Asleep yet?

Suffering with jet lag for the last few nights, I’ve hardly been able to get to sleep at all.  I think I may have found a solution.  I just listened to the new Gillian Welch album, “The Harrow & the Harvest.”  It should put me right to sleep, if the downer mood doesn’t have me slitting my wrists first.

Lovely harmonies and gently elegant instrumental frills, but she suffers from the same labial paralysis that Emmylou sometimes does.  And man, is it ever slow-paced and reminiscent of watching folks on Quaaludes.

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This morning, driving in . . .

On the way in to work this morning, I just had to stop to take a photo of a field of poppies and sunflowers.

Thanks to Kim for pointing this lovely sight out to me.

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All the news . . .

All of you who think it’s just a coincidence that Rupert Murdoch’s news machine is involved in unethical and illegal practices, raise your hand.  You over there with your hand in the air — you’re an idiot.

Just another example of what unbridled, rampant capitalism can do for us:

Let’s do anything we can to get the juiciest, most sordid, and titillating details for our readers, even if we have to lie, sneak and steal to do it.  Never mind the people we’re reporting on or how much grief we cause them – they’re just news fodder.

Anything for a buck!

And lest we forget, we as readers have a responsibility as well.  Must we read such trash?  No, we don’t, but we allow ourselves to be sucked into it because it’s exciting.  We, too, forget that people in the news are . . . well . . .  people, too.

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Are we celebrating yet?

I can’t help feeling uneasy about Americans rejoicing in the streets at the reported death of Osama Bin Laden.  Rejoicing about even the deaths of our enemies seems a bit much to me.   And even if we feel a bit of relief that Bin Laden is gone, what does the future hold for us and for the world?  I  fear we are a long way from a true celebratory moment.

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Had enough . . ..

OK, I’ve had enough.   Not even going to look it up.  If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but if I’m wrong, then the books and rules are wrong.

I’m talking about the little people of Ecuador.  Yes, the ones who took part in a genetic study of Laron syndrome, and who have something to offer us. 

But I’m not really talking about them, per se.  I’m talking about what the press is calling them.

I’ve seen them called in print as “Ecuadorians” and Ecuadoreans.”  And heard the same thing on the radio and television.

For God’s sake, they are Ecuadorans!  We are not North Americaneans or North Americanians, are we? 

Give these little people, their fellow citizens, and my eyes and ears, a break!

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However to begin . . .

I really have nothing to say and you know that as well as I.  Or maybe I just have too much.

I could blabber (or blubber) on about all kinds of things, but I don’t know if you’re willing to endure it, or if I’m able to keep it up.

Maybe it’s one of those things where you just start out and see what happens.  I certainly don’t relish the thought of opening up the last 58 years and just laying it out.  Way too much.

Let’s just see what happens.

Cemeteries and the meaning of life

I visited a couple of cemeteries today, as part of my genealogical research on Kim’s father’s family.

I got up early and drove to Epping. That’s the closest tube stop for us, and for weekday travel into London, it only makes sense. I bought an Oyster (prepaid transport) card, and was at Mile End, which used to be a very busy Jewish community, at around 8:30.

I presented myself to the guard at the Queen Mary University there to gain access to the “Novo” or new cemetery — what’s left of it. It was used from 1735, but most of the decedents’ remains were moved to a site out in the Essex countryside in a land swap back in the 1970s. Queen Mary Uni had some land out there they didn’t need, but they did need the cemetery land at Mile End to build more of the university on.

The security guys were very nice, and in a few minutes I was inside the Novo cemetery, with its slab-like grave markers. There must be about 600-800 graves still there. Sad to say, even within the confines of the relatively safe university, the inexorable grind of rain, wind, ice and all the other elements combine to decay what’s left.

Many of the stones have been meticulously restored with some kind of plastic lettering, which also peels off as time goes on. I couldn’t help but think about the family connection here for Kim, as her great-grandfather, a woodcarver and master gilder, was once superintendent, caretaker and a monument maker for this cemetery. He actually lived on the cemetery grounds for some time. I found myself wondering which stones he might have worked on.

Some of the names I saw: Baruch, Romain, Belasco, Brandon, Souhami, Nahon, Pinto, Ricardo, Montefiore, a good many named Pass, Mercado, Bensabet, Lindo, Pezaro, Andrade, Brandon Bravo, Cardozo, de la Penha, Abraham, Pimentel, Martin, Woolf, Ricardo Rocamora, and a few Sassoons.

There’s a large roundel set in the ground with a Mogen David in it. The ground over the entire cemetery is covered in gravel.

After that, I dropped by the guard “lodge” again and one of them walked me down to the old cemetery about a block away, but still on the grounds of the university.

It is much more heavily fortified, with razor wire and metal fencing with spikes on top all around.

It’s a rather small, garden-like cemetery, used from 1657 to 1735, by the congregation of Portuguese and Spanish Jews who fled the continent for England.

In this one, nearly all the grave markers were perfectly level with the ground, unlike the Novo, where they were raised up with a border of about 6 inches or so. This means the old grounds are much tidier at first glance, whereas the Novo has more of a higgledy-piggledy feel to it, with all the different styles and sizes and states of repair or disrepair.

The graves of the “hakhamim” or chief rabbis have been refurbished with shiny new slabs — David Nieto among the few there, and aluminum votive candle bottoms, presumably used for yahrzeit candles, litter that corner.

I then left to let the security guards lock it up and hopped the tube back to Epping around 10:00, just as the “sunny with showers” day turned to showers.

Once at Epping, back into the car for a short drive to Coxtie Green, (CM14 5RJ postcode).

This is where 8,000 to 9,000 graves were re-interred after being removed from the Novo site at Mile End.

It is a little difficult to see the entry, but if you drive slowly between Weald Park Golf Club and the Oakhurst Farm (I had to pass each of them and then home in on the entry) you’ll see a wooden gate in the wood, about the width of a car. It’s locked, so there’s just barely enough room to turn in and get your car out of the road. Then you can walk into the cemetery area. I had “seen” what I thought was the site from the Microsoft Maps bird’s eye rendition, and had it about figured.

There’s a gate, but no lock. A large sign warns that it’s a private cemetery and you’ll be prosecuted if you’re not there for good reason. I took my chances, since I’d made it clear to the guards back at the college and to the burial society that I intended to visit.

It’s a stark place. There is a plaque to the left, which I’ll have to get translated, since my Hebrew is completely lost after 30 years. There is the traditional water spigot mounted in the plaque’s brickwork, out of which you can get very little water to flow.

From the gate you see the plot surrounded by a prefab or modular concrete wall. Trees line the edges and hang over into the cemetery grounds.

There are four large quadrilateral plots and one very small one, a bit newer, it appears, mounded over with large gravel — stones about the size of golf balls and tennis balls. Surrounding each rectangle is a low railing of stainless steel. The newer one does not appear in the aerial map view as of today, so it must be within a year or so of being built.

Anyone looking for plaques or names will be disappointed. It really is the last resting place.

All the mourning is gone, the stones that bore the short epitaphs, gone. It is merely the quiet of the countryside, with the occasional shhhhoooooshhh of a car driving by on the road outside.

If ever there was something to remind us that in the end we’re all very much alike and that all we have is each other — and only for a short time — this is it.

Note: The Novo and Velho cemeteries at Queen Mary University are visible on bird’s eye view from Microsoft Live Search maps. Just click here and that should point directly to the Novo plots. You can zoom in or out a bit if needed. You’ll need to drag the map over a bit to see the Velho site, as it is to the “left” of the University as you see it from the map view, and is much smaller, right behind Mile End Place.

The Essex plots are seen as the white quads right next to and below Coxtie Green Road here.

Photos — click here.

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Music in the night and how it’s done

Further in this vein – was listening to Iris Dement singing along with her mother on the old standard “Higher Ground” last night. It brought back memories of my childhood: The Assembly of God where my grandmother and aunt attended – it seemed almost every day, for there was a revival or some kind of meeting going on there all the time. There was an inclusiveness and allowance for adaptation about the music there – anyone could do just about anything; bend the notes this way and that, plunk and slap on an old bass fiddle. My aunt played the piano like a barroom piano player would, with elaborate runs, arpeggios and rhythmic thumps, while the congregation wailed, swooped or shouted the songs anyway the spirit moved them.

Later, when I got into school and became fascinated with science, spending all my time reading biology, astronomy, electronics and physics books, I learned that there are rules about how things work and everything is not this loosey-goosey mess. And when I got into band, playing music, the rules there applied as well. You saw a dot on a piece of paper, it had a time value and a pitch value and you pressed this key or a combination of keys and it played that note. And in band and later in choir, we were taught a rather proper (snobbish, I might say now) way of looking at “authentic” music. The note swooping was out and was country or unsophisticated. We had to be right on pitch. Tempo was king – no deviation allowed. We (some of us anyway) became slaves to the sheet of music and the ink. We learned that we could not play anything unless it was written down. And guess what? I can’t.

Of course, this all runs counter to the whole root of music, which had its beginnings in experimentation, spontaneity and celebration.

Then I find myself listening in the same night to Mahler’s 4th symphony and luxuriating in it. He – and other great composers — were masters of control and of the sheet music, and yet, there is the improvisation that they were making in the music. The players weren’t allowed much, but like many of these composers he certainly shook up the musical world – sometimes scandalously so.
Where does that leave me now? Still wondering – about a lot.

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Spelling bee

A week or so ago, I found myself in a discussion with a couple of elementary school teachers and my wife — also a teacher — and of course, they were doing teacher talk, which is obviously unavoidable and uncontrollable – and, they are always quick to add — important.

One was talking about how there is such a focus on spelling in some teachers’ classes, and how unimportant he found it to be. Somehow I admitted to being a good speller and then started to wonder if the whole literalist mentality I have is related somehow to the focus on this type of thing when I was growing up. I started to express some rather incoherent thoughts on this, but then the other couple got distracted by my wife’s smile as I started to “confess” and the moment was lost.

But I do wonder if I was “doomed” to be a literalist because of such things. Spelling was fun to me and I did it and still do it well. But was it all just a waste of time, turning me into a spelling machine? Is this part and parcel of growing up in the boring, uptight fifties, steeped in a fundamentalist religious life and being so squeaky clean? Is that why I can’t play by ear?

And how does one change that? Must one abandon all the order and just let life roll on and not take thought to finances, household and day-to-day life matters? How can one re-learn that?

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Election 2004

I have some things I feel I must say concerning the election. Many have asked me what I think, and for the most part, I’ve held my tongue, although barely.

I would never want my concern about the current administration to give the impression of a lack of support for the people I know and work with every day. They give their time, energy, their family life and sometimes their health and blood doing their jobs. I respect them immensely for that, and suffer with them through it, although they are the ones who pay the real price.

In the case of this year’s election, though, I need to say what I need to say.

We need a major change in the direction that we’ve taken since September 11, 2001.

After that dreadful day, many of us felt that Mr. Bush stood up to the duty of being the statesman, the solid figure that beamed out at us each evening after that terrible event. It seemed to many as if it had galvanized him in some way, as if his immaturity — and I use the word not in a derogatory way, but in the sense of his having been in the job only for a short while as a president — had been suddenly transformed.

As it turned out, he, with our collusion — misguided and driven by rage, fear, grief, and shock – has taken us down a road none of us would have wished to travel before September 11, 2001. The Afghanistan campaign was supported by many as a necessary evil, and tolerated by those who were skeptical. As it turned out, it was merely a warm-up for the mess we’re in now. And we still don’t know what’s in store for us – or for the world.

My concern is that the path we have taken is one of setting one side of the world against the other because of sloppy intelligence, lies to cover it up, greed for hydrocarbons, lack of preparation for the coming changes that must, and one day will come in how we do business every day with each other and with the rest of the world. Call it what you will: Muslim against Christian; East against West; “rich” against “poor;” developed against developing; crusaders against mujahadeen.

Other recent developments also give cause for alarm.

* Just after announcing that he wanted to halve the national debt in
his next term, Bush’s administration asked for a raising of the
national debt ceiling, so they can request another $75 billion for
the campaign in Iraq.

* The “war” continues unabated, with more and more attacks from both
sides and more and more soldiers and citizens being killed and maimed.

* Our former allies are arrayed against Mr. Bush’s adventurism, and
are shocked that we continue on the road we’re on. We have lost
the respect of thinking people throughout the world, and they fear
– rightly so – for their security and safety, and fear also the
loss of our former powerhouse of ethics, fairness, consideration
and true democracy. Our “go-it-alone” adventures abroad are
costing us heavily in our relationships with other governments –
and with their citizens. Whether we realize it now or not, we will
be forced at some point to deal with others as equals and as
partners. We can’t continue to make unilateral moves and then ask
for assistance after we’ve screwed everything up.

* Bush’s administration has been forced to admit, at least some of
them, that the weapons of mass destruction ruse was just that, a
ruse, which led us into this chaos. Other administration officials
vacillate between farce, indecision and outright lies in their

* Women’s issues have been pushed into the background by this
administration, with ever increasing disdain for the things that
matter most to women: control over their own bodies, safety for
their children living in this world, childcare.

* Education is being equated with preparedness for serving in the
corporate world – which increasingly means working at low-rung
jobs while the executives continue their parties at workers’ and
investors’ expense. And the emphasis on testing in schools has
turned into just another industry, diverting attention, resources
and intellectual capital into a dog and pony show.

* The arts are valued in schools only peripherally, with violent,
competitive sport taking front seat on the funding bus. The arts
are lucky to have even a passing thought. What passes for
entertainment these days is lowest common denominator trash –
cruel, low corrosive to our culture.

* Our religious beliefs and convictions are being subverted and
sidetracked for political purposes, some of them plainly at odds
with the love, peace and tolerance that true religious belief
stands for. Ironic, isn’t it, that we criticize other nations of
doing the same thing. We fear and loathe the intolerant
theocracies of the world while we continue blindly down the same
road, allowing our religions to be channeled into mischief, at
best, and outright evil in some cases.

* Our energy policy is based on one thing alone – oil. Our great
challenge is to turn from polluting, nonrenewable sources of
energy to those which can be used safely and economically, without
entangling us in shifty alliances with those who can use their
resources, which we now so desperately need, to trap us into
untenable positions. We have the knowledge and ability to develop
new sources of energy, change our way of waste, and become
independent of oil and these shady alliances. This administration
can’t discern what’s in store for the world on this issue. They
blindly wander about looking for more oil, when every expert on it
warns us nearly daily that we /will/ run out.

* The economy is a shambles. Admittedly, one would have expected
some setbacks from 9/11. That was three years ago. The Republican
ideal of “less government” (again) is a reality, due to
deregulation of near every industry. And each day we have another
scandalous revelation of greed, embezzlement and theft by
corporate entities. Just read the news. There are no rules for
these folks now and they are fleecing us – and our children. How
is your retirement investment performing these days? If you’re
lucky enough to have them, have any of your stocks, mutuals or
other investment assets been affected at all by unregulated
corporations running away with the money or making decisions based
on pure greed without a care as to the outcome? Are you so
discouraged by it that you don’t even look at how they’re
performing anymore? How much of your money have you gotten back
from the offenders who are daily sentenced for their misdeeds?

* And perhaps most disgraceful of all, Bush continues to endanger
and use our soldiers in his efforts to either save face or lay
blame for his failures. Just this week his campaign acknowledged
it had doctored a photograph used in a television commercial to
remove the president and the podium where he was standing. A group
of soldiers in the crowd was electronically copied to fill in the
space where the president and the podium had been.

If you are skeptical about your vote counting in this hubbub, please be reminded of how important your vote is. The plain fact is that the intent of the majority of the electorate in the 2000 election was subverted. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court halted ballot recounts and Bush was ushered into the White House without being elected. Only a few votes in the balance of hanging chads and political chicanery in Florida took us to the state we’re in.

Please vote. Do the right thing. We must eventually turn the corner into the 21^st century. We cannot continue on the road of international adventurism, alienation of our natural allies, setting ourselves against those who see things differently than we do. We must learn from others, learn to live in peace, learn to negotiate, learn to stand strong, valuing our own abilities, knowledge and will – and others. And we must learn to give as well as take in our dealings with the world.

The American ideal is at stake. Freedom is what it’s all about: Freedom from oppressive government; from religious intolerance; from dependence on other nations’ resources; freedom to choose; freedom to live in peace.

Only we can set the example for our children, and as we as Americans have so often trumpeted, for the rest of the world.