Archive for September, 2013

THE PATHWAY HOME

As a kid, I read comic books about war. World War Two had ended not long before. We were fighting in Korea, and the Cold War would continue after. The soldiers and marines in those comic books were amazing. They could fire a rifle, throw a grenade then throw a punch and crack wise all at the same time. Humor has always been part of soldiers’ equipment. Wisecracks ease the burdens of pained hearts. War, after all, is serious stuff.

So is coming home.

One in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and veterans account for 20 percent of U.S. suicides, according to facethefacts.org, a project of George Washington University. Tens of thousands of vets have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). Then there are all those vets who have not been diagnosed.

Some people get it. Last Sunday, The Pathway Home, a non-profit, non-government treatment center for Iraq-Afghanistan vets at the Veterans Home in Yountville, held a show of veterans’ art. Robert Green Fine Arts in Mill Valley donated the space. The show was based on work by the Walking Point Foundation. Walking Point helps veterans come to grips with their wounds through art. Volunteer mentors work with the vets in Yountville, encouraging and guiding at the vets’ pace. My friend Jim Shay, a fabulous painter, is one of the mentors.

Not surprisingly, the striking paintings, drawings, collages and masks emphasized death. That’s what men in combat experience. Additionally, several of the men read prose and poetry. They revealed what they’d been through and the raw emotions with which they must deal daily. Their words were profound and meaningful because they were real. No comic book heroism here.

The Pathway Home understands what our veterans have been through, what help they’re getting from the Department of Veterans Affairs and what they’re not getting. It offers a residential setting in which veterans—at no cost—receive comprehensive, leading edge therapy to provide the tools needed to help complete educational programs, get jobs, restore personal relationships and finally “come home.” Technology, art and service dogs all play a role in the healing process. The Pathway Home has treated more than 380 veterans since its inception in January 2008.

The Walking Point Foundation mentors vets through the arts. It helps them express themselves, connect with others and heal. In addition to The Pathway Home, Walking Point works with the Palo Alto Veterans Administration. It soon will expand to the Oakland Vet Center, the Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program at the Menlo Park VA, the San Francisco VA, the San Francisco Vet Center and the San Rafael Vet Center. It hopes to develop a national model to assist vets everywhere.

Most of us have heard the old saying, “War is hell.” Coming home can be hell, too. We also know that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. We can bitch. Or we can do. I ask you to offer our vets a better route by going to Pathways’ and Walking Point’s web sites and making a donation.

This column honors the memory of 1LT Howard Schnabolk, US Army, who never got the chance to come home.

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Read the first three chapters of SAN CAFÉ and of SLICK!, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012, at davidperlstein.com. Order at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com. 

LIFE, DEATH AND LIFE ON THE SMALL SCREEN

It’s hard to see loved ones die, whether they go in their prime or linger. Two deaths this month will affect me and millions of others. Fortunately they involve not human beings but TV shows.

Dexter and Breaking Bad will arrive at their inevitable ends. I’ll be sad. Well, concerning Dexter, relieved. The show has been a Sunday night habit. But Dexter ran out of steam a few seasons back. Fortunately, the concluding episodes provide renew energy as Dexter seeks a new life and his sister Debra clings to hers.

Breaking Bad will be sorely missed. The incredible tale of a high school teacher turned methamphetamine empire builder ranks among the very best of television productions—which ranks it among the very best of dramatic presentations in any form. The scripts—compelling and quirky—the acting and the cinematography all have been spectacular year after year. I put Breaking Bad on a pedestal alongside The Wire, perhaps the best TV drama ever, and The Sopranos.

Not that I’m touting my personal television hall of fame. We all have our favorites. And yes, I still watch The Simpsons—after 24 seasons, the longest running primetime show ever. It graces its own pedestal—assembled out of donuts.

My point is this: People love stories. We get caught up in them. Good stories stir our imaginations. They also let us live other lives vicariously and get caught up in dramas we would never experience ourselves—or want to. These shows and their characters achieve a reality of their own—one that reality shows can never match.

So when a great show finally leaves the air, it’s like a small death in the family. Something familiar and treasured has gone missing. Yet as with all of humanity, one generation departs only to be replaced by another. Death is inevitable, but we find hope and strength in the continuous creation of new life.

And it’s not all or nothing. Before they expire, outstanding TV shows go on hiatus. Their promise to return leaves us with great anticipation. Ray Donovan is concluding its first season. I’ll miss it, sure. Particularly Avi, Ray’s Israeli “handyman.” Meanwhile I’ll catch up with Luther, the BBC detective show starring Idris Elba, back for its third season. And on September 29, Homeland returns.

I’m not looking forward to another season of Mad Men—I stopped watching because I no longer give a damn about Don Draper (if you do, fine)—but I’m in the middle of Netflix’ Orange is the New Black. Early in 2014 we’ll see the return of Netflix’ House of Cards.

There are lessons in all this. For one thing, while it’s fashionable in some circles to scoff at television, stimulating shows exists. For another—particularly of note as we enter autumn this Sunday—spring always follows winter. In the words of the author Kurt Vonnegut, “And so it goes.”

And so goodbye Dexter Morgan and Walter White. Welcome back, Nicholas Brody, Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson. And you too, John Luther. But wait. Did I forget someone? Oh yes. As always, Homer. D’oh.

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Read the first three chapters of SAN CAFÉ and of SLICK!, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012, at davidperlstein.com. Order at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com. 

TRUE BELIEF IN TEHRAN

In 1951, Eric Hoffer’s book The True Believer presented a chilling subject. Political and religious mass movements form when leaders promise ultimate truth. Those leaders remain in power by defining truth, no matter how much they have to lie. See: Iran, Islamic Republic of.

In the September/October issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Akbar Ganji profiles Iran’s Supreme Leader in “Who Is Ali Khamenei?” Ganji, an Iranian journalist and dissident, was imprisoned from 2000 to 2006. His writing is banned in Iran.

Yet this is no hatchet job. Ganji emphasizes Khamenei’s significant awareness of Western culture and praise for the West’s technology and capitalist risk taking. Moreover, Khamenei doesn’t hold the West responsible for all the Islamic world’s problems. He is not “crazy, irrational or a reckless zealot.” Still, Ganji acknowledges that Khamenei’s “deep-rooted views and intransigence” create a barrier to any rapprochement with the West.

From an Iranian point of view, Iran has an axe to grind. In 1953, the U.S. helped topple Iran’s elected government. We supported the Shah—a friend of ours but not to many of his own people. History to us. Not to Khamenei. Tehran lashes out, supporting terrorism around the world and repressing its people at home, all in the name of Islam as the answer to all problems.

Khamenei indeed promotes true belief. Start with his title—Supreme Leader. He assumed that position after the death of Ayatollah Khomeni in 1989. Supreme Leader has an ominous ring to it. It should. One man may decide who can and cannot run for office. One man may overrule any law passed by his government. One man has gigantic photos of himself posted throughout Iran. Images come to mind: Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, North Korea’s Kims, George Orwell’s Big Brother. Each was a cult figure and a law unto himself.

So does Khamenei maintain a rational worldview or not? It’s a legitimate question since the Supreme Leader keeps looking under his bed for the bogeyman—and finding it. According to Ganji, Khamenei traces a string of evil deeds attacking Muslims worldwide, including the burning of a Quran by a lunatic pastor in Florida in 2010 (arrested yesterday before attempting to burn 3,000 Qurans), to—drum roll—the Jews! In a public speech, Khamenei spoke of “the system of hegemony and Zionist planning centers, which enjoy the greatest influence over the American government and its security and military agencies, as well as the British and some European governments.”

I’m not just aghast. I’m disappointed. Neither my parents, my friends nor my rabbis ever enlightened me that we Jews, all 14 million of us, control the world, which includes 1.6 billion Muslims. Mea culpa. I neglected to read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as well as the writings of Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan. Yet this must be true. The Supreme Leader says it is.

There’s a lesson here: In a world of complexity mirroring the complexity of human nature, many find comfort in true belief. A sense of bliss follows separating oneself from any relationship with reality. Because reality, as they say, bites.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of SAN CAFÉ and of SLICK!, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012, at davidperlstein.com. Order at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com. 

TOUCHING BASE

I generally see the glass as half filled. Some friends find this amusing. In a world filled by deceit and violence, it’s a real challenge to retain a sense of optimism. Still, I do—particularly during the High Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah—this past Wednesday night and yesterday morning—congregants and guests filled the sanctuary at Congregation Sherith Israel. (The Reform movement, as in Israel, marks only the first day of the New Year.) Similarly, worshippers will fill the pews on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—next Friday night and Saturday. In truth, this will represent an anomaly. Yet something positive will take place.

Many Jews active in synagogue life may raise an eyebrow at “twice-a-year” Jews filling so many of the temple’s seats. These people almost never come to Shabbat or holiday services.  They don’t attend Torah study or adult education classes. In fact, they rarely find reason to walk through our doors. While they may pursue secular Jewish activities, Judaism has little or no place in their lives.

Nonetheless, although they have every opportunity to totally break from Judaism, they maintain their synagogue memberships or buy High Holy Day tickets. They feel impelled to touch base with the past and something within themselves.

Touching base should not be minimized. Granted, many—perhaps most—Jews will not attend High Holy Day services at all. But others, who find religion of no appeal, cannot cut the cord. Do they feel guilty, given the historic sufferings of the Jewish people? Do they fear disappointing their parents, living or dead? Do they consider attendance a form of noblesse oblige? Must they let the religious community know that while they have little interest in it, they are big-hearted enough to offer a measure of support?

Perhaps a qualified “yes” informs each answer. I suspect, however, that something more is involved. I suspect that many “twice-a-year Jews” would like to find a path towards God—however they might define God—but don’t know how. I suspect that touching base keeps alive the idea that they remain capable of making a commitment to Judaism besides the writing of checks.

I suspect that in a society grown increasingly secular and often devoid of lasting values, “twice-a-year” Jews hunger for an experience to take them outside of themselves and beyond the material objects of modern “worship.” They seek to connect with something larger and more meaningful. Likewise, I suspect that many Christians who go to church only on Christmas and perhaps Easter experience the same longing. They express a non-denominational, very human desire to find deeper meaning in a bigger world.

I’m glad that our sanctuary fills up even if empty seats abound the rest of the year. I also understand that touching base alone won’t guarantee liberal Judaism’s survival in North America. But touching base keeps the door open. It maintains the possibility that a spark—perhaps many sparks—someday will be lit.

Sometimes—and I write this as an optimist with his feet on the ground—that’s all we can ask.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of SAN CAFÉ and of SLICK!, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012, at davidperlstein.com. Order at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com.