a week in the life

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a slice of blue

It’s been a full week for us here. We had a two day war, a run-off municipal election, and ominous signs that the government is about to fall… and more. Every day is full to bursting at a time when I feel as if I’ve reached the stage where I just want to withdraw and study history. Don’t want excitement, don’t want action, don’t want to listen to radio or watch TV. Nowadays, it takes a war, a natural disaster, or a terror attack for me to turn on the TV. And even so, I watched it twice this week.

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And then there comes that time of the week when I sit down to write a post. Often I’ll have a subject in mind when I sit down to write… but just writing is enough to lead me on to another subject. If I’ve had an interesting adventure that I want to share with you, it’s easy. I have the subject, and a set of pictures to go with it. The only dilemma I might encounter is the difficulty of picking out the 6 pictures to illustrate the post with. But other times, like today, I might be thinking of a certain picture that would serve well as illustration, and look for it. And then while looking for it, come upon a number of other images that are hoping to be famous. But that would mean explaining them or telling the story that went with the photo. Barely noticing it, I’ve managed to put a whole stack of ideas and images together, and it’s too much. So I’m forced to reduce the ingredients. There have been days when I got so carried away, I had to put off writing till tomorrow.

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We had the election for mayor a couple of weeks ago, and my candidate came in low on the list. Turned out he was a lot less popular than we thought he was. The great thing about a democracy is that we get to choose who runs the show. Well, not exactly choose, but at least we have some influence. That is, if we’re in the majority. When considering the candidates, I was not enthusiastic. Had my doubts about all of them. But I believe that even when we don’t have a candidate that truly represents our political point of view, it’s our duty to choose the least offensive of those running. There was this guy with whom I agreed on most things. There was just one thing I didn’t like about him. He’s been our minister of ‘Ecology and Environment’ in the national government up till now. And serving in that position, he tried to remove the hyraxes from the list of protected animals in our country. I listened to the arguments in favor. Hyraxes have really been multiplying recently, and they’re all over the place, even checking out urban neighborhoods. Not only that, but some of them have been infected by some flee which happens to carry an illness called ‘the Jericho fever’. Anyone who gets that disease may be left with unsightly blemishes on his or her skin, including the skin of the face, which can be a disaster for those affected.

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Of course, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, hyraxes are very shy animals. They are frightened of human beings because humans are tall, talk in loud voices, and make unexpected movements which no hyrax has ever understood. So the cases of people getting Jericho Fever, and having to walk around for years with a pink stain on their faces are few and far between. In my opinion this is far from enough to let hunters start pointing their rifles at animals who may be more polite and intelligent than they are. But there are people who’re convinced they’ve been overpopulating our common territory. After much deliberation, I chose this candidate as the least of the evils, and decided to vote for him.

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But my compromise candidate lost in any case, and so I was presented with a new choice in the runoff between two characters I didn’t like at all. After careful consideration, I decided to take advantage of my right to abstain. It isn’t a disaster. I really enjoyed the work of the last mayor who served two terms. It occurred to me that whichever of the two won, he still might surprise me and turn out to be a good mayor.

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But because life in Israel is just full of action and interest [I remember once during an extended vacation in California, I was on the verge  of getting bored. Nothing ever happened, or so it seemed. I would pick up a newspaper and read about an accident on some freeway I didn’t know… or about a princess half way across the world who just got engaged. I couldn’t wait to get back home], though the election had been planned for weeks, it turned out that we were in the middle of a little war when the big day arrived. Benny, my neighbor, was burned up at having to turn away from video reportage of a high rise apartment building which had just been demolished by a rocket coming from Gaza, and go vote. But it’s a civic duty you know… so he went. Lucky me, that I had decided to abstain.

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You can imagine how worn out I am as we come to the end of the week. I haven’t even mentioned a couple of evenings spent with friends… or the topical discussions that we had regarding war and elections… or the letter I got from Flickr informing me that all my photos there would start disappearing after my death. As for results… you already know that my guy didn’t win the election. About the war? We lost. But that could possibly be a good thing. If you want to know why, you can ask. As for the ideas and the fascinating pictures… I threw most of them aside. They were good, but they just didn’t fit into this post. I changed the title too.

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Chinese Flame Tree

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It’s been about 15 years since I started noticing a very beautiful but unfamiliar tree that appeared here and there in the neighborhood. It had yellow flowers, and looked like a lot of other trees around town, but it was when the fruit materialized that it attracted my attention. At first, I thought they were some strange flower that I hadn’t yet seen. But as I approached and tried to get to know them, I realized they weren’t flowers but seed pods, unusual and very attractive.

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I asked around and a friend told me their name, Koelreuteria bipinnata. Now that’s a hard name to remember, and it didn’t sound like a Hebrew name at all, so I kept asking whenever I was in the company of someone who knew some botany, when seeing those trees. I heard a few names… someone told me that the beautiful pinkish pods were called ‘two feathers’ in some language. And I could imagine the two leaves as feathers composing the pod… but I didn’t hear a name I could actually relate to and remember till just last week. That was when I finally heard that they were called the Chinese lantern tree in Hebrew. And that worked for me. They did look like Chinese lanterns. And moreover, the tree comes from China.

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A week ago, Chana and I visited the archaeological garden not far from my home. Chana was eager to see some hyraxes since I talk about them frequently, and we had previously gone to the promenade in my neighborhood where I usually meet with them. But they were shy. A man with a dog (friendly, and on a leash) was there when we arrived, and hyraxes don’t like dogs at all. We did see one of the hyrax watchmen, but didn’t see them at play or grazing on the lawn. I thought we might have better luck at the archaeological garden, because as lovely as it is, it doesn’t seem to attract many visitors.

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When we got there at first, I didn’t see any hyraxes, and apologized for our poor luck. But I did find a few Chinese lantern trees, and we both photographed them. It was something I wanted to share with you, after finally discovering their name. And once I had the Hebrew name, it was relatively easy to find their name in English. They are called Chinese Flame Trees. It was after shooting some of the trees, and a shot of the pods up close, that we suddenly noticed a group of hyrax puppies playing among the bushes and trees in a hard to access rocky area of the park.

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the elders of the tribe

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In western society, the population seems to be more splintered all the time. It didn’t take too long to move from ‘self realization’ to ‘every man for himself’, and there seems to be a steady increase of alternative families, which include a great many ‘single parent’ families.

Good or bad, I don’t know. I don’t know such families intimately. But I very much appreciate the traditional family structure, in which the family unit often includes different generations, cousins, and distant relatives. Everyone has their place, and everyone has their special talents which are available and advantageous to the whole family structure.

I photographed the above scene more than a generation ago, at a family get together. These old men were well placed on a porch, overlooking the festivities, but a wee bit removed. They didn’t understand all of the interests of the young, but conducted a very interesting discussion among themselves, modestly, with the characteristic reservation of wisdom. From time to time, younger members of the family visited with them, paying their respects. Nowadays things are different. When we have a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah in the family, the music is so loud it is next to impossible to have a serious conversation round the table. I’m one of the old men now, so I don’t understand most of what interests the young. But that little niche that used to be provided for the old is no more. Sometimes, I’m just not brave enough to attend.

dear friend

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to Nedra with love

It was half a lifetime ago
that we sat by your table on your front porch
it seemed then that we’d fulfilled all our goals
and our dreams had come true.
We discussed the problems of life
smiling and laughing in conversation
all the way through

We loved each other with all our hearts
though never knew each other in the biblical sense
you were my sister and I your brother
though we came from opposite sides of the world
I loved your parents as you loved mine
and we were never bothered by the time…

the hills and the valleys, the hard times and good…
we lived our lives the best way we could.
You, as light as an angel, walking through walls
stalking me in my territory…
as with heavy heart, I walked the study halls.
We found partners, had children, cooked meals…
working as we should; we tried to delight;
you taught me to laugh, you gave me new sight.

and life kept on going, each of us in his way
did we ever imagine that we’d get so gray?
the loss of you, has finally broken my heart…
could we have imagined that we’d fall (so) apart?

You’ve gone to your grave. I’ll soon go to mine.
And let us never be bothered by the passing of time.

in the mood

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A baby is born with baby fat, a little envelope of fatty tissue that protects him from accidental random bumps with the reality of the world; knocks against the crib, unexpected falls… and all through life, many of us continue to be protected by a little extra fat, plans and obligations, lust and desires, fantasies and aspirations.

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We go through life chasing one thing or another; worrying about getting up early so we can be at work on time; having enough money to make ends meet; doing the right thing for our children, being fair to our mate; and getting closer to our goals. Sometimes those goals are so insignificant that we’ve forgotten whether they were gained or lost just a short while later. But in the process… in the navigation of our vehicle through the traffic, in the negotiation of a business deal, while falling in love, we manage to avoid dwelling on our existential loneliness, or about the certainty of death.

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Getting old, for many, is a time of getting thinner. Not for all, but for many. There are varying degrees of exposing ourselves to the bare truth. There are those that bumble along unsure of where they are or where they’re going, just trying to stay out of harm’s way. And others, who try to savor the experience of living, taking risks, overcoming painful disappointments, all for the sake of being truly alive, and wanting to know as much as possible about the nature of this unique and infinite universe.

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Chuang Tzu the father of Daoism said: “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” Sitting in a straight backed chair in my kibbutz home, watching fish swimming in the aquarium, I relived his experience, wondering about the limits of the consciousness of fish; were they aware of the room beyond the aquarium? Did they see me looking at them? The aquarium limiting their world to so and so many cubic centimeters of water… and at the same time a parable of that same bubble in which I lived.

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We could discuss cosmetic surgery and the insertion of Botox under the skin. That is one alternative to searching for wisdom as we grow older. I love Bob Dylan and have followed him from the time he first appeared in the beginning of the 60s till he won what I thought was a well deserved Nobel prize recently. But I beg to differ with the thesis of one of his most beautiful songs: No, I don’t wish my children to be forever young, but to cherish every stage as they grow older, and to explore the possibilities of the personal and individual evolution which is the potential of every human being.

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If the ‘birds and the bees’ are seen as an appropriate parable by which the child may learn of nature’s dictates to living beings, then the autumn leaves may be an example to us as we grow old, discard our fat, our skin getting thin and sensitive both to external objects in accidental encounter, and to the pressure of our bones when in the same position too long. Our faults which appeared as youthful folly once, seem exaggerated now by their continuous growth just as ears and noses are often more pronounced on the faces of the aged. And that sensitivity that spurred our curiosity as children may later lead us into melancholy moods and sadness as we contemplate our existential aloneness and our inevitable demise.

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And if, at moments such as these, we ache for relief, try to remember the power of the mood, which offers us the harmonies, the undertones and the overtones of thought itself. Regardless of where our thoughts may lead us, it is so important to remember. To remember that we can influence our mood. We know those places that uplift our hearts; those scenes that let us truly relax. It may be a eucalyptus tree for one, or a mountain ridge for another; the face of a loyal old dog, or of a friend who, when you are with him or her, you just can’t help smiling. Not so long ago, I was saddened by some news I heard on the radio. I had turned on the news at 12 midnight, to know what was going on before I went to sleep. And what I heard saddened me. I thought to myself, I don’t want to go to sleep now, with these thoughts on my mind. I’ll have bad dreams. And so I turned to my computer and chose a standup comedian I’d heard before from the huge selection offered me by youtube. This comedian has a political outlook of reverse polarity to mine. But I enjoy his sense of humor… even when he laughs at what I consider holy. I watched him perform for about a quarter of an hour, and I laughed. Not just smiled, I laughed out loud, and felt a lessening of tensions, and wind under my wings; uplift.

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Sigmund Freud wrote some very precious chapters on humor and suggested that it juxtaposes items in our consciousness, creating a different perspective which then allows us to reexamine attitudes that have grown stiff from constant reference within the same mental state. That is to say, that if we view something again and again with the same prejudice in mind (he used fear as an example), we will eventually be unable to see the subject without arousing that prejudice. But laughter can enable us to see the subject anew. English speakers are familiar with the famous saying, ‘laughter is the best medicine’. And it turns out that modern research supports this folk knowledge. According to biologists, laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving our resistance to disease. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.

self knowledge

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I was thinking of a title for this post, and remembered a common saying in Hebrew, but couldn’t think of how to say it in English. So I went to Google Translate and wrote it in the Hebrew window, expecting to find my title in translation. But what I got was: “He who own imperfection invalidates”. Well, that wouldn’t work, so I’ll translate it myself: He who invalidates another, points to his own imperfection. It comes from a volume in the Talmud which deals with problems of government. What it means is that when we want to disqualify someone, the first flaw that we’ll notice is a flaw we have ourselves. That happens because we are most familiar with our own flaws, and we recognize them quickly when looking at others.

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I had an old pair of eye glasses which were meant for working on the computer and for reading books on paper. They were bifocals, so they enabled me to see everything close, as well as little print. For instance, if I wanted to check the ingredients in a box or can of prepared food. But over the years my eyes grew weaker, and it got to the point where I had to make a real effort to read, and when it came to the little letters I’d have to use a magnifying glass. Finally, one of the handles of my glasses broke, and I went to the optometrist.

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Strangely enough, standing at the counter, when asked by my amiable and smiling optometrist how he could help me, I told him that the frame of my glasses had broken, and it was time for another set. I’d be satisfied, I said, if he just copied the prescription onto a new set and put them in a frame I could wear. He looked at his records to check how long it had been since my the previous prescription, and since it had been some time, suggested a free examination. I agreed. We went to the back room and it took a little while. But it wasn’t a disagreeable experience. He’s a bright young man, and I even enjoyed a bit of conversation while reading the same line from different distances as he placed varying lenses in a frame designed for such examinations. And when he finished, he assured me I’d really enjoy the new glasses once they were ready.

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And so I did. When I put on these new glasses, I was just amazed at all the details I saw. And after trying them with my desktop, my laptop, and reading a book, it seemed to me that the quality of my life had just improved greatly. I thought about all the time I had endured visual difficulties without doing anything to ease the problem. The stress of sitting in just the right position so as to be able to read from the computer screen. I know I’m a self indulgent person. But self indulgence could mean running to the optometrist as soon as I had difficulties reading, instead of avoiding the act because I don’t like stores, and don’t like the help of doctors and such.

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This is just one of my idiosyncrasies. There are many things in life that I don’t care for much, and I just avoid them. This is made possible by some very dear friends who are willing to take the trouble so as to make life a bit easier for me. But there are some things I have to do myself. Like buying a hat… or a camera…or going to see a doctor. In those cases, when I have to do something that is to my own advantage, but that I don’t like to do, I put it off indefinitely. Which is in sharp contrast to my normal behavior. I’m a punctual person. When going someplace to meet someone, I’m usually there between 15 minutes and a half an hour before the designated time (with a book in my backpack, so as not to waste time). When I was in business, if I promised a job for a certain date, I was never late.

I am reminded of a comic sequence by Lenny Bruce in which he berated the police of Los Angeles for hiding in public restrooms and watching through a spy hole to catch homosexuals doing something nasty in the toilet. And then as an aside, he said, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but when I go into a public restroom the only thing I’m thinking about is how to get back out as fast as possible’. That’s the way I am when I go into a store.

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But still, looking at myself critically, I just couldn’t excuse the discomfort I had imposed upon myself just because I don’t like shopping. And as I contemplated this defect of mine, it suddenly occurred to me that this was one of the things I most dislike about my country. As I have often complained to my friends, it’s exasperating to watch the way the government will let a problem grow and grow until it’s unbearable before doing anything about it. For example, Jerusalem used to be a very nice, comfortable little city. When I was a young man I used to go almost everywhere on foot. But over the years the city grew; the population grew much greater; and it seemed as if everyone got a private vehicle. The streets bore more and more traffic until they choked up with gridlock. Bicycles would speed past us as we in cars moved at a speed of two kilometers per hour, before they finally decided to improve public transport. Take another example from five years ago, when the ‘militants’ of Gaza started shooting rockets at towns and cities in the south. At first they just shot a few to see how we’d react. We condemned the rocket attacks. So they figured it was safe, and shot hundreds of them. Our citizens kept running to the shelters, and we would shoot back now and then… but still, it took more than a year till we realized it was war.

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According to my favorite philosophical attitude towards initiating change, I would have to change myself before trying to change the country. I’m willing to give it a try. But I tell myself, I’m old. What’s the point? Change is so much work, and who knows how much longer I have to live anyway. Whereas the country is young. It has plenty of time to improve, and it would be such an improvement. But you know what they say about people who tell you, ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’

hindsight

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I recently reread Winston Churchill’s ‘The Second World War’ after which I reread Michael Bar Zohar’s biography of David Ben Gurion in Hebrew. Not the English translation which fits into 426 pages, but the 3 volume Hebrew edition which is 1604 pages long, not counting notes and bibliography. Both of the narratives are fascinating, and cover much of the same time frames from two very different perspectives. In another book I’d read on the politics of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a comparison of Ben Gurion to Churchill. Since I had read Churchill and learned to respect and admire the man, I thought long and hard about the comparison.

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There are two more or less accepted attitudes regarding the influence of individuals on history. The first is that there are certain unique individuals in history who are able, because of their brilliance or amazing talents… sometimes with the help of a charismatic personality, to rally together a great many other people and produce noteworthy changes in human society or change history by invention or war. The second attitude regards the individual as less important. The exponents of this theory see the progress of humanity as great collective social structures which reach certain strategic planes at which time the most fitting candidate takes the lead in the same way that a dominant lion becomes the leader of a pride. They believe that at any specific time, there are a number of candidates who could take it upon themselves to fill the same role.

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If we look at historical inventions, for instance, we can see that often the same inventions were created in different places at approximately the same time, without knowledge of one another. On the other hand, if we were to study the history of chess, we would see that throughout, there were always chess champions, but some of them were so much more imaginative, that they are thought to be the greatest of all time. When I looked at these two great men, one of whom led his people through a terrible challenge and saved his country from defeat and destruction, and the other who tried to save his people and failed, but who re-established a nation state that had been vanquished and dispersed two thousand years ago, I saw something that I had missed at first read; something they both had in common.

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Both had a vision at an early age and committed themselves to serving their nations in a great way, and they both prepared themselves for the job with severe self discipline. They were both very talented individuals, but more than anything else, they were professionals. That is to say, despite the righteousness of their cause, and their emotional dedication to their goals, they never lost sight of the practical limitations of the circumstances in which they operated. Both of them had to accept choices that were hard for them to live with. They had to be objective about what they could and couldn’t do. They had to accept defeat and continue onward.

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I mentioned in my blog of two weeks ago, after-ache, that I had been studying the beginnings of the modern Jewish State. Now there have always been Jews living in Israel, but it was only in the late 19th and the 20th century that relatively large groups started returning to our home country, the country in which we are the indigenous population. First Theodore Herzl, then Chaim Azriel Weizmann and David Ben Gurion worked to reestablish the state of Israel, and convince the nations of the world that we too deserved a homeland. Coming as I do from a minority group within the Jewish people, it was not that difficult for me to be objective about Ben Gurion, our first prime minister here in Israel, and to compare his vision to what we actually got. When I read that biography the first time, I thought he was a great man, but also made some big mistakes. Looking at him now, I am reminded of the many writers who claimed that after they’d created their characters, they just couldn’t force those characters to act in a certain way… the characters had a will of their own.

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I now believe that history as it unravels, in ever changing circumstances, has it’s own momentum that won’t be bent by man. We can make the most of circumstances, can use our talents to save a hedgehog or teach a kitten to climb a tree, but even with the help of all of mankind’s wisdom and talent, including the wondrous power of the computer, there’s just no way we can make a hedgehog or a kitten. There was no way he could make Israel the way he wanted and hoped it would be, but he had the capacity to understand what it had to be, and that in itself was a type of genius. He was a midwife to the rebirth of our country, and in my heart I believe there was no one else at the time that could have taken his place. There are many quotes by him to choose from, but here’s two that might be the keys to his success.

In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.

Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.