Saturday, December 31, 2016

Head and shoulders, knees and toes

Every child learns the names of the body parts very early in life, often by song. Later on in life, they learn that these same words for body parts have meanings as verbs. The latter use is generally but not always related to the body part itself.

Starting at the top, to head a project is to run it while to head a ball in European football is to hit with your head, of course. To be scalped is to lose your head, literally, while scalping is privately selling tickets at higher price. Staying in the area, people must face their problems in order to solve them, i.e., deal with them directly. If someone is eyeing you, you are being observed while nosing around involves asking questions. Bad mouthing is making unpleasant references whereas teething is process of babies growing, well, teeth. While cheeky is not a verb, it is definitely not polite.  For that matter, chin-chin refers to the sound of glasses clinking (for a toast) and has nothing to do with the body part. Finally, as long as an argument is limited to jawing, the police will not intervene as it is all talk.

Descending, necking is what teenagers do in the back of the car or on a bench seat, i.e., long kisses, probably because of the various angles the neck takes (Interesting to know whether and how teenage giraffes do it). To shoulder a load is to bear it, as any backpacker knows. It is real fun to rib people, to make fun of them, as long as you know they have a sense of humor, with the other direction significantly less amusing. To arm people is provide them a weapon, something more dangerous than what nature provided them. For getting through crowds, you need to know how to elbow your way through, which involves using that joint aggressively. Handing something over does involve that appendix but not necessarily in a friendly way, even sometimes at gun point. If you are fingered, you should feel identified or insulted, as applicable. Thumbing is hitching for ride, which is signaled in the United States putting out your thump. Finally, couples need to back each other when dealing with children by supporting the other's decision.

On to the southern hemisphere, to be hip (grantedly not a verb) is to be cool and up to date, at least in the language of the a few generations ago. Once upon a time, when you ran out of gas in a remote location, you had to leg it to the next gas station, meaning to walk. Being kneed is very painful because the knee is a very hard joint. If you have to foot the bill, you pay out of your wallet. Getting your dog to heel on command is a basic part of canine training.  Finally, to toe the line (not tow!) is obey the rules and not go over the line.

Some of these examples are clearly prime material for Amelia Bedelia while others are child's play, so to speak.

Monday, December 26, 2016

News blackout

I come from a political family. My parents came from politically active families. At the dinner table, we discussed the Vietnam War and Watergate, not the price of bread. My father at the age of almost 91 still religiously reads two newspapers every day and discusses the articles with my mother.  I myself followed events in the recent US election with close attention and voted in every Israeli election since I have been here.

So, it is with great sadness that I have gradually but almost totally entered a self-imposed news blackout. To explain, I am very upset about policies developments around the world, to put it mildly.  I despise what Putin and Erdogan mean for their countries and the entire world. The elections of Natanyahu and Trump have driven me into despair. Their elections depress me not only because of their policies, which are based on negative visions in my opinion, but also because of the large number of people that share and bought that vision. In short, I am politically depressed.

My reaction, alas, has been to withdraw. I do not want to hear about Trump's appointees or Netanyahu's decisions. I know that they will disturb me very much. Like the old Jew in the Warsaw ghetto that kept on complaining that the new landlords did not want to heat the flat and consciously ignored that the Germans were trying to starve the Jews until they could find a more efficient way to kill them, I choose to ignore (not deny) the current situation. I deep in my heart want to wake up in few years to a better world, where tolerance and peace are the norm, not hatred and violence. Of course, I will do my civic duty and support anybody with those ideals but recognize that this is a waiting time until the tide turns, as it always does eventually.

Of course, my news blackout is not total. I still check the scores of my various teams, who also are not doing very well (Lakers, Bengals, Pirates), but there is hope for next year. I do check the weather report as well as look for any changes in the VAT rate since these items has a direct effect on my life. Yet, I refuse to peer into the bigger picture although I know I will bear its consequences no less. I cannot say that my response is very mature or brave but for now it is all I can do. To destroy Descartes, I don't think so it does not exist.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Teaching then and now

Computers have changed all aspects of life, including in Israel.  It is hard to imagine how people coped without instant, mobile and powerful computing devices.  After finishing a lesson a few days ago, I thought remembered how I used to prepare and teach a lesson when I began my career, some 30 years ago. The comparison with today really brought that message home.

I recall how careful I had to be organizing the materials in those days (for high school).  Photocopying had to be organized a few days in advance.  My teacher's briefcase was very wide and filled with numerous nylon bags, each with its handout, my "kit" if things went wrong as well as for that day's lesson. In a sandwich bag, I kept my chalk, which had almost been replaced by markers but not yet. At the start of the lesson, I checked role and confirmed that each student had brought his/her book or pamphlet (without which they could not participate in the lesson). Any change in the lesson required me to write on the board, preferably legibly, quite a challenge for me since I have the great ability to write illegibly in three alphabets, Latin, Hebrew and Russian. Of course, teaching was always in the framework of the book chosen by the staff. In other words, the material was not always relevant or up-to-date nor were the exercises exactly what I wanted. Bringing auto-visual materials to class was such an administrative hassle that I never did. At the end of the lesson, students handed in their homework handwritten on paper, adding to the paper load In other words, lessons were heavy, teacher centered and very structured.

My lesson this week was quite different. I walked in some five minutes early with a very thin portfolio bag, almost empty, basically containing attendance lists, pens and my glasses (the last change is not positive).  I downloaded the word texts from the Moodle site and turned on the overhead project and setup the YouTube video I wanted to show. I began the lesson by showing the students (college this time) a video on public speaking technique. After a short discussion, I had the students discuss in groups the organization of an article, which they downloaded from that same Moodle site, followed by the writing in pairs of a summary based on that discussion in class, of course in Word. I reminded them to use spell-check before sending it to my email and told them that I would return their graded summary by email with all editing clearly marked in track changes. One of the students had a question about sentence syntax. I opened up a blank Word document and wrote several versions to help explain my point.  My feeling was that we, or at least I, had had a stressless lesson.

It should be noted that the changes are truly fine and dandy as long as the computer and Internet work properly. If not, we are back to good old days, without the chalk of course. Still, to paraphrase, teaching sure ain't what it used to be.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ode to Hamin

Some regions have four distinct seasons.  Spring and fall are sufficient distinct and long to have an identity of their own.  Alas, the Middle East has only two seasons with vague transitions between them, both almost identical in terms of temperature and far too short to merit more than a "feeling" of change. So, when winter finally arrives, there is a celebration of change after endless months of sun and hot weather.  Unfortunately, this year it arrived one week too late in Israel. The last week in November was marked by high winds, drying everybody's skin, creating shocking amount of static electricity and, the worst, feeding the series of fires, both natural and man-made, that scarred the country.

To everybody's great relief, winter finally arrived on December 1.  Rain, clouds and coolness opened December.  Granted, it was not exactly arctic. Depending on the location, the temperature was in the 10's during the day and above freezing at night. Nor was the rain that steady or strong as in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Still, this is a normal winter, Middle Eastern style. Winter rites could begin.

Winter clothing comes out of the closet. Long lost sweaters and scarves are pulled down and appreciated anew. Boots of all sizes, colors and forms replace the faded sandals and sneakers. The distinctive sound of women's boots can now be heard in every institution. The local version of a winter jacket is now hung prominently in the entrance way.  Those with more sensitive skin or systems already put on their gloves. Winter is definitely here.

Yet, the most salient sign of the new season is the smell of Hamin (or Chulent) this past Friday. In hundreds of thousands of households, religious and non-religious alike, dinner was this traditional Jewish stew. For generations, Jews have prepared this dish, each family and each region in its own manner. This simple dinner brings on multi-sensory connotation, a bit similar to a Thanksgiving turkey to an American or a bouillabaisse to some French.

To those unfamiliar, hamin or chulent, its alternative name, is a slow cooked stew using whatever ingredients are available. On Friday morning, a combination of wheat, potatoes, beans and/or whole eggs are placed in a pot, generally with some meat, such as chicken and beef. After around a half hour on the gas, the pot is put in an oven at round 140 degrees centigrade (284 degrees Fahrenheit), to be served that night or the next day. In many places in the Diaspora, there was a custom for a whole village to use a common oven and not to mark their pot.  This way, poorer families might get luck and get a "rich" meal. If the Sabbath is also a celebration of food, this was a sure-fire method of guaranteeing both happy tongues and stomachs. Believe me, nobody gets up from a Hamin feeling hungry and cold. Also, for the person who has to do the dishes, it is a one-pot meal, making for quick clean up.

So, I, my wife and our two cats (passively in their case) marked the arrival of  winter in a tried and true method,  with a wonderful plate (or two) of hamin.  I can say that after a good dinner, a short walk and a cup of tea, we sat contently the rest of the evening. Now that is winter.