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.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The good old, old days

In Michael Crichton’s book Timeline, one character, Andrė, decides to remain in the past, specifically the year 1357, because he finds life then much more to his taste. Many readers probably identified with the longing for idyllic past with all of its simple charm and without any of modern life’s stresses. Alas, life in the pre-industrial age was not a bowl of cherries.  It may be that it was slower and less stressful but it involved much hard work and many limitations unimaginable today.

Let us discuss the basic needs for heating, cooking and light. Pre-electricity means wood or charcoal stoves, which often served all three functions. Someone, generally a lower-class woman, had to get up before dawn and get the fire going. Depending on the size of the house and its design, this limited heat did not necessary get to all of the rooms. Cooking and baking on a wood stove is an art that takes year to learn in terms of controlling the temperature. As for light, aside from the fire, people only had relatively expensive candles to extend their day.  To give a perspective, for the wedding of the daughter of the French King, Louis Phillippe (the Bourgeois) in the early 19th century, the cost of lighting the ballroom was higher than the cost of the bride’s dress.

On the subject of clothes, pret-a-porter had not been invented, meaning you could not just go to the store and buy a pair of pants or a dress, not to mention underwear. Someone, a tailor or seamstress, had to make it specifically for you.  Each item was expensive, meaning that even the wealthy had very limited wardrobes.  As for cleaning it, without any washing machine, each item had to be taken to the river and cleaned by hand.  Talk about time-consuming and strenuous work.

The other great necessity, food, was also rather limited.  Food transportation was by wagon or boat only. Anybody distant from the few good roads or a body of water lived on what was locally available, which could lack variety and even quantity depending on the area and season. It is no surprise that most local peasant recipes involve maximum effort to attain the most benefit from any locally available food.

Of course, money solves most problems, even then. Unfortunately, money was also an issue.  The pre-industrial age was a time without bank credit, credit cards, checks or even paper money. Money was all about valuable metals and weight. Spain became rich because it plundered lots of millions of pounds in gold and silver, literally.  However, given the limitations of weight, transportation and raw materials, peripheral locations often lacked the money to conduct basic financial transactions. Those fur farmers in North America in the 17th and 18th century even traded in buck skins to complement the limited number of British, Dutch, French and Spanish coins they could get their hands on.

So, I personally am less excited about living the cold, dark, dirty and difficult life of 400 years ago. I am willing to put up with cell phone calls at inappropriate times, around-the-clock emails, bank account vigilance and even smog for the privilege of feeling warm, clean and fed and being capable of buying almost anything and going anywhere in this world. 2018 ain’t so bad, really.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Divinely great but confusing

A few days ago, as I was driving along the main road to Acco and passing a neighboring Arab village, I noticed a message painted on the exterior of a house in clear white English letters: God is great.  My initial reaction was not theological but linguistic.  In other words, I wondered which God the houseowner meant.

To explain, if the letters had been in Arabic and read Allah Akbar, I would have known the sign was referring to the Moslem God. Likewise, the sign saying Dieu est grand in France would be referring to the Catholic God although the same sign in Algeria would probably refer to Allah. However, back to our allah akbar, in Iraq, it is not clear whether the Shiite or Sunni master is the subject of the sign.

For that matter, a German Gott ist groß is no less ambivalent as Germany is historically a mixture of Protestant and Catholic provinces. By contrasts, in the American south, that sign in English would most probably refer to the Baptist or other Protestant diety. Likewise, in Spain or South America, Dios es grande is directed at the Catholic commander-in-chief.

The Hebrew version possesses another question.  While there is no dispute among Jews about the identity of the Chief Engineer (we focus our disputes on what exactly he wants us to do), the expression Elohim Gadol has two twists. For some, it imbibes the omnipotence of God.  However, the term is also used in slang to express a complete lack of control.  For example, if asked whether the contractor will finish the job on time, someone could answer Elohim gadol, the English equivalent being God knows.

So, upon seeing that sign, I responded in a typical Israel way: Yes, but.  That is I did not formally disagree but immediately complicated the issue.  Theology can be so confusing.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

18 Karat Israeli

I have spent half my life in Israel. I married Israeli women. I raised my child in Israel. I no longer feel at home in the United States. I would never live in another country.  Still, I am not 100% Israeli nor will ever be.  I have to accept that fact.

My impurity goes beyond my accent or love of American football and baseball, remnants of my previous life. It is expressed in subtle things, experiences shared by most Israelis but not by me. It is too late to correct them either even if I so wanted.

First of all, I do not eat or like bamba, a fried peanut snack adored by Israelis of all religions. In my mind, it reeks of burnt peanuts but for people of my adopted homeland, brings back memories and causes their mouth to water. The closest American cultural equivalent is root beer, a non-exportable American product.

Likewise, winter in Israel is not snow but instead krembo, a sweet, fluffy marshmallow foam in a thin chocolate shell wrapped in aluminum foil. Traditionally, ice cream production stopped in September and was replaced by these krembo.  The debates on the proper technique for eating it are as elaborate as those regarding Oreo cookies. In my mind, it is a waste of calories but good luck persuading any Israeli of that.

In terms of coming of age, aside from getting sick drunk, a universal ceremony, there are two rites that almost all Israelis go through.  The first one occurs in 7th grade, when all school children are required to prepare their family tree, at least for a few generations back, and interview their grandparents, a one-time honor for many of the golden age. In the past, this search for the past could be a little difficult, even strange, as the Holocaust erased many of the people behind the names but that is less true today. I have to admit that I have very little idea of my distant roots nor am I, even today, that interested in it.  Still, Israeli children, albeit under coercion, know from whence they came, not a bad thing really.

The other rite is the famous bakkum even if not experienced by all Israelis for one reason or another. It is the sorting center of the Army where potential recruits go at the age of 18 after they finish high school.  From what I understand, they are poked inside and out, assessed and classified and then sent to prospective training bases or home, as applicable.  I was 28 years old, married and suffered from hypoglycemia. IDF was not sufficiently desperate for manpower to want me, as Uncle Sam would say. So, I never passed through that gate. In some ways, I do regret not having passed down that road as it would have an interesting experience.  On the other hand, as my first wife once said, I have no idea of how to probably make a bed.  Oh well, it is far too late to remedy.

Lastly, most Israelis have spent a day at the beach in Tiberias, a town located next to the Sea of Galilee, a name no less misleading than Greenland. To explain, it is a fresh water lake 166.7 km2 (64.4 sq. mi) at its fullest, which was some 20 years ago at least, and located in a basin. In the summer, it is the largest natural sauna I have ever seen.  The beach itself is mainly sand, to give it credit, but neither very long nor deep. Any beauty the location has, mainly very early morning, is ruined by the mass pilgrimage of Israelis of all ages to its beaches on holidays, especially Independence Day.  Every square meter is occupied.  Imagine a Tokyo subway with barbeques. One man’s poison is another man’s meat. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love living in Israel but everything has a limit.  The search for purity does not justify being totally miserable. I am perfectly contented being 18 karat Israeli.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Musical normalcy

It is hard to unlearn a mistake.  Whether first learning how to play an instrument or having heard a song sung in a certain way, once it gets into your brain, the error become a norm and refuses to leave.  For example, those that first read National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings will eternally think that Frito and Pepsi are the actual names of the lead characters. In my cases, I can recall the lyrics to several songs from youth but not exactly those that would be found in the Wikipedia entry.

For example, there is the famous Disney classic from the movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, whose lyrics are as follows:

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to school we go
With switchblade knives and forty fives, heigh, heigh ho
Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to school we go
With handgranades and razor blades, heigh heigh, heigh ho.

It should be noted, in all fairness, the movie version does not describe the manner of their return at all. So, we merely added details.

Regarding that same love of school, being forced to go to Hebrew school, some of us used to chant:

Why do we have to rush, rush, rush? why do we have to rush, rush, rush? Why do we have to rush, rush, rush, to go to Hebrew school.

I just asked my wife what the real words are:

Hava narisha, rash, rash, rash, repeat, vaharishim.

It is actually a Purim song, rather joyful:

Another song that we (collective responsibility) massacred is the classic “David Melech Israel, chai , chai vekiam”, which came out as follows:

Coca Cola, ginger ale, hi fi, pizza pie

Slightly different, I admit, but sweeter in a certain way and much more modern.  The original (as sung by more innocent children):

Of course, popular songs did not escape our damage.  One of the most important influences of my youth, MAD magazine, thoughtfully provided the lyrics to a leading single of the time, Downtown by Petula Clark:
Here is just a sample:

When you're at home and life is getting so hungry,
There's a meat you know,
Ground round.

You're in a hurry, but there's no need to scurry
It will help to know
Ground round.

Just mix it with some mac and cheese and you will look so witty
Add some Campbell's beef stock and your eatin' really nifty 
"How can you lose?"

There is no way you can err.
Some of the recipes double, and go in the fridge, cook slow

Cook brown
All meals taste great for sure
Ground round.
Use any place that your
Ground's sound
Won't taste like leather of shoe

And the original, not bad in their own right.

Nobody was safe from our mischief. Even the Beatles had their famous submarine dirtied:

We all live in the yellow submarine.
It used to be green but we couldn’t keep it clean.

Actually, our version showed much more creativity than the original, which merely repeated the words “Yellow submarine” as you can hear yourself:

So, this small sample shows how normal is how normal was learned, for better or worse, the latter in the case of my piano playing.  I am sure everybody has a catalog of songs in the brains whose lyrics do not match the youtube version.  As they say, variety is the spice of life.