Archive for August, 2014

SURVIVAL MODE

Last Sunday morning, Carolyn and I shook in bed as the house rocked and rolled, creaked and rattled. A 6.1 earthquake struck near Napa, 60 miles away. Downtown Napa suffered significant damage. San Francisco emerged unscathed. Nine hours later, we flew to Los Angeles to visit our oldest son, Seth.

Former Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously stated that all politics are local. It’s the same for most disasters. If we escape injury or damage, we move on. In the Bay Area, people focused on the A’s loss to the Angels in Oakland and the 49ers pre-season win over the Chargers in Santa Clara, along with the usual cultural and private events, brunches, and simply puttering around the house.

In Santa Monica, Carolyn and I took a walk along the beach on a sunny, pleasant afternoon. We stopped at the Santa Monica Pier. People strolled, rode the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster, fished, ate and drank. Napa’s problems were Napa’s problems.

Do we have a problem here? It’s complicated. When we personally experience a tragedy or even a minor difficulty, we’re engrossed, sometimes overwhelmed. Short of that, most of us note an earthquake or a flood or a murder or a grizzly accident and get on with our lives. We feel bad that it happened to others and, even if we won’t admit it, glad it didn’t happen to us. If we can help, we send a check or donate goods. We might do a volunteer shift when needed. Then we let go. There’s good reason.

Dwelling on tragedy can alter or even crush the psyche. After all, tragedies occur daily. Our survival instinct compels us to turn towards something more positive—humor, food, TV, a ballgame, sex with the right person. Sometimes, regrettably, we turn to the negative—alcohol, drugs, sex with the wrong person.

This presents a conundrum. Becoming overwhelmed by others’ tragedies puts personal physical and emotional health at risk. Yet ignoring them puts society at risk. Given exposure to instant, 24/7 media coverage, maintaining an even keel requires balancing skills a Cirque du Soleil tightrope walker would envy. Many people just ignore the news. Buying into the theory that ignorance is bliss, they risk abetting further tragedies. Others can’t let go. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They’re admirable people but prone to drowning in tragedy. Sometimes, they drag others under with them.

So yes, our emotional survival requires moments of joy and laughter. A wonderful English professor of mine at Alfred University, Mel Bernstein, once told me, “Never lose your sense of humor.” That advice helped get me through any number of challenges. Still, our individual and societal survival demands continuous attention to potential threats—whether from economic shocks and crime at home to the spread of Ebola in West Africa, Islamism in the Middle East and the Ukraine-Russia confrontation in Eastern Europe.

There’s a Holocaust story, possibly apocryphal but definitely enlightening, about the human need for emotional balance. In a death camp, a group of Jews engage in a heated debate. Some believe in God’s existence. Others deny it. Then one prisoner announces, “It’s time for Mincha [the afternoon service].” All the prisoners go off together to pray.

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STREET GAMES OF THE ‘50S

Unexpected memories pop up at odd times. Saturday afternoon, my mind drifted back to 1954 and the street games we played as kids in New York. While my apartment building in Rego Park fronted on 63rd Drive, the narrow side streets were only lightly trafficked. Disclosure: One, maybe two people were thrown off my building’s roof in mob-style murders some years after I left home. Second disclosure: The closing of Jack’s candy store affected me more.

In fall, we played touch football in the street. Winter brought sledding and snowball fights. Spring offered punchball and stickball with a pink Spaldeen or Penzy Pinky (Amazon sells high-bounce Pinky balls). They’re the size of a tennis ball but without the fuzz. We also played softball. A manhole cover served as home plate, parked cars as first and third bases, another manhole or a glove as second. As I remember, we never broke a windshield or even—maybe—dented metal.

We also played War. One kid was “It.” The rest each took the name of a country. We huddled together then scattered on the street as “It” counted to five. Everyone froze. “It” stated, “I declare war on…”—say, Russia. In the 1950s, the Cold War was a hot issue. “It” threw the ball at Russia, who could sway but not move his feet. If Russia got hit, he became “It.” If the ball sailed past, “It” stayed “It.” Risks were involved. Balls went down sewers.

We moved to the sidewalk to play Four-box Baseball and Box Ball. A small dirt patch allowed us to play Territory. We threw penknives to carve up smaller and smaller areas. Whoever couldn’t land his knife in the smallest territory lost.

We also went to the schoolyard at PS 174. Without parents! In addition to softball (as few as three kids on a side) and basketball, Johnny-on-the-Pony captivated us. One kid leaned up against the wall in a handball court. Another ran forward and jumped on his back. Then another and another until the “pony” collapsed. What was the point? Did we need one?

Then there was Moon’s Up. It involved Chinese Handball (you slapped the ball to the ground before it hit the wall). Each kid defended his space. If you couldn’t return the ball, you got a point and moved to the end of the line. When someone accumulated a given number of points—often because everyone else ganged up on him—we had a loser. The loser bent over at the wall with his backside up. Each winner got to throw the ball at him. What was the point? Did we need one?

We had indoor games for winter, like shoebox basketball played in a bedroom (which I kind of invented), but that’s another story. Urban life then placed a premium on imagination. Today’s kids, if they escape the pull of their video games, play ball in leagues with uniforms, schedules, adult coaches and cheering (sometimes fighting) parents. ESPN long has covered the Little League World Series. Ridiculous!

How did we turn out? My friends produced a New York State middle-school principal of the year, chemistry teacher/tech consultant, lawyer and neurosurgeon. There also was me. Four out of five ain’t bad.

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WHY WE ALL CAN’T GET ALONG

In 1991, Los Angeles police beat a black man named Rodney King. This sparked the riots of 1992 in which 53 people died. King uttered words often repeated: “Can we all get along?” In the geopolitical arena, it doesn’t seem likely. The cause often lies in differences among civilizations and cultures.

Wait, you say. All people are essentially the same. That must go for nations and cultures, too. The historian Francis Fukuyama might once have agreed. In The End of History and the Last Man (1992), he proposed that the Soviet Union’s collapse ended competition between political-economic philosophies. Democratic capitalism won. The rest of history would only involve all countries adapting to it.

Samuel P. Huntington disagreed. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) predicted hostilities among major civilizations. These included the West, Orthodox Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Muslim world. These civilizations uphold differing political, religious, cultural and economic norms, and would struggle with each other regionally or globally. Many academics and commentators faulted Huntington—foolishly.

Granted, all human beings may pursue the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualization, esteem, social relations, safety and physiological wellbeing. And many people in a world grown smaller have much in common. But cultural views, particularly among “leaders,” often differ markedly about the meaning of those needs and their associated values.

Alexander Lukin, Vice President of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offers insight. In the July/August 2014 FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Lukin explains “What the Kremlin is Thinking.” The United States, he posits, hasn’t a clue. Lukin writes: “If one believes that the meaning of human existence is to gain more political freedoms and acquire material wealth, then Western society is moving forward. But if one thinks, as a traditional Christian does, that Christ’s coming was humanity’s most important development, then material wealth looks far less important… Religious traditionalists see euthanasia, homosexuality, and other practices that the New Testament repeatedly condemns as representing not progress but a regression to pagan times. Viewed through this lens, Western society is more than imperfect; it is the very center of sin.”

Russia and the West share affection for luxury autos, expensive clothes, pro hockey and basketball, and high-priced restaurants. But Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin see the world differently. Moreover, from Moscow’s viewpoint, writes Lukin, the West may be seen not simply as different but as evil.

Does this throw light on the Islamist State’s attempted genocide against Yazidis and forced conversion of Christians? Or the depredations of Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadis against Christians? Or why, after almost fifteen centuries, Muslim Sunnis and Shiites continue to slaughter each other?

And is Hamas exaggerating when it says it wants to destroy Israel and kill all Jews? Might the Gaza-Israel clash involve more than geopolitics and thus not be amenable to making peace? And might Israel (and the West) and Hamas (and Islamists) define peace differently?

If only we could all get along. But even that phrase may differ in meaning among cultures. Being a person of good faith offers no guarantee of good faith from others who see the world through a markedly different cultural lens.

Let’s hope. Let’s pray. But above all, let’s be honest with ourselves.

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NEW YORK NOTES

Carolyn and I just spent five days in Manhattan. I’d like to share them with you.

In “The Scoop on San Francisco” (June 13), analyst Lynn Sedway stated that New York also is a hot real estate market. True that! We stayed at the Viceroy Hotel on West 57th Street. Across from us, a high-rise condo building for the super rich is being completed. It’s not the only such building on 57th either. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can’t walk anywhere in midtown without going through scaffolding as new buildings rise and older buildings undergo renovation.

Downtown, we walked the High Line, an elevated park running from 30th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues down to Gransvoort in the Meatpacking District. It’s way more crowded than a few years ago—a major tourist destination. The High Line offers a breath of fresh air and fabulous views of Manhattan streets, the Hudson River and New Jersey. Not surprisingly, developers are building condo and apartment projects alongside.

Before lunch, we rested overlooking 10th Avenue and 17th Street. In 1906, my father Morris came to America from Warsaw at age 2-1/2. When the Perlsteins became citizens in 1914, they lived four blocks to the east at 100 West 17th at 6th. (The site has been a parking lot for years.) August 25 marks the Perlstein citizenship centennial. For us and many tens of millions of others, the American dream has been real.

We held two small Finkle (my mother Blanche) family reunions starting on Saturday, August 2. First, we had a great lunch with our friend Teri at the Boathouse in Central Park. Then we met up with Israeli cousin Rachel Sela, her family and friends to hear Hurray for the Riff at SummerStage. The band provided a fabulous hour of Americana music rooted in blues, country and folk. Our son Yosi continues to amaze on fiddle, and we spent time with him the day before at… the Russian Tea Room. We also saw the family of Alynda Lee Segarra, the band’s fabulous singer/songwriter. Side bar: Hurray for the Riff Raff opened for Dr. John and the Night Trippers, but Dr. John took ill and had to cancel. The Riff Raff couldn’t play any longer because they hurried off to the Johnstown Festival in Pennsylvania.

After the concert, we had dinner with Teri at the Bryant Park Café, one of our favorite places. Bryant Park, behind the Main Library, has been transformed into an activity-filled destination. Despite all the people enjoying themselves, it manages to be an oasis of peace.

On Sunday, we met Israeli cousin Lisa Bennett and her family, as well as my sister Kay and some of her family. We gathered for brunch at the Shalimar Diner on 63rd Drive in Rego Park (featured in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street.) After, we walked three blocks to the apartment building Kay and I grew up in. Then back to Manhattan to see The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

More on theater: Our first night in offered When We Were Young and Unafraid with Cherry Jones. It’s a powerful play about abused women with an accomplished actress. We also saw Audra McDonald in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar. There’s a reason she won her unprecedented sixth Tony.

I love San Francisco. I also love reconnecting with my roots. Today, new generations from all over the world find a home and opportunity in New York. If I tear up whenever I see the Statue of Liberty—even on a stamp and even as I’m writing—you know why.

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