Archive for March, 2015

LEARNING FROM DISASTER

Tuesday’s Germanwings air disaster in France left all of us shocked and heartbroken. But there’s a lesson to be learned. We all know the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I’d add that often it takes a village to find the truth.

This principle became evident years ago when I served on a San Francisco jury in a civil trial. A couple sued a supermarket for false arrest after a security guard handcuffed the man, accused of shoplifting cigarettes, and a scuffle ensued. Arriving at a verdict was challenging since jurors, being human, tend to sympathize with individuals rather than corporations.

Piece by piece, however, our deliberations gained focus. As with the two criminal juries on which I served, people from different backgrounds observed matters in their own individual ways. We talked. And we listened. Then came a breakthrough. The plaintiff’s wife testified that she’d injured her leg or her foot—I don’t remember which—in the fracas. It still hurt. But a woman on the jury observed the wife wearing high heels to court. She believed that despite vanity (I know about women and shoes) no woman would do this while recuperating from an injury. That bothered her. It bothered the rest of us, who hadn’t noticed the high heels. We found for the defendant.

How does this relate to the Germanwings disaster? Yesterday’s New York Times focused on an announcement from French officials, based on recovery of the plane’s voice recorder, that the pilot left the cabin after the Airbus A320 reached cruising altitude. Apparently, the co-pilot locked the door to the cockpit, refused to open it despite the captain’s pleas then brought the plane into descent mode and crashed it into a mountain.

French and German officials are engaged in a thorough investigation. They’ll ask many questions and analyze many theories. The more people involved and encouraged to speculate, the closer they’ll get to the truth. I write this because I read a number of comments from Times readers. Sure, they’re all over the lot. But they’re not misguided. People just see things differently. Because they do, intriguing thoughts emerge.

The article reported that the co-pilot was “breathing normally” throughout the descent. He was intent on suicide, it seemed. That and murder. But “Linda” and “Dana” both question whether the co-pilot’s breathing indicated consciousness or incapacitation. Could he have suffered a medical problem? (I ask: Just when the pilot left the cockpit?) Also, the only way to re-enter a locked cockpit is to punch in a special code—a fail-safe mechanism implemented as a follow-up to Nine-Eleven. “Tom K” wonders why the pilot didn’t enter the code? (I respond: Can anyone inside the cockpit override that? Late news—yes.)

These readers may not have the answers, but they ask meaningful questions. So do investigators. We may never know the absolute truth. But I do know this: Finding the truth often requires many and diverse points of view. The more we open events and issues to broad-based discussion—often in a bottom-up process—the better our chances of making sense of the difficult challenges we face.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

FOUR TOUGH TRUTHS

In the movie A Few Good Men (1992), Jack Nicholson is the Marine colonel commanding the U.S. base at Guantanamo. He famously tells a court martial, “You can’t handle the truth.” Given Tuesday’s election in Israel, last November’s American Congressional election and the state of the world, a number of regrettable truths confront us.

Truth #1: The victory of Israel’s Likud party, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, is scary. Likud won 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats—hardly a mandate. The problem? Trailing in the polls, Bibi played to the worst fears and prejudices of the rabid right, warning that Israeli Arabs were voting (legally) in big numbers. He also said that he would never allow a Palestinian state—after long accepting a two-state solution given a partner on the other side. (Frustrating truth: Mahmoud Abbas was never that partner.) Yesterday, Bibi backtracked. He’s been misunderstood. He favors a Palestinian state under conditions that guarantee Israeli security. I do, too. But can anyone believe Bibi? His campaign rhetoric sent a statement to Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, as well as to the world community: “We can hate as much as they do.” Oh wait. Just kidding.

Truth #2: The American political system isn’t working on the national scale—and needs an overhaul. President Obama seems out of touch to too many Americans. (Age-old truth: you can’t please all of the people all of the time.) His vaunted communications skills are way overrated. Worse, Congress makes a mockery of our democracy. Republicans detoured around the president and welcomed Netanyahu to speak before Congress in great part because they, like Bibi, pander to the far right. Allied truth: Money talks. Says who? The Supreme Court. Corporations have as much right to speak out as people. Only lots more cash. (Do I hear the Koch brothers wheezing in approval or is that Sheldon Adelson?) Grating truth: Many Republicans oppose the president because a Black man (defined in the U.S.A. as anyone with a drop of Black blood) sits in the White House. Mr. Obama can change his policies. He can never change his genetics.

Truth #3: Democracy may not always be the answer. How has it done in Iraq? Shiites continue to suppress Sunnis in a continuation of a religious conflict going back 13 centuries. Turkey’s Islamist president Tayyip Recep Erdogan has turned democracy into a sham. Iran’s elected officials, including the president, fall under the thumb of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei. And would you really praise democracy in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood? Nasty truth: enlightened autocracy might work better in some cases. That’s the position of the noted journalist/scholar Robert Kaplan in his recent book, Asia’s Cauldron. Kaplan cites the incredible flowering of Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew and Malaysia under Mahathir Mohamad (whom Kaplan nonetheless recognizes as an anti-Semite). And no, I’m not a fan of Vladimir Putin, elected by, but hardly accountable to, the Russian people. By the way, he’s wonderfully satirized (and wonderfully played by Lars Mikkelsen) in this season’s Netflix hit House of Cards.

Truth #4: The Giants will not win the World Series. It’s 2015, people—an odd numbered year. The Giants just don’t do that. Joyful truth: they’ll still help take our minds off Truths 1–3.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY THINGS

Life often seems routine. We wonder, isn’t there more? Yet we find comfort in life’s everyday rhythms. The problem isn’t that we surrender to the mundane. It’s that so much in our ordinary lives is extraordinary—and we’re blind to it.

Attending Shabbat services last Friday night at Congregation Sherith Israel then Torah Study on Saturday morning unveiled a continuing miracle. Many people still find fulfillment in tradition and community. Saturday with friends reminded me how extraordinary it is that people enjoy being together, laughing together, sharing experiences.

Sunday, Carolyn and I visited Alcatraz. San Franciscans often take the Rock for granted. But we returned to see the Ai Wei Wei exhibit. Waiting for the ferry gave us the opportunity to speak with two advertising executives from Perth, Australia. I’m a retired ad creative, so we had a lot in common. The routine ferry ride was anything but. The water is a magical place if only for ten minutes.

The prison looked the same but not. Entering the New Industries Building, we came face to face with a colorful Chinese dragon at least 150 feet long. Further on, we saw portraits of political prisoners from around the world created with LEGOs. We also encountered a huge sculpture based on birds’ wings—metal panels above which teapots perched. Tibetans long have used solar power to cook.

The visit to Alcatraz brought into focus the daily marvels of living in a city surrounded by the Pacific, the Golden Gate and the Bay. I walk a lot, and the vistas from the Coastal Trail off Land’s End and any number of other trails and streets offer blue water, white sales, massive tankers and the green (for now) Marin Headlands. Views of the Golden Gate Bridge—which I can walk to—always delight. And while I live in an urban place, Mountain Lake is only two blocks away.

As to the workweek, mine is hardly ordinary. I write fiction. I just brought out a new novel, Flight of the Spumonis. I’ve started another and very different book. Yes, there’s a routine to writing. It is work. But the experience of creating a story with characters reflecting the human condition is very special.

I often wonder how we can read a novel or watch a movie or TV show (we just finished Bosch and started House of Cards), get caught up in a story then forget that “they” are us. Each of us is a character in our own story. Every day brings new plot twists—challenges to our social relationships, work efforts and attempts to give order to a world that often seems random at best, senseless at worst. Our lives contain real texture—drama if you will—because they’re filled with joy and sorrow.

It’s all about how you see life. We can dismiss ourselves as specs in a vast universe—which we are. Yet we’re thinking creatures capable of contemplating that universe. Nature and science lead us to wonder at it all. Questions abound. Why do we love? Why do we hope? Why do we sacrifice? Why do we mourn? Why do we write blogs? It’s extraordinary.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

PALESTINIAN SHYLOCK

An old ad campaign in New York displayed photos of Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans and other ethnic types with the headline, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye.” This May, theatergoers at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon will again discover that you don’t have to be Jewish to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The role will be performed by a Palestinian. It’s a good thing.

No one demands that Shylock be ethnically cast. Al Pacino was fabulous in the 2004 film. In movies, non-Jews usually play Moses (think Charlton Heston). Jesus, too. So while casting Makram Khoury, who grew up in a Lebanese refugee camp and received the Israel Prize for a distinguished fifty-year acting career, might seem big news, it shouldn’t be. Openness is a hallmark of Western thought.

A week ago, a call for openness was issued by another non-Jew playing a “Jewish role.” George Deek, 30, an Arab Orthodox Christian, works for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He recently served in Israel’s embassy in Oslo, Norway and before that in Abuja, Nigeria.

I saw a YouTube speech of Deek’s recently then went to Congregation Sherith Israel to hear him. His message was straightforward and instructive. Israel is not a perfect nation, but it offers its Arab citizens opportunities to build good lives. Moreover, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can enjoy those same opportunities. The key, according to Deek, is a people not being fixated on where it has been but focused on where it’s going.

Israel, often called “Startup Nation,” has turned to technology to produce a vibrant economy. (No, not everyone shares in the production of wealth; they don’t in the U.S. or anywhere else.) According to Deek, when the Palestinian Authority and Hamas foster more education and business development in a peaceful environment rather than turn to the international community for aid, Palestinian lives will improve dramatically.

The problem, says Deek, is a culture of victimization. He understands. When Arab armies attacked the new state of Israel in 1948, Arab authorities instructed many of their people to flee the battle zones. They promised that the Jews would soon be routed. Deek’s grandfather fled with his family to Lebanon. But the Jews weren’t routed. Israel, in fact, gained more territory than it had been accorded by the United Nations partition agreement. Deek’s grandfather smuggled the family back to Yafo (Jaffa). There, he worked and raised educated, successful children.

Few Palestinians followed that example. In 1948, they could have accepted Israel and built their own state. They didn’t. Nor did they following wars in 1967 and 1973. Sadly, Palestinians remain refugees in the Arab world—and a people apart. Deek has cousins born in Arab lands. They have no citizenship. Yet his cousin in Canada is a native-born citizen and former Olympian, part of the fabric of Canadian life as Deek is part of the fabric of Israeli life.

My friend Dan has a buddy in Israel. His name, as it happens, is Israel. He checked out George Deek, “I wish he grows up to become foreign minister,” Israel emailed. He added, “Israeli Christian Arabs are an untapped asset.” When an Israeli Jew concerned about his nation’s perilous situation offers that opinion, you see why casting Makram Khoury as Shylock is simply good theater.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.