Dinosaur to suicidal despair. But despite the legions of pacifiers flushed, bottles dumped, and naps interrupted, Sadie remained undeterred.

Our perky little genetic blip began to de-ice the winter of our discontent, like it or not.

Maybe Sadie does share a gene or two with her father and me. I recall my relatives toasting each other one Christmas while proclaiming their heartfelt love toward their fellow man. Of course, that was the same year my sister and I were sent to 7-Eleven for another carton of Camels and some more Stroh’s. And come to think of it, Jack Daniels was usually the guest of honor at holiday get-togethers.

Obviously, Smith family euphoria stems more from J&B than DNA.

Then how about the in-laws? Smiles don’t exactly gush from their old black-and-white photos, but no one ever said 1930s Eastern Europe was a fun place. My three siblings-in-law seem content. Could they be the missing links in this genealogical mystery? Nope. Like the other buds on my husband’s family tree, they were miserable, colicky babies.

So Sadie’s a fluke. Mother Nature mixed 23 chromosomes from me with 23 from my husband, threw them in the crockpot, and then wandered off while the whole mess boiled over. Nine months later, I gave birth to a tiny goodwill ambassador from Planet Dopamine.

We should bottle her. People could toss out their Lexapro and take a teaspoon of Sadie instead. She’s gentle enough to use every day, and the only side effect is a sudden urge to hum show tunes.

On the other hand, with all of her infectious charm and enthusiasm, her calling may be elsewhere. After all, that Brooklyn Bridge is just sitting there, and eventually they’re going to need someone to sell it.


This piece was written a long time ago. Sadie is now 17 years old and as freakishly sunny as ever. She tries to be surly every now and then, but she’s not fooling anyone.

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You Can’t Take It with You

file0001324983978Struggling to find that truly special, one-of-a-kind holiday gift? Here’s an idea: Instead of looking at the mall, look in the mirror.

It’s you.

Or, actually, your body—once you’re done with it.

Granted, it’s not all that spectacular. (Fell off the ol’ 100-squats-a-day wagon again, eh?) But to med students learning anatomy, EMTs needing to practice lifesaving procedures, or creepy researchers eager to do god-knows-what with various parts and accessories, your body is perfect.

(I’m kidding about researchers being creepy. I’m sure they’re perfectly lovely, normal people who happen to enjoy hanging out alone in labs and pickling dead things. It’s really no different than your awful scrapbooking habit, if you think about it.)

Here in Maryland, we have the country’s only state-sponsored body-donor program (yet crabs get all the press on our bumper stickers). Once registered, future deceased Free-Staters are promised that their bodies will be collected (and organs donated), used for appropriate research, cremated, and then returned to loved ones. All at no cost.

Beat that, Walmart.

Squeamish about the spiritual implications of becoming a glorified science project? Think of it this way: If there’s a higher power and an afterlife, you won’t need your body when you’re dead. And if there’s no higher power or afterlife, you won’t need your body when you’re dead.

So consider donating your body to science—and don’t keep your wishes a secret. Tell your family about your plans (just not on Christmas morning; you know how they are), and take comfort in the fact that yours will be the gift that keeps on giving.

After all, ‘tis the season.


Whaddyathink? Would you consider donating your body to science? Let me know!


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3 Fun Thanksgivukkah Rituals


Need more proof the holiday gods loathe interfaith families like mine who celebrate everything? Thanksgiving and Hanukkah arrive together this year. (Yes, dutiful observers: Hanukkah technically arrives the night before Thanksgiving. Thanks for the reminder why nobody likes dutiful observers.)

Anyway, in honor of this only-in-a-shiksa’s-worst-nightmare scenario, I hope you’ll try some of my family’s favorite Thanksgivukkah rituals. The more of them you enjoy, the more likely we’ll be to bump into each other at therapy.

Happy Thanksgivukkah! And may the odds be ever in your favor!

  • Finding the Menorahs. Remember when you took down last year’s Christmas decorations, blithely chucking dreidels and blue table runners into any old red-and-green Rubbermaid box that would hold them? Well, the calendar may say “November,” but it’s time to dig through those boxes—yep, every one of them, right now—in search of your family’s Festival of Lights detritus. And be sure to get the kids involved. The thrill of crawling through the spider-webby, unfinished part of the basement knows no age!
  • Buying the Candles. You didn’t really wait until the last minute for this one, did you? Oh. Anyhow, the good news is there are still a few boxes of menorah candles to be had down at the Safeway. The bad news is they’re buried in the seasonal aisle amid the mini marshmallows, pumpkin puree, and jars of giblet gravy. (Giblet gravy? Seriously, people?) The place is bound to be a wee bit crowded, but it could be worse. It could be raining. I said, IT COULD BE RAINING.
  • Recounting the Miracle of Thanksgivukkah. According to legend, the Pilgrims had only enough bland, starchy food for one night. But the leftovers—from the candied sweet potatoes to those disgusting creamed onions nobody even likes—lasted for eight nights. So as you celebrate lo these long days, remind the little ones that their crippling stomach cramps and early signs of scurvy are all part of the fun. Next year at Plymouth Rock!

What’re your most dreaded, er, favorite holiday rituals? Tell me about them!

[Image courtesy of JewishBoston.com]

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