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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Profits and Loss.... Earthstory

Did Nero actually fiddle while Rome burned? Could people actually continue to stoke our "modern" economies and lifestyles until all the glaciers and forests and coral reefs are gone? Until cities disappear under water and societies wither from famine? There's an episode (12/5/03 - "Middle of Nowhere") from This American Life, my favorite radio show, that left a huge impression on me. It's about a South Pacific island, Nauru, whose 12,000 or so people were surrounded by trees, many that bore fruit. In the late 1800's an Australian man brought back a piece of what looked like petrified wood from the island and used it as a doorstop. Another man at his work discovered that it was actually a rich phosphate and Nauru became very conspicuous on the world map. One colonizing country after another came to mine the phosphate during the 20th century. When colonialism went out of style and gave way to globalization the citizens of an independent Nahru continued to sell off their valuable phosphate rich parcels until the tiny island was almost completely denuded of topsoil and trees. For awhile, in the late 80's, the "Nauruinians" were the richest people per capita on the entire planet. By the late 90's, except for some trees on the perimeter, the entire surface of the Manhattan-sized island is all dusty gray-white coral. All food and even drinking water must be flown in.

(The story gets into the crazy and barely legal ways Nauru has schemed to raise money without any natural resources to sell.)

To me, this little island is a total metaphor for the larger group of us inhabiting Planet Earth, which is just a bigger, more spherical island. Have we reached the equivalent of the late 80's in Nauru?

Friday, February 16, 2007

That's my son!

I went to, a site where people post their photos. I searched for "New Orleans + tornado" and found some photos from three different photographers. I noticed that one had two shots of a house where two walls were blown out. When I enlarged the second one, I saw it was my son Zac standing in front of it. That's the house he'd told me about that I mentioned in my previous blog entry. Yet another example of the internet shrink-wrapping our world.

My own photos on Flickr can be found at: here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tornado in New Orleans 2/13/07

My son Zac just called to tell me his New Orleans neighborhood was hit by a tornado at 3:30 AM last night. The whole house was shaking, a couple of windows shattered, transformers were exploding outside, and the porch railing was blasted apart by some flying debris. Apparently, his house fared much better than those of many neighbors. At first light, he and his roommate went out as did many others to find the streets covered with broken phone poles that had snapped in half and a swarm of electrical, phone, and cable wiring weaving through the streets like a high-tech spider web. In five hours, all the neighbors had cleared the streets. Zac helped various people board up their shattered windows. He helped one man remove valuable doors and windows from the two walls that had been blown entirely off his house. Others are missing their roofs, while nobody has electricity or landlines for phones. Zac used his cell phone to tell his employers at Habitat for Humanity that he would not be coming to work today. Speaking only partly as his dad, I think Habitat should have all their workers out in that neighborhood (a portion of Uptown) for the next day or so and count it toward their work hours. Apparently some of the Habitat volunteers who heard what Zac (their supervisor) and his roommate were up to, came out and lent a hand today as well. New Orleans seems like a magnet for natural disasters. I'm so proud that Zac knew instinctively what he needed to be doing today.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Wikipedia: Got Truth?

A few of us were talking about the amazing phenomenon of Wikipedia, the comprehensive, peoples' encyclopedia, that anybody can help to write. One voiced his concern that since participants can change entries to reflect their own opinionated positions on any controversial topic, eventually few sites would be credible. I said that school textbooks also reflect prejudices and world views of the people in power and the popular perspective of their time and place. My friend said that ideally you'd like people who are actually from a specific community to write the entries about their reality. I pointed out that physical communities are frequently the greatest practitioners of self deception particularly when they feel threatened by the community "on the other side." So where you gonna go for "truth?"

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Meditation Novice

I went to my first meditation class and sitting. It was peaceful sitting and breathing and noticing that. It wasn't long before I was thinking that I hadn't finished my Starbucks coffeecake earlier at home, and where the heck had I put it down? Then I noticed my digression and refocused on my breathing. Minutes later I was mentally reviewing scenes from a famous fight between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard that had been playing on a sports channel as I'd eaten dinner that evening. I sharpened the focus on my breathing again, but not before noting that thoughts are often a lot like TV shows for me, a source of endless amusement and distraction.

Jeff Frost Memorial

I just returned from a memorial service for Jeff Frost who was my dentist and died of a sudden heart attack at age 50. I suspect there were a number of other patients there who only saw Jeff a few minutes per year, but were touched by his calm, smiling energy. I knew he had a couple of young daughters, loved music and travel. Today I heard from some of his longtime friends - all guys - that he was a Deadhead, a musician, and as a youngster he was a consummate inventor, philosopher, and fantasy player - building a perpetual motion machine and developing a shared cosmology with his buddies about an imaginary planet. It sounded like he'd gone to school at UC Santa Barbara. Indeed, we probably crossed paths at the Dead concert in 1974 when he would have been a freshman and me a senior. Would that someone could have introduced us that day as future dentist and patient, I think we'd have both gotten even higher. He was never worried about the gum recession over my two eye teeth, though he monitored it every year and once sent me for a graft. He said it would take many years before I'd have to worry about the loss of those teeth. It's hard to accept that his whole life is gone before those two teeth.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

"Live in Peace" March and Rally in East Palo Alto

Today I went to the "Live in Peace" March and Rally in East Palo Alto. Since late December there have been 20 shootings including several murders of teenagers in the community of 30,000 Latinos, African-Americans,
Tongans, and Caucasians. Two young Tongan girls are among the dead. The relatively new police chief Davis has emphasized communications and community policing and the crime rate had gone down dramatically last year. But the violence - most of it youth violence - just erupted with a momentum of its own. Perhaps a couple of thousand from the community - all ethnic groups were represented - and perhaps a hundred or so from neighboring, affluent Palo Alto, participated in the march and rally. The poetry and raps from the young people who took the stage were most inspiring of all. Some of them were close to someone who's been shot or killed. The march, noisy with conversations, a Tongan marching band, and spontaneous whoops of joy, made a clear statement about the community's intention to reclaim the streets and Jack Farrell Park. Today the dangerous park was filled with balloons and hot dogs and people of all ages and backgrounds. There were even some normally intimidating, weathered, motorcycle guys wearing their decal-laden leather jackets. Everybody saying "stop d'a violence." Faye McNair Knox, the Executive Director of One EPA, was introduced as the "Mother of East Palo Alto." I wondered how she felt about that because, not that long ago, it was the generation before her - Ms. Mouton and Ms. Wilkes who would get introduced like that, but immediately she shouted out, "I'm a Grandmother now!" She said that there's talk that some of the shooters have "put down their beef" and put away their guns. Even they are affected by a community outpouring for peace and safety. Perhaps they want to be part of it, if indeed, everybody perceives a vibrant community in EPA.

"Rose" and my "Bubbie"

Last night we saw a one woman performance called "Rose", from the Traveling Jewish Theatre. Rose recounts her 80 years beginning with her life in a "schtetl" (Jewish village) in Poland, moving to the big, culturally vibrant Warsaw as a young woman, falling in love with someone she meets at a party, having a baby - only to crash into "realpolitik" as the Nazis invade Poland and create a crowded ghetto for the Jews in Warsaw. Her husband and child are killed. She manages to escape and after time in a refugee camp, ends up on the famous ship "Exodus" that is refused entry to Palestine. She outlives two more husbands in America. She has another child who ends up moving to a kibbutz in Israel. She is living alone in an apartment on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach when she has a poignant, angry, telephone exchange with her Israeli son.

It's amazing how little he knows of his mother's life.....all the pain she carries and the yearning for her first love, Yossel, and their child, her life in Warsaw or the refugee camps etc. It is reflected in his remarks about how Israelis resurrected the Hebrew language and discarded Yiddish as a relic of a rootless, victimized past. "Israelis look to the future" he says, and between that dynamic and the fact that she never shares her past with her new husband(s) and child, there is an internal life that gets erased from the books even before she's passed away.

It is a familiar story, repeated many times over. My own "Bubbie" (grandmother) somehow escaped the Nazis and made her way to Chicago, America where she and her daughter met my "Zadie", a widower with two daughters, who worked in the stockyards as a "shochet", slaughtering cows by the kosher method of a sharp knife across the throat. I know nothing of where she came from or how she got to America. They spoke Yiddish to each other and lived in a religious Jewish neighborhood called Albany Park (long after all the younger families moved north to West Rogers Park). Bubbie and Zadie obviously took pleasure from our visits at holidays, lavishing us with food, but there was little conversation, at least with us grandkids. It was like going to another planet, though the food was great. They had a red wagon that we played on for hours, but not much else in the way of toys. We played games with nuts since they had many of those.

She outlived my Zadie who died one year after retiring from the stockyards and continued her work as a kindergarden teacher in an Orthodox school. She eventually married another Orthodox man who had a job as a "mashgiach" at a Miami Beach hotel (a mashgiach certifies that all the food at the hotel is strictly kosher). She outlived him and ended up in an apartment by herself on Collins Avenue, just like Rose. I barely ever kept in touch after my stint in Chicago at the Yeshiva and my own Exodus from orthodox Judaism. Deborah and I can vaguely remember introducing her to our baby twins and the pleasure she beamed, though we can't remember where that occurred. I know nothing of her personal story. I don't know how her first husband died and what weights she carried in her heart.

Some time after she died, I received a call from her daughter in Brooklyn. She told me how much Bubbie loved all her grandchildren and that she was able to leave each one a hefty check for $15,000.