Archive for October, 2018

Has the pendulum swung too far?

“I want all Jews to die.”

That chilling statement was made by Robert Bowers, the man who shot and murdered eleven Jews on Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

My second thought, immediately following the realization that a new horror had emerged, was Thank God the shooter wasn’t Muslim or Hispanic. Adding more fuel to the xenophobic rantings of the president of the United States and others who condemn or ridicule people for their religious beliefs or who fear for their lives was unnecessary in the already supercharged atmosphere surrounding the mid-term elections.

There is little doubt that the president’s Twitter rants, rallies and politics have exacerbated and made fair game of the practices once held in check by more socially conscious and healing-attuned public servants. Poking fun at the handicapped, demeaning women, excusing the behavior of neo-Nazis and outright bald-faced lies have opened the door to even more despicable acts by others who once were forced to occupy the deep, dark recesses of this America we all love. The improving economy and Wall Street have, until now, served as cover for Republican congressmen who are unwilling to confront this man. Even otherwise observant Christians and Jews, who would normally be repelled by his statements and immoral conduct, are reluctant to reject him due, in part, to their affirmation of his Supreme Court selections and his social agenda.

Trump’s failure to accept any blame for what is happening to the social fabric of this country is evidenced by his continuing assault on the press and his pronouncement of “fake news” on anything that does not fit his view of the world. Despite Saturday’s horror in Pittsburgh, he continued to Tweet on Monday “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open and obvious hostility and report the news accurately and fairly.” Like the failure of his self-appointed commission to bring to light any voter fraud, he offers little evidence of fraudulent reporting. He fails to note that the anger of his base towards the media is fomented by his own “fake news”, offered as red meat to those who believe he can do no wrong.

Anti-Semitism is an unwilling cousin to the xenophobic hysteria surrounding the immigrant caravan headed toward our southern border. Clutching it tightly as a wedge issue in the election, Trump and others have cited unproven and wildly exaggerated claims about the caravan’s composition. At a political rally in Kentucky earlier this month, Mr. Trump declared that Democrats “want to open America’s borders and turn our country into a friendly sanctuary for murderous thugs from other countries who will kill us all.”

George Soros, a Jew, has been widely and falsely claimed to be the principal supporter of the caravan. On October 22, a pipe bomb was found at Mr. Soros’s house; the police have charged a Trump supporter, Cesar Sayoc, with mailing the bombs to Mr. Soros and other Democrats who Trump frequently criticizes.

It is no coincidence that the rise in anti-Semitism has dramatically worsened in the first two years of the Trump presidency. It also coincides with increased Jew hating in Europe. The Anti-Defamation League reported that the U.S. experienced a nearly sixty percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 versus 2016. The League said…

“A confluence of events in 2017 led to a surge in attacks on our community – from bomb threats, cemetery desecrations, white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, and children harassing children at school,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO and National Director. “These incidents came at a time when we saw a rising climate of incivility, the emboldening of hate groups and widening divisions in society.

The road to the right continued to broaden with Sunday’s presidential election in Brazil which brought Jair Bolsonaro to lead the government. He has exalted the military, advocated torture, promised to pack the supreme court and threatened to destroy, jail or exile his political opponents. Per the NY Times, he won by tapping into a deep well of resentment at the status quo in Brazil — a country whiplashed by rising crime and two years of political and economic turmoil — and by presenting himself as the alternative.

When I was a child, I lived in a Chicago ghetto where I believed that everyone in my world was Jewish, other than the janitor. When it was Passover, there was only a vast emptiness in my elementary school. Since my parents and friends were from Russia, I assumed that everyone in that country was Jewish. Except for the language, I might as well have been living in Israel. I was comfortable with my identity.

That changed in high school and reversed itself completely in college. I learned that I was a member of a very small minority with different holidays, different foods and a different house of worship. I became increasingly aware of my Jewish history and I was less comfortable with who I was. I felt different. Terms like The Holocaust, anti-Semitism and bigotry became frequently used parts of my vocabulary. I married, reared our children in the synagogue and counted on it as my go-to sanctuary. I have generally been on the fence about calls for more protection in the temple during the high holidays and I have objected to armed guards during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I used to talk about the pendulum and how it will always swing in the opposite direction after reaching its maximum horizontal position. How good times would eventually give rise to bad times and how it would again reverse itself after running its course.

Today, with the murder of eleven pious Jews, I have my doubts.

Diamonds are forever

We spent the last two weeks searching for a ring for Jackie. A very special ring.

  • The tradition of wearing an engagement ring on the left hand’s fourth finger originated in Egypt, when it was believed a person’s “vein of love” ran directly from the heart down to that finger.

Our odyssey began when we went to one of Jackie’s favorite, oft visited, places. The Optimum Health Institute, located just this side of San Diego, has long been a refuge for those seeking a cure or just some time off. It provides an escape from the rest of world, while providing health benefits that, for some, are the final opportunity to treat real or imagined illnesses without the side effects of traditional medicine.

For others, OHI is a way to drop unwanted pounds and jump-start a new flab-less life. One of the rituals for those who sport unwanted paunches is the morning weigh-in. The process of OHI weight reduction often includes a daily verbal update such as “I’ve lost ten pounds since yesterday.” Encouragement and praise by others are de rigueur and serve to keep the dieter on track. A spoil sport, I often assume the role of devil’s advocate, reminding the gleeful flab-shedder that he or she has been starved of salt, a major contributor to water retention. And, accordingly, the greatest weight loss in the early stages of the OHI starvation regimen is the loss of body fluid, not fat. Alas, my words are always ignored.

Carl, plump and in need of a second visit to the spa after falling off the wagon the first time, is a frenetic jeweler from Chicago. A gregarious, glib, teddy bear look-alike, Carl was all ears when I asked him about diamond rings. Sensing a kill, he zeroed in on me with facts and figures. Size (bigger is better), color (white good/yellow bad, clarity (a limited number of imperfections) and cut (pear, oval, marquis, round) were thrown at me along with hastily drawn diagrams, comparison tables and pretty pictures. I soon realized I was way out of my element.

  • The world’s adoration of this sparkling stone began in India, 400 BC. At that time, they were valued simply based on size.

Carl deals with a diamond wholesaler in San Francisco. After generally describing what we were looking for, he promised to call his wholesaler and have sample diamonds delivered to his room at the spa. He seemed unconcerned about the lack of spa security. Such a valuable commodity seemed ill-served by his lack of reverence for its safety.

  • Formed about 100 miles beneath the Earth’s surface, diamonds travel upwards and are eventually accessible to us because of volcanic activity.

As promised, the stones arrived the next morning in tiny individual paper packets that belied the value of their contents. Taking time out from our schedule of goal setting, meal planning, deep breathing exercises, meditation, and gaining emotional freedom through meridian tapping, we adjourned to Carl’s room for a display of his wares. We did a lot of oohing and aahing, punctuated by some amazement at the prices of the various stones. Carl displayed the stones by nestling them between his pudgy fingers, a practice that made the two carat stones appear small and of dubious value.

  • The largest diamond ever discovered was called the Cullinan diamond. It was found in South Africa in 1905 and weighed in at an amazing 3106 carats, or 1.33 pounds.

The price of the pretty, sparkly stones was out of our reach and were sadly and unceremoniously committed to Carl’s bedroom dresser drawer. He promised a new set of stones, smaller and more reasonably priced, by the next day. Good to his word, they promptly appeared the next morning as if they had been tele-ported over the internet.

The price of a diamond does not change proportionate to its weight. Two carat stones can be three or four times the cost of a one carat sparkler. The stone’s setting, generally white or yellow gold, sometimes platinum, and encrusted with very small diamond chips, adds additional cost.

  • A diamond chip is a piece of diamond that is not faceted. Diamond chips are usually small (less than 0.2 carats in weight) and are often used as accent stones surrounding a bigger center diamond. Since chips are not polished, their surface is not smooth but is rough to the touch.

More oohing and aahing was accompanied by Carl’s admonition intended to impress us with the good deal he was offering. Demeaning the value of any potential visit to a competitor’s store, we were cautioned to pay scant attention to the little, almost illegible, tags appended to the rings in a jewelry store’s cabinet. Solemnly, we were also told to pick our jeweler like we pick our family physician; someone you could trust.

  • As soon as you leave the jeweler with a diamond, it loses over 50% of its value. Not only is the demand for diamonds a marketing invention, but diamonds aren’t actually that rare.

The next day, looking for a well-deserved break from our meridian tapping, we drove to Del Mar, the place where people lose money at the race track. We visited Ralph, a jeweler who Jackie had stumbled upon a few years ago. An amiable, helpful sort, Ralph displayed some of his glittering rings. Jackie’s eyes lit up when she saw a beautiful ring with a round stone and an affordable price tag. Without prompting, Ralph reduced the price of the ring by a third. We were ready to buy…almost. “Please hold the ring for us and give us the weekend to decide”, we implored him. Ralph graciously agreed. Unfortunately, like car buyers, never let a fish go until it’s in the net.

We’ve got an appointment with a Santa Barbara jeweler on Friday.

Am I unique?

It’s Tuesday. Up at 5:30, I left the house at 6:15am in the dark. When will the daylight return to guide me down the path to my garage? My declining night vision tends to make the voyage even more of an adventure. Add a couple of steps plus depth-of-field challenging bifocals, and one realizes why there are so many old folks who fall and break into irreparable pieces.

At the athletic club the usual assortment of fitness seekers populated the treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes and other means of self-improvement. About equally divided between males and females, all strove to achieve nirvana, or maybe just lose a few pounds.

I admit to enjoying an added benefit of club membership that is conspicuously absent from club brochures. Politely gazing upon lovely women brightens my morning. Looking without leering is an art that requires practice, patience and sensitivity. After seven decades I’m still practicing.

I finished my workout and Robert taped my shoulder hoping to relieve a mild ache. I showered, shaved and went to my next stop, Java and Joe. The coffee shop offers good coffee and mediocre pastries, many of which appear to have been left in the sun too long. I ordered my usual dark roast coffee in a medium cup, put some Splenda and cream in it, and took my usual seat outside the cafe.

It was a bright morning, sharply edged and a bit chilly. One of the outdoor tables housed a half-dozen regulars and their dogs. Five coffee drinkers are attentive listeners while one, as is his custom, occupies the speaker’s rostrum and pontificates loudly and at length. Knowledgeable, he speaks on a wide variety of subjects citing facts and figures to bolster his arguments. I admit to finding it tiresome. Or perhaps, feeling left out, I demean the speaker to assuage my feelings and wonder, do others commit the same sin?

I sit removed from the coffee klatch, checking my email, reading the news and watching passersby. Occasionally someone I know will arrive and we do the usual hello, how are you, and have a nice day. All too infrequently, someone sits with me and we share more than pleasantries. At those times, I am happy and impervious to the emanations of the adjacent table for six.

My next stop was the Livingston bereavement group held at the Help of Ojai west campus. I began attending these sessions shortly after Ila died, more than a year ago. Originally held twice a month, they are now offered every week. It’s a chance to share feelings with others who have lost a loved one. Some participants are regulars. Some start but drop out. Others attend intermittently. I have mixed reactions to the meetings. Some produce glorious highs while others leave me low. All the sessions, both high and low, teach me something.

This week eight participants gathered around the conference room table. Seven women and me. I felt surrounded. Why so many women and so few of me? Perhaps it’s because husbands usually die before their spouses. Or perhaps men are too reluctant to share their feelings. In either event, I felt unique.

The afternoon progressed into evening without incident. Tuesday is yoga night. I’m enrolled in five sessions focused on people like me who have little, if any, exposure to the mysteries of yoga. Originating in Northern India over five thousand years ago, yoga is a secular, multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States.

Thirty-seven million people practice yoga in the U.S., nearly double that of seven years ago. Eighty percent of them are women; why so? Excuses include, yoga isn’t a decent workout; it’s too touchy-feely; you have to be flexible to do it; men’s bodies just aren’t built for pretzel-like poses. This evening, at Ojai Yoga Shala, I was the only man in the company of seven women.

My Tuesday nearly over, I was beginning to feel unique. The last man on earth, surrounded by an Amazon race of women that only needed one man to satisfy its basic need to maintain the species. A herculean task indeed, one which I was prepared to assume…for the good of mankind, of course.

Yoga is fun, so they say

Went to a yoga class last night.

I decided to try it again after some gentle encouragement from Jackie. She is a yoga fanatic. Much like my daily habit of visiting the athletic club gym, Jackie lives and breathes yoga. A day without it affects her much like a coffee addict who has failed to meet her daily quota of caffeine at Java and Joe…only worse, much worse.

Our first date was a private yoga class at Jackie’s house. I struggled to achieve poses that for her were second nature. It was as though my aging ligaments had been replaced with inelastic twelve-gauge wire. My back hurt. My ego was bruised. I was a failure looking for a graceful exit. A tough first date.

During the last year I have tried to redeem myself. I participated in Robert’s yoga class at the club. Robert is an excellent trainer who teaches yoga to punish people like me who think they can master the art. He takes no prisoners. I spent the better part of his class watching others do things that seemed second nature. Attempting to emulate their contortions left me several minutes behind the thirty more experienced participants. I drew menacing stares from the women on either side of me as I violated their space, awkwardly fumbled with bolsters, blocks and straps, and made impermissible contact with their body parts. I was the poster boy of yoga, reaching out for help and release from a self-imposed sentence. It was the longest hour of my life. I promised myself never again.

Like all other resolutions, events conspire to make a mockery of them. The athletic club houses a bevy of yogis, predominantly women, who enter the facility with their personalized yoga mats tucked under their arms. They are serious about their yoga; especially their lungs.  For them breathing is not just a way to stay alive, it is a religion that puts one in spiritual contact with mind and body. Failure to breathe properly dooms one to eternal purgatory.

Over the last seven decades, I have developed some familiarity with breathing. Never thought about it much. It either happens, or it doesn’t. That laissez-faire attitude began to crumble when Robert became my trainer. Lifting weights on Tuesday and Thursday required a change of thinking. Breathing is no longer a mindless exercise. Lift and breathe in. Relax and breathe out. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Or is it breathe in through the mouth when lifting and out through nose when relaxing? Sorting through these choices occasionally causes me to hold my breath and black out, making further yoga participation highly questionable.

Yet I have ongoing exposure to yoga in every form, necessitated by the coordination of my schedule with Jackie’s. It would be easy if her sessions were limited to one yoga venue. There are a multitude of yoga studios in Ojai. Add Ventura and it multiplies ten-fold. Selection of the studio-of-the-day is further compounded by the choice of yoga instructor within the studio. Evaluations of the various instructors are at times as intense as the awarding of a Nobel Prize. The focus of the chosen instructor’s class is the final ingredient in the selection process. Healthy Joints, Yoga RX, Postural Restoration, Yin Yoga and Chakra Flow (in multiple levels) hardly scratch the surface of the available flavors of the day. A recent arrival, particularly appealing to someone with lizard-like skin, is Hot Yoga. Locked in a room super-heated to 110 degrees, yoga takes on the punishing characteristics heretofore only available on Devil’s Island.

When not doing yoga, one is often seriously absorbed in discussing it. Community newcomers offering their own unique specialties are often the subject du jour. The reasons causing the departure of old studios are often dissected and, at times, lamented. Yoga instructors are microscopically investigated and, at times, discarded as over the hill, out-of-touch and attitudinally defective. Others are embraced on the same order as the messiah.

So, much like the pastor’s wife, I am involved with but not participating in yoga. However, being immersed vicariously tends to wear away my resistance. Always seeking ways for self-improvement, and with Jackie’s continuing search for the holy grail, I found a Start Yoga five session course at Ojai Yoga Shala. Session one was last evening.

I arrived and was welcomed by the instructor, Alana Mitnick. She scanned her attendance sheet and identified me as Fred. Not difficult, as I was the only male in attendance. Four women rounded out the class, none of whom had yoga experience exceeding my own. I was also the oldest participant, giving me a built-in handicap in the event that I messed up. This was going to be my coming out party.

I collected my equipment, mats, bolsters, blocks and straps. So far so good. On to breathing, something I had practiced in anticipation of the class. Moving my hands up and down my body, while erotic, did little to reveal the mysteries that surely lay ahead. Lifting my tailbone, thrusting my pelvis and arching my back seemed all in a day’s work. Feel anything yet, like a revelation?

Leg and arm stretch, bending and kneeling, balancing and rocking. My ability to earn an A+ was only limited by my ability to hear Alana’s instructions. A lovely young lady with Mother Teresa’s warmth, she was blessed with a gentle voice. A voice that limited hearing much of what she was saying. Surreptitiously spying on my neighbors’ poses filled the gaps.

Alana’s long day at the mats revealed itself when she regularly praised the group without opening her eyes to look at us. Despite this chink in the armor, her lithe movements made me yearn for similar results, knowing full well that I probably would not live long enough to emulate her.

The session ended well beyond its advertised time. I did not celebrate its end like someone who can’t wait for a bad movie to be over. I had neither soiled nor disgraced myself. Neither had I found Nirvana. But I had found enough to bring me back next week.


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