Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The most something time of the year

First, a confession: I watch Love, Actually several times a week (sometimes several times a day) as the semester draws to a close.

Problem: It has occurred to me that I need to find a Springtime ritual equivalent. I think it helps me write and grade.

My dad, knowing my hunny and I are packing off to Spain where we spend the "holidays" (mine are over by then) with his family, asked me whether my hunny was taking the TSA exam (so no one else would be allowed to feel me up--or pat me down). I joked with him about it, but there are some things I have simply got to say about this bunch of idiocy.

The first is that I used to be an EMT, and one of the first lessons of Emergency Medicine is that no matter how awful you believe your hygiene to be, there is someone out there who practices (and I mean actively, with zest, pursues) a worse version than yours. Imagine having to get your hands on and around someone who thinks that showering once a millennium is optional if you have patchuoli. Worse, imagine the one who doesn't feel patchouli's necessary. Imagine people who, though they may generally clean themselves, are having a really bad day, have eaten something that disagreed with them (like, say, airport food) and simply cannot help the flatulence.

I think that if you think the TSA folks are gettin' their kicks by going to work this holiday season, you have a warped sense of reality and should be forced to work with the unwashed, unhappy masses for an hour--believe me, that's more than enough.

So if you're traveling this year and are too afraid to let someone see an outline of your body, thank your TSA person. He or she is in just as uncomfortable, unpleasant place you are--only several thousand times more often!

Of course, we could avoid ALL this rigmarole.

I have, since my birth in Israel, traveled in and out of Ben Gurion Airport several times--in the 80s, in the 90s. I have never had to remove any item of clothing. I have never had to baggie up all my toiletries in 3 ounce bottles all fit into one quart ziplocks. I have never even considered whether knitting needles are or should be allowed on an airplane--and the last time an Israeli-related plane was hijacked was the year of my birth! 1972 (for those curious or young enough not to have heard of the TWA flight).

"Why?" You ask. "How is it possible?"

Because in Israel, when one enters Ben Gurion, one must stand in a line (basically, this is the queue to get your luggage on the plane), and while in that line, one is spoken to, pleasantly, by an Israeli soldier. That soldier will ask you three questions. It doesn't even matter what the questions are; he or she isn't looking for information, he or she is looking at you!

For any of you who've watched the brilliant TV show "Lie to Me" you have seen this approach to behavioral and psychological profiling in TV action (that is, made worse for the camera). It is a simple approach based on real scientific research, and it works.

"How well does it work," you ask?


There has not been a single failure of this system since it was put in place in the 70s, likely because the training keeps up with the science. Likely because there's a whole lot at stake. Likely because, in Israel, "Profiling" is not a dirty word.

"But this is the US!" you point out. "We have hundreds of airports, millions of travelers!"

The Israeli system takes fewer people profiling per flying capita. We would need fewer people to make this happen, and it would happen quickly, and if done right, effectively.

So why the big screen Vs. the pat down choice this lovely holiday season?

Perhaps it's the government trying to keep TSA people employed. Perhaps it is the international unwillingness or inability to admit that the Israeli government (human and therefore fallible as it may be) actually has the answer on this one.

Perhaps it's because we've forgotten that while words have power, that power is supplied by us--by our usage. That we have a right to reclaim profiling for what it is, and not what racism turned it in to. That it's easier to train one person to recognize facial micro-expressions (which cannot be hidden) than it is to train a million TSA agents in how to pat people down effectively without unintentionally causing discomfort.

So do two things for me: First, thank your TSA folks. Their job is TOUGH, their pay cannot be enough, and their days are filled with unhappy people. Second, write your congressman. We can still fix this idiocy.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bah Sing Bug

My baby sister likes to go to the mall on Black Friday. She doesn’t go early, and she doesn’t shop. She likes to go in the mid-day, by the time people are tired and grumpy and fist-fights are likely to break out. She says she likes watching people argue over the last (insert useless toy that will cost half as much on Jan 2 here).

The one time I was visiting and thus privy to this particular approach to observational sociology, we saw no fist fights, but there were two women in the knife & sword store who looked like they wanted to test the merchandise on each other.

There were gaggles of men sitting around in the center aisle of the mall, grumping with each other about why they had to be there: The American tradition, of course, being that cavemen, from earliest times, had had a long enough week sitting in their cubicle working hard so the women could put a year’s worth of spending on their credit cards in one day and that should give them a pass from having any part in the decision making of who gets what at gift-time. Especially if gift-time includes a CaveMall!

My sister’s husband wandered around blissfully enjoying the weirdness of others’ behavior on this special day—we were all in a sociological mood—and commenting on tight spots that looked like they might turn ugly. “Ooh! That woman just got the last (insert piece of clothing produced by the millions & easy to find—or for half the price come Jan 2 here)!"

We spent a great deal of time in the games store—their mall actually had one, where we yakked about the toughest puzzles we’d ever done. We’re a rough & tumble bunch, my family. Everyone who could has served in the military, and we now all use our “extra” time to play scrabble long distance with each other online.

But even observational sociology can get tiring—especially when the people being observed insist on acting like starving idiots over a $5 cup of Starbucks. And my sister and I had pretty much had enough when we finally got to the part of the day I most enjoyed and would love to recreate yearly.

Mind you, I hate Christmas. I’m a bah humbug who doesn’t at all mind gift giving, but loved that my hunny, last year, rather than trying to fight with people over last in the bin garbage tips, spent a thoughtful few minutes in the grocery store picking up gift cards.

I’m not unsentimental. I would absolutely love it if he thought year round about the perfect gift, planned it in advance and hid it in the closet—or by anything remotely related to cleaning, since then there’d be no chance of my finding it—I simply know him better than that, and he knows that a bookstore gift card will make me happier than anything in the world, since then I get the pleasure of browsing and of purchasing.

I’m a christmahannukwanzadanstice hater because it starts the day after Halloween, goes until New Years’, and leaves most Americans with debt they spend the rest of the year working off. Seems like a bad way to celebrate the birth of one’s savior, the miracle of a little oil lasting a long time (especially this one), the majesty of African American heritage, or the shift of the earth. On years when Ramadan is at that time, it also seems rather against the idea of day long fasts designed to help one become introspective. It’s just wrong! And every year, we rail against it. And every year, we fall right back into the same big ugly hole.

Last year I had the, erm, pleasure of working in a retail store for the holidays. I was a cashier, tasked not only with getting people out the door quickly, safely and with all their purchases paid for, but of trying to sell them even more last minute crap they hadn’t thought of yet. I tend to be a talker (if the writing hasn’t let on), and I tend to treat each person in my line as if she were the only person in my line. I like thinking I am doing what I’d want others to do if I were on the other side of the register. I am, apparently, wrong. I have never in my life been cursed at, yelled at, treated with such malign attitude as last year. And I’ll tell ya’ it is not worth the $6&change.

“Happy Holidays!” I brightly said to one man as he grabbed his bag violently from me. “NO! Merry CHRISTmas!” He replied.

I thought—but wish I had said— And I’m sure Christ would be very proud of all you’ve learned from his example about how to treat people.

I didn’t. I turned to the next person, asked him if he’d gotten everything he was looking for and if he had a discount card with “us.” He actually apologized for the behavior of the man before him. It was the only nice thing anyone had said to me all day.

So you’ll understand that the best part of wandering through CaveMall with my baby sister was both fascinating and terrifying. Why it made me wonder who these people were and what they would think or feel if their religious leader showed film of their behavior in their place of worship come the following day of service. I was tired. I was beleaguered. I was ashamed of the 99% DNA I shared with all these desperate people. I was even a little worried about what had made them all do this.

My baby sister (a woman I love & could only wish would be my friend were we not relations) put her arm through mine and whispered in my ear, “You do the high harmony,” and began, loudly to sing, “Oh Holy Night.” My smile returned. I love love love the high harmony—as does she. It was a gift.

We walked through the CaveMall, arm in arm, going through every beautiful, non-jingly, carol we knew, and as veterans of high school choirs, we knew many. I’d like to hope we made at least one person think. But even if we didn’t, I loved every minute of it.

Did I mention we’re Jewish?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Call for Selfishness in “תיקון עולם”

In the past month, I have watched many National Geographic specials and documentaries, and attended a Friday night service, which was used to commemorate Kristallnacht. I am now sitting in a presentation at the National Conference of Teachers of English. The presentation is titled “The Genocide Project”—more accurately, it is about a Rwandan Genocide memorial project. The project, while it encourages students to learn about genocide and its lessons, also continues to point to the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

As a Jew growing up primarily in America, I have spent a great deal of my life being taught about genocide. I have learned about Nazis, Russian Refuseniks, Ethiopian Jews, Rwandans, Croatians, and many more, and was raised to maintain an awareness not only of what was happening at any given time, but a greater awareness of what I, as a human, and now as a teacher and a scholar, might be able to do about it.

But today I have a problem. Today I sit here, with people talking about teaching their kids that awful things happen in other countries and that there may well be something they can do about it. Last week I watched a NatGeo special about Americans flying to China to adopt little girl babies who otherwise would be left in orphanages, or killed, or to help keep them from being aborted. And there’s nothing wrong with what these people are teaching or what thoe parents to be are doing, but I wonder who’s teaching the violence, ghettoization and killing off of massive populations in the US? Who’s going to adopt the “unadoptable” kids in the US—who are untouchables because they are some shade of brown?

It seems the Shoah acted as a wake-up call for US involvement in the world, but that the call allowed the US to begin to enact a national belief system about what does or doesn’t happen here. Or to ignore what has happened here. Where are the calls to end the genocide of unequal education that maintains socioeconomic control and keeps the powerless in their silenced position?

At what point do we call it a genocide? Is it a genocide that the Chinese government eradicates Mongolian culture by moving Chinese populations into Mongolian cultural spaces, by moving Mongolians, by force, out of their spaces and into Chinese ones? Is it a genocide that in Catalunia, until the 90s, Spanish was taught to the detriment of Catalan or is the new Catalunian regime’s insistence on not teaching Spanish to Spanish citizens in order to maintain and grow Catalan culture and language the cost of their mobility within the rest of the country?

We need more words. And that, in itself, is the tragedy beyond words.

We need to practice some Tikun Olam (The Jewish term for social justice, in essence) in our own places. We need to turn to home a bit. The American Dream, an attempt to provide all Americans with a belief in upward mobility is not just a lie—and we all know it is a lie—it’s a lie that allows elites permission to blame the downtrodden for not pulling themselves up by their non-existant bootstraps. “I did it!” they can cry, in particular if they are among the few who did. “Why haven’t you?!?” The American Dream, coupled with the wake-up call of the Shoah, makes it possible for people to help those abroad in need of help at the cost of the permission it gives them to pretend those who need help at home simply don’t deserve it. They live in America, after all! They should just work harder!

But hard work doesn’t cut it for everyone. Hard work doesn’t make it happen in every situation. In fact the people who work hardest make the least progress in this country.

My father liked to say (back when as a returning American he worked three jobs) that there is nothing more expensive than poverty.

I am not arguing against the need to stop genocide wherever it may occur. I am simply suggesting that if we work to stop the immense inequality, social silencing and expense of poverty at home (in whatever place you call home), we might not get to the point at which we have to term it genocide. What we need to do is come up with new words; words that pronounce, as they announce, the slide toward genocide.

Fixing the disease is far better than treating the symptoms.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jewish Penicillin

1. If you are sick and making your own chicken soup, stock is not cheating.

2. Chicken soup is best reheated on the stove. By your mother. Who somehow manages to make it full of love as well as nutrients.

3. But if she were here, you wouldn't have made it yourself, so using the microwave is not cheating.

4. The tribe cannot disown you for eschewing matzah balls.
They will threaten.
They will use words like shandah.
They will tell you how much you've hurt them--and this is, by the way, not the time to mention your inability to eat gefilte fish.
You must respond by being a dog: Dogs don't do guilt trips.

5. No matter how old and practiced you become at the art of chicken soup, you will never, even in full health, make it as good as your mother, your aunt, your grandmother, and those of anyone else in their generation.

If any of these women suggest that yours is as good or better, watch out; this is likely a ploy to make you the soup-maker for the next soup-involved holiday (which, incidentally, is coming up Friday).

6. When you sit down to eat the chicken soup you just remembered you made last night because you are ill and in need of it, try to keep in mind that you just took it off the stove, and only your mothers "fooing" will get it to the right temperature.
Resign yourself to mouth-burns and a sudden, instantaneous, inex-physics-plicably switch to too cold!

As your mother would say if she were here; "you'll live."

Of course, if your mother were here, none of this would be necessary. She will have made chicken soup from scratch, imbued it with her love, managed to serve it boiling off the stove at exactly the right temperature, and even know how to make you lie down and eat it at the same time.

Sucks to be you.