Monday, March 30, 2009

Sick of Facebook

Last night I had a conversation with a friend who disclosed that she disabled her Facebook account. Not that I'd noticed my friend-count decline by one; I don't even know how many I've got (it's somewhere around 100) and I don't check Facebook every day--much less send out narcissistic announcements about my fleeting feelings and momentary interests. In fact, I'm finding it more and more irritating, a time-soaker that leaves me feeling slightly soiled, in need of a shower.

At the same time that my Facebook fascination has plummeted, another real-life friend decided she had to overcome her better instincts and join, lest she miss all the family photos of grandchildren and friends' little ones only available there. Her husband had joined awhile earlier, for business reasons--to increase visibility and ultimately sales of their products.

Was it a coincidence that today's New York Times business section blared the headline, "Is Facebook Growing Up Too Fast?" Having just earned its 200 millionth member, doubling in the last 8 months, the now international "social network" is having "issues."

I could have told them that.

My son and daughter rejected me as "friends." The new format leaves me cold. And soon, real-time blasts from "friends" will make the networking site little more than a Twitter-clone. With photos. Oh yes, and some "conditions of use" that scare me. I'm considering joining my flesh-and-blood friend and de-activating.

Am I the only one who's realizing that stalking people online is not only a colossal waste of time, but actually lowers me morally? That perhaps a preoccupation with others' soap operas and fascinations and, often--breakfast foods, mishaps, momentary blues and gripes, sucks me into the world of "lushon ha ra" (gossip, unnecessary talk about others' lives) that we Jews are cautioned against?

Actually, it's worse than that--immersion in wants and irks on Facebook isn't just about voyeurism, it's about training your own soul away from the transcendent and the long-term, and toward physical here-and-now selfishness. At the top of your own page, next to your own profile picture is a box plaintively asking, "What's on your mind?" (It used to say, so-and-so is... with a blank space). That's the first thing--what's with you? The next thing is to hit "enter" so the rest of your friends all know about it. As many times a day as you feel like inserting yourself in their worlds.

If, as my husband often points out, the two opposites pulling our actions are "do your duty" versus "follow your heart," Facebook indoctrinates toward the latter. No one on FB broadcasts what he, she or others "ought" or "should" do. It's all about want. It's all about feelings. Not much about responsibility, or postponing gratification for greater good or later reward. Either it's about me, now, or you, now. Or about target ads that wiggle on the side of the screen, which, the Times article notes, aim increasingly to "engage" Facebookers, hooking them deviously into products and services via "games" and quizzes. "What's your favorite color m-and-m?" Guess who paid for that on your screen?

I joined FB because I had to. I was doing research on a book and wanted to find out the results of a study conducted at a college. The results were only available on Facebook. Under protest, I created a page. For my mental health, I try to avoid it, but messages that people post, comments and "notifications" get sent through to my email. Most people seem to have a love-hate with Facebook; in fact the Times piece ends with an anecdote by a young woman who quit but rejoined six months later due to peer pressure, confessing, "They wanted me to be wasting my time on it just like they were wasting their time on it."

Exactly. Should I retire my account? (BTW, the photo is Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Second Wife

Shabbat is my day to catch up on a week's pile of newspapers, and today I was struck by several stories--enough to write blog posts about them. But none moved me more than this one from Wednesday's New York Times.

It's the story of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who in 2002 was ordered by a village council to be gang raped, punishment for a deed for which her 12-year-old brother had been framed, as part of a clan rivalry. "As members of the high-status tribe danced in joy, four men stripped her naked and took turns raping her. Then they forced her to walk home naked in front of 300 villagers," wrote Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times that September, in the first of his many articles about her plight.

Instead of committing suicide, as many rape victims there do out of disgrace, Mukhtar Mai accused her attackers, earning national attention and becoming a symbol of courage for women in oppressive societies. The government awarded her protection and a payment of $8,300, which she used to start schools, one for boys and another for girls; she immediately enrolled in the fourth grade of the girls' school. Her biography, In the Name of Honor: a Memoir, (2006) describes her ordeal.

Since then the number of schools she runs has expanded and she also heads an ambulance service and women's aid group. And in the news this week was the announcement of her marriage.

This is seemingly the happy ending for a woman whose life has been more than difficult. At 37, with all the publicity of her gang rape and subsequent legal travails, the prospects of a joyous romantic conclusion appeared dim.

But reading the article about her marriage left me appalled. It turns out that she relented to the proposals of the "constable" who had guarded her, Nasir Abbas Gabol, who is 7 years her junior, not out of love, but out of pity for his first wife. To whom he is still married.

Gabol's mistreatment of that first wife, Shumaila, was the clincher--"I am a woman and can understand the pain and difficulties faced by another woman," Mukhtar Mai told a reporter. And so, after her future spouse attempted suicide and threatened to divorce the first wife as gestures of his intent, Mukhtar Mai gave in, so she could impose conditions: that he give the first wife ownership of his house, a plot of land, and $125 a month.

For that, she remains in her village of Meerwala while he lives in his village. But, she said, per her status as wife #2, Gabol "can come here whenever he wants and finds it convenient."

Every day, Jews begin their "bruchot ha shachar," a series of morning blessings, with grateful acknowledgement that God "has not made me of the nations," i.e. a non-Jew. But it covers more than that in my mind--I am grateful for all aspects of our privileged life in the United States, where women have always enjoyed the respect that Judeo-Christian values supply. When I read of Mukhtar Mai and her loveless marriage, the clan rivalries that a Moslem caste system encourages, the little chance of escape these women face, I am awed by the freedoms we take for granted and the lifestyle we enjoy. I don't know what I ever did to deserve so many options, so many privileges, but I am reminded again not to waste any of them, nor complain about minor snafus.

Mukhtar Mai is the second wife; her husband can have up to four. What a contrast with American marriage, which joins one husband with one wife, ideally as equals and soulmates. This is another indicator that the battle against Islamic extremism is cultural, with democracy pitted against the same sharia law that condemned Mukhtar Mai to rape and disgrace. Not all cultures are alike, and I am fortunate to live where democracy prevails. I can only hope that some day Mukhtar Mai can enjoy similar liberties.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tired of Hearing about Gay Marriage?

Aarrgh! No, I'm not suddenly a pirate; that's my expression for frustration.

One of my very best friends, whom I've known for, well, more years than I confess to, called me up today and said she liked my last post about gay marriage.

With barely a sentence in-between, she then said that she's tired of hearing about gay marriage, because she feels there's nothing she can do about it; she's a fish swimming upstream, and the gay lobbies are so powerful that even if the people vote their view, the lobbies will keep pushing for the courts to overturn it.

She said, "I feel like no amount of letter writing, or emails or phone calls will make a bit of difference; they're so determined. Gays who want to get married are such an infinitesimal number of people, why don't they just live their lives and enjoy all the rights that are the same as marriage and just leave us alone?"

She wants gay marriage advocates to buzz off, but since they're not, she'll succumb to them. She said sure, she'll vote for Prop 8, and she did, but once the aggressive gay marriage advocates press to undo it, well, she doesn't like it, but feels powerless.

Do you think I'm insane for staying so passionate about this issue? Should I join my friend and go out for some decaf coffee? Should I stop writing my book because nobody wants to hear about this anymore?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wiping Out Rights--Not Possible with Proposition 8 in California

An article in the Thursday Wall Street Journal about gay marriage in California caught my eye. In his "Law Journal" column, Geoffrey A. Fowler offers his update on the battle to strike or uphold the people's clarification of the state constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Needless to say--though absurdly, apparently necessary to say--the framers of California's state constitution in 1849 assumed "marriage" could only mean the joining of a man and a woman. But last year, the state supreme court did not hold that way--so the people voted to make their intention clear.

Last week, arguments supporting voters' will (Proposition 8) were made by Ken Starr, and opposed by former "Governor Moonbeam" Jerry Brown. It looks like the court will uphold Proposition 8, "partly out of respect for California's initiative process," throwing 18,000 gay "marriages" performed between May and the voters' reaction into doubt.

Ken Starr pointed out that a "legal notion" of "the putative spouse doctrine" would let those marriages continue, since it basically grandfathers in relationships made by those believing their joining was actually marriage, even if they really weren't.

The Journal piece says this "could open yet another legal challenge from an unmarried gay couple saying they are being treated unequally. 'We haven't seen this kind of targeted wiping out of a specific group's rights before,' says David Cruz, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of law."

Reading that nearly cost me my dinner. Well DUH, of course marriages between two of the same gender would be treated differently than marriages between opposites! They are basically, fundamentally, irreducibly different! Resisting the effort to homogenize two sexes into one doesn't imply one is inferior but recognizes the reality that they are different. All the popular paperbacks out there written by scientists telling us that women's brains are different from men's brains, and every cell in their bodies clearly marked as either male or female don't seem to be enough to convince these agenda-driven crusaders of simple fact.

Okay. Maybe one or two of these guys admit that male and female are different, but they think that shouldn't matter--for the purpose of marriage, they should be interchangeable. The mantra is "a person should be able to marry whomever he or she chooses."

Well, tough luck, even if gay marriage were the law, no one would be able to marry whom he or she chooses. A person could not marry his sibling. A person could not marry a second or third or fourth spouse. A person could not marry a child. A person could not marry his pet.

At least, not legally. I suppose a person could indeed perform a little ceremony and "marry" his sister or son or goat. But the government wouldn't recognize it, and I doubt gay activists would, either.

But the part of the article quote above that really irks me is not the fact gay marriage advocates ignore (and likely support!) continued restrictions on marriage. What gets my...well, the stupidity and ignorance of this David Cruz, supposedly aware of the legal rulings of his state, who suggests that any "rights" of gays who choose to legally couple would be removed or lost. And the reason for that is that California has a law, enacted in January, 2005, that specifically gives registered domestic partners in that state "the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations and duties under the granted to married spouses." (California Family Code, Section 297-297.5)

But gays don't want all the rights and protections they claim to want; they've already got them. They want the word marriage specifically in order to erase any differences between the sexes, for the purpose of changing morals--so that their sexual act is just as respectable, lofty and important to society as the sexuality of heterosexuals who, theoretically at least, may create the next generation.

I'm not a homophobe. I have gay close relatives and gay friends, and I hope they enjoy their lives with whomever they please. But to suggest that the consequences of their sex act, and even their permanent human commitment, is as valuable and important to society as the combining of opposites--i.e. that society has an equal stake in recognizing or setting aside their union--is a denial of reality. The joining of male and female is different than the joining of two males or two females, and I personally believe the effort to shrug off and eliminate noting that is insane.

Professor Cruz, California citizens who voted for Proposition 8 seek no "targeted wiping out of a specific group's rights." The rights of gays to form permanent unions, simply called "domestic partnerships" in recognition of obvious differences between genders, stands. Nobody's rights for all the benefits and obligations of marriage change one bit. Well, perhaps those who want to use the word the way it's been used for thousands of years--our rights are under assault.

Marriage has a definition that recognizes undeniable sex differences. That's the issue. It's not some evil plot to remove "rights."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What is "Service?" New Obama Programs Distort the Concept

I'm spending spare moments pulling out yellowed envelopes of snapshots, seeking more newly-precious glimpses of my father-in-law to scan into my computer to share with our family. From divergent points on the globe, we weep privately and together over the loss of our role model of exuberant joy in life.

It's ironic that we're now made so sad by the loss of one who so vibrantly personified happiness.

It was in this context that I found myself actually irate reading a New York Times piece on Obama's tripling of AmeriCorps, to the tune of $6 billion over five years. Hailed as an altruistic opportunity in the tradition of JFK's 1965 "Vista" (Volunteers in Service to America, which was in imitation of Peace Corps), The Times fairly sings that the expansion "would establish Mr. Obama as the boldest proponent of service programs since Kennedy exhorted Americans to 'ask what you can do for your country.'"

Apparently even 70 Republican congressmen bought the hype--along with 251 Democrats, of course. One hundred four of the GOP voted nay, joined by one courageous Democrat.

But is this really service, or just another government make-work ploy? "Volunteers" get a living allowance, health care "and other benefits" says the Vista website. And after the year of service, there's a bonus of your choice of $4,725 for education (which will jump to $5,350 with the Obama bill) or, currently, $1,200 in cash (not sure what the higher cash reward will be with the additional funding). The stated goal is "to fight poverty," but "VISTA members generally do not provide direct services, such as tutoring children or building homes. Instead, they focus their efforts on building the organizational, administrative, and financial capacity of organizations..."

Vista is one of three existing AmeriCorps programs, the others being AmeriCorps State and National and AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps. The Obama plan, however, creates several additional government entities taxpayers will be funding, which include "new service programs focused on education, health care and clean energy." If the participants get living allowances, health care, child care and other perks, why is their involvement "service" any more than those employed by those same programs? Is it called "service" if you're paid by the government, and "work" if you're paid by anyone else? Perhaps it's the fact that the length of commitment is only twelve months, whereas employees' prospects are long-term? Tell that to the many people whose "permanent" jobs--surprise!--got axed due to the economic malaise.

I can imagine many folk who were laid off jumping at the chance for a secure income and health insurance for a year.

This all relates to my father-in-law, mourned by a wide circle of family, friends and admirers. He was a brilliant physicist, whose inventions in fiber optics and many other scientific fields helped push our nation into the high-tech age. By creating a company to execute, manufacture and distribute his innovations, he employed hundreds--probably thousands--of people. He toiled day and night, immersing himself in problem-solving and the hands-on development of products that changed the nature of communications internationally.

How is this kind of creativity and entrepreneurial accomplishment any less "service" than the administrative work in non-profit organizations of Vista "volunteers"? The difference was, he put all his own personal financial worth on the line to make it happen. And along the way, he experienced complete loss, only to build it back, undeterred. He took the risks personally, spurred by his enthusiasm for science and the need of his genius for expression. He had no guaranteed living allowance, no taxpayer-funded health care, no education bonus or cash option after a year of his total devotion.

But he, and other entrepreneurs who succeed, are now the bad guys, demonized. If they were able to parlay their efforts and investments into something that actually grew a lot--and they were able to grow into a large company and create tens of thousands or more jobs, well, they're now a "rich corporation" who must pay a far higher percentage of their earnings in order to "spread the wealth." Not that they spread it by hiring more people and investing in new ideas.
The way I see it, real "service" is provided by those who sacrifice and assume risks. That's why those in the military, who not only forego their careers and leave their families to submit to orders, often risking their very lives, truly serve.
I don't want to disparage the many people who choose careers in which they help others--to the contrary. But it frosts me to put our nation in subterranean debt to fund programs that falsely praise and honor what are in actuality one-year hires--when millions of people by their hard work (and often, similarly low pay) perform equally valuable "service." I'm not surprised the new Obama bill is called the GIVE Act, because we taxpayers certainly must.

It so happened that in the end, Zayde did not have the financial fruits of his labors. And were it up to Obama, if Zayde had been able to own a nice house, and it had perhaps even appreciated, the government's greedy hand would have forced its sale for death taxes--the only "bonus" for Zayde's commitment being his already-taxed savings confiscated to fund "service" programs--for participants lauded for selflessly fighting poverty.

Now that's ironic.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Alive in a Snapshot World

I've been gratefully receiving much positive feedback about the eulogy I wrote for my father-in-law, David (below). With my husband sitting shiva in Jerusalem, and days filled with phone calls of condolence, I find the rest of my life eerily on hold. Everywhere I look, Zayde is there, as he always was. You see, as a compulsive photographer, insistent (to my children's chagrin) on documenting as much of our precious life as I can, I have hundreds of photos of him among the 33,000 digital photos on my computer and at least that many taken with my film SLR before I went digital.

Before digital (for me, January, 2004), I'd print doubles of my photos and put many of them up on a bulletin board over my desk, inside my clothes closet--even in the medicine chest. This is a bone of contention with my husband, as he thinks them supreme clutter. To me, they are moments of life that I relive with every glance. Since the clever invention of slideshow screensavers, I sometimes waste time with the arrow buttons speeding up the slide show (or dwelling on photos I want to savor longer), jumping from one year, one festivity, one poignant heart-tug of my life to the next. Because I was there for every one of them, each photo is a literal time snapshot that instantly recalls an entire scene and envelops me with the emotions of that moment.

A couple years ago, I got new kitchen countertops, a combination of butterscotch travertine and a display tray about a half-inch deep topped with glass. My latest exhibit is a collection of photos, many in colorful frames, interspersed with sparkling trinkets. I enjoy it every day, though I did hear my husband mutter with disdain just a week or two ago that I've expanded my clutter even into our shared kitchen world.
But it is partially because of my photos that I'm having trouble accepting that Zayde is gone. There he is in my kitchen, in the same places he's been, hugging my daughter, hiking a verdant path with us, posing with the family at my son's bar mitzvah gathering in our back yard. I'm looking at him now, smiling down from my bulletin board with the rest of us, with a mountain peak and fir forest behind. There he is to my right, surrounded by his sons and grandkids, poised near a Colorado lake.

I lost my own parents four and six years ago. They are still real to me, grinning from walls and from my kitchen counter and in countertop frames. That they remain so clear; that my dad's voice I still hear in my mind, grants me some ease with the passing of Zayde, because he, too, can remain with me in his snapshot existence.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Newspapers Go Extinct: Less Left

Yes, I'm still in mourning mode for my dear father-in-law, but there's only so much crying one can do. Tears are partly a function of memory and observation, and partly a function of sympathy. When I'm with people who are lachrymose--whether overhearing a heart-felt thank you, witnessing the love in a wedding ceremony, or even just watching someone I care for tearful in a personal, momentary clutch, I choke up.

Alone, I have fewer cues to cry.

And so I'm relieved to be invited to a friend's birthday party, and even to read the newspaper.

There are far too many articles here in Seattle, and even in national publications, about the closure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which began publication in 1863 as the Seattle Gazette. It's set to go online-only, probably in the next few days. The Sunday paper in the Emerald City has long been a cooperative effort of the town's major daily, The Seattle Times, and the P-I, so today's op-ed page was a death-watch. Several letters scorned the way-left stance of the P-I; more lamented the loss of a second print voice.

Dinosaur that I am, I was actually witness to the closing of another city's second-tier newspaper two decades ago. I'd worked for a couple years as a features reporter for the LA Times, then wrote a book, and then got a job at Los Angeles' other daily, the Herald Examiner, writing editorials. My boss was Tom Plate, now a national columnist, and I was one of three staffers charged with coming up with positions the paper would represent as its own.

Working in the grand structure that housed the Her-Ex was a kick; its sweeping double stairway and colorful copula topping the edifice (below) viewable from two freeways made it a landmark much in the same way the P-I's globe (photo above by Josh Trujillo, Seattle P-I) is a symbol of Seattle. In the newsroom, however, I remember many times shuddering when I saw rats scurrying across the floor.

I didn't last too long in that job, feeling claustrophobic and cooped up sitting inside all day, drinking far too much of their triple-loaded coffee. I much preferred chasing down stories, or free-lancing, because my time was my own.

But it hardly mattered, because a few years after my departure, the once-venerable Hearst paper--pardon the pun--folded. Its readership had declined as The Times' had grown--nobody wanted an afternoon paper anymore, and it was tough to see what the Her-Ex offered that The Times didn't. As a kid in LA, the Times had a conservative editorial position, the Her-Ex more liberal. But then they, like most papers across the country, both slid to the left, shadowing each other.

Did the Internet murder the Los Angeles Herald Examiner? Impossible, there was none. The paper had never recovered from a huge, decade-long labor strike that ended in 1977, during which time The Times comandeered the city; the Her-Ex then hobbled along and sputtered out in 1989. But I think that just as important in that collapse was an ingredient feeding the implosion of papers across the country--lack of balance in viewpoint. I am not sure about the Rocky Mountain News, but I know the San Francisco Chronicle is staunchly liberal. And of course here in Seattle, both the Times and the P-I share a perch on the left.

When we first moved here to Seattle, we subscribed to the P-I, because it was the only morning paper. The Times published too late to set the day and its events. When The Times switched to morning, in direct competition to the P-I, I compared the two, turning pages of each paper side-by-side, looking at the coverage, the depth, the writing, the perspective, even the layout. We switched immediately to The Times--it was clearly superior to the P-I.

I guess I'm saying a few things here. First off, all of the biggest papers nationally echo each others' views of news, editorial orientations, and types of articles they choose to feature. I noticed, for example, that our Seattle Times regularly offers admiring coverage for local authors--if they're gardeners, novelists or intellectuals on the left. But not a word about local authors' new more conservative releases (I'm thinking of five local authors now), even when titles reach NY Times best-seller status, and motivate 500 fans to stand in line at a local book-signing on a rainy night.

To be sure, the availability of the news on the Internet has severely harmed published newspapers. Anything major and breaking sends me to the Web. I want the transcript of a major presidential speech instantly; I want to compare the coverage of six or seven outlets within minutes. Like other news-centric folk, I'm poor on patience.

But my third point is that there's something worthwhile and unique about a physical newspaper. I love the feature stories, and the accompanying photos, and I like to think about the placement of articles in relation to what's also deemed important for the day. I like to skim headlines and choose what to peruse in depth, and I like sitting outside in the sunshine, when it's available, in brightness that would obscure my laptop's monitor, with a cup of coffee and biscotti. Sometimes I clip articles, and often artful photos that convey color, design and feeling. Just to scotch-tape them up in my world awhile.

If newsprint disappears, will I take the time to click on each page of the Style section? Will I follow links through all the local news? Will I ignore useful ads that I would have leafed through if stuffed in my morning bundle?

That, for me, would be the loss, because with my impatience, the answers to the above questions would be no. I'll check out the major stories and skip the rest in favor of checking my email, narrowing my world, restricting the breadth of my awareness, especially on local and human-interest levels.

But I do think it's too late. We've moved on to an economic and psychological scenario where high-speed connections have formed entitlements to events and even others' thoughts, instantly. In a way, that's great, because the amount of information available in that split-second is vast (if not accurate) and anyone with a computer can now collect opinions and viewpoints from varied sources rather than a single powerful printed editorial page.

Today we've had snow, pelting rain and hail, and now the wind is howling but the sun has broken through. Quick, time to grab my Style Section and biscotti and head outside.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Snapshots of Zayde...

A typical pose--Zayde delights in the sunshine and the beauty of nature in one of his crumpled hats last May in Seattle.

This was taken for the family passport he used at age 23 to "make aliya" (move) to the fledgling state of Israel for the first time, with his wife and baby son, in 1949. A lack of secure work and housing caused their return to the United States.

This photo, ca 1967, at the family's Los Angeles home, seems to be a role-reversal. The dad has the beard, the teen college student is clean-shaven.
Below, Zayde presents his book, Hidden Light, to a group in Los Angeles last April.

I'm not sure, but I think this might be his graduation photo from Central High in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Remembering Zayde's Zing

Though he was a deep and brilliant man, David, my father-in-law, most clearly radiated a single, powerful characteristic--joie de vivre. But Zayde, (Yiddish for "Grandfather," and his affectionate nickname used by my children and hoards of adoring adults) didn't just enjoy life. He didn't just smile a lot and bask in the good things. Zayde internalized the beauty, bounty and genius of the "natural" world, and then like the shiny foil-cardboard reflector sunbathers use to intensify the rays, bounced it back to others around him, stronger and more recognizable.

There was a morning. And then there was Zayde's morning, where he'd step outside, his Indiana Jones brimmed hat slightly askew, the chin rope dangling under his broadly-smiling face. He'd stand there a few moments admiring the vista, inhale deeply and proclaim joyfully the Psalmist's praise, "Ma rabu ma'asecha, Hashem!" ("How wondrous and varied are your works, O God!" Ps.124:24) And by his exuberance, you knew it was an amazing day.

Zayde was always proudly Jewish, but he only began his studies in earnest, inspired by my husband's own quest, after the age of 50, when he perfected his Hebrew and memorized the Five Books of Moses so he could read them flawlessly in proper "trop" (cantillations) for the congregation in services. He started applying the knowledge gained as a physicist/professor to his research of Torah, finding shocking "coincidences" between biblically-described phenomena and recent scientific discoveries. Some of them became the basis of his 2008 book, Hidden Light: Science Secrets of the Bible.

He'd always wanted to live in Jerusalem, first attempting the adventurous move in 1949 at age 23, when the Jewish state was fresh and immigrants were welcomed to Quonset huts and tents, often in communal farms called "moshavim." With his young bride and infant son (my husband), he sought an income and permanent shelter; after six months without finding either, the couple returned to a dingy basement apartment in Philadelphia, and with merit scholarships and his bio-chemist wife's income, completed his bachelor's of science, master's and doctoral degrees at Penn.

It was then that he left his Yiddish-speaking Mama behind in Phillie (where he'd won the [Knowledge of] Shakespeare Prize at the elite public Central High School) and moved with his bride and then 6-year-old son to a new job at Convair (later General Dynamics) in San Diego, to devise guidance systems for jets.

The hardy Ukrainian stock that had spurred Dave's father to leave his family behind, make the perilous crossing to America, and eke a living as a barrel-maker (reuniting two decades later with his wife, Sarah, who had suffered the loss of their five daughters to disease and starvation in the aftermath of World War I) inspired Zayde to apply to NASA just as the space race was heating up. After stints on the Gemini and Apollo efforts, he was so exhilarated by the physical training and excitement of space, he became one of six scientist-astronauts set to orbit the earth--only to be scrubbed just short of blast-off by periodontal problems. I think he considered that process the zenith of his lifetime.

Nothing could stop Zayde, large or small. He took a professorial gig at UCLA while working at Electro-Optical Systems, and then moved on to start his own fiber optics company in Santa Monica in the late 60s. By the '90s, he'd grown his business to hundreds of employees, but everyone considered him "the tinkerer" because he couldn't resist creating. He held dozens of patents and when he finally sold the company to Amoco in 1990 to realize his dream of "making aliyah" to retire in Israel, he lasted two weeks before epiphanies for more innovations led him to start yet another business, Jerusalem Optical Link Technologies (JOLT).

He'd use his big-kid charm to get nearly anything he wanted. In San Diego, when his four obstreperous boys were small and the budget that barely afforded their modest, boxy house on a busy Point Loma street didn't allow for Sunday swimming, they'd have their pool party--even if they had to nonchalantly saunter onto assorted hotel premises and pretend they belonged there.

Vacations meant a grand tour camping the National Parks with the family, Dave's thrill being hiking and savoring each forest path. In the midst of briskly clambering the trail he'd suddenly pause, drink in the sky and trees, and exclaim, "Boy, is this beautiful!" or "What a GORGEOUS day!" Even at home, Zayde enjoyed rough-housing on the living room floor as much as his sons did.

He was a fabulous father-in-law, bursting with ecstasy at my wedding to his oldest son, dancing in such a frenzy he turned crimson. But he could be tender, approaching with a smile and loving hug, saying "oh darlink!" When he was with us for Shabbat, I always treasured the blessing he'd bestow, resting his fingers gently on my hair and bidding me softly to be like the Jewish mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Ruchel and Leah, a daughter who, along with my sisters-in-law Jane, Michele and Anne, he loved as much as his precious boys. He was equally sweet with his grandchildren, frequently asking with a lilt, "How are you, kinderluch?" But he didn't mind putting some force in his instruction to my sometimes slacking son, "You listen to your Baba now!" adding, "Do it for your Zayde."

But he was known most for his enduring childlike wonder over even the tiniest surprises. About 20 years ago, he bought a revamped apartment in our neighborhood to become one of five dozen families who learned Torah with our Rabbi, the only means of becoming a member of the synagogue he and my husband had founded on Venice beach, known for its home hospitality. Each week during services, my husband would quietly inquire which families were "hosting," and who was "available" as a guest. Sometimes the match-ups worked perfectly, and other times there were too many (mostly) young people "available," and members would be pressed into action to throw together a properly festive Shabbat meal.

Zayde, unattached at the time, was often one of those who hadn't made Shabbat plans. Though a non-domestic sort, he'd cheerfully accept a table-full of guests, and was famous for leading them up the stairs and into his livingroom, sweeping piles of papers off of the folding tables that served as his desk, flourishing a white tablecloth over it, and heading for his tiny tube kitchen. He'd root around in the mostly-vacant fridge, throw open the cupboards, and in a minute or two emerge, victorious: "Here's a can of tuna, a tub of garbanzo beans and some lettuce--we've got a FEAST!"

This was the man who attended high school and college with Noam Chomsky and emerged in his later years as right-wing as they come on both Israeli and American politics. Make no mistake, though he felt the gravity of the center of the world in Jerusalem, where he lived for the last 19 years, he remained an American patriot, having served in the US Navy during World War II. He was a talk radio devotee, listening to his son via Internet and podcast, regularly faxing pages-long comments, or phoning with an animated "Hi, Sonny!"

He viewed the world in capital letters, with exclamation points, savoring the people, the perspectives, the panorama, and he'd bring it all back to Torah, to the miracles of God's creation, the stunning amusements divinely built into numbers, cycles and seasons. His genius synthesized the pieces, almost the way he most enjoyed a plate of food--mixed into a melange of flavors, topped with the fire of hot sauce, the piquant zing that made his life so special.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Conservative Whiz-Kid Picks Smart Mentor

The lead article in today's New York Times Style section, my Sunday morning reading of choice because of its entre pre-recession into a parallel universe of outrageously priced purses, too chic nightlife, melodramatic tales of love, and snigglingly direct wedding announcements, highlights a precocious political pundit. Atlanta's Jonathan Krohn, age 13, is profiled because of his audacious pursuit of the limelight, after countless calls to radio talk shows, self-publishing a book that purports to express the essence of conservative belief, and a recent piece de resistance speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week in Washington D.C.

Though Jonathan is portrayed as obnoxious and arrogant, his parents appear refreshingly perplexed by their progeny. His mother, Marla, observing her son engrossed in writing to the exclusion of all else, "got tough," according to the boy. "She’d say, ‘If you don’t stop writing now and go outside and get some exercise, I won’t let you finish this book!’” When Jonathan exclaimed over the policies of Barack Obama, his father "buried his face in his hands" and moaned, "Oh, Jonathan!"

The left-leaning Times seems to snicker at this hopelessly un-hip kid in his sweater-vest, but does show him to be up with the latest best-sellers, which clearly form the source of his understanding of politics. In the large photo splashed across the Style Section, prominently displayed, face-front on the shelf immediately behind the prodigy is perhaps the most authoritative book on American history: "The 10 Big Lies About America," by Michael Medved.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Purim Costume Musings--and Dangers

Addendum to previous post about Purim costumes (which you should read to make sense of the first half of this post):

I'd been debating a suggestion that my mustashio'd husband portray Super Mario, who has a feature that would work perfectly: a pert, red newsboy cap, boasting a prominent letter "M." But we'd still need the outfit's basics, and where could we borrow those overalls? Not many farmers in our suburb, and this would be a one-wearing purchase.

My husband's sartorial taste goes to plaid flannel lumberjack shirts and "relaxed" jeans. But costuming him as Paul Bunyan is lame, and I'm not sure how I'd dress up as Babe, the Big Blue Ox. And Babe doesn't cast the flattering silhouette I normally prefer. (I could wear blue head-to-toe, paint my face and top it with fake horns on a headband, but I'd be a rather pathetic enormous beast.)

How am I going to motivate my man to trade his usual shlumpy attire for something more fanciful? My only hope might be to start the festival's imbibing with some of his favorite craft beers a little early.

If we go with the Mario scenario, my daughter says a friend of hers could perhaps loan me the pink tube dress that was her Princess Peach garb at a recent party. Since when is a tube dress appropriate for a princess? I'll think about buying some pink netting or tulle to pouf it out a little. Then I'll look like a frumpy ballerina...

Just a few more days to put this together. I think we need some further help here--please!

Now I'm going to tell you the story of the picture, below. I cannot restrain my laughter every time I see it.

Our middle child, who is very creative and independent, at age 7 decided she was going to make her own Purim costume, and that it had to be...a box of Cheerios. She searched until she found a corrugated box that was large enough to cover her body, a rectangle not-too-deep so it would look just like the Cheerios box (ie a rectangular prism). She covered it with yellow paper and painstakingly copied the lettering and bowl of oat circles she saw on the front of the cereal, including, of course, the huge "O-U," the letter U inside a circle that indicates its contents are certified kosher. She cut out holes for her head and arms, and left the bottom open for her legs.

On the night of Purim, she needed assistance to lift the box over her head, and pull her limbs through the holes. With her hair in a ponytail with matching yellow headband, off we all went to hear the reading of the Book of Esther (Megilat Esther) at the Chabad House in Seattle's University District. It's a brick building in the style of Chabad's 770 Eastern Parkway headquarters, with lots of steep stairways.

As we were walking down to the level where the Megilla would be read, my daughter, unable to see her feet, slipped and ended up on her back in the stairwell, flailing like a flipped tortoise in its shell. In the photo, a friend and my other daughter (back to camera) were trying valiantly to right my Cheerios girl, stuck supine an interminable couple of minutes.

I do love that child (she's the one who texted me about Mario). Don't even ask what happened when she got into her head that she just had to go the next Purim as a bunch of grapes--the fruit-'o-the-vine being blown up purple balloons...

Mario and Princess Peach? Or--how to dress for Purim?

The Jewish holiday of Purim is fast approaching, and I'm scrambling to find costumes for my husband and me.

To be honest, my husband, the curmudgeon, eschews costumes, which are much more than mere folly on this most joyous and raucous of Jewish festivals. Purim celebrates the events described in the Book of Esther--when Persia's King Ahashverosh was persuaded by Queen Esther, a Jew taken to the royal harem against her will, to nullify evil minister Haman's genocidal decree. This is the one scripture where God's name is never mentioned (except in code), which exemplifies the theme of the holiday--the hidden nature of God. In that vein, we wear costumes to hide our external identities, and imbibe alcohol so we internalize the confusion of reality with appearances.

So my husband's reluctance to dress up represents more than mere laziness or embarrassment--it's a small rebellion. Especially when I go to the trouble of creating a costume for him. In the past, he's been more amenable--one notable year when I was about to give birth to our second daughter, I made Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head costumes from burlap bags, cutting out and drawing enormous features from posterboard, and buying him a silly plastic bowler hat. Another year I made us both Zorro costumes; I got t-shirts and bandannas from the Army surplus store when we were bikers. The shirts were black, and read, "Kill 'em all; let God sort 'em out" (I think it was). Somebody asked if he was in the so-and-so military unit, which apparently used that logo.

But for many years now, he won't dress up at all. I go all out, 'natch, looking completely ridiculous in my half yellow-half red jester costume with matching dual-pointed and pom-pom'd hat (I paint my face half red, half yellow, of course). A couple years ago when it was pertinent, I was Martha Stewart, with my apron and toque over a striped prison uniform, ankle bracelet dangling. When Disney was the theme of a Purim seuda we attended (the luncheon that is one of the four Purim mitzvot, ie commandments), I came as Minnie Mouse, with red, white and black polka dot skirt, proper ears with bow, whiskers and tail.

So Purim has quickly returned and once again, I'm faced with the costume dilemma. But yesterday, my daughter texted me with the message, "All my friends decided that (my husband) has to go as Mario, and you should be Princess Peach!" Her friends, evidently, agreed that my husband looks like Mario, with his dark mustache. I know nothing about the Super Mario games, but thanks to Google, I found that all I need to be Princess Peach Toadstool is a poufy pink dress and a tiara.

But after clicking through 158 pages of costumes online, all I found was a too-short, flirty version of Princess Peach, a polyEsther (couldn't resist) number for about $50. I've never bought a costume before and certainly won't (and all my previous home-made attempts fill three huge bags of assorted garb and props). I don't own a pink poufy dress, alas. What to do? Purim's next Monday night and Tuesday! Ideas?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Coping with Financial Absurdity

My husband passed me a page of USA Today, where psychiatrist Judith Orloff was spinning her book on "Emotional Freedom" into something related to the economy. That's what just about every author has to do these days--because losing money has become the great unifier for the middle and higher classes, the ones who normally buy books but won't anymore unless it has to do with finances.

If you haven't lost your job, then you've probably lost value on your house. Or your stocks went down (most middle class folk nowadays own at least some stock) or your bills went up. Our natural gas bill is a killer, because it's been darn cold this winter. Al Gore, I'm waiting for Global Warming.

So this psychiatrist was trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and say what great opportunities adversity provides: "Sometimes people discover unexpected strengths; they get creative. Retired people may focus on making the best of what they have left, guarding it...[as if they have a choice??] It's an opportunity to show kindness and generosity to others in trouble."

Being upbeat used to be called positive thinking. Norman Vincent Peale got a best-seller and several sequels out of it, starting with The Power of Positive Thinking, in 1952. I have fond memories of my mom reading Dr. Peale's inspirational newsletter, "Guideposts," which she kept by her bedside. There was no one more optimistic than my mom. Of course, Dr. Peale's Positive Thinking was preceded by Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) followed by the pep-talking How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1944).

But, as a mental health professional myself, I'm doomed to analyze my malaise about the demise of our family's net worth. (Albert Einstein: "The hardest thing in the world to understand is income tax") It's not that now we have less--far less--for the future. Or even that we'll have to cut back, since we're already masters of thrift.

What bothers me is the years we sacrificed in so many ways to save money--which now seems useless. I can't get back the hot afternoon when I went thirsty because I felt the cost of a bottled drink was too high. Or the evenings when instead of being together as a family, my husband was on the road earning a small speaking fee. Taught me great respect for single moms and dads, who shoulder the roles of two parents every day.

But if we (especially my husband) didn't have such a driving work ethic, we would have had more time together, closeness, and certainly more precious family memories.

That's the source of rue for me---not the loss of money, but the loss of our life, the time and the discomfort and the passing something desired by, simply to balance the budget or save for something, or put money away for the kids' college tuitions. Nothing unusual, just what people do to get ahead.

But that's what I think Americans resent with the new Obama tax plan. Even those receiving tax cuts, or low-bracket citizens receiving outright gifts from fellow taxpayers, will see their earnings--their time--buy less as inflation pushes costs for basics ever-higher.

At least Judith Orloff offers this comfort: "Money doesn't have to do with self-esteem. I've treated so many people with all the money in the world, and they feel horrible about themselves." (Now that's encouraging!)

Or perhaps she's merely echoing John Lennon and Paul McCartney's lyrics from "Can't Buy Me Love." The gist of Orloff's book, apparently, is that you shouldn't just let out your negative feelings but rather consider possible consequences before venting.

Duh. And it's also no surprise that wealth doesn't guarantee happiness. But as Sophie Tucker said, "Rich is better." Or, asks Henny Youngman, "What's the use of happiness? It can't buy you money."

Don't get me started. We might just laugh through the tears of this Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity yet. One final thought from the late, great Bob Hope: "I love to go to Washington, if only to be nearer my money."