Monday, April 29, 2013

“42” manages to cover all the bases

Those of you who’ve spent time with me on these digital pages already know my cosmic belief that all things in life come in three flavors: good, bad and okay. Everything, and I mean absolutely everything – movies, books, food, vacations, jobs, lawn services, back rubs – fall into one of these groups.

And, truth to tell, so far it seems that as often as not the “okay” bin is where most of life can be found; and that, well, is okay. So it’s really nice when I can report that I recently had a “good” experience at the neighborhood multiplex, thoroughly enjoying a film that falls just short of great.
Oh, right, there is a fourth classification. But I hold it way out on the spectrum of cosmic happenings, the place reserved for only the most memorable events of life that linger sweetly in my mind. But I digress.
The point of all this rambling is that the lovely Miss Wendy and I went to see “42” over the weekend and I’m thinking the filmmakers managed to hit a grand slam with this movie about Jackie Robinson. Most of the highs and lows that Robinson experienced – and there were many – as he went about integrating major league baseball is the stuff of legend.
So the power of “42” isn’t the story itself. The drama – the move from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers via its Montreal affiliate – has been fleshed out for years in newspaper articles and TV interviews, books, films and plays. No, it’s all the little details that defined the man and the sordid times that the movie’s director, Brian Helgeland, captures and wraps in mythic tones that set the film apart. Mark Isham’s soaring score adds both and exclamation point to the effort an occasional goose bumps.
There’s also Harrison Ford. He’s been around forever and forever it seems he’s been mostly playing himself – anyone recall Cowboys & Aliens? This time around, he’s been handed a bigger-than-life character, Branch Rickey, and manages to get most everything right.
Rickey is a complicated mixture of capitalism, religion, decency, and courage, all gussied up in a curmudgeonly façade. Ford plays him with gusto, balanced out with that crooked smile he’s polished and perfected over the years.
Meanwhile, Chadwick Boseman offers up a Robinson that is quietly heroic, a man able to bend and not break in a country filled with racists. The truth is often troubling and, in hindsight for a certain generation, it makes little sense today that America and the world had managed to destroy fascism while racism remained a way of life from sea to shining sea.
If nothing else, “42” puts the lie to “I remember when,” the melancholy ode offered up by aging Americans – many of them the heart and soul of that group of folks now fondly recalled as “The Greatest Generation”. And yet, even as the country was changing, lunging painfully forward, there was something splendid and grand taking place.
That’s the feeling that lingers about as the music swells and the credits begin to roll. It’s a feeling that, even for the cynics among us, comes with a lump in your throat and the notion that “42” is definitely lots better than just okay.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

“Boston Strong” a way of life in Israel

Soldiers, trained in urban warfare and fully armed,
regularly patrol the streets of Israel to protect tourists
and the citizens of the country from terrorist attacks.
PHOTO / Nor Grebnief
The news bulletins out of Boston last week were unnerving. Once again terrorists were attacking fortress America, this time with bombs, and early reports focused on the dead, the injured and trying to figure out who was responsible.

Four days later one terrorist was dead, another in custody and the residents of Boston and its surrounding communities were breathing a collective sigh of relief. The casualties – four dead, dozens grievously maimed, hundreds injured – only captures a small part of the drama.
Truth to tell, an entire region of the country had been temporarily shut down; an army of law enforcement personnel – hundreds, perhaps thousands of officers and national guardsmen – had been pressed into service and the full weight and resources of the federal government and its intelligence agencies were on full alert.
For a brief moment there was a sense of loss and déjà vu, the fear that we had been down this shattered road before. For a day or two a noxious blend of anxiety and anger hung heavily in the air, fueled by roiling news reports that were often misleading and rumors that were mostly the stuff of paranoid nightmares.
Fortunately, balancing out all this turmoil were the good people of this great land; men and women filled with care, compassion and grit. While the professionals – police and intelligence services; doctors and nurses; yes, even the news media – went about their jobs, the residents of Boston and its suburbs found their footing.
They pushed aside the terror and offered one another aid and comfort. Even as the terrorists went about their grisly work and firefights broke out, even when one community was entirely locked down for a day, the people of Boston showed the country what it means to be strong – Boston Strong!
So the final moments of the ordeal – the flashing lights and sirens, yet another pitched battle between the remaining terrorist and police – felt more like a whimper than a bang. After all, it was clear how this battle would end. The strong people of Boston would prevail.
Now take this mighty effort and frightful ordeal that played out over a few days in Boston and think for a moment how difficult it would be if it happened again and then again and yet again. How would life change? What sort of compromises would be necessary to protect the safety and sanity of our citizens?
Now think about Israel.
Terrorist attacks, sadly, are part of the fabric of the Jewish homeland. The country and its citizens have endured decades of violence; thousands have died, tens of thousands been injured. The stench of smoke and wail of sirens is uncomfortably familiar in the tiny nation.
There have been bombings, focused incidents like the one in Boston, too numerous to detail. There have also been suicide bombings, rocket attacks, shootings, knifings and collisions, even a youngster stoned to death.
In 2011, eight Israelis were killed and more than 40 wounded in a multi-pronged terrorist attack north of Eilat in southern Israel. Earlier that year, a man, woman and three of their children were stabbed to death by terrorists in their home in Itamar, a village in the northern corner of the West Bank.
Two years earlier, in 2009, a teen was murdered by an axe-wielding terrorist in a small community outside of Hebron and a year earlier, in Jerusalem, three women were killed and another 50 people injured when a man driving a bulldozer plowed into cars and pedestrians on Jaffa Road between the Central Bus Station and the Jewish Market.
In 2001, three months before 9/11, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a discotheque, the Dolphinarium, in Tel Aviv. Twenty-one teenagers were killed and another 132 injured.
There were dozens of other attacks before and after these incidents. The good news is that in recent years there’s been a significant decrease in the number of such actions. Public safety and security, however, come at a price.
You’ll be frisked and your bags checked in Israel before entering most shopping malls or government buildings, museums, ballparks or bus stations, movie theaters, bars or cafés. Troops patrol the streets, armed checkpoints dot the borders and an expansive wall separates much of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Remarkably, Israelis go about their lives unfettered by the loss of what some might consider basic freedoms. The guards, soldiers, security checkpoints and weapons have simply become part of the background noise of life, necessary safeguards when living in a dangerous neighborhood. Even tourists, initially overwhelmed by the massive show of force, grow use to the precautions and understand the merit in being prepared.
Last week, Bostonians and their neighbors got it right when they pushed aside their fear and took a stand, an attitude now labeled by the media and others as being “Boston Strong.” It turns out that the hugely popular rallying cry has been a way of living in Israel for years, an attitude that both protects and celebrates life.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Don’t be messing with my K-cups

Exhibit 1: I mean, really, who would
display k-cups in this fashion?
I stumbled into my kitchen in a sleepy haze this morning, reached over to the rack holding the K-cups for the coffee machine and realized something was amiss – badly, badly amiss! Someone or something had rearranged the little packets of coffee.

Just a day earlier, after buying a box of Maxwell House – good to the last drop, you’ll recall – I had painstakingly rearranged the 30 K-cups on the Keurig stand; 15 on the front and 15 on the, ah, other front. I was going for a horizontal vibe, stringing together several rows of the Maxwell House brand, followed by Donut Shop packets and a milder brew fittingly called “Breakfast in Bed”. This last brand is offered up by Wolfgang Puck and is a delightful selection for when I’m feeling, well, puckish!

Did I mention that I had been painstaking in my packet placement? Why, yes, I think I did.
Bizarrely, my efforts at bringing a sense of peace, harmony and coffee-cup Feng Shui into the house had been turned on its head (see exhibit 1). Some sort of vertical mish-mash, involving the obvious misplacement of certain brands, had taken hold of my perfect design. It made absolutely no sense.
I mean, first you play around with coffee packets, then I guess you start placing shirts of different colors and brands next to one another in the closet. Before you know it the world is spinning off of its axis.
I can only come up with two possible scenarios explaining the Sturm und Drang surrounding the packet misplacement. One makes absolutely no sense. I’m thinking that either the lovely Miss Wendy, in a misguided attempt at improving on perfection, rearranged my carefully crafted coffee-packet placement; or, much more likely, Satan had entered the house!
So I’m headed out to the market to buy some garlic and a silver bullet. I’m pretty sure ammunition can be found somewhere between bottles of ammonia and apples. Then, after I finish up ironing my underwear and socks, and making sure my shoes are properly aligned in the closet, I’ll be attacking the Keurig stand yet again. After all, at this point I feel like I’m doing God’s work!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

High-tech hijinks in the Land of Israel

I stumbled across a report recently that detailed how various countries around the world were dealing with economic woes brought on by the global recession. It turns out that while many nations have struggled in recent years, Israel’s economic engine has continued to chug along mightily.

All the important indicators – job growth and earnings; the Consumer Price Index, industrial production and GDP – are sharply up and continue moving in the right direction. Analyst, as they often do, offer a mixed-bag of reasons for Israel’s success; but almost all agree that it’s the country’s high-tech sector that has fueled the Jewish homeland’s economic expansion.
It only takes a moment and quick look around the web to see that virtually all the major players in the high-tech world – Intel, IBM, Google, Cisco Systems, Microsoft – have expansive research and development facilities in Israel. The country also boasts a number of home-grown companies that have been hugely successful: Zoran Corporation, CEVA, Inc. and NICE Systems. It’s an impressive list, an innovative group of companies – along with dozens of others – that make up a region that has come to be known as the Silicon Wadi.
I mention this all now as a long and rambling preamble to my personal introduction to the high-tech vibe that spills across Israel. It was a dozen or so years ago, during a trip with the Jewish federation here in The Land of Cotton, that I almost crashed and burned after bumping up against a digital wall of my own making.
My problems started on a high note when I decided it might be fun to mix a little business with pleasure. So I met with a colleague, the editor handling international news for the place with the printing press where I worked, and pitched a few story ideas. We came up with a workable plan, but then I needed to be taught how to file stories and photos back to Dixie on deadline.
Today that would probably mean I’d be handed a laptop and a smartphone, spend five minutes with an IT specialist and be told to stay in touch. A decade ago the digital world was in flux, and staying in touch involved a complicated series of websites, dialup modems, passwords, phone numbers and mistakes waiting to happen.
After a few days of fun spent mostly in Tel Aviv and an evening spent covering Ariel Sharon sharing his vision for the future, I found myself in a tidy pressroom set up for journalists inside the Binyenei HaUma, the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. It was filled with the usual stuff: desks and chairs; paper pads and pens; a few TVs, lots of phones, and some desktop computers.
I was home! Well, not really. Home was on the other side of the world and I needed to figure out how to get my stories and photos onto the web and back to the newsroom. I had a set of instructions. They had made sense when an IT specialist ran me through the list only a few days earlier. Now they looked like Greek.
I managed to download a series of photos onto my laptop and even access the stories I had written earlier that morning. But each time I tried to call up the special modem setup to retrieve information, I would be disconnected. Can you say frustrating in Hebrew?
Eventually a couple of teens, both Israelis, noticed I was having a problem. I think slamming my computer against a nearby wall is what captured their attention. It turns out they had been hired by the convention center to help with digital issues and they offered to work me through the list of instructions that now seemed to have been written by the Marquis de Sade.
I recall them whispering and pointing a bit, then suggesting I ditch the instructions and try another series of steps. I politely and diplomatically explained that my bosses back home had stressed that I was to follow their instructions to the letter! They smiled, said b’seder, okay, went about trying to hook me up to the web and ended up where I had started; which is to say exactly nowhere!
This madness went on for an hour and my deadline was quickly approaching. Finally, one of the kids disconnected a cable connecting my laptop with a nearby phone and punched it into a port on the front of my desk. He then tapped a few keys on my laptop and, magically, I was home – at least digitally!
It turns out, much to my surprise and far beyond my ability to comprehend, that the entire pressroom came complete with dedicated lines linked to the internet. By simply moving the cable from the phone to the waiting port, I was essentially skipping over the first several pages of instructions I had been given and connecting directly with the necessary website. Who knew?
I’m pretty certain that the teens, Ilan and Reuven, helped me make deadline that day and also taught me that sometimes it’s necessary to simply hand a man a trout instead of teaching him how to fish; especially if the clock is ticking and the man doesn’t even understand the point of a fishing pole. But I’ll save that bit of wisdom for another day.
Meanwhile, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Ilan and Reuven are living the good life in Israel’s Silicon Wadi today, just two of the high-tech wizards pushing the country forward and making life better for all of us.