Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Davener's Mantra

As my clever and creative spouse noted recently, I've got some pretty hardcore davening skills. (Davening, for the uninitiated, is the word for participation in a Jewish liturgical service; in other words, "prayer".) I developed these skills the old fashioned way: through practice. Every school day of every year through 7th grade, I spent an hour or so each morning davening. Say what you will about my elementary school—and take my word for it, one day in these pages I will—you cannot say we didn't learn to daven.

Over the years, though, I've become less and less comfortable davening.  I'm like an artist who loves to draw but develops an allergy to paint, or in this case, the text. The liturgical text, directed at the Almighty, has some pretty basic themes: thank you God for this, God grant me that, hey God you are really terrific, and so forth. All this focus on God gets pretty uncomfortable for somebody who believes that there is no God, somebody who could never accept that, even if God existed, He would ever be motivated, mollified, or moved in any way by human prayer.

OK, then: if I have such a God problem, why not give up davening altogether?

Well, for one thing, like the artist to whom I alluded earlier, I simply like doing it.  I find it comforting and comfortable, in spite of the fact that when I daven, nobody is listening. In spite of the fact that the text praises an imaginary deity for "miracles" that never occurred. In spite of the fact that millions of my people have been slaughtered over the centuries because our imaginary God had a conflict with somebody else's imaginary God.

So now I face a dilemma: I can stop davening, because the words make no sense, or I can continue davening, and immerse myself in the calming and introspective experience that I know it to be. How can I find the experience so valuable when I am so uncomfortable with the text?

Part of my answer came from the late Rabbi Alan Lew, ז"ל. Rabbi Lew was a fascinating man who spent years practicing meditation as a Zen Buddhist, one of a group he referred to as "Bu-Jews", Jews seeking spirituality through Buddhism. Eventually, Rabbi Lew felt that Buddhism was denying him access to his own traditions, and he returned to Judaism, became a rabbi, and assumed the pulpit at Temple Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

But Rabbi Lew brought some of his own traditions with him, including meditation.  He opened a first-of-its-kind meditation center affiliated with his synagogue, and published books on combining meditation with davening. When I met him years ago at a retreat, he told the story of inviting some other Bu-Jews to join him in davening. As they finished, one remarked to him, "If it weren't for meditation, I would have no idea what davening is all about."

That comment resonated strongly for me. A certain amount of the service is devoted to communal prayer; however, the majority of davening is conducted quietly, even silently, to oneself. In other words, it is focused inward, providing the davener with the opportunity to find peace in the rhythm and familiarity of the words. This quiet recitation becomes a sort of mantra, focusing the davener on the sounds of his own breath, the interior of his own feelings. Over the years the mantra becomes familiar—I had fully memorized long passages by the time I was in middle school. Repeating the phrases, over and over, year after year, forms the basis for an intellectual meditation that is both cathartic, in that it helps me leave unnecessary things behind, and revelatory, in that it helps me find both new insights and new questions.

The davening framework is over a millennium old, with sections that are much older. In all that time, Jews have always doubted—but Jews have always davened anyway. Perhaps, like me, they have been able to find a way to continue davening by taking a step back from the plain meaning of the words. The rhythm, the familiarity, the choreography, and the sometimes bleak, sometimes hopeful motifs enable us to concentrate, not on praising a non-existent God who, if He did exist, would hardly need our admiration, but rather on more tangible, Earthly concerns: our communities, our families, and ourselves.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

You're Welcome

On September 5, 2007, beneath a waning quarter moon, ten Israeli F-15I fighter jets departed the Ramat David IAF base near Haifa. Favored with a 15-knot wind and 6-mile visibility, weather was not a factor.  The pilots headed west, over the Mediterranean, but before long three of the pilots were called back, as the remaining seven pivoted north, skirting Lebanese airspace. Just a few hundred kilometers from the Turkish border, the aircraft, American F-15 Eagles customized to Israeli requirements, banked to the right, taking out a Syrian radar installation before heading deep into the country. Their target lay a short flight ahead of them, on the banks of the Euphrates: the al-Kibar nuclear weapons facility.

It would have been news to most of the world, that fall evening, that Syria had any kind of nuclear program at all. Unlike its supporters and suppliers in Iran and North Korea, Syria had little reason to broadcast its intentions, and every reason to keep them quiet. Neither Iran nor North Korea could afford to be seen publicly as arming the terrorist haven; for its part, Syria could not build such a facility without North Korean technology and Iranian funding.

F-15 Eagle
But the Americans knew, and the Israelis knew. If such a development was unwelcome in Iran, it was even more threatening in Syria, which is at once less stable and less distant than its patron. Fortunately, unlike the Iranians, the Syrians had not had the time, money, or perhaps even the capability for developing their facility in bunkers deep underground. And so, in the wee hours of September 6th, 2007, Israel destroyed the al-Kibar facility, dealing a fatal blow to Syria's fledgling covert nuclear program.

Neither Israel nor Syria wanted the event publicized, and though rumors abounded, it would take some time before the world knew for certain what had occurred.  About a year ago, a well-researched piece in Spiegel Online put many of the facts into place, and though the article is marred by a number of absurd, unsupported, and, in places, contradictory attacks on Israel, it is well worth reading.

Only today, however, is there any official confirmation that Syria was, indeed, building a nuclear facility at al-Kibar, that it was doing so with North Korean assistance, and that the United States, as well as Israel, were aware of the project. A JTA story reveals that the most recent set of Wikileaks disclosures includes a cable from then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice confirming the details.

Whatever else you think about Wikileaks, you can thank them for this particular morsel, which demonstrates, once again, the lengths to which Israel is willing to go to protect itself, and by extension, the world, from nuclear blackmail.  Of course, the whole affair has also demonstrated, once again, that where Israel is concerned, no good deed goes unpunished.

Consider Israel's attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. At the time, virtually every nation on Earth, including the United States, condemned Israel's action. Ronald Reagan condemned the operation, and the British called it a "violation of international law" (an indefensible position shared, incidentally, by the co-authors of the Speigel Online piece).

It took time, but eventually, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out in 2002, anybody paying attention could see that "the condemnations were completely wrong." Without the Osirak strike, Kristof continued,
Iraq would have gained nuclear weapons in the 1980s, it might now have a province called Kuwait and a chunk of Iran, and the region might have suffered nuclear devastation.
al-Kibar: Before and After
Thanks to Wikileaks, today we all know the truth about al-Kibar, just as we knew the truth in 1981 about Osirak. And yet, even as the world calls (publicly, at least) for Iran to step away from its nuclear ambitions, it gives no quarter to those who would actually do something about it.

The undeniable fact is that Israel is the only reason Iraq, and then Syria, were denied the ability to arm Islamic terrorists with nuclear weapons. If Iran's facilities were not so well protected, they, too, would have long ago been stripped of their power to hold the world hostage. But the end of that particular story has not yet been written.

And so, self-righteous nations of the world, living comfortably under the safety net created by Israel's actions, the very actions you have repeatedly condemned, the very actions that have saved each and every one of you from the tyranny of an Islamist nuclear reign of terror, allow me to say to you, on behalf of the State of Israel: you're welcome.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sharing the Love

Hello there! If this is your first visit to Writer of Wrongs, thank you for stopping by. If you're a regular reader, thank you even more!

I'm up late (a pharmaceutical failure, I'm afraid, one that won't be addressed through health care reform), so I thought I'd take the opportunity to address a couple of administrative items. Don't worry, right after this I'm sure I'll get back on my soapbox and write another 800 words on the Senate or some other equally compelling topic. (I know, I know: I myself cannot believe I spent so much time on that one.)

So, on to the needs of the moment: If you are enjoying Writer of Wrongs, you can make sure you never miss a single post by clicking the "Follow" button to the right, the one that looks like this:
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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Democracy, Interrupted

Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which had no provision for popular representation. Each state, regardless of population, enjoyed equal representation under the Articles, just as they had in the pre-Revolutionary Continental Congress. In that sense, the Articles were more like a treaty between friendly states than a compact forming a new nation.

But then, on July 16, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia adopted the Connecticut Compromise. Under this plan, the legislature was to be divided into two houses, based on two entirely different forms of representation. Each member of the House of Representatives would be elected on the basis of population, whereas each state, regardless of population, was to be represented by exactly two senators. The Compromise was ultimately enshrined in the new Constitution.

Surely the endurance of those institutions, and the greatness of the nation they serve, attest to the wisdom of the delegates and evince the power of their Compromise. Right?

Well, sorry to come to the party 223 years late, and with a negative attitude at that, but as has been amply demonstrated just this week, the system created over two centuries ago is utterly broken, neither establishing justice nor ensuring domestic tranquility.

There are a variety of quick fixes proposed by pundits. The most obvious is the elimination of the filibuster, a parliamentary quirk arming the Senate minority with the power to prevent a vote on any bill or nomination. The filibuster is not democracy, but rather, an obstruction to democracy.

Certainly the filibuster must go, but perhaps the roots of the issue reach beyond Robert's Rules of Order. Perhaps, in fact, the problem is the Senate itself, an undemocratic body created by those flawed and brilliant Philadelphia Founders for the purpose of getting the Constitution out the door. It is cameral designed by committee, a consensus expedient meeting the needs of the moment but ultimately failing to perform as desired.

In a representational democracy, it should be anathema for each resident of Rhode Island to wield 30 times the Senate voting power of each resident of California. Furthermore, in 21st century America the idea of per-state representation is quaint at best. Few if any issues today are drawn along state borders; our dialog is national, not geographic. The Senate's agenda, largely focused on the executive branch and the management of international affairs, is particularly unsuited to narrow geographic constituencies.

Disproportionate representation is just one of the many, many Senate defects covered at length in an incredible (and lengthy) New Yorker piece by George Packer. For example, Packer points out that "in the current Senate, it has become normal for a handful of senators, sometimes representing just ten or twenty per cent of the country’s population, to hold everything up."

So what's needed is not a parliamentary tune-up, but rather a complete overhaul. I propose that the Senate become a truly national representational body. Candidates would be chosen by the nation as a whole, just as the President and Vice-President are (but without the absurdity of the Electoral College).

The result would be democratic, yet different enough from the local-constituency-based House of Representatives to provide the desired checks and balances that form the basis of the bicameral system. A national Senate favors neither large state nor small, except in matters that truly break along state lines, which, as already observed, are few and far between (and can perhaps be accommodated through some procedural innovations).

Even more important, though, would be the uniting effect such a body could have on the country. Our representatives in this new house would be accountable to all of us. To get elected, he or she would have to support measures popular across a broad swath of the nation. Gone would be the days when a Senator could—or would even want to—put a hold on an uncontroversial measure in order to extort funds for his state. The constituency, in short, would be the entire population.

Perhaps in some future post I'll speculate on the technical details of how such a goal could be accomplished, or on some of the other benefits this model would yield for the country. For now, though, it's enough to give voice to the dream of truly representational democracy, even as I acknowledge that this idea will never, ever come to pass. There are limits to the ability of a broken system to heal itself. The Constitutional Convention itself had to bypass the Articles, appealing directly to the citizenry through the state legislatures. The result was revolutionary, but that was well before the American system had hardened into the atherosclerotic plaque that today threatens the heart of our democracy.

Friday, December 17, 2010


As some of you already know, my short story, Dolphinarium, has been selected as the 2010 SCWC-LA Hummingbird Review writing contest winner. The Hummingbird Review will publish the story in February. I'm really excited about this, although not quite as excited as my mom, who I believe may have scheduled a press conference.

Dolphinarium was inspired by a particularly horrendous terrorist attack in Israel in 2001. Although it involves an incident that may be unfamiliar to many Americans,  I hope the story will resonate with a general readership;  I hope that our collective experience of terror on September 11th has sensitized us to the suffering of the victims of other such crimes.

Dolphinarium Memorial, Tel Aviv
Unfortunately, some in this country remain immune to empathy. Time recently ran a piece on the psychological effects of Israel's separation barrier on young Palestinians. The article could have—even should have—become an important part of the discussion in Israel concerning its relationship to its neighbors. Unfortunately, though, there are so many false, misleading, or simply outrageous assertions to be found in the article that one is forced, in the end, to dismiss it.

In one example, the author visits a Palestinian classroom in which only a small minority of students favor a peaceful settlement with Israel. According to the article:
The rest of the 10th-grade computer-science class insists upon getting all of Palestine back—every acre, from the Jordan River to the sea, the way it was before 1948.
Excuse me? Perhaps Time is referring to 1948 BCE. In the more recent 1948, there were over half a million Jews between the river and the Mediterranean, with major Jewish population centers in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and throughout the country. In fact, Jews comprised a significant majority in the land identified by the UN partition plan as the future state of Israel.

No surprises so far—just the media presenting Palestinian propaganda as unchallenged truth. Business as usual.

The most galling declaration, however, is found closer to the beginning of the article:
But the Wall has done more than keep out suicide bombers. No less important, it has created a separation of the mind.
GOP to 9/11 First Responders:
"Drop Dead"
Don't misunderstand me: the reduction in routine daily contact between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews is indeed a negative consequence of the barrier, one that should concern us. But to cast that consideration as "no less important" than the elimination of murderous attacks on civilians—men, women, and, as was overwhelmingly the case in the Dolphinarium atrocity, children—is as reprehensible as it is irresponsible.

It is simply stunning, only 9 years after September 11th, that Time can create, and expect its readers to accept, such a callous equivalence. Perhaps I'm giving too much credit to our fellow citizens, the same folks whose elected representatives can't be bothered to allocate funds for health care for September 11th first responders. If so, shame on us for our short memories, for our lack of empathy, for our abandonment of those who were sacrificed and those who sacrificed to save them.

And shame on Time for its careless historical revisionism and its casual devaluation of Jewish lives.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

All About Me

I was recently asked to write a short bio of myself (I'll tell you why in the next post).  Like many people in this situation, I find it hard to strike the right balance between modesty and self-promotion (or, to put it another way, between the hard truth and my own inflated self-image).  So I figured I'd look at myself through the eyes of some of the people who know me well, and try to tell my story from their point of view.

For example, here is how I imagine my beautiful, talented, and devoted wife would describe me:  Scott is a moderately funny guy who is going to make me a widow if he doesn't lay off the french fries. He is a workaholic, except when it comes to cleaning a dish or folding a towel, at which point he is suddenly less productive than a government bureaucrat on medical leave. He is very talented in a number of areas, none of which generate any income whatsoever.

My karate instructor: Scott bruises easily. He enjoys his infrequent workouts, as long as we all agree not to knock him down, twist his arm, or make him bend at the knees. He is not even close to being the oldest student in the dojo, but he is definitely the most likely to be injured. Scott would prefer to talk his opponent out of hitting him, which can be a useful technique on the street but is kind of distracting in sparring class.

One of the members of my writing critique group: I don't know why you're asking me to write this. The guy likes nothing more than talking about himself... except for pointing out the flaws in everybody else's writing—that he seems to really enjoy.

My college roommate: I've never seen anybody go through more Doritos after just two bong hits. No, seriously.

My psychologist (after receiving my signed stack of releases and waivers, of course): Scott has a beautiful wife who loves him; great kids who are growing to be exceptional adults; a gorgeous house and a great job. He should stop complaining so much.

My rabbi: Scott? Ver vais—I never see him, even on the High Holidays. And with his education—such a waste.

The lovely woman who works behind the counter at Bruegger's: Mr. Scott is very nice man. He always orders the same thing: bagel with egg and cheese, no bacon. He even makes me get him an egg from the refrigerator instead of one that is in the tray where we put sometimes meat. I think he is a Muslim.

So, there you have it: the complete picture. I am a whiny, hypercritical, overeating, underachieving, non-observant Jewish Muslim with very limited self-defense skills.

Wow, that wasn't so hard after all.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Modest Proposal

Most California voters are complete idiots.

That's right.  I've thought long and hard about this, examined the data, considered it from every angle, and determined that the majority of adult citizens in our state are of extremely questionable intellect.

Mind you, this evaluation has nothing to do with the actual results of the balloting. Sure, California elected a Democrat to every (or almost every) state-wide office, while at the same time defeating a number of ballot initiatives any sane Democrat would have supported. And no, that type of confusion does not speak well for the sophistication of our electorate.

But, while the outcome of the election certainly does not paint a flattering picture of the voting public, I am focused here instead on the process itself.  Let's start with the obvious:  as far as I can tell, close to 100% of Californians, at one time or another, bitch and moan about the state of the state.  Taxes are too high, the beaches too dirty, the schools too crowded.  And yet, even in an election as hotly contested—and broadly advertised—as this one, only a bit over half of our neighbors cast a ballot.  I expect this problem to resolve itself as these people starve to death, one by one, while waiting for somebody to bring them something to eat.  From the kitchen.  In their own house.

Shifting our focus to those who did put forth the effort required to make a few marks on a piece of paper, the picture is no more impressive.  Roughly half of these folks actually show up at a polling place to vote.  Let me say that again: given the option of receiving a ballot in the mail weeks before election day, filling it out at one's leisure, and dropping it in a mailbox, about half of Californians have decided that it would be more fun to take time off from work, drive to a nearby elementary school, wait in line, and use a keyboard or hole punch device that has been handled by about 100 other people in the past hour.

My friends, I don't wait in line for so much as a burrito. And who among you, dear readers, would even consider showing up at the DMV without an appointment? You read my blog; surely that suggests that you are far too clever for that sort of behavior.

Oregon, a state whose primary purpose heretofore was to increase the flight time from Orange County to Seattle, has gone to all-mail balloting (not to be confused with "all-male" balloting, a term used to describe either pre-19th Amendment America, or the modern Republican constituency). The result? Voter turnout this week in Oregon exceeded 71%.

Nonetheless, as a staunch (yet humble) defender of individual liberty, I take offense at Oregon's inflexible insistence on intelligent behavior.  After all, if we force everybody to act sensibly, how will we weed out the senseless?

Instead, for our next election, I propose that we set some secret ground rules in advance. First, if you don't vote, you lose your right to vote altogether. Sorry: you had your chance. Oh, and also, we take away your children: after all, the children are our future, and we simply can't entrust our future to people like you.

If you do vote, but you show up at a polling place to do so, here's what happens: we let you wait in line, find your name on the giant hardcopy list, get your ballot, and enter the little booth. When you return, ballot in hand and self-satisfied smile on your face, we graciously accept your ballot and then burn it in front of you. As you watch, horrified, while the flames engulf your precious envelope, we thank you for voting, hand you your "I Voted" sticker, and shoo you away.  Then we take your kids.

I estimate that this policy alone will increase the average IQ of the electorate (those whose votes weren't incinerated, that is) by 20-30%.  It may be hard finding vote-by-mail foster parents for all the kids we saved, but it will have been worth it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


In an age of politicians who practice witchcraft (not that I'm judging), seek homoerotic liaisons (still not judging) in public bathrooms (OK, judging a bit now), and wear Nazi uniforms (definitely judging), it is hard to imagine any epithet, any distasteful revelation, or any slung mud that could stick to a candidate, tarnishing his or her image so severely as to make that candidate unelectable. If a politician's bad behavior, extreme ideas, or inarticulate rambling don't turn away the great voting public, what will?

Actually, there is one weapon in the arsenal of thoughtful moderates that can still find its mark, wounding or even killing a candidate's chance of reaching office. And what, you ask, is this silver bullet, this wooden stake?

Clever Satire
Satire. Satire has a long, successful history in American politics, from the colonial period right up through today. It is considered so fundamental to political discourse that there is a carve-out in the copyright laws specifically permitting the use of copyrighted materials for satirical purposes. Americans seem to respond to satire in a way they don't respond to simple recitations of fact. The evidence is fresh: surely no radio ads, no newspaper editorials, no televised debates played as significant a role in the deterioration of the 2008 McCain/Palin ticket than Tina Fey's razor's edge satire of the inarticulate yet perky vice presidential hopeful.

Still, there are those on whom satire is completely lost. You know them: they're the ones who express shock and dismay that Stephen Colbert could testify in character before Congress on the issue of immigration. They're the ones who find offense, rather than humor, in poking fun at the foibles of one group or another. They're the ones who are sure this country is going straight to hell in a handbasket, and are dumbfounded that the rest of us don't share their righteous outrage.

These people—the humor-challenged, the extremists, the narrow-minded—are, in fact, so blind to satire that they eventually become self-parodies. Tina Fey has said that she used Sarah Palin's own words to skewer her. Dick Cheney's Voldemort impression, straight out of Evil Overlord central casting, is clearly not an act. And Glen Beck... well, really, is there any figure in America today more self-satirical than Beck? His transparent racism, his manufactured tears, his blatant historical revisionism—surely he can't be serious... can he?

In contrast, consider New York politician Anthony Wiener. Wiener, a personal friend of master satirist Jon Stewart and prime satirical target Bill Clinton, has a well developed sense of humor, and knows how to deploy it in support of his cause. No matter what your politics, it is easy to appreciate Wiener's sharp wit; and when you do, you (consciously or otherwise) become more open to Wiener's argument.

Self Satire
Not everyone gets the joke. The Tea Party is perhaps the largest collection of self-satirical characters the country has ever seen. There is no point of view so off the charts, so wildly inappropriate, that some Teabagger is unwilling to advocate for it. Obama is a socialist? Certainly. Obama is a Kenyan? Sure. Obama is a Nazi? Why, yes, he's exactly like Hitler. As the rest of us look on in increasing dismay, the Teabaggers caricature every extremist position in American politics, and proceed to nominate and, soon, apparently, actually elect politicians who share their paranoid delusions.

Beware, then, the parody-immune, the satire-impermeable. They are destined to become more and more like the caricatures the rest of us find so entertaining—that is, until they turn out to be real.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ki ai *

I've been a student of kempo karate, also known as Shaolin chuan fa,for 9 years. It's unusual for somebody to start in the martial arts in their late 30s, perhaps, but I'm not lonely—in the dojo in which I train, there are several students in their 40s and older (though nearly all of them have trained longer and hold higher ranks than I).

I've probably reached the highest level I will ever attain in the system, but I'm not ruling anything out. Hell, even the progress I've made to date is far beyond that which anybody who knows me (including me) would ever have predicted. Who knows: even as my fifth decade on this planet draws to an end, maybe there is one more rank left in me. But, regardless of whether or not I ever earn another official stripe, I am improving, ever so slightly, with every lesson, every new technique, every sparring match.

One of the most emotionally complex experiences I've had since beginning my training took place about a year ago, on my last belt test. This was an important test, a milestone, and I'd prepared for it with a vigor and focus that are, frankly, kind of unusual for me. Let's face it: I'm no athlete. Even with my extra training, and even though I'd dropped at least ten pounds in the weeks leading up to the big day, I still carried several handicaps: my weight, my asthma, and my chronically injured back, to name just a few.

As it turned out, though, the actual difficulty, when it arose, came from another area entirely.

Mr. Miyagi never made
Daniel-san do 5 hours of forms
& techniques before sparring!
As the test began, I was very confident. I knew my techniques, I knew my forms. I was ready. But I began to notice a problem, and it started early, during the first stage of the test: I was becoming dizzy. I felt weak and exhausted, in spite of my training, in spite of my comfort with the material.

I was confused. What was happening here? I'd survived, and passed, a number of six-hour tests that seemed specifically designed to make a grown man (specifically: me) cry. I normally trained for 2-4 hours at a time, and yet, here I was, barely half an hour into the program, already wondering if I was going to be able to continue. One of the Masters approached me and asked me if I was OK—apparently, I was pretty pale. (A few days after the test, my own Sensei told me that, when he had stopped by to see how I was doing, expecting to find me red in the face, he had been surprised to see instead that I was white as a sheet.)

Pale, dizzy, exhausted: what the hell was going on?

It was only months later, after another bout of similar symptoms, that I got my answer: having lost weight, my blood pressure had dropped. Because I was taking medication for hypertension, my blood pressure was now too low to support intense exercise. I stopped taking the meds and the symptoms disappeared.

During the test, though, all I knew was that I was in danger of not finishing, of failing. As the morning wore on, the vertigo and exhaustion worsened. During the final portion of the test, sparring, I performed dismally, which is to say: I got my ass kicked by a lesser fighter. Sparring requires creativity, adaptability, and explosiveness, none of which seemed to be available to me.

Nonetheless, when the sparring was over, I had made it all the way to the end of the test. And when I left the building, I carried a brand new belt with me.

An earlier test: sweaty but happy
So what did I learn? Well, first of all: training pays off. Had I been less thoroughly prepared, the symptoms would have done me in. I performed my techniques and forms instinctively; if I'd had to think about them, I simply could not have executed them.

More importantly, though, I realized that there is a reservoir of will within me, a driving energy that I can access, giving me the ability to persevere when my body is failing and my mind is crying out for surrender. It was the search for just this internal strength that had led me to martial arts in the first place. Yes, I'd struggled during tests, even during training, many times before; but I'd never faced any obstacle close to the one with which I was confronted that morning. In the end, it turned out to be this very trial that finally revealed what I'd set out to find eight years before.

*) Ki ai (pronounced "key eye") is a Japanese term that I use here to mean the outward expression of one's inner strength or energy (ki, sometimes known by its Chinese equivalent, chi). I was pleased to discover a very nice, brief article on ki ai in Wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How I Learned to Love Our Two-Party System

If you've been living in America at any time in the past, oh, two years or so, perhaps you share my disdain for our major political parties.  The Republicans are intolerant, lying old white men whose primary purpose in life is to protect the money they inherited from their rich grandparents, while the Democrats are incompetent, lying old white men whose primary purpose in life is to protect the unions that got them elected to office.  A pox on both their houses!

And so it was, armed with my usual cranky, jaded, anti-Establishment attitude, that I perused my recently-received November 2010 California Voter Guide.  And what did I find?  The usual suspects;  the same lame rhetoric.

But wait... what's this?  Why—these look like alternatives!  New choices!  Can it really be so?

Yes, it can.  The Voter Guide includes a section called "Political Party Statements of Purpose".  Comprising 2 full pages of the thick Guide, the PPS of P includes a couple of paragraphs provided by each of a variety of political parties.  And they make for fun reading indeed.

Take, for example, the statement of the American Independent Party.  The AIP proclaims its devotion to the 2nd and 10th Amendments;  admirable, perhaps, but with 25 other Amendments out there, I'm not sure those would have been the two I would have highlighted.

I was quite interested to learn that the AIP considers itself "the party of ordered liberty in a nation under God."  Really, you have to admire a phrase like "ordered liberty", which, if it doesn't appear in an Orwell novel, definitely ought to. The statement goes on to profess a belief in "strict adherence to written law," and looks forward to the day when we will all be "[f]reed from the lawless oppression of Liberal rule".   I'm pretty sure "lawless oppression" comes from the same dictionary as "ordered liberty".

Somewhat shaken, I turned to another statement, this one submitted by the Peace and Freedom Party.  I remember these guys from my youth—we once had a polling place at my house, in the 70s.  You know, you really want to root for a party called "Peace and Freedom".  Until, that is, you read that they plan to support the many, many, MANY social services they hope to provide by "tax[ing] the rich, whose wealth is entirely created by workers, to pay for the people’s needs."  No word on what happens when there are no rich people left:  presumably "the people" will no longer have any "needs".  The party helpfully goes on to explain their guiding philosophy:  "We advocate socialism."  I can hardly think of a political credo more likely to generate voter support this election season.

Finally, I visited with the Green Party.  With everyone going green, who knows:  maybe soon everyone will be going Green.  The Green Party is in favor of "habeas corpus, repealing mandatory sentencing, and amending the Three Strikes Law"—OK, I'm with them so far, except for my sneaking suspicion that the "habeas corpus" they're promoting is aimed at Guantanamo Bay.  Makes me wonder why they don't come right out and say so, but I'd guess it's because we would not vote for them.
It's Not Easy Being Green

The Greens also believe in "ending torture and unwarranted surveillance," an idea I could perhaps get behind with a certain number of qualifiers attached.  But then, in a startling declaration that one might imagine was inserted without their knowledge by somebody who wishes to see the Greens fall this autumn, they announce their support for "undocumented immigrants’ right to work."  Oh dear.  No matter how you feel about the poor folks who risk life and limb to come to this country, legally or illegally, it's hard to imagine a sudden groundswell of support for their "right to work".

All in all, the Political Parties Statements of Purpose is a house of political horrors appropriate to an election falling only two days after Halloween.  In fact, if I were an Establishment Republicrat politician whose goal was to design a Voter Guide, the sole purpose of which was to scare voters into sticking with the major parties, I could hardly have produced anything better.

Hey, wait a minute...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Making Life

I had an opportunity recently to think a little about the Israeli expression לעשות חיים.  Loosely translated as “having a good time” or “enjoying oneself”, it literally means “to make life”.  It seems to me that this expression is emblematic of what separates Israel from the other countries of the Middle East.

Israelis “Making Life”
The Jewish tradition of valuing life above all else is ancient.  The original, and most famous, evidence of this norm is found in Deut. 30:19, which reads, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.”   This text was utterly innovative, written at a time when human sacrifice was common.

Later Jewish sages expanded on this basic concept, allowing even the violation of the Sabbath—a transgression that itself was considered a capital offense—in order to save a life.  Indeed, Sabbath restrictions could be disregarded not only to save a life, but even to provide comfort for somebody whose life was in jeopardy, such as a woman in labor (BT Shabbat 129a).

What is truly amazing is the value that Jews continued to place on life, even after centuries of oppression, expulsion, and slaughter.  One might easily imagine a desire for revenge, born of righteous outrage, would ignite the passions of those who had suffered generation after generation of injustice.  After all, the very same book that tells us to “choose life” also instructs “Justice! You shall pursue justice.” (Deut. 16:20)

Interestingly (to me, at least), the injunctions to choose life and to pursue justice are each followed by the qualifying phrase “that you may live.”  Jewish tradition links the two concepts, tying them both to the idea that the ultimate goal is the continuity of life.  Even justice, which sometimes may appear to demand the death of another, can only be achieved if it is pursued with the ultimate goal of cherishing and preserving life.

In contrast, Israel's enemies exalt death.  Hamas educates its children to die for the cause.  Iran used children to clear minefields, wrapping them in blankets so the explosions wouldn't scatter their body parts.  And all over the Arab world, the “shahid”—“martyr”—who dies while taking the lives of Jews, is celebrated and adored.

After September 11th, many of us asked how we can defeat an opponent so corrupted that he eagerly plans to die for his cause, an opponent so brainwashed that he believes that the life that awaits him after his act of murder is many times better than that which he surrenders as a result.  We choose to live:  can we possibly overcome a foe who chooses to die?

Research in Israel: Targeting Cancer
Every day, nobody faces this question more directly than Israel.  They send their sons and daughters into battle;  they are attacked by missiles and threatened by tyrants.  And yet, each day Israelis “make life”—they create art, embrace freedom, and pursue economic success.  They engage in ground-breaking research, and hold themselves to the highest ethical principles.  This is their answer to those who choose death: we will live.  We will stop you if we can, and sacrifice if we must, but we will live, and as a result, we will still be here long after you and your barbaric allies have passed into history.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dude, Where's My Tax Revenue?

It can be embarrassing to live in California.  We have a reputation as uncultured airheads living in a haze of smog within huge, sprawling megalopoli, waiting for the next earthquake, landslide, or fire to lend interest to our otherwise mundane existence.  Adding to our shame, we recently decided to deny the basic human right of marriage to about 10% of our population because, well, somebody on TV said it would hurt our children if we didn't (gee, maybe that “airhead” thing isn't that far off base).

Can this plant save California?
On the other hand, there are moments when I am genuinely proud to live here.  I fully expect one of these moments to arrive in November, as voters (yes, the same crowd that defeated same-sex marriage) finally legalize marijuana by passing ballot initiative Proposition 19.  Pot will remain illegal under Federal law, but it's an open question whether the Feds will choose to put any effort into enforcement under such circumstances.

Legalizing pot is the right thing to do, both socially and fiscally.  In pure dollars and cents, legalization is likely to create a substantial new source of much-needed revenue for the state.  At a time when teachers are being furloughed and the neediest citizens are being denied essential services, these funds have never been more critical.

In addition, Prop 19 will eliminate the expense of prosecuting and incarcerating non-violent individuals whose only crime is the possession of a substance that grows freely in the ground beneath our feet.  Think there are no savings there?  Think again:
According to the American Corrections Association, the average daily cost per state prison inmate per day in the US is $67.55. State prisons held 253,300 inmates for drug offenses in 2007. That means states spent approximately $17,110,415 per day to imprison drug offenders, or $6,245,301,475 per year.
— from
License and registration please
And this brings us to the social benefits of legalization.  It is already far too easy for the government to take away our freedom, for any reason it sees fit.  The Miranda protections are undergoing a long, painful emasculation at the hands of a right-wing, activist Supreme Court, while the police are empowered stop you pretty much any time they like, even if it's only because you aren't wearing a seat belt.

A society that so little values the freedom of its members is not one likely to endure, at least, not in a form any of us would find familiar or desirable.  I'm looking forward to striking a small blow for individual liberty by voting "Yes" on Prop 19 in November.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Shifting Gears

It has been a week of late arrivals and late departures,  changed plans and reworked strategies--in other words:  a giant, unrelenting pain in the ass.

I was thinking about writing a post entitled Am I in Hell, or is this just another airport?, and probably one day soon I will.  But as the nature of my trip has morphed from business to pleasure, my attitude about the whole thing has been refreshed as well.

Writer's Nirvana
At the moment, I'm sitting outside in Northern New Jersey on one of the most beautiful days I can remember.  There's a strong, cool breeze, but the sky is clear and the sun still has enough strength left, even in early October, to keep me warm inside my windbreaker and jeans.  I will be going out soon with my hosts, two of my oldest friends in the world; but this moment I have to myself.

Leaving home, even on a short trip, is something I no longer handle gracefully.  There was a time, a mere decade ago, when I spent three nights or more of every week in Chicago or New York.  I worked this way for about a year, and honestly, I enjoyed it.  It wasn't only about the restaurant dining and the nice hotels:  being away gave me the opportunity to reach the end of a long work day without facing new demands on my energy and attention at home.

The reason that arrangement was successful for me is that I do not easily shift gears from one condition to another.  My internal state machine has rusty gears.  If I am in work mode, I need some time to move back into daddy mode.  If I'm in daddy mode, I do not slide easily into writer mode.  And so forth.

OK, not quite THIS big
Jackie is different.  She can come home from work, walk in the door, drop her giant über-purse on the counter and start sorting through the mail, or helping the kids with their homework, all without missing a beat.  I have no idea how that works.  She finds it equally hard to understand why I can't just look up from a story I'm working on, answer a question about how to do something on the Mac, and then jump right back into writing.

So I'm grateful to Jackie, our kids, my friends Andy and Sarah, and their kids, for managing to find room in their lives to give me this extra day of transition between my insane, annoying week of travel and my return to my normal day to day existence.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


If you look to the right of this post—no, just a bit lower—you'll see a few of my most recent tweets.  In case you happen to be Osama bin Laden (rumored to be an avid reader of mine) and have therefore been living in a cave for the past decade, I will explain that a “tweet” is a short message posted via Twitter.  If you're still not sure what I'm talking about, well... here's hoping my next post will be of more interest to you.

As a short-form writer, Twitter holds a certain appeal for me.  I believe there is beauty in brevity.  I enjoy the challenge of being witty, or relevant, or at least not boring, in 140 characters or less.  For my wife, though, Twitter represents all that is good and right and fun about the Internet.  She tosses clever bon mots back and forth with other Twitterers all over the world.  She turns to Twitter for updates on developing news stories.  And she is active on Foursquare, a Twitter-related service whose main purpose, as I understand it, is to alert criminals as to your exact location.

But, when it comes to actual human communication, it turns out that you can't really delve into a topic with any subtlety or nuance using less characters than are contained in this sentence.  And so Twitter at its worst (and it is often at its worst) is a forum for slogans and sound bites.  In other words, tweets are the bumper stickers on the information superhighway.

To illustrate this problem, I've decided to render some famous quotes here as tweets.  See if you think they are more or less effective than the original:
87 yrs ago, our 4fathers created this nation concvd in liberty, dedicated to prop that all men are created =. 
Yestrday, 12/7/41, day that will live N infamy, Japan attacked Pearl Harb. Many lives lost. Now we're at war.
N beginning, God created hvn, earth. Then plants, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, 2ppl (Adam&Eve). Etc.
I can't help but feel something has been lost in the translation.

And so, while I plan to continue to enjoy Twitter (if only to keep track of where my wife is at any given moment), I'm pleased to have the opportunity, through this blog, to explore my topics in slightly more depth.

Still, let's give Twitter the final word here.  Because, as it turns out, some of the greatest utterances in history work just fine as a tweet:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
 Beauty in brevity?  Absolutely.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Rick

Why, thank you, Rick Sanchez, for sacrificing your career for the sake of helping me make my point.

One of the most boring and irrelevant talking heads on CNN, Sanchez finally had something interesting to say.  Unfortunately for him, it was this:
Everybody that runs CNN is a lot like Stewart. And a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart. And to imply that somehow they — the people in this country who are Jewish — are an oppressed minority? Yeah.
Yet another minority oppressed
by the International Jewish Conspiracy 
Sanchez was presumably pissed off that Stewart had referred to him as a "lightweight"—hardly  controversial for anybody who has seen Sanchez' Twitter-based "news" show.  Yes, that's right:  the Sanchez program consisted mainly of light topical tete a tete, followed by the tweeted reactions from his viewers.  This is what makes CNN such an important American institution:  where else are you offered a stream of unedited opinions from people with nothing better to do in the middle of the day than watch TV and tweet?

As a side note, there is real irony in the casting of Stewart as avatar for the entire Jewish people.  Really?  Jon Stewart?  The same Jon Stewart who changed his last name from Liebowitz, who married a non-Jewish woman, and who regularly trashes Israel on his TV show—the one from which he takes many, many, MANY days off, but not Yom Kippur?  THAT Jon Stewart?
Oops, did I say that out loud?

Well, never mind that.  To the anti-Semite, we all look alike.

Nobody coaxed, or tricked, or cajoled Sanchez into saying what he said.  The same goes for other recent paragons of bigotry such as Helen Thomas and Mel Gibson.  In truth, they couldn't wait to say it.  Gibson was drunk—in vino veritas—Thomas was asked a simple question about Israel, and Sanchez was simply reminded that Stewart is Jewish.  Their beliefs lie just below the surface, and what's more, they see nothing wrong with them.  No doubt the career-ending opprobrium that followed was a complete surprise:  "...but, all my friends feel the same way!"

What is the real lesson here?  Simply this: anti-Semitism is returning to the mainstream.  The anti-Semitic disease, underground for over half a century, has mutated, adapting to the post-Holocaust era by posing first as Israel-basher, then as anti-Zionist, before finally exploding into a malignant and virulent strain of pure anti-Semitism.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you

Like most Jewish kids of the latter part of the 20th century, I do not see eye-to-eye with those of my parents' generation on the topic of anti-Semitism.  Don't get me wrong:  it's not like I think that this most ancient of hatreds has vanished from the Earth.  But I don't find anti-Semitism to be an animating force in most American discourse.

Combination Skin
Which is why, when I do run across it, I react with a little bit of surprise, combined with a sneaking suspicion that perhaps the alte kackers are right.  I feel a sudden need to scratch a few nearby non-Jews to see if I find an anti-Semite lurking underneath, like the aliens in V who are actually lizards in human skin.

I had such a moment today.  First, though, some background.  I have an addiction.  I can't get enough of lectures on CD from The Teaching Company.  I've listened to lectures on the American Revolution, the Dead Sea Scrolls, World War II, and I'm about to embark on another series on the medieval world.

Recently I was enticed to acquire a series called Between Cross and Crescent: Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza.  The lectures cover one of the richest periods of Jewish history, one with which I am insufficiently familiar, so I'm really excited to get it.

I do, however, like to read the reviews posted by other customers before buying.  And so I came across a review from a "Top 100 Contributor" (nope, no idea what that means).  Interestingly, the reviewer, "JoeR" from Toronto, gave the course 4/5 stars.  But he went on to identify a "bias of the instructor", to wit:
The root causes for the Jewish persecutions from the West were always investigated by looking at Christian failings, presuming that the Jewish nation were for the most part innocent victims. The fact that multiple nations treated the Jews unfairly stretching over a vast time period and across many cultures should have given more serious pause to the way that the Jews lived amongst their host nations in order to consider if their interaction consistently agitated the relationship
Well, sure:  Jews were raped, slaughtered, and left homeless throughout medieval Europe.  Should they not therefore have taken a moment to examine their own behavior?

"JoeR"'s comments represent the type of classic anti-Semitism that has its roots in early Christianity.  Indeed, he entitles his review "Humbling of a Nation," implying, of course, that the stiff-necked, haughty Jews were not simply the victims of the overwhelming force of the Roman Empire, but rather, were "humbled", brought down from their position as the Chosen People by a God who blames them for the death of His Son.  It was in fact this narrative that dominated medieval Christianity, though to my knowledge there is no parallel lesson drawn from the fall of Rome so soon after Constantine's conversion to that religion.

Unfortunately, the "blame the victim" philosophy, which had taken a well-deserved holiday following the Holocaust, seems to be on its way back.  No doubt we will soon be asked to consider European Jewry's culpability in its own destruction by the Nazis.  But we see the same idea in other places, as well, most notably in the garment-rending of some Americans in the wake of the terrorist murders of September 11, 2001.  "Why do they hate us?" we asked.  Is it our policy on the Middle East?  Our permissive media culture?  The popularity of ham at Easter?
Q. Why do they hate us?
A. Who cares?

And here is my response, my response to the "nobody would hate us if we were only better people" morons, my response to "JoeR" and his ilk, my response to fundamentalist Jews who believe we were scattered throughout the world for our sins and my response to fundamentalist Christians who believe... well, more or less the same thing as the fundamentalist Jews.

My response is:  go fuck yourself.   As long as I am strong, you will not hurt me again, so I will remain strong.  As soon as I become weak, no matter the moral beauty of my existence nor the peaceful transcendence for which I strive, you will attack me.  Morality guides my actions, but survival dictates my choices:  there is no morality in my death.  If you kill me and survive, then my insistence on morality has failed not only me, but the entirety of the world, because all that will remain is your evil.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Beginning

As noted by my friend and critic Melanie, the Southern California Writer's Conference was in town this past weekend.  I spent an entire weekend having my plot examined, evaluated, and ultimately eviscerated.

And I loved every minute of it.

Well, OK, to be honest, I loved every minute that was about me.  My interest flagged slightly when we were talking about somebody else's plot.  Hey, I'm only human.

Plot is my nemesis, my white whale.  I imagined that novel writing works sort of like short story writing:  you think of a story.  It has a beginning, middle, and tragic, triumphant, or hilarious ending.  Then you write it down.  I've written many a short piece in more or less this way, and no doubt there are those who produce novels in just such a manner.

But no, not me.  I know the theme of my novel, the major symbols, the motivations and feelings of the main characters, and what happens when the shit hits the fan.  I know the voice, the tense, the point of view.  I know where to use humor and where to lay on the pathos.  What I don't know is how it ends.

So I went to the conference, having signed up for the unattractively entitled NovelCram.  NovelCram was led by author Drusilla Campbell, a petite woman with a brilliant smile and the unrelenting energy of a plutonium reactor.  Dru led the class from one end of the weekend to the other, barely taking a breath, much less a break, outlasting even her much younger students who crept out seriatim for a coffee or a pee before returning a few minutes later to be swept up again into the Drunado.

I, too, was sucked into the vortex, eventually finding myself deposited at the end of a winding path of saffron-colored brick.  Squinting, I could make out a curve here, a sharp turn there;  a surprise around one corner, a complication around the next.  And, in the distance, the vaguest outline of an emerald city.  I can't quite see beyond the walls of the city, but I'm pretty sure that if I can just get a little closer, I may discover...

The End.