Thursday, May 31, 2007

Birthday Presents in Fairfax

Miriam got a huge pile of presents for her birthday on Saturday. She really likes them, and is sharing them with Alice. One great gift was a snap-circuits toy from Aunt Elaine. As soon as she saw it, Miriam -- who had played with snap-circuits at school -- said she wanted to make a flying saucer. This involves wiring up a twirling device that launches a wheel into the air. The 2-story front hall is a perfect location for launching this. She has also made a sound detector and an OR-logic gate with a lightbulb, following the directions with a little help and explanation. We also played one game of Mousetrap: a very nice gift.

Both girls were very enthusiastic about a makeup kit Miriam received; Tracy helped them put on makeup and nail polish. They have been hoping for makeup for a while, especially because of a couple of false alarms when a "makeup session" for ballet classes turned out NOT to be a fashion expert, but just a re-scheduled class. Here is Alice wearing makeup and Miriam drying her nails:

Last night and this morning, Miriam and Alice were playing with two Bratz dolls: Yasmin, a gymnast, and Chloe, a soccer player. As documented in Consumer Reports, removing the dolls from the fetters and shackles of cardboard, plastic, nylon rope, and metal twisters was challenging and time-consuming, but I succeeded without snipping off any hair, clothing, or limbs.

Chloe kicks the soccer ball and gets a trophy. Yasmin does tricks on the balance beam and also gets a trophy. She owns a gym bag and a water bottle. I'm really impressed by these dolls, as they at least channel imaginative play into action, rather than just dressing the dolls and brushing their hair. Each doll in fact does own a color- coordinated hairbrush, but it is only a minor part of the game.

Like most adults, I find it unnerving that the Bratz girls' shoes are removable, but they come off with a peg into the leg which also removes their feet. Yasmin's feet are bare but they come off anyway. Unfortunately, Chloe's shoes are too big to fit into the foot-holder of the balance beam, so she can only play soccer, not join in the gymnastics contest. Alice traded their feet briefly so that Chloe could try the balance beam, but this didn't seem to appeal to them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Thinking of Istanbul

One year ago I was just about to fly from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. I started thinking about this because I just read this report about Orhan Pamuk in the Guardian online:
Guardian Article on Pamuk

I have enjoyed two visits to Istanbul, and I always keep hoping that the modernizing elements in Turkish society can prevail and support all the good things I've experienced there. Pamuk's books Snow and Istanbul also contribute to my positive view of Turkey.

Here is a repeat of a photo from my last morning in Istanbul: the Grand Bazaar. We enjoyed the vastness of it all, the painted archways, narrow streets, and constant invitations to look at rugs, scarves, jewelry, tiles, purses, shoes, leather jackets, trinkets, inlaid boxes, more rugs, and so on, I wrote.

Monday, May 21, 2007

UC Davis Arboretum

The Arboretum on the Davis campus is divided into regions reflecting international geography. The Australian region has bottle-brush trees and some odd-shaped small flowers. The California region includes coastal redwoods, wildflowers, valley oaks, and native redbuds. The Arboretum is very narrow, as it follows a watercourse that's inside concrete banks, and goes under several big roads that give access to the campus buildings. At intervals, the paths alongside the banks go up the hillside towards one of the buildings. The design is impressive: you feel as if you are in a natural area, separated from city life -- but you aren't.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Dan, Lara, Theo, and Tessa

Theo likes to pretend to be a lion just like Alice does! We had a great visit with all the Bs! More photos later or tomorrow!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Spring in the Garden

It's raining today, but finally, we have lilacs.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Shakespeare begins his play Cymbeline in the middle of a mess at the court of the title character, a king in Britain. His wife had died long ago, leaving two toddler boys and an infant girl, Imogen. Cymbeline had banished Belarius one of his most loyal noblemen, and as he fled, Belarius had convinced the children's nurse to kidnap the two boys and go with him to live in the woods, where a few scenes into the play, we see them -- now adult men -- in their cave.

At the start of the play, Imogen is a young woman, and has just eloped with a visitor to court, Leonatus Posthumus, a Roman. We quickly learn that Cymbeline's second wife was beautiful and manipulative in a very evil way. Her aptly named son Cloten (rhymes with Rotten) was a very dumb clod who could hardly speak prose and virtually never spoke the native iambic pentameter of the other characters. Cloten and his mother had had a plan: he would marry Imogen and take over the kingdom. Obviously, Imogen's love marriage thwarted that, and they were angry and vengeful. The Queen can make Cymbeline do anything: she has him banish Posthumus.

Next we have a tricky part of the plot. Leonatus Posthumus brags about Imogen to the wrong people, who wager that she can be led astray. One of them has himself smuggled into her bedroom in a chest, and while she sleeps he memorizes all its secrets and steals the bracelet that her husband had given her. Wronged and innocent, she is cast out of court and soon assumes the disguise of a boy.

Now we are set up for a series of wanderings in the woods and finally a long series of recognition scenes, as fathers and children and husbands and wives are reunited. But only the good ones: Cloten, on his way to rape Imogen and kill Posthumus, is beheaded by one of her unrecognized brothers, and Cymbeline's Queen dies, repenting all her evil deeds. Spirits and Roman gods appear in dreams to Posthumus, predicting justice and harmony. And the predictions come true as Cymbeline emerges as a more kingly figure, no longer just henpecked and stupified.

Why does it read so well? Shakespeare made it all work. The interactions, though improbable, are very dramatic, and the poetry is as impressive as any. Imponderable, I think.

Mother's Day Brunch

Here are some of the guests at Linda and George's Mother's Day brunch. For the food, see the food blog --

Food for Mother's Day

Thursday, May 03, 2007

More on Islamic Fundamentalists

In my previous post I wrote about the book No god but God by Aslan. I just read about another book that makes a similar point -- though in the words of the reviewer, the author, Ed Husain, is even more forceful about the moral deficiencies of the extreme Islamists. The reviewer criticises westerners who find Islamist inditements of our society to have moral merit:
In his new book, The Islamist, Husain identifies a professed horror of western decadence as the next, infinitely promising excuse for Islamist murder. "When the political pretexts of Palestine and Iraq have been dealt with," he writes, "Wahhabi-inspired militants will turn to other social grievances. Drinking alcohol, 'impropriety', gambling, cohabitation, inappropriate dress - these and a host of miscellaneous others will become excuses for jihad, for martyrdom, feeding the tumour of Islamist domination which grows in the Wahhabi and Islamist mind."

...Following a period in modestly dressed, porn-loving Saudi Arabia, Husain concluded that the Islamists' depiction of the west as morally inferior was nothing more than "Islamist propaganda, designed to undermine the west and inject false confidence in Muslim minds". And whether through accident or design, the propaganda is working brilliantly, as it coincides with an epidemic of binge drinking, super casinos and intermittent moral panic.
I especially like this quote:
Writers whose suspicions would be instantly aroused by, say, a smarmy TV evangelist who seemed obsessively interested in fornication, or a politician who relied on divine inspiration as a justification for war, seem to have no difficulty listening to the strictures of angry young men whose primary moral interest appears to be in telling women what to wear on their heads.
This is a really good article in the Guardian online -- see: Catherine Bennett: Why should we justify ourselves to those who would bomb us?

Recent Reading

I've recently read two good books, very different from one another. Both are relatively new -- first published in 2005. One way or another both books were on my reading lists, and I recently ordered and received them, leaving only a few hundred more books to go.

The first book, No god but God by Reza Aslan is a historic study of Islam, with lots of attention paid to the modern ramifications of each historical development. I heard John Stewart interview him on "The Daily Show," and decided to read the book.

I can't get really committed to learning details of quarrels and power struggles among the desert tribes of Arabia in the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages (to use the European names of those eras). However, I was particularly interested in the portrayal of the pre-Moslem religions of Mecca and the region, and in the author's conviction that the current disastrous confrontation between the West and Islam is really a side-effect of an internal struggle between Moslems. Specifically, Aslan sees the fundamentalists vs. the modernizers as the real struggle, and the Moslem-Western battles as peripheral.

The second book, The Genizah at the House of Shepher is a novel by Tamar Yellin. I read that it won the first Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, awarded by the Jewish Book Council in March. Besides the honor, the prize equals $100,000.

At times The Genizah... is a little romance-like for my taste. The plot is slightly forced: about an ancient codex over which a large family are quarreling, with a variety of motives. The main character -- who narrates the tale -- has roots in both Israel and England, and her family connects to other Jewish centers going back into the 19th century. Despite the constant mental and physical changes of location, the book seemed very coherent to me: a personal and family story of discovery and searching.

I found The Genizah... very beautifully written, especially the descriptions of Israel and the portrayals of the main characters. Here's an example of a passage about the narrator's English childhood that I enjoyed:
Mine was a kind father but a melancholy man. All day long he worked at the factory, measuring lengths of timber with his thick fingers. He fed the timber to the jigsaw with his workman's hands. Sometimes in the evenings he would tell me stories, for in late middle-age he had remembered the stories of his youth: about Sandalfon, the guardian angel of birds, who was responsible for forming children in the womb, and about Metatron, author of the Book of Secrets and God's heavenly scribe. About Moses, who saw God through a clear glas and Elijah, who saw him through a darkened one. About the dangers of moonlight and about the resurrection of the dead. At weekends we walked the streets of our neighbourhood, stole raspberries from Mr. Mankin's garden, bamboo sticks from the municipal park. We picked up coins from the pavement and jewellry from gutters, and wherever we went I ws taught the pleasures of being light-fingered and sharp-eyed.

There was also education by omission. My mother took responsibility for that. (p. 146)
Another passage, about her return to Jerusalem, that I liked:
I came to Jerusalem at night, in darkness, after a long absence, rain streaking the windows of the taxi as we rode from the plain to the hills. Outside, at first, there were bright signs, a golden egg, a drive-thru takeaway, a gian smile surrounded by flashing lights. We might have been in America. We might have been anywhere. Then we were on the highway. We were nowhere. Darkness, hunched trees. A change in the air. A whiff of petrol and bitumen, a hint of the sea or the desert. Strangeness. Rain.

Then as we began to climb I closed my eyes and thought I had recognized the old route, its rises and turns inscribed on my memory. But the road had changed. It had flattened, uncoiled and stretched itself into something unfamiliar. And when I opened my eyes, instead of the darkness of the hills there were masses of lights, strings and clusters of lights as far as the eye could see.

"What's that?" I asked.

The driver answered: "That's Jerusalem." (p. 11)