Monday, December 16, 2013

Ramblings of a disturbed mind

Flying back and forth, year after year, one might ask me what I find, or what I leave behind. There is a certain compulsion in moving, just as there is in being rooted to the same spot. Once I thought that movement would enable me to reinvent myself, and I suppose it did. Reinvent, but not re-imagine. There are people along the way, and people almost forgotten. At times, I wake up calling their name and they do not respond. Have I become this old?

I do not know which way is backward and which is forward anymore. People look at me and wonder why I am standing still.
"It is not me," I say.
But they claim the world isn't spinning. I will not see where it begins and ends by standing still.

We want to be loved, but it is difficult when people don't have anything to hold onto. I look at the literary greats and all that they seem to want to do is to chase out the voice. So that the clamour will stop.

Is that what we really want? Solitude and quiet? Others must know that we exist, though. Else the solitude is lost. It starts with one person, and then a few, and then we want the whole world to hear. How do we make ourselves heard? How do we separate ourselves from the echoes?

It is comforting to know that people believe me to be disturbed. It is the only way I can fit in - the only door left open to me. I fly from side to side, from place to place, backwards and forwards. Without moving, but ending up somewhere I have never been.

"But no," you say. "You are returning from whence you came."
"I have nowhere else to go. The problem is, it isn't really there."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Rob Ford - Making Canada proud?

You've got to give the guy credit. Not since the marital and post-marital antics of Margaret Trudeau has a Canadian managed to star in leading news broadcasts, late night show monologues, and of course - have someone play a caricature of him on Saturday Night Live. But no caricature of him can do the man justice. If you want to really witness the depths of chaotic comic absurdity that the man is capable of -  simply watch Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto, at a press conference.

I realized that Rob Ford had hit it big when an Israeli radio station led into the hourly news with a hot item about a crack smoking, inebriated Mayor, known for his racial slurs and demeaning remarks about women. And who was this mayor? Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto, a city in the United States of America!

Now, on a normal day, I would be on the phone bombarding the radio station for their gross error.
"Do you call yourselves news reporters? How can you put a major Canadian city in the United States, of all places? You do realize that Canada and the United States aren't the same country? Or were you out for lunch that day?!"
(Some of you out there, especially those of you married to Canadians, know how sensitive we Canadians can be.)

But no, I didn't say anything - not even to Adva who was in the car with me listening to the news. Some things you just don't want to take credit for.

"You know, there really is a Toronto in the States," Adva said, convinced that the news reporter had got it right, for everyone knows that Canadians aren't like that. "When we were in California (on a business trip) two people who were to join us couldn't land at LA airport because it was shut down because of the shooting there. They phoned us to tell us that they landed in Toronto, instead, and were renting a car and should be there later in the day. We thought - how are they going to get from Toronto to California by car in one day? But then we discovered there is a Toronto in California."

For Adva, believing that Rob Ford was the Mayor of a Toronto in the United States was the only way of having it make sense. I might have been tricked into this also had I not been following the Ford saga daily in the Canadian online media. And being Canadian, or at least still part Canadian, I had to own up and accept a part of the collective guilt.

"Yes, but in this case he really is the Mayor of Toronto. Toronto, Canada."
"Your Toronto!" Adva exclaimed, aghast.
"How did that happen?"
"Don't ask."

The thing is, over the years I have often told people that one big difference between Canadian politics and Israeli politics is the issue of accountability. The Canadian parliamentary system ensures that Canadian politicians must answer to the people who directly voted them in, while the Israeli system only requires Israeli politicians to answer to their party. One would expect, then, that a Canadian politician would be under much more scrutiny and public censure, and as such - be much more accountable for his/her actions.

But that was before a long line of police investigations into the actions of  Israeli politicians. Not only have mayors of Israeli cities been investigated and prosecuted, but so also have Israeli government ministers, an Israeli Prime Minister, and an Israeli President (who is presently serving jail time). Many people even think that the police have become overzealous in their investigations. It would be difficult, then, to still maintain that there is no accountability for Israeli politicians (although unfortunately stupidity is not a criminal offense, punishable by law).

And then along came Rob Ford, who not only appears to have crossed almost every red line possible, but is still in office. Not only is he accused of smoking crack, being constantly inebriated, committing racial slurs and  being involved in conflicts of interest, but some of his vices have even been captured on camera - such as smoking crack and urinating in public. In spite of all this, other than stripping away some of his powers (a decision which might not hold up in court), the system states that he can't be rid of, no matter how many people want to see him go.

But there might be another option. Perhaps Rob Ford could be shipped out to the Toronto in California. If an Israeli reporter got this wrong when sober, think how long it might take Rob Ford to realize that he is in the wrong Toronto when totally inebriated. And who knows, California Torontonians might even really like him.

So, how did Rob Ford get elected in the first place? That appears to be the story behind the story. It involves a Toronto much different from the Toronto where I grew up. People no longer speak proudly of the Toronto melting pot, where people from over 50 different countries and nationalities come together to create a rich multi-colored ethnic culture. Instead, people talk more and more about the divisions, the discrepancies, and the large social and economic gap. It appears that Rob Ford has tapped into the frustration of those who not only feel that their needs are not being met, but that the gap between the haves and the have nots is constantly widening. Ford has managed to convince people that he has their interests at heart, in spite of the fact that he comes from a wealthy family. Some political analysts even believe that Ford will be reelected in the next election, despite everything we are witnessing right now.

"Where is the accountability, then?" you might ask.
I think we will have to wait and see.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Does sunshine on your shoulder really make you happy?

It is the middle of November and I am still in short-sleeves and sandal mode.
28 degrees Celsius. Isn't that a little ridiculous for this time of year? Not that I am complaining... well, maybe just a little.

You see, there comes a point when sunshine may be just a tad too much.

"Too much?! My dear, you can never have too much," my Canadian friend tells me, her teeth chattering as she tightens the scarf around her neck and pulls the hood of her jacket down around her ears. "When was the last time you had to commute through snow, sleet and black ice?" she asks.
"Well, you know, I live in a desert."
"Then think about doing this seven months of the year," she adds, stamping on the ground in the attempt to feel her feet again.
"Yes, I understand," I answer, distracted for a moment as I ponder the plastic tie which is holding my sandals together. "But look at it another way. Think about seeing sunshine, only sunshine, day after day after day, seven months in a row."
It was then, in a desperate impulse to do me harm, that she picked up a lethal looking icicle, but luckily it snapped between her fingers.

The problem with Canadians is that they have trouble seeing the whole picture. Or seeing any more than five meters through the blizzard. Of course, Americans are no better. And even on a clear day, they have a problem seeing much further than the end of their nose. Imagine how John Denver would have made it through seven months of straight sunshine. What would he be singing about then?

As for Israelis, if sunshine comes bundled with happiness, why are Israelis such an irritated, loud, paranoid, aggressive and motley lot? Israelis get much more sunshine than Canadians and the whole Northern Hemisphere. You'd expect them to be filled with glee, with all that sunshine on their shoulder. Not only Israelis. Take a look at the whole Middle East. Where is the humour? Where are people sitting back, enjoying a good laugh over a bottle of Arak?

"Your problem is that you have never had much of a sunny disposition."
"Where did you come from?" I ask, looking up into the darkness.
"Just passing by. I didn't want to be rude and enter your thoughts, but..."
"When has that ever stopped you?"
"True, but where would you be without me?"
I decided to let this pass in silence.
"Have you ever considered that this may only be you?"
"Me? What?"
"This aversion to things of a sunny nature."
"It's  not a question of aversion. It is a question of what really inspires me."
"Like me."
"Well, yes. You are my muse, aren't you? Isn't that what muses are supposed to do?
"So, you want me to do the weather now?"
"Could you?"
"I don't do weather."

I am conflicted. I enjoy wearing only shorts, short-sleeves and sandals. And I couldn't comfortably do this if the sun hid itself away. But I would give this up to see the heavens open: the rain pounding down on the roof as the sound of thunder fills the skies. Maybe I should start a facebook group for people searching for the clouds behind the sunshine.

Living in constant sunshine reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day, where our hero wakes up each and every morning to the same day and must relive it again and again. But then, that had a happy ending.

"How long do you think you could weather such gloom?"
"I thought you went for an afternoon nap."
"Couldn't fall asleep. The sun is shining through the window."
"Are you making fun of me?"
"No, that would be too easy.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Comfort and Fashion - Never the twain shall meet

Those of you that know me, know that I don't struggle much with fashion. At least not now, when I am pretty well worn out."
Adva would claim that my poor dress habits even go beyond fashion.
"You're not wearing that!" she exclaims. "It is full of holes!"
"There are only two... three," I respond. "And I am just wearing it around the house and for working in the garden," I lie.

Usually I get away with wearing what I want, but sometimes I hit a snag.
"I hope you haven't been wearing that to work!" Adva says, surprising me on one of the rare occasions that she arrives home from work before me.
"Well... I had to move some computers and stuff."
She doesn't seem quite convinced. A few days later, the shirt mysteriously disappears.

I have been struggling with clothes since the early years. My mother would dress me up in a suit and tie for Sunday school and I would enter with what some people might call my penguin imitation: my arms curved up and out like a penguin as I waddle into the room. But it was no imitation. It was all me. I just couldn't stand certain things rubbing up against my skin. This struggle between comfort and fashion continued for a long time after that and may be one of the reasons why I ended up on an Israeli kibbutz. Israelis, in the early 70s, weren't concerned much with fashion - whether they lived on a kibbutz or not. Even in the 1980s and early 1990's, when I went to international computer business conferences in Israel, it was rare to see an Israeli in shirt and tie. Almost all of the suits were visitors from abroad. No wonder why I felt more comfortable here than in Canada. All this suited me fine.

But in the last decade, suits and ties have started popping up in many places where they hadn't been seen before on the Israeli scene. Fortunately for me, by the time this happened, I was already turning into a grumpy old man with little patience for anything, let alone primitive trivial social norms. Wearing a noose around my neck and dressing like everybody else to fit seamlessly into some social norm had no longer any meaning for me, if it ever had. You are what you wear, they say. And as I have already been deemed a social outcast - I guess it is time that I dress the part.

Some of you might think that I am an ideal candidate for a nudist colony. You can't get much freer than that when it comes to dress, they say. But there are two flaws to that assertion.
1. You are once again conforming to what you can and can't wear.
2. This conflicts with my incessant need for privacy - I just have to keep some things to myself.

The desert serves me well, in this regard. During the long Israeli summer - which lasts close to seven months - all that I basically need are two pairs of shorts, three short-sleeve shirts, a pair of sandals, and enough underwear to last me the week. Oh yes - and running shoes for the gym.

Adva, like most women, has a much more extensive wardrobe. Most women won't wear the same thing two days in a row. I am not sure how many days must pass before they can wear the same outfit again. Then there is the makeup, perfume, and the trick of showing just enough cleavage. While I make do with a short shower, a dab of deodorant, brushing my teeth and my hair (what's left of it) - Adva disappears for a thirty minute ritual and comes back all made up.
"It's important to dress up for work."Adva says, noticing that I am wearing the same outfit for the third day in a row. "Don't you want people to respect you?"
Which translates into: "What, don't you have anybody to flirt with at work?"

It's a matter of priority, I suppose. What really is important. Which, for some of us, cannot come without comfort.

Friday, October 18, 2013

When the clock strikes midnight

"We are surrounded!" I wrote, fearing communication would be cut soon.
"Get out of there, fast!" my wife SMSed back.
I had visions of striking workers approaching with chains and burning tires.
"Close the windows, lock the doors from the inside and turn off the lights," I shouted to the other workers holed up in the building. "If there is smoke, lie down with your nose to the ground."
Soon the sounds of voices and singing were heard outside of the building, accompanied by pounding pots and pans. I sniffed the air, but there was no smell of smoke. I peeked through the blinds. The striking workers seemed to be having a merry old time. What unnerved me most was the laughter and dancing - especially the belly dancing.

Up until that point, I had envisaged a situation somewhat similar to when the Canadian consulate offered sanctuary to American Embassy workers in Tehran when the embassy was overrun by Iranian protesters. Two key field school personnel had fled the field school moments earlier when striking workers had closed it down, and asked if we could offer them sanctuary in the Interdisciplinary Centre and a place to work. But however compelling the similarity seemed to be at first, it lost its edge in the merry song and dancing. I imagine that Ben Affleck would have continued unperturbed and have made the most of the situation, turning it into a movie opportunity - the Canadian becoming a burned out American CIA agent trying to save his marriage to an Israeli, while helping America regain its stature in the Middle East. As for the pots and pans and merry singing - that would turn into semi-automatic gun fire and the threatening screams of a wild mob seeking blood. You've got to love Hollywood.

"I think it will be okay," I wrote my wife.
"Are you sure?" she wrote back.
"Yes, I am the last one they'd shoot. They know that they need me."

Striker 1: "You shot David?"
Striker 2: "Yes. He was working and you told me to shoot anyone who is working."
Striker 1: "Yes, but not David. You can't shoot David. We need him."
Striker 2: "Yes, but..."
Striker 3: "What happened?"
Striker 2: "He shot David."
Striker 3: "David! You can't shoot David! He's Canadian!"
Striker 2: "I thought he was Israeli."
Striker 3: "Yes, but he is also Canadian."
Striker 2: "When did he come from Canada?"
Striker 3: "I don't know. Sometime... but that's not the point. You can't shoot a Canadian. When was the last time you heard about somebody shooting a Canadian. No one even shoots UN Canadian peace keepers.
Striker 2: "They might if they mistake them for American."
Striker 4: "What happened?"
Striker 3: "They shot the Canadian."
Striker 1: "And our computer guy."
Striker 4: "They shot two people!"
Striker 2: "They... he was working!  And he said... "
Striker 1: "We have to do something. Maybe if we apologize."
Striker 3: "I don't know. He looked to be in pretty bad shape."

I guess I owe you a little background.

I work in a government trust - Midreshet Sde Boker - situated in a small desert community. The Trust was established at the request of Israel's first prime minister and visionary: David Ben Gurion. He wanted to create a seat of learning in the middle of the Negev desert which would inspire people to come from far and wide and settle in the Negev. The Trust consists of a unique High School for Environmental studies (a boarding school with students from all over Israel), a Field School, Interdisciplinary Centre and other relevant offices. It shares space in the community (Midreshet Ben Gurion) with institutions affiliated with Ben Gurion University: The Desert Research Institute, the Ben Gurion Archives and the Solar Energy Institute. In its golden years, it could have been considered as a "light unto nations". But in the last ten years, things have changed somewhat.

It all began with severe budget cuts by the government. And now, instead of investing most of its time in creating new exciting and valuable initiatives in the field of education - primarily environmental education - the Trust spends almost all of its time in surviving financially. At the same time, the workers are worried about continuing to receive a decent wage in light of the increased cost of living. In 2007 their collective workers' agreement with Midreshet Sde Boker ended, and since then - despite intensive negotiations at times - no new collective agreement has been signed. And for the last four years, the local workers union has threatened to strike if an agreement is not reached.

And last week, it finally happened. The workers went out on strike and have been out on strike since. And now, the Trust is in danger of shutting down altogether. The high school students have been sent home, and the field school cannot accept new groups (for lodging, instruction, etc.) Parents of the high school students are up in arms and are threatening to stop tuition payments and the field school, which is one of the Trust's main sources of income, will soon have no income coming in, at all.

Since I am on personal contract and am in charge of keeping the whole computer infrastructure working, I (and other managers) are still working. With mixed feelings. On the one hand, the workers deserve to have a fair collective agreement. On the other hand, if the Trust will be permanently shut down because of this strike, no one will have any work at all. Am I optimistic? Not really. Apparently the Minister of Education tried to intervene - approaching the head of the national workers union (Histadrut), to no avail. You'd think that if the Democrats and Republicans could finally reach an agreement to avert a continued, crippling government shutdown, then an agreement could be reached between some 80 workers and a government trust. You'd think.

I have been entertaining the idea of opening a pub for some time. Whitehorse, in the Canadian north, has been a major contender - or anywhere else in the Yukon region. Or I could even settle for Uxbridge or Bracebridge, beautiful spots in Ontario. And if opening a pub appears in the end to be too aspiring, then working in a pub is also an option - spending most of my free time writing. Until now, this has remained a lazy fantasy. It appears that if they don't hit me over the head and send me packing, I will stay a desert rat. But the way things are going, this might happen quite soon.

This reminds me of the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where Mary turns off the light and closes the door for the last time. Is this where we are heading now?

Friday, September 20, 2013

How GPS will battle

On our trip to Italy, we decided to take with us a GPS - provided by an Israeli company and loaded especially for Italy. We could have rented a GPS with the rental car in Rome, but there is something special about a female Hebrew voice treating your vain attempts at following her instructions with thinly veiled ridicule. We actually thought, for some unexplained reason, that following directions in Hebrew would be simpler. Even though it is a well known fact that if you ask three Israelis how to get to the same place, they will give you three completely different directions.

The first day in Italy, after our flight arrived late in the evening in Rome and we had picked up our rental car, we didn't have time to set up the GPS and depended on our wits alone upon getting to the hotel we had booked for the night. This was one of the few times we reached our destination with no problem whatsoever.

The next day we powered up the GPS, set our destination coordinates and set out.

Now, I haven't had much experience with a GPS, but Adva has. And except for the time that it tried to drive her off of the Jaffa port into the Mediterranean, she has had little to complain about. So, being quite trustworthy, we left the main highway (A12 / E80) at Ladispoli for the scenic route (SS1), as we headed north.
"The GPS will pick up the change," Adva said, in total innocence.
At the time, we didn't know that a GPS will do everything to keep you on the quickest route to your destination. It treated the concept of a scenic route  or preferred side road with much disdain.

So we got off the highway headed west for the SS1. Our suspicions should have been first aroused when the GPS instructed us to take the fourth exit from the roundabout, sending us back in the opposite direction on the same road we had been on. A mistake, we thought. So we turned back around, ignored its repeated command to take the fourth exit at the roundabout and headed on. This definitely irked our GPS Hebrew speaker.
"In 100 metres, turn left!" she exclaimed.
Still trustworthy, we obediently did so and ended up following a garbage truck down what could only be called a cow trail.
"I will get out the Waze," Adva said.
The Waze is an Israeli invention which offers the best way to get from one point to another, taking into account traffic congestion, police traffic checkpoints, etc. As I continued down the cow trail and was instructed to turn onto another dirt road, the Waze became alive and another voice joined the melee.
"In another 100 metres, turn left," the Waze voice announced.
"In another 100 metres, turn right," the lady on the Israeli GPS countered.
"What am I supposed to do?" I shouted in desperation.
"I don't know!" Adva exclaimed. "Go straight!"

In short, we gave up on the scenic route and allowed ourselves to be taken back onto the highway. The GPS had clearly thought that it had won, but it didn't realize that we were putting together a counter strategy.

About an hour later, we bravely left the highway again and set out onto the side roads. Adva quickly fell in love with the squiggly lines on the map, representing roads with a maze of bends in the road and hills where you were constantly shifting in and out of gear. The GPS, in its rather sinister sense of humour, appeared to also enjoy the squiggly roads and was content in letting me struggle with them as long as I wanted. By mid afternoon, the GPS was doing quite well, getting things right about 70% of the time - and only sending us in circles the other 30%. In  the end, we closed in on our B&B destination on the outskirts of Certaldo, but somehow both the GPS and the Waze couldn't get us directly to our target. Finally, stranded on a narrow road, an Italian woman on a bicycle graciously led us to our destination - despite the protest of both the woman on the GPS and the woman on the Waze.

"We just have to learn how to properly put in our destination," Adva said later over a glass of wine.
I merely nodded, knowing quite well that the GPS and I would be constantly at odds with each other with Adva in the middle. But the next day, as we stopped at different places in Tuscany for wine tastings, I gradually became much more forgiving of the GPS as well. As for the Waze, it was safely tucked away as we couldn't stand their bickering anymore.

But there came a point when even Adva could no longer award the GPS the benefit of the doubt. We had reached our second abode of accommodation - a farmhouse beautifully set out in the middle of a large vineyard about a ten minute drive from the town of Valiano. To get to the farmhouse from the main road, we had to drive up a long dirt path. The next morning, Adva set up our destination for the day on the GPS and we started driving down the dirt path towards the main road.
"In another 200 metres, make a U-turn," the woman on the GPS stated politely.
"What!" Adva said.
"In another 100 metres, make a U-turn," the voice said with increased authority.
"You've got to be kidding," I said.
"Make a U-turn now!" the woman exclaimed, as we reached the main road.
"Yeah, right," I said and turned right in the direction of Valiano.
After a couple of minutes, the woman conceded.
"In another eight kilometres, turn right," she said.
"She probably just got mixed up," Adva said, in her last attempt to forgive the GPS the errors of its way.

But the next morning, as we started down the dirt path towards the main road, we heard -
"In another 200 metres, make a U-turn."
And so this continued each day, for the four days that we stayed there.

But towards the end of our trip, we realized that the GPS was simply a part of the whole adventure.
"They say that the best thing is to get lost in Tuscany," Adva said.
And we did that quite well with the help of our GPS friend. So maybe we should thank her.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Ode to a fallen tree

A tree once so tall and  mighty
stood proudly before our front door
its shade protected us from the summer sun
its leaves and branches calmed winter winds

Birds fed off its berries
entertaining us with their early song
in spring its buds turned into beautiful flowers
where people gathered to share their awe

A black cat which long ago adopted us
climbed its branches in search of prey
but usually settled into a comfortable perch
casting a sleepy eye over the world below

From behind its branches we could hear laughter
of children from across the way
playing on the grass below
just as our own children played so many years before

And then early one day
the morning of the Eve of Rosh Hashana
we heard a loud crack
and then silence, no birds chirping more

Looking out the front
the world had changed before our eyes
our proud mighty friend
had collapsed and died

Stretched out on the lawn before us
in a great heap of broken roots and branches
the birds had flown away
and the cat was nowhere to be found

Tipping our hats
and paying our last respect
the saw began to hum
as we slowly cut the limbs away

Working all morning
through a maze of twisted branches
and solid trunk
we carried the last remains to a new resting ground

But people still stop in awe
to gaze at where the majestic tree once stood
for in its absence
its space it still fills

Monday, August 26, 2013

When will Israelis get a real weekend?

One of the first things I had to get used to in living and working in Israel was the fact that Sunday is the first work day of the week. Sunday is actually called Yom Rishon ("First Day") in Hebrew. When it comes to naming the days, Hebrew is quite sensible:

  • Yom Rishon ("First Day") [Sunday]
  • Yom Sheni ("Second Day") [Monday]
  • Yom Shlishi ("Third Day") [Tuesday]
  • Yom Revy-ee ("Fourth Day") [Wednesday]
  • Yom Chamishi ("Fifth Day") [Thursday]
  • Yom Shishi ("Sixth Day") [Friday]
  • Shabbat (the "Sabbath"- day of rest) [Saturday]

As you can see, the names are quite practical and straightforward. No messing around with borrowing from the gods, celestial bodies, or whatever. The formula is quite simple - name the day by its number in the week. Except for the seventh day. It had to be different:
And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.
And so the seventh day was given the name Shabbat (the day of rest).

But things didn't stop here. Not only was Sunday the first work day of the week, Israelis also seemed to have never heard of a two day weekend. They should be given credit, though, for coming up with the whole concept of a day of rest, far before others. The Romans didn't come up with the idea until the year 321, when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared the dies solis (Day of the Sun) [Sunday] an official Roman day of rest. And another twenty centuries would pass until the Western world came up with the idea of the two day weekend. Apparently this was first instituted by a New England cotton mill which wanted to allow its Jewish workers to adhere to their own religious Sabbath. Ironically, it was Henry Ford (who was considered by many to be an ardent Anti-Semite) who, in 1926, was among the first to standardize the two day weekend, shutting down his automotive factories for all of Saturday and Sunday, while still paying his workers the same wages. As for Israelis - "If the one day of rest was good enough for our forefathers..." - well, you get the message.

I may have adapted better to this one day weekend in Israel had it not been for the fact that there were no buses on Saturdays (you couldn't go anywhere unless you had your own car), no stores were open (no opportunity to plan shopping for the end of the week when you actually had the time), and no television (no afternoon ball games on the tube). If  you were an observant Jew, this worked out just find. But if you were secular, you really did want to have the right of choice.

And if all this weren't enough, I was rudely introduced to the seven day work week. Yes, you heard me right. And no, this isn't something that came straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, although it might have.

I should clarify here that the seven day work week was not something common to all Israeli society. Rather, it was an essential part of the kibbutz way of life: the dreaded toranut. Back in the days when most of the kibbutzim were still communal in  nature, kibbutz members took turns in working in essential services on the Sabbath - services such as the communal dining room, children houses, milking and feeding the cows. Which meant that every three or four weeks, you didn't have a weekend.

Now, I don't think I have to tell you how important the weekend is to maintaining our sanity. Already by midweek, the promise of the approaching weekend keeps us going. And when the weekend arrives, we heave a huge sigh of relief and lapse into denial for two days. No matter how bad the week has been, things suddenly get better. But when the weekend is taken from you  - even the one day with such limited opportunities as the Israeli weekend - one is prone to enter into the pits of despair. There is nothing to hold onto to keep you going during the week. I kept telling myself that this was my choice, that this was an integral part of maintaining a communal way of life, but I could never get used to it.

Things have changed since then. The cows have been sold, the children now live at home with their parents, kibbutz members no longer go to eat in the dining room... and somewhere along the line we decided to leave the kibbutz. Sometime after that the kibbutz was privatized. Meanwhile, Israelis unofficially got a two day weekend. I say unofficially as the schools are still open six days a week, as are many businesses. But most people are now taking the Friday off, as well (which has always been a half-day workday in any case, as people are given time to welcome in the Sabbath which begins at sunset on Fridays).

But voices are beginning to be heard that are calling for more. Silvan Shalom, an Israeli government minister, has suggested making the two day weekend an official one - with people having Saturday and Sunday off. And Friday would be  a work day until noon. This would enable schools to move to a five day week and it would also be easier for the Israeli business community to coordinate things with business communities around the world whose weekend is Saturday and Sunday.

And most of all, as Silvan has been reported as saying:
"It is time Israelis got a real weekend."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The loneliness of a long distance writer

Loneliness is a state of mind. You need not be alone to feel lonely. Nor do you need to feel lonely if you are alone. Perhaps the greatest loneliness is not in living thousands of miles from the people closest to you, but in being surrounded by people every day who seem so far away.

A writer should write about what he knows. Or so the saying goes. Perhaps this could be worded differently.  A writer should write about the things that he yearns for, but are always just out of reach. Running the marathon of his own emotion and lack of experience. There will always be something missing.

It's a question of maturity, I suppose. Wine gets better as it ages. But should we really compare ourselves to wine? Perhaps we are more like water, which evaporates.

How can there be loneliness in writing when you are reaching out and speaking to the world? Instead of keeping your most intimate thoughts to yourself, you are sharing them with strangers, with little knowledge or control as to where they may finally end up. True, you may clothe it as a fictional account, leaving it to your readers to guess where you are in all of this. But when it comes down to it, it is all you. And when you have finished writing, you are just another stranger reading the words, wondering who this writer may be, hidden between the lines on a page with no ending and no beginning.

I once thought that the loneliest part of writing was in the writing, itself. But I have slowly come to realize that it is in the emptiness and echoes which follow. It distances you from others, rather than bringing them closer. You have set out by yourself on a long and sometimes treacherous journey, but for them it is as if you never left. And the more you write, the less they know you.

What is it that a writer and a long distance runner have in common? Is it the distance we must travel? The pain and anguish in getting there? Or the loneliness which encases us in our solitary cell, moving almost unnoticed among the others until we reach the finish line. Even then, we may disappear into a sea of faces. But our journey has been recorded. Whether or not this has meaning for others, it surely must have some meaning for ourselves.

Yet there is no finish in writing. Just as the long distance runner never stops running - even if his body betrays him and he continues running only in his mind. Although at times we become so tired, we wonder what would happen if we simply stopped.

I can't imagine stopping, for I can't imagine living without even the echoes.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Sir Andy Murray and Dame Kim Sears

So, that's it. After a 77 year drought, Andy Murray - the bad boy from Scotland who once said, "I'll be supporting anyone but England." (referring to the 2006 World Cup) - has won Wimbledon for the Brits, and brought back that old English pride.

Much credit has been given to his girlfriend of many years - Kim Sears. She not only led him to leave behind his reckless boyish behavior and become a more mature representative of the United Kingdom, but she is also credited for the increasing maturity in his play - being viewed as the rock of his success in the tennis world. During the Wimbledon final, the camera didn't seem able to get enough of her, panning back and forth between her - in her Victoria Beckham designed dress - to the play on the court. Some may feel that she didn't warrant such exposure, but I admit that I found her stunning and I enjoyed every minute that the camera zoomed in on her. Her facial expressions, in watching Andy Murray struggle towards his place in history, were as much a part of the spectacle as anything else Actually, the last woman I found so stunning was Kate Middleton. Both women appear to have captured our imagination, bringing back the magic to a jaded empire: each regal in her own way. And there is already talk of Andy Murray being knighted. He, himself, has stated that he doesn't think this victory deserves such an honour, but millions of Britains appear to disagree.

But I may be jumping the gun here. Andy and Kim aren't even married. Apparently they are also not talking about marriage, at least Andy isn't. Before the beginning of the Wimbledon final, bookies offered 66/1 odds on Andy proposing to Kim at some point during the Wimbledon final. After his Wimbledon final victory, the bookies slashed the odds, now offering 8/11 odds on Andy proposing to Kim before the start of Wimbledon next year.

But let's give Andy and Kim a bit of a breather, eh, and let them enjoy some deserved privacy in their six bedroom mansion. Back to the world of tennis, and a little bit more about women and tennis.

During my teenage years, I used to play tennis with one of my best friends - let's call  him Greg (in order to protect the seemingly innocent). This wasn't as simple as it sounds. Tennis was in no way popular then as it is now. Greg and I had to actually ride on our one speed bikes for miles (at the time we still used miles) to reach the nearest public tennis courts  (down by Birchmount and Kingston Road, for the Torontonians among you). I think we put more energy in getting there and back than in the tennis, itself. But we had a lot of fun. Those were the days of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court and Billie Jean King - with Bjorn Borg bringing in the new age. Like most kids,  we imagined ourselves to be Laver or Rosewall out there on the court, but we never kidded ourselves into believing that we could be anything nearly as good - much in the same way we knew we could never emulate a Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau or Johnny Bower (hockey heroes, for those of you who are clueless).

Oh yes, I promised you something about women and tennis. Well, Greg and I didn't get into tennis because of women. I don't think girls were even on our mind when we started playing tennis.But later in our teenage years, Greg and I started going on double dates. Safety in numbers. You know what they say. Anyway, we discovered that our best double dates were when we went out with two girls to play tennis. Perhaps because we didn't have to talk much. (Greg and I had the habit of finishing each other's sentences, which drove the girls crazy). I mean, how much trouble can you get into playing tennis? Unlike taking two girls to see "Love Story". A bit of advice to you guys out there - never laugh at a movie when your date has taken out a tissue and is sobbing profusely into it. And beware of girls like M who believe that the perfect double date is going out with both of you at the same time. One of you is going to get dumped in the end. And it wasn't Greg.

But we couldn't depend on double dating and tennis to save us for too long. One day you are bound to find yourself standing there without a tennis racquet, and A is crying. That is another thing about doubles. One partner goes and the other leaves the game also. At least that was the case with R. Paul... I mean Greg (where is the backspace on this thing) never forgave me for that. I am not sure whether it was because he lost R as a date or as a very good tennis partner. (Which is harder to find, do you think?)

I didn't do too well with girls and tennis after that. Perhaps it was because I set my sights too high. I would never go out on a second date with a girl who didn't like tennis and Monty Python - a lethal combination. I remember watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail with X. She didn't even laugh once. And I didn't see any point in giving her a chance to prove herself on the court, after that. But I don't think she left that broken up.

Now, I don't know if Kim Sears even plays tennis. But I am less rigid now and would suffice with her watching me play with that special adoration in her eyes which until now has been reserved only for Andy. And I'm sure she loves Monty Python. You can tell just by looking into her eyes.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Working our way backwards through time

Will Google glasses one day allow us to relive past moments? Walk down a street, click (blink) on a date and observe all that happened at that point in time and space? Is this really that far fetched? And if we can go that far, why not a time machine that allows us to become active participants in past events? Yes, I am aware of the argument of logistics. If we can go back in the past and change something, then the present will change also. But if so, then it must have already happened. It must have already happened.

But what if logistics is simply our excuse for not being able to break out of the confines of our present level of comprehension. Logistics once seemingly proved that the world was flat. And there was a time when no one would have even conceived of the possibility of the light bulb, let alone the computer. Each generation appeared to entertain the smug belief that the greatest possible enlightenment had already been achieved.

Inventions reached their limit long ago, and I see no hope for further development. ~ Julius Frontinus, 1st century A.D.

Everything that can be invented has been invented. ~ Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899,

Is time travel another electric light bulb waiting to happen?

Let's borrow from the world of computers in order to offer one possible theory of time travel. Computer systems have a backup utility which allows us to go back and restore our system from a restore point in the past. This is particularly useful when something corrupts the present and we prefer to return to an earlier point and start over, erasing everything from that point on, as if it had never happened. Apple even calls their MAC backup utility - the Time Machine.

Tempting, eh? Start over again from an earlier point in our lives.

I suggest something similar in time travel, but with a significant twist. The restore point is only created when a time traveler goes back to a specific point in the past and does something that will change that world in some way.

"You are about to change this world. Click save to accept, or cancel to cancel. Warning: this change is irreversible and you will lose all future data."

But wait! Before you go back and present your old self with Sports Almanac so as to become rich through gambling - as Biff did in Back to the Future - you must realize that any change that you inflict will not affect the world that you go back to. Rather, you will have created a parallel world with a different future from that point on. Would there be any point, then, in making a variant of yourself rich in another world? A world whose future you cannot witness? Or would this be similar to wanting to leave a legacy for your children? You will not witness the effect of your legacy after you are dead, either.

Now some of you may claim that the universe cannot house an infinite number of parallel worlds. Yet you don't appear to have a problem with the millions of new souls that are born into the universe every day - each new soul with a new consciousness, sending bouncing thought waves everywhere. Others among you may worry about the ever-increasing possibility of meeting yourselves coming and going. It may just take one errant wormhole and there you are, standing in front of  yourself face to face. Do you recognize your other? Is this a meeting of matter and anti-matter, which will perhaps cause the universe to explode, or implode?

I can see some of you looking for the price tag. Sounds promising, but what is the cost? The going price of a ticket for space travel is $250,000. Can we expect time travel to be in the same ball park?

Word on the street has it that not only does such a machine exist, but that it is in the hands of Google. And word on a Tel Aviv street corner will tell you that it was originally an Israeli startup. The last thing I heard is that Google is looking for beta testers. Any takers? Here is your chance to try out time travel for no cost. You may disappear into a black hole somewhere, but hey, we'd still be back contemplating the wheel if we weren't ready to take chances. Will Google be willing to add this to the Google+ profile, depending on advertising alone for monetary benefit? Will this be the straw that breaks Facebook's back? How long will it take Microsoft to clone the invention, somehow side stepping patent law?

What good is it then, if we can't go back and help avert calamities and foolish decisions, both for the benefit of mankind and the benefit of ourselves? Maybe it is time for us to simply accept the past as something that can't be changed, at least not in this world. At the most, we can try to understand it better, and through this understanding make the world a better place. The best place is to start with ourselves. Too many of us keep repeating the same mistakes.

So, if you were offered the opportunity to go back in a time machine, what part of your past life would you choose to visit - for whatever reason?

Oh, I forgot to tell you. You can only go back as an active participant to some point in your past life. You can't interactively visit someone else's life, or interactively visit a point in the past before you were born. However, you can go back as observer only, to any point in the past. This is definitely one up on reality shows and will definitely change our conception of history. They say that history is written by the victors, but here we have our own direct line to the past.

If I were to go back in the past, I'd choose the sixties. Why? That will have to wait for another blog posting. Right now the ink in my pen is running dry, and the more that I write - the greater the chance that I will meet myself coming and going.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Facebook status: Grandparent

My daughter in-law, Sharon (with significant help from my son, Noam) gave birth to a beautiful baby boy and I am now a grandfather. Adva and I are still getting used to this new status. Grandparents... wow!

Soon after being told the news,, a picture of the baby - taken with an iPhone - appeared in Adva's inbox.
"Come see the picture of the baby!" Adva called out to me.
"Wow," I exclaimed, looking proudly at my grandson.
"But Noam said that this is only for us privately," she added.
"Oh, you mean..."
"No facebook," Adva said, dejectedly.
It took us a while to digest all of this.
"Well, I need to change my facebook status," Adva said.
"Yes," I nodded, "I hadn't thought of that."
I went into facebook to make the change in status which would be broadcast to the world.
"You know what?" I called back to Adva.
"You can't change your status to grandparent in facebook. When it comes to - in a relationship - it can only be something like: single, married, it's complicated."
You'd think facebook would have thought of that. Here is a major event in our lives and facebook doesn't even have a place to mark our new status (or would that be an addition in status.)
"Well, I'm going to write something in the status box at the top of my page," I called out to Adva, now that she had got me going.
"I'll probably wait and write something this evening," she called back.
So I announced to the facebook world (or more exactly, to my facebook friends) that I am now a grandfather.

Soon after that, pings began to sound from my computer, somewhat like popcorn seeds beginning to pop.
"What are those sounds?" Adva asked me.
"People commenting on my announcement of being a grandfather, I suppose," I answered.
"Oh," Adva answered, and then she disappeared.
A little later, suspicious as to her whereabouts, I went into her facebook page. There she eloquently expressed her joy in being a grandparent. She already had over 50 likes. Hmm...

A day passed and we received more pictures, but still with no permission to put them up on our facebook pages.
"I think Noam and Sharon are punishing us," I said to Adva.
"For putting their wedding pictures up on facebook without permission."
"That was a long time ago."
"Lloyds know how to hold a grudge." I said.

Fade out to Noam and Sharon's house, where they sit looking at wedding pictures on Noam's parents' facebook pages.
"We are going to have to do something about my parents," Noam said. "They are becoming incorrigible."
"Maybe we should cut off their facebook access," Sharon said.

The evening of the second day, after arriving home from the hospital, and sending pictures of the baby to relatives (that we did have permission for), Adva asked me, ever so nonchalantly.
"How many likes do you have on your announcement?"
"Likes? What, are we in a competition?" I asked.
"No, just wondering."
"Let me check." I went into my facebook page. "47 likes and 31 comments. How many do you have?" I asked suspiciously.
"Oh, I don't know," she answered, trying to sound a little aloof, "I would say, offhand, about 84 likes and 57 comments."
I tried not to let my sulking appear too evident. The thing was, I needed a good picture of the baby to get things moving again. Maybe if one appeared innocently on my facebook page from an anonymous source. No, Noam and Sharon would never buy that excuse.

Now, don't jump to the conclusion that after 30+ years of marriage, Adva and I are in a competition for public recognition. That would be just sad. Mainly because I'd have little chance of winning. Despite my wide presence on the Internet with all of the initiatives that I have started and developed, when it comes down to it, Adva has the contacts. I mean, she even had our President Shimon Peres personally autograph his biography (in English) for my mother (my mother is a huge Shimon Peres fan).
"That was nice of Adva," my mother said. "Do you know Shimon Peres also?"
"No, but Adva introduced me to him, once."

But now that we are grandparents, Adva and I must start behaving ourselves and acting our age... well, let's just say, start behaving ourselves. Otherwise, Noam and Sharon may not let us babysit our new grandson.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Someone pass me the remote

I grew up before the days of cable or satellite TV, in Scarborough - a small suburb of Toronto. Like everyone else, we picked up broadcasts by means of a roof top antenna, with a very limited choice of stations. There was no remote control at the time - just a knob that we turned to change stations. When there were only about six stations to choose from, that wasn't much of a problem. Which doesn't mean that this station  control wasn't mobile. When my parents went out and left my sister and me alone, the channel war began. At the time, my sister was obsessed with anything to do with horses and I wanted to watch pretty much anything else. After we were unable to negotiate agreement, the channel knob came off the TV and the race began. Which meant that instead of actually watching TV when my parents were away, we spent the time wresting control of the channel changer, which couldn't do much of anything until it was attached back to the TV.

So much has changed since. And as the technology continued to develop, I somehow appeared to always be one step behind.

It all started when I decided to leave Canada and see where my travels would take me. After working my way through Europe, I ended up on an Israeli kibbutz, and just as my friends back home were entering into the world of colour and cable TV, I entered into a world of black and white and one state-run TV station.

It's not as if I missed TV. At the time my whole life was still an adventure, and TV was of little interest to me. Of course, when the Yom Kippur War broke out about four months later, I did squeeze my way into the television room and watch as generals used maps to explain the present situation. Luckily I didn't know enough Hebrew at the time to understand that we were very close to being pushed into the sea. All I knew was that Israelis kept telling me: "Yihyeh  beseder." (Everything will be okay). It was only much later during my Israeli experience that I realized that Israelis only said this when things were really bad, or out of control.

We had to go to a communal television room, at the time, to watch TV because kibbutz members didn't have TV in their apartments. All to do with socialistic values which have long since disappeared.

Watching Israeli television at the time was like going back in a time machine to the fifties and sixties. And since the whole nation was watching the same programs, it was quite easy to find someone with whom to discuss a program from the previous day. And it was remarkable to see how the whole country appeared to shut down once a week to watch a new episode of  I Claudius. There was almost no traffic on the streets. You could hear a pin drop.

When it was finally decided to introduce TV sets into the apartments of kibbutz members, my future wife to be and I would go to her parents' apartment to watch TV with them (TV sets were handed out according to kibbutz seniority and we still had to wait). I found myself watching things that I would have never watched - had I a choice. And although there was a vibrant TV world developing out there, Israeli TV was basically a collection of grade B reruns. This was still before there was any real Israeli Hebrew sitcom content. What original Israeli content there was on Israeli TV was mainly made for TV documentaries and children programs. Israeli Educational TV was the shining light in the early Israeli television experience.

In the meantime, I missed a whole generation of North American TV. I never saw the Watergate broadcasts; I never saw Wayne Gretzky play in a regular season hockey game; I  never saw Seinfeld until the last episode was finished and all that was left were the reruns. But I rationalized: "If you are going to leave a culture behind, leave it behind. Don't expect it to follow you to wherever you end up." Just another reason for my friends back home to proclaim me crazy.

But TV is somewhat a measure of the ever-changing Israeli experience. Israel before and after colour television is not just a question of colour, but also a question of social fabric. Why, we must ask ourselves, did Israel wait for over ten years to implement Israeli TV broadcasts in colour when it already had the technology and equipment? Moreover, when Israelis began to import colour televisions in order to watch imported TV programs in colour, why did the government order the state-run TV station to use a special mechanism to erase all colour from the broadcast? Then Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, described colour television as artificial and unnecessary. Political elements in the government went even further in claiming that the import of colour TV sets would only widen the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots. But Israelis, known for their ingenuity, began to purchase TV sets which had a built in anti-eraser mechanism which returned the colour that had been erased.

The kibbutz also struggled with the social impact of television on the kibbutz way of life. Bowing down to increasing pressure, it was finally decided to introduce black and white TV sets into kibbutz members' apartments. But by the time that that happened, Israel had started to broadcast in colour and the rest of Israel was moving over to colour sets. It took a while for the kibbutz to catch up to that, too, but by then we had decided to leave the kibbutz and were headed south, deep into the Negev desert.

That was when we really began to feel the technological gap. But what do you expect, living in the desert?

The first development was the creation of a second Israeli TV station - this time a commercial one. Soon, not only were friends back home in Canada telling me what I was missing, but friends back in the centre of Israel, as well.
"You have to watch Seinfeld!" they told me.
"It is only on Channel 2," I told them, "and the signal doesn't reach us."
The children were complaining and my wife kept pointing out what we were missing, but what could you do - it was out of our control.
"Yihyeh beseder," I said.

And then Channel 2 only made things worse, by increasing the signal, just enough to tease us, but not all the way there.
"What are you doing on the roof?" my wife called up to me one day, as I stood precariously above twiddling with the antenna.
"Trying to get Channel 2," I said.
"Are you crazy!", she exclaimed. "You will kill yourself."
"That program you told me about last night, that you really want to see, is on."
"I'll turn on the TV" she said. "I'll let you know when we get a picture."
"Do you see it now?" I called down to my wife, through the open window.
"I see something."
"And now?" I asked twisting the antenna just a bit more.
One more little twist.
"Good! That's it," my wife called out. "Don't move!"
After about ten minutes, I decided it was time for me to be rewarded for my efforts and let go of the antenna, starting to make my way down.
"We lost the signal!" my wife cried out.
It was then that I discovered that I am a good human conductor.

But if I am known to be one thing, it is obsessive. The signal was out there taunting me, and I wasn't going to give up soon. I found a long iron pole that had been discarded in a nearby junk yard and brought it home. Attaching it to the house, outside of the living room window, I attached the antenna at the top. I could then lean out the window and slowly turn the pole, turning the antenna, until I got the best picture. I even managed to pick up Jordan TV at times. But because of usually strong evening winds, I had to hold the pole so that the wind wouldn't cause the antenna and pole to turn. But at least now, hanging out of the window, I could keep a hold of the pole and watch TV at the same time.

It was then that cable television reached Israel. Israel was finally catching up to the rest of the world. Well... most of Israel. The cable company (a monopoly) informed us that it was too expensive to lay cables down in our remote desert neighborhood. And here we were again, way behind everyone else.

It's not that I had to have such access to the boob tube. It wasn't totally necessary, as Golda Meir would say. But I wanted the ability to choose, even if it were the choice not to watch.

And along came an Israeli satellite company and the cable company's monopoly was over. For the first time, anyone, anywhere, could be hooked up to hundreds of stations. Since we were one of the first communities to hook up to the new service, we were offered the opportunity to sign up to the unlimited package, something I jumped at, and something they soon no longer offered to new subscribers. And just like that, everything changed. It wasn't long before we got a digital recording box as well, and access to VOD (video on demand). Suddenly, all those years of drought were behind us. We had better access than many of my friends back home in Canada.

So, what is the punch line? Patience, perseverance? What comes around, goes around? I don't really know. Right now I can choose not to watch 90% of the stations available. And I like that - just fine.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

And now the book: Why I May Still Be Canadian

A few months ago, I was approached by a publisher to turn my blog - Why I May Still Be Canadian - into a book (paperback).
"Turn a blog into a book?" I asked myself. "Isn't that going in the opposite direction?"
For blogs seem to be almost an antithesis to the printed word. One rests in cyberspace, expanding in elastic time and space - while the other is encased in a limited number of physical pages between two covers.
I may not have seriously considered this request at all, hadn't it been for a remark made by a good friend a short time earlier:
"Your blog would make a good book," he said.
"A book... yes. But what's the point?" I asked myself.

The point, according to the publisher - bloggingbooks, is quite clear:

Blogs deserve being published!
Millions of people share their point of view with the world in real time – This is how blogs have
become part of our everyday lives. Blogs focus on the present and thereby provide continuous
commentary on daily happenings. Events and content, that are presented in a chronological
order on the internet, get a new dimension through books. Books create systematic snapshots
through collecting, compiling, categorizing and commenting.

Are you convinced?

I still wasn't, although they had definitely captured my interest. I think that what may have convinced me in the end was the revelation that a blog is like sand sifting through our fingers. We see it as it passes through, but then it is swallowed up in the collecting mound of sand below. Although one may jump back in time and sporadically read earlier postings, a blog is more like a newspaper than a book. It is archived like many newspapers are, but only a small percentage of people work their way back.

I know that I am subjective, but in transforming the blog structure into book form (a huge task in itself), I really enjoyed reading the postings from old to new. A blog can make a good book, strangely enough.

So Why I May Still Be Canadian  is my second book - the one most people can understand. And this blog posting may be seen as a watershed separating the blog, which is the book, from the blog which still bravely carries onward into the virtual darkness.

If you do purchase my book, drop me a line and share your thoughts. Always good to know that you are not alone.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Wake up and smell the flowers

No, they aren’t roses. These be wild flowers. Wild, but protected by the Nature Authority. Israelis may be a grumpy, aggressive, loud lot - but they sure like their wild flowers. On a beautiful spring day (can the 9th of February be considered spring?), we wandered about admiring the flowers up on the Carmel Mountain on the outskirts of Haifa. It was a beautiful day, one of those magical, bright days which appear unexpectedly during the winter. All of Israel seemed to be outside on that day, migrating into the parks - enjoying barbecues, hiking, and of course: the flowers.

Which is fitting. We are into the second month of 2013. It’s time to wake up and smell the flowers.

I know that much of Canada, and North America as a whole, is deep under snow as I write these words. So it may seem a little unfair, the timing of this particular blog. But then, you get to put on skates, head out to the nearest rink, freeze your butts off and drink hot chocolate. 

All we have is sunshine.

Israelis don’t get the Canadian cold. 
During the last winter storm, an Israeli interviewed in New York City complained about the "extreme cold".
“It's -1 (celcius) right now. During the day it sometimes goes up to a little above zero. But then it usually goes down to about -7 at night.”
Excuse me? 1 below and it even reaches a bit above zero? And you dare to call this cold? 7 below at night? Don’t talk to me about cold until it is at least -8 during the day.

Israelis' concept of the cold is something like the following (I am adding fahrenheit for the benefit of our American cousins):
+22C (+72F) - comfortable
+18C (+64F) - chilly
+14C (+57F) - cold
+5C (+41F) - really cold

Now, let's see how Canadians view the cold according to the “Canadian Temperature Scale”:
+21C (+70F) - Texans turn on the heat and unpack the thermal underwear. People in Canada go swimming in the Lakes.
+10C (+50F) - Californians shiver uncontrollably. People in Canada sunbathe.
-7C (+20F) - Floridians don coats, thermal underwear, gloves, and woolly hats. People in Canada throw on a flannel shirt.
-9C (+15F) - Philadelphia landlords finally turn up the heat. People in Canada have the last cookout before it gets cold.
-73C (-100F) - Santa Claus abandons the North Pole. Canadians get frustrated because they can't thaw the keg.

Now, I admit, there may be a bit of an exaggeration there. At least about Santa Claus lasting that long, and Philadelphia landlords actually turning up the heat. But you get the gist.

I remember one year when my wife (Israeli born and bred) and I were on a winter visit in Canada. My parents and I decided to take Adva out on snowshoes in order to enjoy a winter walk in the deep snow of Northern Ontario. I must admit that at that time it was beginning to get cold even by Canadian standards (-25 C). After about 10 to 20 steps, we noticed that Adva wasn't with us. Retracing our steps, we found her in the car, doors locked on the inside.
“I’m not going out there again!” she announced with Israeli finality.
Another year we went to Canada on a summer visit. No worry about the cold then. We went camping with my parents and on a cool rainy summer day, headed down to the beach to go swimming.
“Are you crazy?" Adva said. "Going swimming in the rain?”
“Why not?” I answered. “You're going to get wet in any case.”
Adva just didn’t get the cold-headed Canadian logic.

But then, in Canada people think it is hot when the temperature reaches +28C (+82), and really, really hot if it creeps up to +33C (+91F). 
"Hot?" I say. "It only starts to get hot, down here in the desert, when it reaches +33C (+91F). Don't talk to me about hot!"

Where does all this leave me then - as a cross between a Canadian and an Israeli? Do I feel cold in Canada only when it reaches -8C and in Israel when it reaches +14C? Do I feel hot in 
the Israeli desert only when it reaches +33C, but if I were to spend a summer in Canada - feel hot when it reaches +28C or +30C? As strange as it may sound, that is exactly how I might feel. We expats adapt in so many different ways. 

It doesn't appear, then, that Canadians will be smelling the flowers soon. Will they let these months slip by, waiting for spring to arrive? So much is lost in the waiting. We are reaching the middle of February. Isn't it time to wake up?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Puzzle Maker

I have started doing puzzles - jigsaw puzzles. There is something therapeutic, soothing, yet stimulating in sitting in front of a puzzle for a few hours each evening. I imagine that we use only about five per cent of our brain during the day, even if we are multi-tasking twelve different screens on the computer. If we break each thing down into its separate part, we really aren’t demanding too much of the brain at all.

But with a puzzle, we must both see each part separately and all of the pieces as a whole. So often we put in the wrong piece, believing that we have a fit, only to later realize that a mistake, however subtle, has been made somewhere, offsetting everything else. And then we painstakingly work our way back, looking for that wrong turn.

One might say that doing jigsaw puzzles is an inherited tradition in our family - a tradition passed down from mother to son. The only time that I tend to do puzzles nowadays is when I visit my mother in Canada. One of the reassuring things of “returning home” is finding a partially completed puzzle spread out on the table, awaiting me. It doesn’t take long before I am sitting there, ensconced, filling in holes, putting together new sections.

But this time, upon arriving back in Israel from my Canadian visit, I decided that I needed to continue the tradition in my adopted land. Partly to sharpen my mind, partly to serve as an alternative to staring at the wall. I know that some of you will say that a good book serves the purpose just as well, but not really. At least, not for me. First of all, a book is linear. Secondly, after sitting in front of the computer screen most of the day, digesting all types of text, my eyes need a reprieve from constantly sweeping from left to right, right to left, scanning row after row. The easy and soft pace of working on a puzzle in the evening provides a welcome visual massage.

My daughter became hooked on puzzles, also, when she visited Canada with me many years ago. We actually picked up on it when we returned to Israel and were even doing two thousand piece puzzles at one point, which required taping together two large hard plastic sheets so that the puzzle could become “mobile” when needed and not totally neutralize a major part of the living room. We had to try and keep Bijou, our Labrador, away from the puzzle, or we would find small pieces chewed up in different parts of the house. There is something about the glue used in the pieces that is quite tasty to dogs. But Nicole grew up and left home, and Bijou passed away, and I was left with an empty table - the plastic sheet going into storage.

Until now. A thousand piece puzzle is once again spread across the table. But working on a puzzle now is different. The house is empty. No children, no dogs. A busy wife usually arrives home late in the evening. Coming home to an empty house after a long hard day at work can sometimes be comforting, but often disconcerting. No one there to welcome you. It is good then having the puzzle there. I pour myself a glass of whiskey and settle down, the pieces coming together on the table, pieces coming together in my mind. Life is but a mosaic, isn’t it. We are constantly looking for which next piece will fit. We should never give up the hunt.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Travelling the Italian Way

What is loyalty, really? I know you can be loyal to a husband, a wife, a country, or a friend... but what about being loyal to an airline?

For five consecutive years I travelled from Tel Aviv to Toronto and back with Air Canada, faithfully collecting miles through their Aeroplan frequent flyer program.  After having flown with many different airlines in the past, I decided to make Air Canada “my airline” for a number of reasons - the leading reasons being that it was a direct flight and I felt I was supporting my “national” airline.

“National airline?” you say. “Isn’t that a little far-fetched? What about El Al? Surely they are more a national airline for you now. And they fly direct to Toronto, also.”

Well, yes. But I have one small, very significant problem with El Al. Put too many Israelis in a confined space and things just get nasty.

So one might call me a loyal Air Canada traveller. Well, at least until December 2012, that is,  when Air Canada and I parted ways and I travelled to Toronto and back with another airline. Did I feel guilty? A little. Did Air Canada really care? Probably not. And there lies the problem.

Over the years, I started to feel that I was being taken for granted by Air Canada. Instead of welcoming my business and adding in a few perks to reward me for my loyalty, Air Canada showed no real signs of wanting my business at all. Not once was I offered an upgrade, or a chance to exchange points for an upgrade. I never knew whether they would be offering special winter deals that year, and when they did offer, it was usually announced late in the year - in October or November. And I couldn’t wait that long before purchasing my December ticket. And when I flew to Scotland with another Star Alliance member airline earlier in the year, Air Canada wouldn’t honour the miles accumulated with that airline, providing some lame excuse. Except for the direct flight, and the feeling of “Oh Canada” as I entered the plane, I began to wonder whether there was really much of an advantage flying Air Canada. And then along came Alitalia.

Six years ago, at about the same time I joined the Air Canada frequent flyer program, I also  joined the Alitalia frequent flyer program on a whim. But when I discovered that Alitalia was experiencing financial difficulties, I decided that they were not an option at the time. However, over the years, Alitalia managed to get its act together through new financial arrangements and they began an aggressive marketing campaign. Which led one day to an offer that I found in my inbox - an offer I found quite difficult to refuse. 15% off any ticket to a destination of my choice. And not only 15% off the base fare, which Air Canada had once offered me (the base fare constituting only about a half of the total cost of the ticket before taxes and services are added on) - but 15% off the final price. The only catch was that I had to purchase a ticket between 10 p.m. that night and 5 a.m. the following morning. Usually I am not that spontaneous (ask my wife), but taking into account that Alitalia’s regular price for a round trip ticket to Toronto was already about a hundred dollars cheaper than Air Canada’s cheapest combination, and that all in all Alitalia’s price would be about three hundred dollars cheaper, I made the leap.

Now, you may say that I sold out my loyalty for $300, and in part, you may be right. But it was more than this. I felt sought after again. I felt that someone valued my business. I just hoped that there wasn’t another catch somewhere.

The only catch I could find was Rome airport where I had to catch my connecting flight. Even a Kupat Holim corridor has more seats than they have in a gate section at Rome airport. With little chance of finding a place to sit, you are left to wander the halls or sit down on the grubby floor. But it was only two hours between flights and I could excuse this small hindrance for the price offered. And when it came to flying Alitalia, I was pleasantly surprised. The flight from Tel Aviv to Rome was a bit cramped, like most flights within Europe, but the flight from Rome to Tel Aviv was spacious, with a personal screen on the back of each seat (although the movie selection was quite inferior to Air Canada’s selection).

So, I made it to Toronto. The only thing remaining was to see whether they would get me back to Tel Aviv in the new year.  And here was the icing on the cake.

You’d think that once they had “roped me in”, they would treat me with the same disregard as Air Canada. But here I was at Toronto Pearson International Airport, awaiting the return leg back to Israel, when I heard my name. “Will David Lloyd please come up to the desk for the Alitalia flight to Rome.” I walked up to the desk wondering whether they would tell me that I had only paid for half a ticket when a very pleasant woman attendant took my ticket and gave me a new one. “We are upgrading you to business class,” she said.

My first flight with Alitalia and I already got upgraded. Air Canada, suck on that! It is almost enough to get you to wave the Italian flag and learn to speak Italian. Would I fly with Alitalia again? Well, right now I see very good reason to travel the Italian way.