Friday, October 5, 2012

Canadian Passport Blues Revisited

Canada has recently initiated the “Simplified Renewal Application Process” for a new Canadian passport. Yes, really. Does this mean that we are no longer left with the dreadful anticipation of wading through a complex bureaucratic nightmare at the Canadian consulate in Tel Aviv - a nightmare that I described in graphic detail in my blog post from May 2011 - “The Canadian Passport Blues”?

Well, I decided to try it out, and I’m smiling.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Shortly after my former passport blog came out, the Canadian Consulate in Tel Aviv decided to make things even harder for us humble, hard working Canadian expat folk. They informed us that we could no longer pay in cash, but had to do so through postal money order or certified cheque.

“Do you think this has something to do with your blog?” a faithful blog follower asked me.
“No, I’m sure it is just a coincidence.”

But then, as if seeking a way to rub more salt into the wound,  they offered the “Simplified Renewal Application Process” - a simple way of obtaining a new passport. Gone was the need for a guarantor signature and documents in English to attest to your existence. You needed  now only to supply the contact details of two people (could even be friends or your next door neighbour) who could confirm your existence. As long as your passport was still valid, or hadn’t expired more than a year before submitting your application, all that you needed to do was to fill out the two pages in the form and submit it together with your passport, two photos and the paid fee.

But... and here is where it became painful, this was not offered to us expats living in the Middle East.

“Are you really sure they haven’t read your blog?”
I simply shrugged. I was no longer sure of anything. Luckily most Canadian expats living in Israel did not blame this on me. Or so I believed.

And I had my own personal dilemma. The expiration date of my Canadian passport was creeping up on me and I had to weigh my options. Did I really want to go through the whole process again? What would happen if I didn’t have a valid Canadian passport? And, for the first time, my indecision led me to stand by and watch as my Canadian passport expired in March 2012.

“They’re watching you, you know.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Those embassy people. They are waiting for you to take out a new passport. You are serving as a bad example. More people may be encouraged to do the same.”
“You’re crazy,” I said. Although I had heard from other Canadian expats who told me that their passport had expired and they had not yet set out for Raanana to get their passport photos taken.
“Do you know,” one expat told me, who had actually braved the long trip again from the Negev to Raanana to get her photo taken, “that they rejected my application because the guarantor’s signature was not dated later than the date of my own signature on the form? That never happened before. What is happening?”

“The question now is who will blink first,” my faithful follower said.
“What?” I asked, the words breaking into my reverie. “What are you talking about?”
“I know what I know.”

So March slipped into April, and April into May, and then June, July, August... It was a standoff. It appeared that no one was going to budge. And then I saw it, in black and white on the Canadian Embassy site:
“As of September 3, 2012, Canadians living in the Middle East may apply for a new Canadian passport through the simplified renewal application process.”

Was this a peace offering? Or a simple chain of events? I could feel them watching me, wondering if I would be seduced into accepting their offer. And time was on their side, for in order to take advantage of their offer, I had to do so before my passport passed the one year expiration date. And  then I found a way to rationalize it all. I would be your test case, and report back to this blog. I really did not expect to get a new passport so easily. I thought that I would enter into the interview with the consulate official and when I presented the filled out form, I would be told something like: “What simplified renewal application process?” or “You are not personally eligible - didn’t you read the fine print?”

So, armed only with my two photos, expired passport, filled out form, and paid postal money order, I marched into the consulate offices. Sitting across from the official, separated by a wall of glass, I passed everything through the compartment to the official. I didn’t even have time to nervously fidget. Within two minutes, she had quickly scanned everything and asked: “Do you want us to mail the passport to you or will you come and get it?” And that was that.

“Is that a hint of praise I hear in your voice?” my loyal blog follower asked.
“I believe that credit should be given where credit is due.
“But you still had to drive all the way to Raanana to get your passport photo taken.”
“And that is a two and a half hour trip.”
“Actually, now you can do it in two hours, with the new extension to the highway.”
“Still a long way to go.”
“Yes. Zion, the owner of Photo Zion in Raanana,  told me that there are only three computers in Israel with the system he has for generating the passport photo.”
“Where are the other two?”
“I don’t know. It appears to be a well kept secret.”
“How did you find out about Zion?”
“My lips are sealed.”
“I see. Well, all said, would you suggest to expats, whose passports have expired, to rush out and get a new passport through this new process?”
“Well, I suppose so. Unless they want to wait for the new e-passport format, which will be valid for ten years instead of five.”
“When is that coming out?”
“At first there were rumours that it would come out in 2012. But the latest word on the street and on the Canadian Embassy website is that it will be in Spring, 2013.”
“Did you ask at the consulate?”
“Yes. The woman official simply shrugged and said that she had no idea. But these things do take time. Don’t forget, we are Canadians."

Friday, September 14, 2012

When New Years comes twice a year

Doesn’t seem fair, does it - that we get to celebrate New Years twice a year. First time around: family, gefilte fish and presents. Second time around: friends, cocktails and smooching at midnight. Officially, there is only one New Year in Israel - the Jewish New Year which falls sometime in September. Just as, “officially”, we have one calendar - the Hebrew Calendar  ;-)

Quick - what day, month and year is it today according to the Hebrew Calendar? Okay, while you try to work that out in your head, or look it up on the Internet, I will move on.

The Hebrew Calendar is a lunisolar calendar, meaning that things - such as Hebrew holidays - shift around, when trying to synchronize them with the Gregorian Calendar (you know, the one we use every day). So sometimes the High Holidays (New Years, Yom Kippur, Succot...) come earlier in the year and sometimes later.

This does cause schizophrenia among Israelis at times. Especially when it comes to birthdays.

Let’s say that you were born on the 20th of Elul, 5747 - which fell on the 14th of September, 1987 according to the Gregorian Calendar. Which date do you now celebrate your birthday on? The chances of the 20th of Elul falling exactly on the 14th of September again is slim, or sporadic at best. So unless you expect to receive presents on your birthday twice a year, you are going to have to decide - the Hebrew calendar or the Gregorian one. If you were by chance born on a holiday (New Years, first day of Hanukah... but not something somber like Yom Kippur), the choice is easy. It will be easier for people to remember your birthday according to the holiday, even if it jumps around the Gregorian calendar every year. So, Hebrew calendar it is. But if you were born on just an ordinary Hebrew date, such as the 20th of Elul, 5747, the chances of friends and family remembering that date, let alone converting it to the Gregorian calendar, are slim. There go the presents. Like it or not, the 14th of September will be much easier to remember. You can’t have your birthday cake and eat it too - although you may still try. “Yes, my birthday is today on September 14th,” you say, opening yet another present, “but it is really on the 20th of Elul”.

And when people say that you will be paid on the 10th of every month, or that rent is due on the 1st of every month, I don’t ever remember this referring to the Hebrew months.

But although we measure over 90% of our daily affairs according to the Gregorian Calendar, Israelis continue to have a love affair with the Hebrew Calendar. Why? Because it is ours. We are embedded in it and it is embedded in us. Much like the Hebrew language, although Hebrew is much more entrenched into our daily consciousness, even though it almost lost out to German when plans were being made for the revival of the State of Israel. At the time, the idea of reviving a language which hadn’t been used in daily life for two thousand years must have seemed rather daunting. I mean, look at all of those things that had been invented and conceived of since - Mein Lieber Gott - how do we give them names. One could become almost meshuganeh. But it was done, and Hebrew has become a modern and linguistically rich language - although it has borrowed heavily on Anglicisms in the process.

But let us return to the Hebrew and Gregorian calendar, and subsequently - the “Jewish” and “Gregorian” New Year. If Israelis can manage peacefully with the two calendars, why should two separate new years be a problem? It’s not as if we are requesting the Gregorian New Year to become a national holiday so that we can sleep off the hangover from the night before. But the celebration of the Gregorian New Year on New Years Eve is considered problematic by many, even viewed as a sacrilege by some. So much so, that hotels have been threatened in the past with having their Kosher certificate taken away if they allow New Years Eve celebrations in their establishment.

Why all the fuss?

“Sylvester” is apparently the culprit. And I’m not referring to the cat in Looney Tunes  (“I tawt I taw a putty cat.”) - the only Sylvester I knew of before moving to Israel. No, we are talking about an anti-semitic Pope from back around 325 C.E., who not only was proclaimed a Catholic Saint, but was also awarded a day of his own by the Catholic Church: Saint Sylvester Day, which falls on December 31. Which also happens to run into New Years Eve. Somehow a connection was made between the two. In Israel, the Gregorian New Years Eve is even called “Sylvester”. In my first year in Israel, as January 1st approached, I kept hearing about the evils of celebrating Sylvester. “What does New Years Eve have to do with a pussy cat?” I asked. “No, you don’t understand. We are talking about an anti-semitic saint who lived about 17 centuries ago.” “Oh,” I answered, “What does New Years Eve have to do with an anti-semitic saint?” I never really received an answer to that. Except for the fact that Saint Sylvester Day falls on the same date (and I imagine that we can find many other things that fall on that date), I don’t really see the problem.  New Years Eve, for most people I know, is a time for getting together with friends and celebrating the coming in of the new year. Marking time, marking friendship, hoping for a year that is better than the one that came before.

And a time for New Years resolutions. You know, those things that we swear by and never carry out. (You can read more about this in a former blog post of mine - Taking the “new” out of New Years. ) Here we Israelis can have more fun and cheat. Not only can we make new years resolutions on the Jewish New Year, but we can test them out before reaching the Gregorian new year a few months later. Then we can either continue on with them, toss them aside and make new ones, or toss out the idea altogether. Now, who can have a problem with that?

So you have seen, in many of my former blog posts, how schizophrenic I can be in being both Canadian and Israeli and in speaking both Hebrew and English. And now we can also see how easily schizophrenic Israelis can be, simply because of a small matter of a calendar. (And I am just touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Israeli schizophrenia. Don’t get me started.) Now, take this Israeli schizophrenia and mix it into my own Canadian/Israeli split personality, and what do you get. I don’t know what it is, but it certainly is messy.

Happy New Year!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Is Ageing all in the Mind?

A friend of mine sent me an article: “Can you trick your ageing body into feeling younger?”
I am not sure what she meant by sending me this. (What would you think if a  woman - significantly younger in years - sent you such an article?) The thing is, when it comes to unpleasant things like ageing, my best line of defence is simply “denial”. But when things are shoved into your face through a slot in your inbox, it makes it harder to ignore.

The article relates to an experiment designed to test the hypothesis first put out by Professor Ellen Langer of Harvard University: “If elderly people dress, live and talk as they did in their heyday, will they feel younger and fitter? “ Yes, the same disturbing image flashed through my mind - that of a group of elderly people dressed up as hippies, or even worse - in 70’s garb and hairdo, speaking in what was once considered “cool”  slang.

But the experiment has at least spared us this disturbing spectacle.  It was designed to make a group of elderly people feel younger by recreating an isolated world resembling what they had left behind 35 years before, and placing them in this world for a week. I am not going to go into the details of this experiment. Let’s just say that there were positive results. You can read the rest by yourselves (and then look for your old beads and dried flowers in the attic).

But let’s continue with a few more words about ageing.

I do believe that ageing is in the mind. (Tell that to my receding hairline.) Okay, let me reword this: the "effect of ageing" is in the mind. Some things - such as receding hairlines -  we have no control over. But do we need artifacts from the past in order to trigger this anti-ageing process? Perhaps it wasn’t the recreated world of younger years at all, but merely the introduction of radical change which made the participants feel younger. We definitely feel older when we become stuck in a rut, and get up in the morning with really no expectation from the day. Change brings about new challenges and opportunities. We must exercise our minds and imaginations in order to cope with these new stimuli, even if these are things that we experienced long ago. One might even hypothesize that if a whole new world were created for us - with nothing there that we recognize, neither from the past nor the present - that the results of our feeling younger might be about the same as those in the experiment - perhaps even better.

Another thing that might be interesting to compare is the ageing process of “expats” to that of people who have grown up and lived in the same culture and spoken the same language all of their lives. Would we find any sort of definitive pattern there? Change is also  involved here - at first radical change which slowly evens out over the years.

But let’s leave our physical surroundings for a moment and concentrate on chemistry. Does the intimate interaction with others lessen the ageing process? Yes, I know what you’re thinking. But this doesn’t necessarily relate to an older man dating a younger woman - although Woody Allen would argue its benefits, first in his movie Manhattan and then in his own personal life. I personally cannot argue the merits of such an arrangement, mainly because of a lack of experience.  I do have a good friend, though, who dated much younger women between marriages. I asked him once what was the cutoff point (as to how young she could be). He said, “Well, if she doesn’t know who the Beatles are, that pretty well says it all.”

But our intimate interaction with others needn’t necessarily be of romantic or sexual nature. I have two very close friends in Canada and when I return to Canada for visits, we always get together. And I must say, that without any conscious effort, we keep each other young. We see each other and ourselves as we always have. This was perhaps best summed up in a dream that G (one of these two friends)  had.
“I had this dream last night. I was standing by P’s car talking to P (he was sitting in the car). I looked into the rear view mirror and P and I looked just as we did at the age of 18. I was so excited that I wanted to run and find you and see how you looked. But at that moment, I woke up.”

I would gladly go into the interpretation of this dream further (when I was 14, I read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and it soon became my hobby to interpret my friends’ dreams, something that I still do now and then), but we will leave it at that for now and move on.

And in moving on, let’s get back to things shoved through the slot of the mailbox. One thing that I don’t like receiving are those so-called cute attempts at humour about ageing (sent to me by people who are at an age when they feel they can personally relate to such things): “You know you are getting old when...” and so on.  I agree that humour: satire and the ability to laugh at yourself, is an essential requirement for a healthy physique. However I see no benefit whatsoever in laughing about getting old. If we have come to some sort of agreement that the effect of ageing is in the mind, then succumbing to jokes about how ageing is diminishing our physical and mental capacity is raising the white flag. Why don’t you just shoot me, instead?

But then maybe I am just becoming a grumpy old man.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Look into my eyes, so that I know I am real

“I believe there is nothing more thrilling than eye contact while speaking.”

Her words echoed through me.  So many images. Images of time past and of things that are yet to happen. Eyes that have haunted me for almost as long as I can remember. And eyes that have left me cold, forlorn.

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” she asked me.
“No, I believe in love at second sight,” I answered.
“What do you mean?”
“When you really see someone for the first time.”

Can you know someone for hours, days, months, years... and then one day fall hopelessly in love with them, simply because of a momentary glance. What has changed? Is it the light, the angle, a lingering smile - how all these things come together for one perfect captivating moment? A moment that passes, but leaves the image engraved in your mind.

I am a people watcher. Perhaps this is to make up for my lack of social skills. Or simply  because of my curiosity - this obsession to unveil the mysteries that lie beneath the surface. I sit back and observe, often capturing the nuances that most people miss. Those subtle unconscious gestures of people trying too hard to be accepted, when in reality they simply want to be recognized for who they are. Witnessing their vulnerability, vulnerability which they seek to hide, yet shows in their eyes.

We live in a society where we are told not to make eye contact. “There are a lot of crazies out there.” On the subway it is not only - “Mind the gap,” but also “Look away”.  As if we must put our humanity on hold, until we are once again in a safe room.

“I believe there is nothing more thrilling than eye contact while speaking,” she told me again, undeterred.

In my so-called formative years, I closed myself off almost completely, seeking to conquer my emotions, in a battle against bouts of depression. I soon discovered that I could conquer my emotions, but not master them, as they were pushed so far back that they were no longer accessible. “You don’t feel anything,” Arlene said to me, crying, yet another girl breaking up with me.

Until a late winter evening. Not yet twenty and already convinced that I would never really touch, nor be touched. I had seen her first when she entered the party. Just another face. Then heard her arguing her feminist views. Still, just another voice in the crowd. And then, sitting with my back against the wall, I felt her. She sat on the opposite side of the room, staring at me. Our eyes met and she penetrated me, like no one had ever done before. I was captivated, lost. All of my intricate defenses crumbling in a moment.

I can still see her staring at me, into me. Feel the thrill. I need not even close my eyes to experience this again. Even though we haven’t seen each other for more years than I can remember.

“We don’t need to be physically with someone, to look into their eyes,” I said.
“You must have a very good imagination then,” she said. “Or is it memory?”
“Sometimes it's imagination. Sometimes it's memory. Sometimes it is something else.”
“What is left?” she asked.

“Have you ever looked at a profile picture on facebook and seen much more than what was there?”
“I don’t understand,” she said, “A picture is just a picture.”
“Confucius said that a picture is a poem without words."
“Do you think he was talking about facebook?”
“And Ernst Haas,” I pressed on, “wrote that each of us on earth is but a mosaic of a picture we will never see.”
She hesitated then.
“Yes, I like that,” she said finally.

“Do you believe we can look through eyes of paper and see into the soul?” I asked.
“I believe some people do. I have been in cultures where the taking of pictures is forbidden. They believe that you are trying to steal their soul.”
“But what do you think?” I persisted.
“If it were my picture, I think it would be too dangerous.
"Because you may fall in love with my picture. And then you will have a part of me which is frozen in time. And I am not that person. I am different, from moment to moment. You must let me change. Please, do not make me stand still."

I remembered the character, then, in my novel. The character, Guy, that Michael created to seduce his wife in the desperate effort to bring intimacy back into his marriage. There was a point when she needed something to reassure her that Guy was real. So Michael, after much searching through the Internet, found a man whose eyes he was sure Julia would fall in love with. And Guy became real, not only for Julia, but for Michael also.

“Look into my eyes, so that I know I am real.”

Friday, June 29, 2012

And where are you from, laddie?

“Where are you from?” is a question I was often asked in Scotland.
How do I answer that?
Canada? Israel? Does it really matter what I choose? For so long, my only  travelling was short visits to Canada and back, where both Canada and Israel stake their claim to who I am.
But here, in Scotland, I was in neutral territory.


Canada would have been the simpler choice. Few people have reason to take any interest if you say  you are from Canada. Even less reason to throw stones. When was the last time Canada really pissed somebody off?

But to claim to be from Canada would be to deny so much of what I have become.

“I live in the desert,” I added.
That was a nice finishing touch, providing me with added immunity. For some reason, people living in deserts appear to be  beyond borders. Just ask Israelis who ask to have their passports stamped when they make their way south of Beer Sheva.

“You speak English really well.”
“I’m originally from Canada.”
That tended to conveniently confuse the issue. No talk about politics tonight.

Scots, as we all know, are not new to questions of identity. They have had no reigning monarch for 300  years, are no longer considered an independent country but rather a part of The United Kingdom, and their “Pound Scots” was abruptly abolished in 1707 and replaced by Scottish money similar in denomination and value to the English bank notes, although the Scottish notes are not of legal tender.

“You see that?” I was asked by one B&B owner, as a Scottish ten pound note was flashed in front of me. “We print our own money now. And it is as good as any other. But there are always a few bastards down south who refuse to take them. They will get their comeuppance.”
I have always wondered why many Scots keep old swords hanging on their walls, swords which they also keep well sharpened.

On our last day in Edinburgh, I saw a shirt that read - “I’m for Scotland, or for anybody playing against England.” That pretty well says it all, doesn’t it.

But the Scots have their own way in getting in the last word. Long ago they discovered that if you take anything that still resembles a castle,  palace, or formidable edifice - hang up a few explanations in the various rooms as to their historical importance, you can cash in for about 6 pounds a head. And, if you can display the pivotal role that this edifice once played in the struggle against English suppression of rightful Scottish national aspirations, you can get much more than that. And for a few rousing stories of time past, you can even get 4 quid a head for a few ruins of crumbling walls and stairs leading nowhere. Factor into this that many of the tourists are from England down south and ... need I say more?

Of course, the complexity of Scottish identity is not all about the English suppression. Other factors also need to be taken into account. The Picts, for instance. “Whatever happened to the Picts?” All that appears left are inscriptions on stones.

And then there are the clans. We can never forget the clans.
I envy the Scots their surnames. My last name - “Lloyd” - is of Welsh origin. But having a Welsh name isn’t anywhere as much fun as having a name of one of the clans. With a name like “Montgomery”, you get your own coat of arms (family crest), and can purchase cups, saucers, shirts, keyrings, kilts.... you name it ... all with your coat of arms proudly displayed. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find proof that you are the next legal heir to the throne of Scotland, if the throne were ever to return. So much rich historical tradition surrounding your surname and the only question I ever get about my Welsh surname is whether I have any connection to the bank. But don’t get me wrong, I am proud of my Welsh ancestry. And don’t even get me started on how we Welsh were exploited by the English.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Edinburgh doesn’t like Wi-Fi

Sixteen years ago, I travelled through the United Kingdom for two weeks with my youngest son, Noam. This summer, I travelled with my elder son, Edan, for close to three weeks throughout Scotland. Many things were different in the space of 16 years, but perhaps the greatest difference of all was the ready presence of Wi-Fi.

Now I know that some of you may romanticize the days when there was no such thing as “instant communication” no matter where you were in the world. Backpacking in Europe in the 70’s, letting loved ones know that you will be in a certain city at some time in the future and when you arrive there you head for the “post restante” section of the local post office to find a letter waiting for you. Yes, that thing made out of paper with the musty smell. This way you managed to  communicate with back home about once a month. Of course, by the time the letters were read, the events described belonged more to “history” than to “current events”.

But now you can exchange countless emails per day, text chat or even Skype with video. And all this on something as small as a smartphone or iPod. Not to mention taking pictures with your smartphone or iPod and immediately uploading them to your facebook profile for all to see. And all this for free. Is this a good thing? I think so, but then you may consider me an Internet junkie.

When leaving for Scotland, I wondered how much Wi-Fi access we would have. I soon discovered that almost all Bed and Breakfasts have Wi-Fi. Some worked better than others, but you were always assured of some sort of connection. We also discovered that Wi-Fi was available in many coffee and lunch spots along the way, even in the local coffee shop of a small town in a remote section of the Cairngorms National Park. Edan and I got into a routine whenever we “landed” for a coffee or lunch break: order coffee/food, bathroom, and out came his smartphone and my iPod and it was time to check mail and upload that last picture.

And then we got to Edinburgh, the tourist hub of Scotland. A magical city, with plenty to see, not to mention the unique pubs. We spent the last two days of our trip there.

The first day we settled into a pub for a late lunch after walking through a surprisingly warm day (the sun was actually out most of the time).
“Do you have Wi-Fi, we asked?”
“No, sorry. Not yet. We will soon.”
So, there we were, waiting for our food and sipping a pint, while fidgeting, our fingers tapping nervously on the table, not able to text, chat, or upload.
Now, don’t get me wrong - we are not that obsessed. We can get through one meal without wi-fi access. We simply put this down to our wandering in by chance to a pub that didn’t have wi-fi - a surprise occurrence after finding it in the most remote locations.
But it was later in the day, after a short rest at the B&B, when we made for another pub to watch the EuroCup that we began to suspect a pattern.
“Do you have Wi-Fi?”
“No, sorry. Not yet. We will soon.”
The fidgeting increased, but once the football game started, it eased up.

We decided the next day that we wouldn’t order a pint until we found a pub with wi-fi. Well, none was to be found. “No, sorry. Not yet, we will soon.” We did find a sort of underground connection at the Caffe Nero on the Royal Mile. It was called something like “Free Scotland”. I wasn’t sure whether this meant the wi-fi connection was free, or whether it was a part of an intricate plan to reclaim Scotland’s independence.
“Hey, they have an Internet connection here,” I announced happily to Edan.
“Shhh...” came from a nearby table, as its inhabitant looked around nervously. I understood then that there were some things that you didn’t talk about in public - at least not in the streets of Edinburgh. Was this a part of a cartel? Were the drinking and eating places of Edinburgh joining together to ensure that they didn’t need to offer wi-fi, and wouldn’t need to worry that the competition did?

Or is there a message here? A reason why a city like Edinburgh would shun offering Wi-Fi when it was present almost everywhere else - other than the evident cost of such free offerings? Did it have something to do with the flavour of the city? Is Edinburgh a modern day Brigadoon, wanting to let time flow by and remain changeless?

Somehow I think that if I visit Edinburgh in another 16 years time,  they still won’t have wi-fi.
“No, sorry. Not yet. We will soon.”

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The book's the thing

There are still books out there. Many, many books. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Books have been here for... well, not forever, but for a very long time. More than I can remember, at least, but that’s not saying much.

The thing is: the book is quite a clever concept. A bundle of knowledge, strapped together by pieces of leather... well, once by leather... But it is the concept of the book which matters, whether in hard cover or in soft cover.

“What about an electronic cover?”
“How can something electronic be a cover? It is virtual.”
“Therefore it does not exist?”
“Yes, I mean no. I mean, it must exist if we can still read its pages.”
“But that doesn’t make it a book.”
“Not even an electronic book?”
“Call me a romantic. I still like the smell of leather... Well, something to hold in my hands.”
“I hold my Kindle in my hands. Can even hold it and turn the pages with the same hand.”

*insert awkward pause

“Anyhow, I liked things the way they were.”
“Writing on stone, you mean.”
“Now let’s not go to extremes.”
“Me go to extremes!”

The thing is, electronic books, electronic information of any type, excites me. No, it is not a fetish. I simply like access to anything, anywhere, at any time. Many of you will claim that I have become a part of the “me now” generation which demands immediate satisfaction, and can do with nothing less. But I will have nothing to do with this.

I have always had a fascination for books. I would travel with my parents and suddenly disappear. They knew then to search for the nearest bookstore. Opening a book was an exploration, an exploration into a parallel universe from whence I emerged changed, even if only in a small way. But so much has happened since. It used to be that a teacher could stand up at the front of a one room schoolhouse and teach students all there was needed to know. A set of encyclopedias could contain all of the information of both the modern and ancient worlds. Dictionaries could contain an accurate list of vocabulary and not need to be updated for decades. But then came the information explosion. Books became out of date almost before they were published. A wise teacher soon realized that s/he could no longer be a valid source of information but should rather serve as “facilitator”, in leading students to search, find and properly evaluate information. Huge conglomerations which once controlled the access to knowledge, have now lost their control over us. And writers can now easily turn out their novels on a computer, and even go way of self-publishing rather than suffer years of rejection at the hands of literary agents and publishers who are becoming less and less willing to take chances in a market whose bottom is falling out.

When I finally got my own novel published, I had no idea what was waiting for me in the literary world. Bookstores, however big, can not even represent a fraction of what is out there. Many of you will claim that most of the books published today are probably not even worth printing. But the thing is, there are many good books out there which would have never gotten published otherwise. And I, personally, take this to be the decisive factor: not the surplus of what we consider unworthy, but rather the absence of what should be there.

But what I have found to be even more compounding is how social networks offer an interactive platform in which readers and writers come together - where readers and writers no longer sit in worlds clearly separate, but are now accountable to each other. Writing has become a social experience in ways never conceived of before.

And I realize now that being a writer not only means that I should write books, but that I also should bring something back to books and writers that I read. This is why I began my own book review blog - “The Virtual Muser eBook Review”. And I must say that I am learning as much from this experience as I am from my own writing.

Books are here to stay. Maybe not in the way that you would expect or hope them to. But they have been here forever, at least in the human experience. Whether they were written in stone, or told and passed down from generation to generation. Think of it: the concept has never changed. And what about the need?

You might say, then - why even sell books? Why not just put them up there for anybody to download? Isn’t the message the thing that is important? You may or may not be surprised to hear that more and more writers are doing exactly this. Is this the beginning of a serious trend? We will wait and find out.

Friday, May 4, 2012

You're so vain, you probably think this blog is about you

People annoy me. What can I say. I don’t even remember when it started. I have a vague memory of the doctor slapping me when I came out of my mother’s womb...

Not all people annoy me. Or at least, not all of the people all of the time.

“You can be very annoying,” you say.
“Yes,” I answer. “What is your point, exactly?

People, by themselves, are not always annoying enough to reach my radar. It usually takes an extension of themselves: their pet dog or brood of children - to really get under my skin. You see, most people believe that they are god’s gift to mankind.  And, just in case no one has gotten the point, they send out their dogs and children to get into the face of anybody who might otherwise ignore them. You’ve been there: kids running rampant through the aisles in the supermarket, screaming at the top of their lungs when something is refused - dogs barking in the middle of the night while their owners sleep peacefully and leave the rest of us to toss and turn in despair.

Now, I like animals. Actually like them much more than people. There is probably a name for that ( there is a name for everything these days). Maybe it is because both animals and I don’t talk much. Much more into observing. So, the other night, at 1:30 in the morning, I went out and picked up some stones on the way  to confront the dog who was barking behind my house. Getting there, I found a dog tied up outside of a house. He saw me and wagged his tail with a huge dog smile, glad to welcome a human presence so late at night/early morning. What could I do, then? Throw a stone at him? So I left him to it and went back to bed, cursing the moron who should have never been allowed to have a dog, much like many parents who should have never been allowed to have children.

If you find this not to be politically correct, so far,  I can only say that it is going to get worse. But in order to partially placate your delicate sense of fair play, I will no longer brand people as “annoying”. Rather, let’s just say that they are “socially challenged”.

Actually, I am just as socially challenged as anyone else, but I keep it to myself. Which most people consider annoying. You see, I can sit at a party, or dinner, or any other social event a whole night and say nothing. Most people will probably pass this off as my not being intelligent enough to take part in their riveting conversation. Other people attribute my silence to my not finding them, or their conversation, interesting. And this really pisses them off. You are supposed to mingle in social situations. And if you don’t have anything interesting to say, making a fool out of yourself is just as socially acceptable.

“What are you, socially autistic?” you ask.
“I have never thought about it in that way,” I answer. “But now that you mention it, the shoe fits.”

The irony of it all is that I am not a people person (if you haven’t already guessed), yet I have spent almost all of my adult life living in small communities (we are talking about less than a thousand souls - not counting the dogs). This brings me into more contact with people than I would have, say, in the city. The first community (14 years of my life) was a kibbutz. The second community (20+ years and counting) is a small community on the edge of the Zin Wadi. When we first came here, the community was much smaller, almost everyone knew each other, and there was a feeling of common purpose in living here. This has changed over the years. What was once a cohesive community has turned into social anarchy. We could blame this on how quickly the community has expanded, as more and more people build houses here. Or on the fact that many people build houses only to rent them out at obscene prices in order to make a windfall. But the main factor may be that many people have recognized this is a place where they, their children and their dogs can live as free spirits. What others might call - “running wild”. But hey, let’s not quibble over semantics.

I mean, how many places do you know where you can let your dog run loose terrorizing children and bark all night terrorizing aspiring sleepers, without any fear of being called into account. Yes, we do have a “residents committee” which has promised to work towards “enriching” our communal experience. And yes, like most good committees, they keep sending us newsletters telling us about how they are going to round up dogs on the loose and call their owners into account. For about ten years, we have seen these proclamations repeatedly. Haven’t seen them in a while though, probably because a dog chews them up, just as two dogs chewed up our Friday newspaper which was dropped off early morning by the paper boy. Did the dog owner offer to buy us a new newspaper? No, he simply cleaned the mess of torn fragments off of his OWN lawn.

“Bitter. You think I sound bitter? No, not at all. That is one of the advantages of being a socially autistic and cynical pessimist. You don’t hold high expectations.”

“The name of the small community where I am living now? I think I will keep this to myself. Otherwise, you’re so vain, you’ll probably think this blog is about you.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ideally Speaking

Vivian Rakoff, in “Ideally Speaking” says: “Idealism in a way is a manifestation of a generalized human desire to have a sense-making model or paradigm of the world. There are those who just accept what is given to them implicitly without it being explicit and there are those who try to make it explicit and if they haven’t got a model, go looking for it. We seem to need a sense-making system that takes away the sense of frivolity in our existence because we have a real terror of meaninglessness.”

The major difference between myself, and the South African Jews interviewed in the book who decided to emigrate to Israel in the end, is that they came here for reasons of ideology. I came first and discovered the ideology afterwards.

In a way, I am somewhat envious of those who grew up in Jewish youth movements, with a clear sense of their own identity, engaging in intellectual discussions of burning issues. Jonathan Broomberg, in “Ideally Speaking”, says: “My sense is that each person who was in the movement in each generation has a different and quite unique relation to that ideology. At one end of the spectrum were people whose involvement was entirely a function of the group while at the other end you had people for whom it ran very deep personally.”

The reason for my lack of ideology, then, as a youth, might have been because there was no group for me to be a part of. I grew up in a rather sterile WASPish suburb of Toronto. My family didn’t have any marked ethnic distinction. And although I read extensively - devouring the theories of Freud, the teachings of different world religions, the background to revolution and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks... there was no one to intellectually share these ideas with. At a time when the hippies were beginning to assemble in the streets of downtown Toronto, preaching new world order from their makeshift community in Yorkville, my peers in Scarborough were only concerned with the trivial affairs of the day.

And by the time that I was old enough to join the hippie movement, it was already petering out. But two things stayed with me from all of their proclamations for social renewal and a better world: one was the idea of communal living and the other was the return to the land.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the Jewish youth there were also talking about creating a better world, although their approach was quite different from that of the “flower generation.  In most Jewish youth movements, the concept of Israel and the kibbutz were almost inseparable. Israel was seen to hold the promise of “a light unto the nations”, and most saw this to be best realized through the socialistic and utopian nature of the kibbutz life style.

By the time I heard about the kibbutz in my sheltered existence, the “real terror of meaninglessness” had already led me to  consider leaving Canada in the search of something more. I heard about the kibbutz for the first time from a friend of my sister’s, who was planning to go to a six month ulpan on a kibbutz where you learn Hebrew half the day and work the other half. Something seemed to click when she told me about this and I felt that this was something I had to do. The irony was that she never did go to Israel in the end, but rather went to work with the native Indian community somewhere in Alberta, trying to right the wrongs of discrimination in her own backyard. Which is somewhat similar to the decision of many South African Jews not to emigrate to Israel but stay in South Africa and fight against Apartheid.

So, somehow I and many South Africans ended up in the same place. I had never planned, though, to stay here. I came to see socialism in action, and also learn Hebrew on the side. The ideology only really came afterwards. There was a time when I believed I would spend the rest of my life on the kibbutz. But that is when reality set in, both for me and for many of the South Africans who had decided to settle on a kibbutz. We gradually discovered the discrepancies between vision and reality; between the idealization of human nature and human primal instinct. If “Ideally Speaking” is any indication, most of the South African Jews who came to live on a kibbutz have since left. Many have left Israel, also - some going back to South Africa and others settling in other countries around the globe. We came very close to leaving Israel when we left the kibbutz, also. But in the end, we stayed, settling for isolation in the desert. The main difference here between me and South Africans, was that I only felt overly disillusioned with the kibbutz, feeling that it didn’t live up to its ideals. Many South Africans had become disillusioned with the country as a whole, feeling that they had been misled during their years in the youth movements about what really to expect. But my advantage, perhaps, was that I had first landed in Israel without any expectations. No one had tried to plant a pretty picture in my mind about Israel. Rather, at the kibbutz desk, when applying to come to a kibbutz ulpan, they appeared more interested in dissuading me from going.

You might wonder why I have concentrated on comparing my own experience to that of South African Jews. Why I would want to make such a comparison at all. Or why I didn’t choose youth closer to home, such as North American Jewish youth.

This was inspired by a book I recently read and have quoted here: “Ideally Speaking”. Although the  book is based on a series of interviews with a wide cross-section of South African Jews - now living in South Africa, Israel and abroad - I feel that much of what is expressed in the book is relevant to all of us, and warmly recommend the book to all of you.  I first heard of the book from one of its two editors: Steve Hellman (Lindsay Talmud is the other editor). I had never met a South African before coming to Israel and Steve was one of the first South Africans that I did meet. Not only that, but Steve played a significant part in my life in the early eighties when I was just starting out as a new teacher. In his role as coordinator of the English department at Kibbutz Brenner Regional High School, where I began my teaching career, Steve both welcomed me to the world of teaching and served as my mentor. And I owe it to him for not only getting through those first few months as a new teacher, but for also instilling in me the inspiration for thinking outside of the box in my teaching and in creating authentic teaching environments. Thirty years have passed since then and only now have I really discovered the world that Steve came from. And I thank him for what he gave me then, and what he has shared with me now.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Bearded Wonder

Why do men have beards? There are a multitude of explanations, I’m sure. Freud must have devoted a chapter to it, somewhere. I can only speak for myself, and even then, I am on shaky ground.

I think I decided to “sprout” a beard as soon as I was able to grow one. Most likely, even before that - when facial hair was no more than an unpromising stubble. Was this in an effort to appear older? Or perhaps, I saw it as a stamp of my own individuality. I really can’t remember that far back. I only know that, except for a few years later in life, I had a beard in some shape or form.

By the time I could grow a beard, and had reached an age where I could grow my hair long, the hippies had pretty well run out of steam - many of them leaving behind their nomadic, power of love life style, to open stylish boutiques where money became their new object of concern. We were into the seventies, the sixties were but a memory, but either no one had told me that the flower generation was over, or I didn’t care. With my long hair and beard, I set out for an Israeli commune, looking for a life where people lived together in harmony and social bliss.

It would be interesting to measure my induction into the socialistic life style of the kibbutz against the length of my beard. When I arrived on the kibbutz, one might say that my beard was “bushy”. Yet still under control. I had spent two months before that working in a small hotel on Rue Pigalle in Paris - what was known as the red light district. The characters that I met during those two months could have provided the inspiration for a compelling thriller. They took one look at this young Canadian boy, who they called “Le petit Jesus”, and took me under their ward. They would take me out for a walk through Paris late at night and I knew that there was nothing to be scared of, as they were much scarier than anything we could possibly meet on the way. At the end of the two months, when I was supposed to go to Israel to join an ulpan, they did everything in their power (other than kidnapping me) to try and convince me to stay. I often wonder what would have happened if I had stayed. But more about that in a future blog entry, entitled “Life Choices”.

So when did my beard start getting out of control. One might say, just before my marriage. By then I looked like a character out of the “Lion King” - or The Lion King himself. I was still in an upward spiral, becoming more and more of an integral part of the kibbutz, filling many roles such as head of the Manpower and Education committees. We had our first child and he spent his first years sleeping in the children’s house. But then things began to change - the kibbutz began to change. The signs were there - had been for quite a while, I imagine. Even now, although I left the kibbutz for the same ideological reasons that brought me there, I am surprised at how quickly it all fell apart. Right up to privatization.

And these are the years where my beard got increasingly shorter. Soon, the overall bushy look was gone, although there was still a firm growth of beard there. A vote in the general assembly decided that children would now live at home. And, as I became more and more involved in the sensitive areas of the kibbutz - especially when I became the head of the Members Committee, I saw how big the cracks had become, and found it difficult to justify staying there any longer. And my beard could now be described as “neat” - something it hadn’t been since my early Canadian years.

It must have been a year or two after we left the kibbutz, moving down to live in the Negev, that I shaved off my beard altogether. Maybe this was my way of stating that I was starting something completely new. I needed something to signify the separation, something which was an intricate part of myself. I remember when Adva came home and saw this strange man in the house. She was quite excited at the time, at least for the first few minutes until she realized it was me. That is another good thing about having a beard. By shaving it off, you can feel that you made a significant change in your life. Even if it is only for a moment. But growing a beard is nowhere the same. As G. K. Chesterton once said: “You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion.”

When it comes down to it, it is all skin deep - or should I say “hair deep”. Some people told me that being clean shaven made me look more distinguished, others - “younger’... but there were those - especially my sister and two childhood friends -  who appeared to have a problem recognizing me in my new naked form. Not that they didn’t know who I was - but they had  grown up knowing me only as a bearded wonder. And then this new person walked into their lives and he didn’t quite fit.

Probably the thing that convinced me to grow back a beard, albeit a small one, was that I could never get used to not being able to run my hand over my beard when in deep contemplation. There was no friction to help me think. Also, while staring at myself in the mirror, I was taken aback by the gaunt look.  So, much to the chagrin of some people, I started to sprout facial hairs again.

And here I am, late in life, wondering whether to just shave it all off again. Is it now the need to look younger? Or simply a need for change? In my facebook status, I asked people to vote for what they like more: a bearded or beardless David. If I thought they would help me decide, I was mistaken, as the votes are split more or less down the middle.

Maybe I should listen to the wisdom of Jean Cocteau: “There is always a period when a man with a beard shaves it off. The period does not last. He returns headlong to his beard.”

There are those who experiment with having a beard, and those of us who experiment without having one.