Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The elemental heights of the Golan

This weekend, the stars aligned in a particular fashion. It was the weekend before my birthday; we had arranged far in advance a cottage in the Golan Heights to celebrate it; it had rained and snowed throughout the week leading the weekend; the storm broke on Thursday night; and the next weather front only appeared on Sunday afternoon. The meaning of these circumstances is that my wife and I enjoyed an amazing weekend in the Golan Heights.  I do not mean fighting the traffic jams and lines to Mount Hermon, Israeli's only ski site, not to mention the sheer density of people there.  I am referring to the amazing pleasure of the most basic elements of the Golan Heights experience: its rocks, water and wind.

Only an hour away from the Galilee where I live, the Golan Heights are immediately distinguishable by its rocks, mostly created by its volcanic past. The grounds are liberally sprinkled with basalt rocks of various sizes as if they had been dumped there by trucks.  The wall of old buildings, whether from the ancient Talmudic period or the more modern Syrian period, are made from basalt. The Avital Volcanic Park, an artfully adopted quarry site, provides an amazing inside view of the volcanic forces that shaped the area. Finally, we never got tired of looking at the white shiny peak of Mt. Hermon, covered in snow and glowing in the winter sun. Each view was better than the previous.

Accompanying the solidness of the rock was the omnipresence of water. Created by the heavy rains and sustained by the almost solid rock below, almost every field had one or more blue pond, often with a happy-looking cow or horse enjoying the green grass around it. All along the roads, streams were noisily flowing. Where ever nature had created the proper conditions, waterfalls, big and small, played their music. The water created a sight and sound concert.

However, the unsung hero of the Golan heights was the wind. On the one hand, where we had to stand unprotected by any breaking feature, it was cold, lowering the temperature by several degrees. However, as we were properly dressed, I cannot say that we suffered from the cold. On the other hand, the wind carried the sounds of nature: flowing water, birds and singing leaves. The sounds of the mass movement of people, roar of vehicles and general noise of civilization were almost never be heard. The result was a magnificent and peaceful, albeit a bit lonely, feeling.

Together, these elements, not to mention some great food, made for a wonderful weekend and created a taste of “od” as they say in Hebrew, meaning the desire to do it again. While some people go the Golan for its skiing, I enjoy its more fundamental pleasures.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Love and Marriage – à la Dumas

This week, I took advantage of the flu to partake in one of my annual rituals, rereading Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. One advantage of fluency in a foreign language is the privilege of reading literature in the original language.  In this case, I read the French, unabridged version, which is longer and contains several generally untranslated chapters, including one about taking Hashish. In any case, as I am well familiar with the story, I was able to concentrate, through the eyes of Dumas of course, on French upper-class society in the middle 19th century. Specifically, it was interesting to consider the social relations between men and women at that time.

Among the families portrayed in the book, it was striking to see the loss of power of parents to determine marriages. All of the young people, either actively (Eugenie Dangler) or passively (Albert de Morceff) did whatever possible to escape the designs of their parents. Even if there is ostensible filial or daughterly obedience to the father, it is not internally accepted. In other words, love matches had already become common, if not completely accepted. By contrast, neither Edmond Dantės nor Mercedes even consider marrying each other at the end of the book. The reason may be that Mercedes was too emotionally wrecked or Edmond’s heart was with Haydėe but could be that widows did not remarry at the time.

Looking at the well-developed women characters in the book, you can see a high level of emancipation, at least as compared to most societies of the time. Women were entitled to inherit property, lead independent social lives and even have discreet lovers, of course as long as they did not make their husbands look ridiculous. Moreover, despite the clear legal dominance of males by law, in the book no husband actually orders his wife, merely politely but clearly requests. Women had a voice, albeit a smaller one than men.

One of the pleasures of the book, one shared by the dialogue of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, another of my annual reading pleasures, are the delightful and poignant conversations. Within the framework of formal politeness and respect, people express the entire range of emotions, from the closest friendship to the strongest hatred, all while never raising their voice or using a foul word. Civil society is maintained even while uncivil thoughts are expressed. At least in that respect, modern society has gone downhill.

If, by any chance, anybody distainly notes that I have not inserted any quotes to justify my opinions, it is by intention.  My purpose is not to produce a literary criticism but encourage the rereading of an old classic.  The book has not changed since the last time but our eyes and sensitivity have, rendering our experience as good as if not better than the first time. Ultimately, old friends are no less enjoyable than new ones.

*Image taken from Amazon.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Passion fruit, gender wise

A passion is like first love, undeniable and unexplainable. It is something whose mere mention lights up the eyes and ignites a wide smile. A child without a passion is emotionally unhealthy while an unhealthy adult needs to find one. Objects of passion can be largely gender driven, for whatever reason, in the sense that 950 out of a thousand people of that gender and 50 people of the opposite gender share it, more or less. Clearly, there are special items of passion, small in numbers of passionatos but great in terms of their intensively, like those who love restoring windmills (yes, such groups exist) and collectors of specific animal figurines.  At the same time, there are universal items that mainly light up either men or women.

For example, most women love desserts with cream.  Men do enjoy such desserts but they don’t go starry eyed. It appears that women get adrenalin rushes just from seeing them. Whether a mille feuilles or cheese cake, the more cream, whipped or not, the better. Big boned or petite, there is always room in the heart of a woman, not to mention her stomach, for a tasty creamy patisserie. It is unclear why a dainty slice of cake is irresistible but a no less creamy ice cream is not but the latter can be ignored while for the former must be worshipped, at least as far as I have observed. Call it hypnotic or whatever you like.

The male equivalent of love at first sight is the simple ball.  Even before there is peer or parental example or pressure, upon seeing a ball of any size, 98% of boys react by wanting to interact with it in some way, kicking, holding or hitting it to the best of their ability. Tellingly, this instinct never dies.  80-year-old men, encountering a stray ball rolling in their direction, immediately line by their body for a proper corner kick even if, alas, the body (and kick) are suffering from not a little rust. No matter, no male can ignore a ball even if the fact that he is wearing a suit and tie prevents him from acting on the urge. I can’t think of any evolutionary benefit to this instinct but not everything has to have a purpose, right?

In terms of transportation or fascination, shoes seem to have a hypnotic effect on women.  Regardless of the number of shoes they may or may not have, almost no woman can resist looking at the shoes displayed in a store window. Since I cannot read minds especially those of the opposite sex, I have no idea what exactly they are thinking as they examine the pairs.  However, it cannot be denied Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Johnny Debb together on their best days are no competition for a pair of leather boots. I imagine that there are women that are apathic to footwear, but I have not met any.

By contrast, men, especially American men, have had a long romance with cars. I don’t know how they reacted to their horses before automobiles were invented but I do know how most men (not me in this case) relate to their car: they anthropophyte it. Specifically, they select their vehicle with great care, comparing all relevant and irrelevant features. This is contrast with most women, who primarily care about its color, safety and gas efficiency. They maintain, clean and protect it religiously and are personally wounded if the love of their life is scratched at a parking lot. In secret, they look at advertisements and videos of coming models and dream of owning a Ferrari or Lamborghini. That such diamonds are far beyond their means does not reduce their pleasure as the mere thought of driving one is a high while an actual chance to drive one of those gods is better than sex. This love of cars, the more powerful the better (it takes a bit of effort to get excited by a Fiat Uno), could be just part of a power addiction but what difference does it make.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am not mocking the human species. As I wrote above, it is far better to have a passion, no matter how ridiculous, than to lead a humdrum life without sparkle.  My personal passion, I confess, is Balkan dancing. The sound of a triti piti or kopenica make me forget any worry that I have. However, I also admit to enjoy playing tennis maybe because there is, yes, a ball involved and trying to sound more knowledgeable about cars than I really am because I am supposed to be. However, cakes and shoes are fine but no more than that. In any case, vive la passion.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The sound of silence

The volume of poems, songs, books and research on the subject of love is almost deafening.  From beginning to end, from the boundless extasy of falling in love to the seemingly bottomless pit of pain of breaking up, human beings are well prepared, at least theoretically, for anything that can happen in this process.

Unfortunately, there is one aspect of love that very few people mention but is becoming ever more common. Admittedly, it is hard to imagine and unpleasant to contemplate. Still, with life span increasing, it is something that many will experience. Specifically, I am referring to the challenge of loving people that, due to chronic pain, mental deterioration or medical problems, have changed so much that they have become completely different people. Kind, patient and generous partners turn into mean, impatient and self-centered individuals. Warm, loving homes turn into battlegrounds. Heaven turns into hell.

I have seen that various degrees of this transformation with friends and family. My father has not adjusted well to being handicapped and getting old as he approaches the age of 94. One of my friends told me how difficult it was to recognize the woman he married in his bed-ridden, grumpy wife. I do not judge these people because I cannot say how I will be if and when I reach that state.

Making that situation worse, there are no words of wisdom, magic formula, rosy outlooks or even lights at the end of the tunnel to this martyrdom. We are all left alone, trying to remember our loved one as they were once upon a time, a bit like looking an old smelly dog and remember the wild puppy of yesteryear. Memory and fortitude are the only tools in this truly final chapter of love.

In praise of the human species, the vast majority of people stand by their partners and take care of them despite their extreme emotional suffering. Caught unprepared in all ways for the challenge, they cope as best as they can in the same silence they previously encountered regarding this transformation. These people have my sympathy and admiration. As the French say, chapeau. As the Jews say, may you never know.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Les Misérables of the 21st century

Human life has always involved a certain degree of suffering.  There are even those who would claim it brings you closer to God. Clearly, it is certainly heart wrenching to see destitute people on the street or pictures of starving people in Africa. Yet, our level of actual commissary varies, depending on the circumstances.  Growing up in the United States whose underlying ethos is Protestant self-responsibility, there is always a feeling, not always justified, that alcoholics or drug addicts, not to mention people those with mental illnesses, can and should turn their lives around.  In other words, we share a mixed feeling of sympathy and distain.  By contrast, those individuals whose fate has been determined by factors outside their control elicit much more sympathy. It is easier to give a donation to causes helping hurricane victims and abused dogs.

I am fortunate and clearly appreciate that I work from home.  My getting to work involves five steps from bedroom, with only an occasional traffic jam caused by two cats running in front of me. The college where I work is a 10-minute drive or 20-minute walk away. However, for the vast majority of working Americans, Europeans and Asians, getting to work involves hours of travels and constant traffic jams. For example, in Los Angeles, a half hour drive is considered close with many commuters stuck on the road for almost two hours each way. Cities with good public transportation systems provide slightly more friendly environments but all cities and their peripheral road networks suffer from heavy traffic jams.

The costs of this long commute go beyond gas and wasted time. The drivers themselves suffer whether or not they are aware of it. People day in and day out get up knowing that, if everything goes right, they may only have an hour moving at a snail’s pace. Even worse, after a long day’s work, it takes great effort to maintain the patience and attention required to get home safely. All this stressful time in the car, even if slightly mitigated by music or good company, leaves people exhausted. Overtime, most commuters become numb, fortunately, but the stress remains with its accompanying fatigue. Just like a homeless that have lived many years in the street, commuters don’t know any other way of life.

Clearly, they did not create the situation nor do they have any significant ability to improve the situation. Still, as a non-commuter that occasionally has to join the crawling masses, I am moved to pity when I realize that people do this every day. Like Jean Valjean persecuted to the end of his life, working people in the West will suffer until they retire. It may be not at the level of the starving in Africa but they are still les Misérables of our time.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Base instinct

Reading Nien’s Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, an account by a Chinese woman arrested during the Culture Revolution in the 1960’s, I am disturbingly reminded of an oppressive book I read as part of my Russian Studies program, namely Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  Curiously it is not the cruelty of the regimes depicted in this book that is so disturbing but instead their callousness. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, while the Nazi regime wanted people, mainly non-Germans, to die, Stalin and Mao simply did not care if you died, whether you were of the same nationality or not.  Tens of millions of Russians and Chinese perished, with the exact toll impossible to determine. In any case, the numbers are numbing to the mind and ultimately impossible to comprehend.

Regardless of the political background of the individual killing waves, including collectivization, the Great Purge, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to name a few, one of the most puzzling aspects is the genuine public support or at least acceptance of these extreme measures. To a large degree, many of the citizens of these country had no problem as their fellow farmers, professionals and closest friends were cruelly punished for nothing. Clearly, in the pre-Internet years, most did not have access to any other information aside from the official channels. Also, by nature, many peasants and workers did not actively seek the “truth’ or think it was wise to do so. Yet, beyond the impact of behaving politically correct, I sense the cynical use of one of the basic instincts of human nature, envy.

Max Weber describes peasant thinking in terms of a zero-sum world. The term refers to the concept that everything, both material and spiritual, is limited in quantity and cannot be expanded.  Therefore, if someone receives more food or love, their extra is ultimately at my expense. In the context of Russia and China, both of which were very peasant before and during the revolution, a kulak, technically a rich peasant, had one more cow than you while a bourgeois had a slightly bigger house or a better job. Stalin and Mao exploited this natural joy in seeing someone get his/her comeuppance and were able to perpetrate the greatest massacres of their own populations that history has recorded. This mass murder was not committed with viciousness but instead, and maybe even worse, with apathy.

There is a Russian proverb recounting that a peasant, offered anything that he wanted on condition that his neighbor received twice of it, requested to have one of his eyes removed. If the horrors of the Russian and Chinese revolution as described in the books mentioned above were aberrations, I would be less disturbed. However, today’s politicians have more tools than ever to exploit the basest instincts of the public to their own good and no less inclination. That is what is so scary.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Ghost guest writer

Thanksgiving is a family holiday.  Each family has its unique transitions, whether special spins of tranditional food or quaint customs.  In my case, since my father was a journalist for many years of his life, he always brought up the following column by Art Buchwald, who wrote daily for the Washingon Post until his death in 2007. It was written in 1952 and reprinted every year when he was alive.  So, as a tribute to him, my father, good humor and fine writing, I present “Le Grand Thanksgiving” by Art Buchwald:

This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.
One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.
Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims (Pèlerins) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pèlerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pelerins was when they taught them to grow corn (mais). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pèlerins.
In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pèlerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pèlerins than Pèlerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.
Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.
It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant :
"Go to the damsel Priscilla ( allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth ( la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action ( un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe ), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.
"I am a maker of war ( je suis un fabricant de la guerre ) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar ( vous, qui t'es pain comme un étudiant ), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."
Although Jean was fit to be tied ( convenable très emballé ), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow ( rendue muette par l'étonnement et la tristesse ).
At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" ( Où est-il, le vieux Kilometres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)
Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" ( Chacun a son gout. )
And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.
No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Thank you, Mr. Buchwald.

P.S. Come back, we need your sense of humor more than ever.