Duuude!

12/22/2014

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I’d like to figure out a way to interject the word “dude” into my regular vocabulary. The problem is I always have tended towards a certain degree of formality in my speech, avoiding seeming overly familiar to people who might feel I’ve overstepped an invisible boundary in our social relationship. I’ve heard others say “dude” and certainly recognize the context in which its use would be appropriate. “Hey, nice jacket, dude” and so forth. But I’ve always lacked the good-natured and easy-going mien required for this type of repartee. I can learn to loosen my girdle though, can’t I? Let me resolve to embrace dude-dom in the New Year.

And if that goes well, then I intend to introduce, “man, that really chaps my ass” into my steady repertoire of expressions a year hence. The thought makes me downright giddy with excitement, dude.



 
 

A guy pushed me on the sidewalk today. Pushed! Me! We were both crossing the street in downtown Bellevue, near the mall, along with about a dozen other people. As the light changed, I intended to turn left at the far corner, and while still within the solid white lines of the crosswalk I started to angle my path in that direction. The other participant in this encounter must have been a step behind me, but walking faster, and so I had in a sense cut him off. But we were both pedestrians, not driving on the freeway. He could have veered to my right, neatly changing lanes. He could have slowed his step and recognized that race-walking when the streets are crowded is not necessarily advisable. Instead, he placed his hand on my left elbow, pushed me to the right with no small degree of force, said “excuse me” and sped past. I reflexively muttered “sorry” and then took sight of him as he strode by. We were nearly doppelgangers. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties, about my height, and of slight build. The nerve!

The whole incident unfolded in the blink of an eye. By the time I realized I had been rudely pushed – shoved, more like it - by fellow male who had nothing on me in size or youth, I began to seethe. How dare he pull a macho stunt like that! I had visions of running after him, yelling, “hey, buddy, who do you think you are?”

About five years ago, Izzy and I took a karate class together. If only he had decided to stick with martial arts instead of switching to dance, I would be a black belt today, for sure. Armed with the hand-to-hand secret combat skills of the Far East, that miscreant would have been on the receiving end of a lesson in manners he wouldn’t soon forget. His good luck, I guess, my youngest child traded in his gei for dancing shoes.

But I remember what he looks like. Bellevue is a small town. I could easily run into him again, and the next time he might not escape unscathed. I won my only schoolyard scrap as a twelve-year old, retiring undefeated and subsequently turned my energies in the direction of love. It may have been a long time since I last engaged in fisticuffs, but a man’s honor is no small thing. In the meantime, in the spirit of the holiday season I wish my antagonist to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those exact words.


 
 
The following essay appeared in the JT News as my December "Abba Knows Best" column.


Is it just me, or has the sense of not completely fitting in, which Jews traditionally experience at Christmas, been a bit lacking this season in the Pacific Northwest? As a child growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1960s and ’70s, a palpable Yuletide atmosphere wafted in the air every December, perhaps felt even more keenly by Jews, as it reinforced our status as outsiders.

People in that simpler era could be rather easily sorted into distinctive ethnic and religious categories. Over 90 percent of the local population was neatly classifiable along a mere two dimensions: Jew or Christian, and white or black. Admittedly, in the Bronx, where my grandparents lived, you also could add Puerto Rican.

I had a chance to revisit this ethnic taxonomy a few years ago in the Windy City when the youngest and most demanding of our flock, Izzy, trained for a summer with the Chicago Ballet and lived in a downtown dorm. During our visit he needed to be taken by a parental unit for a haircut. I found a nearby African-American barbershop open on a Sunday, and called to make an appointment. I was told to “ask for Manny, the Puerto Rican guy” when we arrived. My heart immediately filled with nostalgic joy.

In 3rd grade, despite a complete and utter lack of singing ability, I joined our elementary school choir. For the Christmas assembly, we sang all the traditional religious standards, such as “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen” (I prefer the Allan Sherman version, “God Bless You, Jerry Mandelbaum”) along with a sop to the 20 percent of so or us from that other Judeo-Christian faith, “I Have a Little Dreidel.” The version our choir teacher taught us differed from what I simultaneously learned in Hebrew school. One day I explained to that her version of the song was incorrect. I expected gushing gratitude, but instead was met with an icy glare. Grownups.

At the Christmas assembly that year in grade school, I joined in for the non-denominational portions of songs and then in my own small civil rights protest version of demanding service at the lunch counter, remained silent when we reached sections which praised the birth of the son of God or proclaimed his divinity. And of course, as commanded in the Torah, our family went to the Chinese restaurant to celebrate the big day. Bottom line: Christmas was distinctive and memorable, to Jews and Gentiles alike.

Out here in the Emerald City, if you blinked then you might have missed the arrival and departure of Santa. First of all, the rise of e-commerce, led by local giant Amazon.com, has made the entire ritual of schlepping to the mall for holiday shopping obsolete. Members of every new generation look at the habits and cultural practices of the past and shake their collective head in wonder (“How did people ever entertain themselves before video games and the Internet?”). While the economy is humming along, mall sales are down precipitously from last year. Seems reasonable to me: Why burn gas and fight crowds when you can get everything you want delivered to your front doorstep at no extra charge?

Even more importantly, the old ethnic categories no longer apply, at least not in Puget Sound. Determining who is white or Christian is an exercise in subtle judgment. My friends and neighbors hail from every corner of the globe, and many of those who are nominally Christian rarely, if ever, set foot in a church. Right in our own little family, we’ve got two Latin American children as brown as caramel. However, I insist you should at least speak a little bit of Spanish to call yourself “Hispanic.”

Fortunately, there is one thing we can all agree on. Christmas should be celebrated in a Chinese restaurant. It says so, right in the Bible, in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” If that isn’t a reference to the obligation to eat lo mein, as our forefathers did, then I don’t know what is. A station wagon loaded with newly purchased toys and clothing may be passé, but some traditions are worth preserving. Who wants some hot-and-sour soup?


 
 

A few months ago, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial by William Bennett, former “Drug Czar” during the Reagan administration, bemoaning the fact a generation of the American electorate is increasingly embracing an intelligent approach of respecting civil liberties in dealing with addiction and substance abuse issues. It’s possible, although it seems unlikely, that the disastrously wrongheaded "War on Drugs" started out as race neutral. There is now no doubt, however, in its implementation it became yet another in a long line of policies used to oppress blacks. Not surprisingly, Mr. Bennett used the bully pulpit of a leading newspaper to attempt to restore his permanently tarnished reputation. Yes, we know abusing drugs is harmful.  Please explain why that requires locking up young black males in poor neighborhoods in massive numbers while their white counterparts, in suburban high schools and on wealthy college campuses, could toke up with impunity.

The Journal is at it again, with an editorial co-authored William Bratton, former New York City police commissioner and vigorous enforcer of another sadly racist policy, the so-called “broken windows” method of policing. The theory behind this policy is that disorder, as represented by broken windows, leads to a breakdown of societal norms and increased criminality. What is ignored in this exercise in sloppy thinking is the implementation of BW-policing is itself inherently a breakdown in social norms. When police are an arbitrary occupying force, and are empowered to commit lawful homicide for the most trivial of reasons, then social order has been harmed far more than by the presence of a mere broken window.

Never mind the critics, Mr. Bratton says, crime is down, proving BW policing is a success. There’s only one problem: crime is down everywhere. Data from the US Department of Justice’s Uniform Crime Reports shows that in California, our nation’s most populous state, the rate of violent crime declined by a breathtaking 63% from 1991 to 2011. This was no anomaly. In Florida, the fourth most populous state, violent crime plunged 61%. Illinois, the fifth most populous state, crime is down by 60%. In Alabama, the reduction in violent crime is 56%. Michigan, the heart of the Rust Belt, down by 45%. Connecticut, a densely populated state, down by 49%. Massachusetts, another densely populated state, down by 50%.  Virginia down by 49%. Washington, a state renowned for its liberalism – no BW policing here, thank you - down 45%. Neighboring Oregon, even more mellow, down 55%.  And so on and so on, across the nation.

Mr. Bratton writes, “Current low crime levels don’t stay down because of some vaguely defined demographic or economic factor. “ This statement could not possibly be more wrong, or worse, more tragic for people of color in major US cities. Here’s what Mr. Bratton should be saying: “Wow, crime dropped across the country over the last two decades. Crime dropped in red states and blue states, in rural and urban states, in states with large African-American populations and states without many blacks, in states that embraced broken windows police tactics and states that didn’t. If there is any single thing a reasonably intelligent person could conclude, it is that broken windows had absolutely nothing to do with New York City’s decline in crime, and for all we know may have even made things worse. Which makes the police homicide death of Mr. Eric Garner even more tragic, and for that I deeply apologize.”

He should say those words, but I advise not holding your breath.


 
 
Wow, what a difference two days make. On Tuesday, the stock market staggered lower, continuing a downward trend which lasted over a week, due to fears regarding falling oil prices, turmoil in Russia, and terrorist fears regarding the planned release of Sony’s raunchy comedy,The Interview, starring Seth Rogan.

The stock market can go up or down for any reason it wants too, including illogical ones.  To experience a sell-off over low oil prices, however, seems counter-intuitive. Sudden increases oil prices have always thrown our economy into recession. One of the gloomier decades in American history, the 1970s, was characterized by two “oil shocks”, the first as a result of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the second due to the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79. Unemployment soared, gas rationing was introduced, the most ineffectual president in American history, Jimmy Carter, carried his own suitcase into the White House, and bad disco music poisoned our popular culture.

If high oil prices are bad, then how can low oil prices also have a negative impact? Investors seem to be simultaneously asking themselves the same question, and all realizing at the same time there is no satisfying answer . And since Russia is a major oil exporter, pressure on their economy might impel seemingly irrational dictator Vladimir Putin towards a semblance of rationality.  Halting saber-rattling in Crimea would be a nice Christmas present for Europe.

Oh, and then there’s the continued drumbeat of good economic news, and reassuring burbles from the Federal Reserve that the crack cocaine of low interest will continue to flow directly into our veins. Finally, US businesses and tourists will at long last have access to a new market Cuba, which while small – population eleven million – is also starved for consumer goods, modern infrastructure and tourism. Not only are we their closest neighbor geographically,but our nation’s significant Hispanic population makes us a natural trading partner. Trade with Cuba is not a game changer of the order of Nixon opening ties to China, but at the margin it’s a nice bit of positive economic news, equivalent to a late field goal when you already have a two touchdown lead.

Throw all those ingredients into the blender, and you get the sharpest two day stock market rally in three years yesterday and today. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be busy celebrating at the gas pump. Arriba!



 
 

What did recently freed Jewish prisoner Alan Gross want after spending five years languishing in the hell of a Cuban jail? A corned beef sandwich on rye. Sounds about right. In Biblical times King David wrote, “if I forget thee, oh Jerusalem may my right hand lose its cunning.” (As a lefty, I feel slighted but understand his message was directed at the majority). Nowadays, we yearn for different things. 

Jews living in ancient Israel were more primitive back then. Yes, hummus and olive oil are delicious, but man does not live by Mediterranean food alone. Judaism has developed immensely since those ancient days. There are many advances to be proud of, but perhaps none greater than the discovery by certain Jews in Eastern Europe that a magical new food could be created pickling beef in brine. The history books give the Earl of Sandwich, a goy, too much credit. Just as the Internet would have been no big deal without the development of the World Wide Web, food between two slices of bread would have generated as much excitement as iceberg lettuce without the right ingredients. The good Earl’s culinary concoction would have languished in obscurity but for corned beef and pastrami as the main attraction. No one who is freed from five years of captivity asks for a tuna sandwich or a PB&J. If corned beef is not the apotheosis of monotheism, I defy you to find a better example.

Plus Mr. Gross wanted a latke. My kids and I fried up a bunch last night. I’d be happy to share.


 
 

The first day of Hanukkah starts tonight at sundown. Many people are under the impression The Festival of Lights falls on a different date each year, but they are mistaken in that belief.  Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the same date every year. However, the Hebrew calendar was developed by a tribe of ancient nomadic pastoralists and is based on the cycles of the moon. The lunar month about 29 days, which does not divide neatly into the 365-day Gregorian calendar, hence all the confusion every year among Jews as to when our holidays take place. And in keeping with the Jewish penchant for making everything a bit more complicated, no one agrees on whether the holiday should be spelled “Hanukkah” or “Chanukah”.  The first letter of Hanukkah, a Hebrew "Het" (or "Khet") contains a phoneme not found in English and similar to the sound of a person with congestion vigorously clearing their throat. A similar sound occurs in Dutch, which perhaps made learning that language a bit easier for me.  The famous artist who cut off his ear is not, in his native tongue, “Van Go”, but rather Van Ghaaagh” (not only hard to say, but hard on the ear as well and one of the reasons French is preferred for romantic encounters). Why the phonetic version of the Hebrew word loses a “k” when you put a “c” in front, however, is a mystery. Is there an eight-letter quota on how many letters can be used? Don’t be surprised if there is. The Jewish Bible is filled with all kinds of rules, some obviously fundamental to a civilized society (don’t steal, lie or murder), some out of touch with modernity (sacrifice animals upon an altar; stone adulterers to death) and some seemingly arbitrary (don’t wear clothing made from two different materials).

The custom of giving gifts for Hanukkah appears to be a relatively recent development (relative, that is, in regard to a faith over three thousand years old).  Apparently the commercial impulse arose from a desire to keep up with goyishe Joneses, so to speak, who receive a lavish amount of gifts from Santa (provided they haven’t been naughty).

I hope to receive the greatest gift of all tonight, time with family. That, plus delicious fried potato pancakes, or latkes, which sink to the pit of your stomach and stay there until the moon finishes its predictable cycle. The Gregorian’s may have had monks with memorable chants, but we Jews got the heavy, unhealthy food. Happy Chanukah, er, Hanukkah. Like most developments over the past two thousand years, we seem to always get the shorter end of the stick. Oh well, make sure a bottle of Maalox is handy and you'll be fine.


 
 
The  scene below, which is completely fictional, takes place in the Oval Office. The participants are President Obama, and a trusted advisor, whom we shall call Jimmy (not his real name). Jimmy is dressed in a blue blazer and khaki pants. His girlfriend had a headache last night. Let us listen in:

President Obama motions in the aide, who enters the office with alacrity.

Jimmy:   Mr. President, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.

Obama:  Well, Harry Truman said if you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the sausage factory, so I’ll take both.

Jimmy:  The goods news, Mr. President, is great news. Oil prices are plummeting, which will provide nearly every single American a sudden increase in disposable income. Unless you happen to work at Exxon, this is the single most exciting economic development in years. Not only is gas at the pump cheaper, you get reminded of it every time you drive past a gas station and see another price cut. Unlike the higher stock market, this will provide a tremendous boost in spending power for middle America. The economic recovery had already been slowly shifting into a higher gear, but this should get our country roaring ahead.

Obama: So what’s the bad news?

Jimmy: Oh, your environmental policies are completely discredited. The idea of “peak oil” now seems ludicrous. The biggest problem with oil is we have too much of it. And subsidies for alternative energy will only become more expensive relative to fossil fuels. People aren’t stupid: it’s hard to argue the economy would be better off switching from carbon at the precise moment when the plunge in oil prices is so beneficial it almost seems like a Christmas miracle.

Obama: Well, at Columbia the professors used to say, “It may work in practice, but will it work in theory.” Being right intellectually often means being wrong empirically. Plus, what about global warming?

Jimmy:  Mr. President - or may I call you Barry – trust me, by the time you leave office after two more years of this turbo-charged financial rocket boost, you will be going down in the record books as presiding over the greatest economic expansion of any modern president. Is shredding a few million more birds in wind turbines really worth it? Mr. President? Mr. President? Why are you looking out the window at the White House lawn? Um, never mind, I’ll just tiptoe right back to my cubicle sir.



Jimmy departs, making to mental note to pick up Excedrin on the way home for his girlfriend.

 
 

Sunday night blues. My favorite football team – the NY Giants –won today, but the victory was an exception in an otherwise bleak losing season.  Their record of five wins and nine losses is disappointing, and it will be a long off-season. The local Seahawks, of whom I am not overly fond, appear in fine form to defend their Super Bowl title, efficiently dispatching the 49ers today, adding to the sting I feel.

Tomorrow brings back to school, back to work, back to the busy pace of the week. I can’t say this particular Sunday was spent in idle leisure. I awoke at 7:45 am,  made my son breakfast and drove him to dance, brought my wife coffee and breakfast in bed, went grocery shopping, picked my son up from dance, did three loads of laundry, raked leaves, cooked dinner and put out the trash.  After I finish this post I will return to the kitchen to clean up and stow leftovers. The workload inflicted on me by the trash is worthy of further detail. We live down the end of a private lane, 130 yards long, and I know, because I’ve paced it off. We have three containers: trash, recycling and yard waste. Since the Creator endowed me with inalienable rights but only two arms, I require two rounds trips to put everything out at the end of the lane for morning pickup. Do the math: 130 times four, or 520 yards, not to mention the weight of once-a-week bins the size of refrigerator.

Almost time for my Trader Joe’s popsicle and then I’m off to dreamland. I think I’ve earned it. 


 
 

Every person who is religious should consider asking themselves the three following questions: 

1.  If there is a God, why does he or she permit suffering? I think it is safe to assume that any decent person imagined themselves in the role of creator, they would  leave out war, disease and cruelties of all types. Why, then, do those with faith believe in a loving, benevolent God who created a world filled with evil? This is illustrated In Dostoevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov, in a passage where Ivan describes the fate of a young boy who inadvertently injures the paw of a nobleman’s dog by throwing a stone. The incensed nobleman seizes the child, has him stripped naked and killed by being torn apart by a pack of dogs.  “If God exists”, says Ivan, “how can this horror be accounted for?” In debating the existence of God and immortality, Ivan says to his brother, "It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket."

2.  If God created the world, then who created God? This is a classic question which small children inevitably ask when the concept of God is first explained to them. It remains unanswerable in adulthood.  The notion that God was created out of nothingness is simply another way of saying there is no intellectually satisfying response.

3.  Why are all the other religions false? Most religious people are particular, and believe in their faith specifically, to the exclusion of all others. Often this requires everyone else’s belief system as not merely wrong, but ludicrous. The world created in six days and all the animals saved in Noah’s Ark? It’s right there in Holy Scripture?  The four Vedas of Hinduism? I guess it must be mere primitive superstition dressed up as a religion, albeit one with about a billion adherents. The Book of Mormon? Don’t get me started. In Orwellian terms: Our Bible Good, Their Bible Not.

Most surveys show that regular church attendance and other expressions of formal religion have declined in recent years. This is typically reported as a sign of societal decline, reflective of an increasingly immoral modern culture. Maybe. But perhaps some people are simply choosing the return the ticket.