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Well, it’s been  . . .um . . . a long time since I’ve last written.  Fortunately I know that none of my readers are sitting on the edge of their respective seats waiting for my next installment.

That said, and by way of explanation, not excuse, a lot of stuff has been happening in my world. Some of it I’ll mention — I finished writing my first novel and am looking for representation; more poems are being published; a few family things that have joyfully resolved — and some of it I’m not yet ready to talk about.  I will soon enough, from a venue perhaps unexpected.

But I feel compelled to write because I am, once again, in the only place that makes me happier than New York.  As readers do not have to guess, I am in Israel.

I might have written earlier — I arrived late Sunday — but for some reason I had a case of the kind of jet lag I haven’t had in years. (Note to self– never arrogantly believe that you have defeated jet lag — it doesn’t happen.)  And I had to teach on Monday.  And Tuesday. And tomorrow.  And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .

My reason for being here is very different than last summer when I was a Hebrew student.  This time I am the teacher, teaching a course at IDC Herzliya on The Pathologies of American Corporate Capitalism, based largely on my work. There are many differences this time, but one constant:  This remains the place I belong.  Project Aliyah has not ended.

And . . . this is the really exciting thing.  I have spoken English only to teach (and in a few more complicated situations).  I have otherwise negotiated everything — cabs, restaurants, shops, hotels, conversations with new people, etc — almost entirely in Hebrew.  Bravo to the teachers at Hebrew U Ulpan and to Haggai at JTS.  Even though it’s been some months since I engaged with the language, whatever they did managed to sink in.  And it is wonderful.  It’s to the point where my eyes first go to the Hebrew, not the English, on all of the signs, and I always use the Hebrew menu (and haven’t yet been shocked at the result).

But this trip is particularly special because it has put me in a very different context.  Last summer I was a student, with other foreign students.  Our teachers were Israeli, we encountered Israelis in Jerusalem, but it was relatively limited.  This time, I am engaging with 65 Israeli students, not to mention the 25 or so who attended my “Master Class on Legal Theory” on Monday.  I am talking with Israeli professors (including, delightfully, a couple of old friends) and staff — insisting on Hebrew until I think I’m going to get into real trouble — and of course the students.  In fact I spent the first five minutes or so of my introduction to the course speaking to them in Hebrew.  And nobody laughed.

So I don’t quite understand why everybody starts speaking English to me BEFORE I open my mouth.  Whereupon I insist on Hebrew and they are happy to oblige.

To engage with Israeli students is a revelation.  They are older.  All have served, or are serving, in the army.  They exude a confidence I generally don’t see in American students, which leads them actually to talk in class as if we were having a conversation.  Yes, by this I mean they interrupt, they don’t raise their hands, they are highly opinionated,yada yada yada.  I’m going to insist that part of this is ethno-cultural — it is quite familiar to this New York Jew — and part of it is as a result of the aforementioned.

They have shown themselves to be friendly and warm — no matter how rude I perceive their sidebar conversations in class to be (see above). They have shown themselves to be engaged with important world issues.  And they have been very sweet to me. Obviously not all of them — there hasn’t been time.  But enough to make me so proud that they are the future of my people, and so humble to know that they already have done more for the Jews than I will in my life.

Herzliya is not Jerusalem.  I am staying in the Industrial District of Herzliya Pituach, a collection of old factories and spanking new high-tech companies (the Apple building across the way from my hotel is an engineering marvel).  The temple here is dedicated to technology, innovation, and commerce.  The restaurants are almost as trendy — seriously –as any you’re likely to find in New York, although far cheaper and with beautiful food (I’ve eaten more vegetables in three days than I have eaten in three years).  And the beach is just a mile down the road, where resort Herzliya presents itself.  This is a town of the Israeli one percent, of beautiful houses behind protective walls and gates, of luxury beach hotels (I was fortunate to stay at the Dan Accadia the last time I was here), a town of trendy shops and fashionable bars. In these dimensions, of course, it is vital to the future of Start-Up Nation, vital to the normalcy of an almost-developed country, and vitally preserves the beauty of neighborhood hummus joints fast against restaurants that require reservations long in advance.

So, in a word, I’m home.  Having finally slept for more than an hour or two, I’m up for some significant exploration and, as is my nature, reflection.  I understand that this entry is a bit disjointed, perhaps not as elegant or thematic as I’d like. But I will continue to report as I observe.   Reveling in the joy of a land of milk and honey.

I Will Never Forget Jerusalem

This morning there were clouds.

It was striking. I walked out into the usual brilliant Jerusalem sunshine. But the central blue expanse was ringed with puffy white clouds.

These are the first clouds I have seen since leaving New York on June 17. Tomorrow, I return home.

I have been deciding whether to write for several days. It was my intention not to do so. Seeing family and friends will be delightful. But I have never been more sad to leave a place in my life. That includes New York, which I adore.

Last evening was my last visit downtown. I had planned to wander a bit, visit the Bezalel Artist’s house, check out a highly recommended religious bookstore, spend a little time in the peaceful streets of Rechavia, and studiously avoid the Old City. I thought that going there would make me even sadder to be leaving.

I did all that I had planned. But then, as the sun was setting, my feet started moving eastward on Yafo Street and there I was.

I didn’t plan to complete the circle, but could not escape the obvious. On my first day in Jerusalem – so long ago, it seems – I davened Shachris at the Kotel, laying tefillin for the first time. I arrived yesterday to a very crowded plaza, walked up to the wall, and heard a cry. “Mincha.” I picked up a siddur from a nearby chair, opened it, and davened Mincha and Maariv. Thus it ends. Thus it begins.

It was evening and it was morning. Yom Echad.

This summer was just that for me – Yom Echad.

I don’t plan to be overly reflective here. So much has happened that needs to settle and digest that it would be presumptuous even to try. I am rarely at a loss for words. I am now.

That’s all I have to say. Sad to be leaving, but happy knowing that next spring I will return to teach a short course at the law school of the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya. And from, there, if Ha’ Shem so wills it, back to Ulpan in Jerusalem. This time, perhaps, to stay.

Thanks for taking the journey with me. I’ll resume writing from New York.

 

If I Forget Thee O Jersualem: The 9th of Av

“Oh why did she go and fall in love, I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av. My Zelda, she took the money and ran with the tailor.” Alan Sherman

I love Alan Sherman but he more or less ruined the possibility of Tisha B’Av for me. Until now.

It is early Saturday evening, a couple of hours before sundown. I had confirmed that the hotel restaurant was open since it was both Shabbat and Erev Tisha B’Av. It was empty as I approached. The drapes were drawn as the sun formed seams around the edges. I stepped out onto the terrace for an end of Shabbat l’Chaim. The bar was empty.

I returned inside. The hostess explained that while in fact the restaurant was open (and it was perfectly legal for it to have been so), it could not be seen to be open as Tisha B’Av approached.   Understood. Although my meal was halachachly correct as I understood it, I felt guilty for eating.

I was joined by the Swedes for dinner before observance began. I returned upstairs, my leather shoes came off, and my first Tisha B’Av in Israel commenced in Tel Aviv.

I awoke early for the trip to Jerusalem. While I have enjoyed my break, I could not even begin to imagine observing Tisha B’Av anyplace else. But getting there had a hiccup. I have long prided myself on my facility with public transportation around the world. It appears that, in Israel, I am transportationally challenged. I took a cab to the Central Bus Station. The bus lot was blocked by a police car and tape. Bomb scare. This is a country in which these things are taken with the utmost seriousness.   For reasons that should be obvious. I took a cab, the driver of which had the decency to quote a non-rapacious price.

It was hot and damp as it has been. On the ride back, I read a Jerusalem Post alert that this morning police had quelled a riot on the Temple Mount – dozens of policemen had to control people stockpiled with with kerosene, bottles, and rocks, planning, as I later learned from a more in-depth article, to attack those of us who would be praying at the Kotel. Good to know, as I had every intention of being there this afternoon for Minchah. Nothing would change my plans. As long as Jews were mourning the Temple at its mount, I would be there too.

The sky was summer white. It remained that way from Tel Aviv until we began to climb the hills into Jerusalem. As we did, the air began to clear and the sky regained its characteristic clear blue. By the time I got out on French Hill, the air was, to quote Naomi Shemer, clear as wine. The air was hot and dry, and a cooling desert breeze was blowing.

I don’t make this up.   This is Jerusalem.

If the Romans (and Babylonians) really did have to destroy our Temples, they picked a fine time of year to do it. Jerusalem at 90 degrees is considerably better than Tel Aviv at 85, but hot is hot. I arrived at the Kotel around 12:30, because I wanted to be there for early Minchah. The Kotel doesn’t get a whole lot of shade in the first place. Just after high noon in late July, well. And it is blazing white as is the entire plaza in front of it. And a wool tallis. You get the picture.

I had arrived a bit too early, so sat in the shade of an arch just past the plaza. I won’t say anything about the German tourists who decided to honor this public fast day by spreading out their picnic under the arch, other than to observe that in almost any other place in the world, and certainly any other place in the Middle East (including the place just above us on the Temple Mount), such cultural insensitivity would have been met with some kind of reaction, if not violence. Yet the small brigade of heavily armed, very young police officers resting and joking beside them after their morning’s work protecting us continued their rest. This is, after all, a nation dedicated to tolerance and equality. It behooves the world to remember this.

I removed my sweat-stained tefillin. I suppose I could try to write about what it felt like to daven against the Kotel on Tisha B’Av but you can probably imagine and I don’t have a whole lot of words properly to express it.

So I won’t try. Upon arriving back at my apartment, I watched some excellent lectures directed toward the meaning of the day. None was better than this fantastic talk by Rabbi Abraham Twersky. http://http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/1763754/jewish/A-Jewish-Response-to-Suffering.htmI hope all of you will watch it. All of it. While the Jewish attitude toward suffering is clear, I doubt it has ever been better expressed.

Night is falling. Only about half an hour until the fast ends. As befits one who claims Yom Kippur as his favorite holiday, I find fasting wonderfully cathartic.

May all suffering end. And, as long as it doesn’t, may we see the good in it and be grateful for that good.

If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem: Enough

“Blessed are You, Ha’Shem, King of the Universe, who has made to me all I need.”

I’ve been davening long enough that I find myself sometimes in the unenviable (and distinctly inappropriate) position of blowing through the words without thinking much. But lately I’ve been focusing on the prayer quoted above, and thinking about it quite a bit. The reason isn’t complex. I find myself living in a dorm suite with few of my possessions, relatively rudimentary cooking facilities, cold tile floors, adequate but hardly opulent bathrooms, quite basic furniture, and truly terrible acoustics. I carried little from home and have found it economically improvident to furnish my fairly monkish abode with creature comforts. Cleanliness is as best it can be I suppose, living with three other guys whose standards vary a bit from mine, and in lodgings that have perma-dirt throughout. The walls are bare. The lights are fluorescent. The common areas range from adequate to truly filthy. Quite uncharacteristically for a New Yorker, I haven’t been in a restaurant since the day I arrived.

Now, before you get on my back – I recognize that this is far from poverty. I know I am here only until mid-August. That’s not the point. In fact the point I am making is quite the opposite. Not only am I content with where I am and what I have. I’m pretty sure that I would be perfectly ok were I told that these were my living conditions for the rest of my life.

I am far from wealthy. But I live in a lovely neighborhood in New York, in a new and well-outfitted building with full staff, gym and sauna on the ground floor, and laundry facilities in my very own small but elegant apartment. My furniture is very comfortable and stylish mid-century modern, the hallway lined with overflowing bookcases. The rugs are Middle Eastern. I have some rather impressive paintings on the walls, many prints of my dad’s absolutely wonderful photographs, a Steinway A-3, an enormous, comfortable bed, and a well -outfitted kitchen with an extensive batterie de- cuisine. That said, I hardly cook since I can order all of my meals delivered (reasonably inexpensively) and generally do. The dry cleaner is in the lobby. The Hudson River is two blocks away as are Central Park and the subway. Lincoln Center is two blocks away. You get the picture. I want for nothing.

I miss none of it. (Well, I do miss my piano.) For I want for nothing here. True, my living circumstances are radically reduced. But the adjustment has been so very easy. I have adequate food and adequate facilities. I suspect my bed would be rather familiar to 19th century French soldiers on the march to Moscow, but I am able to sleep. The water with which I wash is water. I don’t’ know quite what I was expecting when I arrived, but I was at first a bit concerned when first I saw my dorm room. That concern lasted about 10 minutes. For then I realized that I am this summer living a dream. To learn Hebrew, to live in Israel, to live in Jerusalem. To be among smart, devoted, enthusiastic people from all over the world. To be able fully to relinquish the control I had exerted over my entire life and just go about my business, letting what happens happen. To understand that He has made to me all that I need.

So when I say my morning prayers, I have been stopping on this one, sometimes repeating it softly. I am of course grateful for the reality of the content. But, perhaps even more, I am so very grateful that He has given me the chance to understand precisely what this prayer means.

Classes are over for the week, B”H. I have been living Hebrew for at least 10 hours daily, and my comfort in the language is growing (although I remain far from being able to read a newspaper). We had a nice trip to a kibbutz yesterday afternoon (about which I hope my Spanish friend and classmate will be guest –blogging). This evening the astonishingly talented Austrian and I are going to the Old City and then – yes – to dinner in the New City. So much to study this weekend, and a trip to the Great Synagogue on Shabbat to pray.

“Dayenu!”

N.B. The translation of the prayer is mine. The Artscroll Siddur translates it as “who has provided me my every need.”   I think the subteley and ambiguity of the Hebrew makes the prayer significantly deeper.

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem: Anachnu Avadim – We are Slaves

So, you know all that cheer and good will I had writing two days ago. Gone with the wind! Twelve hours of Hebrew instruction (with breaks) in two days. Mrs. Horowitz likely would have been left in the dust within an hour. Because . . . .

I have never taken a class like this. And it is utterly fantastic. Nonstop raid-fire Hebrew from the moment our teacher opens her mouth until we walk out the door. I am simply amazed by our teachers. Ateret and Michal not only are unflappably cheerful and pleasant, but they teach with an energy and enthusiasm I simply couldn’t imagine. I mean, I’ve been on their side of the podium. And I thought I was high energy – for an hour or two. They teach several hours each, acting, singing, game-playing, reading, with no letup whatsoever in energy and enthusiasm. I already consider them – 12 hours into two days of classes – as among the very best teachers I’ve ever had.

Yesterday was tough. I have learned all the Hebrew I know pretty much on my own (at least since Mrs. Horowitz). That means that I have had nobody with whom to speak, and nobody to listen to. So while my reading comprehension is just fine, following along and speaking when spoken to were a challenge. But who am I to complain? My classmates from Spain, Italy, South America, Sweden, etc., are doing all of the same things I’m doing but in their second (and third) language. I think that applies as well to the Australian.

But there is something to this madness. Today – the second day of class – I had no trouble following everything. Even more surprising, my brain stopped simul-translating and just rolled with the Hebrew. And really – I understood everything. So much so that I put in for a promotion after class. I’m not at all sure I will get it (and perhaps even less sure that I should get it) but I am here, after all, to learn as much Hebrew as possible in the course of a summer, so challenge myself , I will.

I have been bravely using only Hebrew to engage in interactions throughout campus. I’ve probably spent a few shekels I didn’t need to because of mistaken translation, but I would rather do that than admit that I don’t understand. I think my native pride fits quite well with Israeli culture. Of course they get to keep the shekels.

Another phenomenon. I feel like I have known my classmates for a long time, feel like I have been here forever. I suppose some of that is the intensity of our interactions so far. But it’s quite wonderful, and quite comfortable. And my initial impressions of how special these people are has not even come remotely close to fading.

I’ve been trying to get my homework done tonight because tomorrow morning we have Israeli breakfast in the magnificent botanical garden. I have been eating relatively little since I’ve been here – simply not hungry –but I love shakshuka, so want to be sure I am prepared for class before fressing.

Finally – I have asked the madrichim to extend an invitation to my classmates to guest blog. While I certainly am having my own experience, I suspect that others can enrich what I write with their own. So stay tuned.

If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem: Arrival

It is night in the holy city. My first night. I have come to Jerusalem finally (properly) to learn the language of my people and to develop my religious practice as well. Where better to do it than here? I shall be writing regularly about this journey.

The adventure (proximately) began this morning in New York. Rabbi Lipskier pulled a rabbit out of his shtremel and delivered – just in the nick of time – the beautiful tefillin I was meant to have several days back. (Unlike the rabbit, the tefillin are kosher.) His lovely brother-in-law, Z’eev, who lives in my building (along with his klayne shayne tochter) stayed to show me how to lay them. I had done my research, but it’s really harder than it looks. So much so that while I had no problem davening Mincha in the waiting area at JFK in my Panama hat, flowery scarf and Native American bracelet along with the rather differently clad Chasids and Haredim, I didn’t have the confidence to don tefillin for Shachris in the back aisle over England.

I had never before flown El Al. It is a crash course (if one needs it – and sorry about the word “crash”) in Jewish culture at its best (without the deracination so common of “acceptable” Jews in most of the US. Of course it helped that there was a healthy population of Israelis along with American Jews).

Start with the airport. The plane was delayed for two hours, extending to three. Of course! I realized, only when arriving at the airport. The departure time was JEWISH time. Nobody would have dreamed that a 2:30 departure was for real. (Yes, I know that there had been a problem at Ben Gurion that caused the world’s safest airline to have to delay, but I’m sticking with my story.) The waiting area was chaos. Calling passengers to board by rows? Forget it. They started lining up an hour before boarding without regard to any procedure, were completely a-linear 15 minutes before boarding, and got on the plane when they damn well wanted. I love my people.

And the flight. Trans-continental flights usually operate in a manner that gives the flight crew some rest. Even sleep. The El Al crew got not one second of peace. Not one. Their equanimity in the face of it was heroic. Let’s start with the galleys. Bubbe’s kitchen, anyone? Who waited to be served? Who didn’t get up and return the meal if they didn’t like it? Who brought dirty trays back during meal service because they didn’t want to sit with them? Who didn’t go in and take whatever was visible simply because they wanted it? One might have seen this as disruptive and annoying. I viewed it as Heimish (and I had a full view of the galley from where I was sitting). And everybody was perfectly pleasant about it. Bubbe might have tolerated it. The El Al flight crew was gracious. They didn’t even complain when trying to serve breakfast with aisles crowded with late-Shachris daveners. It was beautiful.

Leaving aside all this, I have never taken a flight with more constant motion. Everybody was moving at one time or another. Nobody sat quietly. Hardly anybody slept—and it wasn’t all because of the baby squalling from Greenland to Greece. They couldn’t stop moving. And why would they? They were going to the Promised Land. ”Lekh Lekha.”

I also can’t remember the last time I heard a plane – a 747 no less – burst into united applause at an excellent landing. But why not? We were home.

And then . . . passport control was slow, but I do not care at all if that is the case. No country ver needed vigilance at its borders more than Israel.   More of a problem was the 90 minute wait for my luggage. That clearly was not a security issue, and I was already late to write the essay I needed for class placement. I’ll skip that part of the story. Suffice it to say that I arrived in time, if a bit frazzled.

The Har HaZofim campus of Hebrew University is magnificent. Botanical gardens, lush desert landscaping, and an amphitheater that looks across the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea and Jordan, beyond. The weather is delightful.   Constant sunshine. And while it is hot, the constant breezes are cooling (no hamsin yet) and as soon as the sun begins to drop, a delightful chill fills the air. But the most remarkable natural thing about Jerusalem, as all who have been here know, is the light. Pure, crystal, and revealing. It makes the colors intense, from the deep pinks and purples of the flowers, to the warm golden glow of Jerusalem stone.It will be interesting to be here for so many reasons. One among them is location. Har HaZofim is really in East Jerusalem, isolated on a mountain top that left it inaccessible (because surrounded by the Jordanian army) from 1948 to 1967, and now largely surrounded by Arab neighborhoods here on the literal border of the West Bank. I have no fears at all, but we have already been cautioned about where we should (very few places) and shouldn’t (far more) walk. The light rail and buses essentially stop on campus, so getting downtown isn’t an issue. But as somebody who loves to walk everywhere, I feel a bit hampered by the restrictions.

Enough for today. Suffice it to say that I’m not the only old person (and not even the oldest) in my Ulpan or even other programs here. That said, we remain a small minority. I’m hoping the other kids won’t make fun of me for being old.

Tomorrow I will daven Shachris at the Kotel, and do my Shabbos shopping at the wonderful Mechane Yehuda market. “Til then.

Serial, and the Construction of Reality

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I just finished listening to Serial, the podcast phenomenon by reporter Sarah Koenig, co-producer Julie Snyder, and members of the This American Life production team at NPR.  And while I will never think of the words mail and chimp, separately or together, in the same way, I write for a different purpose.

Serial is great entertainment.  But it is also a great lesson, one that is perhaps more vital for us in the age of social media than at any time before.  That lesson is how each of us constructs the reality of others, how our perception of each other is a story we write ourselves.  And it is a lesson of how destructive we can be as we write our stories.

This does not appear to be the principal lesson Koenig draws.  In the beginning, she is most interested in the ways our memory works — what we choose to remember, how we remember it, why a person remembers the events of one day with great precision and another not at all.  And this is quite fascinating.  It is a powerful message to be skeptical of what we believe we remember. But we probably can’t change the way we remember. I could be wrong but I’m guessing that too much of this is hard-wired in our brains to allow for different results, even if different results were desirable.

But we can do something about the way we construct reality.  I’ll give a bit of the story for context (I promise no spoilers for you who haven’t listened yet), and then make my point.

The story is the 1999 murder of Woodlawn High School senior, Hae Min Lee, whose body was discovered buried in a shallow grave in Leakin Park.  Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted and imprisoned, although he continues to maintain his innocence.  There were no eyewitnesses.  Adnan’s memory of that day — at least by his account — is very spotty,  and his alibi witnesses, to the extent they exist, are not very effective.  His lawyer, who was a highly accomplished and prominent Baltimore criminal lawyer, had become ill during the case and, by all accounts, had embarked on a dramatic downward spiral which resulted in her consensual disbarment.  One witness – -the famous/infamous Jay — claims that Adnan had told him he was planning the murder, and prevailed upon him to help bury the body thereafter.

And that’s the story.  There’s a lot more detail, a lot more evidence which leads one way and then another, but never really conclusively anywhere.  And Koenig does a superb job of reflecting this, in her own Hamlet-like musings on where the evidence leads and what she might conclude.

But here’s the thing — Adnan is not the kind of person who would murder anybody, especially premeditated.  He is consistently described as a model young man, a “golden boy.”  Popular, athletic, a good student, seemingly kind and generous, graceful and affable. And you come to know Adnan this way through his conversations with Koenig.  Yes, he hid his normal teenage life (pot, girls, drinking) from his strict immigrant parents, but that hardly suggests a homicidal sociopath.  And yes, there was an incident of petty theft from the charity box at the mosque.  But it is hard to recall anybody interviewed for this program having anything really bad to say about him.

And that is my point.  As broad as Adnan’s appeal seems to be, I was consistently struck by the way his arrest and conviction affected people’s appraisal of him.  The possibility that he had murdered Hae Min in cold blood seemed to change almost everybody’s attitude.  The common refrain goes something like this:  ‘well, I guess I didn’t know that side of him’; or, ‘the Adnan I knew wouldn’t have done that. Maybe I didn’t really know him’  And sometimes this from people who had known Adnan for many years.

What troubles me about these reactions (and I think you really have to listen to Serial to hear the tone that people use) is that the accusation of murder changed people’s understanding of Adnan.  I cannot recall anybody saying something like:  ‘I know Adnan and he is not a murderer’ except perhaps his mom.  And in fact he may be a murderer.  But the universal accounts of Adnan pre-arrest would make it seem quite unlikely.  Instead of fitting the fact of Adnan’s arrest into this prior account of him, people revised their accounts to accommodate his new status as convicted murderer.  The new Adnan most certainly could have murdered Hae Min — his secret “dark side” was now revealed.

Well, maybe I’m making much of nothing.  Maybe we do and should alter our accounts of people when something like this happens.  But understand, please, that the conviction was based on the testimony of one witness who had enormous credibility problems, and that Koenig’s reconstruction highlights a series of perhaps five or six otherwise small events that, understood one way, could suggest Adnan’s guilt, but each of which could be entirely innocent.

That, too, is part of the problem.  Those five or six events lend themselves to multiple interpretations, but taken together suggest one.  One of Koenig’s colleagues — professing her belief that Adnan is in fact guilty — rhetorically asks whether it is possible for one person to have so much bad luck.

Yes, it is possible.  Stuff happens.  But it’s not just that these five or six events were bad.  Rather, it is that they collectively lend themselves to a narrative that could be interpreted as bad.  Taken individually, most of them could be entirely innocent. Taken together, they could be entirely innocent.  And, interpreting one or two differently, there would have been an entirely different outcome.

I’m sorry – my commitment to avoid spoiling your listening pleasure makes the above seem a bit abstract.  I encourage you to listen. But my point is that we can interpret those events generously or ungenerously, we can put them in the context of the Adnan we know, or the Adnan that we didn’t know.  If we do the latter, we change our entire account of Adnan, the human being.  If we do the former, we privilege our first-hand knowledge — our experience of Adnan –over what others tell us.  We presume Adnan innocent until he is proven guilty.  Or we presume Adnan guilty.

Yes, I know.  A jury found him guilty.  So I guess we are entitled to suspend our presumption of innocence.  But not really — at least not those who know Adnan, those who described him pre-murder.  Because wrongful convictions happen all the time.  And Adnan, to his detriment, is pretty much doing himself out of the possibility of parole by maintaining his innocence.

I don’t know whether Adnan murdered Hae Min.  What I do know is that the story that led to his conviction was a construction — a construction about Adnan revealed through events. We engage in such constructions every day, with every person we know (or at least those about whom we think at all).  Even more, we engage in it when we accept media accounts, when we take a single event (or even a series of events) in a person’s life, and use that to draw sweeping conclusions about their characters, their personalities, their abilities — who they are.  We construct our knowledge of others.  And, in the social media era, we don’t hesitate to announce our conclusions, no matter how harmful, or damaging — or false.  There is no jury in social media.

So I guess what I’m saying, is that Serial reminded me to be very mindful of drawing conclusions about anybody — but especially people I know — from what others tell me about that person.  It reminds me to place events in a person’s life in the context of what I know about that person from my own experience of them.  It has taught me again the virtue of presuming the best of people, of drawing the best and most generous inferences I can about them, until there is solid reason for me to conclude otherwise.  It has reminded me that all we know of each other is a story — a story we construct by inference from observations.  We can choose to make that story pretty or we can choose to make it ugly.  Serial reminds me that it is my human duty to make it pretty.

My Coffee, My Grandpa

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Grandpa was a coffee man.

I was thinking about him and the business after reading a report in The New York Times that Starbucks has concluded six dollar lattes don’t make it upscale enough.  So it plans to open — what? — super super super premium coffee shops focusing, as small new shops around the city do, on specific regions, beans, roasts, etc.  (OK, I’m not a coffee gourmet, but I kind of thought that Starbucks already did that.)

I think of him often, of course — he was my grandpa — but as the coffee craze has grown from gas station cappuccino in Seattle thirty years ago to what it is today, I have wondered what he would make of it.  I know he would be amused by the plaid-shirted, pierced, and heavily tattooed baristas (who are going to regret it when they’re my age), lovingly crafting each cup of coffee as the line at the register grows.  I think he’d be amazed and perhaps a bit bewildered at the coffee shop proliferation.  And I’m pretty sure he’d find the prices ridiculous.  I know he wouldn’t pay them.

My grandpa’s business was coffee.  To him, it was just coffee. It was a small business in Brooklyn, Mitchell Coffee.  Uncle Jess, whom I remember as pretty quiet, managed the books.  Grandpa — whom everybody loved — was the outside guy.  Mitchell Coffee was a restaurant supply house (except for the constant supply my parents and my aunt and uncle received), and I think it’s fair to say that Grandpa knew every Greek, at least in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  That’s where I remember going on deliveries with him.  We may have hit Queens (I can’t recall), but I’m pretty certain we never reached the Bronx. And Staten Island was only for ferry rides on days we didn’t go to Buddy’s Amusement Park down near where King’s Plaza is today.

Sometimes, when I was off from school, I would go down to Brooklyn and stay with my grandparents.  I went to work with my grandmother (a bookkeeper at St. John) and it was fun to ride the train with her and go to the Automat for lunch.  But going to work with Grandpa was the best.  I would sit on burlap sacks, chewing on coffee beans fresh out of the roaster, while Grandpa got ready to make deliveries. (I can pretty well assure you that I was thoroughly buzzed by the time we left.)  He didn’t have ten different roasts.  He didn’t have two.  He had one, labelled RS-15.  I remember once asking him what that stood for.  “Rat shit,”  he told me. That was the first and perhaps the only time I heard him use profanity.  I thought it was wonderful.  And I worried, just a bit, that the pellet-like bean I had just put in my mouth was, well, I was only about nine years old.

He’d have the car loaded up with the brown and white Mitchell coffee bags by around mid-morning.  That’s when the real fun started.  He managed to park at every diner on every street.  We’d get out, he’d carry in the cases, greet the owner, introduce me and then we’d sit at the counter where he’d have a cup of coffee with the owner.  My grandpa had a titanium gastrointestinal system, because we made a lot of deliveries and he drank a lot of coffee.   Sometimes we’d go in the back.  That was fun. In addition to Mitchell Coffee my grandparents owned a small luncheonette, and I was allowed to go in the back there, too.  Leaving aside the time I thought I was locked in the walk-in refrigerator, it was great.  But I digress.

My grandpa sold the business shortly after the New York blackout of 1977.  That event seemed to bring out the worst in Brooklyn, and he and grandma moved to Jersey and later Florida for the winter.  I recall the name of the buyer — Brooke Bond Foods.  And that was that.  It took my parents, who had never had to buy a pound of coffee in their lives, at least a decade to find coffee they liked.   And my grandparents enjoyed a wonderful and deserved retirement.

Grandpa died, too young, at the age of 91, just two days after 9/11 and within sight of the rising columns of smoke.  Not long before that, he had been playing cards with friends, and a fellow he didn’t know.  When introduced, the man said:  “You’re Dave Mitchell?”  My grandfather — a deeply modest man — was puzzled.  “Did you know,” the man said, “that Brooke Bond sold your recipe to Dunkin’ Donuts?”

Now, I’ve never verified the facts.  But I’ll take it.  Each time you drink a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, you’re drinking RS-15.  And my wonderful memories.  I doubt that Howard Schultz can match that.

 

Lawrence Mitchell

Poetry: Central Park

My suite of poems, Central Park, has just been published in the November 29, 2014 issue of the journal, New York Dreaming.  As is my practice, I present them here.  I do apologize – WordPress does not allow for more compact spacing (or, if it does, I don’t know how to do it).

                                                                       

Central Park

 I

Prelude

The path that pulls me through the park,

stained macadam, sometimes stone,

mortar bound to climb down stairs,

winding past a grass clean field,

a clique of trees,

a man who plays the violin,

he stands there every day

vainly hoping that

his instrument’s sarcophagus

will green like leaves,

bends around a massive crop,

Manhattan schist,

the bedrock of my life,

conquering kids crest its peak

arms stretched down and uptown,

straddling the world.

I have spent my life

in wanders such as these,

the paths seem always to lead

somewhere,

and I suppose they do,

if you know where somewhere is.

Resigned, I rest upon a bench

until the spruce green slats

annoy me up,

but I must stretch,

for pausing only ossifies

a body used as mine.

Before too long, I’m off again,

let landscape lead me where it may.

A straight and wider boulevard,

grand paving stones and sentry elms,

a saber arch of leaves,

announce its majesty.

I am pulled, striding solemnly,

as such monuments demand,

and then it stops.

Spread far beneath,

parade ground breaks at deep green lake,

my eyes are pulled to rise.

This is where it ends.

This is where it starts.

II

Bethesda Terrace

 Angel of the waters,

cascading robes embrace

the house of mercy,

compassion, lovingkind.

Your far-drawn fountains pour

healing music on a sultry afternoon.

You are the respite and the pause,

your plaza a fermata

holding still the winding tunes,

the point and counterpoint

of twisting paths,

the resting place of weary melody,

pulled together by your flat green lake,

arches harmonizing hold the highest note

and shade the brooding bass of catacombs,

the great sonorous chord before the music breaks

and scatters once again through paths of counterpoint

and coloratura warbling the far-flung fields.

Filled again with pure vibration,

I sing along my way.

 

 

III

Remember the Maine

Remember the Maine.

Do you?

I’m sitting here below her gilded scallop chariot,

borne by waves that wash ashore

the water graves of those who served,

much as time has washed

the names inscribed upon the

sandy plinth between the seas,

lofted high above the park,

fading into anonym,

two decades more, they’re gone.

Sentry of the circle,

staring clear across,

the circle’s eponym,

his back displayed.

You’d think that as himself a sailor

he could at least bother

to turn his face,

to grace defiant victory that crests the prow,

perhaps he just resents the slender pedestal

on which he stands,

and so prefers to cast his eyes away from grander stone.

Forgive the bombast for those lonely men

were just tools to start a war,

to build careers and dreams deferred.

 

IV

Different Strokes

The painters array on a swatch of green

beneath sporadic trees

before a massive stone,

more white than gray,

that breaches the surface with its back.

 

Elderly they are, white hats, white hair,

white pads,

some on laps, and

one or two lurch out on makeshift easels.

 

And they brush.

They dip and they brush,

struggling to capture the elusive uncatchable.

One with bold dramatic strokes,

another, almost pensive,

one precision-like to thrust

the sounding stone upon the page.

 

Their art will never lure

the rock to paper,

but who cares?

The end is in the brush

that makes tangible what goes behind the eyes.

V

A Great Day in Harlem

Flat beneath the rocky heights,

cathedral towers pulling high

the ground that holds

the sanctified of God and man,

baking in the summer sun,

the land gives way to water,

just as flat and dusty as the grass,

turtles collect on a broken log,

their nostrils peer from the brown of the pond.

 

I stroll along that uncertain shore

and see a boy, beautiful, glistening,

whose wonder world this nature is.

He lifts his pole,

a crappie dangling from the line,

glowing in the warmth of day.

 

His pride as vibrant

as the shimmer of the heat that

rises from the path,

he smiles at me,

salutes me with his fish,

and humble, I defer.

VI

Sunday Morning

A wailing erhu struggles just to pierce the air,

an improbable regatta, waves laconic,

ripples lazy up the lake unfolding, rolling,

brushed against the coaming framed so perfectly,

reverberates a beat or two and spreads again,

the pastel notes of children follow trippingly.

 

Shaded in an alcove lined with trees, I settle,

the benches form my sanctuary’s inner wall,

absorbing deep the ancient sound and childrens’ calls,

they are the only tunes except the snoring man,

Sunday Times spread out, innocently sonorous

harmonies arise as the Chinese music fans.

 

Another sits a bit apart, a bit aloof,

slumping wearily and peering past his folio,

expression sort of dour for one so bronzed as he,

the tunes he pipes are rather of a darker piece,

entrancing, not enchanting like the wonderland,

vibrations merging motivate grim fantasies.

 

And so I daydream pondering this fairy tale,

stupor swaddled in a blanket damp with summer,

listening for melodies that cannot reach me,

reaching for refrains buried deep in echoes past,

my soporific sanctity cannot hold on,

and struggling for escape I have to sing my song.

 

I open wide my heart to let the music flow,

but oily air compresses breath before it billows,

chokes it down beneath the surface of my spirit,

strangles still the beauty of my barbaric yawp,

surrendering I slowly sprawl my ecstasy,

asphyxiating in the lushness of the day.

VII

 Benches (The Names)

Swirling around like a jazz riff,

paths and perimeters sweeping,

along hidden byway and bold cliff,

sounds joyous, pensive, or weeping.

 

But while their melody never stops,

it often lulls behind daydreams,

blankets of snow or the leaves that drop,

or faintly buzzing moonbeams.

 

And yet each strikes out a silver tone,

like saxophone or like trumpet,

reminding me that it’s just a loan,

each dying note must confront it.

 

Many are named who have loved this place,

but most remain unacknowledged,

sounds once degraded don’t leave a trace,

sounds never heard can’t pay homage.

 

Beautiful music that’s passed is past,

new rhythms won’t come ‘till tomorrow,

the sounds that embrace me won’t hold fast,

music, like time, can be callow.

 

Each bench that I pass shall stay nameless,

and yet records lives beyond count,

though grateful I am, for the noblesse,

a moment depletes each account,

 

And so I shall sing for the moment,

without much regard to the tune,

denying the need for atonement,

since harmony ends much too soon.

 

Lawrence Mitchell

On Gratitude

Unknown

Things are not as they should be.  They never are.  The Middle East has been a disaster, we continue to suffer racial injustice, our politics are a nightmare of nastiness and obstreperousness, economic inequality rapidly is reaching a point of real conflict.  To say nothing of the hundreds of millions of world citizens ill housed, ill clothed, ill fed. On top of that, each one of us suffers her own personal unhappiness — her disappointments, her frustrations, her illnesses, her own individual injustices.

And yet.  There is every reason for Americans to be grateful.  For starters, I suspect that nobody ever profited in the long-term by resentment, unhappiness, or jealousy.  Short-term, yes.  I, as perhaps many of you, have witnessed the short-term profits of those motivated by negative emotions.  But in the long-term such people must live with themselves. I cannot imagine that is pleasant.  And sustained negative emotion destroys you.  Your negativity doesn’t hurt others — at least in the long term.  But it is deeply corrosive to you.  So it is not for others that I suggest the posture of gratitude.  It is for your own well-being and health.  Your gratitude will translate soon enough into benefits for others.

And then there is objective reality.  I don’t pretend to know the horrors that others have faced, the circumstances of their lives, the depths of their despair.  And I suspect that there are a few people who have earned ingratitude — or at least a neutral posture toward their circumstances — legitimately enough.  I do not judge those people, nor should anybody else.  Of course I empathize, and recognize that we must do all we can to help our fellow humans who need our help.

But for the mass of us.  Gratitude.  It’s objectively the right posture. No matter how bleak life appears, there is much for which to be grateful. And there is a simple way to access that gratitude that I use pretty much every day.  If you don’t feel especially blessed compared with, say, your neighbor, your coworker, your classmate, even your brother — just broaden the context.

It’s a flight of imagination that is both grounded and useful.  I think it is fair to say that we Americans alive in 2014 are perhaps the luckiest people in the world.  And if the world is too small a metric, let me suggest that we are the luckiest people in the history of mankind.  In wealth, health care, technology, science, the arts, the quality and quantity of our food, our conveniences, our comforts — you name it.  While it is easy to become nostalgic for past great eras — and trust me, I indulge in this — I think the reality is quite clear.

I’m not for one second discounting the very real and seemingly intractable problems that confront our society and our world.  They are pressing, and must be addressed. And all of must help to address them.  What I am suggesting is that our ability to address those problems, indeed our willingness to address them, might be enhanced by spending our waking hours in mindful gratitude.  Start today. It’s not that hard.  You’ll find that it becomes a habit.

Happy Thanksgiving

Lawrence Mitchell