02 February 2011

The State of the Union

Agree with the ideology or not, the past two State of the Union addresses have made me considerably less...squirmy since we elected a more eloquent president. Two things that did kind of make me squirm though:

1) I really didn't like how Obama kept insisting that America was a family. Some people like their families and some people don't. Some people treat their family members with respect and compassion and some people don't. When you really boil it down, the only thing I can really associate with family across the board is that you can treat them like garbage and they'll still keep coming back. That isn't exactly my vision for the American populace. We are a community, on rare occasions even a tight knit one. But we are not a family, nor do we need to pretend to be.

2) What the hell does it mean to "win the future"? I don't know that anyone really wins the global economy, right? Don't you just aim to be a full participant in it? This seems very aggressive for an administration that has aimed quite a bit of international policy at reconciling with the enemies made in the last decade. I've seen the data on quality of education and healthcare costs and all, but how can you insist that this is the best country in the world and then imply that we're "losing" right now. An ugly and vaguely jingoistic expression.

Those criticisms aside*, Obama really hit the issues I think are important: education, healthcare, and infrastructure. I realize that these things are easier said than done, but it's pretty inspiring to have a president that cares about what I care about.

*Also heard lots of complaining about the lack of specific plans in the speech. What were you people expecting, a budget meeting with power point slides?

02 December 2009


Here's the text of Obama's speech in case you haven't read it already:

I admit that I can really only remember Clinton and Bush the younger, but has any president in American history been so open with the public, so aware that he is a public servant? It's weird and wonderful to be treated like an adult by the government.

07 September 2009

Take A Look

Back to the Israel stuff soon, but here's some reading for you in the meantime. Please join the discussion if you're a football fan.

17 July 2009

Israel - The Longest Day (part 1)

On our third full day in Israel, we woke up at 4:00 AM in order to hike up Masada in time for the sunrise. Masada is a large mesa on the eastern edge of the Judean desert. Its plateau (1800 feet by 900 feet according to Wikipedia) was the site of a winter palace of Herod the Great, a Roman client king of Israel. As we have learned, Herod took on a lot of his building projects as a direct result of his insecurity about being a Gentile king of Israel and Masada was no different. The palace was immensely fortified, requiring any callers to face a difficult hike up a 1300 foot cliff face (more on that later) and a 12-foot thick wall. The site remained in control of the Romans until 66 A.D., when the Sicarii, an extremist Jewish group, overcame the Roman garrison in the First Jewish-Roman War. When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., the Sicarii and their families fled Jerusalem and made Masada their home base. In 72 A.D., the Roman emperor struck back, laying siege to the fortress and perhaps even using Jewish slaves to build a rampart. After several months, the rampart was completed, and the Romans breached the fortress wall with a battering ram, only to find 960 dead bodies. The Sicarii had chosen death over slavery. Because suicide is strongly discouraged in the Jewish religion, the men of Masada had each killed their families, come together to set the fortress on fire, then drawn lots to kill each other in turn. Only the last man had to take his own life.

After downing granola bars (no idea what flavor…it was in Hebrew and had only pictures of unrecognizable berries and nuts), we got on the bus shortly before 5AM and made the 10 minute drive from our hotel to the base of Masada. After a fairly hilarious 2-minute stretch, we started up the Snake Path, lit only by the moon. The Snake Path is very aptly named, as it simply winds back and forth up the east face of the cliff. And boy was it a difficult hike. Essentially 35 minutes of dragging yourself uphill over increasingly rocky ground as the temperature climbed from the 60s to the 80s. And just think, they used to do it in sandals! We all did make it to the top before the sunrise (nothing short of a miracle!) and the hike turned out to be well worth it. I’ve been to Palm Desert, CA, Las Vegas, and Tucson, so I thought I knew desert, but I’ve never seen a desert like this: sun-baked, arid, and brown forever. Not a plant in sight. And hot even at 6am on March 5th! I can’t imagine what it’s like now.

And the fortress itself was a sight to behold as well. Rows and rows of food storage, an armory, a shaded former synagogue, thermal Roman-style bathhouses, an intricate system of water cisterns, and of course the remains of the palace itself. Looking out over the edge of the cliff, you can still see the marks left on the ground by the camps the Romans occupied while they built the rampart.

After a rather exhausting trudge back down the Snake Path, we were back on the bus to pack up for the Dead Sea. It was about 6:45AM. Oh yeah, and speaking of the Roman rampart, turns out it’s still there and often used by those who want a more authentic experience than the cable car, but not quite as authentic as the Snake Path ;)

30 March 2009

Israel - The Western Wall

A little bit of Jewish/Old Testament history for you: The Temple Mount, also known as Mount Moriah, is said to be the spot where God gathered the dust he used to create Adam. It is the holiest spot in Judaism and one of the holiest in Islam and has thus been a contested site for a very long time. In the 10th century B.C., King Solomon built the first temple of the biblical Israelites on the holy site. It stood for around 400 years before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. A little before 40 B.C. Herod the Great came to power. He was a Roman client king, a converted Jew, insecure as a result and many of his actions were designed to curry Jewish favor. One such action was massive expansion on the site of the Temple Mount and the construction of the Second Temple. About 75 years after it was built, the Second Temple was destroyed in the first Jewish-Roman War. The Western Wall is the sole remnant of that holy temple. Over the next 2000 years, the Jews did not control the area surrounding the Wall and their activities there were regulated by the Romans, the Arabs, Muslims, Christians, etc.; they were sometimes even banned from the site outright. It was not until Israel won the Six Day War in 1967 that the Wall was once again wholly accessible to Jewish people. And it is a several hundred-year-old Jewish tradition to leave written prayers in the cracks of the wall.


On the bus ride back from the Judean Hills, one of our American trip leaders let us know that it would be a good time to write our notes for the Wall. Just about everyone around me took out a notebook and began scribbling. It took me a second to remember the whole deal with the Wall, but once I did, this seemed strange. I am not in the habit of asking God for things. I asked for one thing, more than ten years ago, I didn’t get it, and that was pretty much that. And this wasn’t a religious trip. In fact, as far as knowing Jewish history and tradition went, I was probably in the top quarter (which is saying something, as I have never been to temple other than for the bar/bat mitzvahs of others). And here were all these people that had tattoos*, that didn’t observe Shabbat, didn’t keep Kosher, stopped praying the second they weren’t forced that were going to walk up to that Wall, the holiest of holy places, and ask God for a favor. So I didn’t write a note. And though I was anxious to see the Wall because of its place in history, I didn’t expect much personal significance.

Once we got inside the old city and had our fill of shopping and falafel, our tour guide asked us to trust her for a little activity. All 40 of us closed our eyes and joined hands. Our guide led us down a flight of stairs and around a couple of corners and then arranged us in several lines. All at once, we opened our eyes, and there was the Wall from afar. It was beautiful, huge limestone blocks, a sort of hush over the area, very still people in front. A beautiful reminder of what once was. We walked down further, went through a metal detector (ancient ruins vs. modern reality can be a striking coincidence), split up into men and women and entered the approach to the Wall.

I was (relatively) alone for the first time in days and it felt very, very quiet. The women’s side is small, much smaller than the men’s side (don’t get me started…), so I had to wait my turn behind a kneeling woman. The extra time was nice - I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do at the Wall. I hadn’t brought a note and I wasn’t about to pray. When she backed away (you’re not supposed to turn your back on the Wall), I walked up and put my hand on a particularly large stone block about at eye level.

It was a relatively warm afternoon, probably in the 70s, but the stone was wonderfully cool. I stood there for probably about 90 seconds (hard to say) without thinking anything at all, just tracing the cracks and dimples in the 2000-year-old stone. Suddenly, without warning, all I could think of were both of my grandmothers, one of whom died in 1996, the other last year. I don’t generally have the imagination for things like this, but I swear I could feel them, almost see them. I put my head down on the hand against the Wall and thought of what it might mean to them, to my great grandparents, how significant it was to so many before me that I could be at the Wall at all. There, on our second full day, I started to get an inkling of what Israel means to the Jewish population, past, present, and future.

*When I was a senior in college, I considered getting a tattoo. Most people say they can’t think of something important enough, but I had one I wanted. It was a (casually observed) rugby tradition for the seniors to get a permanent reminder of the club logo and since we had more than 20 rugby players in my class, we thought pretty seriously about it. Jewish law prohibits the intentional defacement of the body, which I knew, but didn’t particularly care about. But I kept coming back to the fact that there are an awful lot of Jewish people (and others!) in pits in Eastern Europe with long since decomposed tattoos on their arms and in the end, it felt disrespectful and I couldn’t do it. I certainly believe that your body is your own and it is your decision what you do with it – not a rabbi’s, not religious law, and not the ghosts of the past. But I am willing to posit that anyone with a tattoo does not feel particularly Jewish (or did not at the time). Arguments welcome...

16 March 2009

Israel - Intro

It’s strange to be back from Israel. Or more accurately, it’s not strange, and that’s strange. It’s actually pretty easy to be back. Wonderful to see my friends and the cat and especially my perfect American shower (what is the rest of the world thinking??), and not even too bad to go back to work. But Israel was such an incredible experience that I don’t want everything to go back to exactly the way it was before. So I’m working to find little ways to keep what I found there with me in some way. Writing things down is at least a start.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but here are some questions I got quite a bit of before I left and answers from the heart of the beast. A summary of my itinerary in Israel is also below.

Is it safe?
This is a pretty definitive yes. Though I wasn’t as worried as some people, I did expect to find something of a war zone. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there is ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. And yes, the security in Israel is more visible than in the United States. There are checkpoints with uniformed soldiers on the road (particularly into and out of Jerusalem) that would be difficult to miss. And military weapons are very visible, often in the possession of soldiers out of uniform, which is certainly something to get used to. But kids play baseball in beautifully landscaped parks in Jerusalem, Bedouin nomads serve coffee and play music safe and sound in tents in the Negev desert and people laugh and float in the Dead Sea – in short, the majority of Israel is peaceful, happy, sometimes even idyllic.

Isn’t it just a desert?
Not at all. This is another thing I was surprised to find. The south end of the country is overwhelmed by the Negev desert (beautiful in its own way, but certainly a bit of an ecological wasteland), but Jerusalem is surprisingly green, Tel Aviv is on the Mediterranean and even a bit humid and the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee are absolutely gorgeous - rocky and green and a little reminiscent of Ireland. Overall, I’d say the climate is somewhat like California with a really hot summer.

Is everyone a Superjew? Do I have to be religious?
Nope. It’s pretty neat to be in a place where most people are Jewish (if you think about it, places in the United States are considered to be “very Jewish” if the population reaches 15% or so), but Israel mirrors the world Jewish population in its lack of religious fervor. There are large populations of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, but in general, the country is fairly secular. That said, it is a very noticeably Jewish state. The weekend is Friday-Saturday and stores are closed on Saturday in observance of Shabbat. And I doubt anyone knew it was Lent, which is pretty hilarious to any Jew from the US…

Do Orthodox Jews spit on people?
I’ve heard this can be a problem for those who are not respectful of holy places. For instance, those who are not dressed modestly at the Western Wall have been known to have altercations. But I behaved myself at all times (of course!) and though I think that as a culture, our interpretation of modest dress can be a little…loose…we had no problems. The Orthodox went about their business and we went about ours.

Why do we work so hard to preserve Israel? I’ve heard it’s a terrible place to live.
I actually only heard this question twice (and not in so many words), so this is a bit of an excuse to get up on my soapbox. But it’s important. Israel is a beautiful, fertile, happy place. The people who live there are proud, grateful, and determined to keep the land they love. I would encourage anyone who doubts it to go – you’ll fall in love too.

March 1-11, 2009

Day 1 & Day 10

Day 2: Jerusalem/Judean Desert
Hike through the Judean foothills – Biblical Israel Plant a tree in Jerusalem

Day 3: Jerusalem
The Old City and the Western Wall

Day 4: The Negev Desert
Desert waterfall hike
Floating in the Dead Sea
Camel riding
The Bedouin experience

Day 5: Negev/Jersualem
Negev canyons hike
Israeli soldiers arrive
Mahane Yehuda (Jerusalem's marketplace)
Shabbat candle ceremony and return to the Western Wall

Day 6: Shabbat in Jerusalem
Walking tour of Jerusalem
Havdallah ceremony to welcome a new week

Day 7: Jerusalem/Galilee
Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum)
Har Herzl (Israeli military cemetery)
Overnight on a Kibbutz

Day 8: Galilee/Tzfat/Tel Aviv
View of the Sea of Galilee and Tiberius
Kaballah - Jewish Mysticism Purim in Tel Aviv.

Day 9: Tel Aviv
Independence Hall and Rabin Square
Mediterranean Sea
Quick tour of Jaffa (ancient seaport & artist colony)

14 January 2009

Apocalypse Now

It's really a shame there aren't any Bible stories set in the winter, because our current weather...situation is pretty epic. Like Noah's Ark but with snow, or The Book of Job with ice and shoveling instead of boils and fires. We're currently in hour 10 of a 48 hour windchill warning. Tomorrow is supposed to be the coldest day in 10 years (incidentally, I'm pretty sure I remember that day: windchills of -60 degrees = no school!). And there are all sorts of sad graphics on the weather forecast (is the polar bear really necessary? I think we get it) and words like "miserable" and "brutal". But no Bible stories to work with. You'd think they could have worked on that during the breaks in the Crusades...

If this is global warming, I really don't like it.

UPDATE 1/15: I heard on the radio this morning that today will break a record streak of nine consecutive days of measurable snow at O'Hare. The streak is broken, of course, because the temperature will not climb above zero degrees. That's right, it won't get *warm* enought to snow.
Incidentally, I looked up the weather for Barrow, Alaska because I know it's the northernmost settlement in the United States and guess what? Despite being known as a "polar climate" and having below freezing temperatures for nearly seven months out of the year, Barrow's high temperature for today is six degrees. Get Barrow and Chicago on the same screen in google maps and you'll see how ridiculous this is. (You'll also be able to deduce the pattern of the jet stream)

16 December 2008

Party Down

I had my first corporate Christmas (whoops, sorry, "year-end") party over the weekend and I learned three things.

1. Some people have really lame significant others. I am continually amazed by people who physically appear to be adults, but proceed to sit silently like children. There's really nothing quite like saying "oh, Nicole, it's so nice to meet you, Bill tells me you're from Colorado?" and get "mm-hm" in return. Aaaaand, thanks for playing. I've really never been so happy to be single in my whole life (well, and that time at the grocery store when this couple was having this awful passive-aggressive argument over what kind of cereal to get)

2. Apparently, I am fun. It was always my impression that the band is the point of these things. We had over 1000 people there, so mingling wasn't really the order of the night and besides, the band was too loud for that anyhow. And good! A nine piece band with four singers playing crowd pleasers all night - awesome! But out of those 1,000+ people, there were only about 30-40 dancing. So I thought that was sad. The food really wasn't good enough to justify coming if you didn't plan to dance.

3. When I need to be, I'm quite the actress. One skill I really am developing is the ability to play a certain part in work-related social interactions. You know, the "fun but not too fun, funny but not too funny"...I bet everyone thinks I had a great time at the party. Mission accomplished!

In other news, Mary Poppins was on TV tonight. I think that just might be my favorite movie of all time. If I have children, I'm definitely going to raise them to a) like classic movies and b) not be too self-conscious to dance.

23 November 2008

Look Out World!

A New York Times article by Jeff Zeleny. Couldn't have said it better myself.

A New Wind Is Blowing in Chicago

SO long, Crawford, Tex. Even before President-elect Barack Obama takes office in 61 days, effectively crowning Chicago as the site of the Western White House, the city is basking in a moment of triumph that is spilling well beyond the confines of politics.

A bid for the summer Olympics in 2016, which once seemed like a fanciful pitch, suddenly feels far closer to a sure thing. (No, the ban on lobbyists at the White House does not apply to a little presidential persuasion on the International Olympic Committee.)

A spire is finally poised to be placed atop the Trump Tower here, bringing the skyscraper to 1,361 feet, the tallest American building since the Sears Tower was built three decades ago.

A new Modern Wing for the fabled Art Institute is set to open next spring, including a Renzo Piano bridge to Millennium Park, which sat in the distance of Mr. Obama’s election night victory speech here.

Yet this moment of renaissance for Chicago is about much more than architecture and athletics. For the first time in the country’s history, an American president will call this city home. And as he moves to Washington, a dose of the Chicago mood is sure to follow.

“We’re not Little Rock and we’re not Texas,” said Rick Bayless, a friend of the Obama family, who owns Frontera Grill and is among the city’s celebrity chefs. “It’s easy to put on your cowboy boots and eat all that barbecue. You can’t do that from Chicago. We’ve got a lot of muscle and it’s far too complex of a place for that.”

The complexity of Chicago, a city that is multiplying in its new diversity even as it clings to a segregated past, is rooted in the 200 neighborhoods that make up the nation’s third-largest city. America may well know Oprah Winfrey, who became a billion-dollar name through her rise to fame here, but the city holds a far broader identity.

One sign that the Obama brand is replacing the Oprah brand? The talk show tycoon is not mentioned in the city’s new tourism campaign, which invites visitors to “Experience the city the Obamas enjoy.” Ms. Winfrey’s studio is not mentioned along the list of stops, which range from Mr. Bayless’s restaurants to a bookstore in the Obamas’ Hyde Park neighborhood to Promontory Point along Lake Michigan. And souvenirs are on sale across town, with Obama shirts, hats and knickknacks arriving just in time for holiday shopping.

“It seems like there are eight million people walking around here congratulating each other,” said Scott Turow, the best-selling novelist who was born in the city. “Chicagoans are unbelievably proud of Barack and feel of course that he’s ours, because he is.”

Catching himself, he added: “I guess I should get out of the habit of calling him Barack.”

The marketing pitch, in the wake of Mr. Obama’s victory, offers a window into the two-fold psyche of the city: It is a big enough metropolis not to be easily fazed by events, though the fabric of the community is stitched just tight enough to burst in a rare moment of giddiness.

Chicago has long been a place that seems comfortable — or, at least, well adjusted — to losing, a place where you put your head down and shoulder through whatever hand is dealt you. (How could it be otherwise, considering all the practice that the cursed Chicago Cubs have provided over the years?)

In 1952, when an article in The New Yorker derisively referred to Chicago as the Second City, little offense was taken. It became a marketing pitch, with the thinking that second fiddle was far better than no fiddle at all.

But that gawking, out-of-town amazement — gee, there really is a city here! — has long outlived its currency. Well before Mr. Obama was elected as the nation’s 44th president — a fact that was proudly amplified by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who ordered up banners with a sketch of the president-elect to hang throughout the city — Chicago was experiencing one of its most blossoming periods in food, fashion and the arts.

Now, people around the country and the world are simply noticing.

Jeff Tweedy, the leader of the band Wilco who grew up in downstate Illinois and lives in Chicago, said the city never felt the inferiority complex that outsiders spend so much time musing about. Still, he said, the election of Mr. Obama, a friend for years, has given an unusual boost of confidence in a city that is usually nonplussed.

“I think people really do enjoy the idea that we’re living in the center of the world all of the sudden,” Mr. Tweedy said. “There have been all these prevailing stereotypes, and people don’t know how big and urban Chicago actually is. People think of it as being in a cornfield.”

If the country is set to see more of Chicago over the next four years — many people across the city here are too humble, nervous and practical to automatically assume Mr. Obama will be in office for eight years — at least one introductory lesson is in order.

If you had always assumed that Chicago earned its nickname as the Windy City from the chilly gusts coming off Lake Michigan, you would be wrong. The city is windy, according to most local legends, because of the hot air bellowing from politicians.

That was among the early lessons about Chicago that scores of young political operatives may have picked up when they moved to the city nearly two years ago to work in Mr. Obama’s headquarters. But while his campaign was located here — largely to escape the tentacles of Washington — the around-the-clock hours kept few of his young aides from truly experiencing the place that helped shape the next president.

“There is a really strong sense of self in Chicago: People aren’t defined by wealth or by work or accomplishments, but rather who they are,” said Alex Kotlowitz, an author who makes his home in Chicago because he believes it is a place to peer into America’s heart. “Obama seems so comfortable in his skin and with who he is. That’s so Chicago.”

It remains an open question just how much, if any, of Chicago will rub off on Washington. For starters, perhaps the president may be less inclined to shut down his government when a few flurries of snow are spotted. Mr. Obama has already lived in the capital — for a few nights a week, anyway — since arriving in the Senate four years ago.

The Obamas are, however, taking a bit of Chicago with them.

Michelle Obama’s mother is moving to Washington. (No, she is not living in the White House.) So Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, aren’t alone, a family that lives near the Obama home in Hyde Park is also moving, so the girls have built-in friends in the new world surrounding them.

And, friends say, look for them to spend at least a bit of time back in Chicago. (There is, after all, no Crawford ranch available to this first presidential family.)

Lois Weisberg, the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for the city of Chicago, is a bit worried by the entrepreneurial rush surrounding Mr. Obama’s election. She hopes that while the Obamas are away the city remains a dignified tourist destination, not where buses are simply hawking rides around Obama points of interest.

“It’s too much luck for one city,” Ms. Weisberg said. “You get the president, you get the tourists, you get the Olympics. There is a wonderful feeling. I don’t think there was anything wrong with us before, but I think we’re better now.”

11 November 2008

The Risks of Naming Your Kid Buck

The Longhorns had a little blip last week. In case the post has been taken down or for those who are too lazy to click, the short version is that backup center Buck Burnette was kicked off the football team after posting the following post-election message on Facebook:

"all the hunters gather up, we have a #$%&er in the whitehouse"

Yup. Apparently he got it as a text message (and later apologized up the wazoo: he didn't write it, just thought it was funny, should have thought first, he understands that he represents Texas, spreading hate is bad, etc.).

There are a lot of comments on the Deadspin story, many debating the extent of freedom of speech, some dumping on Texas, others positing that the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

But for me, I see two issues. The first is that Texas' football team is largely black. They had to kick him off the team - how could they expect that segment of the team to consider him a teammate??

It does bring up the race vs. gender issue though. When I was watching the election coverage (and again, it was touching. I already said this and I don't want to take away from that), I couldn't help but wonder how the coverage will compare if and when we have the first female president. Will it have the same historic feel, the same nationwide...jubilance?

You can draw your own conclusions there, but I have a similar question about good old Buck? If he had called Sarah Palin a c&^t, would he have been kicked off the team?