Tag Archives: celebration

after-ache

We are well into the holiday season*, but to me religious ceremony is a bit like the ‘trips’ we used to talk about when experimenting with LSD in the 60s.

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The day of atonement is the holiest day in the year. It is the sabbath of all the other sabbaths. On the weekly sabbath, we create an integration of the expression of our religious faith. Unlike some other religions of this world, we do not believe the spiritual good and the material bad. We believe that the material pleasures of the world are as important as one’s spiritual wakefulness. Because of that, many of our precepts concern the physical relationship to material things. One of the things that are not allowed on the sabbath is fasting. And if a fast day falls on a sabbath, we move it to the next day. All except the day of atonement, on which we are commanded to fast.

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It is not meant to be a punishment. We are encouraged to eat till we’re full before the beginning of the fast. The fast is meant just to help us focus on the subject of life and death. For that is the framework within which we are asked to examine our lives. I have referred to soul-searching many times on this blog in the past. But that process, personal self examination can take place on many levels. Haven’t we heard that almost everything in life is relative? And it’s true. If one of the toes of our feet hurts, that toe can become the very center of our concern and attention. But we believe in truth. And truth has its boundaries. There’s a difference between opinions and facts. And the most sobering fact for a human being is that he lives a temporary life, and will die as sure as he was born. It is common, at the time of prayer, to go through a list of the different types of dying.

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So when we examine our acts, behaviors, and our choices, and what is valuable in our lives and what is rubbish while completely aware of the fact that we are going die, and are only on this world for a while, we are able to weigh the true worth of things seriously.

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I mentioned LSD trips earlier. It might be superfluous to tell you, but in case someone is reading this who doesn’t know me, let me say that I and my friends did not take this drug to get high, or to get drunk out of our minds, and drink the beautiful colors… Most of us had studied philosophy or religion, and read the tales of mystics, and wanted to expand our consciousness so as to be aware of those aspects of the world that are beyond the obvious. And though there is much that I could write about my experiences in such adventures, my personal bottom line on the subject, is that I came to the conclusion that the use of LSD is a shortcut to spiritual awareness. But as I used to tell my children, I don’t believe in shortcuts. It is my opinion that it is better to go the long way, and enjoy every step along the way. But back to the acid trip, one of the things we noticed, that regardless of where you started… and there were those who used to light incense, and put on soothing positive music before they indulged. No matter where you start, you don’t know where you’ll go from there.

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Well, the day of atonement is a trip no less powerful than an acid trip, and I’ve had a few. Usually, I start with a few prayers that get me in the mood, but there have been times when I picked a certain subject to work through, or a certain problem to study. I have gone to nature and I have joined a quorum of Jews in prayer. Like acid, you might know when you swallowed the pill, but you don’t know when you’ll feel the effect; so on this holy day you know when you’ll light the two sabbath candles but you don’t know when you’ll get high. I remember one time when I only felt the great uplift a couple hours before they were about to close and lock the gates of heaven.

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This year I begged to study the beginnings of the modern Jewish State. It was the first time I had chosen a secular subject to focus on, on the holy day. You know, we have many names for god. I think of them as faces of god. Just as a person has different faces when he is occupied with different things, so we have different names. There is the one specific name that says it all, but we are very careful about that name, we don’t usually say it. When we come to it in a text or a written prayer, we replace it with another name, because the name itself is so holy. But then, sometimes we exaggerate.

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Our first prayer on the eve of atonement, is a prayer to god that he will cancel all the promises we made to ourselves. And as we approach god, and refer to him, we call him by his name which means ‘place’. That is one of the names of god. And so after asking ‘the place’ to suffer my prayer… and I will admit to you, my dear friends, that I have made so many promises to myself, that after many years of having to beg cancellation, there are still a few promises flying around in my head, and they’re more distressing than a bunch of flies at the dinner table.

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I had a long day. I got upset more than once, and my doctors have warned me not to get upset. It’s bad for my heart. But I didn’t let up. Even after I had me a little nap in the afternoon, I went back to the same subject and continued to contemplate the difficult moral and social problems. In fact, even after the holiday had reached its conclusion, and I had filled my belly with good soup and fine food after the fast, my mind still dwelled on the study of my day of atonement. There were so many paradoxes to deal with, and impossible situations. One of the hardest questions I kept asking myself was how can I be blind to what’s standing right before me? But I had examples to study from: a personal hero of mine who had been blind to something that he knew and understood. But it had been just too terrible to see.

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And seeing is an important issue for me. I have cataracts, and I am aware of a loss in sight. Of course, on the surface there is a far distance between physical incapacity and psychological inability to see. But there are those who believe that even personality is written in our DNA. In any case, such was my state of mind, that I was asking myself, just how far can we widen our perspective and live. Remembering that when Moses asked for a glimpse of god, god told him, a man can’t look at me and live. All night, after the day of atonement, I was unable to sleep. But since I had already scheduled to meet with two very close friends the next day, I tried lying in my bed on the theory that lying down in peace and comfort might strengthen me almost as much as sleeping. I think I did sleep from 4:00 to 5:15 in the morning.

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The next day, I traveled to Tel Aviv with Noga and we had breakfast with Yizhar, whom I hadn’t seen for five years. There have been a number of meetings with him that have coincided with great emotional turns in my life. He’s a research scientist, and shared with us some thoughts and knowledge about eyes and sight. Of course, most eye problems and diseases are related to aging, and he discussed the efforts made to find remedies. In particular he related developments regarding failure of the retina. Though a remedy hasn’t been found there is a treatment that is able to slow the deterioration. The problem, though, is that the medicament slowly becomes more terrible than the disease itself.

Despite the difficult thoughts, it was good to be in the company of dear friends. Very good indeed. And good to return to Jerusalem. Very good.

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(*) As I’ve described in the past, this season which starts with the new year, is called in short ‘the holidays’; almost a month in which we don’t do much work… and we put off nearly everything that we don’t feel has to be done, till after the holidays. First there’s the new year, which is a two day holiday, and then comes the day of atonement which is a 25 hour fast during which we don’t eat or drink. And then comes the holiday of tabernacles which we celebrate for seven days by living in a temporary dwelling. The last day is called the ‘The Great Supplication’ followed by still another holiday which is called ‘the eight day of assembly’, on which day we also celebrate the ‘happiness of the torah’, though these two celebrations are celebrated separately on two succeeding days outside of our country, in the Diaspora.

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eve of judgment day

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there is bliss on the day of judgment

גמר חתימה טובה

book fair blues

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This week was the first time I ever went to the book fair and came away without buying a single book. There are some annual experiences that engender a sense of permanence. But going to the book fair these days is a bit like Grandpa’s birthday. There is always the thought that it may be the last. Here in Jerusalem we have a strong attachment to books, so it took me a while to realize that something was amiss. The signs were there. The crowds seemed thinner lately. And this year there seemed to be less young adults. Children and old folks are still interested.

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With the average book costing around 70 shekels normally, there were some fantastic deals offered; 4 books for a hundred shekels. 3 books for a 100. There was one published who offered 1 + 1; you buy a book, and you get another as a present. Now this should be a very tempting opportunity. But it means that if you want to take advantage of the 4 book deal, you have to find 4 books produced by the same publisher that you would like to read.

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This was no small challenge for me. I’ve been reading book reviews of new books for the last three weeks so I’d be prepared for the fair, and even so, I didn’t have a list of books I wanted to find. In the old days, I didn’t have to make a list. Yes, I had a better memory then, but what was more important, if I saw a book I hadn’t read, on a subject that interested me, I would buy without hesitation and read with glee. But there’ve been some changes since then.

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Sometimes the name of the book has been changed without thought for the innocent. For instance, that old classic, ‘I Went To China’ is now called, ‘A Drop in the Bucket’ and bears the subtitle, ‘how a Jewish Intellectual tried to tickle the armpit of a sleeping giant’, with a beautiful cover showing an abstract photoshopped collage of far eastern headwear. The cookbooks that were once so popular are no longer in the central display. It turns out that any food you want to prepare can be found instantly on the internet with alternate recipes for gluten free diets or kosher as you wish.

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But that isn’t the only problem. I’ve always enjoyed a good novel, but nowadays novels start with the hero lying in a hospital bed, unable to speak or to move his arms and legs, with a series of pipes and electric cables attached to some life-saving device, and though no one can guess that he has more presence of mind than a turnip, he can hear what his visitors are saying. And so he listens to them discussing the challenge of finding available parking as near as possible to the hospital. And then, just when you’re hoping that some mischievous grandchild will pull the plug, the narrative begins pulling you back and forth along a zigzag route of flashbacks and forwards that leave you dizzy by the time you want to go to the kitchen and get a snack. It is hopeless trying to figure out how the plot will be resolved or who the villain or the hero is, because there are no heroes nor are there villains. It turns out that they all suffered from unhappy childhoods and have since vacillated between ADHD and the acdc gender disposition.

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If you, like me, have a fondness for history, there are a number of new volumes on the display table each year. These fall into two major categories:
1) the historiographic, which critically examines flotsam after the deluge in order to synthesize the particulars into a narrative that will uphold the agenda of the day; or
2) demythification, in which the author will tell the story exactly as it would have happened if we were living in an alternative reality in which the Nazis won in Europe, and the Indians in America, after which Marxist literature became viral, coming out of Rio de Janeiro. The two Americas unite, and live happily ever after in an ideal egalitarian state that provides people who have low self-esteem with life-long compensation because love is what matters.

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And I have to mention that the very nicest people in our town are managing the book stalls, and you’re acquainted with about 30% of those over 40. Not to speak of the real live authors scattered among the book sellers to personally sign their works for the reading public. Think about it, what a terribly anti-social disgrace it would be, to come to the book fair and not buy a book… or four.

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To make the experience all the more enticing, this exhibition takes place right at the edge of the old train station, which has become an entertainment compound featuring bars and eateries, a small railroad museum, a series of stalls selling handicrafts, and stands selling popcorn and cotton candy for the children and the nostalgic. So I visited a few book stalls, talked to a few people, tried to find four books, three books even two books that I really wanted to read and didn’t have in my own library. There was one book that I thought might be interesting, but it seemed such a provocation to buy a book at full price when they were offering all these deals that I preferred to wait till my next visit at the local bookstore.

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Noga and I did our best to retreat unobserved from the book fair to Restaurant Row. where we managed to get outdoor seating at the Asian Eatery. That’s right, the old Chinese restaurant I loved has gone out of business, and I don’t eat sushi because I worry that the raw fish might come back to life and swim away from my plate. The Asian Eatery offers selected highlights from any country east of Israel, and actually, we had a tasty dinner to conclude our adventure.

for the love of books

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Around this time, towards the beginning of summer, we celebrate books. It’s called book week, or the book fair. And it’s a long standing tradition here. But this year has been a little different. There’s been a lot of discussion about books and the way they’re sold for some time now. And because I’m one of many who feel a personal connection to books, I’ve been following the public discussions and debate. Books are very important in Israel. I believe there are more books published and translated from other languages here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. And I would guess that Jerusalem houses more books than anywhere else in the country.

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When I was young and traveling abroad, I remember learning what mattered to other peoples just by noticing the proliferation of certain types of shops or stores in a particular city. There was this one town in the far west, where I saw filling stations on every street corner. Well, at the time, it was hard to find a petrol station in our town, but there was a bookstore on almost every street.

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you can still see the rails in the old train station

In recent years though, there’s been a change in the way books are sold. For one thing, instead of the many Mom & Pop bookstores, each one with a certain expertise and interest, catering to a specific customer base, we saw the rise of chain book stores. It was a bit like MacDonald’s. Steimatzky, one of the major booksellers in our city, and known for its wide collection of English language volumes, first sprouted a few offspring, in different neighborhoods of our city. Following that, they spread across the country. Then publishers started selling their books retail, setting up chains of bookstores countrywide. They would sell all kinds of books, but pushed the volumes that they’d published themselves. As the competition increased, you could hear advertisements on the radio. Books were offered to consumers in the same commercial way that they had sold us movies in the past.

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It’s commonly thought that competition improves the market place. But what started out as playful sport between people of like pursuits and tastes, eventually turned into the fierce competitive spirit of commercial giants. By the time stores were selling 4 books for a hundred shekels, people started wondering if this was really advantageous. True, books used to cost between 70 and a 100 shekels. But what if you’re only interested in buying one particular book? Of course, you can always buy one for a friend… Still, that’s only two, and you had to buy 4 to meet the provisions of the deal. In your mind you’d already reduced the price to 25 shekels… it was a nuisance. And then we started hearing what the authors of these books were earning per book.

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Needless to say that the store owners were recompensed for their trouble. And so were the publishers. But the authors couldn’t even buy a pack of cigarettes for what they got from the sale of a book. I know what you’re saying; the author should stop smoking. But I’m just bringing this up as an example.

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Last year, parliament passed a law which insured that the author would receive a decent part of the income derived from the sale of his or her books. It prohibited the bundling of new books in sales campaigns. But the results weren’t that gratifying. It turns out that during the last year, less books were sold than in previous years. And it’s harder than ever for a new writer to break into the business. Aside from that, one has to keep in mind that there are not that many people in this world who’re looking to read a good book in Hebrew. Not to speak of the fact that there’s always more reading material available on the internet. Newspapers are going out of business. We wonder… are books the next to go?

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blues for women

The book fair this year was a great celebration, despite the controversy over sales methods. All the stores and publishers set up booths in the old railroad station, and most of the books were available at discount. Local bars and restaurants set up shop on the perimeter of the fair. A big tent top was erected pretty much in the middle of the area, and all comers were invited to listen to some of our finest native talent. At seven we heard blues for women. And by nine, we were listening to a wide variety of musical offerings played by some of our favorite musicians. The sound was great. We were entertained by some really excellent local versions of blues, hard rock, psychedelic rock, folk and jazz. It was wonderful.

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In fact, it was close to what I imagine as heaven. In the old days, I used to go to nightclubs to listen to fine jazz, while eating a light repast and having a couple of drinks. But since they outlawed smoking, I just don’t enjoy it as much, and hardly go out anymore. In this fine arrangement, smoking was allowed. Because most of the places were outdoor affairs, on balconies or patios. Even the music was considered outdoors, with just the tent top to give us some protection. And here I was, surrounded by books and friends, listening to music that just swept me away, drinking beer and smoking as much as I wanted. Just like heaven, don’t you think?

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Shimon in heaven by Chana

marriage of a torah scroll

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he’s recording it for posterity

As a child, I was taught to treat books with reverence; to handle them with care… to put them down in a respectable place; never to put a banal object on top of a book. And if a book happened to fall to the floor, which in itself was an unhappy event, I would pick up the book and kiss it. In our culture, books were a vehicle of knowledge, and knowledge represented the elegance of the human being.

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the beginning of the procession

We have many old books that have been copied from generation to generation. They have been copied with great care and as exactly as humanly possible. These books were copied by scribes using a quill and ink prepared according to ancient tradition, and inscribed on parchment. In our time, ancient remains of books have been found, and when compared to the copied texts available today, the texts have been almost identical. Of all the books, the most precious and revered of them all, are the five books of Moses. In the event that one of these books falls to the floor, it is common for the whole community to declare a day of fast. People are overcome by sorrow because of the disrespect to the book. But this has happened only very rarely in our history.

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the wagon with the torah on it

On the other hand, the way these scrolls are usually treated is characterized by joy and friendship. The scrolls themselves are dressed in clothing, and often have a crown at their head. Occasionally, a wealthy person will commission a scribe to copy these five books of Moses, which we call the book of torah. Sometimes the copy is dedicated to the memory of a loved one, or to the memory of an event. Such books, written on parchment, can be found in private homes, in schools, and in synagogues. When such a book is given to a synagogue, the event is seen as something like a marriage between the book and the community. The book is carried in the arms of different members of the congregation, and there is singing and dancing along the way.

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the way they do it in Jerusalem

When the book reaches the synagogue which will be its home, the books within the synagogue are taken out of their special closet, and they approach the new book in the arms of the congregation, and welcome the new book. Music is played, and the devout dance and sing in honor of the occasion.

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children celebrate with torches in their hands

Yesterday evening, I was visiting with Chana at her village, outside of Jerusalem, and as we approached the close of the day, we went out with the dog, so that she could do her business in nature. After Bonnie had taken care of business, we continued to walk around the village. It was a day in which we celebrated the new moon. Ours is a lunar calendar, and a new moon means a new month, and it’s a happy day. All of a sudden we heard cheery music, highly amplified and filling the air.

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and the adults in their own way…

We walked in the direction of the music, and saw a van moving down a side street, decorated with numerous symbols of our people and our faith, and with crowns above it, illuminated with many little colored lights, and loudspeakers broadcasting the music. And behind the van was a wagon, and on the wagon a book of the five books of Moses inscribed on parchment, and around the wagon were common villagers in their everyday clothes, singing and dancing.

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the villagers are more informal

We approached the celebration, and followed at a respectable distance. This was a holy assembly. Men were in one group, and women were in another. The two of us with a dog in tow were in a separate category altogether. But our hearts were with the congregation. And as the procession made its way through the village, more and more people joined the celebration. I was reminded of such scenes I had seen in Jerusalem, where thousands of people had lined the streets to pay their respects to the new book. On an occasion such as this, children will dance in the street. Police close down the streets where the procession will pass, and police cars are seen moving very slowly, with their blue lights blinking as they protect the festivities, and move at the speed of the walking and dancing public.

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as seen in Jerusalem

I thought of the many years of our history, and how we had continued this tradition of love for our books even in foreign lands, when we were in exile… sometimes very modestly, for fear of recriminations by hostile neighbors. And I was very moved by the sight of this ancient ceremony taking place at a time when even books printed on paper seem a little old fashioned, and a great many people read ebooks and articles on digital devices and telephones. I myself enjoy the new media, and take pleasure in my computer and Kindle. But there is something very special about reading an ancient book written in our own language on parchment. And how wonderful it is to see such a celebration in honor of a book.

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and yesterday in the village

Darbuka

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waiting for another celebration…

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Valentine’s Day

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Rotem listening as we discuss what to eat

Ever since I started blogging, I’ve been writing about those things that interest me, or interest others, within the framework of the give and take in the blog world. I never really tried to present a diary or a log of my own day to day adventures. Nor did I try to meet any of the ‘challenges’ that circulate here in blogland. But there is something about the immediacy of the internet that does fascinate me. And on occasion, when I was away from home, with a portable computer in my back pack, equipped with a cellular modem and able to connect to the net from almost any corner of the world, I did want to share some feeling or experience immediately. A few months ago, I was in the north. Late at night, I took a somewhat abstract picture, after a very full and emotional day, and thought I’d upload it, and accompany it with a poem written on the spot, in order to enjoy that experience of sharing the ‘here and now’ with my readers. For some reason, that very evening, I had a problem uploading the picture, and so abandoned the attempt, and haven’t tried since.

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the waitress said she wasn’t photogenic

But last night, as I was dining with a few very dear friends, at a restaurant, in honor of Valentine’s day… which is probably a day I have never celebrated before… I had some thoughts about the subject, as a red balloon sporting a cartoon heart, sashayed above our heads, tied to a bottle on the table… it occurred to me that it would be fun to share the experience with you, my readers.

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checking out the menu, Rivka

We belonged to three different generations, and came from all parts of Israel to meet here in Jerusalem. One of the youngsters was in the army, and had just arrived from the battle front, taken a shower, and joined us for a good time. We have very different interests and live different lives. And in fact, none of us are really motivated by St. Valentine’s day, but it was a good excuse to have a good time, and get together. And the decorations in the restaurant of our choice set the scene for a celebration. We chose to make the most of the positive vibes. There was music in the background, almost drowned out by the conversations at our table and around us. But all the same, at one point, I made the effort and was able to identify the almost subliminal presentation of a song… the Beatles singing, ‘I want to hold your hand’. It was an Asian restaurant, but kosher… and so I don’t really know how similar the food was to what we might eat in the far east. But it was tasty and exotic for us, and we drank sparkling wine with the food and had a very good time. Smoking was forbidden, and so I would go out to the balcony between courses, and have a cigarette near the strategically placed ashtray, standing in the cold, and watching the traffic out on the street, and the city lights, full of spirit, and reflecting the constant stream of activity around us.

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Shira

Sitting around the table, I thought of my mother’s comment about ‘mothers’ day’. She had said, “If it’s not everyday… if it’s just one day a year… I don’t want it”. And I thought of the nature of a day, dedicated to romantic love. It seemed to me, that even if it was rare… even if it was only once a year… it was better than none at all, just so long as it was real and it worked. And then, I thought of romantic love, and how often it gets lost in the day to day grind, and the buckets of banalities that we have to deal with, sometimes face to face with those we’ve chosen as partners in living this life. As we drank the intoxicating beverages, I was talking to the young man across the table from me, and he mentioned drunkenness. I shared with him the thought that getting drunk is missing the experience. That I had found that the greatest appreciation of intoxication is to get pleasantly high, so as to be more sensitive to the music, the sights, the company of those around you, and to maintain that sense of appreciation for hours without letting it diminish or overcome you and then cause you to lose control of your actions.

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my date for the evening

And as I thought of that, I was looking for a key to understanding how to maintain romantic love without seeing it turn into disregard, or resentment, or any of the other negative phenomena that are so often seen in relationships that have grown old. As I contemplated the subject, I realized that the key to continued love is to remember that we are all different as people, and that very often we are attracted to people who are essentially different from us. And that the more we are aware of that, and don’t try to force our loved ones to act and think as we do, and don’t think of them as ‘belonging’ to us, but marvel at our capacity to bridge the gaps and truly appreciate them for what they are, the more we can marvel at the connection we have with them. I believe that when the French say, ‘long live the difference’, they are referring to the difference between the sexes, but I would like to adopt their toast, and direct my appreciation to the differences between human beings in general. So here’s to the differences, and to everlasting love.

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Giddi and the wine in a bucket of ice