Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A new view of New York -- courtesy of NYU Bike Share!

"New York is a great biking city," said Mike Sandmel last night while instructing me and and about a dozen undergraduates about NYU's fledgling pilot program to make a beachhead for bicycle sharing in NewYork City. From their blank-faced stares, I couldn't tell if the undergraduates believed Sandmel -- a junior at NYU's Gallatin school-- but I sure did. Since I last lived in New York a bit more than a decade ago, the City government has revolutionized bicycling in New York by installing bike lanes and, more importantly, by raising the consciousness of New York's famously aggressive drivers that they haveto share the rode with human-powered machines.

So, I was anxious to take out one of NYU's bikes for a free spin on these newly bicycle-friendly streets to see what it was like, which I did this afternoon. NYU's program isn't as high tech as Paris' famous bicycle sharing program and some programs at American universities, so there was no electronic card swiping system or anything like that. But like those higher-tech programs, NYU's bikes don't have to be returned at the same place you pick them up -- you can return them at any other NYU bike sharing location, all eight of which are located in the lobby of one of NYU's dorms.

So, that's where I started this afternoon. They gave me a helmet, a key to the bicycle's lock and told me where the bike -- one of NYU's current fleet of 30 Biria one-speed cruser bikes-- was parked. The bike took a little getting used to -- I'm more used to having 27 or so speeds, and, more importantly, the bike has coaster brakes, which means you stop by pushing backwards on the pedals. I kept trying to stop by squeezing the handle bars -- but this was a futile effort! But it was so exciting to be out on Manhattan streets in the beautiful fall weather. With no destination in mind, I headed east on 4th street, eventually ending up at the East River. There, I turned south along the water all the way to the lower tip of Manhattan -- where I got great views of both tourists and Miss LIberty herself -- and then turned back north along the West Side.

I was impressed by the quality of the bike signage on the way. On the southbound leg, there were signs for the turnoffs for both the Manhattan and the Brooklyn bridges. As I headed up Greenwich Street, there was a (bicycles') sign for the East Side, which directed me to head east on Clarkson and Carmine, which took me almost all the way back to NYU.

The NYU program is part of NYU's sustainability program. It's open to all NYU students, faculty and staff, and started this past summer on the initiative of students like Sandmel. He says he hopes to get a senior grant this year that would allow the fleet to expand to 60.

There's been some growing pains. While a bike has yet to be stolen (something that is inevitable in the nation's bike-stealing capital, says Sandmel), bike lights and bells have fallen victim to theft and weather. The single speed and the coaster brakes make for a very tough, low maintenance bike, however. The organizers had tried to set up a reservations system, but that didn't work -- people just didn't show up, said Sandmel.

It was such a thrill to be out in New York on two wheels, today. It really gave me a sense of freedom to be able to see Miss Liberty and all the other waterfront sights without having to make a large effort. I hope that someday New York will have a city-wide bike sharing program on the kind of scale Paris has, but I'm so glad to be a part of this little start NYU has made by setting up New York's first bike sharing program. Thanks to Sandmel and others who made this possible!

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Minna in concert! (On the edge of the unknown)

Here is a taste of Minna's concert before some chaplains and chaplain supervisors tonight (10/3/2010) here in Reading, PA. It's a song called The edge of the unknown. She really wowed those attendees at the regional meetings of the ACPE (Association of Clinical Pastoral Education)!!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Falling in the fall -- making it zman simchateinu

The best time for me this Sukkot was a moment when I was comfortably lounging on some cushions one Sukkot afternoon -- we were blessed with so much good, warm weather this holiday that it was truly luscious to be outside with nothing to do -- and remembered a time when I could have died.

It was a time maybe a year a go when I was riding my bicycle in small circles in the little alley behind where we were living then while Minna watched from our tiny porch. Suddenly and unexpectedly -- I can't even tell you how it could have happened -- I lost my balance. This kind of thing hardly ever happens, but it was not totally unfamiliar. I assessed my situation. I realized that I was going to fall, and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. Time slowed down, somehow. A kind of acceptance came over me. This, even though I could hear a car in the alley, and as I turned my head towards it, it became quite clear to me it was heading in my direction. Still, there was no panic. Again, I assessed my situation. I figured the one thing I could do was bend my neck to move my head a little bit away from the car's path, which would make it less likely I was about to be hit. I felt no fear. If anything, I felt joy. I felt happy with the way I was conducting my life. I liked the little alley, and savoring it by riding my bike around it.

In some senses, the whole of our lives are a fall. We know that, eventually, death awaits us all. Joy -- the kind of joy I think our Sages must have been thinking about when they dubbed the holiday of Sukkot as זמן שחתנו/zman simchateinu, the Time of Our Joy -- comes amid finding some kind of true acceptance of our (fragile!) human condition and embracing it.

Sitting in this intentionally temporary shelter -- this hut -- with its very temporary roof made of organic materials and full of holes (enough coverage to make more shade than sun, but such that you can still see the stars) reminds us of the fragility of all things, and that true shelter comes not from any material, but from something higher. The tradition commands us to dwell in this place that reminds us of our fragility. And it instructs us on some things to do there in this "time of joy" -- eat, have guests. Fellowship.

It is no accident that this holiday comes in the season that we also happen to call the fall. One of the holiday's roots is in the harvest time of the land of Israel -- the autumn harvest that is naturally both a time of joy and also of a consciousness of fragility. It is a time -- amid the harvest -- of plenty, when there is more than enough food for everyone to eat. But it is also a time when every person dependent on agriculture for life would be wondering, are the rains coming after this long dry season of no rain at all? Will there be enough to sustain our crops for the full year? Will there be enough?

This Sukkot there was sustenance aplenty for Minna and I. And, of course, I mean not only food. But there were guests, and some wonderful times with them under the corn stalks that made up our roof. Sometimes we were driven out of the Sukkah by rain, but even that was joyful as we laughingly moved the food, table and chair together into more permanent shelter. I am grateful for this experience of being reminded of how fragility and joy can, perhaps paradoxically, be so intertwined with each other. It was truly a time of our joy.


PS The car missed me, thank God!

PSS Hag Sameach!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sukkah City USA!

The weird structures to be glimpsed on the right (and the left in the distance) are part of a collection of futuristic, whimsical sukkot that have descended on Union Square in New York City (as part of the Sukkah City project).

Here are a few more pics of my favorites:

The woman in the above shot was explaining to the cop what a Sukkah is.

It was a beautiful day to be able to take a short lunch break and see something extraordinary!

More shots of Sukkah City here.

Click on the below image for a full-size image of the flyer:

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Welcome to our (first!) sukkah

That's what Minna seems to be saying (electric screwdriver in hand). With around $35 in lumber and a kit from the Sukkah project, Minna (with only minimal help from me, I have to admit) got the frame of our sukkah just about all up, today. This is the first time since I was a kid that I've lived somewhere that had enough (unshaded) outdoor space for a sukkah, so I'm pretty excited. And with the Jewish holidays so early this year, the weather really might be nice enough not only to eat in the sukkah, but maybe to sleep out there, too!

Thanks, Minna!
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How and why do we use rabbinic texts to form rabbis?

It's a new semester at NYU (the first of my second year in the Education and Jewish Studies PhD program here), and I'm starting to get excited again about my classes -- and my work here!

Last semester was my introduction to social science  research methods, especially the kind favored by researchers interested in social change -- ethnography and in-depth interviewing -- and I started to get excited about the idea of doing that kind of work studying a rabbinical school or chaplaincy training program.

This semester, it looks like I'm going back for a bit to my philosophical, theological and textual (as in Jewish text study) roots. I'm really excited about a Philosophy of Education class I'm taking with Rene Arcilla. In this class, it seems to me the prof wants to do something that is profoundly counter-cultural in today's results! results! results! focused culture (educational and otherwise) -- he wants us to consider not how philosophy might help us raise kids' text scores, but rather how education might be a part of how we approach life in general. That is, how education might help us make our lives (individually and collectively) more 'good' and more human.  . . .  For a guy committed to a faith tradition that sets up Torah study as a central spiritual value and practice, that's a pretty exciting approach. Arcilla wants us to read some classical philosophical texts touching on education -- Plato, Rousseau, Dewey -- and to do with them what I want students to be able to do with classical Jewish texts: make them our own.

Arcilla thinks of this, in part, as a task of translation -- the task of translating our world/lives into the language of these texts (to become "slightly bilingual," as he put it). The main task, he says, is to use these "historically distant" texts to help us examine our own perspective and assumptions. We should treat them as "messages in a bottle found on a beach" and not try and subject them to historical analysis, or try to read them in light of their historical contexts (something that might indeed be appropriate in a different class).

I'm looking forward to seeing how Arcilla does this, especially because it sounds so much like what I think the best Torah teaching is like. It has me thinking again about different directions or approaches for my own future dissertation work. It reminds me that much of my interest is rooted in the frustration I heard so often from other students in my rabbinical school career -- "why are we studying Talmud? What does this have to do with my future rabbinate?"

So often, the only answer teachers seemed to have was "trust me, it's important." A better answer, I think, is to say that Talmud study is about rabbinic/spiritual formation (and maybe, also, to be able to say something about how text study has formed you, the teacher). That is, it's about learning to think like its authors -- to think (and feel and teach) like a rabbi. But that, alone, is not a good enough answer. And maybe my research will be about putting some "flesh" on the mere bones of that answer -- of working on formulating a better theory (backed by evidence!) of how Talmud (and other Jewish text) study forms rabbis. What works and what doesn't -- and what kind of study forms the kind of rabbis we want to form (ones, I hope, who have some pastoral and emotional sensitivity and depth, in addition to being smart and well versed in the Jewish tradition). [My first Talmud teacher, Devora Steinmetz, has written a great article about some of these issues -- where she claims that Talmud study helps create people prepared to routinely deal with the most difficult questions, the ones where there is no clear wrong or right answer -- but I don't think it's electronically available.]

I was just thinking of all this while I was reading an article for a class I'm taking on Talmud Narratives with the world's premier scholar on Talmud stories, Jeffrey Rubenstein. In the article, Jacob Neusner discusses two famous rabbinic stories -- that of Honi the Circle maker (who audaciously demanded that God bring rain) and that of the escape of Yohanan ben Zakkai from the besieged Jerusalem to found the great rabbinic academy at Yavnah (where tradition tells us the first great document of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishna, was composed). Neusner's claim (once radical but now pretty much the conventional wisdom) is that these stories do not in any way depict actual historical events. They are written as didactic tales -- stories to make a point, to teach a lesson.

That alone didn't really get my attention. But what did was Neusner's further claim that the stories' intended audience is rabbis -- they "project a picture of what a rabbi should be, which is a master of Scripture and Torah." [213] That is, they are stories by rabbis, for rabbis.

I am excited about the days ahead!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010

The hunter becomes the hunted

This green guy is one of the greatest enemies of the tomato plant -- the dreaded Tomato Hornworm, which can make incredible amounts of tomato foliage disappear in no time at all (although Minna claims the end result is a most beautiful moth that some treasure).

This guy, however, has ended up as a meal for someone else -- or, rather, many someone elses (the white spots are wasp larvae).

So, as we come to the end of a most rewarding garden season, we aren't getting much in the way of tomatoes or cucumbers anymore -- but still plenty of fascinating lessons about how the world can work.
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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Purple harvest comes to Sag

Minna and I brought some of our backyard harvest -- including this Purple Cherokee that we planted upside down -- to Sag Harbor with us for a couple days of relaxation before we both head into busy fall seasons. The Cherokee was a truly delicious reminder of the best of what this summer has been for the both of us and of the harvests we hope for the future from the work we have been doing and the foundations we've been laying. The summer started with Minna's ordination and continued with her first summer working as as a rabbi. We ,moved into a little house (including a yard and central AC!). And I ran my third unit of summer chaplaincy education, and prepared to enter into my second year of doctoral study at NYU.

So we took this week for a little bit of relaxation between the great busy-ness we have behind and before us. The first three days were a little bike tour of around 70 miles total mostly around Amish country. We went through French Creek State Park -- where we had to navigate around a bridge that was out! -- on the first day. It was beautiful there amid the rain, but the best part was on the next day when we went on only a short ride from Morgantown to New Holland. It took us through some incredible Amish country where we saw many people working their fields with horses. As we came over one rise, we saw what was a very confusing scene at first -- a man with a team of four large horses standing at the edge of a cornfield. There was a mechanical roar as well, though. Why, we asked ourselves, would this man choose to use horses if he thought it was ok to use a mechanical tractor as well? And then we saw it -- eight huge horses, shoulder-to-shoulder, coming straight towards us through the corn. Four were pulling the most incredible muscle-powered machine I have ever seen -- a mechanical combine harvesting the corn without the aid of any electrical or internal combustion motor -- and the other four were pulling the huge cart the harvested corn was going into. We also saw a couple harvesting tobacco by hand in a field and we bought watermelon and nectarines from the people who grew them: incredible sights -- testaments to the faith of others, really -- mere miles from our home and from the tough urban streets of Reading, streets where blood is spilled much too often and where faith is a much-needed support for many, especially in these hard economic times.

I am grateful to the Blessed Holy One for the many harvests we have been able to enjoy in these days, including these precious few days of rest, and the wonderful weather we had today for a bike ride to the beach with Minna's parents, and a nice swim there.


Here are a couple more pics of both the harvest and the ride -- and links to more pics of both:

Minna's parents (on left) riding by Long Beach
From Bromberg beach ride 2010

From Harvest 2010 (August)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Powershot -- my camera

I was surprised today to hear one of the hosts of Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast enthusiastically endorsing not a movie or play, but an electronics product. Host Julia Turner went on and on about how her camera takes "perfect" pictures in situations that may be perfect to the human eye -- twilight and candlelight, etc. -- but are anything but perfect for taking pictures with a camera.

I don't know if I would go quite so far in my praises, but ever since Minna bought me the same camera -- the Canon Powershot S90 -- before we went to Israel in the spring (thanks, Minna!), I've really rediscovered the joy of photography with the help of this great little camera!

It's a bit on the big side for a point-and-shoot, and -- at around $350 -- it's on the more expensive side for this type of camera. But considering how close it comes to SLR quality in such a small package, I really think the price is a bargain.

If you want to know what it can do, just keep reading this blog -- almost every picture that I've posted in the last few months was taken with this camera.

[BTW, it was this New York Times column by David Pogue that turned me on to the S90.]

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Looking forward to next year (saving seeds)

We harvested our first Purple Cherokee tomato, today. We only have a few fruits growing on the (upside down!) plant, so we decided that we need to start saving seeds from it now if we're going to use them grow our own plants from scratch next year. So, the seeds will sit in the jar above for three-days or so -- long enough for the gelatinous material around the seeds to dissolve in the water -- before we clean, dry and store them.

It's exciting to think we might be able to have a garden again next year!

More on how to save tomato seeds here.

PS The tomato itself was delicious!
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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Our cancer year -- goodbye Harvey

I was moving some books, yesterday, when I came across my copy of Harvey Pekar's Our cancer year. Pekar, who died earlier this month, is mostly known for his offbeat American Splendor, comic book series, which was adapted into a 2003 movie of the same name. But he also wrote one of the most gripping, and raw, accounts of what it is like to have cancer and, especially, to endure the torture of chemotherapy. His autobiographical Our cancer year does not just chronicle his experience as the patient, but also the experience of his wife Joyce as the caregiver, struggling to both take care of herself and also be a support for Harvey, a man who suffered from depression and despair in the best of circumstances, not to mention when poison was being poured into his veins.

Thanks, Harvey, for being willing to share your struggles with us!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

X-Bike, Y-Bag -- mixed kinds on a cargo bike

That's a Yuba bikes "Go-Getter" bag on the left of my Xtracycle above. I was so excited when it finally arrived, today -- I love my Xtracycle, but the standard cargo slings (see the black one still on the right of the bike) have always left a lot to be desired in my view. I wanted something that is more like a standard pannier -- a bag with a closable top -- but just larger. That's what the Go-Getter -- meant for Yuba's Mundo bike, a direct competitor to Xtracycle's products -- promises to be.

I had some trouble figuring out how to mount it, but finally decided it should sit on a Wide-Loader platform, which means I might have to keep the Wide-Loader on there permanently. That's going to make me a little wider on the left; I'm not sure if I'm going to like that -- but I am going to try it for now.

For a test ride, I packed the bag full of books and bottles and such -- a nice, heavy load. Minna followed me for a short jaunt down to the local creek and back -- it was fun! The bike felt great.

I'm looking forward to lots of use for this new bag (more pics here -- including one of how I keep the bag from hitting the wheel)!

You are with me -- #23

The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem (one of my many alma maters) has been publishing an online commentary to the greatest of the biblical books for spiritual care -- the Book of Psalms. Today, they released their commentary for the ultimate of the psalms of comfort, Psalm 23, that so-very brief work that opens with lines famously translated as "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want." Benjamin J. Segal, the author of the commentary, labels this great psalm simply as "With Me," reflecting his claim that the psalm revolves around these words from the middle of its fourth verse. But, while Segal says that the simple concept that "God is with me sits at the core of the psalm, he also claims that the psalm treats the concept in a very complex way, with a progression that could reflect one that many of us go through in our journeys in life and in faith. At the beginning, the psalm expresses a simple faith in the presence of God -- God as a source of physical sustenance and protection. But, as the psalm progresses, this faith changes -- into a faith in God as a source of spiritual sustenance, a sustenance that can support us even in the darkest of times. Even in the dark shadows cast by evil, injustice, or even death.

This kind of spiritual sustenance is what can not only comfort us, but also inspire us to do things that would have seemed not only impossible, but even miraculous. I am reminded of how Nelson Mandela was able to find this kind of sustenance in another very short work, the Victorian poem Invictus -- something that helped him find not only the courage to survive decades of bitter imprisonment, but to be able to emerge from it unbroken: still able to love other human beings and unbelievably still able to move past anger to profound forgiveness and reconciliation. (Minna and I this week watched the brilliant Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, which documents one small part of what Mandela did after his imprisonment.)

Jews everywhere have been reclaiming the Book of Psalms as our own in recent years and finding comfort and wisdom within its ancient words, traditionally credited to King David. I am so grateful for this free contribution Schechter is making to this movement of reclaiming!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lunchtime harvest

Minna picked some cukes and tomatoes for our lunch, today. It was the biggest single-day's harvest of cucumbers we've gotten, yet (we try not to let them get as big as the one monster below, but we've discovered that if you peel and seed them, that they're still yummy).

Bees, like this little bumble below, are part of what makes it all happen -- the wonders of pollination!

Our tomato plants (as have our cukes) have grown into quite a jungle (see, below). I feel proud of its teemingness (I looked it up -- that's really a word), but I'm starting to understand why some people like to prune their tomatoes into orderly single stems.

This one has so outgrown its little tomato cage that I found some scrap poles (actually an old cane and a mop handle) that a neighbor had thrown out to prop it up a bit.

From Lunchtime harvest

More pics can be found here.

I'm so grateful to be able to have a garden this year!
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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Cargo -- and kid -- biking in NYC

I got pretty excited after Shabbat went out tonight when I watched the video in this New York Times story about "glamour moms" carrying their kids around NYC on cargo bikes. It was especially exciting that the opening shots are in my "old neighborhood" -- right by Astor Place and one of the NYU buildings where my classes met just a few months ago.

I was a _little_ disappointed that the most widespread of the cargo bikes here in the States -- the Xtracycle, like the one I own -- was not mentioned in the article. I have seen a couple of them around Greenwich Village, including one that is set up to carry two young children.

Cargo biking does seem to be on the rise. I only recently became aware of a competitor to Xtracycle -- Yuba -- that is putting out a very similar product that is purpose-built with an extra-long bicycle frame (n
ot surprisingly, Yuba was founded by a former member of Xtracycle). I'm not ready to buy one, but I did order one of their bags (see photo on the right, which another Xtracycle owner posted on his Flickr page). I hope it lives up to its claim to be usable on the Xtracycle because it has some features -- like rain protection -- that I've really missed on the standard Xtracycle cargo bags/slings.

Almost all of my cycling this summer has been just very short trips on the Xtracycle to work or to go grocery shopping. No day-long rides like in summers past. And this will be the first summer in five years or so where I have not done any bike touring like the Hazon Israel ride we did last year from Tel Aviv to Eilat. I miss the riding for sure, but I've been enjoying the things that have replaced it -- the little house we've moved into and all the little tasks of getting set up and all the time with Minna. . . . . And I still ride at least a little bit every day. :)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The lone pine

Privileged to (finally) be living in the same town and to have reasonably sane schedules (for the summer, at least), Minna and I have been trying to spend as much time outside together in the evenings -- which has taken us once or twice a week to the nearby Nolde Forest state park and its hiking trails amid an ancient-seeming forest. So, I was surprised, yesterday, to read that the hills of Nolde had not always been forested, and that there was only the "lone pine" in this picture when a textile magnate bought the land for his private estate in the early 1900s. It was a reminder that even things that seem like they have always been there -- and are so-called natural creations -- were, in fact, created by somebody. Were created by the dreams that come out of the human heart and mind.

This summer has in many ways been the realization of many long-deferred dreams for me. After years of living in dorm rooms and small apartments, I have moved into a house. In its small yard, I have been able to grow my first vegetable garden in some 20 years. Being able to pick a piece of produce off the vine and eat it, fresh, right away is part of a dream I had since college of living a little more right with the Earth, of being a little less of a petroleum-gorging machine trapped in the rat race of a technological civilization. A dream of living close to the things and places we interact with daily. This summer, I walk or bicycle to work every day and only actually get in a car a couple of times a week. I feel free from the hunger to acquire more material things. I feel a great peace.

The hospital only a few hundred yards away where I am working this summer, however -- with all its incredible technology for extending life (and all the pain and loss its inhabitants experience amid injury and illness) -- is a constant reminder that I am not leaving the material, or technological civilization, behind in any complete or permanent way. One day I, too, may need all those machines. One day I, too, may be struggling in a hospital dead. And one day I will die.

"Life is a narrow bridge," Rebbe Nachman of Bratlav taught us. "The most important thing is not to be afraid."

This summer I have been less afraid. I have been sustained by the realization of past dreams -- both my own and of others. But I am also sustained by my dreams of the future, by my own hopes to build a "forest" -- a forest that looks like it has always been there. My dreams there have to do with the education of rabbis as spiritual caregivers. It's a field that in some ways is very ancient, and in other, important ways, is only in its infancy. Come the fall, God willing, I will return to my doctoral studies and NYU and to my focus on pursuing future dreams. May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that those dreams will yield rich fruit -- many pines where only one once stood. And may it be the Holy One's will that I will be able to find balance on that journey -- to be able to continue to enjoy the fruit of past dreams as I pursue the new ones.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Men who hate women

That’s the original title of the first of Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster, world-wide top-selling novels and the subsequent film, both retitled The girl with the dragon tattoo for the English translation. The film came out on DVD yesterday, so we were able to watch it online on Netflix last night.

It struck me that this film treats violence against women -- including two scenes depicting brutal rapes of the title character by a man appointed to protect her -- in a very different way than is typical of Hollywood films. In Hollywood, violence against women tends to be depicted in a sensationalist, almost fetishistic, way that seems to communicate a very troubling underlying message -- that women a) need to be careful, and b) they must stay in the protection of men (ie, they are not capable of protecting themselves).

It was refreshing to watch a film with such a different approach -- an approach that felt so much more true to life. In life, it is a terrible truth that many, maybe even most, women are victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes. This violence is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated by any decent society. It has to be stopped, and it is women themselves who are capable of taking the lead to stop it (a lead that men surely need to follow). And, so, in this film, we are offered the character of a strong, exceptionally talented woman who is capable of her own defense. She, tragically, like so many women, is victimized. We watch the rape scenes with only revulsion -- with no titillation. It hurts to watch them. We want to stop them.

We have to stop them.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Phoenix

A week ago, I had cut this then-bushy basil plant back to next to nothing -- now it's starting to come back with these little new leaves!

Here's a pic of the whole plant:

And here's a pic of our Wapsipinicon peach, which yielded our very first tomato of the season, a few days ago. It's growing at a fantastic pace now, with lots of tomatoes all over it. A couple more had ripened over Shabbat, so after Shabbat was over, Minna (by flashlight!) harvested two. They were really delicious, much better than the first one had been, so I'm really looking forward to the rest of these ripening!

Happy 4th of July!


Did you notice the new upgrade on Google Docs, by the way? They seem to have added a whole host of new features to make it more like a traditional word processor like Microsoft Word (including things like a ruler at the top of the page).

That seems to hold the promise of being able to control the printed appearance of documents in a way that was not possible before. But to get all those new features, they seem to have taken away a number of ones that were my favorite things about Google Docs. You don't seem to be able to post directly to your blog, anymore. And there's no more "hide controls" (which freed up a lot of screen space) or "edit html." I hope, at least, that soon they will add a "view draft" feature or something to allow you to get some of that screen real estate back.

Google does address some of these concerns here. This is some of what they say:

What else is different?

You'll probably notice that some features from the older version of Google documents aren't available yet. Don't worry: we'll be adding a lot of them soon.

These features from the previous version of Google documents, however, won't be available in the new version:

  • Offline document access via Google Gears
  • Edit HTML
  • Edit CSS

Keyboard shortcuts have also changed. Check the list of new keyboard shortcuts.

You can continue to create documents in the older version, for now, by opting out of the new version. Simply go to your Google Docs Settings page, click the Editing tab, and deselect the option labeled "Create new text documents using the latest version of the document editor."

Want to continue creating docs in the old version of Google documents? Let us know why in the Google Docs help forum.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Living large (movie)

Tonight, we went and saw סיפור גדול/sipur gadol (otherwise known as "A matter of size") at the Goggleworks here in Reading -- we liked it!

This Israeli movie tells the improbable story of a wash-out from a weight loss club who forms his buddies into a Sumo wrestling team (with the help of his Japanese boss at a local sushi restaurant). Both of us enjoyed it, although afterward we debated how Israeli the movie really was. But we both agreed that there was something particularly Israeli about how the movie understood what large bodies are about. While it's true that Israelis can be just as cruel to overweight folks as Americans, in this country our prejudices about fat people are not only that they're ugly, but that they're incapable -- especially incapable of doing physical things. But in this movie, there seemed to be an assumption that large folks are capable of physical things, and that it was not some great leap for them to be training for a physical activity. One idea we had was that perhaps this assumption of physical capability was tied to compulsory national service. Whatever its roots, it was a refreshing cultural difference.

I recommend it!

Monday, June 28, 2010

First tomato!

Today, we picked our first tomato of the season -- a Wapsipinicon peach. It's one of the heirloom varieties we are trying this year. It was a little bit fuzzy on the outside and had a mild, low acid flavor. Here's a close up:

A typical summer storm blew in a bit before Minna decided to "take the plunge" and pick it (and thus the wet spots on her shirt above) -- it was a bit of a gamble as the ripe color isn't too much different from the unripe color, and we weren't sure we knew how to tell it was ready.

You open Your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature by Your will!

As the Psalmist says . .
From First tomato (peach!), 2010

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bone, grit -- and being your brother's keeper

I don't often write about movies I haven't actually seen, but when I heard a sound clip on NPR's Fresh Air from Winter's Bone -- a story of a teenage girl seeking her fugitive father so her family's house will not be taken in lieu of his bail -- I was taken back in time. While this voice was, on the one hand, very contemporary, it also took me back to 1880, and the voice of Charles Portis' own fictional girl teenager improbably pursuing a fugitive across dangerous territory in his 1968 novel True Grit (later made into a film that won John Wayne an Oscar). Both voices seemed somehow out of time, almost biblical in their plainness and spirit.

It had been decades since I read True Grit, so I searched the Web in search of excerpts. Reading the below from the opening pages of the novel (excerpted at the bottom of this NPR article here), I was surprised to find myself choked with tears. The narrator -- the teenager Mattie Ross -- is describing, in the plainest of words, how her father was killed by his drunken tenant while the two men were away on a business trip together. The tenant, Tom Chaney, felt he had been cheated at cards and had grabbed his rifle to go in search of the men he had gambled with. Mattie's father, without a weapon, went in pursuit of him in an effort to stop him. He did not get far before Tom Chaney turned on him without a word:

Tom Chaney raised his rifle and shot him in the forehead, killing him instantly. There was no more provocation than that and I tell it as it was told to me by the high sheriff of Sebastian County. Some people might say, well, what business was it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to do that short devil a good turn. Chaney was a tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?

I cannot tell you for sure why those words touched me so, but it brought to my awareness that I have been working very hard to be my fellow's keeper in recent weeks, as well as how dangerous such a path can be. But what really made me cry may not have been the fear; it may have been the realization of my determination -- no matter the risk -- to follow that very basic, implicit command that stands nearly at the very beginning of the Torah -- the command to not be like Cain. The command to indeed be the keeper of one's fellow. Even when it is very hard.

This week will see the Fast of Tammuz, a day commemorating the disaster that was the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, an event that would be followed some three weeks later by the destruction of the Temple itself, a disaster that might have destroyed the Jews as a people, but did not. We were sustained by our faith, by the knowledge that our Torah is a Torah of righteousness and justice -- a Torah that demands we care for our fellow. And for the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that you, too, will be sustained by the Torah of truth and justice, and find true grit when you need it.

Less is more -- pruning: in life, in gardening and in spiritual care

Up until about an hour ago, this poor guy was a very bushy, healthy-looking plant of basil. But, under the influence of this gardening video, I decided to prune it back almost to nothing -- all in the hope that I could slow down its growth, and thus extend its life.

I've been looking for ways to slow things down in my own life as well. I remember a couple of months ago, sitting on a couch with a fellow doctoral student at NYU and working on a project together. It was the first chance I ever had to really interact with this colleague, and I was surprised to find how
The stalks from the three plants I pruned
Pruning (late June)
much we had in common about how we thought about our lives and our work. For both of us, it is important to do more than one thing at a time. And, as challenging as it might be to try and do something like hold down two full-time pursuits at one time, that it was a kind of challenge that we both very much needed -- the contrast of having "feet in two different worlds" helped us to be more grounded. It helped us to not get caught up by our tendency to become obsessed with one thing, like that "one thing" is everything. It helped us keep our perspective both focused and balanced.

So, I hope not to give up this multi-tasking aspect of my life. But, over the last 12 months or so, it's been more like I had three full-time pursuits than just two and it's been quite a strain at times. Mostly, I feel incredibly proud of myself reflecting back on the last 12 months. I became a certified chaplain education (by being approved as an Associate Supervisor in the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education) -- something that I achieved in about as short a time (less than three years) as is theoretically possible. I started a new path as a researcher of education (as a doctoral student in the Education and Jewish studies program at NYU). I found the time to go to some key conferences and meetings, including the Jerusalem Spiritual Care Conference (that included a historic delegation of American CPE supervisors, seeking to give Israelis guidance on how to set up their own professional spiritual care certification and training) and the National Association of Jewish Chaplains conference in Boston (where I gave a workshop on personal Midrash). I also recently attended both the Network for Research in Jewish Education conference where I presented some of my work to other education professionals, and the Oraita spiritual retreat where I studied ancient Jewish sources relating to spiritual (and self-) care with other rabbis. And I continued to work as a CPE (clinical pastoral education) supervisor amid all this, as well as finding time and energy to keep growing my relationship with Minna and to be her partner while she embarked on her own multi-task of starting work as the spiritual leader of a congregation, while finishing her five-year path towards rabbinic ordination.

But I've, nonetheless, been glad to have the change-of-pace that is my summer work -- where I am focused on mostly one task (running a full-time unit of CPE, with my six students, all either seminarians or people who recently finished their seminary education).
Here are the leaves that I picked from the stalks.
Pruning (late June)
It's a reminder that what I really love most is being a teacher -- the kind of teacher who has the privilege of having intense relationships with his or her students and the privilege of having the opportunity to perhaps have a profound impact on their respective journeys as people, as professional workers in ministry and as spiritual caregivers and leaders. Although I also very much want to be involved in research about education, all of my passion and insight for that research has its roots in my personal experience working with students.

So, for this summer I'm pruning myself back for a bit, trying to slow down some and focus in one area (as well as on things that are just fun and restorative, like gardening). My hope is that this pruning will yield not only immediate benefit (a more-rested, less-stressed Alan), but also will yield a richer harvest when I reenter the researcher/student part of my life when I return to NYU in the fall!


Getting back to my _real_ garden for a bit (ie, the one with plants and vegetables), I have some things I want to share beyond the pruning (by the way, if you're interested in learning how -- or if -- to prune tomatoes of their so-called "suckers", there's good info and a video here).

First, I was really excited to see our first flower on our eggplant, today, which means that there is some real hope of having our own crop of these most special of vegetables!

From Pruning (late June)

The excitement is because we've sometimes come close to losing hope for this plant. As you can see from the pics below, something is eating its leaves.

Pruning (late June)

Here are a couple more pics showing the current state of progress:

Looking up at two of our upside-down ones -- a cuke in foreground and a tomato behind
Pruning (late June)

My hope is this one will grow enough that I can "train it" to the lattice of the fence (actually a door) here.
Pruning (late June)

Peppers starting to yield!
Pruning (late June)
And the cucumbers are starting to have their first flowers!
Pruning (late June)

And they are climbing up the strings I gave them to the top of the fence!
Pruning (late June)