Monday, December 31, 2012

Kudos to "Hatchlings" for listening to me!

If you play the Hatchlings egg hunt game on Facebook, then you know that there are always tons of Christmas-themed eggs every year.  But up until this year there had only been two Hanukkah eggs -- and both of those were way back in 2009.

Hatchlings 2009
Hanukkah egg
OK, it's pretty normal for Jewish holidays to be ignored by the dominant culture.  But I have to admit that the ubiquitous Christmas commercialism gets pretty old when you are constantly bombarded from all directions with a holiday you don't even celebrate.  (My Christian friends tell me it gets old for them, too, but that's another story.)

If you have Jewish kids, "The Season" is the time of year when they feel most left out.  Frankly, so do we adults.  So anytime there is even a tiny little acknowledgment of a Jewish holiday in the mainstream world, we Jews pounce on it like a starving dog on a bone.

Well, this year Hatchlings threw us more than a bone -- we got a whole week of meals.  Eight beautiful Hanukkah eggs.  You see, I got to thinking that maybe the reason we had never had a Hanukkah series might be because the Hatchlings design team didn't know what the symbols of Hanukkah are.  Hatchlings eggs tend to be in series of eight, and Hanukkah has eight days.  So a while back, I suggested these possibilities:  Judah Maccabee, menorah, latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiot (Israeli donuts), gelt (coins), presents, bottle of olive oil, Star of David.  Well, they took my suggestion -- and now we have those eight things in a Hanukkah egg series (the menorah on this page is number 8.)  Which just goes to show, it's better to step forward with a solution rather than sit back and grumble about a problem.

So my New Year's resolution is this:  I'm going to look for more ways to facilitate inclusiveness in this increasingly divisive world.  Sometimes you get left out, not from prejudice, but from sheer ignorance.  Fortunately, ignorance is curable with education.   Not to mention activism.   (Now let me see... we've never had any Passover Hatchlings eggs, and Passover also has eight days... so what would be eight good symbols to use for  a Passover series?  For that matter, Kwanzaa also has eight days...)

Wishing everyone a happy, prosperous New Year 2013!

Friday, December 21, 2012

No end of the world today

According to an old Mayan prophecy, the world was supposed to end at 5:11 AM today.  (In my time zone at least.)  Well, it's 12:00 noon and I'm still here.   Not that I really expected the world to end.  But this does give me an opportunity to answer some common questions about Judaism and "the End Times."

First of all, we need to clarify that the word olam in Hebrew can mean either "world" in the sense of the physical planet, or "eternity." The best modern translation is probably something like "space-time continuum."   (I have always wondered if this fact had any influence on Einstein's ability to imagine a point at infinity where space and time converge.  He wasn't a religious Jew, but culturally he must have heard the word olam.  Did the Hebrew language help facilitate the "thought experiment" that led to the Theory of Relativity?  Interesting question...)

In Greek, however, there are two separate words for these two ideas:  kosmos for the physical world, and aeon for a period of time or age.   So already we have a major difference between Jewish thought and Greco-Roman thought when it comes to talking about "the end times."  During the period when Christianity split off from Judaism, it was common in both groups to try and calculate the End of the World.  But were the early Christians talking about the end of the physical kosmos, or the end of an age?

Jesus and his disciples were speaking Aramaic, a derivative of Hebrew, so most likely they were using olam.  But the Gospels are written in Greek, not Hebrew, and, as far as I know, Greek does not have a single word that includes both time and space.  So the Christian authors had to choose between kosmos and aeon.  I'm no expert in this, but I do know that Judaism has tended to lean toward the "end of an age" rather than a literal destruction of the planet.

In fact, there is a famous quote in Avot de Rabbi Nathan (a classical Jewish commentary) that says, "If you are planting a tree and you hear the messiah has come, first finish planting your tree, then go to meet him."  In other words, don't drop everything just because you hear rumors about the end of the world.

By and large, modern Judaism discourages calculating a specific date for "the end times."  Why?  Because setting a specific date tends to become a form of escapism.  If you think the world is ending soon, and that a deity is going to appear and miraculously solve all your problems, then why bother to do anything to improve the world?  Many, many times I have been told by Christians that there is no point in trying to make peace in the Middle East, because there will always be "wars and rumors of wars" until Jesus returns.  Somehow, this seems defeatist and, frankly, rather callous.  In contrast, Jews are commanded to actively "seek peace and pursue it " (Psalm 34:14).

Jesus appearing in the clouds
from the Macklin Bible 1798
In Greek drama, there is a concept called deus ex machina, literally "god from a machine."  At the end of a play, an actor playing a god would be lowered on a rope (the machine) to "descend" and straighten out everything in the story.  We also see a form of this in the Book of Job, where, after Job and his friends debate the question of "why bad things happen to good people," God speaks to Job and answers the question on a cosmic scale.  (In fact, some scholars believe that the author of Job might have been a Greek convert to Judaism.  The book certainly follows the format of a Greek play.)  In Christian imagery, Jesus will descend from heaven on a cloud when he returns and sets the world right.  And in modern New Age circles, the "gods" are extraterrestrials who will descend in UFOs.

The problem with deus ex machina is that it doesn't work very well in real life.  If we sit around waiting for a messiah to fix everything for us, then nothing ever gets fixed.  This is why Jews are not "waiting for" the messiah.  Rather, we are working to bring the messianic age, to beat swords into plowshares as promised by Isaiah.  Each mitzvah we do brings us one step closer.  Some Jews do believe there will be an actual person who is the messiah, others see "bringing messiah" as a process.  But most of us would agree that it is not enough to just sit around and wait for a deus ex machina to appear and solve all our problems.   We are each responsible to help make the world a better place to live in.

(If you are still worried about a literal end of the world, check out this page on the NASA website.  NASA received so many inquiries about this "event," they actually posted a Q and A!)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stormy skies make the best sunrises

All of the photos on this page were take from the same hill on my land in Pine County, Minnesota, looking east.  And all of them were taken on cloudy mornings.

"Minnesota Snowscape"
On a clear dawn, there isn't much of a show.  The sky gradually gets lighter, there's a strip of orange on the horizon, the sun comes up, and that's it.  One clear day looks pretty much like another.  I don't photograph many of those.

But on a cloudy morning, there is potential for some really great shots.  No two cloud formations are ever the same, and the scene lasts much longer as the sun rises behind the clouds.  When I see a cloudy dawn, I grab my camera and head for my favorite spot.

"Dragon in the Sky"
And there's always that one special moment when it all peaks.  Capturing that moment can be a challenge, because you don't really know when it is coming.  So I shoot a series of shots and then choose the best.  It doesn't always pan out, but when it does, the results are spectacular. (As for the duds, well, as my father told me many years ago, even professional photographers take bad pictures -- they just don't show them to anybody.  For every great pic on my blog, there were a whole lot of deletes.)

"Flaming Sunrise"
When I was a child living in the city, we used to sing a song about "rain, rain go away -- come again another day, little Johnny wants to play." From an urban perspective, rain was a nuisance that kept me from going outside and having fun.  But now that I'm older and we are in the middle of a major drought, I realize that my childish wish for "rain, rain go away" would be a curse.  Without rain in summer and snow storms in winter, a lot of plants and animals suffer.  Including us humans.

"Red in the Morning"
And now comes the homily.  Life, like a sunrise, varies from day to day.  We say we'd like to have perpetually clear skies, but in reality that would be rather boring.  It's the clouds in our lives that add some interest, even if they do sometimes rain on our parades.  The storms provide the challenges.  As I look back over my life, the "sunny days" are pretty much one big blur.  The ones that stand out are those that -- for good or bad -- brought some excitement into my life.  And even those dark days had important lessons for me to learn.

This is not to say I'm always excited to have disruptions in my life.  After all, some storms can be really destructive.  But, as the old saying goes, there's a silver lining in every cloud.  Or, in the case of sunrises, there's always the potential for a really great peak experience.  Maybe this is why just about every religion has the symbolism of moving from the darkness into the light.  And every storm contains a potential rainbow.

"After the Storm"

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Visiting my recycling center

Today was America Recycles Day -- an event I had not heard of before, but since my local recycling center (PHASE Recycling in Sandstone, MN) was hosting an open house, I decided to go.  I had always wondered what happened to all that co-mingled material.  Was it really sorted out and re-used?  If so, how?

The tour was very instructive.  And yes, PHASE does sort through it all, starting with a line of people separating out the metals, aluminum, plastics, cardboard, paper, etc.  Then each material is compacted into bales that weigh a thousand pounds or more.  It takes a LOT of plastic bottles to make a bale.  Last year, PHASE reclaimed over TWO MILLION POUNDS of materials to be recycled.  Wow!  And this is not from a big city, either.  Although there are some good-sized towns in Pine County, we are basically rural.

PHASE stands for Pine Habilitation And Support Employment, Inc.  PHASE provides employment for developmentally-challenged individuals, as well as a very good service for our community.  And the building itself is "recycled" -- it used to be Chris's Grocery Store.  When the grocery built a newer, bigger facility nearby and became Chris's Food Center, the old building sat vacant for a while.  Meanwhile, the county was finding it hard to finance their recycling program.  PHASE took it over, acquired the old grocery, refitted it for their needs.  Today, about 30 people work there -- an excellent example of a "green" industry creating jobs!  WAY TO GO!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Voting for Darwin, Evolution, and Modern Science

One of the more bizarre events in the contentious 2012 election occurred in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, where 4000 people wrote in "Charles Darwin" against unopposed creationist Congressman Paul Broun (R).  More info on that...)   Broun had denounced evolution and other scientific theories, including embryology and the Big Bang Theory, as "lies straight from the pit of hell."  Opponents of his ideas wrote in "Darwin" in protest.

Charles Darwin, 1809-1882
While there was little chance of Darwin actually being elected (Broun got more that 209,000 votes and was declared the winner) it does raise the question in my mind:  Why are fundamentalist Christians so threatened by science?

And while it is true that there are some creationists among us Jews, they are in the minority.  By and large, most Jews find no problem in reconciling scientific discoveries with religion.  Even in the 12th century, Moses Maimonides (a major Jewish philosopher still studied today) wrote in his Guide for the Perplexed: "The account of Creation given in Scripture is not, as generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts." (section 2:29)

In his introduction to the same work, Maimonides also said: ""Now, on the one hand, the subject of Creation is very important, but on the other hand, our ability to understand these concepts is very limited.  Therefore, God described these profound concepts, which His divine wisdom found necessary to communicate to us, using allegories...  It has been outlined in metaphors so that the masses can understand it according to their mental capacity, while the educated take it in a different sense."

One of my teachers, Rabbi Moshe Adler, once explained it this way:  "God could have sent down Carl Sagan to explain how the universe was created, but the people of that time would not have understood him.  So God gave them a story."

And indeed, the Genesis version of Creation does seem to follow the basic order of evolution:  Light/energy; land & atmosphere; green plants; egg-laying animals; mammals; and finally, humans.  The only part out of order is the creation of the heavenly bodies, which comes on the 4th day, right in the middle of the process.  Some Jewish commentators have suggested that this was not a chronological statement, but, rather, a theological one:  Putting the sun in the middle meant it was neither a solar god starting the process nor a deity finishing it. It was merely one more physical thing on the list of items being created.  (See Slifkin, Nathan, The Challenge of Creation:  Judaism's Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution, pp. 235-37.)

What Maimonides was saying is still true today, perhaps even more so in this age of quantum physics and string theory.  Many scientific theories are very complex, and require a high degree of intelligence and many years of study to fully understand them.  For the average person, a simpler explanation will often suffice.  Given that the Bible was passed down orally at a time when science was in its infancy and most people were illiterate, it makes sense that many things were told in simple stories, without going into great detail about how the process actually worked.

Moses Maimonides, 1138-1204
And let me add that Maimonides was an Orthodox Jew, as were many other commentators who sought to reconcile science and religion down through the ages.  So it is definitely possible to be both Orthodox and scientific.  Maimonides even went so far as to say that, when it came to statements by the Talmudic sages that contradicted later discoveries in science, "Do not ask of me to reconcile everything that they (the Sages) stated from science with the actual reality, for the science of those days was deficient, and they did not speak out of traditions from the prophets regarding these matters."   So, we are not required to believe in spontaneous generation, a geocentric universe, the heavenly spheres, or the sometimes strange folk cures described in the Talmud.   (see The Dirt Mouse, the Sweat Louse, and the Dong Chong: A Study of Spontaneous Generation in Jewish Law).

Christianity, on the other hand, has often felt threatened by science.   There was a period in medieval Europe when popes were forbidding Christians to go to Jewish doctors, condemning "Jewish medicine" as being from the devil.  (On the other hand, church officials themselves often went to Jews for healing, because they had a better success rate than the Catholic priests who were offering chunks of the "true cross" and other holy relics for cures.)  One might laugh at this, but, as noted above, Congressman Broun still believes modern science comes from the devil, although he is not so crass as to call it "Jewish."  Even more scary, this is a man who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology!  How can you make legal decisions and policies on science when you don't even believe in it?  (See Bill Nye: Paul Broun 'unqualified to make decisions about science, space and technology')

Among the theories denounced by Broun is embryology, a science that is pretty well established in the modern world, much to the benefit of human babies.  Which raises the question:  Does Broun still believe that the father plants a homunculus (fully-formed miniature adult) into the mother?  Does he reject what we see on ultrasound tests?  Tracking of genetic diseases through DNA?  Effects of drugs on the development of the fetus?  Surgical correction of birth defects while still in the womb?

If you reject embryology, how do you account for any of these things?

Years ago, I heard a Chabad Hasidic rabbi say that when scientists first looked through their early microscopes, they actually saw the homunculus, but later suppressed this knowledge.  I find this absurd. What more likely happened is that they saw the nucleus of the sperm cell for the first time but, not understanding what it was, projected their beliefs onto that dark spot and thought they saw a tiny person.  As microscopes improved, it became obvious that this early assumption was wrong.  The vast majority of Jews today accept embryology as proven fact.  Even very Orthodox Jews use in vitro fertilization to try and conceive when natural methods fail.

All of which brings me back to my original question:  Why are Christian fundamentalists so threatened by evolution?  I think the answer lies in how they construct their theologies.   For them, it is absolutely essential for every single word of the Bible to be literally true.  Why?  Because they rely upon those words to prove that Jesus was their messiah.  If you start questioning the literalness of Bible verses, you run the risk of the whole house of cards tumbling down.  In Paul Broun's words, the so-called "lies" of science were intended to "keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior."

We Jews, on the other hand, do not believe we need a human sacrifice to be forgiven, nor do we rely upon the literalness of biblical stories as the foundation of our faith.  We are more focused on actions rather than beliefs.  A sin, in Judaism, is a specific negative act committed against Torah laws in the physical world, not merely a belief.  Just thinking about something -- even a seemingly heretical idea -- does not make it a sin.  (Although it could make you seem odd to your neighbors.)

So yes, we take the laws of Judaism literally -- a pig is a pig and must not be eaten, nor can it be allegorized away -- but when it comes to personal beliefs about God and religion in general, there is a great deal of latitude.  Thus we find multiple interpretations of biblical stories in Judaism, existing side by side.  We may argue and debate them (and how we do love to debate!), but in the end, what matters most is how we are living our lives.  Two Jews may be equally strict in observing the Sabbath, but may also have very different interpretations as to why they are doing so.  And both can be correct on some level.

So, for example, one can literally believe that the Noah Flood covered the entire planet, or that it was a more localized mid-east phenomenon as suggested by modern science.  (See William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History, which presents a very strong case for it taking place around the Black Sea.)  Either way, the moral lessons of the story remain the same.  It teaches us, among other things, that God values every species on our planet, and so should we.  Similarly, we can say that whether or not the Exodus happened exactly as described in the Torah, it still contains valuable teachings about freedom that are relevant today.  (There are also Christians who think this way.  See The Bible and Congressman Broun by Adam Hamilton.)

In closing, I find myself still agreeing with Maimonides, again from Guide for the Perplexed:

When I have a difficult subject before me -- when I find the road narrow and can see no other way of teaching a well established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools -- I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude."


Monday, November 5, 2012

Living with Predators on the Circle of Life

Last Saturday there was a big ruckus down at the chicken coop.  When I went to investigate, I soon saw why:  A Red-Tailed Hawk had killed one of my banty roosters and was feeding on the carcass in the middle of the chicken yard.  No wonder everybody was so upset!

Red Tailed Hawk
(Photo courtesy of
"Wayward" on Wikipedia)
Now, I had very mixed feelings about this sight.  On the one hand, I was sad to lose a good rooster.  But on the other hand, it was a rather exciting nature moment.  How often do you see a hawk feeding on a kill like that?  And of course I didn't have a camera  -- it was Shabbos (the Sabbath) so I wasn't taking pictures that day.  When the hawk saw me, it flew up into a tree, and just sat there, waiting for me to leave.

Over the years, I've lost a number of roosters to various predators.  Although I'm rarely there to see a wild animal go after the chickens (I did glimpse a fox once), I have seen the roosters stand up to cats and people.  In a free-range flock of chickens, the roosters are always on the alert for danger.  They are the sentries of the flock.  There is a distinctive "predator alert" call they give, which the other chickens recognize immediately and run for cover.  The rooster himself will often attack whatever is threatening them, and this is probably why so many lose their lives.  The banty that the hawk was eating must have put up a terrific fight; there were feathers all over the place.  But every other chicken made it safely into the shelter of the coop, where I found them all cackling and raising a huge racket.

Of course, if I kept the chickens penned up in cages all the time, this would not happen.  But part of the reason I have my own chickens is because I do not want my eggs to come from factory farms.  Giving the chickens freedom to scratch, peck, flock together and do all the things chickens do means a certain amount of risk.  But I believe the chickens, like most people, prefer some risk rather than be locked up.   Every living thing craves freedom.

There was a time when a farmer would shoot a chicken-stealing hawk as a matter of course.  Nowadays, these birds are protected, which I consider a good thing.  Although a hawk might take a chicken now and then, he is more likely to grab a mouse or a rat.  The number of rodents eaten by raptors is huge.  (I remember seeing a story about a family of Red-Tails that nested on a building near Central Park, New York.  I'll bet they found plenty of rats around there!)  So really, these beautiful birds are more beneficial than destructive.  Death is a part of the circle of life.  Although it is indeed sad to lose one of my roosters, I still prefer to try and live in peace with the hawks and other wildlife around here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Final Tribute to the Tall Ship Bounty

As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is still raging, and with so many tragedies and devastating images, the news is overwhelming.  But the one event that stays in my mind is the loss of the HMS Bounty, along with two members of her noble crew.  At this time, one body has been recovered and her captain is still missing.  Thankfully, 14 other crew members were rescued by the Coast Guard.  The ship herself now rests at the bottom of the sea.

The Bounty at anchor, with the Duluth
Lift Bridge in the background.
(I was leaning as I took this shot --
 not the bridge!)
It was only two years ago that she sailed into Duluth harbor, where my wife and I saw her at the 2010 Tall Ships Festival.  It was a special trip for us -- our 30th wedding anniversary.  My wife loves ships and comes from a line of sea captains ("Bold Daniel" Hathorne, who fought in the American Revolution, is one of her ancestors), so I thought this would be the perfect anniversary gift.  And it was.  We spent the whole day enjoying the sight of seven tall ships and exploring the festival on shore, including a performance of The Pirates of Penzance.  (With the exception of the promo shot of the Bounty under sail above, I took all the photos on this page that day.  Click the pix to see enlargements.)

Details of her hull and rigging.
 Like millions of others, I had seen this ship in Mutiny on the Bounty, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean.  I remember going with my father to see the 1962 release of Mutiny (he was a Navy man and loved anything to do with the sea), and I had recently viewed the film again in preparation for the Duluth trip. So this festival was not only a gift for my wife, it was a piece of nostalgia.

Her masts against the
clear Duluth sky.
To me, the story of the original Bounty was almost mythological in historical importance.  The opportunity to see such an exact replica up close was a real thrill.  Little did we know, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because now she is gone forever.  I'm thankful we got to see her, and will always remember that wonderful day among the great tall ships.

The Bounty docked in Duluth, 2010.  The object in the
foreground is a vintage buoy.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Why was this hornet's nest so close to the ground?

Now that the leaves are all down, you can sometimes spot interesting things that were hidden during the summer.  Like this Bald-Faced Hornet's nest that has its opening less than a foot above the ground, which is probably why I couldn't find it earlier in the summer.   I knew there were hornets around because I saw them, but I was looking UP into the treetops, where these nests usually are.  And here there was a nest less than 30 feet from my chicken coop and practically ON the ground -- not more than six feet from where I was harvesting wild plums!  I probably walked past that nest dozens of times and never even knew it was there.  I didn't bother them and they didn't bother me.

Bald-faced Hornet
This is the second time I've found a very low nest on my land -- the first was only about 3 feet off the ground, near another outbuilding.  There are plenty of trees around here to nest in, so I am wondering:  Do hornets often build so low, or do I have an unusual strain of these insects breeding here?  Hornets only use the nest for one season, after which they all die off except the new queens, who hibernate over the winter, producing new colonies in the spring.  So it is conceivable that some mutation is causing queens here to nest low.  I'll have to watch for more low nests next spring.

Before I go any further, I should mention that there is NO HONEY in a nest like this, in spite of what Hollywood might think.  In both cartoons and live action films (such as in Doctor Doolittle 2, where a bear climbs up to a nest for honey) hornet's nests are mistakenly confused with old-fashioned garden beehives.  Climb up to one of these nests and all you will get is a bunch of stings, because hornets don't make honey.  They are predators that feed their larvae on  insects.

Back of my coop -- the lighter areas
are where the hornets scraped off
wood fibers for their nest.
Where were the hornets getting their wood fibers to make this nest?  From the back of my chicken coop, where they scraped the bare weathered wood clean.  I've seen this behavior here before, both with hornets and wasps, but wasn't paying much attention this summer because of the heat wave.  It wasn't until I found the nest that I went to look at the coop.  You can very clearly see the lighter areas where they were working (click the pix to enlarge).

Interestingly, they seem to follow the vertical lines of the boards.  In cases where I have actually seen hornets doing this, they are always clinging vertically, never horizontally. Most likely, they are following the grain of the wood.  And if you listen very closely, you can actually hear them chewing.  In fact, the first time I observed this behavior many years ago, it was by first hearing a strange scraping sound, looking for the source, then seeing a hornet busily chewing along a dead goldenrod stalk.

In this closeup,  you can clearly see where they left off and the patina of the old wood (darker area on the left) still shows.  When you look at the nest itself, you also see variations in the color of the paper, with clear stripes from both the dark and light areas.  This suggests to me that each wasp goes back to the same part of the coop wall, gets a load of fibers, then returns to the same area on the nest.  But since I have not actually observed this, it is only guesswork.

All of this brings up the question of where wasps and hornets get their wood fibers in developed areas.  An old weather-worn shack like my chicken coop would never be tolerated in more upscale neighborhoods.  Ditto for dead trees and other suitable debris.  Maybe they use wooden fences?  I have seen photos of nests that are more reddish in color, as if made from redwood.

Hornets, along with their cousins, the paper wasps, are very good for the garden -- which is where the inhabitants of this nest were hunting all summer.  I watched them searching among the broccoli and cabbage leaves for those little green caterpillars.  When they find one, they sting it and carry it back to their nest.  Ditto for army worms and other pests, including flies, which can be found in abundance around the coop and manure pile. Plus, both hornets and wasps visit flowers to eat pollen and nectar, and seem to be moving into the niche that has been vacated by honey bees around here.  I only saw two honey bees all summer, but lots of wasps were on the flowers, and we got a good harvest.  So unless the nests are someplace dangerous to me or my animals, I leave these very beneficial insects alone.   Besides, they give me an excellent reason NOT to paint the chicken coop!

Closeup of the nest after I collected it, showing the
variations of colors of wood pulp used.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Coolio Cat and Nightshade: Did their love transcend death?

Do bonds of friendship between animals survive death?  This is an interesting question that may not be provable with hard evidence, but I believe that, in some cases at least, they do.

Coolio Cat
Consider the story of Coolio Cat and Nightshade, two of my cats who shared a lifetime together.  Three weeks ago, Coolio passed away peacefully at the age of 15 (Read his memorial story).  This past Friday, his lifelong friend, Nightshade, followed him into the light.  Now granted, Nightshade was 14 years old, and her health was not very good lately.  But what interests me is how quickly she went downhill after Coolio's death, and how her behavior changed.  I also had a sense that Coolio's spirit was still with us, and that he was hanging around with Nightshade, watching over her.

Nightshade in her Halloween cat stance
Nightshade was always an emotionally needy cat. She was a rescue who had a terrible, abusive kittenhood.  Once we had adopted her, she quickly bonded with us and with Coolio, a young stray cat we took in when we moved here.  Although Coolio was a year older than she was, he was still young enough to romp and play and teach her how to be a happy cat.  On the other hand, she didn't trust our dogs, and would puff up and hiss if they got too close. It was this habit of rearing up like a Halloween cat, along with her somewhat grumpy facial expression, that earned her the name Nightshade.

In terms of black cat superstitions, I used to joke that although a black cat crossed my path every day, I also had a lucky white cat that canceled the bad luck out. Sort of yin and yang. Of course, I don't really believe in any of this, it was just family fun. As Groucho Marx once said, "If a black cat crosses your path, it means the animal is going somewhere." (Oddly enough, Nightshade started turning white in her old age. When we adopted her, she was pure black, but in later years she had developed several white spots on her fur.)

Nightshade also loved to ride around on my shoulder -- so much so, that I used to joke she was a reincarnation of a parrot. This was cute, but also sometimes rather painful, because, as she got older, she would dig her claws in. Even as a kitten she was always afraid of falling, which led me to believe she must have been dropped, or even thrown, at some time before we got her, especially since she was distrustful of children. (Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of her doing the parrot act, to my deep regret.)

After Coolio died, Nightshade became even more clingy.  She wanted to be held constantly, and spent a lot more time riding around on my shoulder.  Meanwhile, her health took a sudden turn for the worse.  She developed breathing problems, ate less, and seemed to have trouble keeping warm.  I would often find her sitting on top of the fridge, or next to the crock pot when it was on.  She also sat on top of the stove when we were using the oven, and would snuggle against the other cats on the couch.  And she spent more time sitting in the sun, where, presumably, her black fur absorbed the warmth like a feline solar heater.

Nightshade in her younger days,
when she was pure black
On the day she died, I had let her outside with the other cats, where she liked to sit on the front porch.  An hour or so later, I found her dead on the grass in the front yard.  My first thought was one of guilt:  If only I had kept her inside, she would still be alive.  Which wasn't really true.  There were no signs of trauma on her body, no indication that she had been hit by a car or attacked by an animal.  She had simply passed away.  Had I kept her inside, she would have died inside.  As it was, she crossed over while doing something she really loved:  sunning herself in the grass on a warm autumn day.  (I am reminded of my brother-in-law Enzo, a licensed falconer, who died of a heart attack while releasing his hawk at a bird demonstration.   He, too, went while doing what he loved.)

Because it was the afternoon before the Sabbath, I was unable to bury her right away.  (She is the third cat I've had die just before the Sabbath, and Coolio died on the Sabbath itself.  Is this coincidence, or do they prefer to go then because it is more spiritual?  The Sabbath is sometimes called "a taste of Eden," and Eden is, after all, the Jewish metaphor for Heaven.  Plus, Eden has animals in it.)

On Sunday I buried her next to Coolio -- and here is where things got strange.  I dug the hole as usual, lined it with dry grass, and laid her in it, wrapped in a soft blanket.  After saying my final goodbyes, I filled in the hole and marked it with rocks.  Then suddenly the wind came up, and there was a feeling of light and happiness.  For a fleeting moment I had a mental image of Coolio and Nightshade walking together, healthy and happy again.  Then it was over.  Some might say it was just my imagination, but I am convinced that Coolio's spirit was waiting for her, and that they went together to the spiritual Garden of Eden.

The graphic I used for years on eBay.  These kittens are,
of course, long ago adopted out to forever homes,
after which their mother, Chayah Cat, was spayed. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Firing Big Bird would be just the beginning for Romney

A week after the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney is still baffled as to why the Obama campaign is focusing on his "Big Bird" comment and his promise to de-fund PBS.  Once again,  rich-boy Romney shows how out-of-touch he is with average Americans.  He is apparently unaware that there are plenty of people who can't afford cable TV to access the Discovery Channel.  In many rural areas, it's not even available.  Welcome to th Digital Divide.

Romney is also apparently unaware what a goodwill ambassador Big Bird is around the world.  He and his Sesame Street friends enter the living rooms of over 120 million viewers in more than 140 countries.  Many of whom, quite frankly, are baffled as to why Romney would attack such a good show -- a show that has won more Emmys than any other children's program.  (see the New York Times blog article, Romney's attack on Big Bird sows confusion abroad and feeds it at home ).

For many lower-income families, both in America and abroad, PBS is their only access to good, commercial-free, child-safe educational programming.  I didn't grow up on Sesame Street (now I'm really showing my age) but my grandchildren have, and I can see the positive effects on their early learning.  Which is why the Obama campaign has seized on the PBS issue.  It's not just about saving Big Bird (although he has become a symbol of the debate), but about the negative values that Romney holds regarding education. 

Romney has already said he wants to do away with the Department of Education, as well as eliminate Pell grants, Head Start, and low-interest student loans.  He thinks we don't need any more teachers, that everyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and that if you want to go to college or start a business, you can just borrow the money from your parents.  (Which, in my case, would not fund much more than a lemonade stand.)  Now he wants to do away with one of the best learning tools we have.

PBS is also a good source of top-of-the-line science and nature programs like Nova and Nature, as well as specials on astronomy, physics, space exploration, evolution, and medical breakthroughs, to name a few. Some of the most amazing hummingbird footage I've ever seen came on the PBS video I got for signing up as a supporter of Nature this year.  Of course, you have to believe in the validity of science to appreciate this fine programming -- which may be why Romney's more conservative supporters hate PBS.  After all, these are the same people who don't believe in evolution (upon which all our DNA research is based) and want to teach creationism in our schools.

Which brings us to the real reason Romney went after PBS: to pander to the Far Right.  If he is any kind of an accountant, he can't really believe that cutting PBS funding will even make a scratch in the federal budget. The government money that PBS receives is less than one percent (.00014 to be exact) of the total budget -- about $1.50 per year per person.  Considering what we all get for that buck-fifty, it's a pretty good deal.  However, polls have shown that many uninformed Americans think that PBS gets a huge percentage of the national budget.  It seems Romney also thinks that, since he keeps linking PBS with "borrowing from China."  Plus, the conservatives have been trying to shut down PBS for years.  So for those who already drank the Kool-Aid, PBS is a right-wing rallying point.  In fact, Romney has been harping on PBS and Big Bird since at least December 2011 (read more on that... with examples)

After the debate, Romney said that Big Bird would survive under his administration, but he'll have to have commercials ("look at Corn Flakes" in Romney's words.)  Oh yeah -- let PBS become just like all the cable shows, pushing sugary drinks and nutritionless cereals, violent video games, toys the kids don't need, and relying on advertisers' ratings for what shows to include.  If Romney really wants to stop the flow of US cash to China, he might start with all those cheap made-in-China toys that break within days or -- even worse -- end up being toxic.

And speaking of toxic, remember that Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, don't believe that human-made pollution is causing climate change, or that fumes from coal plants are bad for your health.  (In spite of the propaganda, there is no such thing as clean coal.)  Nor do they value our national parks, about which Romney has said that he "can't see the point in them."  (He wants to make the Grand Canyon available for drilling and mining -- see "How might our national park system fare under President Romney? for more info.)  So of course, Romney would not be too thrilled that PBS ran an excellent series on the history, beauty, and benefits of our national parks.  (I suppose a guy who needs an elevator from his garage to his house doesn't do much wilderness hiking.)

One last thought:  The cost of a whole year of PBS programming is equal to only six hours of defense spending.  Frankly, I'd rather spend my $1.50 to keep on hiring Big Bird.

Cartoon courtesy of the LA Times

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Small Miracle: The Extra Lulav and Esrog

On the Festival of Sukkot (Feast of Booths), Jews not only put up the Sukkah (booth) to eat our meals in (about which I have written before) we also wave the Four Species -- palm, myrtle, willow and estrog (also spelled etrog) fruit -- in the six directions on each day of the holiday (more on the meaning of that later).  Special sets of these are imported from Israel, and must be ordered in advance.  And therein lies a tale that proves how God works in mysterious ways.

Because I live in a remote area of Minnesota, 75 miles from the nearest synagogue, the easiest way for me to get my lulav set is to order online.  A guy named shmuly770 was selling them on eBay and since I also sell on eBay, I ordered from him.  According to plan, the lulav should have arrived by UPS on or before Thursday, September 27, well in time for the holiday, which begins this year on Sunday night.

However, there was a problem with UPS being late, and on Thursday morning UPS tracking still showed the package as "in transit," with the last known station still out in California.   Shmuly was worried that I would not get my set on time and not be able to do the mitzvah.  Out of the goodness of his heart, he sent a second set by Priority Mail at his own expense -- without me even asking.  (Such a mensch!) As it turned out, both sets arrived on time   But here is WHY Shmuly had to send that extra set:

I volunteer at the federal prison just outside of Sandstone to visit Jewish inmates.  Today I am scheduled to go there to put the shchach (natural plant materials) on the sukkah that is erected each year inside the compound, and be sure everything is kosher.  (The sukkah walls can be put up by anybody, and at the prison this is done by a work crew, but the shchach must be put on by Jews.  So I always go to personally supervise this.)

When I called the chaplain's office on Friday to be sure the sukkah was up and the greens were cut, he said yes, all that was ready, but their lulav set had not arrived yet. (It was also coming by UPS).  If it came Saturday he would not be able to get it from the warehouse because it is not open on weekends.  The chaplain himself was going to be gone Monday through Wednesday, which meant the soonest he could get it would be Thursday -- three days after the holiday started -- oy vey!  (Apparently only the chaplain can retrieve packages for the chapel, for security reasons.) But YES, I could bring in and donate the extra set I "just happen" to have on hand now -- which I will do today!  So this is why my first package was late, and why Shmuly had to send me an extra set!  Such a great mitzvah!

Now for the meaning of the Four Species.  Actually, there are several interpretations (as is often the case in Judaism), but I like this one best:

The Palm is tall and beautiful but has no scent.  It represents the Jew who has scholarly learning, but is lacking in actually doing the mitzvot.

The Myrtle is a scrubby bush with a lovely scent.  It represents the Jew who has very little Torah learning, but does many mitzvahs, acts of charity, and has compassion.

The Willow has no scent, but it is flexible.  This is the Jew who has neither Torah learning nor is he (or she) observant, but has humility and bends before God like a willow.

The esrog fruit is both beautiful and has a lovely scent.  It represents the Jew who has both Torah learning and mitzvot, but may be tempted to become proud and distance him/herself from the rest of the community.

In the ceremony, the first three species -- palm, myrtle, and willow -- are bound together and held in one hand, while the esrog is held separately in the other.  Only when all four species are brought together, with the esrog touching the other three, do we have the ceremonial Four Species.  In the same way, only when all the Jews, learned or not, observant or not, come together as one, do we have the complete Jewish community.

Raindrops photo by Linda F. Palmer
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 
In addition, all four of these species grow near water, and on the first day of Sukkot we add the prayer for rain to the liturgy. The word "Hosannah" come from the Hebrew ho-sha-nah, meaning "save us now," and is taken from the Sukkot prayer for rain.  In Israel, this is normally the beginning of the rainy season, and here in Minnesota we usually get fall rains also.  However, we are in the middle of a severe drought right now and there has been no rain on my land for two months.  Israel, too, is suffering from drought.  So as I wave my lulav this year, I will indeed focus on rain for the land and water for all God's creatures who live upon it. (Strangely enough, rain often does come during Sukkot, no matter when it falls during the month.)

Wishing you all a joyous and, hopefully, rainy Sukkot.

  Chag Sameach!

Our sukkah in 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Loving Memory of My Sweet Coolio Cat

Coolio, my old white cat, passed away around one o'clock in the morning on September 22, 2012, which was both the fall equinox and Shabbat Tshuvah, the Sabbath that comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It was a very auspicious time for my 15-year-old feline friend to make his transition into the next world.

We found Coolio as a half-grown,very hungry white kitten who was hanging around our hobby farm when we moved there in the spring of 1997.  Half his tail was missing, and what was left was all broken up and bent. ( I always wondered if he had gotten caught in a trap.)  He had been stealing dog food from my neighbor's yard, but they didn't really want him.  All it took was one bowl of cat food for him to decide he was going to be ours for life.

They say that white cats don't catch as much as tabbies, because they are more visible to the mice.  Coolio must have known this, because he used to roll in the dust on our dirt road, to camouflage himself before he went hunting.  He also learned to sit on top of rocks, logs, and other perches, then patiently look down into the tall grass.  When a mouse or other prey came by, he pounced off his perch like a mountain lion and, more often than not, succeeded.  He certainly did his share of rodent control around here!

When he wasn't outside hunting, he loved to cuddle.  I used to call him "The Undercover Cat," because on chilly nights he would crawl under the covers with me, with just his head poking out against my cheek, purring softly.  In his prime he was a rather fat cat (having known hunger, he tended to overeat on whatever food was around).  Once, when he was curled up in the front room with his head tucked under his body, my grandson asked, "What is that?"  I replied, rather sarcastically, "That is a cat."   He laughed and said, "Oh, I thought it was a fur pillow!"  (Which would be a real shock in our vegetarian home.)

Coolio was indeed soft as a cuddly pillow -- so much so, that I used to sing him a silly song to the tune of "Calendar Girl," about how "I love, I love, I love, I love my Coolio Cat, Oh my sweet soft Coolio Cat..."  (What can I say?  I'm autistic, and I have this weird thing with tunes going through my head, often with new words coming out of my own brain.  Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a Broadway musical.  On the other hand, my autism has brought me much closer to my animals.)

Coolio also loved to sit in the sink.  So does his black female friend, Nightshade.  I don't know what it is about the sink that cats love so much.  I theorize that the porcelain must be cooler in the summer, and in winter it's often warm from the water that went down the drain after washing.  Nightshade is like a little heat-seeking missile who can always locate the warmest spot to curl up.  On Shabbat you can find her sitting next to the warm crock pot that holds our vegetarian Sabbath soup.

Earlier this summer I noticed that Coolio was slowing down, spending most of his time closer to home, and not eating as much.  There wasn't anything really wrong with him except old age.  I got him a bigger variety of wet foods, and learned that he preferred the kinds with fish, probably because they smell stronger.  Older cats, I read somewhere, tend to lose some of their sense of smell.  This seemed to be true with Coolio.

As he got closer to death, he slept most of the time, often on the bathroom windowsill, where the sun warmed him in the morning and he could look outside and smell the flowers and trees.  On nice days I would take him outside.  He was getting too slow and vulnerable to be out there alone, so I would sit on the porch and watch him take short walks and lie basking in the sun.  At night I would carry him upstairs with me, because he was too weak to climb the stairs by himself.  Toward the end he was pretty thin and bony, so he preferred to sleep on my bed, curled up on one of his fuzzy cat blankets.  (I did worry about incontinence, but decided it would be no worse than cleaning up after a messy human baby.  As it was, he was able to get to the upstairs catbox and never did leak.)

Some people reading this may wonder why I didn't just have him euthanized when it became  obvious he was dying.  I'm not 100% against euthanasia if an animal is severely injured or in serious pain.  But I do believe that animals have souls -- maybe not exactly like human souls, but there is a consciousness there -- and that it is best for them to die naturally whenever possible.  Coolio wasn't really suffering, he was just very old.  And he seemed to know the end was coming, as animals often do.  Had he been a wild animal, he would have crawled off in the bushes somewhere to die alone.  Because he was bonded with me, he chose to be in my room, away from the hubbub of the household but still in familiar surroundings.

On the night he died, he was lying beside me on my bed.  I don't know if he had made a noise or just moved, but I woke up and saw that the end was at hand.  As I stroked him, he purred very softly, his breathing became shallower, his heartbeat slowed.  Then he took the last breath.  I felt a few more heartbeats, and he was gone.  It was a sad moment, but also very spiritual.  I have been at the deathbed of many animals over the years (as well as a few humans), and it never seems to amaze me, this mystical thing called death.  One moment they are alive in this world, and the next moment, they are gone.  There was no Grim Reaper come for Coolio, just the soft, quiet whisper of angel wings.  I only hope that when my time comes, my death will be as gentle and easy as Coolio's was.  I miss him very much, but I also believe he is waiting for me at the foot of the Rainbow Bridge, and that one day we will go together to the spiritual Garden of Eden. 

The story of the Rainbow Bridge
(click the pic to enlarge and read it)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Harvesting Wild Plums (Prunus americana)

One good thing about the unusually warm spring we had this year: we got a great crop of wild plums.  This far north, the plum crop is rather iffy, because a late frost often kills the blossoms.  But not in 2012.  I just finished making jam, fruit leather, and wine from the fruit of our plum thicket.

Wild plums gathered on our land.
The window of opportunity for harvesting these delicious little plums is very narrow.  No sooner do they ripen, than the wind knocks them to the ground, where they are relished by various forms of wildlife.  In fact, it was my chickens who alerted me to the fact that the plums were ripe.  When the roosters find something especially good to eat, they call the hens with a very specific cackle and they all come running.  (This, by the way, is why the Talmud, Eruvin 100b, says we should learn "courtesy from the rooster" -- he lets his hens eat first.)   When I heard my chickens calling and scratching back there in the plum thicket, I knew something was up!  Chipmunks and wild birds were also enjoying the feast.

Wild plums don't keep very well, which is why you will never see them for sale in the store.  If you want to preserve them, you have to process them right away.  We usually make jam, and this year I decided to make fruit leather as well.  The normal way to extract the pulp and juice is to boil the plums and strain out the pits and skins, but this kills the seeds.  I wanted viable seeds to sell in my eBay store, The Happy Rooster, so I pitted them by hand.  A messy job! 

For fruit leather, I loaded the pitted plums, skins and all, into the food processor, set it on puree, then dried the resulting mess in my food dehydrator (which has special inserts for making leathers.  I suppose you could also do it on waxed paper in a low oven.  I'm told the Indians used to dry the pitted plums in the sun, and I've heard of people making solar food dryers.)  These plums are pretty tart, so we tried both a sweetened and non-sweetened version.  Both are delicious!

Getting a clear jelly from these plums is next to impossible, but they make a pretty good jam if you strain out the skins and most of the yellowish pulp.  I use a colander for this, since it is too thick to go through cheesecloth.  This leaves me with a pink slurry.  Following an old traditional recipe, I add one cup of sugar per cup of juice, then boil until it "seals the tines of a fork," or jells when you cool a spoonful.  (I suppose there is a proper temperature if you use a candy thermometer, but I've always done it seat-of-the-pants.)   I find there is enough pectin in the plums to jell on their own, but if you have some apple juice to add, it makes a nice combination.  If for some reason your jelly doesn't jell, you can still use it as a delicious syrup on pancakes or ice cream.

The last product I made is (or soon will be) a gallon of plum wine.  I started making my own wines when we moved to rural Minnesota, because the only kosher wine we could find here was Manischewitz grape, which is cheap and sweet for the local winos but not a vintage that I enjoy.  Over the years I've experimented with making all kinds of wines, some better than others.  Just be sure to use wine yeast, which you can order online, not baking yeast.  My last batch of plum wine was pretty good.  I'll let you know in a few months how this vintage turns out.  L'chaim!

(To add wild plums to your wildlife landscaping, either buy trees from garden catalogues or, if you have the patience to grow trees from seed, you can get seeds from my eBay store, The Happy Rooster  while supplies last.  This is a native species that grows in zones 3-7.)

Wild plum blossoms in spring.  In addition to fruit,
these trees form a thorny thicket that birds like to nest in

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hurricane Isaac: The REAL Elephant at the RNC

Denial isn't a river in Egypt anymore, it's a 500-mile tropical storm about to hit New Orleans.  For decades the Republicans have either denied that global warming exists, or played down the human causes, all in the interests of Big Oil and Big Coal.   During the Bush administration their spin doctors changed the terminology from "global warming" to "climate change," thinking that would somehow sound less threatening.  Ironically, it turned out to be more accurate, because it's not just about the planet warming up a few degrees, it's about major changes in storm patterns, ocean currents, heat waves, droughts and flooding -- all of which does not seem to make much of an impression on Republican climate deniers.

But Mother Nature marches on, and has no respect for political parties.  Consider these facts about recent storms (courtesy of the Paul Douglas Weather Column):

  •  Of the 11 most intense North Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, five have occurred in the last eight years (Wilma, Rita, Katrina, Dean and Ivan).[xii]
  • The record-breaking rainfall dumped by Hurricane Irene in 2011 was the main impact of the storm in which flooding and other damage totaled over $15 billion.[xiii]
  • Hurricane Katrina remains the costliest weather-related disaster on record (over $100 billion).[xiv]
  • Tropical cyclone Debby in June 2012 produced record-breaking rainfall across Florida, in some locations dropping over 20" of rain in 24 hours.[xv] When Tropical Storm Debby formed on June 23, it was the first time ever that four storms formed before July since record keeping began in 1851.[xvi]"
In spite of all this, and with a major storm raging outside their convention hall, I'm willing to bet there won't be one single mention of climate change at that convention -- unless it's to ridicule it.  Instead, we will be treated to fire-and-brimstone speeches about how badly Obama is handling the economy, and how Romney-Ryan will work economic miracles if they get into office.   No  doubt there will be prayers and condolences for the communities hit by Isaac, but no real grappling with the root cause of these bigger and more frequent tropical storms.  

Like the proverbial elephant in the living room, climate change is THE BIGGEST THREAT to our economy, even if the Republicans refuse to talk about it.  As noted above, these storms are very costly and their economic impact lasts for years.   Enormous numbers of homes and businesses have been lost to increasingly hostile weather conditions across the continent.  Large portions of the USA are experiencing the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, while huge areas of the Southwest are going up in flames.  No wonder the economic recovery has been so slow.  You can't blame Obama for the weather, but you CAN blame the Republican Conservatives who, for decades, have purposely misled the public into not taking global warming seriously.  Now we are facing the disastrous results. And still they want to gut the EPA, do away with pollution regulations, and continue relying on fossil fuels while cutting funds to develop newer, safer technologies.

I've never been one to read acts of God into natural phenomena, but, since the Tea Party fundamentalists are so fond of doing so, maybe it is time for them to taste their own medicine.  Is God slapping them in the face with a climate-change storm to open their eyes?  Can it be only coincidence that this storm is named "Isaac" which, on the Kabbalistic Tree, is the aspect of God's judgement?  Maybe there is a message in this storm, a wake-up call to the RNC folks that  global warming is very, very real.  Will they heed the message?  Or will they, as in the days of Noah, remain in denial until it is too late?

* * *
(If you happen to be a Republican and still think climate change is a hoax, please read this excellent article by Republican meteorologist Paul Douglas (founder of the WeatherNation Channel) about how he came to believe it is true -- and it had nothing to do with Al Gore, just science: )