Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A letter home

We are leaving for Tel Aviv in a few hours. Attempts at sleep have, once again, failed. Nerves, jet lag and coffee have ensured that 4AM is no longer a lonely time. So my late night thoughts get the better of me.

Earlier today, we visited the Lone Soldier Center in Jerusalem. Maddie is known there as she has been spending time there and meeting people over the last year because she knows that volunteering is what she truly wants. She did ask me not to get involved in the parent groups on Facebook so as not to embarrass her. She wants to join the military but the old man is still embarrassment. Awesome.

So I typed up this letter in the hopes that it captures a little of what I am feeling, and isn’t too embarrassing.


Dear Israel,

Hi and I hope all is well with you. I’m visiting you, filling up on falafel and spirituality, then heading back home. I know it is unusual to send a letter while I am already here, but it is even more unusual to write to a country. But once I cross one line, I might as well cross them all. So hi.

Here’s the thing – I bought 2 round trip tickets, but on the way back, one of the seats will be empty. My daughter now has an apartment and is hoping to volunteer for the IDF. After a year and a half of service she will reevaluate if she wants to come back to the US (where she was planning to go to college).

Israel, I’m lending you my elder daughter and I’d like to chat with you about this, so pull of a coastline and let’s talk, why not?

Maddie loves Israel. I guess that that is natural – we brought her up sending her to Zionistic camps and schools. We told stories of Israel and showed her pictures of all of our trips. We imbued in her a respect for her religion which has, at its core, an urge to return from exile to a land of our forefathers. We sent her on a summer trip, we took her ourselves and we encouraged her to study in Israel after high school. We wanted her to love Israel and she does and that’s great.

She’s a special girl. She is passionate, curious, intelligent and independent – all things we tried to instill in her so, again, this is on us. And did I mention she loves Israel? We are incredibly proud – she is living the dream that flickered in me, briefly, in 1983. She is reaching a potential that is admirable and inspiring, so we’re proud. And, we’re scared.

She wants to join the army. This amazes me. The idea of doing anything really early in the morning other than writing blog posts and lying awake wondering how one can actually FORGET how to sleep has always confounded me. Long hikes and other physical exertion never made any sense no matter the hour. And I don’t look good in green – I’m big enough to admit that. But it isn’t just about some generic army. You are facing a constant and existential threat. I was worried enough when she walked through your cities and took buses while there were clampdowns because of stabbings, but now she is donning the uniform and volunteering to be a target because she truly loves you and wants to do her part to protect you. She is strong (more strong than even she realizes) and she wants to be part of something important. As a family member, as a community member, a student, a Jew, she already was, but for her, doing her part as a member of tzahal will make her feel like she is going to be part of something even greater. And I applaud that. But in a country always on the brink of war, how can a parent not worry?

But, and I know this, most of the young people in Israel serve so my worry is not unique. Every parent thinks his or her child is special, so I am not unique. It would be easy to reassure me in this way and tell me to toughen up and deal with my worry because my kid will be fine. But Israel, I need to tell you, that isn’t very reassuring. I know – you can’t give me anything more, but I need you to know where I stand on this. I am proud and I am frightened. I am amazed and yet I expected nothing else. We knew she had to leave the nest and fly but she is flying very high, very far and very quickly, and when I look at her, I still see a baby.

She’s yours for now. Please protect her so she can protect you.

Dan

P.S. Sorry if my thoughts are mixed up. Trying to come to terms with this is difficult, but doing so on 2 hours of sleep is even more so.

d

Customer disservice

This second day was one of contrasts. I learned a lot and not all of it good, but the most important lesson of them all is, "Hey, shut up, that's my cow."

A preface -- I love Jerusalem. I love Israel. Really, deeply and sincerely. That having been said, this place is getting me down and that's not cool.

I was up early (4:30 ish) and when it was a more civilized I laved and donned. I picked Maddie up and we set off on a day of errands. I insisted that we stop off for coffee. This is vacation and I won't be tense without copious amounts of caffeine, dagnabit. We stopped at a coffee place and I, sensing the approaching heat, saw a sign saying "Ice coffee" so I ordered that. What came out was a thick sludge-mix of soft serve coffee ice cream and a milk based coffee slurpy. It was offensive to the tongue. I had to find another store (Aroma Cafe) at which to get a scalding cup of bitter stuff to cleanse my palate of the sickly sweet intrusion that masqueraded as coffee. Do people really drink that stuff?

Maddie bought dried pineapple, attesting to another of my parenting failures.

We started pricing hot plates, standing fans, microwaves, hot water urns and such and then started buying -- not the big things yet, but a curtain rod for the shower, a Sabbath lamp, some cheap plastic storage pieces, towels and like that. We seemed to find each thing in one store. There are 17 different stores which all appear to sell the same thing. The difference was the one product we needed. Even the bigger stores didn't have all the things we needed. The closet rod was found in one housewares store because one woman recognized the bracket I carried with me and happened to have the exact bar made for it. It still had to be cut to size and that had to wait until some guy who worked across the street showed up but it got done. That pointed out 2 real ins for the Israeli stores -- in the small stores, the proprietor knows every piece of product and where it is, no matter how messy or cluttered the store appears, and every worker is more than happy to take time out to help you search, if only to tell you that you are doing the job wrong. Also, people from one store were very comfortable going to ask for help from people from other stores. The idea of cut throat competition is reduced. To get everything back we needed a cart so the guy at one store lent us his and just asked that we return it as soon as we could. We stopped off at a cell phone store to sign Maddie up and get a SIM card for her phone, the metal closet bar, freshly sawed fell and gouged my glasses, and we got back. It was about 1PM.

I started fixing up parts of the apartment with the pieces we bought and Maddie went to go get the address of the bank branch so we could got later in the afternoon and open an account. When she did so, she found that it closed at 2PM! So we jumped back up and, still sweating and tired, we ran to the bank. At 1:45 we looked for help and were directed to get a number from the machine that sets up the queues. We did -at 1:47 - M103. The system which called the "next" customer then jumped over our number repeatedly. So we sat and waited. At :20 a woman asked us why we were still here. When we explained that we were trying to open an account she was amazed. She said that the bank was closed. We reminded her that we got a number when it was still open. She was shocked that we had even been let into the bank and said that one does not simply walk in and start an account. She asked how we got the number M103 and we said, "we pushed the button on the machine." She asked, "What button" and we said, "The one that says 'Open a new account.'" She was flummoxed. It doesn't work that way, she insisted. We had to come back first thing tomorrow. We said we couldn't but asked when the bank closed on Wednesdays. 2PM was again the answer. What about Thursday? 4PM but don't come in the afternoon. So with that annoying piece of advice we are planning on being first in line Thursday morning.

Except

Maddie had emailed the bank last week to confirm that I could write a check from my SU account in order to populate her new account. They said, "sure can." It seems that it was opposite day and no one told me. I asked the same question, just to confirm and the woman insisted that, not only couldn't I pay by check, but I could even have my US bank wire the money over. I have to walk in with the proper amount of cash (minimum 10,000 Israeli Shekels, approximately $2,500. But where am I supposed to get that money? She had no idea but told us that that was the way things worked and goodbye. We hear that bank branches are highly cliquish and if you don't come in with an existing customer who can vouch for you and your coolness, you can't hang out with them. We had no such intermediary so we have to go find the nerd-geek bank.

A note about bankers and other Israeli workers -- they don't dress up the way professionals do in the US. Everyone dresses up like it is the weekend -- some in casual-Friday clothes, some in sabbath garb and some in Sunday at the beach clothes. All just to leave the house. And for the larger institutions, there is no such thing as customer service. Nomi and David explain it as a middle eastern cultural affect but I think that they are all jerks who should be nicer to me. In Israel, everyone is so keen on copying the US: Phone numbers (which have only 1 plus 9 digits) are reformatted to make them look more like American numbers. Stores have names that that take English words (the word "pharm" is found in many drug store names, the Hebrew word "minimarket" is "minimarket" and other words like "cheap" and "best" appear everywhere. English is ubiquitous.) In fact there is a store named "Ricoshet" because they just took the word "ricochet" and vocalized the final letter and transliterated. But for all the copying, they have not tried to include the American sense that the customer is always right. The small stores tried to help but the big ones were horrible.

Speaking of which, my sister called Ikea today. Remember Ikea? There's a blog post about Ikea. The 3rd party company responsible for delivery of orders placed on their website called and they said that they don't and won't deliver. It's a long story but the bottom line is that my sister reminded this company that their entire business model is delivery for online orders. It took a number of calls but eventually one nice woman said that she would do her best to wait until tomorrow to crush Maddie's dreams of sleeping on a bed, with a real pillow.

We walked back to the shuk, returned the cart and met up with the Lauderdales at Beer Bazaar. They sell beer there so Maddie got a lemon ade. And a large pretzel. I got spicy beef jerky and a nice stout and Steve got a pastrami sammich and an ale Now it is like you were there! This was my first meal in the shuk and it was interesting. We spoke with the Lauderdales and worked on some possible solutions. No details here -- someone is always watching. Suffice to say, I am incredibly appreciative even if this doesn't work out. Maddie fell asleep after her food but eventually I woke her up, we said goodbye to Steve and headed back. On the way she bought more dried fruit and we found other little items (crazy glue, a small digital clock, a charity box and a washing cup, suction cup hooks etc.) We made it back to wash up (I worked on furniture for 5 minutes and Maddie unpacked a little, or at least thought about it -- got that, Julie?) and then went to visit Nomi and David. We reviewed the day's craziness and made some plans for tomorrow (if Ikea doesn't come through, we have to rent a van in Tel Aviv and drive to Ikea ourselves and then drive back to Jerusalem. Crazy, right?) I helped Maddie clean up and set up more and then took her garbage out. She was too tired to eat so I said goodnight and walked to Moshiko where I ate everything, and came back.

Tomorrow, my elder child takes her first official step towards her army service. I have much to say about that but wish that while I said it, she at least had a bed.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The big move, day one

Just a preface -- I am planning to write something more sentimental but first I have to catch up on the last 36 hours.

The bottom line is that I am accompanying Maddie as she settles in to her new digs in Israel so this trip is a vacation of sorts but also chock full of errands and bittersweet non-chocolate based moments.

Our flight was Sunday afternoon, at 1:30 so we headed out to Newark. Security was mostly uneventful though Maddie was pulled aside as the TSA agent was concerned about some piece of metal built into her shoe. He interrogated said shoe and let us continue, convinced that neither we, nor the show, was up to no good.

The flight was OK. I recall El Al flights from my youth -- massive planes with 500 people jockeying for overhead space and blocking aisles. There was a lot less of that. Granted, overhead space was at a premium (my seat didn't actually have an overhead bin so I had to find another spot but no one then seemed to be stuck because I took his space) but it all worked out. The 777-2000ER configuration is mostly 9 people per row, 3-3-3 but row 34 is 2-3-2 and the middle seat in the 3 part was supposedly unsold so each of us was hoping for an aisle seat and 1 neighbor. When we boarded, we found that the middle seat did sell to an older woman who was then moved so that a young man in another row didn't have to sit next to a woman. Instead he sat next to me which God said is better. I'm unconvinced. Maddie sat next to an unaccompanied 11 year old Israeli girl who viewed the possibility hat I would sit next to her with fear and disgust. So there's that.

The seats were designed by people who did lengthy study into the positions in which the human body can fall asleep and who made sure that the seats did not lend themselves to any of those positions. The seat goes back but not enough. The arm rests are not quite wide enough for arm resting and the width is too narrow. So sleep didn't much happen despite the benadryl, lack of sleep the night before, sugar and wine. I was tired and loopy, but up. So I ate everything. Everything. In my row, a gentleman had ordered the mega ultra kosher meal (as opposed to my run of the mill kosher meal) but his wife packed him a set of meals so he kindly asked me to eat his food and I complied.

I did a Thursday, 2 Friday, 2 Saturday and a Sunday crossword puzzle, read a short story, watched 5 episodes of Nir V'Gali and looked at the clock 8 billion times. The plane is smaller that others on which I have taken this flight so when the huddled masses assembled to pray there was no breathing room and I feared that someone, in religious fervor, would accidentally open the plane's door and we would all die. Very spiritual moments they were. The movie selection was an interesting combination of newer movies I didn't want to see and older movies I have never wanted to see. There were also episodes of TV shows I don't watch and games I don't play.

The bathroom was right behind our row. This was convenient for approximately 3 minutes out of the flight. The rest of the time, the cycle of "light, flush, light" was less welcome. There was also a large number of the two worst kinds of people to fly with -- kids and adults, so it was a noisy flight full of people who chose not to give me their food.

We landed at 7am local time and deplaned quickly. At the baggage claim, 2 of our bags came out quickly but the bag karma kicked in and the other 2 waited until the last moment to make an appearance. Customs and such were straightforward and within an hour, we emerged into the ridiculous heat. Our options for getting to Jerusalem were a bus (nope...) a cab (over 60 dollars but convenient) and a sheirut, a shared mini bus -- 15 dollars each but less convenient. We did that because it seemed that we would be dropped off first. We weren't. First, they had to find exactly 8 other people to fill the mini bus. Then we had to change seats so that religious woman didn't have to sit next to the big. He sat next to me and the AC wasn't quite on enough to help me in my jet lagged glory deal with that. If one can be said to pass out while still being completely awake, I did that. We toured all around Jerusalem dropping most everyone off while the driver used mock sincerity to deal with his lot in life ("Sure I can drop you of there...I will drop you off ANY WHERE you want...just say so, I live to serve you...ya jerk...whatever you say.")

A note about Jerusalem. It is a city of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that are no where near each other even as they are contiguous. It is spread out like Philadelphia, but is a series of small mountains so "next neighborhood" means "up and down and all around, just to go 200 feet." Imagine trying to get a sense of Manhattan while driving in a bus in the smallest streets in Greenwich village and then to Chinatown, but put both on separate hills and add in a bunch of speed bumps and heat. I have been in Jerusalem for almost 24 hours and still (no joke) haven't even see the old city from a distance. I have no idea how, but every neighborhood we have been through has taken us in the wrong direction and yet we are still in the same city. The is a city designed by uncivil engineers. Everything is made of blocks of stone configured for maximum "hey, do I look like a wall to you?" If there was a wall, instead of knocking it down, just add another. And why pave that parking lot? You have to learn to drive on rocks sometime, right? The twists and turns make Boston's street alignment look reasonable (and I mean downtown, not the Back Bay).

When we got to Maddie's street we discovered that she doesn't live at #1, but at #3. This means that all the forms we filled out giving her address were wrong. The biggest problem, we assumed, would be with the expected furniture delivery. We spent two weeks ordering things from Ikea and arranging with the out sourced delivery to ensure that the stuff would be here on the day of our arrival so we could spend day one setting up. When we found the address was wrong we felt it meet to call them and make sure they had the right address. Maddie called and found that the voice mailbox was full. She sent an email but we worried. She called Ikea directly and waited on hold for 45 minutes before a surly man insisted that he couldn't help her but would be sure "pass the message along." My sister called back and made more headway. The woman she spoke with said 2 things: 1. They were all backed up and hadn't even bought the furniture yet and 2. Why would anyone think they were going to deliver today? My sister explained that we had spoken with the woman 2 weeks earlier and confirmed this. The woman checked and agreed that, actually, yes, that conversation had happened but so what. Nomi insisted that they make this right and they countered with "we'll get right on that." So, still no furniture, but now they are actively not delivering it to the correct address. Baby steps.

There is another subplot related to phone contact information, but I will save it for some other time when I have properly forgotten about it.

Maddie and I (after she did some light unpacking and we explored the apartment with a cousin or two) walked over to Zol Stock and Max Stock. These are not siblings, but two "everything" stores. Parking in Israel is tough to come by. When the state was founded in 1948, brave men and women took all the good spots and have built cities around their parking jobs. So now there is a bustling metropolis with cars which are not going anywhere, so people have to walk everywhere. The walk (uphill, both ways, in the heat) wasn't horrible but we had to carry everything back -- storage bins, laundry baskets, garbage cans, aluminum foil, shampoo etc. I'm not really physically fit so between the jet lag, the heat and the carrying things, I decided that abandoning lucid thought was my safest course.

Next, a #15 bus to Talpiyot to look at mattress toppers (for a mattress that had not ben delivered) and hardware to fix the clothes cabinet. Note - if you want to save money, don't shop in a store with the word "American" in the name. That's code for "Overpriced, entitled and with no one to vote for." We looked at back packs (90 liters), sleeping bags, towels, a drum kit (I was bored...) and eventually we found a pillow top and a nice guy who under charged us and volunteered to deliver it as soon as it arrived. And we have had such success with orders and delivery, that how could we say "no"? The hardware store was a madhouse. I have enough of a challenge trying to get across "yes, I'd like fries with that" In Hebrew. Trying to say "no, I want the larger diameter curtain rod, the bolt with the expanded threads and a ratchet set" to a moving target pushed me to my limits. So we bought a few of the rong thing (so that we wouldn't look foolish), Maddie got her house key copied (in Israel, they don't use a key copying machine. The guy uses sarcasm to cut the key down to size repeatedly) and we walked through the indoor mall (much louder than an American mall, with more stores with the name "American" in them.)

We searched and searched for the Emanuel store. The address is #6. Two entire, separate buildings are #4 and next to one there is a private residence, #8. We kept circling, looking for the tear in the space-time continuum that would open the portal to the other dimension where the number 6 exists. A man took pity on us and asked (he really did, in Hebrew), "Have you found what you are looking for? I noticed that you have been walking around for 45 minutes." It turns out that in Israel, if you take 3 lefts, that isn't the same as taking a right. Three lefts means "up." Or something like that. The Emanuel store (after all that) had nothing but solid AC. So we hung around there for a few minutes.

On the way to the bus stop, we saw a woman get hit by a car. It was actually a beautiful moment as an Israeli Jew spoke with an Arab Christian in English about not getting the police involved. Truly heartwarming. We hung out at David and Nomi's until Maddie went to go shower. I headed back to her apartment so we could order Pizza Hut (it was delivered soon, but the flip side is that it wasn't very good), argue about garbage disposal, fail at setting up her television, and say our good nights. I returned to pass out and wake up at 4AM local time, complete confused about what day it is.

More updates as events warrant.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Madvice

The elder child is preparing to start making a life so I have cobbled together some bits of "wisdom".

Madd, I speak to you now. Please read this and know that everything I write comes from a place of deep sincerity and love and is borne of experience. My job is to help you avoid pain and sadness, and know how to deal with them when they can't be avoided.

In terms of life advice, I recommend you start with Polonius’ advice to Laertes and Ophelia. Polonius might have been an annoying buffoon, but he (I know…Shakespeare) gets a lot of things right in his speech to his kids. In fact, some of the bits that I will be writing down stem from Hamlet. Others come from other places – you might recognize them. These are in no particular order, some duplicate others and I might have stolen ideas from any number of sources.

Give charity. Ayn Rand is right about a lot and wrong about a lot. Take your pocket change every day and put it aside for charity.

Resist the urge to impute motives or characterize actions, like “She, because she is ______________, did ________.” Judge and respond to the action, not the actor.

Think geometrically, not linearly. A wrong answer, a negative outcome or other failure can provide a data point for reference, information to guide you or indications for future new questions. Don’t discount it because it is labeled a “failure.”

Religion and faith are important. They might seem silly sometimes but they place you in a community – an important link in a special chain.

Follow some version of the golden rule – treat others and speak to and about others the way you want to be treated, spoken to and spoken about.

You are #2. The person you choose is the person whom you place as #1 and the vulnerability you create is your faith that that person feels the same way and puts you as #1.

Don’t play games. If it does matter to you, say so. Don’t say it doesn’t and expect the other person to figure it out. If it really doesn’t matter to you and it does to someone else, don’t decide that it shouldn’t for anyone else.

Speak to, with and around others the way you want them to speak to, with and around you. Don’t use language you wouldn’t want others to use and try to convey an attitude you want others to reflect.

Step up and get it done – not to make anyone happy, but because that’s the right thing to do.

Don’t tell me why you can’t do it. Just step up and get it done.

Not all things need to be questioned. They can be, but if you question just for the sake of questioning, you should stop to reevaluate.

Not all questions have answers. Sometimes that is a problem, often, it isn’t.

Be hyper-aware of how you are changing and constantly consider how those changes affect the people around you.

Everything you do is important, but everything others do is even more so.

Be ready to laugh at any moment.

Don’t ever carry a balance.

Sometimes speak. Always listen. Sometimes just shut up.

Every penny that goes out had to first be a penny that came in. If you have no plan for how the next one is coming in, don’t let any out.

View responsibility like a uniform but wear it like an evening gown.

Be there early. You can walk around the block to kill time before you make an entrance but you can’t undo a late arrival.

The hardest part of faith is to accept, blindly, that God cares – not just about you, but about everything.

Help before being asked, and help more than is asked for.

It isn’t a favor if you can’t accept it if the person you ask says “no.”

Every moment can be a learning experience but beware, this means that every moment becomes a teaching experience, whether or not you want it to be.

Children hear and see everything.

If there is, anywhere deep down inside, a doubt or a voice that says that it is wrong, it is wrong.

Dress in layers.

Prayer isn’t about the words, but about the connection, but the words are a convenient bridge. Use them.

Awareness is key and information is power – wouldn’t you rather be the one who asked than the one asking?

It is always safer to do without.

Taking a vacation is a luxury not a right. Going on vacation is an extravagance.

Wear a watch.

Make eye contact.

Try not to replace someone else’s judgment with yours because you think you know better. UNLESS you are talking about your children. You don’t need to explain everything to them.

Study Pirkei Avot with your significant other. Don’t just read it. Discuss it. When you are finished, go back and start it again. Take notes in the margins. The advice in it (much reflected here) is even better than Shakespeare.

Read Suzette Haden Elgin’s “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.”

Hugs are free, and priceless.

If you don’t spend when you have it, you will be able to spend when no one has it.

Learn 1 halacha a day. Adopt one new halacha a year.

Take a deep breath and break a challenge down into parts. Make a list of steps. No one step is insurmountable and you aren’t the first to do this and succeed.

Crying has its time and place.

Positive mental attitude. You are above all of this.

If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.

Apologize often, sincerely and completely. Accept apologies gracefully and quickly.

Walk next to someone and hold hands whenever you can.

Not every situation needs to involve blame. We are imperfect people surrounded by imperfect people and mistakes happen. Don’t think the worst, and move on.

You are a fountain of strength. Find it in yourself, share it with others, and accept it when others want to share theirs with you.

Clean up as you cook – don’t wait until the end.

Keep a calendar and write things down on it.

Stuff online might not be eternal, but it is tough to erase. Don't make stupid decisions, but if you do, don't publicize them.

Be your own person.

Set yourself a deadline for any project 2 days before it is actually due.

Focus on the solution, not the problem.

Early is the new on-time. Late is never fashionable. Time is an incredible resource.

Sunscreen, moisturizer, hydration, bug spray. Not necessarily in that order or all at once.

Read Hamlet many times. Find a different hero each time.

Jewelry and makeup are not you. You are you. Present YOU as beautiful and the other stuff won’t be necessary.

Make someone else laugh, think, ask and listen every day.

Be sad on Tisha B’Av not because of a building but because of an awareness that we, as a people, have suffered. Be happy on Purim not because of a single story, but because we, as a people, have survived.

Sometimes you must act. Sometimes you can be content to react.

Helping means doing what is asked for, not just what you think needs to be done.

Clean your ears.

Make a promise, keep a promise. Make a commitment, keep a commitment. Imply a promise, be aware that someone else is going to make the inference.

Wrong is wrong and right is right even if no one is watching and no one will ever know.

Do more than you say and more than anyone thinks you will do.

Life is in the details. Care about details.

Wash the dishes as you use them so you won’t suddenly be hungry, have no clean dishes, but have a sink full of things to wash.

If you do the right thing for the wrong reason I think it still mostly counts.

Learn to file your important papers – charge slips, receipts, medical documents, tax papers – make a folder and file it.

Keep the packaging for at least 6 months and the packing slips and sales paperwork for longer.

Keep your important documents (birth certificates, passport etc) organized and labeled in a safe place.

Make a pro/con chart and think through the consequences for each important decision, but choose your battles – sometimes being rationally right won’t change someone’s emotional decision. Get on board and be supportive regardless.

Dress properly, behave properly and work your tush off – don’t let the fact that others don’t do these things justify slacking off.

Leave a room cleaner than when you entered it.

Yes, get the fries. Then share the fries. Don’t count how many each person has.

A good conversation has more than 2 sides, talking, listening, considering, and mutual respect.

Don’t give people a hard time because they don’t do what you think they should do.

Recognize effort and process in others and assume the best motives.

Set your clothes out the night before.

Appreciate Shabbat. It is refreshing and an opportunity. It seems like a burden but it is an incredible gift.

Appreciate what you have while you have it. Take 5 minutes every day to remind yourself of the people in your life, your creature comforts and your health. Imagine what life would be like if any of those was absent.

Treat obligations like obligations and voluntary decisions like obligations.

Relish simplicity.

Always say please and thank you.

Avoid conflict.

Listen, don’t just hear (this applies to conversations and music equally).

Police your brass and watch your corners.

Defensive driving requires that you do the thinking for everyone around you and anticipate their worst behavior. Don’t expect them to change, just be ready to react.

Don’t go places alone, or with someone you wouldn’t want to be alone with.

Judge people favorably even when there is little reason to do so.

Realize that everyone has a thing. You may not see it or know about it, but everyone has something in his or her life which makes things tough.

Sometimes, suck it up and figure out how to deal with it. It isn’t as bad and you will have time for a breakdown later. Right now, deep breath, make it work.

Don’t make a claim or an accusation that you can’t substantiate with data or evidence at a moment’s notice and don’t ask a question on cross examination that you don’t already have the answer to.

Never take delight in someone else’s suffering. You will want to. Don’t.

Establish your context and ground rules and don’t argue outside of your boundaries.

Someone who disagrees with you presents you with an opportunity to learn about his point of view and refine yours.

Violence is really only rarely the answer. But when it is, be ready and trained to use it properly.

See how many of these you can connect to ideas from Pirkei Avot.

Lead by example.

Process matters – be transparent.

Empathy is the trait that underscores the golden rule in most every culture. If it is the one thing all people agree on, it is probably worth espousing.

Don’t ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do.

Never miss an opportunity to do a chessed.

Tradition is incredibly important.

Eyes up when walking around. Don’t be a slave to a device.

Want is very different from need. Be careful which one you use, and when.

Buy when you need and because you need, not because there is a sale.

Admitting you don’t know something is not a weakness. Not learning it when you get the chance is.

Billy Joel – listen to the lyrics. Which song? All of them.

Be there for others.

When you are asked for help remember – you might have done this before but for the other guy, this might be the first time. Give the help a newbie would need, with explanations.

Find what interests and excites you and be better at it than anyone else in the world and then send your time helping everyone else get better at it.

Everything you do, everything you say affects other people. If you stop while walking, the person behind you has to react. If you yawn while discussing something, the other person has to decide if there is meaning. You may not intend it but there is meaning infused in every gesture. When you drive, when you speak, when you sit in a chair -- everything you do and are has ripples. Unless you live as a hermit, your behaviors touch those around you. Be aware, every moment, of the impact your existence has on others.

Even the choices you make that seem to be internal find a way of getting out and having an effect.

If you vent, expect advice. If you want to ignore the advice don't be surprised if the same person doesn't want to hear you vent again about the same thing. As my father used to say, "If you didn't take the medicine, I don't want to hear you keep complaining that it hurts."

Remember how proud we all are of you and pay that forward.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Last Minute Tisha B'Av Thoughts

Most of us are pretty good people. I know a bunch of you and I have to admit – on the whole, you are reasonable, decent and law abiding citizens. So maybe that’s why we have lost our urgency when it comes to t’shuva. Our sense of self and awareness of the fact that we are all doing Ok makes it seem less necessary to list our sins, cry over our misdeeds and make sincere resolutions about improving.

And then, when we do re3cite a litany of transgressions we notice that the text is written in the plural. We get to one and we say “For the sin we committed with food and drink.” “Phew,” we sigh, “That one has to be in the plural so I can pray on behalf of all the people because I certainly didn’t do that one.” Then a few sins later we say, “For the sin we committed with foolish talk.” Well I did do that but it is in the plural because we ALL do it – I’m not the only one at fault here.” Where is the singular? The “I sinned”? That is in the personal confession of the Kohen Gadol, which we read about in the mussaf prayer, not in the ne’ilah. That's not for me -- I'm a pretty decent person.

Eventually, we take the plural language which is supposed to unite us as a people and hide behind it. So when the gates of repentance are closing, we say, “Nu? So, ok, the gates are closing, but as an individual I’m doing fine. I am pretty sure that I’m good with repenting and atonement. I’ll say the words because there are other people who need my help, and because there are sins so endemic to being alive that I should acknowledge that we are all guilty of them. And then ne’ilah is over and we go back to our lives.

How can we balance this out? Those gates don’t inspire the kind of fear that they should. We need another event; one that is personal and singular, to remind us that this isn’t about passing the buck, but about owning up to something significant. Interestingly, what gets to me as a person might have to be the realization that my individual behavior caused a national tragedy and I have to rebuild more than just myself.

Someone asked me today, when I told him about my fasting and mourning, why it makes sense to do this – to mourn over an event which took place about 2000 years ago. My glib reaction was to point out that the impact of the destruction of the temple has lasting effects even today. I am in exile, I do not have the kind of theo-centric life I should have.

But I think I was missing something. The destruction of the temple, that is, the loss of the mechanism through which I can achieve proper atonement, and realize a national identity came not because of a litany of pluralized sins. The sages teach that sin’at chinam, baseless hatred between one person and another caused the destruction of the nation of Israel.

So on Tisha B’Av, I have to take stock of just one sin, and one that is personal – how I deal with other people. This isn’t about some list or technical categories, and isn’t something that “they” did or we all do. The fact is, the temple hasn’t been rebuilt. If we were truly over that negative behavior just between one person and another, if we really atoned for the sin that caused the national stain, it would be wiped away. With fire the temple was destroyed, but with fire it will be rebuilt. The fire was on an interpersonal level, so the redeeming fire must be earned on that same level.

On Yom Kippur, ironically, we achieve a personal and singular atonement by rattling off the pluralized and communal sins. But that is incomplete if we forget about the other half – Tisha B’Av, when we are capable of bringing about a national redemption by focusing on an individual, singular sin.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Wasted Booth

I have said it before and it has never been more true -- I am not a political person. Fact is, politicians are all liars and the political system is corrupt. Even the honest politicians are liars; it isn't always intentional but the exigencies of politics demand it. The only people who can make it in the system are those who have, at some point, compromised, or changed to appeal to one group or another. In other words, lied.

So I generally look towards elections with a sense of distaste and dread. I live my life driven by something someone once told me: no matter who gets elected, the next day I will have to wake up, go to work, do my job well and come home. Sure, some of the details might slowly change, but my day-to-day existence will be pretty much the same. The upcoming presidential election, though, has driven me to take a pretty loud and firm position.

I am strongly considering voting for a third-party candidate.

Honesty moment -- this wouldn't be the first time for me. In certain previous elections, when the outcome was foregone, I felt that I could best use my useless vote by helping pad the numbers of a third party so that it might get a touch more recognition from the major party platforms or might earn a spot on a national stage through federal matching funds. But in this election there is a chance that I will vote for a third party because I have to.

I have told this to people. That's mistake number one. One should never discuss politics with anyone ever. Nothing comes of those conversations in the way of persuasion.

All that results is animus.

That's a fact, look it up here. I usually get people saying that my third party vote is equivalent to 'throwing my vote away.' Often, the statement is made with a tone of exasperation and frustration, like I am some protesting child who doesn't realize that cutting off my nose to spite my face won't make anyone else smell any better, or something like that. The details are unclear, but they don't like it. So I am going to present my argument for voting third party -- not to convince you to do so as you are free to vote whatever your conscience demands, but so that you can see that I come to my potential decision after a reasonable and logical process, not capriciously. [As a side note, in order to keep my personal reasons nice and vague, I will be eschewing particular examples...people seem to think that, when confronted by details, if they can argue the details, they have demonstrated a flaw in the underlying thinking. So I have specifics but I am withholding them.]

Point the first: The claim that I am wasting my vote is flat out wrong. Even were I only voting in order, as stated above, to increase visibility and awareness of a third party, if that party represents who I am and what I believe, how can that be a waste? Why should anyone ever have to apologize for participating in the process honestly? I am not a politician that I should have to lie to make some statement.

Point the second: I truly believe that we, as a nation, are not being best represented by the iterations of the two major parties which exist now. I am not necessarily against a two party system nor do I think that 3, or 4 or more parties would be inevitably better. But the two major parties within the political construct and landscape are failing us. They create binary oppositions which force us, as individuals to compromise on one position in order to endorse another. The two party system pushes a confrontation, and a pendulum's swing which leads to extremes and not compromise -- there is no motivation for finding a middle path which recognizes that a best course might include elements of each side. The most radical position becomes the guiding star because it most clearly establishes the distinction between parties. That's dangerous and problematic. Third parties are sometimes willing to bridge the gap by seeing value in more subtle positions, or are able to drive other parties to see that there is a position other than their own. If the process is broken, my voting for one of the two major parties would be political suicide at best (as I would be endorsing the broken and corrupt system, thus selling out my own beliefs) and obvious criminal behavior as I would be aiding and abetting in the continuation of an electoral structure which is corrupt. I refuse to be part of a system I criticize. I will not walk away from my civic duty to vote but I will use the opportunity to say in as loud a voice as I can muster, "I complain about the system and I'll be damned if, in the same breath, I also helped allow it to continue."

Point the third: People tell me that "if you vote for a third party you are effectively voting for ______" and they insert the name of the devil they don't want to win. That threat is simply silly. I'm not handing my vote over to your opposition but do you know why you don't understand that? Because you actually WANT your devil to win so you see any action not in support of your devil as a threat. My voting third party or even not voting is denying your candidate of my vote and therefore bolstering the other person in your eyes. But you are missing a huge factor in my decision: I actively don't want either of the major party candidates to win! If I vote for your candidate or the other one, I am losing. I don;t ant to hand my vote to either side because both a against my position. Can you see that? There are elements in the platform, policies and positions of each candidate which I see as dangerous to this country and to my personal interests.

Politically minded people become so rabid about their position that they see the opposition as a serious threat to the way of life we all know and love. They can't see threat the supporters of their opposition feel precisely the same way and with (generally) the same degree of validity (even saying this will get me in trouble as supporters of each party will jump up and say "Can't you see that the other candidate believes ________?" And sure, that's true, but each one believes things which make me nauseated -- I haven't drunk either flavor of Kool-Aid). A vote for either major party is a vote against the other guy, but I want to be against BOTH of them! I have actually had people say to me "You can't let _______ into office!" As if I can possibly let either of them in.

Am I a one-issue voter? Sometimes, sure, but sometimes that one issue changes. And I can, when I pick particular positions, see that neither candidate will ensure my happiness in one particular area, and that area is one in which I refuse to compromise. Again, vague, but trust me, both the nominees have actively failed me. Do I pick one issue and vote that one, and hope that the other 95% of the candidate's positions are evils I can live with? How can I live with myself if I give my vote to either of the bad choices we have? I'm not asking this as some spoiled and privileged child. I'm saying this as a thinking voter who, instead of advocating open and violent rebellion wants to buck the system and point out that my opinion matters and neither of the major candidates speaks for me. So, understand: I cannot be party, by voting or not voting, to putting either of the two major party nominees into the White House. A vote for a third party (or a write in) is the statement "Neither of you two is fit to enter that building and be entrusted with the responsibility to act on my behalf as a private individual and as a member of a national entity."

So now, I am stuck. I cannot in good conscience vote for either major candidate. Neither will leave for my children a country in a better position than when we started, and that's what I believe no matter how much you try to tell me that the good will outweigh the bad. Things are going to get worse. Maybe not for you, or everyone, or each person completely, but inevitably, for one or more of my personal areas of import, things are about to go over a cliff. But a vote for a third party candidate will not be efficacious in putting a candidate I believe in into office. It will, no matter my wishes, end up being a protest vote, though at least one that I can believe in. And you might wonder -- if I am so firmly against the two party candidates, why did I lead off with equivocation, saying I might vote for a third party? Well, in the spirit of the political system, I believe it is foolish to have made up one's mind to the exclusion of future events and argument this early in the race. Those who have are blinding themselves to any future potentially persuasive proof or behavior which should, by all reasonable rights, sway them to support the other, or at least neither, candidate are what is destroying the republic. And that's the real pity in our process and why it will not change. We reward the most die-hard believer who can't be bothered to see the failings of his candidate of choice so he will never entertain the possibility that he should change his mind. Might I be persuaded over the next few months that one major party candidate is actually a "good" choice (and not just a lesser of two evils? Who knows? But if things continue in the vein in which the two conventions demonstrated, it isn't going to happen and I'm going to have to hope that we muddle through the next 4 years and learn something about the stupidity of the masses without devolving into civil or nuclear war.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

" And what's he then that says I play the villain?"

I have spent a lot of time on trying to understand Shylock. He isn't perfect, but the insight into the mind of Shylock which Shakespeare provides allows me to see a depth of character which represents something more than just a two-dimensional villain. This adds texture to the play and I always assumed that it reflected an "anti-anti-semitism" in Shakespeare's worldview (though possibly it was just part of an "anti-all religion so Judaism isn't any more bad than anything else). The more I think about it, the more I realize that this might have been only one part of Shakespeare's intention.

I have been running through the admittedly small sample of Shakespeare's plays which I have read and it seems to me that Will S. is working hard to create characters and relationships which are realistic -- not necessarily in how they talk, but in how they think. His genius lies in the fact that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, he refused to present good guys and bad guys. His villains were relatable and even justifiable and his heroes were deeply flawed and sometimes not so heroic.

I don't know if there have been books written on this. Probably. If I were to go to good ol' Google and ask about "Shakespeare's villains" I would probably see a list of scholarly books dating back 350 years saying all the things I am about to say. So I will take the safer course and just not look. I can say with all honesty and sincerity that what you are reading is the child of my brain, speaking as one who intentionally did not read anything about this subject (not so I can flout my ignorance, only so I can boast of my independent genius). And if you ever thought of this stuff before me, I'm suing.

If I look into the various plays, I see a series of villains who make sense to me. Granted, this entire piece of writing could be a scathing indictment of my own sociopathy but I'd like to ignore that the way I usually ignore the emotions of other people. So here is a quick review:

Merchant of Venice -- as stated elsewhere, Shylock is not wrong. There is a history of abuse at the hands of the "heroes," his daughter is seduced away fro him and his family (and spends his money which she has stolen), and the legal system is manipulated by an impostor to victimize him. He is given stage time during which he represents the righteousness of his position and his arguments are never refuted.

Othello -- Iago is not wrong. Cassio is inexperienced and does not have the practical skill and sharp mind to see through Iago's plans, let alone to lead an army. Iago, this paradigm of unredemptive evil, is also right about Othello. The Moor is weak and manipulatable. Iago SHOULD be in charge of the army. And the possibility that Othello slept with Iago's wife is a reasonable motive and is easy to believe.

Macbeth -- I'm not even sure who the villain is here! Macbeth, himself, is a puppet -- a tool who has aspirations tempered by cowardice. He doesn't want to be bad and is spurred on by a prophecy he doesn't ask for. His wife, promised things by her husband before the play begins, is just doing her part to get what she deserves, and what the witches have predicted. She loved her father, loves her husband and has a guilty conscience -- not exactly the attributes of an unmitigated villain. Hans Gruber never regrets anything and is never troubled by what has to be done.

Hamlet -- a play without a villain. Sure, if you believe a spirit, Claudius killed Old King Hamlet, but Claudius feels bad about it, and only lashes out at young Hamlet once he feels threatened. And Hamlet? As heroes go, he tries not to (and he also recognizes that there is some confusion about being the bad guy when he asks "Who calls me villain?" He doesn't say "a villain calls me villain." He doesn't know what to consider his uncle). He is mean, narcissistic (eventually rash) and insane.

King Lear -- does anybody really feel sorry for Lear? He is a fool and his kids (whom HE raised, so whose fault is that?) don't want to put up with his garbage. So Goneril and Regan act reasonably when they boot him out. Cordelia is not much of a hero -- but she is, and in the innocent portrayal, Shakespeare shows that a naive hero is unrealistic and can't survive.

Julius Caesar -- OK, I haven't read it since 1982, and even then I didn't read it, but if I recall correctly, the murderers have reasons. Shakespeare doesn't just present bad guys who are bad for the sake of being bad. He gives them back stories and rationales.

I haven't read the histories -- if you have, feel free to comment about the baddies therein and let me know if their portrayal supports my thesis. As for the other comedies, I have read a couple (though my passing familiarity with Twelfth Night, Love's Labors Lost and A Comedy of Errors doesn't trigger any sense that there is clear and unmitigated villainy afoot in them). In Midsummer's Night, I barely see a plot, let alone a bad guy, but if I had to hang out with one character, it would be Puck. As for Measure for Measure, I see a whole lot of nasty people in a nasty society. I see lying, cheating and other deadly sins but no villains. And the punishment is marriage. Romeo and Juliet? [I know, not a comedy] Who is bad in this play? Both houses deserve a pox. Both young lovers are foolish. Both sets of parents should have been reported to DYFS a long time ago. No villains.

I'm not saying that I like the villains. I just see them as something more than antagonists or foils for the supposed good guy. Literature has examples of clear cut nasties. Look at the Emperor in the Star Wars series. Or watch Enter the Dragon. Until we read about Elphaba in Wicked, the Wicked Witch was pretty obviously evil. Fairy tales have heroic princes and horrible bad guys. Shakespeare doesn't do this and if we want to appreciate the complexity of his stories, we should do that by recognizing that he populates his stories with people, not characters.

Maybe now I will go look around and see how many websites and books make this same argument, but better. Probably not though.