28 February 2012

Next Millenium

What do you suppose the anthropologists will deduce when they dig up these?

We have to remember that the emergence of this type of footwear (some scholars speculate this is earwear, viz. related papers) was roughly coincident with popular alarm regarding the imminent elevation of sea levels by dissolution of polar ice packs -  a phenomenon known at the time as "global warming".

The likelihood is that residents of the more affluent continents who were financially able to acquire varietal footwear derived subconscious comfort from awareness of their feet raised above flood level  -  a comfort which illogically predominated over conscious awareness of mobility.

We can only speculate about how early 21st century humans may have walked on these excessively high, excessively homogeneous, platforms. Imagining their gait is both puzzling and amusing.

Given the overwhelming presence of internal-combustion gas-powered vehicles -the very objects which contributed to "global warming"- it remains probable that early 21st century humans walked as little as possible, on platforms or on any other surface.

Only in Israel

...do certain people drive around in a van with rainbow lights and music for the sole purpose of cheering up passersby.

Conversation -- on Regret

ME is washing dishes.

Me: (absent-mindedly) I wonder whether I have enough - yes, there's half a bottle left. What a pretty shade of blue. and a half meters, Yes.

Enter LEFT VENTRICLE, stage right.

Left Ventricle: I wanted to be the Queen of the May when I was in high school.

Me: Will the fabric fit in the- yes, extra. Someday I should probably take a noxious chemical to the outside of this.

Left Ventricle: (slightly louder) I wanted to be the Queen of the May when I was in high school.

Me: (still absent-mindedly) What's that, dear? No, don't - wh- good. Why is this? Oh.

Left Ventricle: (slightly louder) I wanted to be the Queen of the May when I was in high school.

Me: Did you ever tell me that?

Left Ventricle: Yes. We were looking at Grandma's photo album, and there was a picture of her with her triangular 1940's hairstyle and a coat draped over her shoulders and a crown on her head, and she said, "I was the Queen of the May," and I said, "I want to be the Queen of the May too."

Me: Oh. So why didn't you become the Queen of the May?

Left Ventricle: You didn't let me.

Me: What do you mean? There probably hasn't been a Queen of the May since Grandma was in high school.

Left Ventricle: There was.

Me: What did we do? Remind me.

Left Ventricle: (no answer - pouting)

Me: (slowly recalling) Well, let's see. You know that's probably mythology, but anyway, it wasn't that we couldn't be bothered. No, you don't remember that we specifically didn't want to? Don't you remember what we did in those days? We read great works. We met interesting people. We actually did engage in a couple of save-the-world projects that had an effect -- you don't remember those meetings? It was amazing. We walked on banisters. We rowed. We used to walk down the middle of the street from sheer bliss and notice the geraniums. We read sitting in the rosebush. You don't remember any of this?

Left Ventricle: I do, now that you mention it.

Me: We did a lot of good things. You didn't lose out from not being Queen of the May. In fact, it's much better that you weren't. Do you agree?

Left Ventricle. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I do agree. You're right. It was good. It was better that way.

(satisfied pause.)

I wanted to be the Queen of the May in high school.

Me: Will you kindly go back to pumping blood like you're supposed to?

Left Ventricle: Oh! Right.

Ramat Beit Shemesh

I spent Shabbos in Ramat Beit Shemesh. I think it's considered a suburb of Jerusalem, though it's a good hour away by bus, through some lovely (and uncommonly diverse) woods.

You know how when you drive down the highway in America and see a mall, you wonder whether anyone actually lives behind it, or if it is just a mall in the middle of nowhere? I discovered a few years ago that there are suburbs behind such malls: block after block of square houses on square green lawns, all of the same vintage. The houses look like children's drawings of houses: triangular roofs, a door between two downstairs windows. Thus far, the American suburb.

Ramat Beit Shemesh does not look like an American suburb: it is row after winding row of short, red-roofed apartment buildings sheathed in limestone. The streets are all named after rivers and it is an apt analogy: they are really like dark rivers flowing through a limestone landscape. There are trees and shrubs - enough to make the place look alive - but no lawns.

Ramat Beit Shemesh is surrounded by green hills (at least at this time of year) with olive trees, shrubs, and the ruins of ancient terraces tumbling down their sides. At least two of these hills are already slated to become Ramat Beit Shemesh C -- before you mourn the development, you have to understand that practically every hill in Israel is covered with shrubs, olive trees, and the ruins of ancient terraces; and remember that the development comes about because the cute little babies in Jerusalem grow up and get married, mazel tov, mazel tov. Taking a walk around RBS on a weekday will bring you to wilderness where you can pick up shards of ancient pottery.

We visited a few young couples and it is surprising to me how seeing that a young lady is in the command of an apartment with high ceilings makes me think of her as more mature than her counterparts back in my neighborhood with low ceilings... until I stop to realize that it is the ceilings conveying this impression. There is something magic about high ceilings. I think my sense of aesthetics froze a hundred years ago, when books were wide & short, and rooms (and their windows) were narrow & tall; since then in popular culture the two have swapped shapes.

What really surprised me in Ramat Beit Shemesh is the quiet: on a Shabbos afternoon in Jerusalem the streets are empty of cars but packed full of children jumping rope and playing tag. In Ramat Beit Shemesh I saw a few tag games, but nothing like Jerusalem. Perhaps I was just out at the wrong time, or perhaps there are not that many seven-year-olds in RBS.

On the whole, Ramat Beit Shemesh reminded me of this insight: One of my teachers was once approached by a gentleman who had spent several years working on an intensive and grand project. Now that the man's project was finished, he was ready to move on to another impressive project -- and none was forthcoming. He felt the lull keenly. "I don't know what to do next," he said. "Life for the past few years has been one thrill after another. Now that I have finally reached my goal, I am bored."
"When life gets boring, make yourself interesting," my teacher told him. You can work on a grand scale, doing astounding things that affect or at least impress the public. And sometimes what is necessary is to become a deeper person -- which is a different kind of thrill.

Ramat Beit Shemesh, unlike a large city, cannot really be said to offer interest of its own: it is new, it is tidy, it is hospitable and welcome; but it is hardly a tourist attraction. I don't think it will last longer than a month as a substitute for living an interesting life. If you live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, you must make yourself interesting.
The people that we visited in Ramat Beit Shemesh have done that: they are all very nice, very thoughtful, very mature (and it's not just the high ceilings).

A nice Shabbos.

19 February 2012

Snow Sleep

Sam Perrin
sperrin at uoregon.edu

Only in Israel

Only in Israel can bringing your daughter to the fruit store without a hat on a lukewarm day convince the greengrocer (erroneously) that you are too impoverished to buy her one...
so that he slips extra carrots into your bag...
which you make into a salad for the downstairs neighbor...
who gathers together a basket of foodstuffs for the upstairs neighbor...
who knocks at your door to give you the cottage cheese...
which you feed to the child whose bare head so alarmed the grocer.

14 February 2012

Thoughts on Sponja

An American friend of mine who lives in a small town in Israel once observed that "when we want recreation, we hop in the car and go somewhere."
"What about the people who can't afford to travel?" I asked.
"They do a lot of sponja," she said.

There is something oddly holiday-like about pouring water all over the floor - especially in a country where water use is so carefully measured - and chasing it around.
Sponja is what Israelis do instead of mopping or vaccuuming. There are also miniature, handheld squeegees for countertops.

I heard from Rav Lorencz shlit"a (the younger) that when Ben-Gurion landed in Israel, he was directed to a family in Tel Aviv (then a hill of sand). His hostess, an imposing, strong woman, served him tea, in what may well have been the only teacup in the house. He dropped the teacup, and it fell to the sand floor, breaking. He was terrified.
"Bring the sponjadorlo!" cried his hostess. Ben-Gurion thought sponjadorlo might be a dog or a weapon -- something suitable for punishing those who broke teacups.
The hostess's daughter brought a a sponja stick and began cleaning up. The hostess endeavored to engage the trembling Ben-Gurion in conversation.
"First, the sponjadorlo," he pleaded, anxious to have his punishment over with.
She pointed to the sponja stick her daughter was wielding, indicating that this was a sponjadorlo.
...the moral of the story being not to fear unnecessarily.

The trouble with humanities

There are some things I wish I had learnt very early in life.
I wish I had learnt earlier than I did that inches are divided into eighths. I wish I had learnt earlier that basting a chicken does not mean sewing it and then picking out the stitches. I wish I had learnt earlier that the right way to commence sponja-ing the floor (Israelis don't mop, they sponja) is to dash water into the corners.
And I certainly ought to have learnt several years ago that COLLEGE CREDITS EXPIRE -- so that college courses taken in high school may have to be repeated... or Clepped.
This has been a public service announcement.

The Humanities Clep covers philosophy, literature, drama, art, music, and film, from prehistory to the present.
On one hand, it is interesting to catch up on what humanity has been doing for all those years -- filling in some spaces in my education.
On the other hand, the material required for the test is the most uninspiring branch of the humanities.

The math Clep tests your familiarity with math. Studying for it makes you appreciate the math in the world.
The science Clep tests your familiarity with science. Studying for it makes you appreciate the science in the world.
And the humanities Clep tests your familiarity with what everyone has to say about the humanities, which is not the same thing at all. Studying for it means memorizing lists like this:

James, Fred, George and Mary of the Tiddlywinks school of art, which emphasized light and movement, were succeded by James, John, George (the nephew of the first George), and Harriet of the Tiddlywoodles school, which emphasized light and color, and were succeeded by the Tiddlysquinks school, represented by John, Harry (the stepson of James of the Tiddlywoodles), Rene, and Mildred, which sought to revive the traditions of the Tiddlywinks, focusing on light, movement, and space, and Michael defaulted from the Tiddlysquinks to pave the way for the Tiddlysqundles who emphasized movement and color; and all the Tiddly movements took place in the age in which the unnaturalist movement of art, which drew on the naturalist movement of art, gave way to semi-naturalist art, and the return of naturalist undertones.

...instead of actually looking at the art.

I thought this was only because the multiple-choice nature of the CLEP test doesn't allow for better, but the art historian of the family confirmed, laughing, that emphasis on categorization (and questions of authorship) rather than content is actually quite common.

There are humanities scholars who spend their lives contemplating some of the greatest efforts of humanity over the millenia... and who, far from being inspired by these to deep and worthy thought, devote their time and energy to quibbling over whether an artist was a Tiddlywoodler or a Tiddlywiddler.
It is embarrassing. I believe it bypasses the point of the humanities entirely.

05 February 2012

Occupy Entropy

How are you going to sprout today?


A few months ago, when the weather was warm and breezy, we woke up one morning to find that the air felt so cold we expected snow. And so it was winter. And so it remained for months.
I noticed late last week that the almond trees on our block are blooming.
The next day, WHAM! the sun is out, the air is warm, plants everywhere are putting forth flowers.

Many things in Jerusalem are subtle but weather is not one of them.

I, I, I, I, I, I, cont.

Ran into this the other day in one of Emerson's letters:
"...forgive the egotism of all this letter. Say they not 'The more love the more egotism'?"

...which (if it is so - I am not convinced) I suppose is because one of the nicest things you can do for a person is to share your thoughts with him.

If I ever close this blog, I suspect it will be because I will suddenly come to a nasty realization that nothing - not even the opportunity to affect several million people - can justify the display of loving egotism where several million people can see it.

Film: time-lapse photography


Time-lapse photography of hummingbirds, bees, flowers, a strawberry.

01 February 2012

Rainbow biology. And, "clep" is not Yiddish.

I once lived among hasidim who were busy clepping cleps. I thought the word 'clep' was Yiddish.
But no. CLEPs are tests administered by US colleges to military members, or other people busy with good things (including homeschooling), to distribute college credits.

Cramming for a Clep is what you make of it.
Ruskin: "They cram to pass, and not to know; and they do pass, and they don't know."
Or, you can cram to know, and Clep to save time. The student schedule in my college looked like Hermione's, so a lot of us wound up taking Cleps. And so I spent the past two weeks cramming biology.

I thought this route must be a shoddy replacement for college proper until I tuned into a top university's Biology 101 lectures. One of the professors spent an entire lecture listing the college faculty and their awards, and then went on to tell stories about himself and to lecture about 'you know, mitochondria and uh, stuff'.

So, I no longer feel cheated that I attended a small college. Half of our professors were holy Jerusalem housewives teaching in addition to working, but they knew their material inside and out, and we never learned about and uh stuff.


I discovered that biology is lovable for the same reason as chemistry: it lends itself to metaphor. There are so many unknowns that my textbook gives up on literal explanations, and makes Golgi bodies sound like my mother, and describes the atoms as desiring this and the universe as being intent on that, which is misleading, but cute.
On top of the inherent metaphor, the text I am using for basic information is The Biology Coloring Book. I think the idea is to involve the kinesthetic part of the brain, but for me it is all about the colors.
Yay! Let's be eight again! Scientific conventions have appropriated yellow, red, black, and blue for certain elements - and then I have designated pink for happy things (positive charges or coming-togethers), green for sad things (negative charges and falling-apart), purple for special things (phosphorus and by extension phosphates), Delft blue for anything discovered by Van Leeuwenhoek, and --
but soft! I have a finite number of colored pencils. And so I end up fabricating all kinds of folk-tales to explain why glucose and protons, or fructose and muscle cells, are the same color. And this - the folklore necessitated by a shortage of colors - is what really makes the information memorable.

Current educational theory recognizes eight types of learners - kinesthetic, verbal, &c. If they ever add romantic learners to the list, sign me up.

So I have spent nearly two weeks living in one of those wonderful student study-vacuums, doing nothing but [baking 200 cream puffs and] sitting at our table getting high on biology and rainbows and rainbow biological metaphor; and sometimes to the strains of Signs and Wonders, Rabbi Oppenheimer's Yom Kippur davening -- and wow, what a life.

I thought I would be sorry when the Clep was over - I always liked that finals-week vacuum - but as soon as it ended I picked a biography of R' Yisrael Salanter off the Clep-host's shelf and -- yum, the world is still big and beautiful and full of Torah and all the dishes that didn't get washed while I was cramming, and I am not sorry to get back to it.

Israeli Secular Culture

When the Spies returned from touring the Land of Israel (Num. 13:32), they said, "It is a Land that consumes its inhabitants."
But yoshveiha - 'its inhabitants' - can also be translated as 'those who sit still in it'.

That, right there, explains the differences between Israeli and American secular culture.
In America, if you want to be secular, you can put your feet up on the table and be secular. No problem. The land offers no resistance.
Americans assume that this is true in Israel as well. It is not.

In Israel, if you want to be secular, you are working against the laws of nature. It is like trying to defy gravity. If you have a spiritual bad hair day, you feel the horizon itself trying to put you back in order.
Israeli secular culture, such as it is, is dizzying, noisy, and more uncomfortable than most, because being secular in Israel requires so much concentrated effort.

There is a certain Israeli author who - at least a few years ago - was immensely popular among Israeli youth because, they said, 'they feel that his stories accurately represent their world.'
What kind of author would American youth pick out as one who accurately represents their world?
(Probably one who says I a lot...) Probably one whose characters spend a lot of time in their own minds... have honestly-expressed emotional ups and downs... get a thrill out of seeing beautiful things or places.
What kind of author do Israeli youth pick out as one who accurately represents their world?
One whose genre is magical realism. His stories are about people impersonating G-d and angels crash-landing on rooftops. At least one of them takes place after death.
This is the world of secular Israeli youth.