Friday, June 24, 2011

Lead With Love. Leave With Hope

From the ceiling of The Prayer Room in the Terezin Ghetto

"Just try to lead with love." 
                                       Kenneth Cooper


This is my final post. Tuesday, I return to the States after five months in Europe, thereby closing the book on my Hungarian Fulbright experience. I am sorry to see it end. I am thankful to have had it.

Five months is a long time, to be away from home, but also to live as a guest in someone else's home. To my mind, Europe has been my guest home for this period, and the Hungarian town of Eger my room within that home. Always returning to my place here in Eger, I have traveled to Copenhagen, Berlin, Krakow, Venice, Oradea (Romania),
Prague, Antwerp, not to mention the Hungarian towns of Pécs, Veszprém, Debrecen, Miskolc, and Budapest. Though not Europe, we can throw Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in there as well.

I use this metaphor of "home" because it is in the "home" that we come to know families, family traditions, family values -- complete with, as my Yiddish forebears would say, their mishigas. It's the traditions and such that make a stay informative; it's the mishigas that makes a stay interesting. Europe is very interesting.

As a house guest in Europe, I was a child. I had everything to learn and understand; I shied from being an American elder and teaching about American ways. If asked, I would answer, but I was more interested in observing and taking instruction. I tried to slip about the house quietly like an apprentice, not noisily like an apostle or apologist. I'm not sure how well I did, though I did my best.

***
A return from this time spent overseas deserves, I think, some kind of written reflection, some kind of exit synthesis on this blog. I can't call it a summing up, because my response here, what I have chosen to reflect upon, does not and cannot address all that I've caught in the net of this Fulbright experience. Instead, I'll talk about just a few ideas high up on my retrospective food chain. Keep the keepers. Let the little fish, however striking, go.

To this end I have been thinking, What can I say that I learned while here -- in Hungary, Europe, Israel --, and say in a cogent, focused way? It is this: our species, homo sapiens, is immense. We are immense in number, and immense in imagination. This three-pound notebook on which I have been keeping this blog can store thousands of pages just like this one; complete in fractions of a second calculations that took the brightest mathematicians thousands of years to unlock; stream video of John Stewart sparring with Chris Wallace over political bias in the media. And it can do all this for nearly half a day with not an electrical outlet in sight. Tuesday I will board a jet that will cross the Atlantic in a handful of hours, at an altitude of three or four miles, at a speed of 500 or 600 miles per hour, delivering me and hundreds of other passengers and thousands of other pounds with pinpoint accuracy and infinitesimal risk. Notebook and jet, both of these machines are the culmination of millions of hours of research, design, mining, shaping, manufacturing, and so forth. This little laptop and that jumbojet are both products of and testimonials to our species' immense imagination.

So too was the Holocaust. It is only when one gets beneath the ghastly but incomprehensible abstraction, six million, that one learns, as I have begun to, the vast, complex interweave of imagination and invention that went into the round-up, transport, and industrial murder of countless human beings by a relative handful of other human beings. The detail, the precision, the constant innovation with which The Final Solution evolved from clumsy, labor intensive ditch-side executions to its Zyklon-B apogee at Auschwitz was, to be sure, a genius of imagination. 


Unfortunately, for the exterminated Jews and overwhelming majority of humans who have survived them, it was imagination gone tragically, criminally wrong. But for Topf & Sons, the company that designed for Aushcwitz II (Birkenau) the three-chamber crematoria that replaced the traditional two-chamber ovens at Auschwitz I which were unable to keep up with demand, and thereby dramatically increased corpse disposal efficiency at the new camp, there was likely much champagne clinking and back-slapping over the engineering feat. Had Hitler prevailed, and had he achieved his goal of cleansing Europe of its 11,000,000 Jews, Topf & Sons would likely have enjoyed prominent status as heroes of the Third Reich; would likely have been praised for their wartime contribution with gratitude and solemnity by the Führer.

Maybe Topf & Sons were monsters; I don't know. They were, at minimum, men whose imaginations were challenged by a vexing problem, and their imaginations rose to the challenge. 


Hitler, most agree, was a monster, but he too was a man whose imagination was challenged by a vexing problem, and his imagination, too, rose to that challenge. But if we think that Hitler is an aberration, we are mistaken. He is not; he is only the most extreme exponent of the urge to solve a problem through mass murder; he simply had the will and the means, particularly the means, to carry his plan to its most logical and logistically potent conclusion. In the name of some self-proclaimed and self-justified "good", other people at other times, past and future, have been and will try to be Hitler in their own ways and to their own scale, given their imagination and conviction and resources at hand. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol-pot, Rios-Mott -- the list goes on -- and will go on.

So we, humans, are capable of not only imagining immense murder of our own species but of perpetrating mass murder through technical and technological genius: Auschwitz and Birkenau; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; drones and germs. Is there a species more murderous of its own, more preoccupied with murdering its own?


That gloomy and hackneyed "discovery" about humans is not the thing I learned best here, though. Rather, I have learned its opposite. I have learned that if we are capable of immense cruelty and murder, we are also capable, and immensely more capable, of their opposite: immense love. If murder is the act of ending someone's life, love is the act of immortalizing the loved one's life in the moment, of wishing that life to last not only forever, but to last as the best, happiest, most contented and rewarding life possible. Murder ends; lover eternalizes.

Unscripted love here contradicted the barbarity of the genocidal blueprint here. I witnessed great love between paramours, between parents and children, between best (or maybe not even best) friends. For instance: Late last Sunday afternoon, as I wandered in the very quiet Czech town of Terezin, forty miles north of Prague, after having spent the previous five hours going from building to building learning about Terezin's function as a Jewish ghetto, concentration camp, and deportation center to Auschwitz during the Holocaust, which included time poring over the artwork of all those Terezin children that has survived while the children themselves have not, I passed a spit of a park empty but for two teenage girls sitting on a bench beneath windy trees, shrieking and laughing with each other as only teenage girls will do, as only the very best of teenage friends can do. Their love for each other at that moment was immense. It consumed the world, including Terezin, and me.

Or: Traveling by train from Prague back to Budapest in the late, sunny, morning I looked out the window at one point to see a young dark-haired father on a hill holding his pink bonneted toddler in his arms as she smiled and waved at the passing train, unaware of what it was or who was on it, but gleeful nonetheless; and her father who held her up and glowed with her and whose love for her was more immense at that moment than any he has ever known, or would know, until the next time they visited a passing train and he held her up to wave hello, goodbye. Or perhaps until the next time he looked at her, really looked at her. Who could not see that man and not understand his immense joy, and feel his immense joy? The absolute love of a parent?

Or: The young, Eger woman swimming coach whose charges were three year old bulbs of buoyancy, imps who didn't dive into the pool so much as they just squatted down, leaned forward over the water, crossed their hands over their heads, and waited for the Earth's vibrations to tip them in, and then once in,
submerging their faces and stroking and stroking with great determination only to go mostly nowhere. To see this coach walk alongside the pool, to hear her talk to these tiny people, support them, encourage them, celebrate them for their progress -- discrete as it may have been -- and then to catch and wrap each one in a bath towel they came out of the pool dripping and drooping in their swim caps and goggles, and hug them and kiss them, to see this coach make each child she embraced and petted feel like the most special, adored child in the world, to look down upon this wonderful person was to understand immense love, to understand it and to feel it. I mean, as I stood on the balcony overlooking Eger's municipal pool and watched these exchanges below, these gifts, I felt love. For her. For the children. For all of us.    
***
For me, having been a Jew in Europe these past five months was an immersion in immense sorrow. A whole people, gutted, gone forever, with only the husks of their fading synagogues and their stooped old weathered cemeteries as proof that they were ever here. In this sense, Europe is an immense, unfillable hole.

But having been a simple human being in Europe, though perhaps owing to the immense sorrow I felt as a Jew, I have also come to know immense happiness, to see what we, people, are capable of in our best moments. In this sense, Europe, Earth, offers immense, quite fullfillable hope.

As I return to the States I know I will never lose sight of the hurt. But as I return to the States, I am committed to setting my sights on the hope. 

To those of you who have read this far, I thank you, and wish you well. And I wish you love.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

For The Good of Lobsters and Humankind

Two nights ago I had dinner in a swinging Cuban restaurant located in Prague's (former) Jewish Ghetto. I was first attracted to the restaurant earlier in the day when, passing by, and spotting a lively al fresco business, I plopped myself down at a table for a glass of wine, which turned into three. Even if the music was Cuban and I didn't understand a word of it (some music is better left unintelligible anyway, like most opera), I was happy hearing something other than the typical Anglo-pop I'd been suffering through since I arrived in Europe. So I lingered over the Latin sounds. Of course, in its own way, the wine helped, too.

Somewhere between glasses one and three I learned that the restaurant offered live music each night and that, coupled with the Cuban menu item made of fried pork belly and rice I spotted on the menu, sealed it for me.

When I returned refreshed around 8:30 the place was not yet at capacity but getting close. As it was a Cuban restaurant and flaunted its Cuban roots and cliche of fine cigars, coronas and figurados were smoldering all around, left and right. I don't mind cigars (mostly it's the people who pose with them that irritate me), but I didn't want to eat in a fog, so when asked I opted for the non-smoking section, which, after following the host for about twenty minutes, I discovered to be way back in the restaurant's hinterlands, far removed from the music I'd come to hear. What the hell, I thought; I'll eat and then go catch the show.

I was seated at a table opposite a fish tank, of what size I don't know -- 30, 45, 60 gallons -- whatever, it was plenty big enough to make a roomy home for the 6 lobsters whose final days, perhaps minutes, would be spent there. It was a very simple home, filled only with water and a large conch shell, dead center. The lobsters had a lot of room in which find their own quiet space, to be alone and contemplate their lives.

Soon after I sat down the live music began and was piped into the way back room. It was an up-tempo Latin piece, obviously, and quite audible. Audible enough apparently for the lobsters to hear, because with the onset of the music one of the lobsters began to raise and lower its eight spindly legs in a sort of tango or rumba or whatever the proper Cuban dance stepped the tune called for. Maybe the lobster was Cuban, a langosta, or maybe it simply liked salsa. 

Either way, I was greatly impressed and amused by this dancing lobster, and watched it happily as I continued to go unnoticed by the wait staff. The lobsters 1-2-3,1-2-3 reminded me of the dancing cat in the old Purina Cat Chow, cha-cha-cha commercials, only better, because this wasn't staged as some kind of advertising gimmick, but was simply a lobster stepping to the beat, having a good time.

It's possible that the lobster was trying to entice one of the other lobsters, or perhaps several, to join in a full-on fish tank conga, but none took the bait, so to speak, and the lobster was left dancing with itself, just like Billy Idol. After a while it stopped, maybe saying to itself "Oh what's the use."

Whatever the term is for people who study crustaceans, I am not one, and so I can observe lobster behavior only without actually knowing the behavior that I observe. That is, I can try to guess what a lobster might be doing in terms parallel to human behavior, though I am sure that kind of anthropomorphism will endow lobster behavior with meaning the lobster may never have intended, assuming lobsters  intend their behaviors at all. In other words, maybe it's a fool's errand to try to penetrate the mind of a lobster.

Anyway, having no distractions or obstructions to get in the way, such as a service person offering me a menu or looking to take a drink or dinner order, here is more of what I observed:

For a long while the lobsters seemed to be brooding despite the Ricky Ricardo music, when, out of the blue, and seemingly without provocation, another lobster suddenly gt all animated, not to rumba but to rumble, as in, it began acting very aggressively toward the no-longer-dancing lobster, and actually charged holding its big claws menacingly overhead, to which the dancing lobster reacted with an equally aggressive charge with equally menacing drawn claws. I don't know if perhaps the no-longer-dancing lobster had been harassing the other lobster, taunting it for not having gotten up to dance earlier, but in any event, they were now going at it.

However, because their claws were rubber-banded, and therefore useless as weapons (the claws can crack, but they don't make for good bludgeons -- too much water resistance) -- the best they could do was slam into each other and try to out-muscle each other. Like sumo-lobsters, they pushed and pushed, giving ground, gaining ground, back and forth. From an outsider's perspective, the whole thing looked pretty futile, but I suppose the lobsters felt there was something to be gained by it, lobster honor, maybe. And so they kept at it, fiercely.

Again, not being a lobsterologist, the sudden antagonism perplexed me, and I had to assume it had to do not with dancing but with sex. I assumed that these two libidinous lobsters -- males? females? -- were fighting for sexual sovereignty over the four other lobsters who, unlike the lobster warriors, were kind of curled up in their own corner of the tank paying no mind to to the roughnecks, dreaming sweet lobster dreams of yummy starfish and tender clams (or perhaps having nightmares of boiling water and drawn butter).

If any of the four had paid the slightest attention to the sparring lobsters they surely would have thought, "What idiots. What are they trying to prove?" Instead they slept, conserving energy and enjoying their remaining time on earth (at least in their current form).

Watching the two disclawed lobsters in their futile attempts to hurt each other, I came upon a discovery. Well, maybe not a discover, but an insight of sorts; at the very least, a thought. It had to do with the rubber bands. 

Now, I don't know what the crushing power is of a lobster's big gnarly claw, but it looks sizable. And, I suspect that the lobster that is able to get that claw clamped on to some part of an adversary can do some serious damage, break off and arm or a leg, snap antennae, pluck eyes. 

Such dismemberment, obviously, would not be welcomed by the sudden amputee, but also, in a larger sense, it would not be welcomed for the lobster fisherman who caught the lobster, nor for the Cuban restaurant, both of whom want to keep their lobsters whole for their customers. No one wants to order pre-cracked lobsters or lobsters with missing parts.

In the lobster world, the simple device of a rubber-band exerts extraordinary economic power, maintaining peace -- or at least preventing horrific violence -- between rumbling lobsters, thereby getting them to the market and platter as nature designed. The alternative would be costly, unchecked lobster carnage.

Granted, it does the lobsters no real good having their claws bound by rubber bands -- their fates were sealed once they got hauled up in the trap -- and so what difference does it make to them whether they tear or are torn to pieces? Might as well go out snapping. For everyone else, though, the simple disarmament is a marvel.

Here then is the discovery/insight/thought: What we humans need then is to figure out some way to make rubber bands for our species that have the same restraining effect as rubber bands have on lobsters. To keep us from hurting ourselves, tearing each other to shreds. Somebody needs to play the part of the lobsterman, or the Cuban restaurant, and bind up our means of destruction so that if we humans cannot ever escape or evolve out of our urge to fight, at least we won't hurt each other.

I'm talking about rubber bands over missile silos, and rocket launchers, and armored tanks, etc. Imagine a war where tanks, with rubber bands restraining their cannons and their shell cracking powers neutralized, met in battle like banded lobsters and simply charged at each other and ran into each other to see who could push who, where. A several thousand ton shoving match. No doubt, some headaches and whiplash would result, but eventually the tank's tanks would hit empty and their crews left wondering, "Now what do we do?" "I dunno. I guess maybe we just leave it here and walk home."

If not rubber banded, lobster combat would be very costly, to the lobsterman, the restauranteur, and ultimately the customer. And if lobster combat would be costly, you can imagine how costly human combat is. We humans need someone to play the part of lobsterman and band our claws, and then someone to play the part of the restauranteur who will maintain those bands, for our own short-lived good, until, our time being up, that celestial hand reaches into the tank and plucks us out, with luck to serve us up to some higher purpose, but more likely to drop us into a fiery cauldron.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Subhumans


I shared a compartment for the first fifty miles or so of my train to Prague with one other person, a pleasant young Serbian woman. A high school German teacher in a northern town that begins with a V, she was on her way to a two-week workshop in Berlin. Though she was a little anxious about leaving her husband and four year old son for two weeks, she was also clearly excited by the prospect of leaving her husband and four year old son for two weeks, and of spending two weeks in Berlin, a city she likes but hasn't visited in eleven years. 

Her English is far better than she knows, and we were -- from my perspective -- able to communicate remarkably well. Still, she became visibly frustrated when she looked for but couldn't find the English word to express herself, her thought. I am 56; I understand her frustration well.

I asked her if she liked living in Serbia (which, until the end of the First World War, when the Austro-Hungarian empire came out the loser, had been part of Hungary), and she said, yes, but quickly clarified, "northern Serbia, the northern part of the country."

"Why the northern part?" I asked.

"The southern part, it is dirty," she said meekly.

"Dirty? What do you mean?"

"It is, ... " she struggled, "Mmm. How do I say this without sounding bad?"

"What? Is it poor?"

"Yes! That is it! It is poor."

I didn't need to wait for her to answer my next question. I had been in Hungary long enough to know. "Are they Roma living there?"

She frowned and nodded. "They are. They are...dirty." She wasn't comfortable saying this.

We talked some more about the Roma, about how they were beginning to move into the north, into her town that begins with a V. She said that during the war in the 90s, Serbians had fled their homes and never returned, and that the government has been opening those vacant homes to homeless Roma from all over Europe. On the surface the Serbian government settlement plan seems almost humanitarian, but the young schoolteacher offered a more cynical explanation. 

She said that because ethnic Hungarians now make up about 70% of Serbia's population, the government has been luring Roma from all over Europe with free housing and government support. The government's strategy is to grow a population of grateful (and dependent) Roma who will eventually supercede the ethnic Hungarian majority and neuter its power. (The Hungarian government, some allege, has embarked on a similar strategy with its Roma. Obviously, while not looking to displace Hungarians in Hungary, the government seeks to build a loyal patronage in the Roma by providing government child support. Supposedly, this has spawned a population boom among the Roma. I have also heard it claimed that the government gives additional support for disabled children -- and that Roma women intentionally try to damage the fetus so that it will be born disabled.)

Since I arrived in Europe in late January, I have heard no one in Hungary, Germany, Poland, or Romania speak favorably of the Roma. Most don't speak of the Roma at all, as the word seemse to evoke continental squeemishness. It seems to be a subject very much on people's minds, but hardly ever on their tongues. 


When I have had a discussion about the Roma, "the Roma problem" as it is most often called, that is, when someone has broken the taboo against speaking aloud, the Roma have been described as dirty, lazy, ignorant, uneducable, unwilling to assimilate, irresponsible, welfare abusers, violent, thievish, etc. 

I don't know what of this is true. I suspect some of it is true, but, having met no Roma (that I am aware of) I have not even the slightest experience with which to confirm or disconfirm what I have heard. I am a pupil of hearsay.

I have to say that the stories I've heard about the Roma are pretty disturbing. And my encounters with Roma children begging in Berlin, or Roma mothers clutching toddlers in woeful still-lifes on Budapest's sidewalks angling for pity and pittance, made me angry. Even Gypsy Rose, that sweet Roma child I wrote about a few posts ago, she too, was, for lack of a better word, being pimped by somebody, somebody ruinous of that little girl and her future.

The question I am left asking: Is it possible that a whole people, a whole culture, can be as depraved as I have been told the Roma are?


***

I come from a long line of subhumans: Jews. I have known this vaguely throughout my life but learned it clearly over the past five months as I've visited various Jewish museums around Europe (and Israel).

It seems that Jewish subhumanity was first recognized in Europe sometime in the late middle ages, when it was discovered that we Jews had, on special  occasions, drawn the blood of Christian infants to mix with flour and bake into matzoh. Not a lot, mind you. Just enough to give the matzoh some zest and a tinge of color (matzoh on its own is very bland, both in flavor and visual appeal).

As Jews only eat matzoh once a year for eight days during Passover, I think the Christian alarm was a bit hysterical. It's not like Jews ate matzoh all the time back then. Nor do we today, and so while I cannot say definitively that that ritual baking has ceased among Jews, I can say that I have never seen it first hand. My mother's matzoh was store-bought, and unless Manischewitz of Streits engage in factory bloodletting, I think the recipe has faded from the Jewish cookbook.

Speaking of cooking, while we Jews may be prohibited by kosher dietary laws from cooking or eating pork, apparently kosher does not rule out sucking on sow teets or tickling and licking pig anus, as medieval woodcuts of Jews prove.



Again, I don't know to what extent European Jews have carried  the tasting of such delicacies forward into contemporary times, but in all my years as an American Jew I never once saw an American sow's teet sucked or her anus licked; perhaps I am simply a Jew in denial, or maybe it's because I grew up in the suburbs and we didn't keep sows (there). 

Certainly, there are other traits and indicators of our subhumanity that we Jews have learned to so well conceal (our tails, for instance) or simply exorcize, though at the moment I cannot recall what they all are. I do know that Hitler, in his Mein Kampf and elsewhere, is pretty clear about what Jews are and where Jews stand zoologically. That book still has a significant number of adherents, and is, I'm sure, quite instructive to its faithful.

***

I spent this past semester in Hungary teaching a course, the American Civil Rights Movement, which was really a truncated history of the civil rights movement. I mostly focused on the civil rights struggles of southern blacks during the 50s up to the mid-60s. 

That subset of the civil rights movement was the campaign (or more accurately, various campaigns) to strike down Jim Crow, the segregation system of laws and mores born of a racial ideology convinced that blacks were subhuman, that they were not fit to mingle with white society. By nature blacks were not fully human and could never become fully human. As such, they could only be human contaminants, and without strict segregation, racial mingling, Jim Crow taught, would lead to rape of white woman by black men, and seduction of white men by black women, yielding a race of mongrels. Therefore, the races had to be kept separate. And not simply separate -- the blacks had to be kept low as was fitting their status in the animal kingdom.




Students in both sections of the course were appalled by the southern racism, and its castigation of an entire race. When I asked if there might be some parallels betweend Jim Crow perceptions of southern blacks and Hungarian perceptions of Roma, I was quickly told no, they were not at all similar. I was told that, because I am from the States and didn't live there, I simply couldn't understand. 

I wonder if a racist from the States might say the same to my students about their so-distant condemnation of Jim Crow.

***

As part of the Jewish Museum in Prague I visited The Old Cemetary. Many of the tombstones date back to the 1500s and 1600s, just about the time Europe was learning the true nature of the Jew.

Now, countless pogroms and one Holocaust later, the Jewish tombstones still stand, or at least many of them. Over the centuries the ground has rippled and heaved beneath them, so that some lean to the right and some leand to the left; some pitch way forward, some tilt way back. There isn't a perfectly upright tombstone among them.

Each tombstones probably serves as a pretty good moral compass or epitaph for the life of the person buried beneath it. Some really tilted toward the good, some really tilted toward the bad, and most listed waveringly in between.

Old black cemeteries tell the same story.

And old Irish and Japanese cemeteries, too.

Do the Roma even bury their dead?

***
Post Script: While wandering in Venice a few days ago I stumbled upon an exhibition devoted to the Roma and Roma art. Below is the website dedicated to that exhibition. Despite the its clumsy appearance, the website offers links to video remarks made by artists, writers, and others (most notably to me, author Salman Rushdie and philanthropist George Soros) on the plight of the Roma people. Call The Witness

 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Keeping Score

(That's me, second from the right. And no, I am not standing ten paces ahead.)

I spotted this on a t-shirt in Israel and chuckled. At 5'8", and with all respect to the Japanese, I have long thought that I, too, would be big in Japan. At least among men my age.

But I don't know that for certain. What I do know is that I'm massive in Manilla. Or was. Here's my story. It takes a while to develop. Please bear with me.

***
So that blog authors have some sense what of their blog is being looked at and by whom, Blogger.com, host of this blog, has a special feature/tab called Stats, which, as the name suggests, tracks a variety of blog site stats, all based upon Pageviews (when someone actually opens a blog page in a web browser).

The stats don't get very specific; no individual names nor anything personally identifiable; I don't know who you are (though as a spin on Descartes: You read, therefore, I know that you are). 

The data breaks down into three categories and then some subcategories.






















First, there is the category for Posts, which simply counts the number of times a specific blog post or entry has been opened -- not necessarily read, just opened. It's pretty straight forward, and lets the blogger know in relative terms what's hot, and what's not.

Here, for instance, is the Posts data taken from my blog a second ago (covering the month 5/11-6/9):






As you can see, "Tall Tales From My REMoir is the runaway favorite, though it's good to see that "Where To Go And Make-out In Eger" is still getting some looks. I had great fun with that one, especially the Sarah Palin/Joker photo.

The second category is Traffic Sources which, if opened, details three sub-categories: Referring URLs, Referring Sites, and Search Keywords.

I do not know what a Referring URL is, or does, nor do I know what a Referring Site is, or does, nor do I know how knowing what those stats refer to would possibly increase my knowledge in any useful way.

However, the last of the three, Search Keywords, is helpful. It tells me what it was people were looking for when they came upon my blog. (Search Keywords change all the time depending upon who's online when, looking for what, and some are pretty funny: "little sex eger" (Eger of eager?) and "men of israel hot outtakes" (outtakes or latkes?) are two of my favorites. More on Search Keywords in a minute.)

Finally, the third Stats category, Audience, is made up of the sub-categories Pageviews by Browsers, Pageviews by Operating Systems, and Pageviews by Countries.

The first piechart shows my audience as orangey slices of various browsers, most of whom I've never heard of.

The second piechart shows my audience as orangey slices of operating systems, and surprise! -- Windows, looking a bit like Pac Man at 84% of the pie, is gobbling up all the other operating systems.

So, what do those piecharts mean? Beats me. Nor do I know how they could be of any possible value (What could it possibly matter that someone using Rockmelt looked at the blog?). Except to affirm that while Microsoft still has an operating system monopoly, when people are given a browser option, 75% will choose a non-Microsoft product. But do I really need pies to tell me that? It's common knowledge, isn't it? Most of us are chained to Microsoft, but we don't like it.

The only stat that actually informs is Pageviews by Countries (though, as an English teacher I wonder if it shouldn't be Pageviews by Country. I am not certain, however; grammar is not my forte). Whatever its proper phrasing, this stat gives raw numbers of which country has viewed how many pages. It doesn't tell you what pages, just the aggregate number. So, for example, if someone within the U.S. looked at five different pages I've written for this blog, those five looks would show up in the total U.S. Pageviews.

I can check all of the above stats by the current day, the current week, the current month, or all-time. For instance, as of right now, June 10, 4:54 a.m. EST, I have accumulated 3,159 Pageviews since I began this blog in January. I don't know if that total is good or bad. What I do know is that if I was a major league baseball player, and those page hits were base hits, I'd be #15 on baseball's exclusive 3000 hit club, just ahead of George Brett (3,154), just behind Cal Ripkin, Jr. (3,184), and only 1098 away from breaking all-time leader Pete Rose's record (4,256). If page hits were base hits I would be very cool.

Okay, so now that you have some sense of the Blogspot.com data, here comes the plot thickener, the statistical roux.

In the chart above, in mid-May, you can see that there was some kind of Pageview boom going on. Daily Pageviews, which had been hovering at 20 through March and April spiked during the May hitting streak, reaching a high of 66 on May 16. Even though the decline since the May 16 peak has been as precipitous as the rise to it, Pageviews are still coming in, although at a rate lower than their pre-climb average (It's just a slump; my blog will snap out of it).

Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Pageviews (866) over this period were of my April 21 "Tall Tales From My REMoir," leading me to conclude, Well, now this is fan-tastic, The world is finally catching on. REMoir: writer's field of the future!

Flattered, though still humble (of course), I began looking more closely at the stats. To see what else I could learn about my wonderful readers around the world, and their thirst to know about REMoir. I wanted to know: where do they come from? What are their ways? Etc.

For this, I had to go to the Pageviews by Countries/Country data. It turns out that for the past month the Philippines has been going crazy over my blog, outnumbering even the U.S. for Pageviews for the same period. In terms of my blog, during this boom I wasn't just big in the Philippines, I was massive. (I have always liked the Philippines, their culture and ways. Smart people.)

Placing the increase of Pageviews for "Tall Tales..." alongside the increase of Pageviews in the Philippines, I began to wonder: What could account for the Philippine wave of interest in REMoir? What's behind the surge?

So I looked even closer at the stats, moving from Pageviews by Countries (Country) to Search Keywords.

Here is what I saw:

I am no master statistician, but even so basic a cross reference of Search Keywords to Pageviews by Countries (Country) indicates that the Filipinos/a were not really interested in the genius of REMoir but rather in the possible glamour or grotesqueness of braces. Of the 92 searches shown above, only 12 actually refer to this site. Everything else is braces, braces, braces.

How then, did all those Filipinos/a end up here, or more specifically, at the "Tall Tales" post? Apparently, because in that "Tall Tales" entry I refer to my braces-wearing youth, and included a web-pirated photo of what braces might look like on teeth and gums whose lips had been retracted like Alex's eyelids in A Clockwork Orange.
Search engines doing what search engines do, they delivered all those braces-seeking Filipinos/a to my door.

All those Pageviews, all those 866 Pageviews, are, in the final analysis, all a mistake, a bunch of orthodontically obsessed Filipinos/a, guided by their crooked cuspids, simply stumbling onto this site. Had people in the Philippines been happier with their teeth, I never would have fallen into the trap of admiring my own popularity, or of believing that REMoir is catching fire in the world.
***
Still, though humble, I am not proud. I liked seeing the Pageviews spike, even if I know now that it was all an illusion.

That is why, I am going to conclude this blog entry thus:

Braces! Braces! Braces!
Aparatos de ortodoncia! 
Aparatos de ortodoncia! 




































































































Pete Rose -- I'm coming for you!











Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Goodbye, Gypsy Rose


The Buona Fortuna Restaurant was busy, and smokey. Romania doesn't have ordinances prohibiting smoking -- anywhere, from what I can tell. Hence, in what could only have been a long ago confluence of behaviors in the U.S., I watched a woman, thin, late thirties, fork in one hand, glowing cigarette (elbow on the table) in the other, alternately, casually, work both.

Smoke aside, the restaurant was pretty nice, located on the bank of the Crişul Repede River which cuts through Oradea. Like many of the restaurants in Eastern Europe, it plays maddeningly retarded American/English pop music. I am learning to tune it out, though apparently, not yet completely. I still scrape the soles of my shoes when I get home.

Judging from the well-dressed, youngish clientele, the Buona Fortuna might be upscale for Romanian incomes, but as the Romanian leu is anemic against the U.S. dollar, I couldn't have eaten as cheaply if I had cooked ramen noodles at home.

I had ordered, but the place was busy and my food was slow in coming. I waited, and watched. Facing the front door, I looked on as people came and went, came and went.

Then, around 9:30 a pixie -- maybe 10, maybe 4'10", including the pink harlequin hat she sported squarely -- charged (as much as a pixie can charge) through the front door. Wearing a white t-shirt, strapped into pink capri overalls and pink shoes, she came in selling red roses.

Wasting no time, she moved with precision. Once inside she looked to see if anyone made eye contact with her, or smiled at her adorableness, and if so she made straight for the table. If a customer was reluctant, she would beg  "Please" twice. But only twice. Sometimes she closed the deal, sometimes she didn't. Either way, she pushed on.

At those tables seemingly unaware of her, she would approach from an angle, tentatively, and, from a short distance, hence with a slight reach, she would place a rose stem in front of the person she sized up to be the best bet. Sometimes the rose got bought; sometimes it didn't. Regardless, she pushed on.

The restaurant was long, with many tables, all occupied. She had a lot of flowers to sell on short legs. Her pink hat darted and hovered from table to table like a dragonfly.

Then there was the manager.

He was in his thirties, clean white shirt and clearly a nice, likeable guy. Still, this little gypsy child was, in a sense, harassing his customers. And it is true: some cold-shouldered her with fear that this impish child might in some way cast a spell over them, entrance them into buying a rose which in their heart of hearts they did not want to buy. Don't look at her! She's a Medusa! You're heart will turn from stone!

So the manager, doing what he needed to do, intercepted little Gypsy Rose and gently escorted her to the door through which she first burst. All the while walking her toward the door he spoke, smiled, sometimes shrugged, and occasionally laughed, but always keeping his fingertips pressed lightly to her back. She, for the length of her escort, turned, looked back up to him, pleaded her case, but to no avail. Out the door she and her flowers and her pink harlequin hat went.

Back came the manager, triumphant but not gloating, shaking his head and laughing. And like that, the general chaos of the Buona Fortuna reabsorbed him into his general managing duties.  

Not thirty seconds later the front door opened when Gypsy Rose's pink hat poked inside to locate the manager, and, not seeing him, charged in as she had the first time, to finish what she had begun.  

What pluck, I thought, and fell in love with this little girl. She spotted me spotting her and zeroed in, aware her moments were numbered.

She said something to me in Romanian (I guess) in her puny little voice which I didn't understand, and I said something to her in English she didn't understand. Obviously it was all about flowers. She wanted to sell me one; I didn't want to buy one. Standoff. 

"Please?"

"No."

"Please?" 

In the end I gave her 5 leu for a flower I didn't take. She said "Thank you very much" in quite good English, and hurried to the next table.

My thinking was that, perhaps, she had to turn in a fixed amount for the flowers, and anything above that she could pocket.

Whatever, it wasn't long before the manager caught on that Gypsy Rose was again working the room, and with the same gentle geniality he had shown the first time, he again escorted her out, this time for good.

***
I was finally out the door myself around 11:00. Stuffed, I decided to walk off my full belly a little and have a nightcap.

Str Repbublicii-Corso is Oradea's half-mile long pedestrian mall. It is flanked by little shops selling jewelry and trinkets; ATMs; sweet shops; phone shops; and lots of cafes. With the nice weather having arrived, most cafes arranged lounge-like chairs and tables in tight clusters outside their regular shops, in what used to be the middle of the road before the street went pedestrian. 

Running down the center of Str Repbublicii-Corso,
two or three cafes side by side will form a continuous archipelago of sovereign domains, each with distinctive tables and chairs underneath distinctive umbrellas.

There was nothing special about the Cafe Ra apart from the fact that it had a free table, so I took it. 

The night was warm, but breezy. The cafes were getting a bit boozy.

The waitress came around with a bowl of tiny pretzels and I ordered a Ciuc (Romanian beer). Then I settled into my faux-wicker chair and its all-weather cushions and proceeded to watch my young neighbors, the majority of whom were puffing away. 

The beer arrived a few minutes later and so did Gypsy Rose, her pink hat glowing like a firefly. She appeared at my side, standing straight, smiling excitedly, holding roses in one hand and waving "hi" with the other. We were friends. Deep in my cushions, we saw each other eye to eye.

I asked her how it was going. She pursed her lips and shrugged. She counted the cut stems of the roses she had remaining, touching each one with her finger. One, two, three, four. 

I thought, maybe, that Gypsy Rose had to sell the remaining flowers before she could go home for the night, that she had to keep hawking flowers until the very last one got sold. So I first confused her, and then surprised her, by purchasing the four remaining flowers for 40 leu.

She said, "Thank you very much," just as she had in the restaurant, and headed up the dark mall. I watched until her pink hat disappeared.

I laid the four flowers on the table. What was I going to do with them? Nothing. Not that they mattered. The point was not to purchase roses but to purchase some time for Gypsy Rose. I surmised from my restaurant experience of her that, so long as she had a flower to sell, she'd try to sell it. Buy them all, I thought, and send her home. I hoped that the waitress liked roses, as they would be hers once I left.

Moments later, on the far side of the tables, skipping down the mall, was Gypsy Rose, with a new fist full of roses. Now I understood.
***
I was a bit crestfallen. Here I thought I was fulfilling the part of benevolent savior; instead, I was just a wallet. I did not blame her; that's just how things are. I still had genuine affection for her, because to see her is to instantly have affection for her.

I drank my beer and wondered: what will become of that little girl. Whoever she is selling flowers for is banking on her sweetness and unaffected charm. I wondered: would it be better for Gypsy Rose to keep that sweetness and charm forever, or to lose it, perhaps outgrow it, and thereby lose her exploitability?

And, as it was past 11:00 at night when she had just been issued a new round of roses, I wondered: who is looking out for her, and why isn't she home, asleep, like a child should be at that hour? If the cafes are open until 2:00 or 3:00, does Gypsy Rose have to work their customers until 2:00 or 3:00?

In just the two minutes or less of our exchanges I saw something wonderful in that little girl, something worth nurturing. A light. A force. Would it survive? Would she escape? Would she ever be given the chance, or be challenged, to reach her potential? To rise above a rose peddler?
***
The following night, Saturday, I walked Str Repbublicii-Corso on my way to a different part of town. It was about 8:30, though by the amount of daylight I never would have guessed.

There, up ahead, donning her trademark hat, was Gypsy Rose, flowers in hand, standing by a bench behind which stood an older woman and a younger child. Mother and sibling?

We spotted each other, with, I'd like to believe, genuine mutual delight: I don't think a ten-year-old's enthusiastic wave can lie. 

I approached, aware of the woman behind the bench, wondering her role. 

I asked Gypsy Rose, "How's business?" not expecting that she'd understand, but thought that maybe, by also pointing to the roses, she might. She shrugged, and pursed her lips, and counted the tips. One, two, three, four. 

"Yes?" she said, looking up and smiling hopefully.

"No. Nem. Maybe on the way back."

"Please?"

"Maybe on the way back."

"Please?"

I shook my head and smiled. My little friend smiled, too. 

And I looked up to confirm to the woman I thought was with Gypsy Rose, maybe on the way back.

Her thoughts had stopped earlier. "Business. That's all that it is," she said with resignation in an accent I could only guess to be Romanian. "That's the sadness of it all."

Instantly, I realized that this woman knew more about Gypsy Rose, her brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts,  uncles, than I would ever know, and possibly more than most on Str Repbublicii-Corsowould would ever know.

I looked back at Gypsy Rose from the woman diametrically unrelated to her, and said, "Maybe later."

There was no later that night.

***
The next night, Sunday, my last night in Oradea, Str Repbublicii-Corso at 8:00 p.m. was even busier than the two nights before.

I wasn't so much interested in spending time on the mall, lounging around and being trendy, as I was in taking a picture of Gypsy Rose. My whole focus was to spot her -- or have her spot me -- while sitting there, and then to do what we do. But in addition, I was prepared to pay for a photograph of her. I wanted to share her with you. I wanted you to see her in her pink hat.

After two hours outside Cafe Ra I had to acknowledge that I wasn't going to see Gypsy Rose that night, was not going to take her picture.

The good guy in me said with some optimism, So maybe...; the bad guy in me said, Damn.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Outtakes


BELOW ARE SOME LOOSE REFLECTIONS OF MY WEEK IN ISRAEL.

1. ISRAELI HORNINESS
Israeli drivers -- bus drivers, cab drivers, truck drivers, soccer moms -- particularly in Jerusalem, are extremely horny. It is not an overstatement to say that Israel is a thoroughly horny culture. I have it on good authority that Israelis, by law, are prohibited from driving with two hands on the wheel, and can be ticketed if spotted driving so. Instead, they must steer with one hand on the wheel while keeping the heel of the other hand poised mere inches above the wheel, ready too strike, to be driven into the horn like a pile driver. 

This is because no driver ever knows when the traffic up ahead will so insult him or her with unwanted delay -- however brief -- that a good, long, angry zetz is the only appropriate response. 

What audacity, trying to parallel park when I am behind you so clearly on my way to something important!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

How dare you impede my progress simply because oncoming traffic prevents you from making a left-hand turn!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What chutzpah you have keeping me waiting at this traffic light one-na-no-sec-ond now that it's turned green!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

Sorry to say, there are many bad drivers in Israel who simply don't understand the rules of the road and must be punished (the Israelis call it hornished) for their ignorance.

2. BUS DRIVERS
It is also a little known fact that Israeli bus drivers, in addition to zetzing their horn when warranted, are trained to pump the brakes when passengers have become or are on the cusp of becoming a little too comfortable moving about the bus, heading fore to aft, for instance, after they have just paid the fare and are trying to find a seat while clutching shopping bags in each hand; or when they are 90 or 100 years old and moving just a tad too slowly getting to and/or lowering themselves into a seat. Or for those hot-shot dare-devils, full of pride and arrogance, who like to stand in the bus without holding on to a strap-hanger: look ma, no hands! There is nothing like a sudden tap on the breaks to popquiz the balance or agility of Israeli riders. This is Israel, after all; tossing passengers around on the bus is for their own good. 

Why? Because comfort breeds contentment; contentment breeds unguardedness; and unguardedness is the terrorists' workshop. Bus drivers, as instructed by the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) and by the Israeli Defense Forces, pump their breaks then, not to toy with their helpless riders, but rather to keep Israelis on their toes, for their own good. The bus drivers' motto reflects their sense of purpose and commitment:

 הסערה טוב השליך על ידי בנו ואז הסערה השליך על ידי אותם

which translates roughly to, better storm tossed by us than storm tossed by them.  

All that vigilance, and while driving with only one hand, to boot. Incredible.

3. MOTORSCOOTERISTS
If you ride a motorscooter in Israel, as many do, you are exempt from the one-hand rule. In fact, you are exempt from all rules. You can ride in whatever way you want so long as you don't get killed. If you do get killed, you will be ticketed. Severely. And hornished like you wouldn't believe (just imagine the delays a geshtorben scooterist layng in the middle of the street would cause!!!!!!!!!!) 

Wishing not to be fined nor hornished to high heaven, motorscooterists try to stay alive, and, for the short period I was in Israel, I didn't see one who didn't. Though I saw many who came close to getting ticketed. 

But, the simple fact is that if you are on a scooter and you don't like the way traffic is moving, create whatever traffic path you like that will get you moving. Of course, you will get hornished for being an upstart. No matter. You have it coming to you. (That's because you are free in a way other motorists are not. And they know it and resent it.)

Pass on the left in a no-passing zone, pass on the right without a passing shoulder; thread between two lanes of cars, bob and weave left and right in you onward progress. Anything is fine, except getting killed. Because if you do get killed you will tie up traffic, and you will get hornished with righteous fury miles long.

4. PEDESTRIANS
What, you may be wondering, are the rules regarding the pedestrian? Answer: to stay out of the way of the more important motorists and not muck up the works by trying to cross a street when there is traffic to be had. This means obeying crossing signs religiously. Because if a pedestrian crosses in traffic and causes a driver to apply the brakes -- or even just ease up on the gas -- the pedestrian will be severely hornished, and rightly so. If a cop is around, ticketing may ensue. And if a pedestrian crosses when he or she shouldn't, and gets hit and killed by a car, a ticket will ensue, plus the corpse will be hornished roundly. 

Israeli motorists have a saying directed at pedestrians:

אם אתם רוצים שאנחנו לא צריכים לרוץ לך למטה כמ, כבר. 

Roughly translated, it means, If you want that we should not run you down like an animal, walk like a person, already.  

And Israelis pedestrians respect this: A pedestrian-crossing may be in its flashing red, no-cross mode, and Israelis on foot will wait patiently for the signal to change regardless of whether there is a car within twenty miles. 

The Israeli pedestrians, too, have a saying for this:  

 סבלנות עדיף על המדרכה מאשר חולים על אלונקה
Better patience on a curb than patient on a gurney


***


6. ORTHODOX MEN AND WOMEN
Orthodox Jewish men look constantly harried, always holding onto their hats and running as if late (probably because they are). Most are bearded so it is difficult to see what's going on underneath all that hair, but it doesn't seem to be smiles. Perhaps this is due to the garb they wear: black shoes and socks, black pants, t-shirt (black?), white tafillit (prayer shawl), white shirt, black jacket, black overcoat (optional), yamulka (skullcap), black fedora (optional, but likely). 


The orthodox garb might have been great in icy Russia, from where many no doubt emigrated, but in Israel -- Jerusalem, where it's scorching hot, or in Tel Aviv, where it is only slightly less scorching hot but constantly humid -- such a get-up doesn't make sense. The orthodox must shvitz like crazy. 


I'm not suggesting that they wear flip-flops, Speedos, and fishnet tanktops, but perhaps switching from heat (light)-absorbing black to heat (light)-reflecting white might help brighten their day, turn that Hasidic frown upside down.

On the flip side, not bound to the same color scheme as their husbands, the orthodox Jewish women struck me as serene, radiating with everpresent Mona Lisa smiles. Where their husbands are generally in a state of pronounced agitation, they remain ever placid, cool lakes without so much as a ripple crossing their surface. I don't know what might give them this sense of well-being, but if it is non-pharmaceutically induced I have the sense it is in part due to the simple satisfaction of not having been born an orthodox Jewish man.

7. ISRAELI MODESTY/IMMODESTY

Tel Aviv is very European and modern. It's a Mediteranean resort town, and comes with all that you might expect from such a place: lots of beaches and bathers; lots of bars; lots of chi-chi restaurants, lots of people walking around half (or less) clad. In Tel Aviv, the harried orthodox orthodox man clearly  stands out.

In contrast, anyone not orthodox in Jerusalem stands out clearly, and my sense is that anyone half (or less) clad would not only stand out but get stoned (and I don't mean high). It took a while to sink in before I noticed the uniform, modest dress of the women, and I don't mean orthodox women (Jews and Muslims. That goes without saying). I'm talking about your regular woman on the street. I was in Jerusalem a few hours before it dawned on me that I hadn't seen a skirt above the knee, and very little decolatage -- not that I was looking; just observing -- even among non-orthodox cosmopolitans (or at least not ostensibly religious). There was something oddly refreshing about those hemlines, I must confess; there was something appealing in that modesty. 



8. ARAB/ISRAELI COMITY
I expected to see Israeli-Jews and Israel-Arabs (Muslims) behaving like Jets and Sharks (minus the dancing), particularly in Jerusalem, but it seemed to me that they got along pretty well. I don't mean to imply that I saw Jews and Arabs yukking it up together (I don't think the orthodox Jews yuk it up too much to begin with, and when they do, it's with other orthodox Jews, likely cracking wise about lightweight Conservative/Reformed "Jews"). But no knifefights broke out on the buses I rode, no rumbles in the back alleys of Old Jerusalem. I didn't even see open snarling or growling. 


Jews and Arabs and everyone in between just seemed to do what all normal people do: go about their business. Call it benign neglect, maybe, but from this outsider's perspective it appeared as though Jews and Arabs were getting along, and could get along more if they had to.
 

9. HOLY SITES
At the Jewish Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, the audioguide made the claim that the reason why Judaism was able to survive despite the expulsion of Jews from Babylon is that Judaism is tied to no place. It is a religion that resides in a system of ideas, housed in the mind, not in things external to the faithful. I believe this to be a sound accounting of all sound religions, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, etc. Reason: To claim a place is holy is to simultaneously claim that other places are not. That seems to be overreaching on the part of humans. If this whole shooting match -- Earth -- is god's creation (however you name god), how can anything or any part of it not be holy? If this computer at which I sit is no less the work of god than the First Temple, than why don't we treat everything as holy? That would certainly change our relationship with the world. 


That said, despite the fact that I claimed we should acknowledge holiness globally, I propose that to settle the issue of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, the site of the First Temple, we (not quite sure who this "we" is yet) bulldoze the whole thing, all religious totems to which Judaism, Islam, Christianity lay claim. If the religions are strong, they will stand without them. Then, we should turn the empty lots upon which they stood into playgrounds where little Jews and little Muslims and little Christians can play, and learn the secular religion of fairness, cooperation, compromise, sharing -- all the things many of their parents never learned.


10. Shalom.