Tuesday, June 7, 2016

If You're Happy And You Know It, What The Heck?

A number of years ago, for a period of about a year, my daily breakfast menu consisted of, among other things, a bowl of cottage cheese and sliced bananas.

The cottage cheese came in a small plastic container. Each morning, I would take a container out of the fridge, open it, and pour its contents into a bowl. Then, I would take a banana, and slice it into the bowl.

Now the lid of the cottage cheese container was made of a very thin tin foil-like substance, and at one point along its perimeter, the lid had a small, semi-circled tab, which you would hold onto and use to pull off the lid. At least in theory.

Alas, 8 out of 10 mornings, the tin foil lid would rip at some point in the pulling process. Thus, instead of a smooth, clean, one-step removal of the lid of the container, resulting in a pristine, whole lid which you could then simply discard, the messy cleanup process now began.

You'd dispose of the amputated portion of the lid you held in your hand which had prematurely torn off, and then you'd have to retrieve the parts from the grotesque wreckage of the lid which still cleaved stubbornly to the container.

You'd first have to choose a strategic point to begin this salvaging operation, and then, once you had grabbed the lid at your chosen point of attack, you'd have to gingerly pull and hope and pray that you'd be able to complete this rescue mission with a minimum of further casualties.

And of course, since you were no longer grabbing the lid by that little pull doohickey, but rather were grabbing it by its very innards, which had cottage cheese on its underbelly, this meant that you were going to get cottage cheese all over your fingers.

And pulling the lid off slowly did not alter things. Even when you would grab the pull-tab and pull ever so gently and slowly and carefully and patiently, inching forward nanometer by nanometer – nurse, please wipe my forehead – although things would seem to be moving along smoothly this time, it was generally just a matter of time until – Gaagh! Rip!

I tell you, man, it was gut wrenching.

One fateful morning, a morning which at first blush seemed to be like every other morning, I went to the kitchen to make my usual breakfast. Open the fridge, pull out the container of cottage cheese, and steel myself for the harrowing procedure of removing the lid.

But wait! What's this? A new type of lid?! Made of a thin plastic material? How very novel! Well, here goes! Take hold of the tab, pull, and – huzza! A clean jerk! Effortless! Swish! He shoots he scores! It's a home run! No tear, no tears, no fuss, no muss, no mess.

And the ramifications immediately filled my mind: from this day hence, every morning, no more would the ritual of the cottage-cheese-container-opening operation be fraught with tension, disaster, carnage and mayhem. Instead, a simple clean grip-pull would be my daily lot.

And this realization that my daily breakfast heartbreaks were over led me to experience a flood of sweet relief, which in turn brought on an intense emotion of joy and delight.

This emotion lasted a few moments, and then quickly segued into another emotion:


What are the sorts of things which bring us joy in life? Spending time in the company of good friends; successfully completing a complex project; a financial upturn; listening to beautiful music; accomplishing a difficult personal goal; roaring with laughter at a clever witticism; a relaxing vacation.

But at that moment, I found it rather disconcerting that I could react with such fierce happiness to such a trivial thing as a new and improved cottage cheese container lid! That's the event which has triggered the greatest surge of happiness in recent memory?!

What would be the source of my next grand moment of elation – a softer brand of toilet paper? A more absorbent paper towel? A more effective deodorant? A 2-for-1 sale on cherry tomatoes?

But this is apparently yet just one more fascinating aspect of human nature: strong emotions are not necessarily the result of significant, life-changing events – the most banal of life's daily events can oftentimes provoke strong, if fleeting, emotional reactions – both good and bad.

And the "meta-ness" of it all is no less fascinating:

1. An event occurs – my cottage cheese woes are over!
2. I experience an emotion in response to that event – elation.
3. I experience an emotion in response to the first emotion – alarm.
4. I experience an emotion (of sorts) in response to the second emotion – fascination.

And, ultimately, the final step in this process must surely be:

5. I experience an emotion in response to the absurdity of it all:


Monday, May 30, 2016

I Have Always Depended On the Gullibility of Strangers

When I entered junior high school, one of the more enjoyable differences from elementary school was that we were allowed to leave the school grounds during lunch hour. And one of the main benefits of that privilege was the opportunity to visit the nearby stores, of which there was no shortage nor lack of variety: convenience stores, delis and bakeries abounded.

One day, a good friend of mine told me that we were going to go to the bakery, which was just a few minutes from the school grounds. So off we went. When we got to the bakery, he asked the lady behind the counter:

"How much is one cookie?"

Since the cookies were sold in boxes by the pound, she was not going to charge us for just one cookie, so she very generously gave us each a free cookie. If I recall correctly, my friend reacted to this gesture with a great show of surprise, as if he would never in a million years have anticipated this turn of events.

When we left with our booty, my friend and I beamed at each other, as if we had just pulled off The Great Train Robbery.

Of course, the great disadvantage of this particular business venture was that it was pretty much a one-time operation. I mean, we couldn't exactly go to the same bakery every day and ask for one cookie, could we? and there were only so many bakeries within walking distance.

About ten years later, I met someone who had a more durable system.

I was a graduate student in Manhattan, living in a dormitory. In addition to our regular course load, one of the great academic challenges we students faced was not having to eat our Sabbath meals in the student cafeteria. Not that the cafeteria food was particularly substandard  on the contrary, my memory is that it was quite serviceable  but for an out-of-town student living on campus, a home-cooked meal in an actual home with a dining room and real dishes and everything was a very welcome contrast to institutional life.

Of my two years at this school, I had to spend only a very small handful of weekends on campus, since I had found a position chanting from the Bible at a Synagogue on Saturday mornings, a position which came with hospitality at the home of one of the attendees of the Synagogue.

But I once met a fellow student who was not fortunate enough to have such an arrangement. He shared with me his solution to the weekly dietary dilemma: on Friday mornings, he would go to one of the local supermarkets, and proceed to the poultry section. He would pick up a whole chicken. And then, like a cheetah, he would survey the scene for his prey. Ah! he has sniffed her out with his keen radar (and the winner of this year's most egregious mixed metaphor goes to...): a kindly-looking Jewish woman!

"Excuse me?"


"Um, how do you make chicken?"

"What? You've never made chicken? So you are alone and you have no place for the Shabbat meal tonight? Why, that's just awful! Of course you will come and eat with us. Our address is..."

The title of this post pays homage to Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois, with whom my crafty friend must have felt a keen affinity. Although I must say that P. T. Barnum's adage about certain types who enter this world every sixty seconds may have often sprung to his mind as well.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Talking Hands

Several years ago, I spent a week with a friend who had come to Israel to visit me. We spent one day with relatives of mine who live in a small town in the north of Israel. My relatives graciously showed us various points of interest in the area, and hosted us for the night. The next day, my friend and I woke early, had breakfast, said goodbye to my relatives, and took a bus to Jerusalem.

Still groggy, my friend and I boarded the Jerusalem-bound bus, took two seats at the back of the bus, and settled in, hoping to catch a bit more shut-eye.

A few minutes into the trip, still very much in a sleepy-headed state, I opened my eyes for a moment. My friend was still happily asleep. But I now saw something which caught my attention. Seated directly in front of us was a young Arab couple, in their early- or mid-twenties. Although they were not touching each other, their body language and the fond gaze in their eyes indicated that they were very much in love with each other.

I glanced down and saw that I was wrong about their not touching each other at all. For I noticed that they were holding hands.

Actually, that's not exactly true. It would be more accurate to say that they were hand talking. Their fingers alternatively intertwined and then pulled apart. The fingers of one hand would flitter gently all over the other's fingers and palms. Their fingers and hands were graceful ballet dancers, engaged in a lively, loving performance, expressing their obvious affection for each other, through an intricate series  of circular motions, figure eights, pirouettes and adagios. And there was a subtle but definite suggestiveness in certain of the repetitive motions which their hands made together. So much expressiveness, and all of it non-verbal!

I watched this beautiful display of finger love for only a minute or two, but it was the most romantic, intimate, erotic vision I have ever seen in my life.

I had originally planned to conclude this post with the above sentence, but as so often happens when I write, the act of writing brings to the fore of my mind previously forgotten details. In this case, not a detail, but another, earlier incident.

One of the institutions of traditional Judaism is the Friday evening Sabbath meal. And writing down the above episode triggered in my mind a memory of one such Sabbath meal which transpired a few years earlier. The participants were mostly young men and women in their twenties and thirties, about a dozen or so of us.

In point of fact, I remember absolutely nothing of the meal itself. What I do remember is that after the meal, we were all sitting around in the host's living room, which, due to the late hour, was dimly lit. Two of the people spread around the room, on various chairs, couches, and window sills, were the son of a Rabbi and his girlfriend, who were seated next to each other.

For just a very brief moment, they rubbed their hands against each other. And in that don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it intense pressing of sweaty hand against sweaty hand, which lasted literally no more than a fraction of a second, there was an expression of such raw, harsh urgency, that a more vulgar, pornographic vision I have never seen in my life. So unexpected was the, yes, fierceness reflected in that momentary gesture that my mind was almost as taken aback as it would have been if they had had the poor taste and judgement to perform the most intimate conjugal act imaginable in public!

If the above characterization sounds critical on my part, then I sincerely apologize, for it is not at all meant to be so. These two young lovers were innocently and un-self-consciously (behold, a doubly hyphenated word!) expressing the heady spell of passion which engulfed them both. Little did they know that their brief exchange had come within the radar of a hand reader!

The philosopher asks: What is the sound of one hand clapping? I know not, but I have seen the dialog of two hands clasping, and I know that hands are abundantly capable of expressing the most intimate aspects of human emotion, from the most fierce to the most tender.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What Are Little Girls and Boys Made Of?

For the better part of a decade, I taught in a Jewish private school, primarily at the primary level. One part of my class which my students loved best was the timeless subject of recess. And, in addition, I would occasionally give my students an extra portion of that part of my class which they loved best.

On one occasion, when my sixth-graders were playing in the schoolyard, under my supervision, I recalled a game that my peers and I had played when we were in that very same grade: whip-ball, which was simply a spin-off of sports played against a wall, such as handball and racquetball.

One player begins by "whipping" a tennis ball against said wall. The player next in turn must catch the ball after it has struck the wall, before it has bounced three times. If he fails to do so, he is eliminated. If he catches the ball, he then whips it against the wall, and the next player must now catch it. And so on. The last player remaining is thee winnah.

I walked over to the boys and explained the game to them, and, eagerly rising to the challenge, they began a very rousing game of whip-ball. Not surprisingly, the most audible segment of the game was when one of the participants failed to catch the whipped ball, and was eliminated. As the boys got the hang of the game, that event was met by those combatants not yet annihilated with an increasingly loud chorus of roars, eruptions of Yes! and triumphant fist-pumps, fully worthy of a band of pillaging Vikings.

A few days later, I introduced the game to the girls, and they too enthusiastically launched into a round of whip-ball. At one point, a girl whipped the ball against the wall with sufficient force to propel it quite a distance, and the girl whose turn it was to catch the whipped ball ran valiantly after it. Once bounce. Getting closer. Two bounces. Just a couple of feet away. Summoning all of her energy, she lunged for the ball. But oops! Three bounces. No! She deftly managed to snag the ball just nanometers before the dreaded third bounce.

This feat of derring-do was greeted by the rest of the female participants with a chorus of applause and cheers. Yay! Good job! You go, girl! And the game then took a very interesting, and for me, unexpected, turn. From that point on, every single successful catch of the game was similarly received with a cheery round of accolades.

I couldn't help but notice this stark contrast between the boys, ferociously rejoicing over every fallen soldier, and the girls, gleefully reveling in each successful catch of their fellow sisters.

Vive la différence.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Medium Upstages The Message

As a descendant of an Eastern European Jewish family, a subject of personal interest which I revisit from time to time is the Holocaust. I was riveted by Elie Wiesel's Night. While I found the writings of Primo Levi less accessible, nevertheless I somehow found them no less compelling.

One of the more chilling accounts of that crimson stain on humanity comes in the form of a comic book. Maus was written and illustrated just over two decades ago by Art Spiegelman, the son of Holocaust survivors. In his two-volume graphic novel, Art (pun intended?) depicts the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats.

If you are unfamiliar with this literary work and, understandably, think that a comic book on the mass murder of Jews seems unseemly and inappropriate for the enormity of the subject matter, I assure you that it very successfully conveys the monstrosities with haunting realism. Ironically, in many ways I found volume 1, which chronicles the events just up to the Holocaust, far more horrific than volume 2.

One scene sticks out in my mind: young Art asks his father to explain how it felt to live during that time. His father suddenly bellows out Boo! at him and Art, startled, jumps back. His father tells him to imagine that every single moment of your existence is like that. What is so effective about this explanation is that it wisely forgoes any attempt to directly describe the non-describable and instead uses analogy to give a sense of the terror.

One day, a few years after its publication, during the period in which I lived in Boston, I learned that Art had been invited to give a lecture on Maus at Harvard, and that the lecture would be open to the public. The opportunity to hear the author of this arresting book speak in person promised to be an intensely powerful experience, and I of course attended. The talk was held in a lecture hall of considerable size, and there were no empty seats. Hundreds were in attendance.

It was the most bizarre lecture I've ever been to in my life.

For the next 90 minutes, I sat dumbfounded as Art spoke exclusively on his choice of presenting the work in comic book format, as opposed to the more traditional textual format. He discussed such utterly technical topics as the use of shadow, closeups, the positioning of the dialog balloons relative to the characters, his decision of how to depict non-German non-Jews (dogs) and similar minutiae. Art employed an overhead projector, which displayed panels from the book on a large screen as Art discussed them.

In the most surrealistic part of the lecture, in response to a question from the audience during the Q & A portion, a panel depicting the most carnal scene of torture and murder blazed on the screen from the overhead projector while Art dryly expounded on orientation, perspective, vertical lines and contours. To my mind, it was as if a group of fashion designers were to come upon a person lying bleeding on the street, shot to death, and were to begin reviewing his sartorial ensemble.

Not the slightest mention throughout the entire speech of Art's relationship with his father, what it was like growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors, his mother's suicide, the experience of depicting such cruel barbarity, how the Holocaust colored his own view of the world, his belief in God, the nature of good and evil, man's inhumanity to man, or any of the myriad spiritual, emotional and philosophical concerns that, one thinks, would inhabit his mind during the process of producing a portrayal of disease, torture, starvation and genocide.

So divorced from the content of his art was Art that it was as if the subject material he had chosen for his book was completely irrelevant to him, and only the art form mattered. As if the decision-making process that had led to his embarking on the project had gone something like this:
Hmmm. What topic shall I choose for my graphic novel? Superheroes? Nah, been done to death. Movie satires? Uh-uh. Too derivative. Something political? Nope, too narrow. Ah, I've got it -- the Holocaust!
I wish to stress very firmly that the above was simply a mental image that entered my head in my surprised reaction to the nature of Art's lecture. I am not suggesting that Art's thinking actually went along those flippant lines.

Nevertheless, it does remain an interesting question whether Art's primary goal was to document the Holocaust, and decided that the graphic novel would best serve that purpose, or whether Art's main objective was to produce a graphic novel, and decided that the Holocaust would be a suitable subject matter. Probably there is no either-or answer, and for Art, the form and the content are both paramount and inextricably linked.

At any rate, my experience at another lecture on the Holocaust which I attended at roughly the same time seems germane.

Around the time that Maus was published, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List was released, a film about Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved over a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories.

And around the time that Art delivered his lecture on Maus in Cambridge, one of the so-called "Schindler Jews" gave a talk in nearby Brookline, about her experiences from that period. This lecture too was widely attended, mostly by the Jewish community.

Although I remember little of the specific content of that sixty-ish woman's talk, I do remember that the entire audience, myself included, was spellbound by her reminiscences, and I likewise recall that she did speak of the searingly personal.

There is, however, one specific detail of that talk which I remember vividly: the tone of her delivery, which can best be described as flat in affect. This is not to say that her voice was meek or listless. Quite the contrary, it was strong like copper, reflecting a person with a vibrant spirit. But she delivered her speech in a dispassionate monotone, as if she were reading from a phone book, or conjugating a verb.

The jarring contrast between the deeply personal and sensitive content of her words and the emotionless tone of her inflection, which people I spoke with almost invariably mentioned, was explained as the method which she had adopted in order to allow herself to speak of such horribly raw events of her life without losing composure and breaking down. This dry schoolmarm intonation allowed her to create the emotional distance that was necessary for her to be able to calmly describe the inhumane barbarities she had personally witnessed.

And I wonder if Art's exclusive focus on the technical elements of the work during his speech was a similar mechanism which he had adopted to allow himself the requisite emotional detachment from the unspeakable atrocities which would otherwise be too unbearable to relate.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

This Is The Best! Post! Ever!

Back in the day when men were men and women were women and I used to mosey on over to ye local video store to rent the occasional video, I noticed something. As I would peruse the aisles, hunting for my entertainment for the evening, picking up one video after another, and reading the blurb on the back of each, it seemed that each video touted itself as not just a merely good film, and not a merely great film, but nothing less than the best! film! ever! produced!

This was certainly nothing new -- if you watch trailers of movies going back as far as the 1940's, you'll see that many of them similarly wax ecstatic, using such euphoric phrases as:

  • Like nothing you've ever seen before!
  • You won't believe your eyes!
  • A new triumph in cinematic entertainment!
  • The greatest event since the invention of fire!
  • More exciting than the resurrection of the dead!
  • This film has magical powers to cure cancer!

Okay, maybe not that euphoric. But certainly the advertisers were literally going overboard (ha! of course, not literally!) to rope in their potential audience.

This advertising gimmick reminds me of one of my high school teachers, a then-young Rabbi whom my classmates and I all liked. I even know his age at the time he taught us, for he informed us one day that he was 37, and the thought that I would ever reach that age myself seemed unimaginable.

Unfortunately, our interest in the subject matter did not match our affection for our teacher. One day, as he, as usual, struggled in vain to capture our attention, in what on hindsight seems clearly an act of wild desperation, he suddenly proclaimed in a loud, ringing voice:
If you should learn nothing else this year, you should at least learn this!
That did it. We were riveted. We hung onto every word that escaped his lips. And, to a certain extent, the effect lasted for the rest of the class.

But not past that. By next class, we were back to our usual inattentive mode. Suddenly, the Rabbi proclaimed in a loud, ringing voice:
If you should learn nothing else this year, you should at least learn this!
Sorry, Rabbi. It works only once.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Translation Consternation Part 1: I Can See for Kilometers and Kilometers

Having read several books and watched several movies translated from English to Hebrew, I offer thee, dear reader, various translations I encountered over the years that tickled my linguistic funny bone.

The spaghetti classic Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo centers around an unusual partnership between "Blondie" and Tuco, played, respectively, by Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach (who, at this writing, is just 23 months shy of attaining a triple-digit age).

Early in the film, Blondie (Il Buono) decides to dissolve his association with Tuco (Il Cattivo) and, somewhat inexplicably, abandons him in the middle of the desert, as he rides off on horseback. His valediction:
The way back to town is only 70 miles. If you save your breath, I feel a man like you could manage it. Adiós.
(I will spare the reader the expletive-riddled riposte which Tuco hurls back at Blondie.)

One method of testing the fidelity of a translation is to translate it back into the original language. The Hebrew translation of the first sentence, re-translated back into English?
The way back to town is only 113 kilometers.
One of the main considerations in translation is the choice between a literal rendering of the words and a non-literal one that attempts to preserve the spirit of the original text. Figures of speech are instructive: the phrase beat around the bush translated literally into a language that lacks that expression would fail completely to convey the intended meaning.

Given that Israelis, like most of the rest of the world, have by now eschewed the imperial system and have gone metric, it is perfectly understandable that the translator did not travel the literal route, and instead favored the usage of kilometers, since miles mean little to most Israelis -- and to most non-Americans for that matter.

(I am one of increasingly few non-Yankees to think in miles, since Canada, my home and native land, did not convert to metric until after I had already learned the imperial system. (Imperialist gringo pig! (Oh, no -- not the dreaded embedded parentheses! Okay, let's settle down.)))

Having justified the translator's choice of units, let us now consider her choice of quantity. (For some reason, most Hebrew translations of films I have seen have been the fruit of female hands.) Since 1 mile equals 1.6 kilometers, 113 kilometers is unquestionably the equivalent of 70 miles, so the translator's choice is certainly numerically accurate, at least to the nearest kilometer.

But ought mathematical precision be the goal here? If it were a film of the life of Louis Pasteur and the dialog a discussion of the amount of potassium required for a chemical experiment in a laboratory, surely it would be.

But Blondie is not a real estate surveyor informing Tuco, his supervisor, of the exact dimensions of a tract of land, so that the latter could determine whether the land were suitable for cattle ranching or planting corn.

No, Blondie is taunting his erstwhile ally with the magnitude of the distance he will have to travel alone, on foot, under the hot desert sun, without food or water, and, if memory serves me correctly, with his hands tied together. For that purpose, a round number works best. Therefore, a translation of 110 km would seem more apt, or better still, 100 km, a less precise conversion, but a very round number indeed.

To close with a question: how would you translate the title of the song 500 Miles Away from Home? How do you think a jazz version of it would have sounded, by Kilometers Davis? At any rate, I am spent and I have promises to keep, and kilometers to go before I sleep.