Saturday, July 28, 2012

an email to my children

Kids, if you read this, it means that you have found my blog which means your are scraping the very bottom of the internet. You should probably be doing your homework, but I'll let it go because I have some advice for you. No, you can't turn this page off -- you have to read this now. Coming here was your idea, not mine. So listen up.

I'm a fairly ok middle aged guy and I have picked up on a few things during my time so hear me out:

1. read, a lot. And read things that don't look interesting. Go to a doctor's appointment and be early so you have to read the magazines there. They won't be familiar to you. Read them.

2. be aware of your surroundings, always. Watch people, listen to sounds. Keep track of what is going on around you.

3. enjoy the weather. Watch clouds move, listen to the rain, see how the sun makes things glint.

4. try things out. If I made a list of all the things that I tried just once or twice, you'd be amazed. I'm not talking about illegal things, but about new experiences. Put yourself in a difficult situation and learn from it.

5. do things people wouldn't expect that you would do. Surprise them and surprise yourself with what you are capable of.

6. consider other people and the effect of your actions on them.

7. combine things that others don't combine. I can't explain this any more fully but when it happens, you'll know.

8. respect your heritage and value your faith. Peple wiser than you have seen the value of religion so don't discount it because something seems difficult or strange to you. 'nuff said on that.

9. anticipate and account for other people's shortcomings. Sometimes you will have to do the thinking for the whole world.

10. listen to the Beatles. Heck, listen to music in general. But really listen. Take it apart and get a sense of the pieces. Do the same for movies, books and everything else. Break everything down and categorize the pieces. See how things reconnect or parallel each other.

11. ask for help. You will rarely be the first to try something. But if you are, volunteer to help others.

12. in general, help others.

13. don't ever think you are done. Everyday starts a new adventure.

14. listen and learn, and appreciate.

15. play catch and don't talk while you are doing it.

16. be you. you don't need make up and product, or an affected personality. Let people meet you as you are. You are worth knowing.

17. eat. eat.

18. don't rely on technology to do all the work; be it for school or amusement, do some of it longhand, yourself.

I'm sure someday I'll think of others but in the meanwhile, consider these.

Why I am meta sad

I wrote three weeks ago about my sadness on the 17th of Tamuz. It was about missed opportunities to improve. But the ninth of Av is a little tougher. I apologize in advance because what I am going to say will undoubtedly bother some people. I say it because I am really digging deep inside to come to terms with my religious pratice and how it touches me. If it does not come from the same place in your soul then move on. I came to understand certain things about myself and I wanted to put them down for posterity.

Tisha B'av is a day on which we remember the pain and suffering of the Jews over the generations. We center on the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem but there were other historical events which shook us as a people. For these I should be sad. For the destruction of the tempole, my eyes should well up with tears. I should be sitting on the floor feeling a sense of personal loss -- a loss I can easily explain and understand, a loss which I know is profound and important in terms of me and my family. And though I observe the restrictions fo the day, and suffer in the limited way which is imposed on me, and though I do, truly yearn for a messianic age I feel the deepest sadness for a different reason.

I am sad because I am not sad.

I am sad because, though I am in touch with the loss that my people have suffered, I can not reject the relatively comfortable position in which I find myself. I am sad because on one, very honest level, I do not want to change a thing about how and where I live. I know I should want to. I know that the dream of return to Zion is central but I am sad that I cannot remove from myself the sense of comfort and complacency which comes from living in the USA. I am not sad that I live here but I am sad that I cannot fully want to live anywhere else. And I say this quite deliberately. I think I WANT to want to live in Israel in a messianic age, but that selfish and lazy part of me celebrates that I live somewhere where I am relatively safe and able to practice my religion and language of choice. I admire those who move to Israel and I do see the allure but I can't get myself to drop everything, express the truest form of faith and move to Israel with no plan because I know that things will work out. I know I should want that and I know that I should be bemoaning my fate that I can't. But instead I am ashamed because I don't want to.

But then I remember that Tisha B'av is destined to be a day which marks the dawn of redemption. What does that mean? Does it mean the birth of the messiah? I hope so. But I hope that the sadness I feel over not being sad gives birth in me or in others the right kind of sadness which motivates us as reunite as a people. Maybe by suffering a bit I can remind myself that my position in the USA is, while comfortable, one of being a guest. I hope that this day and the introspection and self realization which I am sharing drives one person to look at the day and say "I do feel that I should be elsewhere and I'm going to do something about it." Or at least "I do see that I should be sad about the sins which put us in this situation, and instead of saying I like my life too much and it is easier to keep doing them, I am going to stop committing these sins."

May we all suffer a little so we can refocus and feel the losses which have crafted our identity, and feel those losses in a way that teaches to feel sadness in a real, affecting way. May we all say next year in Jeruslaem and mean it. May our prayers reflect our souls not just our lips.

Friday, July 27, 2012


I know the title isn't going to be exactly applicable, but I liked it so I'm using it. So there.

I work in a school [note that one could put each word in that sentence in quotes and get a wonderful range of sarcastic meanings out of such a short sentence]. Over the summer, there is less to do in the way of actual teaching (though the empty classrooms often provide a better environment) so the school opens itself up to a summer camp. Thus I find myself hip deep in little kids. They are, I guess, the future of my people. They also give me an insight into the developmental stages of the human brain.

I walked through the cafeteria to snag some of the mediocre coffee which the camp provides for its counselors and staff. I have no guilt about this -- students take stuff from the teachers' room with my permission throughout the school year and I'm just saving them from drinking mediocre coffee. They should be thanking me. On my way through I passed a table of young 'uns. The first lunch shift had begun and these 4-5 year old boys were eagerly scarfing down their plates of plain noodles, and (I discovered this by asking) their french toast and maple syrup. The syrup comes in packets which look like those freezer pops -- long, thin, soft plastic tubes. Most of the campers simply ripped open one end and dumped the syrup on the plate or at least the table and dipped the french toast in. Others dipped their fingers in either to then suck the syrup off or to wipe their fingers in their friends' hair. They are, after all, boys, and if they don't do something dirty and destructive every few minutes, they disappear. So on the scale of inventiveness, I saw these boys as the average: syrup is applied to surface and then manipulated.

A bit higher up on the scale is the kid who took the packet and treated it like the freezer pop or the portable yogurt, by sucking on the package and drinking the syrup directly. This is the child who recognizes the instant gratification of the maple sugar rush and who skips the intermediary. He isn't pouring it out and then slurping it up -- he is getting it from the source. Already by the age of 5 he has developed a different sense of how to satisfy his needs. Super to him, I say. Normally, these are the two groups -- the average and the different. Today, I saw something which amazed me -- a third group.

One little boy took his packet of syrup and (stay with me on this because it's brilliant) poured it into his water bottle. He then sipped at the water bottle. You hear that? He combined two unrelated lunch items to create a totally new product! MAPLE WATER! This is the kind of thinking that demonstrates that this kid sees the world very differently.  He is a giant among 4-5 year olds and though that isn't really all that large, it still is something! Others tried to laugh at him and he persisted, selling them on the idea by drinking and commenting on how delicious it was.

How do this bravery and innovative thinking develop? Did his parents foster this by forcing him to do something or watch something? Is it just an inborn and unique trait? What, if it is encouraged, will this thinking outside the bottle lead to in the way of great inventions in the future. Where can I invest in this boy?

What kind of a lunch is french toast?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Things that bug me

I'm not a coward, at least relative to, for example, a real coward. I choose my battles wisely and am brave to a fault when it comes to standing up for certain principles. I defend the down trodden, and will risk all I have to save others.

Unless you're a bug. God, how I hate bugs.

Mostly, I hate spiders. With all those legs and their smug sense of satisfaction. But bees are pretty high on that list also. And flies. And those bugs that we call godzillapedes because they have all those legs and rumor has it, they tend to destroy Tokyo. And you know what other bug is on my list? All of them.

"Sure," you say, "They are small and for the most part, harmless. They are afraid of you more than you are of them."

See, here's the problem with your logic:
1. their brains are teeny-tiny. There is no place in there for awareness of me and my bug-squashing potential, let alone a complex emotion like fear.
2. if they were that afraid of me, they would stop coming near me and into my house which is clearly marked with my name on the front door.

I once heard some statistic that you are never more than 6 feet from a spider, even in your house. I had to go buy a new house. (Notice how I avoided the "6 feet but 8 legs" type of joke. Your're welcome.)

So this morning, I went into the bathroom to do the kinds of things one does there and I heard a buzzing. Since we have recently been infested by flies, I expected to find a fly. Instead I saw, buzzing against the window, a bug which I recall from my time in the Paleozoic era. It had a wingspan of about t---h---i---s and a long translucent body and spindly legs. I tried taking a picture of my phone and then using the Google Goggles app to identify it. The phone came up with the message "Man, that's a huge bug. Don't stand there taking pictures. Run." I tried opening the window so it would fly out. Though I hate bugs, I do usually try to set them free. I hope they will report back to their superiors that I'm a good egg, and they will leave me alone in the future. I remember when we were first infested with Indian Meal Moths. We trapped them in cups and eventually, Cosco ran out of cups. Only then did we buy spray. And move out of the apartment.

I opened the window, but if you recall, bugs have those teeny-tiny brains. It ended up falling in between the panes of class and was unable to climb out. I tried lifting it up by closing the window, hoping that if it didn't get lifted up, at least it would get smooshed. That way, I could claim that I didn't mean to kill it and it was the window's fault. Apparently, whoever designed our replacement windows factored in a bug-haven -- a gap just large enough to hold this particular bug safely and snugly. So I have a stupid, but comfy bug. I'm planning on starving him out or possibly smashing the window with a hammer and hoping he gets cut on a shard of the window plastic and contracts some infection and eventually gets gangrene and dies. Again, not my fault; I was trying to set him free.

And anyway, how in the world did he get into my house and all the way upstairs to the bathroom (the door of which was closed)? This is a bug which couldn't find the open window in a closed room, but somehow he got IN to my house? If I had found him near the front door I might have assumed that he had a key, or came in on that day's mail. But he ended up in a closed, interior room. I have visions of a Mission Impossible type group of bugs sneaking into my house. This is not the image of safety and security I had in mind when I invested in real estate.

I was at my brother's house yesterday and he commented that he had had problems with various bugs. He mentioned carpenter bees (I think it is a union thing) and he had a can of spray so he could take care of the problem. This can, according to its own PR, sent a spray up to 27 feet in order to kill bugs. I like that. No bug getting within 25 feet of me would be excellent so I'm thinking of attaching a set of cans of this spray to the exterior of my house and making a chemical perimeter. Just call before you come over so I can create a channel for you to enter through.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Olympics, now with 2 edits!

I am typing this on my phone and am in a rush so excuse any typos.
I have been following all the fooferaw surrounding the inclusion of a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies of the upcoming London Olympics to commemorate the murder, 40 years ago, of the 11 members of the Israeli team. There seems to be a concern on the part of the IOC that such a display would politicize the games. This is, of course, hogwash but the tension over having the moment is real and has significantly more reasonable roots.
The IOC and the Israeli government are operating from opposite sides of a cultural rift that neither will acknowledge. In the secular world, happy events are kept happy and sad ones, sad. This is the emotional equivalent of either the hot side staying hot and the cool side cool, or east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet, depending on your position on the ladder of cultural elitism.
Judaism believes just the opposite. We are commanded at the moments of our most profound joy to inject reminders of sadness: the breaking of a glass at a wedding is the prime example. We are conditioned to temper our happiness and never forget national tragedies (Bill Shakespeare tapped into this in the beginning of Hamlet as Claudius insists on mixing happiness and sadness. Look it up).
So what we have is a disagreement not about politicization but about completely different understandings of the place for tragedy in the realm of celebration.
And, sadly, when it comes to disagreements based on entrenched cultural positions, never the twain shall meet.

Now, four days after writing this I realize what a poor, pathetic and uninformed sap I have been. I put the dan in dan l'chaf z'chut.

I read the following statement:

"It wasn’t inappropriate to have a moment of silence at the Vancouver Winter Olympics two years ago in honor of Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luger who died in a training accident. It wasn’t inappropriate ten years ago during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, to parade a 9-11 flag during the opening ceremonies in honor of the victims of the World Trade Center Bombing."

in this website (not, i do not condone the use of foul language). If this is all true, then the decision is no longer about the cultural separation between the two religious worlds, but is an intentional insensitivity (at the least) towards the plight of Jewish victims. I apologize for my naivete.
-----------------second edit!-------------second edit---------------
they had a moment of silence during the opening ceremony. For the Londoners killed in the terrorist attack of 7/7. Let's see. They have a moment for another olympic athlete who died. They have a moment for people killed by terrorists. But they don't have a moment for athletes killed by terrorists. Interesting loophole.

Friday, July 13, 2012

M-M-M-My Neuroses

I got a book from the library yesterday afternoon and, like many of my ilk, I read it. It wasn't bad and was worth the 25 cents I paid to reserve it. Then, the morning came and I made sure, first thing, to return it. The book wasn't due until the 30th of July but I returned it. Why? Because I was done with it. No, really, why?

Because I'm crazy.

Yes, that's right folks, I'm taking inventory of what makes me nuts and number 1 on the list is my thing about time and deadlines. If we get a bill, I prefer to pay it at that moment. If we have to be someplace, I like to be there 15 minutes early (to acclimate!) and I get all antsy and can't breathe when it becomes possible that I will be late to something. I just hate it. If I have tickets to a baseball game at 7PM, I'd rather leave home at 3:30, avoid the traffic, get my choice of parking spot and beat the crowds even if it means I get to the stadium before the players. But once I get in to the stadium, do I walk around and admire things? NO. I must get to my seat and sit in it. So what if nothing is happening. That's my seat and I'm gonna use it. If I go to the movies, now, understand, I KNOW that there are 15 minutes of trailers and movies at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon are rarely sold out, I need to be in my seat about 10 minutes BEFORE the listed start time. Is it about getting the best, or the right seat in the theater? No -- that would be rational. It is simply about being there.

A vacation? Don't take me. I'm hopeless. I'll be done packing 4 days in advance and will be sitting holding my ticket by the front door 3 hours before taxi is due. And I asked the taxi to come 2 hours before even the most conservative estimate said we had to leave to get to the airport on time. For a short vacation, I'm often packed and ready to leave 5 minutes after we arrive. Relaxation is not an option. [n.b. this is why when people ask whether I'm going anywhere for vacation I say "no -- being here is vacation if everyone else goes away; I'll relax when I don't have to be ready to do anything."]

Shabbos comes every Friday night (and, as I have noted in an earlier post, Judaism coddles my OCD-ness by having precisely calculated start times that are ever shifting but printed on myriad calendars with which I can surround myself) and at about 12 noon, I start getting into a pre-Sabbath frenzy. No one should leave the house, make appointments or do ANYTHING which is even potentially unrelated to Shabbos preparations.

And when my favorite TV show comes on, I want to be in the proper seated position with the phone, the remote and a snack all around me so I don't have to move or miss anything. Could I DVR the show? Yes, but then watching it isn't "at the moment" and is an inauthentic experience. It doesn't count.

I'd tell you more but I just heard a motor which might be the truck which the mailman drives so I have to run and get my checkbook. I want to pay the bills as soon as he gets here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why I hate the internet. A novella

I like the internet. I really do. I often use it when I have to do things like read angry blog posts or find pictures of Iranian cuisine in order to finish my child's homework. But I find that the internet in its current form is getting on my nerves. Allow me to clarify that. I haven't seen the internet lately, just the bits of it that I call forth and that's pretty neat. I assume the whole thing is shaped like a fritata or maybe LaGuardia Airport. And one of the neatest things has been the use of tabs in my browser in order to keep multiple things going simultaneously.

I like to have access to a lot of stuff and this is one of the strengths of the internet as it appears on my computer. Instead of having to close a page whenever I want to go somewhere else, or open a new browser (which then soaks up more memory) I have been advised to use the tabs on my (Opera/Safari/Firefox/IExplorer/Chrome) browser. I do that, keeping between 4 and 40 tabs open depending on where I am. And what I'm about to say has nothing to do with the computer I am on -- this is a function of the internet itself.

There is too much stuff being thrown at me and it is getting on my nerves.

Look, I understand about feature rich content and ad driven sales and click throughs and multimedia and all sorts of other words which are codes for "suck the money from my pocket" but this is getting ridiculous. When I try to open up a series of tabs which I am browsing through the news, I should not have to wait 5 minutes until my computer unfreezes. Too much stuff is being attempted and the computer just can't do it all, in the background, the foreground, uptown and downtown. Between the ads, frames, forms, videos, slide shows, applets and plug-ins, I end up losing interest in the actual stuff I wanted to read! When I say 5 minutes, by the way, I am exaggerating -- today, and this is truth time, the computer froze for 3 minutes while it attempted to open a window and access all the stuff around the article I wanted to read. This is while I'm working on a fancy computer on a fancy work network, not some netbook with 16k of RAM and a dial up connection. Some sites don't work at all and I just give up. This can't be what they are going for. And then, in teh corner it says "Done" but it isn't done! That little progress bar reappears and then I get "done but with error on page" or "waiting for..." something or other. Then "done" and then not. All while I am frozen out of anything I have been trying to work on.

I don't want all that junk. I know that ads and linked videos and sharing apps are all so important to the economy of the future, but they end up frustrating me and making me resent (and thus ignore) all those other bells and whistles and accoutrements to a web page. Just give me the content and move on. I'll appreciate it more, I promise.

And here is a website I stumbled on while I was checking my spelling .

And that's why the internet is a computer's best friend. About the title? I didn't write that. Blame the internet.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Why I'm sad

I think it is a reasonable question to ask -- why are you fasting on Sunday. It just so happens that Sunday, the 8th of July is when we observe the fast of the 17th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar. The actual 17th falls out on the sabbath so we push the fast off. It would be easy for me to say "I'm fasting because I'm supposed to," but that seems rather like a cop out. So the question remains. Why fast on the 17th of Tammuz?

Jewish history records that the 17th of Tammuz was the day on which the walls of Jerusalem were breached and this led to the eventual destruction of the temple. That seems rather unpersuasive. How often did bad things happen to the Jews? (rhetorical question -- clearly, the answer is "often"). Do we fast or commemorate each day? No. If we did, there wouldn't be a day on the calendar on which we could eat and demand for kosher corn dogs would plummet. The rabbis were not interested in shorting corn dog futures so they didn't institute myriad fasts. So why the 17th? Do we celebrate every incremental victory? No. So why fast for this one particular incremental defeat? Yes, the walls were breached and this is bad, but the destruction was in 3 weeks (ignoring the Jerusalem Talmud's view that the 1st temple's walls were breached on the ninth). We fast on Yom Kippur at the END of the days of repentance, not on each day along the way. We celebrate on Purim because that was the day of the victory, even though there were other happy moments along the way.

The Mishna in tractate Ta'anit actually records that there are 5 things that happened on that day which cause the day to be a fast. I'll list them in the order in which they are listed in the mishna:

1. The Luchos were broken;
2. The bringing of the Tamid was annulled;
3. The walls of Jerusalem were breached;
4. Apostemus burned a Sefer Torah;
5. An idol was placed in the Beis ha'Mikdash.
 Now, it would be easy to say "each of these deserves some sort of national mourning, so, hey, let's fast." But it isn't so simple. Take a look at 4 of the events:
1. the tablets upon which the first set of the 10 commandments was inscribed were destroyed.
     No sweat. we got another set.
2. The bringing was annulled.
     OK, we have prayer which takes the place of sacrifice.
3. Some guy burned a torah scroll. Sadly, it has happened many times. One version says that he burned all the torah scrolls he could find to remove torah study from the Jewish people.
     Joke's on him. We're still here and still studying the torah.
4. An idol was placed in the temple (depending on the way you understand it, it refers to an action by the same guy or by king Menashe).
     Either way, we have persevered.

As a matter of fact, each of the other 4 events is sort of temporary -- a step towards sadness which, by itself, is surmountable. So, again, why fast? If all the reasons are temporary obstacles which we moved past, why fast?

I think that the answer is in the dual nature of fasting in Judaism.

Fasting is often about commemorating sad events. The fast on the 9th of Av is all about marking a day of the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. In that case, the fast on the 17th makes no sense. Sure it is sad, but so is every day! We're Jews. We suffer perennially.

But there is another dimension to fasting. Fasting is a community's way of looking at itself and its behavior and deciding to do better. And I think that this day is about the potential for success in improving. This isn't a fast of mourning but of waking up and fixing a problem.

The walls were breached, true. But we still had time to repent and ask god to forgive us. We could have done the proper actions of repentance and (like in the case of the two tablets) been forgiven and given another chance. The fact is, we didn't. We cry now because of a missed opportunity. Why do we mark a singular moment during a long process? Because that was a moment at which we could have changed things. We could have turned around and avoided the next step in the process but we chose not to. And each year, we are being reminded of this opportunity. Each year, on the 17th of Tammuz, we are given the chance to turn around and fix things. The community is shown a date and told "this is just one point on a progression -- be introspective and fix things so you can avoid the next date, the ninth of Av!"

I am fasting both as a commemoration of a missed opportunity thousands of years ago, and each year since then. I am fasting to help refocus myself so that next year I can say "this sad day turned into a moment when I turned things around. My fasting got me to rethink my position so I could help bring about the redemption, not extend the exile." I'm fasting to mark the past and help improve the future.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

It's not me, it's shoes

Let's talk about shoes. Don't ask why. if you don't want to discuss shoes then go away. My blog, my rules. And right now, I'm talking about shoes.

How many shoes does one man need? (With apologies to Tolstoy)

I have the following pairs of footwear:
1 pair of work shoes.
1 pair of dress shoes
1 pair of backup dress shoes which I have never worn and which may not be mine
1 pair of canvas shoes for religious reasons
1 pair of regular sneakers
1 pair of waterproof, mesh sneakers
1 pair of floppies/water shoe things
1 pair of slippers shaped like moose heads

That's it. That is 8 pairs of shoes/footwear to my name. And I think that, as many men go, that's a lot. I have yet to find an occasion which could not be prepared for by choosing one of those shoe-options. I also own 6 suits and a pair of slacks. I have about 20 button down shirts, half of which are plain white. Somehow I stay on the fringes of sartorial respectability.

I currently own more toner cartridges than I own pairs of shoes. And I haven't bought toner in a while.

So why, please tell me why, is my entrance way littered with shoes. I'll tell you why -- the wife and kids. Each owns more shoes than I think is necessary. Apparently, one must find the exact pair of black flats which was created to be used only on one particular Tuesday evening and only if a prospective dinner will be serving red wine or kettle corn. But not both. God forbid you wear the ones with the large bow instead of the small bow. It could signal the apocalypse, or worse yet, sideways glances from some other person who, I guess, keeps book on these things. There are the heels that look great but no one can wear. There are the comfy shoes to wear when no one will see. The "when did I ever think gladiator shoes were cool?" gladiator shoes. The green (but not THAT green) wedges which are fancy but not too fancy and don't clash with the hair clip which will remain in the clutch all evening. The golden slip-ons which used to be for parties but now have been demoted to parade-marching wear. The running shoes, the sneakers, the gym sneakers, the "sneakers I can write on" and the junky sneakers for when one is walking through cow pastures. Is there really such a variety of events and occasions that one needs every possible combination of color, shape, height and closures to be covered? I can only imagine the geishas who bind their they need different types of bindings for different social experiences?

If you can, please enlighten me and I will refrain from the following puns for the span of 1 (one) year:
A penny loafer for your thoughts
I need some en-toe-tainment
This is my sole post on the matter
That joke fell flats.