Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Coincidence

December 25, 2016

About a decade ago I went on a binge of novel-writing, completing six books between 2005 and 2011. I did it for the sheer joy of challenging my creative imagination and experimenting with genres, and did not make any serious attempt at getting them published in the conventional way, since I didn’t relish the idea of having to deal with agents and editors. And so, when Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing became available, I jumped on it, especially enjoying the freedom that this platform gives me to revise my work at will. I have not done any promotion, and my sales have been less than modest, but, in all honesty, I didn’t do it for the money.

Of my six novels, three are free-standing. One is a historical novel about Manuel Godoy, inspired in part by the memoirs of the 19th-century Spanish writer Mesonero Romanos, Memrorias de un setentón (Memoirs of a his seventies), since I began writing the book as I was about to enter my seventies. The other two are more contemporary but also historical in the sense that they are set at a definite period in time, one in mid-eighties Hollywood and the other  (the only one written in the first person) in mid-twenty-oughts San Francisco.

The remaining three form a trilogy, with all the titles being single nouns ending in -ion, but they are quite different in form and style. The first tells a story of a man of my age whom I named Miki Wilner, like me a Polish Jew who was liberated at Bergen-Belsen, but otherwise having no resemblance to me; it is told, in alternating sections, over a twenty-day period in August of 1970 and a twenty-year period from 1950 to 1970 (a format I stole from the novel Blue by my friend Rosa Regàs). The other two are about his son and his daughter respectively. The latter is, essentially, a Bronx murder mystery, with a couple of NYPD detectives working with Betty Wilner. The former is a bildungsroman with a twist.

The twist is that Daniel Wilner, Miki’s Montreal-born son, goes on a quest to learn as much as he can about his father (who died when Daniel was two), and in the process finds out that his father was not who he had thought he was.

The coincidence alluded to in the title is that I recently saw two movies in which the protagonists undertake a search to find their fathers, and in each case learn that the father is not who they had thought. One was Incendies (2011), by the well-known Denis Villeneuve, who has lately become a big-time Hollywood director. The other was L’Origine des espèces (2016), by the first-timer Dominic Goyer. And both films are about French Canadians based in Montreal!

Of course, I saw both of them on an Air Canada flight to Montreal. But still…

Mulliwood

September 9, 2016

Bollywood, as is well known, is a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood.

But since Bombay (based on the Hindi form of the city’s name) is now officially Mumbai (the Gujarati and Marathi name), it’s surprising that the Gujarati Narendra Modi, who governs India as a semi-dictator, hasn’t decreed that Bollywood be changed to Mulliwood.

I am joking. There is no reason why changes in official toponymy should necessarily affect common usage. Cats are still Persian, Siamese or Burmese, not Iranian, Thai or Myanmarese. And my favorite tea, from Sri Lanka, is still called Ceylon tea.

Except at Peet’s Coffee and Tea. And that’s my fault.

Many years ago, when Peet’s was just a little neighborhood shop in Berkeley, I noticed in its window displays of Sulawesi coffee and Ceylon tea. I went inside and said to Mr. Peet, who was not busy at the time, “If you call Celebes coffee Sulawesi, shouldn’t you call Ceylon tea Sri Lanka?”

“You are right,” he said. And the next day the display was changed.

Except that I was joking.

HJBs

August 27, 2016

I have, for a long time, found myself immune to the appeal of actresses and/or comediennes who happen to be half-Jewish blondes.

I think it’s because of the way they try to be both sexy and funny, but somehow the sexy and funny aspects of their personas seem to come from different places (the  blond and the Jewish, respectively?), so that (to me)  they fail to come through as real women.

By contrast, a half-Jewish brunette like Julia Louis-Dreyfus manages to be sexy in a funny way and funny in a sexy way; she is who she is (just like an all-Jewish brunette such as Sarah Silverman, or, for that matter, an all-Jewish blonde like Natasha Lyonne).

Now, another half-Jewish brunette, Lena Dunham, doesn’t manage to be either, but I’m not sure she means to.

Truth from a Polish Jew

August 10, 2016

I have just read a book titled Leap for Life by Rut Wermuth Burak, published in 2010 and subtitled A Story of Survival and Reunion. It’s the first memoir by a Polish Jew who lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe that has struck me as truthful.

Actually, the book that I read was the Polish original, published in 2002, titled Spotkałam Ludzi (“I met people”) and subtitled (in Polish) “A story about a tragic beginning aend an extraordinary ending.” The author is presented as Ruta Wermuth; not only is her married name absent from the title page but it’s referred to only by its initial in the book, for some reason unknown to me.

I have already written about the tendency of my fellow Polish Jews to overdramatize, if not fictionalize, their experiences during World War II; well-known examples include Jerzy Kosiński, Luba Tryszynska (“the Angel of Bergen-Belsen”), Solomon Perel (“Europa, Europa”) and Herman Rosenblat {“An Angel at the Fence”). I have also found this tendency in personal accounts by acquaintances. Perhaps they took their inspiration from the originator of the genre, Elie Wiesel, whose hugely successful Night trilogy was later admitted by him to be semi-fictional.

But Rut(a) Wermuth, unlike the people cited above, did not write her memoir for a Western audience; the English version seems to have been an afterthought encouraged by her brother’s non-Polish-speaking family in England. Instead, she wrote it for her fellow Poles. (I have long maintained that Polish Jew does not equal Pole, but she chose to become a Pole by marrying one, living in Poland and hiding her Jewishness until late in life.) And not only do Poles know a little more about the reality of World War II in Eastern Europe than Westerners do, but they are likely to judge any such account by a Jew critically if not suspiciously.

Not only is the book (in my view) truthful but it’s fascinating and deeply moving. I recommend it.

Enough already, Bernie

June 9, 2016

I was going to write this piece a few days ago, before the California primary, when the polls were showing California Democrats split evenly (about 45-45) between Bernie and Hillary. I was going to title it “Bye-bye Bernie” on the assumption that my hero would be his gracious and realistic self and recognize that, by any democratic measure — votes received and elected delegates — Hillary had won the Democratic nomination for President. I mean the graciousness and realism that Bernie had shown in the early debates, when he said, “Enough already with those damned emails!”.

But Bernie seems to have taken leave of that graciousness and realism, and refuses to give up, even after the last batch of primaries, most of which Hillary won decisively. In California, the undecided 10 percent seem to have all gone for her, since she won 56-44.

I voted for Bernie in the primary. Not two days ago but many weeks ago. I am a mail-ballot voter from way back, and I tend to vote early, sometimes too early. (In 2008 I voted — face reddening — for John Edwards.) I voted for Bernie for the sheer pleasure of voting for someone who openly calls himself a socialist, as I have done since the age of thirteen. (While Ron Dellums, for whom I voted many times, was a member — as I was — of Democratic Socialists of America, he did not go around saying “I am a democratic socialist.”)

But as the actual primary election approached, I began to wonder if I might have voted differently had I waited.

I believe in most of Bernie’s program for America. Our country certainly needs the kind of progressive revolution that he advocates. But is he the right man to lead us into it?

The two presidents who presided of the most striking progressive changes in the USA were, undoubtedly, FDR and LBJ. Both were veteran Democratic politicians, steeped in the party’s establishment. Roosevelt had been a state senator, a junior cabinet member, and governor of New York. Johnson had been congressman, a senator — rising to majority leader — and Vice-President. They had the political resources that  enabled them, with their great political skill, to swing their party, and some of the opposition as well, behind their programs.

I see no evidence of Bernie Sanders having such resources. I don’t see the movement that he seems to have created among millennials as any more viable than Occupy.

I remember that when, in November of 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson suddenly became President of the United States, neither I nor anyone around me expected what came to be the great achievements of his presidency, unfortunately stymied by his inability to resist the military’s push for involvement in Vietnam.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is a veteran politician in the mold of FDR and LBJ. I don’t necessarily see her hawkish and finance-friendly past as indicating how her presidency might evolve. And while those on the political right operate mainly on fear, those of us on the left live on hope. And I refuse to give up hope.

I won’t hold my breath, but maybe — just maybe — Hillary’s hawkish record will give her the standing to resist needless military interventions. Maybe — just maybe — her knowledge of Wall Street will give her the strength to oppose more concessions to the financiers. Maybe — just maybe — HRC will take her place alongside FDR and LBJ.

So, Bernie: Enough already!

 

But

May 19, 2016

The Associated Press story reporting on yesterday’s death of the historian Fritz Stern includes this information:

He was born in the former German province of Silesia (now in Poland) to a prominent family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity. But the Sterns felt increasingly menaced by Hitler’s reign and left in 1938 for New York…

Why “but”?

Apparently someone at AP thought that there was a contradiction between conversion to Christianity and being menaced by Hitler. That is, they are confusing Judaism — a religion — with Jewishness as an ethnic or “racial” category. To Hitler, of course, it was only the latter than mattered. In other words, his regime persecuted Jews, not only those who also happened to be Judaists.

A common confusion, to be sure.

Cities

April 11, 2016

A little over a year ago I published a post in which I proposed a simple rule for comparing the prices of things across the years.  I call it the “one-hundred rule” because it postulates that, at least since about 1900, prices — in US dollars — have been increasing a hundredfold in 100 years. It corresponds to an annual inflation rate of 4.73%, and also means that prices double every 15 years. I have found that it works quite well for such disparate products and services as postage, coffee, hamburgers, hotel rooms, cars (at least from the time that they were in general use) and even houses in rural England (with reference to Downton Abbey).

Some products or services, however, cannot be compared over a long time span.  As I noted in the post, the price of a Model T Ford automobile dropped considerably in the decade after its introduction, as car ownership gradually became the norm, and the formula works only from the later point in time (1925).   Similarly, a telephone call nowadays is a very different process from what it was half a century ago.

And while the formula works reasonably well with respect to broadly based housing costs, it fails spectacularly when it comes to housing in cities. A personal example: in 1966 (exactly half a century ago) my then-wife and I bought a small house in Berkeley (California) for $16,900 and sold it six years later for $22,300. This is a factor of 1.32, and 1.04736 = 1000.06 = 1.32 — perfect! But according to the rule the price should now be ten times what we paid, that is, around $170,000. Instead, it is estimated at between $700,000 and $800,000. Yikes!

What has happened is that city living in early-21st-century America is not what it was in mid-20th century, and though the house is physically the same (there is no record of any expansion), it no longer represents the same thing. In the 1950s and 1960s middle-class Americas, on the whole, didn’t like living in cities. The very rich, of course, had their mansions and town houses as well as their country homes, but the middle class opted for something in between, which was the suburbs. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which was designed in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, reflects the attitude of the time: what it does is connect the urban core that includes downtown San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley (where the University of California is located) with the suburbs (including those that are within the legal city limits); what it does not do is facilitate movement among various parts of the metropolitan area that don’t happen to lie along the lines going through downtown Oakland and San Francisco.It is, in other words, not a metro like those in other big cities around the world, but a commuter railroad comparable to the RER in France, the S-Bahn in Germany or the Cercanías in  Spain, with the big difference that the European systems are integrated with their countries’ mainline railroad networks, including high-speed trains, while BART is not integrated with anything; it doesn’t even use standard railroad gauge.

The absence of a true metro makes Bay Area living more cumbersome and more dependent on driving.  (While Washington has something called Metro, it’s also a radial system like BART.)

The change from a time when “inner city” was a pejorative to the present situation, when it is desirable enough to have caused a hyperinflation in urban housing costs (except in places like Detroit), may have occurred some time around the 1980s, when air travel got cheaper and more Americans traveled to Europe, discovering the tree-lined boulevards with bicycle lanes, the sidewalk cafés (hitherto banned in the US for supposed health reasons) and other pleasures of city living, which were then brought back here. But, as a result of planning decisions made in an earlier age, convenient public transportation is not one of them.

Bernie’s Jewishness

March 9, 2016

At the Democratic presidential debate in Flint last Sunday, a woman in the audience was inexplicably called on by CNN to ask what I can only characterize as a stupid question: about the candidates’ relationship to God  — this in a country whose constitution specifies that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.”

Bernie Sanders’ answer was all about moral principles, with no mention of Judaism. Perhaps as a followup, Anderson Cooper then asked Bernie about published reports that he had been reticent about his Jewishness. Bernie’s response was that he was proud of being Jewish, and it was framed entirely in terms of family and history, with no reference to God or religion.

I was very happy to conclude that Bernie is just like me in yet another respect (besides what I wrote about here): he is a Jew but not a Judaist (as I have discussed here). That I am an atheist, while Bernie seems to be some sort of deist who identifies God with morality, is not really relevant to this point.

The conflation of Jewishness (ethnicity) with Judaism (religion) is something I am sensitive about. It is very common in the West (where ethnic nationality is not generally recognized), not least among many Jews themselves. And so, while several media reports about the debate had misleading references to “Bernie’s Judaism,” there were at least two stories in right-wing Jewish media (here and here) with the headline “Bernie Sanders is not a Jew.” These media represent what my hero Uri Avnery calls the “national-religious” tendency, which is becoming ever more dominant in Israel, and which reminds me of the “national-Catholicism” (nacionalcatolicismo) of Franco’s Spain.

I have no problem with Israel being a Jewish state (though not, as Bibi Netanyahu would have it, a “Jewish nation-state,” as I discussed here). Israel’s neighbors are, after all, officially Arab states: they are all members of the Arab League, and two of them (Egypt and Syria) have “Arab Republic” as part of their official names, even though both countries have substantial non-Arab minorities. Just like Israel, they are not nation-states in the Western mold (in which nationality is essentially identical with citizenship), but national states (as are typical of east central and eastern Europe) with a dominant, ethnically defined, nation (for which the state is the homeland) and recognized national minorities. (I have written a number of essays on this subject,)

And so, back to Bernie: he is a Jew just like me, not as some national-religious fanatics would define it.

Disappointments

February 9, 2016

It occurred to me, as I was riding a stationary bike at my gym this morning, that there have been three times when I have been deeply disappointments by decisions made by political leaders whom I had admired.

One was a long time ago, in the summer of 1950, when President Harry Truman gave General Douglas MacArthur the go-ahead for crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea, plunging the US into another three years of needless war. Truman realized his mistake, and tried to make up for it by firing MacArthur, but it was too late.

The second was in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter allowed Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the deposed Shah of Iran, to come to the United States for medical treatment — a decision that led to the Iran hostage crisis and ultimately the election of Ronald Reagan.

The third was in 2008, when Barack Obama decided to forgo public financing of his campaign and opened himself up to Wall Street. The consequences are still with us.

These disappointments seem to be happening at 29-year intervals. What will happen in 2037? I will then be 102 years old (my mother’s age now). Best not to think about it.

EPL!

December 30, 2015

I have known a good many loving, caring, devoted couples whose members don’t share many of their tastes or interests, or what I like to call their aficiones (to put it simply, an afición is what one is an aficionado of).

My wife and I are not among those couples. We discovered when we first met that we already had a surprising, given our different backgrounds, number of aficiones in common, and we have since then managed to infect each other with some of those that we had not shared to begin with.

One of my contributions has been to turn my wife into an aficionada de fútbol. Rare is the weekend morning that we don’t spend some time on the living-room sofa, watching a live broadcast of a soccer game in the EPL. Yes, the EPL!

The Guardian recently published a list of what it considered the 100 best players in the world. It turned out that of those one hundred there were 28 each in the EPL and in La Liga, the Spanish first division. But in Spain almost all of the players involved were either with Barcelona or with Real Madrid, with only a few on other teams, while in England they are pretty well spread out among several teams. And while La Liga used to call itself La mejor liga del mundo (they have recently replaced that slogan with The best together, in English), it has always been dominated by Real and Barcelona, with perhaps one other team (lately it’s been Atlético) challenging them, and games other than El Clásico are rarely interesting. The German Bundesliga has similarly been long dominated by Bayern Munich, with the wildly inconsistent Borussia Dortmund occasionally competing with it, and the French Ligue 1, where once upon a time Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse and Monaco were competing powers, has of late been tyrannized by Paris Saint-Germain. Only Serie A, in Italy, shows some of the same unpredictability as the EPL, but nothing quite like the current situation where the defending champion Chelsea is hovering a few points above the relegation zone while Leicester City, promoted to the EPL only in 2014 and finishing that season in 14th place, is now tied for the lead with Arsenal.

Another aspect of the EPL is the rarity of very one-sided games. Today’s match, for example, was between Liverpool, a historic power (currently in 7th place), and Sunderland, next to last in the standings and probably relegation-bound. It was a close, hard-fought match with Liverpool barely eking out a 1-0 win.

But what we enjoy the most is watching so many of the great international players that we see in the Wolrd Cup and the Euro. You will not see any England players in any other European league, but the EPL has enough French, Spanish and Belgian players to make pretty decent national teams for their respective countries. Here are some lists, with goalkeepers first and other players listed at random.

France: Lloris; Koscielny, Flamini, Giroud, Martial, Schneiderlin, Sagna, Mangala, Cabaye, Sissoko, Sakho, Zouma, Debuchy, Payet, Nasri, Clichy, Rémy

Spain: De Gea, Adrián; Arteta, Azpilicueta, Fàbregas, Mata, Navas, Cazorla, Pedro, Diego Costa, Bellerín, Monreal, Moreno, Silva, Herrera

Belgium: Courtois, Mignolet; Aldeweireld, Vertonghen, Dembélé, Chadli, Kompany, De Bruyne, Fellaini, De Laet, Origi, Lukaku, Mirallas, Benteke

The two great South American soccer powers are well represented as well.

Argentina: Romero, Speroni; Agüero, Demichelis, Zabaleta, Otamendi, Ulloa, Lanzini, Lamela, Rojo, Fazio, Zárate, Coloccini, Fernández

Brazil: Gomes; Fernando, Fernandinho, Willian, Oscar, Ramires, Coutinho, Firmino, Gabriel, Leiva, Allan

Not to mention the many great African players, whose countries I am not always sure of. (Nor am I always sure whether a European-born African plays for his birth country or his ancestral one — think of the Ghanaian-German Boateng brothers.) And there are even players from exotic places such as Japan, Korea and the United States.

So, while we can now watch Bundesliga games on Fox Sports without paying extra, and if we chose to do that we could also watch Spanish and Italian soccer on beIn, we are quite happy with the EPL. Or even the BPL, if you insist on calling it that.