Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Great Depression Shanties--Coming Our Way?

Most of the entire front page of today's Seattle Times is a sepia print of the "Hooverville" of plywood homes built just south of downtown's Smith Tower, which was at the time the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River. In the article, survivors of the Great Depression told how they made it through, giving advice seemingly to be applied today.

Of course, in the GD, unemployment was 25%; even after Roosevelt's huge expenditures he only managed to whittle that to 14%. Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, the excellent work showing that stimulus spending by the government exacerbated the GD rather than bringing recovery, cites Stanley Lebergott and Richard Vedde, whose "data show average annual unemployment in the twenty percent range for a number of years – 1933, 1934, 1935. At points in 1937 or 1938, unemployment gets back to 20%," after temporary drops.

And what is unemployment today? Bureau of Labor statistics for December, 2008: 7.2% nationally. Interestingly, while some states, like Michigan, hard-hit by auto-makers' layoffs, had rates as high as 10%, they were offset by many states, like Wyoming, North and South Dakota and Nebraska, where unemployment was below 4%.

So, even though the present jobless situation isn't anywhere as dire as the GD (at least we have banks insured and many protective regulations in place) let's spend, spend, spend and ignore the lessons of history.

Cut to this weekend when we're dropping off our daughter back to her sorority at the University of Washington. We're stopped at a signal a few blocks from the campus. Eyes shift to a church parking lot, where people sit among rows of florescent pink domed tents and blue tarp lean-tos. Whereas the Depression housing was named for President Hoover who presided over the crash, this sight is "Nickelsville," a slap at Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who ordered that vagrants huddled in shop doorways driving off customers, or spread out in clusters under freeways move, and he offered help and accommodation in shelters.

But they didn't want it. Nickelsville was the creation of homeless activists, some were the same ones who proudly oversee the roving "Tent City" that spent August, September and October at a church lot in my neighborhood. They're happy the tents are florescent pink to draw attention to the "plight" of these folk who feel just too cooped up in shelters where there are rules and requirements. Interestingly, as Nickelsville has endured, more and more rules have had to be implemented. Like no drinking; no outside visitors after 9 pm till the morning.

I came across a student video showing a few Nickelsville residents (which one-name filmmaker "Nathan" spells "Nicholsville") within a laughably pro-homeless script: "Homeless people fall victim to countless stereotypes. Allegedly, they are lazy people who lack intelligence. Allegedly, they chose to make nothing of their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth." Cut to a healthy-looking young man in a knit snow cap: "I'm a resident of Nickelsville and a homeless Marine Corps veteran."
Aren't there any services for Marines? Or, um, should I be skeptical of this guy, like I am of the many youthful beggars holding "Disabled Vietnam Vet" signs by freeway offramps?

What I find fascinating is the media's desire to make our present economic dip into "the worst crisis since the Great Depression." They have to, because unless they can get more people to buy their newspapers, watch their TV shows and click on their ad-framed websites, they, too, will have to sacrifice. But I'd betcha that no matter how difficult things get, they won't have to put cardboard in their shoes to cover holes, eat potato soup for weeks on end, or scrounge for plywood to build a home. Give up the daily Starbucks latte? Move in with a friend?

In fact, in the '30s when people were truly destitute, most had so much pride that they'd rather go hungry than be "on the dole" taking government handouts. And if you look at the photo of the Hooversville shanties, you'll notice that they're spread apart, not chock-a-block together like Nickelsville tents.
Reminds me of the words of Bilaam, the biblical anti-Semite prophet sent by King Balak to curse the Jews. When he opened his mouth, looking down from above the Jewish encampment spread at his feet, the only words that came out were the blessing, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

What did he mean by that? What he saw was the way the Jews had arranged the openings of their tents irregularly, so none could peer into another's abode, in order to respect privacy.

Personal pride and pioneer self-sufficiency motivated the nation in the Great Depression, as did individual generosity to reach out and help. 'Twould be goodly, all right, if we could tend to our personal tents with pride rather than expect the government to assume huge debt for give-aways. It might be temporarily tough but compared to the lot of residents of those shanties in the picture, we've got it way easy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Man, Woman, Marriage...Anniversary

I'm trying to rein in my procrastination and write my book on marriage as the combination of opposites. To that end, I've been reading definitions of that august institution, and how those have been twisted of late.

Today happens to be my 24th wedding anniversary. My research has highlighted the ways my husband and I are different, and the unique combination formed by the two of us. I'm fortunate that I'm interested by him every day, often surprised and amused.

After so long together, it may seem odd that he's still a bit alien to me. But part of his masculinity--or perhaps his personality--is a need to have things done crisply, his way, which may not be mine. I know he'd deny that. In fact, he'd immediately list the many ways he gives in to me, often spending his minimal discretionary time accompanying me to places I enjoy (craft fairs, tulip fields) rather than locations he'd prefer (dank forest paths, record stores).

We have different styles, and over the years he's relaxed enough to allow them to co-exist. He let me decorate our kitchen in the bright Caribbean colors I crave. He voluntarily relinquished the entire upstairs of our home to our guests, children and me, lest he discover the disorder he despises. Not that I'm so disorderly, but the collage of family photos on the wall above my desk is to him the epitome of chaos; the clothes dropped by children on their bedroom floors intolerable. In his comfort zone, books must stand upright, arranged by height and color within subject; I'm known to let some slant, and at times my desk is encircled by piles of papers on the floor, organized by task. By contrast, he handles each incoming piece of mail only once, and can't bear to see items that could be disposed of or dealt with resurface again on, say, a chair.

Our differing approaches have enhanced our marriage. I'm easy, flexible, smoothing things out. He keeps me (and us) moving, completing, focusing like a laser beam. Our family benefits from both. As a team, I benefit from him; he tells me the same.

Though I was a proud feminist when that term was progressive and liberated rather than passe, now my life looks embarrassingly traditional. Even biased university scholars presently admit that sex-related stereotypes weren't just the result of oppressive socialization, but based on validated gender differences. Post-women's lib, a gathering current acknowledged the truth; graduates of Women's Studies classes launched Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus onto best-seller lists.

Gender themes have become difficult to abjure. Guys are more physical, sexual, controlling, and competitive than women, who tend to be nurturing, social, verbal, emotional. I've got a dozen books sitting right behind me on the shelf with studies and statistics to support what nearly every culture has incorporated in its structure over the past four thousand years. And yet, policy and politics repeatedly try to deny what physiology posits.

In our marriage, my husband laments the chore of paying our bills, but won't delegate it to me despite my offers, lest he lose control and mastery over even the smallest aspect of our finances. He insists that each expense over $1 be recorded immediately. He's a guy, exhibiting the male need for control in the "responsibility to support the family" arena.

(I know there are many macho men whose finances are a wreck. But they probably express their needs for control in another area. Sports? Work? All of the above? I know there are many wives who are expert in handling family finances. But is it a control thing, or a nest-keeping skill?)

My husband's collection of classical music CDs is aligned in his office precisely, in alphabetical order by composer. The shelves of CDs he has yet to open are in one section (acquisition of the music is his hobby); the discs he has consumed in another. His filing system seems obsessive-compulsive, and yet his vast knowledge of music (and indeed, nearly everything) engenders my awe.
And yet, as invested as he is with his CDs, he is equally indifferent regarding his wardrobe, earning the descriptor "sartorially-challenged." Every plea to take him for a quick trip to Men's Warehouse is rebuffed with disdain. Efforts to purchase clothing for him at Nordstrom Rack result in a perfunctory try-on at home with instant dismissal. "I don't need new pants," he says definitively, light glinting off his shiny knees where once wale adorned corduroy.

After a meeting at the White House, he was taken aside and told his black jeans and light-colored sport coat were a bit below the bar.

But I've given up worrying about that. After all, he understands what this woman wants: flowers. He buys me a bouquet every day. One of many good things about him is that he hears, and heeds. What gender trait causes women to like receiving flowers, especially if you pick them out yourself and present them with a word about why those were chosen? If he's been out of town, the next time he stops at the market on the way home, he gets two bunches. To make up for the gap.

I'll be posting some of what I'm writing, about marriage as the only setting to mesh the opposite sexes. But today, on my 24th anniversary, I'm grateful to have such an endlessly fascinating opposite as my soul mate, with whom to contrast and enjoy. I absolutely cannot believe it's been so many years since the photo above...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Madoff: The Man, the Men, the Mench, and...

A perfect Sunday. Sleep late after enjoying a fabulous opera last night (I'm not usually an opera fan, but Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers'" final performance by the Seattle Opera Company was so lush musically, and enticing visually that I was enthralled). Make breakfast of hash browns and scrambled eggs while watching fat snowflakes tumble lazily before my window and...hooray!..melt when they hit the ground. Sit with a cup of coffee brewed from freshly-ground beans, doctored just right with blizzards of sugar, real cream and a touch of hazelnut.

And scarf up the latest article on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Business section on...Bernie Madoff. Many of the tidbits tossed into the story by Julie Creswell and Landon Thomas Jr. I'd already read in this juicy British report, in which The Mail interviewed Julia Fenwick, 38, the manager of his London office.

The British piece dug into his weirdness, like his cravings for cigars and pork sausages, and his refusal to allow any oval surfaces in his office. The photo is from The Mail, showing Bernie and Ruth at his 70th birthday party last May. Note her Marlboros pack on table, cigarette in ash tray. Nice glass of Chablis; he's got the diet coke. Compare the skin on Ruth's hand with her face: Ms. Fenwick said "I had to buy tubs and tubes of Boots No7 Protect and Perfect Beauty Serum," as part of her job. "I was buying five or six tubes at a time. We sent them over to Ruth in America." Whatta life.

Today's Times piece detailed Bernie's Laurelton, New York upbringing and later educational and employment history, providing some additional fascinating anecdotes, like the dribbling pear. Apparently (a PEAR-ently?) when obsessively-neat Bernie caught a New York employee's succulent snack dripping onto the carpet, he snapped, "What do you think you are doing?" and "ripped the soiled carpet from the floor, then rushed to a closet to retrieve a similar swatch to replace it."

The most amusing part of today's coverage plumbed his psyche, quoting experts to suggest a dual personality propelled by a "heady, intoxicating" thrill in "playing financial God, ruining these people and taking their money." Most bizarre was a comparison between serial murderer Ted Bundy and smirking Bernie: "...whereas Mr. Bundy murdered people, Mr. Madoff murdered wallets, bank accounts and people's sense of financial trust and security."

As devastating as financial ruin may be, I think I'd prefer Madoff's murder to Bundy's. I could always borrow a wallet.

The problem with Bernie was that he was such a fine actor. Or, perhaps he had a classic split personality, in which his philanthropic, family-loving side didn't really know what the evil fraudster was doing. Or, it could be that he was excellent at compartmentalizing, rationalizing while acquiring new millions from unsuspecting customers that "at least I'm loving and loyal to my family." Even as he drew Jewish charities' investments down his rabbit hole, he could have countered with "But I give back by spending my time sitting on their boards, donating to their appeals, and attending their events."

But with all this focus on Bernie the man, Bernie the men, Bernie the mench and Bernie the impossible-to-believe jerk and criminal, the media splash has yet to exploit the possibility that he probably did not act alone. Where are all the stories about accomplices? Where's the probe into whether he's taking the bullet for a web of conspirators?

Ahh, but that is all to come in subsequent installments. Meanwhile, I'm now grabbing the Business section even ahead of Sunday Styles. Because we know about failing fashions and the chi-chi faces newly frowning over their financial foibles. But there's always something new in the soap opera-turned-murder mystery of Madoff. As in "made off with the money."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Inaugural Poem is its own Parody

I'm determined to write a parody poem of the ilk of Elizabeth Alexander's. She was the woman who read her specially-composed work from the national podium moments after Pres. Barack Obama concluded his inaugural speech.

I listened to her while doing crunches, reclining on an enormous, blue workout ball, in a crowded gym during a class. I have discovered how difficult it is to laugh uncontrollably while contracting your abs. I survived the disgusted looks of fellow crunchers who somberly continuing counting.

My difficulty is that it's tough to come up with anything worse than the original poem, which begins, "Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking." Could there be a more hackneyed phrase than "going about our business"? What could we do with our glances beside "catching each others' eyes--or not"?

Coming up with something funnier than the actual poem is going to take a bit of doing. But, if "someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair," surely I can create more humor out of this giggle-worthy garble.

Just give me a moment--I'm "on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp" of something really clever... In the meantime, just think about her poem (chuckle) and who Rush Limbaugh realized Ms. Alexander's emotionless delivery mimics: the woman on your GPS!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Count the Cliches: President Obama's Inauguration Speech

I'd worked up a sweat to watch Barack Obama become our nation's 44th president. His inauguration, set for 9 am Pacific time, came in the middle of my Tuesday "Bars, Bands and Balls" class at our local gym. Usually that means muscle pumping using 16-lb poles, flat rubber strips, and those giant inflated spheres on which we climb, stretch and tone.

I was eager to hear his speech, to see how high he'd set the bar, how he'd motivate us to band together, and whether he had...any quotable lines that could compare to those of his role model, Abraham Lincoln.

The class moved from our studio into the exercise equipment room, with its mounted televisions, and we continued on our biceps, triceps and abs with our eyes trained on the flat-screens, and our ears straining to absorb each historic word.

First notable: Obama flubbed the oath. Chief Justice Roberts later said Obama's sudden silence during his repetition was due to the judge's error in placement of the word "faithfully," but all Obama had to do was repeat what he heard, whatever that was. Instead he stopped, and with Roberts, tripped over the next sentence.

In subsequent newsclip coverage of that historic moment, only the smooth first sentence was repeated; the gaffe was gone.

Then came Obama's speech. "Insipid" would be a charitable assessment. Rambling, redundant, hokey, nondescript would also apply. I got together with four friends afterward to post-mortem the ceremony, and asked them which lines they found memorable. None came to mind.

At times, Obama seemed disrespectful to President Bush, who the camera occasionally glimpsed, grimacing. "On this day we gather because we have chosen hope [me] over fear [Bush/McCain], unity of purpose [me] over conflict and discord [Bush/McCain].

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas [of Bush/McCain], that for far too long have strangled our politics."

Uh, thank you, Mr. President. The guy you're dissing was sitting right there, and the only thanks you gave him was for his "service" and for his "generosity and cooperation" during "this transition." Nothing about how he oversaw our nation's healing from the shock and horror of 9/11, and created mechanisms that have kept us safe ever since.

But rather than dwell on what Pres. Obama didn't say, it's much more fun to rack up the cliches he did: Right at the top we've got "rising tides of prosperity," "still waters of peace," "gathering clouds" and "raging storms."

We move from weather to forefathers who "packed up their few worldy possessions," "traveled across oceans in search of a new life," "toiled in sweatshops," and "plowed the hard earth."

And why this "long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom?" Well, to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America [now that we're rid of Bush]." "The economy calls for action (YOO-hoo!), bold and swift--and we will act!"

WE, ie those who pay taxes, with his $800 billion stimulus package, will: create jobs, build roads, bridges, electric grids and digital lines; restore science to its rightful place (where was it?) and "wield technology's wonders" toward better, cheaper health care.

This will be my first chance to wield a wonder.

But there's more: I'll also "harness the sun and the winds and the soil"--quite a wielding feat--"to fuel our cars and run our factories."

Most ga-ga commentary has focused on the line, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." Well, no. If the governement is too big, for sure it doesn't work. And name me one place where government is too small? Better to ask not what your country can do for you. Much better.

What scared me was his insistance on a "watchful eye" over "the market" since "a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous" but since I can't figure out what he means there, it's probably nothing.

At least I got from his following five minutes of rambling that he's not about to please his anti-war base by abandoning strong defense. And I woke up with a smile with his jolly mixed metaphor about "rolling back the specter of a warming planet." After this winter, that specter sounds rather good to me; certainly too good to roll.

But rolling off of Pres. Obama's tongue were plenty more cheerful phrases: "the road that unfolds before us" (must be on a map?), "fallen heroes" who "are guardians of our liberty" (not in that position they're not), "We have duties to ourselves" (to eat, to sleep, to go to the bathroom) that we "sieze gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit...than giving our all to a difficult task" (whatever that may be).

He concludes by cleverly circling back to the weather: "in this winter of our hardship...let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come." And the unfolding road: "we refused to let this journey end; we did not turn back nor did we falter...we carried forth..." a snore of a conclusion and then more memorable parts of the inauguration--the national poem and Rev. Lowery's benediction. I hope to post a parody of the poem for you tomorrow, but tonight it's enough to savor that we have a new president, and a speech that made me chuckle rather than quake.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Another National Holiday

My son had school on Martin Luther King Day.

He also has school on the day the first black president is inaugurated.

He was hoping that because of these two non-observances, his school could be deemed racist, and forced to close. No such luck, however, and my husband dropped him off at 8 am, as usual, on his way to the office. And he'll have to get those math assignments in.

But it's pretty much a holiday throughout the nation, it seems, not just for Martin Luther King, but for the inauguration of Barack Obama. I don't recall anything like the reportage with which we're barraged when Bush, or even Clinton was inaugurated. Perhaps it's the fact that we've got so much more media penetrating our consciousness, what with the thousands of internet sources at our fingertips, and the prevalence of talk radio and news. Even as newspapers are folding, no pun intended, news itself is proliferating, as everyone is now online every day, checking out Facebook or at least their several email accounts and the many blogs they get by RSS feeds. That's the point--everyone's world is fed to us: Ring! (no--nobody's phone ever goes "ring" anymore!) I mean, (hum first line of your fave song)--it's a Twitter update or a text or another urgent appraisal of somebody's observation, status, desire or misdeed. It's odd how we used to get by on so little information.

Like, well, even four years ago. But I don't begrudge this national euphoria, this excitement. What I do belittle is that much of the hoopla seems to be based simply on our new president's skin color. His mother was Caucasian and his father not an American, and yet he's now the representative of what black people (ie those who in the past were cruelly subjugated as slaves) can achieve. A black man in the White House! That's all that counts, not that he has no connection whatsoever to slavery (well, his mother's family appears to have owned some) and has lived a privileged life, never subject to racism in his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii, and attending the finest colleges (Harvard counts).

I wish him well. I wish our nation well, and I have hope not for some radical reversal of our nation's direction, because that cannot occur without changing the underlying basis of our nation, its constitution, which I believe is an enduring and relevant document today. I have hope because so far, I have seen Mr. Obama act responsibly, taking the advice of those with experience and expertise, like John McCain and a range of others (as described in this New York Times article).

I disagree with proposed solutions to the economic malaise--government is not the great rescuer; American ingenuity and industriousness are. Here are the sentiments I'd like to hear spoken at the inauguration tomorrow:

“In the days ahead I will propose removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity. Steps will be taken aimed at restoring the balance between the various levels of government... It is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden...”

But it's unlikely we'll hear them...Ronald Reagan spoke them at his own inauguration in 1981.

What we will hear, I'm sure, is more about hope, more about change. More about what government will do instead what business could do, if it weren't hampered by taxes and regulations and well-meaning but intruding requirements that deter risk and growth.

But I'm optimistic. I'd love to be there at the parade, not cheering on our first black President; not cheering on the accomplishment of Barack Obama, or even the fresh start that a new administration offers. I'm cheering for a country that responds to the will of its citizens, and has the spirit to re-energize itself and put a positive spin on a tough time. We see hope, we embrace change, and there's the rest of the political system to impose reality and constraint. Now, however, is a time to be patriotic and glad.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hudson River Plane MIracle--A Hopeful Omen?

We don't have a TV, and I didn't find out about the miraculous "water landing" of US Airways' flight 1549 by hero pilot C.B. Sully Sullenberger until I opened our home-delivered copy of the New York Times this morning. Once I started reading, I couldn't refrain from grateful tears, especially when I read, "The mayor [New York's Michael Bloomberg] said Sullenberger, as befits a captain, twice walked the length of the sinking plane to make sure he was the last to depart." Yes, "as befits a captain."

My husband asked if this miracle is an omen for the beginning of the new administration. Well, I doubt it...but why not? Why not start the new term with a demonstration of supreme competence, a tribute to the level-headedness of Americans, a reminder from the Almighty that He's able to assist the improbable toward a happy ending?

I loved the attitudes of crash survivors portrayed in interviews. Apparently they kept their panic in check, helping each other. Joe Hart, a salesman with an investment firm, texted a Times reporter once things had calmed down: "I'm certain this will get me an upgrade on my next flight!"

That ability to smile is another characteristic of Americans that I hope will prevail during the new president's introduction. Even though citizens are bound to disagree, we Americans can do so politely. And we can surmount difficulties, whether they come from terrorists (God forbid) or a flock of geese.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What's your Mood Enhancer--Food or Sunshine? ...And Hopes for a Sunny Inauguration

We each have something that gives us particular pleasure.

For my husband, it's food. His idea of a festive evening, or an escape, is to go out to eat at a restaurant. When he's in, say, New York, with its plethora of kosher restaurants, he carefully plans out which ones to try. When he describes his day on the road to me, the highlights are his descriptions of savory dishes; he names each item he ate and evaluates it, adding swoons where appropriate. When his meal, especially if expensive, isn't satisfying, he rues consuming it. Why add unworthy calories? Such a waste is more endurable, however, when someone else pays for it.

My particular happifier is good weather. If it's sunny, I'm happy; if it's warm and sunny, I'm downright manic. My energy doubles and my zest for whatever I'm doing soars. I can get almost obnoxious raving about a beautiful day, pointing out the magnificence of everything I see. My son is like that, too. When the winter arrives with its late sunrise and early darkness, with its constant shroud of gray, I push myself with affirmations.

Last week brought Seattle record downpours. Rivers overflowed their banks; houses washed away. Driving on some freeways caused foot-deep puddles to wash over cars like tidal waves, blinding drivers. I must have heard from ten people during this deluge, with anticipation in their voices, "but the weatherman says it's supposed to be clear next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday!"
Even Barack Obama could not have instilled more hope than the weatherman's prediction. But I suspect that the longing aroused by both prognosticators have similar likelihoods of fulfillment. This Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were dreary and dark, with gray cloud-blankets emitting occasional drizzle, and short sunbreaks too brief to budge disappointment.

Meanwhile, my husband, in Washington, DC, reported a bright and sunny day that mirrored the capital's excitement and eagerness for the new Presidency. Brilliance outdoors energizes and enlivens, enhancing the festivities that welcome a fresh approach. If it were, say, 75 degrees outside instead of 10, that enthusiasm would expand even further.

Interestingly, yesterday I was fortunate to attend a get-together of a women's education group comprised of mainly conservative women. We heard a superb speaker tell of her frustrations as a US government appointee in media relations charged with making sure news outlets know about our humanitarian efforts in the mid-east and Asia. After the talk, as the group disbursed, I overheard two ladies: "I hope there's a blizzard for Obama's inauguration!" one snickered. "Yes, a blizzard so thick and cold we don't have to watch him take the oath of office!" the other replied with a chuckle.

Meanwhile, President Bush offered his farewell address tonight. It was sweet and poignant and gracious. Perhaps the aspect of his character I admire most is his determination to follow a moral course without regard to polls or pressure, and with sole regard to values girded by his religious faith. My favorite part of his speech was:

"...America must maintain our moral clarity. I've often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense -- and to advance the cause of peace."

Even though President-elect Obama won with his mantra of "eight years of failed presidency" he's soon going to see that a president's choices are shaped by experts' briefings, and that the facts will push his actions not so very far from President Bush's. I do hope the new administration can begin with a sunny day.

Which brings me back to my theory that each of us has his or her own special mood enhancer. Beside my husband's joy in food, and my reliance on good weather, other than the obvious sources of well-being (eg health, children safe, financial stability) what elevates your mood?

As I look out my window to see...well, nothing, as it's dark and densely foggy, I take comfort in knowing that here in the Northwest, things are always changing. The only reliability our weatherman has is in being wrong. And perhaps that, too, brings a smile, because there's nothing quite as much fun as a surprise.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ignorance About Israel

Right now, even as our nation gears up for the Obama inauguration, the news comes back to Israel. After my last post, I again realized how ignorant most people are about its history. I keep hearing that Israel is attacking a bunch of poor refugees, who are rightfully angry because they were mercilessly chased off land they'd owned for generations. Let's see: there are about six lies in that statement.

Tonight I answered a phone call from a high school student who wanted to ask my husband a question about Israel. Since my husband is in Washington DC at the moment, I asked this (totally unknown) young man if I could be of help. "My friend said he had video clips that showed that the war on in Gaza started because Israel broke the cease-fire and began bombing," he related, earnestly.
It was weird enough that this boy just called up our home out of the blue, but even worse, it illustrates how gullible and lazy ignorant students are. This kid, who I suspect has some inclination toward conservative values (I'll give him that), decided to bother a stranger in order to get a "quick answer" as he put it, that he felt he could trust. Didn't even do web research. At least he realizes that "facts" on the Internet can be false.

One of the books I'm reading (piecemeal, admittedly) is called 60 Days for 60 Years: Israel, a Commemoration and Celebration, published by a broad consortium of Jewish organizations, edited by Rabbi Andrew Shaw. It's one of those books in prescribed chapter-chunks, given to me by one of my teachers, a local kollel rabbi, with the suggestion that I finish reading it in time for the annual community event, Jewish Unity Live (this year on March 25).

The book opens with an essay by Britain's chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, describing the biblical injunction to Abraham to leave his idolatrous past and "go where I (God) will show you." Whether or not you care to accept the bible, there's no doubt that the Jewish people have since then stubbornly claimed this space, even when exiled and endangered in doing so. Juda ha Levy, Maimonides and Nachmonides led groups of devotees in the 12th century, each working to rebuild. A large community lived there in the 16th century; waves of Jews spurred by religious longing also returned in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Says Rabbi Sacks: "Jews never left the land voluntarily, and there are places, especially in the Galil (Galilee area) where they never left at all. The nation states of Europe are relatively recent inventions... The connection between the Jews and Israel is longer and stronger than any other Western nation and its land."

Sometimes I wonder what made my brother and sister-in-law move their families from across the street from us in Santa Monica across the world to Jerusalem. They love America. They have enjoyed its education, its prosperity, its freedoms. Yet they prefer to live surrounded by Arabs who hate them.

Yes, Israel is a modern country that doesn't seem very much different from the US when you're there, in its high-tech lifestyle, open attitudes, and ease in self-expression. But whenever they park their car at the supermarket, the lot attendant makes them open the trunk and searches beneath the car body, looking for bombs. When they eat in any restaurant, somebody in an orange reflective vest is perched on a stool at the door, holding a machine gun. When they enter the mall to buy shoes, the mom's purse and the kids' backpacks are carefully inspected.

Why do they put themselves in harm's way? Not just for a study year abroad, like our daughter enjoyed right after high school (I was nervous every single day), but as a commitment. Jews have felt this intense pull to Israel for thousands of years. Though I am an American, I understand their attachment. And I'm sensitive enough to feel the "ruach" (spirit) when I approach the Kotel (Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. Are all points on the earth equal?

Along with the 60 Days book on my desk is a copy of a prayer I printed out, for the soldiers of Israel. It includes a plea to "preserve and rescue our fighters" but also for "the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down." It concludes, "And may there be fulfilled for them [Israel's soldiers] the verse: 'For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.'"

It's not about aggression or imperialism. Israel is responding to those "who rise up," and is seeking to be "saved." Israel doesn't ask for curtailing other religions, or an end to other countries or cultures. But that's the stated goal of Hamas--the elimination of Israel. Thousands of rockets have been launched from Gaza over three years, increasing with Hamas' ending of a cease fire. Yesterday, (Wednesday, 1-14), 14 rockets were fired from Gaza; today (Thursday, 1-15) 20 were launched. Sirens sound in Israel's towns when these are detected, giving residents 15 seconds to run for cover before impact.

Questions? Read Mitchell G. Bard's Myths and Facts: A guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

But it seems to boil down to this--does Israel have any less right to exist than the many other countries that have been formed and re-formed, shifting and conquering various peoples in Europe and Asia--and everywhere--throughout history? Modern Israel may only be 60 years old, but in that time, a tree-less, empty desert now boasts productive, irrigated agriculture, modern cities, a first-rate, accessible educational system--and offers Arabs, and indeed all citizens, the most freedom and rights anywhere in that part of the world.

This has been accomplished. Should those who believe so strongly in Israel's progress (or its sanctity) that they accept daily danger not defend what they have built?

At right, a Getty photo of Israeli soldiers at the funeral of fellow combatant Alex Mashavisky.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Seattle Pro-Israel Rally: A Missed Opportunity

Our family attended Seattle's rally in support of Israel today, and while I was touched by the show of camaraderie, I'm wondering if it was worthwhile.

Certainly we support Israel's right--need!--to defend itself, after it forcibly removed 9,000 Israeli residents from Gaza in 2004, leaving their homes and productive greenhouses to destruction (rather than reuse) by hostile Palestinians, only to receive 6,000 missiles aimed at civilian targets in return.
Certainly we want the media to know that Jews in our community, regardless of affiliation or lack thereof, are united in our commitment to Israel, the land given by God to Jews as set forth in the Torah.
Certainly we want to publicize that action by Israel is not aggression, as portrayed, but a truly restrained and careful response to an enemy who not only uses its own citizens as human shields, who not only targets schools and hospitals, who not only receives arms supplied by Iran via secret tunnels to Egypt--but whose goal is the complete eradication of the State of Israel itself.

That said, the event we attended today, joined by about 1,500 others in the Alhadaff sanctuary of Temple De Hirsch-Sinai in Seattle, was more a feel-good affirmation of solidarity than tangible advancement for our cause. Upon passing the purse-check (umbrellas, on this drizzly day, had to be left at the door), attendees, who filled the auditorium to capacity, sang some Jewish songs, saw a couple of short films documenting the frightening daily lives of those within the 25-mile range of rockets regularly launched from Gaza, and heard a few speeches from local Jewish leaders.

I was bothered by some of the content, which claimed that neither side wanted this warfare, and that it was Hamas, and not the Palestinian people, who are our foe. But in reality, Palestinian children are brainwashed into believing that Israel is evil, and that they should be willing to fight, even kill themselves, to eliminate it. Most of the five speakers mentioned that "we" seek a "two state solution" to the conflict, and I blanched--I do not see that creating a recognized state of Palestine (for the first time ever) will do other than empower and embolden people who don't want to co-exist in peace but, with the fervent impetus of their religion, want Israel to end.

The main thrust of the program was that Israel's attacks are in self-defense, to safeguard cities that are under unceasing missile barage. Perhaps the most effective visual was in one film that illustrated the area subject to attack were Seattle the target--say, from missiles launched from Canada. Would the United States be expected to simply let Seattle explode, several times a day, injuring and killing residents, for three years?

But if the purpose was to educate the public to our position, or to include others in our mission, the rally failed. While the Jewish community was well represented, holding the event inside a synagogue implied that this issue is important to Jews only. We should get out the message that this isn't a Jewish cause; it's a just, human cause. If the rally were held in a public space--as was a highly publicized pro-Palestinian event a week ago--and if churches and human rights groups, as well as the public at large, were invited, this would have far better disseminated that message, and joined us with a far larger group of support. After all, we are Americans supporting Israel; we see Israel as the only Democracy in the mid-east; the only place in that part of the world where everyone, including Muslims, has full representation and rights, and we support Israel for those broader ideals.
My husband pointed out that today, small Israeli flags were distributed, but no American flags. That "HaTikva," the Israeli national anthem, was sung, but not "The Star Spangled Banner." He noted that the pro-Palestinian marchers last week carried only Palestinian flags and not American flags because they, unlike us, are anti-American. We need to remind the world of the similarity in tolerance and freedom between Israel and the United States, a confluence of philosophy and attitude toward progress, the modern world and liberty for all.

This evening, I checked out our local TV coverage of the pro-Israel rally today. Station KOMO gave at least as much time to the handful of pro-Palestinian protesters across the street, and footage of the pro-Palestinian rally last week, to which the newscaster claimed today's event was a reaction. The conclusion of the report wasn't that Israel has considerable support in Seattle, but rather that our town is sharply divided in its allegiance. To see the shouting, picket-waving hordes in the pro-Palestinian march juxtaposed to the seated auditorium of Israel-supporters, interspersed with an interview with a Jewish woman saying how tough it is for her to oppose other Jews and stand out on the sidewalk protesting, probably did more to confuse uneducated viewers than further their understanding of Israel's self-defense.
A frustrating result from an event that could have been significant. But, given the pro-Israel rallies taking place across our nation today, I'm glad Seattle was counted, and I'm glad I was able to join with other Jews to sing "Am Yisroyal Chai," the people, the worldview called Israel, live.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Should I leave others' litter by the side of the road?

I felt really guilty when my son and I were walking the 2.7 miles to our synagogue today for Sabbath services.

As we strode down the gravel path in our residential neighborhood, to the side was what looked like the remnants of a crow's feast. A ripped MacDonald's bag lay in the mud, near a squashed soft drink cup, a french fry envelope, and a hamburger wrapper. The papers were strewn in a line along the path next to the street.

After we passed them, I told my son, "I should have stopped and picked up that trash."

"No, you shouldn't," he replied.

I was shocked. My husband is known in our neighborhood, because he regularly goes out on "trash patrol" with his Gopher stick grabber, searching out the stray water bottle, the tossed beer can, the pitched junk mail, and the odd Starbucks cup. He's so vigilant that when we're driving, he'll often make a dangerous swerve off the road in pursuit of the glint of glass juice bottle. Even with a carload of passengers, late to an event, a piece of cardboard from a candidate's sign will lure him like a lasso. If there's no place to park, and his vehicle must jut out into the street, or worse, block a lane while he leaps from the driver's seat (or commands me to "just open your door and grab that can"), no amount of complaint from the frightened riders will deter him. "Don't you care about where we live?" he'll shoot back accusatorily.

Usually I tamp down my frustration while he's out on the street after such a swerve-'n-stop. I tell myself that he's a good citizen, a good example to others who see him prying that bottle cap from the mud, or snatching cigarette butts off the sidewalk with his grabber. But, when he's captured the single prize that distracted him from his driving and--oh no!--notices further trash deposits up and down the nearby street, I do get rather testy. I'm sitting there in the car, a target for fast-moving or inattentive drivers, with nothing to do. I could get out and help him (and when he's legally parked, I often do) but without a grabber, in our rainy, grimy climate, that means coming back into the car with slimy hands and filthy feet (not to mention the disgusting crud I've picked up).

Now you know the underlying hostility with which my son greeted my regret for passing by the MacDonald's detritus on the street today. So, when we came upon a similar array of trash up the street a block or so, I decided to be the good steward and pick it up (for those who know: our community has an eruv). Luckily, partially buried under wet leaves (this occurred in light rain), was a plastic market shopping bag. I filled it with the other five or six pieces of ripped paper and a beer can as my son exclaimed "No! Don't Do That! Why do you have to pick that up? No! Let's go!"

I carried my plastic bag about a half-block to the nearest trash receptacle, the entire time arguing with my son that any responsible citizen should care for his environment and clean up trash, especially when he doesn't have to swerve a car to do it; in fact, it was right in our path. To ignore it would have taken a conscious decision.

But my son was adamant that by cleaning up the trash, I was actually harming the environment; that leaving the garbage by the side of the road would make a bigger impact in favor of a clean neighborhood. Why? He gave me some hypotheticals about thoughtless teens who chuck their trash while driving, without considering consequences. When they drive back by their refuse, he claimed, the offenders would see their mess and realize their mistake. They would then understand that there was a consequence to their selfishness, that they had despoiled the landscape and their conscience would compel them to think more earnestly before dumping next time.

This bit of twisted logic floored me. I told my son about the "broken window effect" as promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling (1982 Atlantic Monthly article). You know--the theory that a broken window on a block signals to low-lifes that this is where no one cares, and invites further vandalism. My son replied that without the evidence, when the rude teens return past the spot of their transgression, they'll just assume that "the city" has employees who routinely keep streets clean, and because of this, there's no negative effect. The litterers, my son insisted, NEED to see the trash left right where they left it to pique their sense of shame.

To the contrary, I argued, they have little sense of shame to pitch their trash so thoughtlessly, and such folk would most likely get a sense of glee if they returned to find their adjustment to the landscape intact. In that way, like a dog peeing on a tree trunk, they've marked their territory, as taggers do in order to provide themselves a sense of worth and power. My son said that picking up others' trash just makes those who would drop it feel the thrill of getting off Scott-free. Only he said "Scotch-free," which they may have been drinking before they threw its empty bottle by the side of the road.

I still maintain that responsible citizens don't want to live in a trashy environment, and that alone should motivate residents to pause when they see trash near them, to retrieve and properly dispose of it. Am I wrong? Should I just leave the trash? Should my husband obsessively swerve to clean it up?

Plenty of impatient passengers want to know.
(P.S. When returning from synagogue services, my husband, who always walks with bag in hand, collected the MacDonald's remnants I'd first passed, restoring our neighborhood to its pristine naturalness.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fast-Day Contemplations, No Longer in Paradise

It's a Jewish fast-day, the Tenth of the month of Tevet, when Jews around the world refrain from food and drink from before sunup to full-dark in mourning for events leading to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem-- but more crucially, to rouse us to repentance in order to avert the need for God's response. I have plenty requiring my correction and improvement, and longing for my hot mocha, as the wind whooshes the enormous Douglas Firs so hard they sway, is a potent motivator.

The stormy weather--rainy and churning to the point that I just saw a bald eagle swooping before my window struggling to dodge the drafts--while better than snow, reminds me how precarious things remain. My son's school lost power, (I had to go pick him up) and we, situated where any blustery gust cuts our electricity, are likely to require down comforters and a crackling fire tonight.

My adrenaline, watching the trees pitch and sigh, at least deters my hunger.

I finally uploaded my Hawaii vacation photos, and the contrast between the benign warmth of Honolulu, 80 degrees both day and night, and the lashing wind and gauzy rain-sheets that form our view here, is striking. Much easier to repent in a fearsome storm than with the soothing turquoise surf, and occasional warm drizzle that offers a rainbow bonus. Where weather is tough, life is serious. In Hawaii--ho, brah, bodda you?

Which brings me to Barack Obama, my neighbor on Oahu during our vacation. While I was there, I read several letters in the local newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser, complaining that he has disowned his taro roots. He arrived wearing a Chicago Cubs baseball hat, and was never seen wearing an Aloha shirt. He seems to have dumped his non-racist, easy-going Hawaiian style to identify with the black culture of Reverend Wright, where darker-skinned people are victims.

That's not the way it is in Hawaii, where whites are derogatorily called "haoles" and 58.4% of the births are classified by the Hawaii Department of Health (table 2.07) as "mixed race." Further Hawaiian government statistics (table 2.39) show that 55.5% of marriages where at least one partner is a Hawaii resident involve spouses of differing races. In other words, Barack Obama would have felt quite comfortable in his own skin, growing up where shades of brown include every hue, and plenty of folk buy "Maui Babe" brown sugar tanner to increase the sun's effect.

We were delighted to spend some time with our dear friends, the husband part-Hawaiian, the wife white, with two adopted daughters, one Japanese-Filipino, the other a mixture of black and white. The family is just that--connected by love and faith; skin color just disappears.

President-elect Obama spent his formative years in the one place in America where race is truly not an issue, and yet--it wasn't his varied and lengthy experience that won him the Presidency. He wasn't a poor kid from the Chicago 'hood he adopted, but rather attended an elite private school while living with his white grandmother, who was a Vice President of the Bank of Hawaii. With such a pleasant environment in which to live, you'd think he'd choose to wear aloha prints, at least when he returns to his blessedly balmy homeland.

I'll confess that while in Hawaii, I didn't miss my home at all. Here I wear thermal underwear, turtleneck, fleece and carcoat--in the house (even as I write this). There, the air caresses my skin, emanating the fragrance of tropic sunblock: coconut, pikake, plumeria. We took a drive around the island to the North Shore, visiting friends who share with their neighbors a beautiful, empty beach, and to a macadamia nut plantation where lush ginger lined the valley and pothos with leaves the size of a skillet snaked up palm trunks. We drove across the Pali, the stark mountain range that rises like a green dinosaur spine shrouded at the top in mysterious mist. It's paradise, brah.

I'm sure those who live there confront the same problems the rest of us do. But they get to do it wearing a muu-muu, while I'm strangling from this knit scarf twisted around my turtleneck. They get to swim with their turtles. Still, there's always something comforting about coming home, and now that the snow is melted and my husband's raving that the thermometer is up to 49 degrees, perhaps things are looking up. I do have much to be grateful for, and much work to do. And hey, it's almost time to eat!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Fireproof Menorah

Please do not light anything in a hotel room. If you do, make sure the table you place it on, in its metal holder, is actually glass, and not plastic that looks like glass. Glass will likely not melt and smolder like plastic will.

If you should char your menorah and Chanuka is continuing, you may want to take my advice and use something like the improvised menorah pictured here. But do not place it near the smoke detector.
This is a floating menorah. There is a quarter-inch layer of water on which these candles glide, explaining why they're not lined up straight. It is not necessary for your tealights to be plumeria-scented and in the shapes of Hawaiian flowers. However, if ABC Stores are your only source of tealights, you, too, may find yourself with a colorful and memorable display, chiddur mitzvah (beautifying the performance of the commandment)!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Soap Operas in Paradise

We just got back from our Hawaii vacation, during which time I did not turn on a computer, even to check my email. We had many memorable moments during our ten days away, including--don't tell!--a room fire from our Chanuka menorah, and my daughter falling two flights through a catamaran (nothing broken but lots of swelling and bruises). Even that excitement didn't compel me to touch a computer to describe the events to friends. I also didn't even keep up online with our Oahu neighbor, Barack Obama, who was visiting nearby Kailua. Nor did I search the web to find the facts about the island-wide power outage we endured on Shabbat. I didn't even check for photos of the amazing fireworks display on New Year's Eve that took my breath away as I sat on the sand with thousands of other revelers in this unique fireworks-obsessed island culture.

But one thing I could not tear myself away from during my absence: my addiction to the soap opera known as Bernie Madoff.

I have read everything I could get my hands on (and that's plenty) each day since the story of his $50 billion Ponzi scheme broke in the news on December 11. We get the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times as well as our local paper and USA Today. I pondered the connections between his family members and The Journal's family tree. I devoured the lists of victimized investors and institutions. I can't get enough of the sordid details, which include suicide (Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet), Hollywood (Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg), charities about which I care (Yeshiva University, Hadassa, Technion), international banking (Aozora in Japan; Medici in Switzerland) and fortunes made and lost--over a period of FORTY YEARS! The scope of the fraud; the personal emotional connections and the blatant lying--and acting!--involved scoops me in.

Bernie Madoff looks pretty fine as we see him walking the streets between 9 am and 7 pm near his home on East 64th Street in Manhattan (of course we all know why then; why there! And his wife surrendered her passport, poor thing!). And I suspect the reason Bernie, collar turned up beneath his baseball cap, wears that smirk: He'll ultimately be able to earn back what he lost, on probably the biggest best-seller ever penned. Whatta story.

And in the meantime--why, look at how many years he got to live the life! Citation X jet to fly to his Palm Beach estate...heck, to his yacht near his $7,000-per-night suite at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, France!

Everyone seemed to think him a great guy, a modest, self-effacing, pleasant, and even altruistic guy. Who loved his family. His brother, sons, daughter-in-law, niece and wife were all in business with him. "What makes it fun for all of us is to walk into the office in the morning and see the rest of your family sitting there," said son Mark in a July 2000 interview with The Financial Technology Network. "That's a good feeling to have."

This, too, makes the soap opera compelling. Bernie supposedly revealed to his sons that there was nothing backing investments on December 10, at which point they turned him in--and refused to sign for his bond, and haven't spoken to him since. Is it possible that Bernie just smirked through forty years of deception even to the family with whom he surrounded himself?

So there I was on the beach in Waikiki. Luxuriating in the warm air, the squeals of happy children, the beauty of Diamond Head. And who should walk by unexpectedly but a couple who are our neighbors and friends! They were as pleased to see us there in paradise as we were to see them.

We started chatting--my husband wandering deeper into the surf with the husband, and the wife and I remaining where the waves splashed our knees. A glorious setting during the holiday of Chanuka. Respite from Seattle's frigid cold and piles of snow that nearly grounded our Hawaii-bound planes. Plenty to share, plenty in which to rejoice.

So what do we discuss? The Madoff affair. We're both obsessed. We compare updates. We finger our favorite suspects. We agree that Bernie is taking the fall for the rest of them since he's old with little future, and the sons can go on. We mourn losses by charities we support; I heard that Yeshiva University "only" lost 14 million instead of the $110 million it originally claimed. But what of the lost interest it was counting on? And Hadassa, who said they lost $90 million now says they really only invested $33 million...still, just think what that would have earned elsewhere. We can't stop ourselves. We're in Paradise, and like teens immersed in Twilight, we're sucked in by another type of vampire, one walking down Lexington in a baseball cap, smirking.

Got home right before Shabbat, with cooking and laundry and shopping to do; I still haven't checked my email (since December 22!), but along with a lovely, frigid day in Seattle, of Shabbat meals and Torah and settling in, I stole some time today to feed my little addiction and catch up on the latest juice on Madoff. Is he fueling anti-Semitism? How did this complicated scheme continue? Who else is impacted?

Is it bad for my character--for my soul--to be reading this stuff?

Yes, I'll fold the laundry, unpack my suitcase and even check my email. I'll upload the thousand photos I took on Oahu (perhaps even post one on the menorah fire)...all in good time. But first, um, maybe there's something new online?