Friday, January 16, 2009

The Value of a Good News Story









Attacks on Jews abroad.

Empty retirement funds.

Depleted life savings.

Widespread financial insecurity.

In the midst of this maelstrom, the value of a good news story cannot be underestimated.

On a mid-winter Thursday afternoon, a plane leaves La Guardia airport bound for North Carolina.

Geese invade the engines, the plane fails, the pilot gives warning of impact.

It ditches into the Hudson River.



Into frigid waters.

Neatly missing the George Washington Bridge, West Side Highway, Manhattan itself.

Just as the afternoon rush hour was about to begin.

Passengers deplane as water rushes into the aircraft.

Women and children first.

People stand shoulder to shoulder on the plane's wings, appearing to walk on water.

Rescue boats appear within moments.

A heroic, photogenic rescue ensues.

The cool-headed, white haired pilot is the last to leave, checking the aircraft twice for lingering passengers before leaving.

Everyone survives.

This story dominates the airwaves, playing and replaying.

It is called Miracle on the Hudson.

We remain riveted to the television screen, our computers, the radio, the newspaper.

Watching the rescue replay. Hearing the survivors' accounts. Learning of the pilot's prowess.

The image of Chesley Sullenberger III flashes on our screens.

In his uniform, with calmly folded arms, he looks exactly like what he is -- a national hero.

Like the wings of US Airways Flight 1549, this good news keeps us afloat in treacherous waters

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Starbucks and Synesthesia

IT was a Tuesday afternoon, colder than loneliness. There were a thousand other places I was supposed to be, but there I was, sitting at a Starbucks on Broadway and 115th, talking about Stravinsky and synesthesia.

Actually, there was much more to the conversation, which veered along a manic, oddly orchestrated trajectory from music to sensory perception, from formative childhood experience to adult pathology, from nature to nurture, from mid-afternoon to early evening.

The day had been sipped haltingly, barely tasted. Just enough of its liquid kept me fueled yet the overwhelming sensation was that of thirst.

And so I sat and talked with a stranger about dreams and the intersection of longing and fear; the color of deep pleasure; the connection between creativity and self-indulgence.

Time lost its familiar markers and the conversation became the universe, self-contained and complete.

In the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, I slipped through a temporal portal without a backwards glance.

Climbing the monkey bars of Time, I decided to hang upside down with barely a worry as to who could see my underpants.

And found myself delighted and surprised to find a fellow Time Traipser hanging upside down right across from me, sharing the freedom of this new perspective. We were so close that our noses nearly touched. His breath tasted like adventure.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

If Gaza is Auschwitz, Hamas is the Nazis

War is hell.

This is a fact.

There is no way to prettify the devastation, the human toll, the destruction, the fear, the chaos, the death.

And when you are fighting an enemy with a penchant for firing from mosques, hospitals, schools and various other civilian or residential centers, the chances of a higher-than-normal human toll is unavoidable.

This is the reality on the ground in Gaza.

The human toll has been staggering as Israel seeks to beat back Hamas, which has felt free to launch missiles into the heartland of the Jewish State because, let's be real, it cannot accept the fact of Israel's existence and is determined to keep its campaign alive until there is no one left to wage it.

How flipping tragic for the people of Gaza that in the years since Israel's disengagement, terrorist tunnels have been built instead of a social infrastructure. How pathetic that instead of seizing the opportunity to better itself, Gaza has remained a cesspool.

To quote Dov Rosenblatt of Blue Fringe, who took the megaphone at the pro-Israel rally in NYC this past Tuesday: Free Palestine!

From Hamas.

Let the world agree that the Palestinian people are among the most victimized people today.

By their own lawfully elected leaders.

This mantra must be repeated on the world stage, over and over again.

To the animals who beat up a 14-year-old Jewish girl in Paris.

To Hugo Chavez who kicked the Israeli ambassador out of Venezuela.

To the Palestinians in Denmark who shot Israelis at a mall.

To Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, publicly denouncing Israel at a rally in London.

To Jon Stewart, who revealed himself to be such a whore for cool-lefty-edgy-people-approval that he wove an enraged and rather demented rant against Israel into his shtick on Monday night's episode of The Daily Show.

To the Vatican official -- and all the other ahistorical morons -- who insist on making the Israel=Nazi State or Gaza=Concentration Camp analogy.

To all people who find it unthinkable that Jews might exert military might in self-defense.

The situation is complex and nuanced and Israel is surely not above legitimate criticism.

In fact, the best essay I have read on the difficulty of understanding this war appears today on the Huffington Post. Written by Marty Kaplan, Eyeless in Gaza explores all sides of the arguments against and for Israel. Kaplan is the head of the Norman Lear Center at USC's Annenberg School. Read it by clicking on this link:

However, at the heart of the heated case against Israel, the dangerous rage against this country's military action, is the belief that Jews do not have the right to defend themselves.

That there is some kind of historical agreement we are breaking by becoming soldiers and officers and commanders and intelligence experts and military strategists.

And that Jews around the world should be punished, in an up close and personal way, for this irritating, galling new policy.

Of all the manifestations of anti-Zionistic rage, the one I find most inexplicable yet predictable, is the equation of Israel with Nazism and now, Gaza with Auschwitz.

This has become a new "thing" among those who love to hate Israel and one hears the obscene analogy trotted out all the time. Once shocking, it is now completely unoriginal and overused, so five minutes ago.

I will not waste an inch of cyberspace explaining why this analogy is not only factually inaccurate and ridiculous but morally reprehensible and hypocritical.

Anyone who truly cares about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, perpetrated by Hamas, should gather in the streets of the world's capital cities, shouting the words Free Palestine.

From Hamas.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

From Walden Pond to Gaza City

At 10:30 this morning, Walden Pond was a self-contained universe. The thick layer of snow surrounding it was utterly undisturbed by footprints, human or otherwise. Not a single car loitered in the visitor's parking lot across the street. Thoreau's cabin, plunked in the sparse woods, looked pathetic, abandoned, perhaps slated for removal.

Yesterday, HOBB, Little Babe and I ambitiously set out by foot for Walden Pond from our hotel, the Colonial Inn in downtown Concord, Mass. This wonderfully preserved historic inn is a family destination and our yearly trips to the town made famous by Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne and other great American writers have taken on the quality of a religious pilgrimage.

Always at the heart of our Concord trips is a visit to Walden Pond, complete with a leisurely stroll around the pond itself. I have done it so many times that I lost count.

Two years earlier, I made the trek on Shabbat with my sons, Little and Big Babe, while the first snow of the season fell softly around us and HOBB slept in our hotel room. This winter, the snowfall was far more prodigious and the temperature was about 24 degrees south of freezing on the day we arrived at the Inn. Yesterday, it was perhaps 10 degrees warmer.

Still, I was determined to preserve our tradition and made sure to remind my men about our Shabbat excursion repeatedly. Owing to some stroke of outrageous good fortune, we had gotten bumped up to the Thoreau Suite (after booking a cheap room through Expedia) and found ourselves staying in a vast honeymoon palace with a fireplace, dining room (replete with a formal table and chairs), kitchen, spa bathroom with Jacuzzi. four-poster bed and living room...for $90 per night.

Walking three miles in the snow seemed the very least we could offer Henry David in thanks.

Putting on multiple layers of socks and sweaters and donning Arctic expedition-worthy hats, we headed out to Walden Pond at 3:30 in the afternoon, leaving the warmth and elegance of the Thoreau Suite reluctantly.

Stepping outside, I was dismayed to find that the sun that had drenched Main Street in the morning (causing water to pour off of the store awnings as we walked to the Concord Public Library) was now missing in action. As we trotted down Walden Avenue, a hostile wind whipped at our clothes and a lonesome grey overtook our vista.

Still, we set out for our journey with stoic resolve. But upon reaching Rt 2, and with only a quarter of a mile to go, my husband and son stopped in their tracks, refusing to go one step further. Their feet were frozen solid, their cheeks crimson red, and besides, the sun was setting and we needed to get back before it turned dark.

Barely able to contain my frustration (my feet were also frozen, my cheeks also burning...but so what! we were on a pilgrimage!) I relented at the sight of my miserable men (a tear drop was beginning to freeze on Little Babe's cheek) and the three of us trudged back down Walden Avenue toward Monument Square.

After we thawed our feet in the Jacuzzi, I extracted a vow from HOBB to visit Walden Pond first thing in the morning, on our way out of town.

Yet this morning, purring up Walden Avenue in our warm Honda Accord, we took one long and loving look at the lake and declared, "Nah."

It was an instantaneous and unambiguous decision.

That ability to let the dream of Walden Pond slip through our fingers signalled the end of our New England escapist adventure... and a return to our regularly-scheduled lives.

This vacation had an epic quality to it. For the first time in seven years, I declared a work blackout beginning on Christmas Eve and ending tomorrow morning at 9 am. After seven cycles of 24/6, I reached the end of my ability to be on call at all times.

And so, for nearly two weeks, I was missing in action, professionally-speaking. Call it a spontaneous sabbatical, chicken soup for the workaholic's soul.

But turning the car away from Walden Pond this morning was more than just a nod in the direction of the realm of work and productivity.

It was the recognition of a daunting reality waiting just outside the borders of vacationland, the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency, the promise of bold and sweeping changes, of ambitious solutions to the fallout of economic upheaval, of new life and blood, of American molting and changing and giving birth to itself anew.

Far less happily, it was also a quickening step towards the rising sun, eastward, in the direction of the Holy Land, which is also molting and changing and giving birth to itself anew by rising up to slay those who theaten its citizens and, by extension, its very existence. Towards the people who dare to defend themselves in the face of international condemnation from those are enraged at the counterintuitive combination of Jews and power -- a paradigm that flies in the face of a long history of persecution, escape and exile.

Thousands of miles from Thoreau's pristine pond, a young man wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces waits with his unit as a dreadful war wages within Gaza.

Only twenty years old, he is nervous yet wracked with guilt at the thought of his friends already called into combat and he, American born but Israeli-raised, spared the hardships of battle so far.

Around midday, I speak to his mother, my sister, seeking to find out whether he has been called (not yet), whether she still plans to fly to New York this week for a trip planned half a year earlier (she doesn't know), how she feels (worried) and what else is going on (what else matters?).

As we speak, I am on the Mass Pike, heading back to New York City. HOBB is driving. Little Babe sits in the back, wearing headphones, consulting his Japanese/English handheld computer. The sun is glorious, glaring off the hood of our Honda. The supreme luxury of the Thoreau Suite at the Colonial Inn is receding from my mind. My sister is the mother of an Israeli soldier who might be called into battle any minute now against an enemy that is sworn to Israel's eradication. I remember taking my nephew to the Central Park Zoo when he was a little boy. I remember holding him in my arms when he was newly-born. I thought he was a funny-looking baby but he has grown into a beautiful young man, well over 6 feet tall, kind, good-humored, smart, responsible.

I recall a moment from two years ago: breakfast at the Colonial Inn on a Shabbat morning. I had woken up late and rushed downstairs to catch breakfast before it closed. The man at the next table was reading The Boston Globe, spreading his newspaper before him in an expansive gesture of leisure and entitlement. Glancing to my right, I was shocked to see the front page headline screaming: Saddam Hanged. A photo accompanied the article.

First I stared at the headline dumbly, then snapped my head away from the man and his newspaper. I was shaken and unsettled at the news but also at the notion that there is no escape from reality. Even in picture-perfect Concord, Mass. which exists within a conceptual time-warp.

That afternoon, I walked to Walden Pond with my sons. By that time, Saddam Hussein's death was old news. I was no longer shocked and wondered instead how the world would change. I hoped for the better. Snow fell softly around us as we walked.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year's Hustle

Last year, we spent New Year's Eve at a filthy, funny burlesque show at the Zipper Factory on West 37th Street.

Two years ago, we were at a Eurogroovy party in a Harlem brownstone.

Three years ago, we hosted our own celebration, which was so much fun that Zoltan, our sour neighbor downstairs, called twice to complain about the noise.

Tonight, we wandered in, quite by accident, to a dance party at the 92nd St Y that transformed this venerable institution into a nightclub in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, circa 1974.

While two burly guys played endless mixes from a disco reject remainder bin, crazed couples hit the dance floor, showing off their artistry. Arms were raised with dramatic flair, heads snapped in synchronicity, bodies spun like possessed dreidels, cheeks pressed side by side, dozens of legs obeyed one single brain, hands grasped each other lightly yet firmly, hips swayed and sashayed.

Male palms were placed possessively on the smalls of female backs; satisfied smiles played on the periphery of lips. Couples moved across the floor like terrifying two-headed monsters, claiming their space, marking their territory.

The idea was to dance and be seen. To own the dance floor through sheer technique...and ego.

But the dance wasn't the only thing. Styles from the Capezio catalog came to life; divas outdid one another, peacocks fanned their tails. Preening was as ubiquitous as breathing.

There were at least two women in midriff-baring outfits, one highly noticeable in a sports bra-like top and Cruella De Ville-like gloves that started at the wrist and ended at her biceps. The other one wore a flowing gypsy number which reminded me of my college wardrobe...attacked by a pair of gardening shears.

There were flamenco dresses, flaring out just above the knees, there were sequined numbers and racy red and lots of basic black. There were opaque Danskin tights, men proudly squeezed into form-fitting Ricky Ricardo pants and shirts or strutting in somber Sopranoesque suits.

Utterly oblivious to the changes in hairstyles and fashion wrought over the past thirty years, women with big hair -- overbleached or darkly dyed -- were everywhere. The accents were regional, basic Brooklyn, with some Staten Island tossed in to be democratic. Most notably, the crowd was decidely unlike most 92nd St audiences. I would bet money that HOBB and I were the only people from the Upper West Side.

The menu of the music was disco tempered with salsa. Alas, there were no recognizable songs, no "Le Freak," "I Will Survive," or even the pornographic, "Love to Love You Baby."

Two hours in, after three pathetic attempts to assert my own freestyle dance moves against the tyranny of the disco beat, I swam over to the DJ to ask him when rock music would be played. After all, the website had promised a "rockin' New Year's Eve party."

"Rock music?" He stared at me as if I had requested Gregorian chants. "Nah...this is a Hustle party."

So as HOBB and I sat out yet another endless dance mix with a chorus of women's voices repeating some inane string of words ("I wanna get with ya"? "I wanna get togetha"? "Why don't we get togetha"?) I was at least able to put closure on this most surreal New Year's Eve adventure.

In our quest to do something fresh and fun, we chanced upon an event hosted by a secret society -- amateur, or perhaps even professional practitioners and enthusiasts of The Hustle, that iconic line dance of the seventies.

Preserved in a time warp, the members of this society exist below the radar screen, lurking in the shadows of 21st century New York City, coming out when there is strength in numbers. I learned, as I was leaving, that the party was not hosted by the 92nd St Y after all. The building had simply allowed this seventies spaceship to land there, renting space for its Hustle-crazed alien crew.

These parties are their playground and in it, they are the alpha males and females, owning the dance floor with their deliberate, self-consciously orchestrated moves, pretending not to watch themselves in the reflection of windows and mirrors as they whizz and twirl past.

They dance for each other and hopefully for their own pleasure. They are the keepers of the flame ignited by The Hustle, which once burned bright in discos and clubs, causing untold numbers of individuals to fall into lines on a dance floor and perform the simple, repetitive steps in tandem with their neighbors.

While the rest of us stand on the sidelines, pondering the peculiar party we seem to have crashed, comforting ourselves with the knowledge that the very room containing this weird scene on the last night of 2008 normally features authors, politicians and pundits, people like Elie Wiesel and Nora Ephron -- architects of ideas, composers of concepts, advocates of individualism -- people who remind us of ourselves.