Saturday, July 14, 2018

Uncertain measures

Words are inheritance of previous generations.  Like diamonds or furniture, several generations down the line, few appreciate their value or history. This phenomenon can be clearly seen in measures.

A common currency in the world is the pound or lira. Whether UK or Egyptian, it defines a value of a good or service.  What is forgotten that the pound actually refers to gold.   In the centuries before “greenbacks”, paper money, money was coined from precious metal, usually gold or silver, and worth its weight in that metal. By the way, due to the constant shortage of those coins, especially in the distant colonies in North America, people turned to barter, in particular “buck” skins, which could be sold at trading stations. The modern buck is certainly much lighter.

On that same note, something of little value is worth “grushim” in Hebrew.  This coin was actually the small coin of the Egyptian pound from 1918-1927. Of more value were “asimonim”, phone tokens, used in Israel until phone cards came in.  They formally were not coins but coin-like disks with a notch going through the diameter. They were purchased at the post office and were considered a good value as they were less affected by inflation.  When young Israeli say, נפל האסימון [nafal haasimon], the assimon dropped, meaning at last someone understood, they don’t really understand that they are talking about.

In terms of power, people talk about the horsepower of cars forgetting that it literally means the power of a horse.  Since no two horses have the same power, there is more than one time of horsepower, the two most common being mechanical (745.7 watts) and metric, of course, (735.5 watts).

On the subject of relative measures, everybody has a different size foot, which created great problems for creating a standard measurement.  In fact, archaeologists have found a stone with three different “foot” lengths, apparently used as a conversion tool by artisans.

At least most people know how long it is. It is true that Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers but how many pickled peppers did he really pick?  The answer is around one quarter of a bushel or nine liters.  Now, we all know how much a peck is, right?

Speaking of right and wrong, as any stylish person knows, it is quite important to buy the real McCoy.  Why buy a fake Gucci when you can afford the real one?  As a matter of historical record, McCoy was an alcohol smuggler during Prohibition (1920 – 1933) in the United States, who made a good living boating in real rum from the Caribbean to the Florida, a bit like today’s drug smugglers. After getting caught and a short stay in prison, he changed his route to the Great Lakes, joining Joe Kennedy, the father of the JFK, in the profitable Toronto-Detroit booze run.

He must have had a good life, working bankers’ hours, i.e., short work days. Yes, once upon a time, banks did you a favor by opening a few hours each day, five days a week.  For the tellers of the world, it was a far better world then. 

Admittedly, knowing that your great, great grandmother wore those pearls at your great grandmother’s wedding is not that interesting but it does add a little shine to them.  Likewise, knowledge enriches our use of words, a bit of certainty in an uncertain world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The home of the brave

There is nothing more dangerous than a little bit of knowledge. This truism has been the bane of many intrepid diners at foreign restaurants.  Trusting to their memory of their high school foreign language studies, people bravely order dishes with foreign names without asking for explanations and are rather surprised by the contents of the plate they receive, occasionally positively.

French restaurants are an infamous minefield for the uninitiated. As Disney so wonderfully demonstrated, ratatouille is made from eggplants and tomatoes without any rodent protein source. For that matter, if a dish has a farce, it is not a quaint version but instead contains a stuffing, generally with breadcrumbs or rice. One of my old favorites, a pomme de terre en robe de chambre, is not Mr. Potatohead wearing a bathrobe but instead a standard baked potato. As foreign tourists quickly learn when traveling in the summer, la glace is creamy ice cream, which admittedly can be a bit shiny.

Alas, tourists to the United States are not immune to this issue. In Colorado, prairie oysters do not come from the sea but are instead bull testicles. For that matter, sweetbread, a delicacy to Persians among others, is neither sweet nor doughy; it is brains, generally of sheep or cows. Foreigners may think shepherds pie is a desert. However, it is actually a main course made of potatoes and ground beef, rather delicious in fact. Finally, the contents of a baked Alaska seem rather unclear to the unfamiliar but should be rather satisfying as what could go wrong with a brownie and ice cream combination?

Hebrew also has its red herrings. The innocent that orders a סטיק לבן [steak lavan], white steak, does not receive beef but pork. חלב דגים [halav dagim], fish milk, is not a dairy product but instead fish sperm. (I have never tried it and am not so sure I would). מעורב ירושילמי [me’urav yerushalaimi], a Jerusalem mix, is quite tasty but does not hint at its contents: grilled chicken, liver, spleen and heart with onions. Watch out for compote: Israeli compote is cooked fruit served in a liquid, a syrup, while English compote is more of a jam.

These are only a small sample of potential mix-ups for the unwary. Like in most matters, a good sense of humor easily overcomes any sense of dismay. You could say that blind ordering can be best way to discover new foods.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Soft(ware) Selling

Three days ago, I had a quintessential digital experience. I bought my father, 93, living in Los Angeles and suffering from what was once called “failing legs”, a gift for Father’s Day, specifically two books from Amazon.  The whole experience took a total of three minutes.  To explain, I perused a review of a book in the New York Times edition that I receive via email. I then logged into my Amazon account, wrote in the author’s name, clicked “add to cart”. I magically saw a related book that I knew my father would like and added it to the cart.  I then placed my order within 30 seconds as the site remembered my address and credit card number. Instantly, I received an email from Amazon that my order had been placed. All this is 180 seconds. For some people, it is the epitome of the modern age, instant pleasure.

However, I cannot say that it was a pleasure. I am not alone in thinking so either. Strange as it may seem to some people, I would have preferred driving my father to the bookstore, finding parking, wheeling him around the store, glancing at books, both relevant and irrelevant, waiting to pay at the cashier, and driving him back home. I say so not only because I live in Israel, rather far from him physically, but also because I enjoy the book buying experience.  The books that are purchased are only the icing on the cake.  It is touching the books, seeing books that I may (but probably won’t) buy in the future, and soaking in the environment.  Two years ago, I was in a beautiful, huge bookstore in Dublin.  Due to weight limitations for my valise, I was limited a few paperbacks but I felt that I could have bought half the store.  I became outright euphoric. 

Alas, I cannot say that about my Amazon experience.  I can describe the latter as time-efficient, convenient and even hassle free. I am sure that the books will arrive on time and that my father will like the books.  Yet, somehow, my virtual shopping was so emotionally sterile. Sterility is very desirable in operating theatres but fundamentally less so in the act of purchasing. I am truly looking forward to going to that bookstore on my next trip to LA.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Dressing up the verb

English is famous (or infamous) for words having multiple meanings, some with no apparent connection with them.  A charming subgroup of such words involves articles of clothing.  These have clear, commonly understood meanings as nouns in their usual context, i.e., the items covering up a person’s birthday suit.  Yet, as verbs, they stray, to one degree or another, and take on a different persona.

An example of this is the word dress, as celebrated in one of the wonderful stories of Peggy Perish, Amelia Bedelia. In it, the literally minded maid puts a dress on a chicken instead of preparing it for cooking or eating as in the expressions dress a turkey or dress a salad.

Keeping with women’s clothing, to skirt an issue is to avoid it, not to show off its nice legs.

As any fan of the original Batman TV series knows, to sock or belt someone does not send a person to work but instead to the hospital.

To meet a man that suits you may involve a tailor or but most probably leads to a wedding as he fits your needs.

Speaking of tailors, coating the fish with breadcrumbs is not a cheap way of keeping it warm. The bread crump coat in this case just keeps the dinner tender.

To shoe someone out may sound violent but actually must done very discretely, without too much fuss, unlike being booted from a tournament, which is very unceremonious.

It is advisable to both to wear a cap when hiking and cap an appetite or temper.  Everything in moderation.

Staying in the area of the head and neck, a scarf is elegant and keeps you warm.  By contrast, scarfing down food, i.e., uncontrolled eating, can look rather disgusting and be unhealthful.

Finally, while a tie may seem extraneous in some cultures, notably Israel and Jamaica, a proper speaker ties everything together with a summary.

In that light, if clothes make the man, they also confuse him, especially if he is a foreigner.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Natural first names

Naming children is one of the basic, loving acts of parents.  The source of the name can vary from person to person and country to country.  Nature, on a selective basis, is one of these sources.

Flowers are apparently universal.  In English, relatively common flowery names include Camelia, Lilly, Rose, Heather, Jasmine and Iris, to name a few.  Granted, there are some Petunias, Hollies, and Daisies. Israeli parents use many of these names too.  You can find girls named Vered (rose), Iris, Yasmin, Dalia, Rakefet (cyclamen), among others.

Yet, there are some differences in naming habits between English and Hebrew speaking parents. Anglo-Saxons have no problem with some basis herbs, such as Basil or Rosemary.  Yet, trees are taboo, except for maybe Hazel, which is more nut than tree inspired. By contrast, Israelis love trees as a source of names. To name but a few, there is no problem to find an Oren, (pine), Erez (cedar), Ela (terebinth), Hadas (myrtle), Dolev (plane tree), Shaked (almond), or Tamar (palm).  Israelis are even open to a grain, Shibolet (wheat flower), while the English-speaking world prefers to leave them on the table.

On one hand, this English prejudice against tree seems unjustified. A boy strong as elm or cedar or a girl as sweet as a palm or perfect like an almond would be a blessing.  On the other hand, I would not wish Redwood, as magnificent as it is, on my child.  I would not want him to have peeling skin and become so wide that car could drive between his legs, not to mention to live hundreds of years. So, as naming goes, it is often better to go with the more pedestrian among them, especially flowers.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Euro myopia

The annual masochistic cultural event is now past us. Eurovision, in its gory and glory, has announced the winner and sent the pleasure of hosting the event to Israel, my home.  To what degree the songs represented popular culture is debatable but it is clear that they reflect the culture of the collective tastes of the 42 committees that decide what the Eurovision public might like.  What can be learned from that?

The more things change, the more they stay the same….

This year’s event had some wonderful tributes to the past, intentional or unintentional.  We got to see soundalikes of Bruce Springfield, Shakira, Marvin Gaye, Jennifer Lopez, Iron Maiden and Justin Bieber. Imigation is the greatest form of flattery. In terms of style, three movie themes popped up: the Titanic, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a James Bond movie.  On the vaudeville side, jazz and a Russian variety act pleased the old-timers.  A singer that is young and sufficiently good looking does not have to have a good voice but being handicapped and good looking is not sufficient. Opera is classic but not cool while Balkan singing is cool but not classic. It was nice to see that a few more countries dared to sing in their own language and express their pride that way.  I am looking forward an Irish song in Gaelic one day.  Still, English is the king, no matter how foreign that language is. Curiously enough, the opera singer sang in Italian, a natural language for her.  As for the lyrics, they tended to fit three categories: love, nonsense or politics. Alas, nothing new there.

The state of the art
As represented by the spectrum of songs, today’s music is far from homogeneous. Ballads, hip hop, rock and rolls, R&B and rap are all acceptable as long as the costumers and pyrotechnics are there to entertain the audience visually.  Computer effects are almost de rigueur in terms of expectations.  In terms of the physical appearance of the singers, especially female, looks do count to a certain point.  Modern singers generally need to be attractive and show some, but not too much flesh.  Interestingly, Netta flaunted and exploited her lack of lankiness while other female singers bravely wore dresses that exposed their less than sexy legs. As for the males, Vikings are not expected to be dress like metrosexuals nor are heavy metal guitar players.  Alas, the double standard continues.

The looking glass

Israel gets to host Eurovision next year, which is an artistic, cultural and political achievement. Toy managed to connect with a vast number of people, the hallmark of a successful work. Not only that, Israel keeps on winning by sending exceptional, not typical, personalities to the contest.  The last Israeli first place singer was Dona International, not exactly a representative Israeli woman. Politically, votes for the Israeli song are often affected by international feelings toward Israel. Austria even awarded the song points, to the great disappointment, I imagine, of the BDS movement. The reward is the opportunity to prove yet again to the world that life in Israel is actually quite safe and normal in most senses and Tel Aviv is a great place to party. Culture and politics, ultimately, go hand and hand.

The pleasure and pain should be more intense next year even if the song may not be any better.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Superior culture

Many nations, especially those with a strong economy and world position, feel that that their culture is superior.  A short list of countries that have viewed themselves as the beacon for others include ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, France, English, America, Japan and China.  This point of view can also be expressed by the use of its opposite, i.e., all other cultures are primitive by comparison and, consequently, need to evolve in the direction of the supreme leader, whichever country that may be.  The pejorative descriptions include primitive, simple, naïve, barbarian and undeveloped.  Thus, this world view is that our culture is the true path while the others were never or are no longer valid.

Alas, this perspective is highly inaccurate. First, national culture is not an equally distributed or identical set of values. While most societies have an elite with the education and financial means to enjoy the fine arts, below this niche is a mass of people with little time, energy and knowledge to enjoy those pleasures. Instead, they tend to relish the simple pleasures of life, often linked with alcohol and violence, verbal and physical.  Coliseums, stadiums, bars, brothels and Internet are their venues for release.  Given a choice between watching a concert or a local football (either American, British or Australian, as relevant), the latter is by far the more popular choice.  As part of the festivities, abusing the opponent in the most crude and primitive terms is an essential part of the fun. It is no fun to be a Yankee outfielder standing in the grass of Fenway field taking constant abuse from the fans without any limit of good taste or respectability. So, no matter how high the high culture, the lowest common denominator is ever present.

Moreover, until the age of the Internet, an extremely short period of 30 years, most people knew nothing about the vast majority of other cultures. What did the typical English or French citizen know about the complexity of Japanese ink drawing?  What did the average Chinese know about Leonardo de Vinci?  What did the American in the Midwest and even on the coasts know about Debussy?  As my mother would say, they knew gournicht, nada. So, how can a collective culture decide that it is superior to others?  The answer, to quote my mother again, is chutzpah, sheer gall. As in many matters, a feeling of superiority is often the result of ignorance, not merit.

Even if cultural merit could be discussed in an objective, civilized manner, superior and inferior are extremely difficult words to be defined.  In terms of visual art, complexity of process seems to be one criterium. A painting by Titian is more intricate than an African mask. Yet, a print by Andy Warhol is less. So, mere sophistication is not sufficient.  Possibly, time investment is a factor.  While the paintings on the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo may have involved thousands of hours of backbreaking work, so did the making of a totem by West Cost Indians. Multiplicity of instruments or media does not measure the level of music as the harmony of a Beethoven symphony is matched by the subtlety and beauty of a Chopin piano prelude or an Arabic oud performance. Objectively, better and worse are hard to define objectively.

Culture, like religion, should be approached with modesty and a sense of perspective.  Every person has preferences, which is quite legitimate. However, to reach the conclusion that ours is better ignores the ambiguity of ours, our lack of knowledge of others and the intrinsic problem of defining high culture. Instead, it is possible and desirable to be proud of your own culture while seeking the beauty in others, no matter how “primitive” they are.