Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Our house is what is known in Israeli parlance as a 'cottage'. In the US it would probably be called a 'townhouse', meaning it is one of several attached multi-story, single family homes that sit beside one another facing the street. The layout inside is not particularly unique:
Main Level - Living-room (what Israelis call a salon), dining-room, kitchen, pantry/laundry room and half bath.
Upper Level - Three bedrooms, two full baths (Ari & Gili's bedrooms plus the guest suite)
Lower Level - Master bedroom suite (including full bath) and two smaller bedrooms (Zahava's office plus Yonah's nursery)
For the purposes of today's post let's confine ourselves to the present and future disposition of the lower level space.
In principal Zahava's office is supposed to be 'our' shared office. But in reality her graphic design business has completely taken over the room to the extent that it has become her studio exclusively. I didn't really make much of a fuss about this since in my mind Yonah's nursery would become my office/workshop as soon as he was old enough to move in with Gilad. Unfortunately, two issues have conspired to keep me office-less for the foreseeable future:
1. Zahava and I aren't quite ready to move our 'baby' up to the big kid's floor. First of all, Yonah still requires a lot of extra 'handling' (a post for another day) before bed as well as first thing in the morning. These are responsibilities that, in my mind, really shouldn't fall on the shoulders of the 'big kids' as they have enough on their plates just keeping their rooms
neat habitable from becoming an environmental disaster zone... not to mention getting their homework done. Also, there is the small detail that I'm not prepared to give up views like this in the 'wee' (pun intended) hours of the morning:
2. Now that Yonah's move upstairs has become imminent rather than some theoretical future event, Zahava has started
demanding dropping hints that the nursery be converted into a walk-in closet for her rather than a study/workshop for me. Right now all of my shop tools and beekeeping equipment are stacked in the back hallway, and my computer lives on a stand next to my bed. Don't I deserve a space of my own??? [~pout~]
So in short, while we may be conflicted over when to finally move Yonah upstairs... the future disposition of his nursery seems set to be the site of a looming conflict all its own.
Not looking for anyone to take sides here or anything, but if you feel like offering an opinion...
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Fuzzy moral accounting
Back when I was attending University in Manhattan, a friend of mine got mugged on his way back, late at night, from a concert at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. An impromptu splurge on a couple of CD's after the concert had diminished my friends pocket money to a small collection of coins so instead of taking a taxi as he'd originally planned, he thanked-G-d for his trusty MetroCard and set off to take the subway home.
On his way to the nearest subway station he was dragged into an apartment vestibule by a couple of teenagers and relieved of his new CDs, his watch and approximately 60 cents in change.
Whether out of disappointment at the paltry haul or just plain meanness, the teens worked my friend over pretty well, leaving him with a split lip, a bloody nose and more bruises than he'd ever experienced at one time in his life.
The next day as the story began to circulate among his friends, a consensus began to form; 'What the heck was he doing on 125th Street after midnight?' In short, while there was, of course, general head shaking and tongue clucking over the assault, the conventional wisdom held that he had placed himself in unnecessary danger by walking through such a bad neighborhood late at night.
At the time I remember feeling a mild disconnect at this warped logic. Were the laws less strictly enforced in Harlem? Was 125th street some kind of 'Indian Territory' that was beyond the long arm of the law after dark. Were the people who lived in that neighborhood held to a different standard of conduct?
I have to admit that I didn't dwell on these questions overly long as they were in complete discord with the tenets of my liberal upbringing. To pursue that line of questioning would have required exploring the many unconscious departures I'd made from political correctness in the name of survival in the big city.
Let's face it, it's not comfortable thinking about having crossed the street late at night to avoid a street-corner full of black or Hispanic men, so instead I used fuzzy accounting to balance my moral checkbook - not to the penny, as I had learned in school - but by rounding down to the nearest ten dollars.
In the wake of yesterday's murder of Erez Levanon, a similar consensus seems to have taken shape here in Israel. Nearly every news article about the murder latched onto a passing statement made by the security officer of Bat Ayin, Mr. Levenon's town:
"Yaki Morag, the head of security for the small town, told Army Radio in an interview that the area where Levanon was killed was fraught with dangers."
I have no idea if the security officer's statement about the relative danger of the area was unprompted, or if it was in response to questions asked by the interviewer. But as soon as the words left his lips, they became the kernel around which every subsequent news report was constructed... as if to say:
'Yes, it was tragic that Erez Levanon was brutally killed... but look where he was! What the heck was he doing on 125th street after midnight?! tsk, tsk, tsk.'
People who wouldn't dream of suggesting that Arab culture is dominated by hatred and death, or that Palestinians view every Jew as a legitimate target, were somehow able to do just that while taking the mental leap to allow a nice chunk of the blame to be shifted quite squarely onto the victim.
But like the younger version of myself who once-upon-a-time had made peace with not balancing my moral checkbook to the penny, many Israelis reading the article about the murder of Erez Levanon performed their own little bit of fuzzy moral accounting and ignored the inconvenient fact that the only way '125th street' could be 'fraught with dangers' is if you have sound reasons to expect dangerous/criminal behavior from the people who live there.
On the few occasions when I've had this very discussion with some of my more 'lefty' friends, they've invariably side-stepped my implied accusation by pointing an accusing finger at 'the occupation' as some sort of blanket justification for any aberrant behavior among a small group of otherwise peace-loving people.
When I have pursued the argument to the next logical question; 'So when someone sees an Arab at a checkpoint... entering a cafe... getting on a bus... or walking in the woods... how can they tell if this is a 'typical peace-loving Arab' or one of these rare dangerous ones?' At that point the discussion usually disintegrates into tangents about the evils of 'racism' and 'profiling'... with the result that I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to my question.
So I throw it out to you, a diverse group of the most reasonable people I know:
1. Can one reasonably claim that a place is inherently dangerous without acknowledging the source of the danger?
2. Is it worth making a meaningful distinction between an entire culture being violent and only a few bad actors in their midst acting in a predictably violent manner if the net result to society at large is the same?
3. Does the [hypothetical] existence of an educated, reasonable, peaceful majority of Arabs who are committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel really matter if they are completely powerless to curb the violence advocated by their leaders and carried out by a small minority of their people?
4. If you can't safely walk down 125th street after midnight, isn't that a problem worth fully acknowledging and maybe even addressing... or is it safer (physically and morally) to simply cede the night and the territory to those who would do you harm?
Monday, February 26, 2007
Hitting too close to home
The title of today's post is an expression that presumably* has its origins in some conflicted region where projectiles became worrisome to the residents only as they began to 'hit too close to home'. The unspoken assumption is that so long as the projectiles continued to fall far away and on someone else's home the situation could be considered somewhat less than emergent.
Israelis have raised the sentiment behind this expression to such an art-form that we, as a society, will tolerate nearly any attack or atrocity... so long as it doesn't hit physically or ideologically too close to home.
Our enemies have figured out that in the wake of suicide attacks or rocket strikes, the cries for retaliation (perception = irrational) are always strongest from the municipality that was hit... while the cries for restraint and diplomacy (perception = rational) are strongest from the areas that haven't been struck. The result is that a majority of the country will always appear reasonable in calling for restraint in the wake of attacks against geographically marginal targets and targets which reside on society's periphery.
Still not convinced? Then tell me why most shootings and knifings tend to be limited to members of society that are perhaps not universally loved (i.e religious and/or settlers) and most bombings take place in working class settings? Imagine the reaction if rocks were thrown at cars along the Ayalon Freeway or on 'Kvish 6'...if Molotov Cocktails were thrown at cars in Herzelia... or if young couples walking on Tel Aviv's beaches were shot at or stabbed with any regularity.
The overwhelming majority of targets selected by our enemies are in working class communities and/or on public transportation. It isn't just that these are easier targets to strike, but rather that the people directly affected in those locales are removed by several degrees of separation from the decision-makers in the Knesset and those who have the connections to lobby them for a response.
Think about the attacks that have stirred the government to action. They have been attacks on 'high value targets' with which a broad range of the population feels a connection (if not true empathy); hotels, tourist destinations and affluent metropolitan areas.
In fact, the only real 'everyman' target that our enemies continue to exploit with any regularity are members of the IDF. This is because terrorist actions against soldiers... specifically kidnapping... have such a paralyzing effect on the government... and so demoralize the population... that nearly any retaliation is worth the result.
A look at the prestige garnered by Hezbollah in the Lebanon war and the eventual number of prisoners Israel will almost certain swap for each kidnapped soldier (or even the bones of a soldier), is all that is necessary to understand the actuarial calculations performed by our enemies.
The military doctrine of our enemies can be neatly summed up in the following three points:
1. Attacks that 'hit too close to home' for too large a proportion of the population have a unifying effect and will elicit retaliation.
2. Attacks likely to divide the loyalties and/or sympathies of the population will be tolerated nearly indefinitely.
3. Attacks of increasing frequency and/or viciousness against targets described in #2 will be tolerated so long as they do not somehow stir the loyalties and/or sympathies described in #1.
This whole line of thought occurred to me as I woke to the news that a man about my age in a community near mine was murdered last night by a terrorist. On the surface it should have been a textbook no-no according to the accepted terrorist doctrine as the victim was a husband and father of three who was killed while in religion meditation/prayer. Change his religion to Christian or Muslim and the UN would already be convening the Human Rights Commission and Security Council to protest such an unprovoked atrocity.
But given that the victim was a religious settler killed in 'Occupied Territory', the world will never hear about him, and our government will take its lead from the 'reasonable majority' who's curiosity about the incident probably wouldn't warrant skimming the second paragraph of the article over their morning coffee and croissant.
Once upon a time Isrealis considered Israel their home, and each and every terror attack against Israelis, whether at home or abroad, was treated as an attack on the entire country. Retaliation was so swift and disproportionate that our enemies and those who funded / hosted them were forced to weigh the wisdom of every action and the cost/value of allowing their proteges to act.
Today our enemies perceive little or no danger in acting according to their accepted doctrine. A murderous attack such as was carried out last night may have a unifying affect on some small segment of the country who find themselves in close physical or ideological proximity to the victim. But because the majority of Israelis won't have perceived this bloody, unprovoked attack on a husband and father as having been 'too close to home', it will be tolerated and ultimately forgotten.
And our enemies will rejoice.
* Professional and/or amateur lexicographers and linguists may feel free to provide accurate provenance for the expression found in the title.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Zis title is evoking zeh feelings of, how you say... deja vu, non?
In a move that caught everyone completely by surprise [~snort~], French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy has pledged to recognise the new PA unity government before it is formed or has even stated its official policies towards Israel!
In his statement which essentially gives the PA complete carte blanche, Mr. Douste-Blazy said:
"If the government is formed according to the power-sharing deal worked out in Mecca last month, France will be ready to cooperate with it. And our country will plead on its behalf within the European Union and with other partners in the international community."
Aside from the obvious lack of trouble I'm having conjuring the mental image of France 'pleading', it is worth pointing out that this idiotic statement is in direct contradiction to the official 'wait and see' policy adopted by the European Union (of which France is a member) in the wake of the Mecca conference a few weeks ago.
The EU's rare coolness towards the latest Palestinian accords stems from Abbas' Fatah
gang party having apparently moved unilaterally towards Hamas' policy of non-recognition of Israel and token acknowledgment (but not adherence to) standing agreements between Israel and the PA. But the truth is, nobody... not even the Palestinians... knows for sure what the new PA government will look or act like.
But apparently it's never too soon for the Parisian government to start waving the white flag on their own - or anyone else's - behalf. As if any more proof was need to confirm France's slide into full-fledged Dhimitude (not to mention its open antipathy towards Israel), this un-prompted announcement is more than a little telling.
Personally, I can't wait for another summer of watching France's suburbs burn in riots perpetrated by the Fifth Republic's 'most loyal citizens' .
How do you say 'schadenfreude ' in French?
Update: In an unrelated bit of unintentional irony, Israeli Prime Minister has issued a statement urging the public to "stop beating up on police".
One can only assume (hope) that Olmert hadn't yet been informed of the results of the Zeiler commission published last week as he made the following public statement to
outgoing fired disgraced Police Commissionr Moshe Karadi:
"In my eyes, you are a decent, courageous man who has served the State of Israel for many years, and will continue to do even more for the State of Israel."
Apparently snuggling up to discredited personages and thugs is not exclusively a French trait. Seriously, you can't make this stuff up!
Thursday, February 22, 2007
One step at a time
"Diet & Exercise"
Those are the two ugly words that get tossed at me by my lovely wife (she of the regular Pilates and yoga work-outs) whenever I express dissatisfaction with my, er, 'shape'.
It's not that I've been living under a rock and somehow wasn't aware of this important formula... but it's still frustrating to have it thrown in my face since even if you add the prefixes; 'poor...' and 'lack of...' to those two magic words, they still cover a significant portion of my waking existence.
Think about it... to change the way you eat requires not only a drastic departure from well loved routines and menus, but also a change in planning and shopping so that the new, healthier food choices are always readily available when all you really want to shovel into your maw is 'crap'.
As to increasing the amount of physical activity one performs, that's far easier said than done. You see, most of us have little or no 'down time' in a typical day just waiting to be filled by some new exercise regimen. So finding time to exercise means foregoing something that we're already doing (and presumably find important).
Or does it?
I've mentioned on a few occasions that I look to a few online physicians (Book of Joe, Doctor Bean, Pyschotoddler and Dr. Albert Fuchs, to name a few) to help demystify some of the medspeak on the web... and to occasionally offer unsolicited advice on how to keep my aging carcass on the green side of the grass.
Well, a couple of months ago I noticed a little blurb on Dr. Fuch's site about a 'pedometer project' he was setting up for his patients, and I decided to send him an email to ask him what it was all about.
Long story short, he said that he was giving his patients pedometers (a tiny device one wears on their belt) so that they (and he) could monitor how far they walk, and (hopefully) use this new awareness to constantly increase the amount of walking they did.
It seemed like a brilliant idea to me. I mean, we all walk a little bit, don't we? The problem is that we don't really quantify this mundane activity so we don't count it as exercise.. It stands to reason that if you become acutely aware of how much you're walking... y'know, some concrete benchmark (i.e. how many steps you are taking in a given day, week or month), over time you will naturally want to make small improvements and constantly 'beat your record'.
I asked Dr. Fuch's if I could take part in the project, thinking that I would pick up a pedometer for myself at the local sporting goods store. But to my surprise he told me he would be happy to send me one. When I got back from my trip to India it was waiting on the kitchen table for me!
[Important Note: PLEASE don't ask him to send you a free pedometer. They are really cheap and every camping and sporting goods store on the planet carries a nice selection... so be a sport and go buy your own. The only reason he sent me - a non-patient - one is that I once carried him over the border from Tijuana on my back after he had passed out drunk in a little cantina we had been visiting together. Oh yeah, and I arranged to have his Mexican marriage annulled on the grounds that he wasn't technically awake when the wedding vows were exchanged.]
Having this tiny little plastic thingy clipped to my belt has given me a profound new awareness of when and how far I walk. Not only that... I find myself creating new excuses to walk where I might have otherwise put something off or combined it with another outing.
Every 15 days all the participants in the pedometer project email their results to the Doc (obviously it is run on the honor system) and at the end of each month he announces that month's winner.
Even without being enrolled in the project, I can't get over what a motivator it is having this tiny thing on my belt. You can get daily, weekly and even monthly readouts of steps taken or distance walked (in km or miles)... so as long as you somehow make note of your results on a regular basis, the motivation to constantly improve is built in!
Since putting this little device on my belt I have discovered all sorts of reasons to walk. I have also figured out that a stroll around the the perimeter of my company's campus is exactly 1 km... and takes less than 10 minutes to complete. I now do 'a loop' either before or after lunch and don't miss the time at all.
I don't know about any of you but in my experience, buying an expensive Nordic Track, elliptical trainer, Stair Master, treadmill or stationary bike is doomed to failure. Been there, done that, got the tee shirt! Sure, you use the thing like crazy when you first get it home... but our Nordic track served as a very handy coat and hat rack for most of the years we lived in Connecticut (not to mention that it took up valuable space that we couldn't really spare).
This tiny, nearly weightless, pedometer has done more to motivate me to get my fat arse out of my office chair during the day than all the exercise equipment I've ever owned... combined!
So consider this a resounding endorsement of pedometers in general... and of Dr. Fuchs in particular.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
I suppose the next step is pictures on milk cartons
While Israel certainly has it's share of 'real world' problems and has unwisely (IMHO) run headlong after some of the worst fashions and trends in western culture, there has always been the sense of innocence... and a blind faith that here in this tiny corner of the middle east that kids could be kids, at least until they reached army age and had to finally grow up.
Israeli children and teens have traditionally enjoyed an autonomy unheard of in the US since the 1950s. Kids here think nothing of taking buses, riding bikes and walking to distant friends after school and on weekends. And for a large portion of Israel's youth, hitchhiking is still a perfectly acceptable way to reach destinations, near and far.
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece entitled 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Holy Land' which was, admittedly, a wide-eyed American's take on this practical means of getting around the country. However one of the things I downplayed in that piece was the inherent danger involved.
In early January, 18-year-old Maayan Ben Chorin, a high school senior from a small town in the north, was reported missing by her parents. During the couple of days leading up to the discovery of her body, friends and eye-witnesses aided the police in piecing together her last known movements... and the one thing that became fairly clear was that she had been hitchhiking.
Besides the obvious shock of a young woman being brutally murdered, I sensed an undercurrent of dismay as the country was once again reminded that hitchhiking was no longer the wholesome, carefree convenience it had once been in the early days of the state.
For many years now it has been illegal for Israeli soldiers to hitchhike. But it has remained an open secret that many conscripts from remote parts of the country relying only on 'authorized' means would never be able to reach their destinations before public transportation (buses and trains) shut down for shabbat... and that they would never be able to return to their bases on Sunday morning in time to avoid a 'mishpat' for being late unless they made use of 'less-than-kosher' conveyance.
Therefore, it is safe to assume that hitchhiking is tolerated... and even expected... by the IDF.
But despite the obvious dangers inherent in getting into strange cars and traveling through remote, uninhabited areas... many rural and suburban teens (and even pre-teens) still apparently rely heavily on the kindness of strangers to get from point 'A' to point 'B'.
Such was apparently the case with the unfortunate Maayan Ben Chorin (Z"L).
She first caught a ride with one of her teachers who dropped her at a gas station near the entrance to an Israeli Arab village. She then caught a second 'tremp' in the direction of a remote farm where she intended to apply for a job. She was apparently dropped by the second driver at the head of a long unpaved road down which she would have to walk in order to reach her destination.
According to police forensic sources and the confession of her killer, she met her end after walking only about 700 meters down this lonely dirt track.
Here's where I start to wonder at the wisdom... not of the young hitchhiker... but of those who were nice enough to give her a ride.
I suppose one can give her teacher a partial pass for at least dropping Maayan at a gas station since it is a public place with cars coming and going all the time. The fact that it was near an Arab village might, in retrospect, trouble some people reading this... but it is my understanding that this isn't such a sticking point as the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the north of the country are somewhat more cordial than, say, near my home in the Judean hills.
However, in my mind, the driver who took her from the gas station and dropped her in the middle of nowhere at the head of a dirt track has to bear at least some of the responsibility for the events that followed. Obviously the real blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the man who actually killed her... but there is plenty of peripheral blame to be shared around.
Nearly every day during my commute through the south Hevron hills and northern Negev desert I pick up and drop off hitchhikers. Some of them call me in advance for rides, but a lot of them are simply people that I find waiting at intersections and bus stops along my route.
You can read my earlier piece if you are curious about Israeli hitchhiking etiquette, as I don't want to revisit it here. What troubles me is that few of the drivers, nor the hitchhikers themselves, seem to have adjusted their mentality to the unfortunate dangers that now exist on and near the roads.
Countless actual and attempted kidnappings have taken place at such hitchhiking posts, and roadside shootings and stabbings have become so commonplace as to sometimes not warrant media coverage. Yet I still find young men and women standing alone, quite literally in the middle of nowhere waiting for someone like me to come along and pick them up.
I have a policy that if someone asks to be let off at a remote intersection or bus stop I will always take them down the road to the nearest town, settlement or army check-point. This is more than a courtesy... it is common sense. I wouldn't let my own children off in a setting where they were vulnerable to any passing danger... why would I potentially put someone else's children in harm's way?
I take a small measure of comfort in the expert and timely police forensic work that led to the capture of a suspect whose DNA is apparently a match to tissue found under the victim's nails. But I hope that my countrymen (and their children) will take a lesson in common sense from the events that led up to this tragedy and adjust their hitchhiking habits accordingly.
Yes, it is sad when a country loses the last vestiges of its innocence to tragedies like this. But unless we wake up and take the necessary precautions for ourselves and our children... the age of pictures on milk cartons probably won't be too far in Israel's future.
Note: All of my knowledge about the case comes from news sources such as this one.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
A breach of trust
When 40% of a country's citizens respond in the negative to the simple polling question: "Do you trust the national police?", you have a problem on your hands!
One can argue that 'trust' is an extremely broad and subjective term and means different things to different people. To some, 'trust' is synonymous with 'honesty'. To others it is more closely related to 'reliability' (think of those team-building exercises where you have to fall backwards with your eyes closed while a coworker standing behind you [hopefully] catches you). Still others associate the word 'trust' with a sacred obligation or even faith.
However, when you ask a statistically significant sample of Israelis if they trust the police and 40% say 'no!'... you can't entirely argue away the results on the basis of semantics.
You see, regardless of which definition of 'trust' you subscribe to, in order to do their job effectively, the police MUST be trusted by the public they serve and protect. Without that trust, the police can only impose their will on the public through brute force in something disturbingly similar to marshal law; a veritable police state.
Even more importantly, since the police's power flows from the government... if citizens don't trust the police, they are essentially saying they don't trust the government.
In an era when nearly every corner of the Israeli plutocracy we call the Knesset is riddled with scandal and corruption, one would at least hope that the 'everyman' of society - the cops - would remain a force for good and above suspicion. But the recent report issued by the Zeiler Commission delivered a scathing picture of an organization rotting from the top down.
At first it appeared that the inevitable shake-up (what some media outlets dramatically referred to as 'an earthquake') in the senior echelons of the Israeli Police might actually give that force an opportunity to restore some of the lost public trust. However within hours of the most senior heads rolling, a startling disappointment was handed to anyone who had hoped for something... anything... other than 'business as usual. I'm referring, of course, to the naming of Yaakov Ganot to replace the disgraced Chief Karadi.
What the country sorely needed after such a revelation of police corruption and breach of trust was a candidate for the top spot who was completely beyond reproach... someone cleaner than the driven snow... a Mother Theresa with a badge. The problem (for those who haven't been following the news) is that the person selected as the new head of the national police was, himself charged with several forms of corruption several years ago when he was serving in a command position in the north of the country. He was ultimately acquitted of the charges by the skin of his teeth, based on reasonable doubt... but was far from vindicated.
Here's the 'Cliff Notes' version of the whole sordid tale from the Jerusalem Post*:
"Ganot was tried in Nazareth District Court on counts of accepting a bribe, fraud and breach of trust. He was originally accused of seven separate offenses. The first four had to do with accepting favors in the form of house renovations provided free of charge or for a low fee from Israeli-Arab contractor Subhi Tanus during the summer of 1992.
According to the fifth charge, Tanus threw a party for Ganot at his home when Ganot was appointed commander of the Northern Police District. According to the sixth charge, Tanus's company painted the exterior of Ganot's house for a low fee. The seventh charge had to do with allegations that Ganot had used a police subordinate to provide personal services for him.
In return for the favors allegedly provided by Tanus, Ganot supposedly provided him with protection when he got into trouble with the law.
The state subsequently dropped the first and fourth charges, and the District Court acquitted him of the rest.
The state then appealed to the Supreme Court. In a two-to-one decision, the court upheld the lower court ruling.
However, Justice Ya'acov Kedmi voted to convict Ganot of breach of faith - the fifth charge - involving the party held for Ganot, while the majority, justices Eliezer Goldberg and Yitzhak Zamir, wrote with regard to the bribery charges that while it was customary not to interfere with the lower court's interpretation of the facts, they had found the state's case to be persuasive, and had they been presiding over the trial, they might have ruled differently."
Not a pretty picture is it... and far from one which might inspire trust among the citizenry.
Considering how demoralized the Israeli public is at seeing blatant and unapologetic dishonesty and corruption at every level of government, it is shameful that Avi Dichter made an appointment guaranteed to further erode any semblance of trust that might remain.
I hold out a glimmer of hope that Ganot's appointment might be quashed or set aside by some legal maneuvering (there are already several legal challenges)... but at this point my trust that the system will work for anything but it's own cynical self-perpetuation is a flickering flame in a windstorm.
And as Forrest Gump would say; 'That's all I have to say about that'.
Monday, February 19, 2007
Wisdom from unlikely sources
One of the difficult aspects of making aliyah is the inevitable process of parting from friends and family. Of course phones, video-chatting and the elusive promise of discount air-fares help take some of the sting out of this leave-taking... but the truth is that the physical distance can't help but impact one's most precious relationships.
Among our closest friends in Connecticut were the Rabbi of our synagogue and his wife. Our kids were also quite close with theirs, and the proximity of their house quite literally 'right around the corner' made for an effortless, comfortable friendship.
As luck would have it, just when we were putting our aliyah plans onto the fast-track and worrying about how to begin the process of telling our friends, the Rabbi and his wife confided in us that he had accepted a 'pulpit' out of state and that they would actually be leaving before us.
I have to admit that watching them packing up their belongings and putting their house on the market was less painful for us since we were sharing many of the 'moving pains' and could commiserate with them over the things we would both miss about the wonderful community we had shared for so many years.
One poignant story from this period that sticks in my mind was related to me by the Rabbi shortly before they moved. It occurred while the movers were packing up the truck with our friends' belongings which had been lovingly packed into countless cardboard boxes over the previous weeks.
Midway through the process of loading the truck the Rabbi walked into his house and met one of the movers carrying a large box that was obviously quite heavy. The mover asked, "Hey Rabbi, what's in this one? It weighs a ton!" The Rabbi took a quick look at the code he and his wife had written on the box in 'magic marker' (to help ensure the myriad boxes would end up in the proper room in their new house) and replied, "Oh those are just some of my books."
The mover paused in mid stride... a sad, knowing smile on his face, and said "Well wouldn't you know it... my mama was right after all. She was always on me about books. She said 'if you don't read them, you'll end up carrying them'. He then shuffled off towards the truck, swaying under the weight of the boxed volumes.
There are countless lessons one could take from this story... but chief among them is probably, 'Listen to your mother'.
[If my old Rabbi/friend is reading this, please know that we think of you often and miss you and your family deeply. Oh, and in case you were wondering what inspired this post today... pitchers and catchers reported for spring training this week. Bring it on. :-) ]
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Buttons and Baskets
Two opportunities to do good today:
First up is a project that the 7th grade class at my daughter's school has undertaken with the goal of collecting 1.5 million buttons corresponding to the approximately 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust.
- A button is a basic component for clothes; however each button has a unique shape and color. This reminds us of the special uniqueness of every child who perished.
- A button can close a jacket and protect us. This reminds us of the protection which was lacking for those children who perished.
- A button is circular, which reminds us of the life cycle and that these children ending their cycles too soon.
- A button is whole and complete. The Nazis uprooted children from the families and home and made their lives torn and incomplete.
The kids in my daughter's class are about two-thirds of the way to realizing their goal and are broadening their search for buttons to the international community for the final push.
That's where you come in.
Please check to see if there are buttons attached to any of those old shirts and dresses that you've consigned to the rag bin at your house (or which you are about to throw away). Even a few buttons will be welcome!
Please send the buttons to:
Asseh Chayil Elementary School
1 1/2 million buttons project
The Gefen Hill
The next project is perhaps a bit less esoteric... but every bit as important:
You may remember last summer that I was involved in the great Zionist Underwear Drive which delivered much needed underwear and socks to reservists who had been called up to fight in the Lebanon war but who had no way to wash or replace their, um, soiled skivvies.
You guys came through in a spectacular way... resulting in several car/truck loads of these essential undergarments being delivered to staging points along the northern border. This program was managed by the very worthwhile organization; Standing Together.
This campaign, known as 'Purim Together', serves as a practical and simple way to demonstrate your solidarity, support and appreciation of Israel's young soldiers. This is a wonderful way to show Israel's young heroes how much you care.
Just as with the Zionist Underwear Drive, I will be volunteering to drive some of the goodies. I'll be dropping off some of the Mishloach Manot baskets to the troops stationed along my drive to work (Gush Etzion, South Hevron Hills and northern Negev).
The goal is to send 50,000 Mishloach Manot packages. About 30,000 have already been committed by the 'Friends of the IDF in Israel', and they are looking for the support of your schools, synagogues and communities for the additional 20,000.
This project provides a terrific opportunity to express your support and commitment to Israel, her people and her defenders. It is operated by Standing Together and the Friends of the IDF in Israel, as a philanthropic project, and is not a business venture [Ed. note: Unlike some of the ads you may see on various websites].
There are a couple of ways you can help:
Click here to download the Purim Together Color Flyer. Click here to download the Purim Together Black and White Flyer. These are ready for you to distribute to your synagogue, organization and all your contacts.
Click here to make your donation for Purim Mishloach Baskets.
OK, that's it for today. Whether you pick buttons or baskets (or both), I applaud you for your generosity.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
smallest coldest room in the place
Remember that unfortunate kid at the school bus stop who somehow got tricked into licking the lamp post on a sub-freezing day in late January? Remember the results? Whether you recall - or perhaps were - that poor kid, you certainly understand the concept of tender flesh hopelessly frozen to an immovable object, right?
Israel has a different take on this cruel game. You see, bathrooms - what we Anglos euphemistically refer to as 'the smallest room in the place' - are actually the coldest room in any Israeli establishment.
You can be dining in the most upscale restaurant or catering hall, replete with carved marble accents and richly inlaid parquet floors... but when you walk into the bathroom it is as though you've been teleported to Siberia!
The first frigid breath you take in the arctic confines of a typical Israeli public restroom actually hurts your lungs and makes all but the most hardy souls rethink the whole idea of 'dropping-trau' (or raising skirt, as the case may be). Invariably, whatever call of nature compelled you to visit the bathroom in the first place evaporates instantly in the face of something more reminiscent of 'The Call of the Wild'.
The dilemma is only slightly less less vexing for men since a good percentage of the time we can, er, take care of business without exposing too much flesh to frostbite. But OMG, the girls... I honestly don't know how they do it!
I have asked a few people about this phenomenon and have gotten the following wild guesses as to the reasons behind it:
1. Manpower: Fewer people actually using the frozen facilities = less clean-up for the staff.
2. Hygiene: Germs and bacteria normal extant in the petri dishes known as public bathrooms can't survive in sub-zero temperatures.
3. Frugality - It costs so much to heat the rest of the joint that they try to save money by not heating the bathrooms (this one doesn't pass muster since in most places the bathroom windows are deliberately left wide open!)
4. Life Preparation: Maybe the reason Israelis are such a hardy lot is that after years of using frosty public bathrooms, an army latrine doesn't seem quite so daunting.
Feel free to share your own experiences or theories concerning Israeli public bathrooms.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Boys with Boobs
I have to admit that there's a small, uncouth part of me that is perversely interested to see what kind of miscreants Google will dump at my doorstep as a result of that title (not to mention the inevitable scolding I'm bound to receive in my next emailed missive from Dame Joan). :-)
I recently read a titillating story [sorry, I couldn't resist] over at the website of a physician friend (Albert Fuchs, M.D.) about the potential dangers of using products containing lavender and tea tree oils.
Dr. Fuchs points out (quite correctly) that many people who would normally do extensive research about side affects and contra-indications before taking any prescription medication will often use products containing natural substances without the slightest concern for the product's potential safety or efficacy.
The story itself (which he found in The New England Journal of Medicine) was about three prepubescent boys who experienced breast tissue enlargement... a condition known as gynecomastia (thus the title of this post) after using supposedly 'safe' natural products.
Here's the important part in his own words:
Detailed questioning revealed that all three boys were using topical products containing lavender oil or lavender and tea tree oil. One boy’s mother was regularly applying a balm containing lavender oil on his skin. The second boy was using a hair styling gel and a shampoo both of which contained lavender oil and tea tree oil. The third boy was using lavender-scented soap and lavender-scented skin lotions. All three boys’ gynecomastia resolved after discontinuation of these products.
But the real money quote (IMHO) was the following:
Testing in the laboratory of lavender oil and tea tree oil on human breast tissue showed that these oils have estrogen-like effects.
That stampede-like sound you hear is millions of um, athletic women running to the store to buy creams and moisturizers containing lavender and tea tree oils... only because they're like, totally into the scent, mind you.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
The colossal arrogance of an 'E.R.' junkie
[Any physicians out there can feel free to distribute and/or link to the following cautionary tale]
It likely started the same year I was born with 'Dr. Kildare', and progressed through scores of other shows like 'Marcus Welby, M.D.', 'Quincy', 'St. Elsewhere'... culminating with sophisticated medical dramas such as 'Chicago Hope', 'E.R.' and the diagnostic equivalent of CSI; 'House'.
By 'it' I'm not referring to medical entertainment... but rather to a growing suspicion (and arrogance) among the TV-viewing public that we know a thing or two about medicine.
For the record, we don't.
First the troubling stuff:
I was talking on the phone with my dad a couple of evenings ago and he was recounting some innocuous details about his day. Almost as an afterthought he added:
"Oh, I wanted to tell you about something strange that happened earlier. Mom had to go over to the hair dresser so I went home to check on the dogs and have a rest. After only 15 or 20 minutes at home I realized I had forgotten to go pick up the results of a medical test and the doctor's office was going to be closing soon. So I got up to get ready to go back out. But when I stood up I realized that I was having trouble seeing out of one eye."
Now, I have to stop the story here to explain that my dad is legally blind and has only minimal sight in either eye... and I half-jokingly reminded him of this.
"No", he continued, "I mean it was much worse than usual. It was so bad that as I walked to the doctor's office I couldn't see the dial of my watch, much less the usual landmarks I use to navigate my route. In fact it was so bad that I had to wait for other people to cross the street or I wouldn't have had any idea when it was safe to cross!"
By now the hair on the back of my neck was starting to stand up as my mind started to collect and catalog all the information I've gleaned from my years as an E.R. junkie.
As sat in front of my computer listening to him talk, my fingers began feverishly Googling 'stroke symptoms' and the rest of my hair (what little I have) stood up as I saw the list of classic stroke symptoms which included: "blurring or loss of vision in one or both eyes".
At that point I shared my suspicions and told my dad to put the phone on speaker and lay it on the table so both he and mom could hear me. Then, reading off my computer monitor, I told him to smile and asked my mom if his smile was even on both sides. (It was.)
Next I told him to stick out his tongue and move it from one side of his mouth to the other, asking my mom if it had traveled evenly to both extremes of his mouth. (It had.)
The last test I was going to ask him to perform was to say a simple sentence in order to check for slurred speech, but I had been talking with him for almost ten minutes and his diction was crystal clear.
But my eyes kept going back to that item on my computer screen about 'loss or blurring of vision' and I again shared my fear/amateur diagnosis that he had likely suffered a small stroke and that it was important that he get to a hospital as soon as possible to be evaluated.
Everyone reading this... please take note of this next bit so you are never, ever tempted to do anything this bone-headed. You see, it was at that exact point in time where I ceased helping and began to make and compound mistake after arrogant mistake.
There are patterns of behavior between parents and children that never, ever change no matter how old/mature the individuals and relationships become. Among those patterns is the certainty of all parents that they know better than their children.
My parents immediately began 'pooh-poohing' my suggestion to go to the hospital, insisting that dad's eyesight was almost completely back to normal (at least normal for him, anyway). Furthermore [they argued], it was late and they were already in their pajamas having a late dinner.
I started to waffle [stupid, stupid, stupid!] and instead of insisting that they call an ambulance (as new immigrants they didn't even know that dialing 101 would summon emergency transportation to the hospital of their choice), I began second guessing myself . I asked [idiotically] if they were sure his vision was pretty much back to normal, and they insisted that it was.
I then misread a passage on a web site about strokes and heart attacks and told him I would speak with him again before he went to bed, but in the mean time he should take a few baby aspirin [colossally, DANGEROUSLY, stupid!]. In fact, had I not been so rattled I would have read more carefully and noticed that aspirin was indicated before, and sometimes after strokes... but NEVER DURING!!!
You see, there are two different kinds of strokes; ischemic, which are caused by blockage of blood vessels in or leading to the brain... and hemorrhagic, which are caused by rupturing of blood vessels in, or near the brain. If my father had been suffering a hemorrhagic stroke, my arrogant advice would have probably doomed him right there and then.
I reluctantly let them off the phone and promised to speak to dad before bed time.
As the evening passed I did more 'research' on the web. But for some reason the more I read indicating that my dad should already have been in the hospital being evaluated... the more I tried to rationalize my having given in to their reluctance to get dressed and call an ambulance.
By the time bedtime rolled around and I spoke with my dad again, I had fully convinced myself that since his eyesight was completely back to normal that everything was fine. [idiot!]
I let him off the phone after extracting a promise that he would see a doctor the next day. [complete idiot!!!]
In hindsight, no matter how well-intended my advice may have been, it is only through sheer dumb luck that I didn't kill my father through a deadly combination of arrogance, ignorance and confidence in my diagnostic skills!
Over the next couple of days my father did see a several physicians as promised, and although he still has several tests to be performed, the results so far indicate that he probably did, in fact, suffer a 'mini-stroke'.
Trust me when I tell you that there is absolutely no satisfaction in hearing my arrogant amateur diagnosis confirmed by a professional member of the field. It just makes me sick. You see I have since read most of the stroke related websites with calmer eyes and better retention.... and first and foremost, I was an an imbecile to have relented over the issue of going to the hospital.
I was also criminally negligent (if a layman can be guilty of such a thing) for suggesting he take a couple of aspirin and call the doctor in the morning [how idiotically, criminally cliche!].
In fact, if I had placed a revolver with 5 loaded chambers against my father's head and pulled the trigger, his odds of survival would have been only slightly worse than with the aspirin I 'prescribed' since statistically roughly 20% of strokes are hemorrhagic... and aspirin's blood thinning properties could have sped this type of stroke towards it's terrible conclusion rather than lessening the symptoms.
What I now know from my reading (and which I have related to both of my parents) is that the biggest risk factor for strokes is HAVING ALREADY SUFFERED ONE!
I told my parents in no uncertain terms what an idiot I had been for backing down instead of calling the ambulance myself and sending dad to the hospital the other night. I also told them that now, more than ever, they need to be aware of all possible signs of a stroke.
I have told my mom to ask their doctor what signs to look for (and write them down) since in some cases my dad might not notice subtle things such a slurring of speech, asymmetrical drooping of facial features, etc..
I also told them that in spite of my bumbling, they had dodged a huge bullet the other night. However, when they decided to pooh-pooh that one, isolated symptom (vision loss) instead of dialing 101, the 'coin' they tossed could have very easily come up 'tails'. There could be no more such foolishness [they've both agreed].
Now that I know that my dad has no lingering signs of his brush with tragedy and that Israel's wonderful socialized medical system is running an incredible battery of tests and evaluations on him (prodded along with a little gentle help from our modest 'protexia' in the medical community), I can breath just a tiny bit easier.
But the shame and guilt I feel over the tragedy I almost caused with my arrogant confidence in TV medical knowledge is something that will be with me for a very, very long time to come.
Monday, February 12, 2007
OK, maybe a tiny bit odd
[Warning: This post will almost certainly bore you to tears. However there's a joke at the end so it might possibly be worth the slog]
There are bound to be times in every marriage where one half of the couple will look at the other in frank amazement and silently wonder 'what the hell was I thinking?'
I'm sure my wife has had more than a few of these moments, but if one were to look for one of the themes that has topped the list of 'David's odd fascinations', Stanley Kubrik's masterpiece film '2001 A Space Oddysey' would have to rate high on the wierdness scale. If you haven't seen it you have missed out on one of life's important experiences.
This fascination goes back a looong way.
When I was attending University, the library had a whole bank of cute Macintosh computers (yes, we had computers back then... albeit primitive ones). I found it endlessly entertaining that you could change the sounds for pretty much any event on these Apple computers. Guess what I changed some of them to?
You see, in addition to the standard menu of default sounds with which every Mac person is familiar, I stumbled across a collection of 2001 A Space Odyssey-themed 'event sounds' that someone had loaded onto the machine I usually used. Needless to say, I set up the computer to employ many of these sound clips.
For instance, when the computer would first boot up it would say:
"Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it I can sing it for you."
Also, instead the default error sound, I set the computer to use the HAL 9000's voice saying "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that", whenever I inadvertantly tried to perfrom a function that wasn't allowed.
Admittedly, it wierded out some of the other students (remember this was still the dawn of the computer age) to the point that they often avoided this machine... but as more and more demand was placed on these handy little computers for word processing and such, this was definately a plus for me.
Why have I bored you to tears with all this today?
It's because I am shopping for something to replace my cell phone's long-standing ring tone (the current one is still 'La Valse D'Amelie' from the film Amélie) and I really, REALLY want to get my hands on one of those old '2001 A Space Odyssey' clips. The problem is that I haven't been able to find them anywhere.
Back in June when I wrote about Israelis and their cell phones I mentioned in passing in the comments that I had a 'jones' for a 2001-themed ringtone, one of my faithful readers sent me a link to an online program that would adapt pretty much any sound file to pretty much any polyphonic phone. However - surprise, surprise - Mr. organiziation over here misplaced it.
So I'm asking: Can anyone help me out?
Anyhoo... you've been very patient with me so here's your reward (a joke a recieved from my friend Heshy):
Why men make better friends:
Friendship Between Women:
A woman didn't come home one night.
The next day she told her husband that she had slept over at a friend's house.
The man called his wife's 10 best friends. None of them knew about it.
Friendship Between Men:
A man didn't come home one night.
The next day he told his wife that he had slept over at a friend's house.
The woman called her husband's 10 best friends.
Eight of them confirmed that he had slept over, and two claimed that he was still there.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
"Not now... I'm on the phone with...
Prime Minister Netanyahu."
Former Prime Minister Netanyahu."
The above serious of whispered mis-steps were all attempted before I could make myself understood to a coworker who had poked her head into my office on Thursday evening.
Clearly I haven't lived in Israel long enough, because I was truly torn over how best to refer to (and address) a former Prime Minister. Whether simply describing the person on the other end of the phone or actually addressing the man, any native born Israeli would have simply started with "I'm on the phone with Bibi".
But having been raised in a culture where former heads of state retain their title up to and including the day they are lying in state on the cold hard catafalque in the Capitol Rotunda, I was stumped.
OK, I'm rambling so perhaps I should back up a bit.
On Thursday evening I was invited by the nice folks at One Jerusalem to participate in a conference call with Former Pri... er, well, you know who it was... never mind that. I had planned on being home in time to call in to the conference center... but I was at work so late that I simply clocked out and went back to my office to call in. It was while I was on the call that my coworker poked in her head.
Anyway... while One Jerusalem tends to have extremely compelling/interesting guests on these conference calls, I only accept their invitations when I am deeply interested in the topic... the person... or both. This is because I know there are always many more participants than allocated time for questions... so why not let those with a keen interest have their say?
The last call I joined was with Natan Shcharansky... who, in my humble opinion, is the only person in Israeli politics today with the stature and personal integrity to be elected President. Unfortunately nobody raised the issue of his potential candidacy on the call [~kicks self~].
Thursday's call was of special interest to me because I have been flip-flopping for years in my feelings about 'Bibi'.
On the one hand I think he is arguably Israel's premier spokesperson to the world. Nobody else seems to be able to state Israel's case to the international media as clearly and unapologetically as he does without sounding either arrogant or belligerent.
It's not just that he speaks English like the American educated career diplomat that he is... but also that he seems to be entirely comfortable with his (and Israel's) position when taking questions and making public remarks.
Other Israeli politicians who have made the rounds of the talk shows seem to be either overly defensive in their posture or aloof to what is being whispered about Israel in the news and diplomatic circles. Thus, they are easily surprised/tricked into taking too a strong stand where a simple statement would do.
However, it seems a shame to waste such a bright guy in the 'perennial Foreign Minister' slot.
Also, I freely admit to being troubled by Bibi's real and alleged personal foibles. While I don't think he is quite as dirty as most of Israel's current crop of political A-Listers, he certainly has his hands dirty most of the way to the elbows.
Call me naive if you wish... as it may simply be impossible to advance within Israel's political structure without wading into the mud... but my perception is that Bibi hasn't wallowed into the filth quite as deeply as some of the current crop of
defendants indicted political leaders.
So, the character issues aside, here are some of the things I liked and disliked about the man before the conference call:
Bibi is tough on Security. And don't give me any crap about how he 'sold out' on security while he was PM (as one of the people on the conference call did). He inherited a fatally flawed document in the form of the Oslo Accords. Those who are now keening over the possibility that the PA unity government may not honor previous diplomatic obligations with Israel need to remember that continuity of legal/diplomatic obligations' is a knife that cuts both ways.
Bibi is one of the few Israeli politicians who has not waffled on the need for the Palestinians to show some shred of good faith (e.g. unequivocally recognizing Israel, renouncing terror, dismantling the militias, stopping attacks, etc.) before Israel gives away anything else. This is the important difference between the simple ability to negotiate from a position of strength and the tendency to bend over and clutch one's ankles each and every time a negotiating table comes into view.
I also find Bibi to be reasonably pragmatic. Few ideologies can survive form outside the rarefied air of party headquarters without some form of compromise. Where necessary, I like that Bibi has a clear sense of how far he can reasonably 'put out' without becoming the class slut.
As a religious settler I can honestly say that if someone has to make difficult concessions about the future of the territories, I would rather it be someone who has thought about the ramifications rather than some self-interested hack who is simply courting the liberal electorate.
Another thing I like about Bibi may ring sour to western ears... but I think that until Israel has the luxury of a few decades of peace (or at least relative quiet) under its belt, the head of our government must have some serious military, defense and/or intelligence experience and credibility. I'm not talking about an African, Asian or South American-style military strong man... just someone who knows a bit more than that it's the pointy end of the M16 that should be aimed at the enemy. Bibi having served in the Sayeret Matkal (one of the most elite of Israel's commando units) is - IMHO - a point in his favor.
As I've already mentioned, Bibi isn't exactly squeaky clean on the whole character issue. I don't know how many qualified candidates for the top slot really are ... but still, it would be nice to have a leader who might have the luxury of spending some of his time actually leading the country instead of doing damage control over the scandal du jour.
Another liability which isn't widely acknowledged is that while his economic policies as Finance Minister were extremely effective (and are largely responsible for our current economic stability), he was aptly seen as not having been sensitive enough to the needs of Israel's under-classes.
I admit it, I'm a fiscal lefty and proud of it. I'm not entirely comfortable with Israel's socialist roots but I feel strongly that it is a government's duty to maintain a safety net for certain groups such as single parents, large poor families, the disabled and the unemployed.
The difficult part is creating economic policy that is just enough to protect the most vulnerable elements of society while defending against those who might find life in the safety net more attractive then the prospect of climbing back up onto the trapeze.
So... back to the conference call.
The lion's share of the discussion was, predictably, dominated by the Iran issue... a hot-button topic that Bibi is currently
flogging discussing with groups and leaders abroad.
On the one hand, I was pleased to hear Bibi compare the world's current complacency with Iran to the policy of appeasement Germany enjoyed in the years before WWII. I was also interested to hear him suggest some interesting measures that might be employed against Iran such as economic isolation/sanctions.
However, I was disappointed that nobody thought to test his WWII analogy and suggestion of economic isolation with the obvious complication that it was partly the policy of economic isolation that contributed to, if not Germany's, then at least Japan's decision to lash out.
But barring that, I liked that Bibi wasn't simply tossing around empty rhetoric about how the world should fear a nuclear Iran. He was at least exploring theories of how best to prevent that specter from becoming a reality.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge a couple of other bloggers:
Oceanguy, who (thanks to my self-introduction on the call) now knows how to pronounce my name... and Soccer Dad who emailed me immediately after the call ended to compliment me on the direction my question led Bibi's train of thought.
You can hear the whole (albeit brief) conference call here.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
The rental cello... an Israeli story
[Some stories just have to be shared... this is one of those.]
My company recently finished a long and complex project in which we had partnered with a German company. This project required several engineers and specialists from the German company to spend extended periods of time here in Israel.
On one such scheduled visit that was to last three weeks, one of the German engineers decided he wanted to bring his 13-year-old daughter along with him. It would be a mini-vacation for her, and he figured she would keep him company in this strange desert city of Beer Sheva.
However, as this German engineer was preparing for the trip, a problem arose. It seems his daughter is an accomplished cellist and was scheduled to perform at a festival two weeks after they returned to Europe... so she would need to practice daily while she was in Israel. The problem was that her instrument was extremely valuable and their insurance company wouldn't cover it in a 'war zone'.
The German engineer contacted my coworker and explained the situation... and asked if there was anywhere in Beer Sheva to rent a cello for three weeks.
My coworker did some asking around and quickly discovered that finding a rental cello in Beer Sheva would be only slightly less likely than finding a lake... so he expanded his search. After umpteen phone calls to friends and associates he finally received a lead... the phone number of a place in Jerusalem that repairs violins.
He called the repair shop and spoke with a pleasant individual who owned and managed the place. The problem was presented and the question asked: 'Did he have a cello that could be rented to the young visiting musician for three weeks?'
Without missing a beat, the repair shop owner replied that it shouldn't be a problem, and gave directions to his shop. My coworker promptly relayed the news to Germany via email and the plans for the father-and-daughter trip went forward.
Fast-forward a few weeks.
The day the German engineer and his daughter arrived in Israel my coworker and his family hosted the two visitors at their home for dinner. Over the meal it was agreed that they would drive to the Jerusalem workshop the next day to pick up the rental cello.
The hour-and-a-half drive to Israel's capitol went smoothly and by late morning they were all standing in the 'violin repair shop' chatting with the owner... a mid-thirty-ish Israeli with a ponytail.
In truth the place was far more than a violin repair shop. It was a workshop filled with violins, violas, cellos and double basses. Repair was only a tiny portion of what went on in this shop as the owner was the third or fourth generation in his family who had been crafting and repairing classical string instruments by hand.
Every wall, nook and cranny was filled with stringed instruments of every type and vintage...the smell of wood and lacquer were heavy in the air... wood shavings littered the floor... and several work tables were strewn with components of unfinished instruments.
The owner of the shop brought my coworker and the two German guests tea and asked how he could be of assistance. My coworker reminded him of their phone conversation and all attention turned to the young woman in need of a practice cello.
The owner sized her up with his eyes and grabbed a cello that had been standing in an open case near his workbench. "Try this one to see if it's a fit" he said in a mishmash of English and German, handing her the instrument.
The young German girl sat down and began to expertly tune the cello and rosin the offered bow. After making a small adjustment to the height of the bottom peg she began to play one of the Bach Cello Suites. The instrument sang beautifully in her hands and the owner looked on appreciatively... clearly surprised at the young musician's skill.
After a few minutes he stopped her and had her try two other cellos... one which was slightly larger and finally a third that seemed older than the first two.
When she began to play the third cello the room was suddenly filled to overflowing with the sound coming from the instrument. The first two cellos had sounded nice to my coworker's untrained ears, but the third seemed to make everything in the room vibrate and resonate with each note played.
The girl stopped abruptly and stared in disbelief at the instrument. A few rushed words in German were translated to English by the engineer and then into Hebrew by my coworker for the shop owner:
"What kind of cello is this? I've never heard or felt music like this in all my years of playing!"
The owner of the shop beamed with pride and replied that it was nearly 300 years old and was one of his favorites. In fact, it was normally kept locked away and the only reason it was out on the shop floor was that he liked to make sure all the instruments were inspected and played regularly. He explained that he had just finished making a small adjustment to the placement of the bridge under the strings and was preparing to put it away when they had arrived.
In a very business-like manner the owner said with finality that this was the instrument she must use while she was visiting Israel. The father hesitated a bit and began to politely protest at the idea of taking responsibility for such an old and valuable instrument... and clearly he was worried about what kind of rental fee such an instrument would command.
The owner waved off the objections and told him to take the instrument for his daughter. "After all", he reasoned, "she has a festival to perform in, so she needs to practice on an instrument worthy of her skills."
All attempts by the German engineer to fix a price for the rental were waved off by the owner. The only thing he would say was "We can talk about money when you come back in three weeks".
Being unused to the informality of Israeli business practices, the German really wanted to sign something or at least leave his credit card information, but the shop owner waved all this off and simply ushered the group - including the beaming young cellist now holding the instrument in its case - to the door and wished them a good day.
The three week visit passed quickly and on the day before they were scheduled to leave, the German engineer asked my coworker if he would take them to Jerusalem again and act as translator/adviser when they returned the cello.
When the three of them walked into the Jerusalem workshop together the owner greeted them like family and asked how the practicing had gone. The young cellist gushed in a combination of German and English over how much she had enjoyed playing the instrument. Again - as when she had first complimented the cello - the owner of the shop beamed like a proud father.
After a little small talk over tea, the German engineer whispered nervously to my coworker that it was really time to set the price for the rental and be on their way. My coworker dutifully asked the shop owner several different ways in Hebrew about the cost of the cello rental... but after each attempt, the conversation wandered off track leaving the question unanswered.
Finally, in frustration, my coworker turned to the German engineer and whispered "I can't seem to get him to set a price. I don't know if it's because hasn't decided on a price or if he is simply waiting for us to suggest one. What do you think?"
The German shrugged helplessly having no idea what to make of these crazy Israeli business arrangements... much less the present impasse.
Suddenly, the shop owner stood and picked up the cello case that had been sitting next to one of the chairs like an extra member of the group. He opened the case and took the instrument out. But instead of looking it over for scratches or damage as one would expect him to do, he handed it to the young woman and said "Play something... let me hear what you've been practicing for the festival."
The young cellist moved her chair back a bit to give herself some room and quickly checked the tuning. Once settled, she closed her eyes and launched into a passionate classical piece (my coworker was so taken by the beauty of the playing that he forgot to ask what piece it was as he had after their first visit to the shop).
Her playing was spectacular! My coworker described the sound of the soaring high notes making his face feel warm and the sonorous low tones making his chest ache (in a good way). When she was finished they all applauded loudly and the young German girl smiled shyly... clearly pleased with her performance.
As she put the venerable instrument back in its case, the German engineer made one last attempt to raise the issue of the rental price with the shop owner. The owner smiled and said "But your daughter just paid the rental fee! There is nothing more to talk about... have a good trip back to Germany."
The German engineer couldn't believe his ears but he didn't have a chance to even thank the shop owner as the pony-tailed craftsman had turned away and was busy addressing the young musician:
"I'm so glad that this old cello had someone worthy to play it. I hope you'll come back to Israel and visit... the cello will be waiting. Good luck with your festival!"
Most of the car ride back to Beer Sheva was spent discussing this odd transaction. The German engineer asked over and over if this kind of thing was typical in Israel... and my coworker tried to explain that while he wasn't terribly surprised by the outcome, there really was no such thing as 'typical' in this country.
In other words, if he was asking if Israeli's always conducted business this way... the answer was 'no'. But if he was asking if most Israelis were nice and more than a little bit sentimental... the answer was 'yes'. The Engineer and his daughter just shook their heads and smiled.
Only in Israel can a priceless cello be rented for a song.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
With warm hands... not cold (lessons in giving)
I've learned many lessons from my parents over the years, but none so important as how to give generously without the recipient(s) feeling as though they are taking.
The 'small gestures' of support that my sibs and I have received from my parents over the years (a 'little' help with a down-payment on a house... a hand-me-down car just when the family vehicle unexpectedly dies), have been offered as casually as one might offer a back-rub to a tired spouse or a drink of water to someone who has just come in from doing yard work in the hot sun. This is to say, the gestures are deeply appreciated, but at the moment they are given - and received - it seems so natural as to require only the most perfunctory 'thank you' and a smile.
I should begin by pointing out for the record that my parents are two of the most positive, life-affirming people I know. They live almost entirely in the present and completely savor the important things in life such as family, fine dining and travel, in a manner I hope to be able to emulate.
However, this isn't to say that their generosity has never gone off into morbid territory. Heh heh... in fact, I haven't fully gotten over the last time it did so... mostly because it was so out of character for them. It was at one of our frequent family get-togethers (who remembers which... Hanukkah, Thanksgiving...?), when my mom sprang the ultimate buzz-kill on her unsuspecting brood:
"Dad and I were talking about this, and we've decided that we don't want any of you kids arguing over 'things' after we're gone. So we want you all to take these 'sticky-note' pads and go around the house putting your name on the stuff you want to inherit. That way we'll know what to put in the will."
This announcement was met with a few seconds of incredulous silence.
First of all... I don't think there are too many people out there who relish hearing the words "after we're gone" in any conversation with their parents. But that aside... who the hell are they to decide whether we'll fight with each other after their gone? I mean, think about it... if they couldn't stop us from bickering while they were - ARE! (tfu, tfu, tfu) alive, they sure as heck aren' t gonna have much luck trying to play 'UN' after they've shuffled off this mortal coil at (IY"H) 120!
I don't recall exactly what anyone said said after my mom dropped her little bombshell... but I do recall that all of us rejected out of hand the idea of selecting our inheritance with sticky notes. I also seem to recollect telling them that I didn't want to inherit anything from them, and would prefer that they spend their last dollar in the world on something they'd truly enjoy... on say, their 120th birthday!
But seriously, I don't know how many others out there have gone through similar lapses in judgment with their kids ... but if any parents are reading this, please spare your progeny some emotional trauma and avoid making a big production out of your hypothetical-yet-inevitable departure. Rest assured... your absence will be unbearable no matter what you do or say now, so don't even go there.
However, this isn't to suggest that you not deal with how to distribute your stuff. Just don't ask your kids to tell you what they'll want after you're gone... it's probably best to just rely on your own observations and intimate knowledge of your family... and like my parents (apart from that momentary insanity with the sticky notes) give as much and as often as you can with warm hands rather than cold.
For instance, if you know that one child admires art... find an opportunity to 'notice' an empty spot on a wall at their house and let them go 'shopping' for a picture or painting at yours with which to fill it. If another child appreciates good furniture, you can always leave him/her the choice pieces in the will... but also be aware of a cheap or aging piece in their home that might be replaced by one of yours right now.
Does one of the kids have a special love of cooking? Take stock of your overstuffed cupboards full of pots and pans and casually ask them if they can 'help you' unclutter your kitchen. You might be surprised to hear how they have always had incredibly strong emotional associations with a particular roasting pan, cupcake tin or serving piece that you thought of only as a 'tool'.
On the other hand, jewelry can be a potential stumbling block since it is not only intrinsically valuable, but it can also have different sentimental value to different people. Again, the best advice I can offer is to give, wherever and whenever possible with warm hands rather than cold... using intuition and intimate knowledge as your guide.
For example, a relatively inexpensive piece of jewelry that is worn frequently may be a treasured heirloom in the eyes of a child or grandchild who associates it with the essential 'you'... while a gaudy jewel-encrusted bauble or heavy gold piece that you were always too worried or self-conscious to wear out of the house may have no sentimental value whatsoever to those you will one day leave behind.
If you know a particular watch, pair of earrings or necklace has always caught a family member's eye, casually hand it to them over lunch... not as their inheritance, but as a spontaneous gift of love. I so enjoy seeing Ariella turn up with a 'new' pair of earrings that Zahava has given her in a private moment of love. I know that she will always cherish not only the physical item, but also the memory of when, and how it was given.
I hope that as my kids get older and have families of their own, they will be as effortlessly generous with their children as mine were - ARE! (tfu tfu tfu) - with me.
I know that Zahava's mother would have preferred to also do things this way with all of her little (and big) treasures, but the rapid progress of her ovarian cancer barely gave her time before she passed to write up a coherent list of what each of her children and grandchildren (some not yet imagined, much less conceived) should receive.
Just remember... the one thing you have that can never be equitably divided is the real and essential you. This is one of those odd mathematical miracles that will (with luck) bequeath to each of those you will eventually leave behind the feeling that they were the sole beneficiary.
Monday, February 05, 2007
Out with the old and in with the new (yet another PSA)
It should be as simple as breathing... but for some reason I keep getting emailed complaints from people saying they can't see my new posts.
Actually, that's not exactly true. They usually email me complaining bitterly that I haven't updated my site in a week or more... which leads me to understand that their computer simply isn't showing them my new content.
OK, here's the deal people: Your browser (you know... the program - Internet Explorer, Firefox, Netscape, Opera, etc. - with which you view the web) has something called 'cache'. Cache is a snapshot of each page you've viewed that your computer stores just in case you want to use the 'back' button to return to it. That way you won't have to wait for it to load from its source again.
The annoying part of your browser storing a cached version of each page you view is that when when you return to a particular site every day (ahem...like mine), and your browser doesn't realize you've come back looking for new content. It thinks (OK, strictly speaking browsers don't actually think... so sue me!), that perhaps you simply want to see the same page you previously viewed... and it dutifully shows you that page from its stored memory (cache).
As a matter of habit you should try to dump your browser's cache at least once a day... especially if you do a lot of web surfing. All those stored pages can slow you down and will just cause frustration if you go back to a site looking for fresh content.
For those who don't know how to dump all their cache, simply find the tools or preferences menu on your browser and poke around a little bit. There should be a button there allowing you to delete temporary Internet files and/or cache. In that section you should also be able to set your preferences for how much cache your computer stores and how often your browser should look for a new version of any given web page (every time).
However, if you ever visit my site (or any other site, for that matter) and you are faced with stale content... a quick and simple trick that will instantly dump the stored version of the page and force your browser to go load the latest version is to hold down the Control key and press F5.
Don't thank me... I'm a giver.
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Color me confused (and frustrated)
OK, here's the deal. As you know, I'm new to this whole eyeglass-wearing thing. Not only that, I don't wear my specs all the time... just while reading. This has raised a bunch of issues that I simply didn't anticipate, and have no idea how to resolve:
Issue # 1: Where to put the glasses when not in use? - When not wearing reading glasses these delicate instruments need to reside safely somewhere. Where is the best somewhere? On a librarian chain/lanyard worn around the neck? Loose in a shirt pocket? In their case (possibly to be forgotten)?
Issue # 2: The damned case! - My glasses came in a big rectangular case that is roughly the size of a coffin. Even if it did fit in any of my pockets (which it doesn't), did the manufacturer really think I want to schlep around a fancy display case that resembles Fidel Castro's humidor to protect my specs? I don't feel like having to carry a man-purse just to accommodate my glasses!
I went to every optometrist in a 20 kilometer radius and the smallest cases available seems to be the standard kidney-shaped model that could easily accommodate a large pair of 1970's-era aviator glasses. Sure, such cases can be shoved (with some effort) into a pants pocket, but the resulting bulge is likely to raise some eyebrows with the ladies... not to mention making one persona non grata in the locker room down at the gym.
Isn't there a place to buy small, slim eyeglass cases that will protect both my glasses and my dignity?
Issue # 3: Endless fussing and unconscious fidgeting - Please tell me there will come a point when I will stop inadvertently touching (smudging) my glasses every time I go to rub my eyes.
Also, I feel like I'm raising my eyebrows so much in an involuntary twitch ( intended, I'm guessing, to get my glasses to settle more comfortably on my nose), that it probably looks like I'm attempting something between a bad Groucho Marx impersonation and a leer. If I had to look at someone doing this all day long I would probably start to think it was a lewd, interrogative gesture. I think I need to have a word with my assistant.
Issue # 4: The 'What if' gesture - OK, this isn't so much an issue, but I wanted to mention it anyway. What's that... you aren't familiar with the 'what if' gesture??? This is one of the big reasons I have envied people with glasses most of my life.
Picture the following scenario: A crowded conference room where an important project is being discussed. There are several armed camps that have taken opposing viewpoints on how best to proceed... and as an impasse looms tempers begin to flare.
Just then, a bespectacled individual who has remained silent throughout most of the meeting clears his throat for attention. When people around the table start to turn towards him he casually removes his glasses in a smooth, one-handed gesture (holding them by the bow next to the hinge) and points the extended glasses at the now-attentive crowd while saying "What if...".
It doesn't matter what comes after that gesture/statement... he has won the point before he even presents his full thesis. Now that I have glasses I can finally get to be that guy! :-)
Anyway, feel free to poke fun at #4 all you like, but I really need your help and advice with the first 3 issues.
Thursday, February 01, 2007
'Shenkin Glasses': Real and political dyslexia
Back in 2005 I finally admitted to myself that I hadn't been able to read small print for several years. It had happened so gradually that I hadn't felt compelled to act... but when I couldn't read the instructions for one of the kid's electronic gadgets I finally threw in the towel and picked up a set of cheap, off-the-shelf reading glasses.
I have also mentioned on several occasions that I have lived most of my life with mild dyslexia which has made reading of any sort a chore.
Anyway, the drug-store reading glasses weren't much of a success. Sure, they allowed me to see the small print again, but they also seemed to oddly intensify my dyslexia and even gave me headaches after long reading sessions. The result was that I pretty much gave up reading for pleasure and only hauled out the reading glasses when I absolutely had to decipher something small.
A few months ago I finally decided to bite the bullet and get prescription reading glasses.
Now every eye exam I've ever had has lasted no more than 10 minutes, and has gone pretty much like this:
"Read this line... read that line... cover your left ye... now your right... don't mind these drops (although they might make you look like a junkie for a an hour or so)... put your chin right here... just a little puff of air... nope, no glaucoma here... sorry, no pot for you (ha ha)... OK, we're done. You have healthy eyes... but you'll probably need reading glasses in a few years... but no more than a prescription of .75 or 1.00... have a nice day."
So this time when I went to a friend / neighbor's optometry practice in Jerusalem to be tested I was expecting more of the same. I was shocked by the thoroughness of the exam as well the array of tools and tests that were employed. The whole exam took almost an hour!
When we were almost done my friend sat down across from me and handed me a page of text and asked me to read it to myself while he watched my eyes closely. When I finished he asked me if I had ever had problems with dyslexia or other difficulties reading.
I was a little shocked at the question and answered in the affirmative... giving him the full run-down on my difficulties in school and how I found reading to be a cumbersome and exhausting activity. But at the end of my description I asked him what my dyslexia had to do with my eyes since it was a mental problem.
He smiled knowingly and said, "Is that so? Here, let's try something."
With that, he popped a couple of lenses into the enormous 'monster glasses' he had used while testing my eyes and handed me the page of text again.
I nearly fell off the chair as my eyes raced effortlessly down the lines of text. Instead of wrestling with each word and plodding through a sticky quagmire of individual letters I was suddenly seeing whole words flash by in crisp, obvious sequence.
I put down the page and stared at him.
I must have had a pretty comical expression on my face because he laughed out loud. He told me that my problem with reading and dyslexia wasn't mental, but rather was caused by my eyes not being able to perfectly align and focus on the same point in space. Not only that... he said it was not at all uncommon.
He explained that when looking at things in the distance, perfect eye alignment isn't crucial since the dominant and non-dominant eye can pass their respective images to the brain without much perceived shift in the picture you see. But when focusing on something like a page of printed text a few inches in front of one's face, this struggle between the eyes for dominance and the misalignment of the focal point becomes much more noticeable and can wreak havoc with the final image the brain wants to 'show' you.
He confirmed what other optometrists had told me; that my eyes were quite healthy and that I only needed a mild prescription for reading. But he said that he wanted to put a prism in one lens to bring my left eye into better alignment with my right for reading. I eagerly agreed and walked out of his office walking ten feet off the ground (and not because of the drops)!
Now came the daunting task of selecting frames.
I hadn't liked anything in the display case in his office so I promised him I would find a set of frames elsewhere and bring them to him so he could have my lenses ground.
The problem was that for anyone just starting to wear glasses in middle age, pretty much all glasses look odd in the mirror. I didn't want anything too big.... but most of the smaller frames sat too high on my nose and forced me to either rest my chin on my chest to look through them (while holding a book in a typical reading posture)... or to lift the reading material to an uncomfortable level in front of my face.
Someone suggested 'half-lenses' (granny glasses), but I rejected those out of hand. It's bad enough being 45... I didn't want to add 15 or 20 years to my appearance overnight. So the search continued.
Finally I wandered into a trendy eye-glass emporium in the German Colony and noticed a set of small frames on display. They were fairly simple... perfectly round... wire frames. The nice thing was that the bridge was fairly wide which allowed them to sit relatively low This allowed my eyes to look directly through them at an object held out in a comfortable reading position in front of me and a few inches below my chin.
Just my luck, the frames were made by a trendy designer (Jacob Jensen) and would normally have required a small mortgage to purchase. But the shop owner told me that almost everyone wanted the color-tinted versions and that if I wanted the display pair (a simple bronze tone set) he would give them to me for a very reasonable price. We 'haandeled' a bit and arrived at a price we could both live with and I walked out with my new frames.
On the way home, however, I realized that Zahava would almost certainly hate them (yes folks, I bravely/stupidly picked them out without her). Zahava had been pushing for me to get a pair of larger rectangular frames... and she had rejected out-of-hand any of the less-obtrusive models I had tried on for her in the past.
When I walked into the house with my new frames on, the first thing my lovely wife said to me was, "Hey, look who's here... it's Yoko Ono!" It just went downhill from there.
Anyway, I stood my ground and gave the frames to my optometrist friend to have the prescription ground, and eagerly awaited their return.
I got them back just before I left for my India trip and was delighted to find that I could now read so fast that my brain seemed to be literally struggling to keep up with this new, unexpected rush of information. Even though it was an overnight flight to India, I stayed up and read the entire way. I read every evening in my hotel, and I read on every flight within India.... as well as on the flight home.
It was such a wonderful and liberating experience to be able to effortlessly read that at first I didn't take much notice of the comments I got.
The Indian's with whom I met unanimously loved the glasses as they thought they looked like those favored by the late Mahatma Ghandi. But the real eye-opener was the reaction I got from my coworkers when I returned to Israel. A few people confused me by asking me if I had 'switched sides'. Another person jokingly asked if I had moved out of the 'shtahim' (territories). Still another asked rather bluntly when I had become such a 'lefty'.
But the asimon finally dropped when a young Tel Aviv resident I work with (the sort of woman who makes middle aged men involuntarily suck in their gut when she passes) sat down across from me at lunch one day and complimented me on my 'funkie Shenkin glasses'.
For those outside the country, Shenkin is much more than the name of a well-known street in Tel Aviv. It is the epicenter of a very specific liberal, sophisticated, ultra-hip Israeli mentality. This pretty young woman had taken what I considered to be stodgy, old-world frames and plunked them down in the heart of Israel's premier café district. Suddenly, all the previous comments I'd gotten made sense.
I don't think it is much of a secret to anyone living here in Israel that various religious and non-religious factions adhere to fairly specific 'uniforms'. At a glance it is pretty easy to figure out if someone is religious/observant or not... and to what 'camp' they belong. One look at the type of clothing and hair style (or type of hair covering) gives away pretty quickly to the casual observer where the person falls along the religious spectrum... not to mention on which side of the green line they probably reside.
To some extent, accessories are also a dead give-away as to an Israeli's political leanings. I accidentally found this out with my new frames... frames that seemed to be sending out confusing messages to the casual observer.
Apparently my check shirts, kippah and pistol clashed with my 'Shenkin glasses'. Who knew?
People, both at work and at play, suddenly didn't know quite how to pigeon-hole me. Personally, I couldn't care less... I now have the incredible ability to read whatever and whenever I want. If this means that others have a little trouble 'reading' me... I figure that's their problem. :-)