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  • Dumbo, his feather and an obscure book about Mexico

    Posted on January 1st, 2011 Sheila Yair 2 comments

    elephantTwelve years ago I was standing on the edge of a great adventure. I was about to take my first real journey, my first expedition alone. I was about to become blissfully infected with the travel bug and on the brink of falling in love with Latin America. But let’s put things in their chronological order. It was Christmas and I had announced to everybody that this coming February I am taking off to Mexico for a 4 month trip. My grandmother showing her typical support of anything her grandchildren do, bought me a little book. It was an obscure little book by the title of “40 Off the Beaten Track Hikes in Southern Mexico”, or something like that. It was one of those books you could only get in the era before Barnes and Noble or Borders. It was thin with strange illustrations and not the best binding. It was a book you would find up in the attic in a box you never noticed before. A box which suddenly had a ray of sun light creep through the window and shine on it. A book you would find in a book fair in a remote little town with a weird and mysterious sales person who no one saw before. It was a book you might see in a movie about an adventure. It was the kind of book you might read about in a blog… OK, I am getting carried away, you get the picture. Anyway, like all those magical books above, I skimmed through it and put it aside. I had a lot of day dreaming to do about my up and coming trip and it was Christmas with the family and one should be somewhat sociable around his relatives during the holidays.
    Now we always say never judge a book by its cover, this of course is a metaphor but we can and should use it in a literal way on actual books. Sometimes we should not even judge a book by its content as you will see here.

    So back to the edge of the great adventure, February came along and off I went to Mexico with a backpack, a few words in Spanish I was trying hard to memorize, one run of the mill guide book and the obscure book my grandmother gave me.

    Mexico was astonishing, the colors, the sounds, the tastes. Being alone in a new and fascinating place was a true shock. I was overwhelmed by this new experience. Mexico, or perhaps it was sheer excitement, had swept me off my feet and placed me in a dazzle, in a stupor of bewilderment. It was only on the second week that I took out the little book and started reading it. But it was a totally different book now. The book that was given to me in a snowy white wintery city was now being read on a pristine white tropical beach with a turquoise sea and palms all around. The cover, on which we should not judge any book, was failing in holding the pages within, as the content was jumping out of the book. Suddenly it was not print anymore. All the places mentioned came to life. They were places that exist and not just strange sounding names. Places that have people in them, places with colonial buildings and bustling plazas. Places with beautiful mountains around them. Places with wild fields and magical rivers. There were sounds and movement instead of ink and paper. The hikes described became real and breathing, they were true adventures to long lost treasures. They metamorphosed from a series of descriptions of left and right turns to necklaces of colorful beads and gems swirling through the land.

    But this transformation was not the main quality of my book. The book became a feather to my trip. It set the trip to the sky. You see it was a very simple book with a few hikes in it, 40 to be exact, just as the title promised. How can such a simple book take a journey and hoist it? Well Dumbo’s feather was a simple device that no aviation engineer would look over twice. But it managed to get an elephant airborne.

    This book was the pretext for me getting off a bus in a junction in the middle of nowhere. This book was the excuse to take a dusty road up the hills. This book was the reason I needed, to walk on a long deserted beach. Just like Dumbo’s feather, this book gave me courage to fly. I would get up from my seat on the bus and make my way to the door, the few tourists would look at me strangely, the locals would seem amazed, even the bus driver would look bewildered wondering why a gringo would get off here in the middle of nowhere. What can he possibly look for in this dusty junction? But I had my book and it promised me some waterfall or lake or church. It gave me reason. I was not crazy, I had a feather. Dumbo too had many people look at him strangely, he had many reasons not to leave the safety provided by the ground. His species are the largest land mammals on earth, which promised him a very immense crash when he landed. But he had his feather and he flapped his ears. And there I was in the middle of Mexico flying, soaring through the air, defying the gravity of all the known touristy places, up above the conventional stops with the regular shops and the known tourist traps. I was flying free of destination, touching the very depth of Mexico, absorbed by the country, discovering its land and people. The horizon was a wing flap away and I was immersed in it.

    Sometimes I found the abandoned church, or the trail passing through small hilly villages, that the book promised. But most of the times I did not find what I was looking for. It might have been me who didn’t read the instructions, it might have been the author who wasn’t clear, or maybe just trails that changed new dirt roads that came to be or tides that whipped clear a landmark. But with every new chapter and every hike I always found something. Instead of a waterfall I found Pedro, a local farmer who was cutting wood in the forest. He did not know of any waterfall or river near by, but he took me to an amazing overlook and then invited me home to meet his family and have one of the best Mexican meals I had the whole trip. Instead of an abandoned mine I found Olivia, a very interesting hostel owner who told me countless stories of the history of the jungle and its people. Instead of a cave I found a mountain top. Instead of a delta I found the perfect desolate beach. Instead of a toucan nest I found an emerald lake.

    You see it really didn’t matter if I found the trail or the village or the waterfall, I was flying and finding things with every step. It wasn’t the book’s cover nor even it’s content, it was its presence that kept me drifting. There was no specific destination, there was just the courage to journey. We can argue forever about which is more important, the feather or the flapping ears, the physics or the philosophy of them both. But that would be missing the point. It is the flying we should concentrate on. An elephant with a feather or one without are very similar but the difference between an elephant on the ground and one that flies is vast. Would any one of us play a lottery that had no prize? Would we go and buy a ticket and carefully fill in the numbers to a draw that promised the grand total of $0? Of course not, just writing this as an example seems weird and illogical. But would we play a lottery with a fraction of a millionth of a percent chance of a grand prize? Millions do. The mathematical difference between zero and a fraction of one millionth of a percent is insignificant. But the difference between hope and no hope, between $50 million and $0, sends millions of people with a dollar and a dream off playing week after week month after month. The feather, the book, the mathematical probability, they don’t have to be of significance, of great physical force or presence. They just have to make us believe, to give us the excuse to leave the ground. By nature we all have flapping ears. I don’t mean we all look like Prince Charles. We all have the longing to fly but we also have the creative ability to do so. We just don’t always have the feather or faith to attempt it. We can all fly, whether it is on a trip, in our career, in our community, with an invention, or any creative endeavor we take on. We just have to recognize the feathers.

    A few years ago my girlfriend and I were riding comfortably on the bus of life. We had good seats up front, cushioned by good jobs, an apartment, friends and all other conveniences that modern life offers. But the trip had become stale and a bit predictable. So we got up to leave the bus. Everybody around us was shocked. They all said it is a great idea to go traveling and how they wish they could do it too, but in between the lines you saw their bafflement. The thoughts of us being crazy were swirling around every false salutation, choking every fake smile, strangling every fake word of encouragement. Like the busses in Mexico, the bus of life looked at us peculiarly as we got off. But there we were traveling through Europe, the Middle East and India. Roaming through organic farming, goat husbandry and bread baking. Climbing mountains and crossing valleys. Flying through the fascinating things life and this planet have to offer. I won’t go in to much detail as I have written extensively of our adventures in this blog. I will just say that what we have done and seen are priceless.

    These days we got back on the bus of life. The funny thing is, that the bus of life never really changes that much. Sure we don’t have our prime seats, our cushions are not quite as comfortable, but it is defiantly bearable. Aside from that, not much else has changed. Our friends, our family, work all is there in the same place. Almost as if we never left. You see you never really miss life, it is always catchable and always at reach if we find the courage. I guess I am saying there are much more excuses than feathers but it shouldn’t stop us. Any moment that is not spent flying in one way or another is a moment wasted. And wasting any finite resource is a shame.

    Dedicated to my brother Yigal, who has been flying for several years now in quest of knowledge. Sometime through rough weather, sometimes alone, but always forward.

  • Windows and the cavemen

    Posted on December 30th, 2010 Sheila Yair 2 comments

    leaf I was kayaking down Conesus Lake in upstate New York. Every now and then I managed to get my eyes off the tantalizing water and its intricate reflection of the sky, clouds and colors of the evening sunset broken in silky patterns of the lightest waves. As I looked up, I saw many houses with huge windows. At first it didn’t make sense. Why have big windows? They are hard to insulate. You can’t hang pictures on them. They compromise the privacy of your home and are not as strong as walls.

    But on second glance I saw a longing in each of these huge windows. A necessity.
    This necessity to feel outside while indoors threw me back many years to some ancient memories. Not my own memories but those of mankind. Memories from when the Homo sapiens just started building the human house.

    When our first ancestors climbed off the trees, they encountered the first element of the human house, the floor. It was an amazing perspective, here is this great surface lying beneath you, pushing you just as hard as you push it, creating a supportive surface, producing a vast land of opportunities (the original one). The ultimate infrastructure beneath your every step, beneath your every aspiration. As many new technologies, it was offered for free as a beta version for whoever was willing to test it out. And test it out they did. Climbing off the trees, with their first steps, they were about to form a new species forever tied with this new concept. It was a perfect time to proclaim one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind, but both man and mankind were just forming, and the terms were still a ways a way from being coined, so it was saved for a great conquest of a different floor. This floor, albeit being comfortable for those first humans, was much more than just a sole of a shoe supporting their first steps, it was fertile with life and plants, it climbed high with the mountains, dove deep with the valleys, channeled the wind, absorbed rain and reflected the sky. Those first men found the ground solid and knew they encountered, pardon the pun, solid ground for their development. And off to develop they did. The floor was the first step but being the hungry-for-change species that they were they started looking for more. The second step was the wall, the forest, the hills, the cliffs all provided some protection from the elements and allowed this newly forming species to rest a bit and contemplate their progress.

    Then one day, low and behold, opportunity comes knocking on human development (it would have knocked on the door but doors were not invented yet). Like every great discovery, man stumbled on this one. It is truly a beautiful occurrence when technology is built on technology, like a brick on a brick until there is a wall. One man discovers steam, another one invents the steam engine. One man invents a computer another invents a monitor and mouse and yet another invents some useful software. That is what happened that day that opportunity was looking for a human door to knock on. That day man has stumbled upon a cave. Now the floor technology was going very well, if the first version had man sheepishly and hesitantly walking, the newer versions have him running, dancing and hunting. But here man has stumbled upon something that will take this floor concept a giant leap, leaps and bounds one might say. To the floor was added a few walls and to that the new revolutionary element in the human house, the ceiling. Now we were talking about all three dimensions, we are talking about a bundle of different elements working together. Man saw the cave and thought, man cave, cave man, and he liked the way it sounded. Today very few of us would move in to a house before it is finished. We would not think of starting to move our furniture while the contractor and builders are still putting up the walls. But for humanity this was all new and exciting and they saw no logic in waiting. So in humanity went. No more rainy days, no more cold or heat. Man has found his home. And so the earth lay peaceful for a while, and man was content.

    Another interesting thing to see is how a certain technology is invented for something but then evolves and is used for something totally different. When man first saw the cave he thought of protection but as he moved in he started feeling his first notions of possession. And man enjoyed that feeling greatly. The land was much too vast to own anything in it. That was back in those days, it has shrunk and lost that trait ever since. A hill, a river or a tree were much to wild to posses, but a cave could be all yours. The cave also enabled man to start taking more charge of his own life. He could now store food and water, he could bare the harsher elements. Humankind was not a baby anymore, it was rapidly entering its childhood. Man liked this feeling of ownership and with the cave came more possibilities of possession. You could have ‘things’ now and store and collect them. Your food, your hunting spears, your leopard and zebra skin outfits. The word ‘mine’ has found man and man embraced it with great gusto. So now there was a need, for the first time, to protect what was his. So man went ahead and built that last wall sealing him from the world. The animals could not help but wonder where this strange creature who throws spears at us was. You see that last wall was built with not much foresight. Man has trapped himself in his beloved cave with his new belongings. Neanderthals have developed alongside Homo sapiens this whole time, making the same advancements and steps. But here was the splitting point. The humans managed to quickly invent the door and save their race from one of its closest calls. Neanderthals did not come up with a solution to their entrapment and vanished off the face of the earth. With time man learned to build his caves detached of the mountains. He would build them anywhere and from a vast array of materials. But the basics where always kept, the floor, the ceiling and the walls with a door. The doors were very small at first allowing only the desired people in or out but with time they grew bigger and bulkier with locks and chains and wooden beams. The more time advanced the more the door had to protect behind it. It held its ever important purpose of separating the inside from the outside, separating what’s mine and what is not, the individual from society. Windows were also added at some point. They where big enough to allow you to shoot arrows or collect intelligence, but were always limited so as to not break the solitude and protection of the human house. Things ran their course for a while but man was missing his cave in the pre-wall era. He was missing watching nature, seeing the sky and the seasons. But by now man has developed a distinct taste and many of the items in his cave are very sensitive and delicate and don’t mix well with the elements. He needed a partial porter, a barrier that would block the outside but not its vista. Man was in his young adulthood and his command of materials was impressive. Glass was recruited for the task and eventually the windows got bigger and bigger.

    I will admit, myself, there are times when a closed house, fully protected from the elements, is convenient. Over this summer we were living in a rural up-state area without a car. We were 3 miles from the nearest town, 6 miles from the nearest supermarket and 30 miles from the nearest city. Without any public transportation we reverted to walking and riding our bikes to conduct our business. Cars make our world small and it was nice to be in a big world for a while. It was partly because the lake is so beautiful and is hard to leave, so why have a car, partly because I can just hear my mom being very proud, and of course partly because it is always nice to save a buck or two while minimizing your carbon footprint. One of these days I was riding from Rochester to Geneseo, a good 30 mile ride. It started pouring on me from the first mile and didn’t rest for a single inch of the ride. By the time I got to Geneseo, I was wetter than the lake itself. Thousands of rain drops have found their way to me and settled on my cloth, bike and skin making us all one big canteen. It was very nice to slip into something dry as I had a hot soup and warm toast. I could watch the rain and hear it but I was out of its range. I was inside but still immersed in the outside. I was in my cave but longingly watching nature out the window.

    For as much as we have developed. With all our advancements and inventions, we still miss the time we were walking our first steps connected to our mom, mother earth. We still yearn for the era where we have not yet invented worries, careers, time and trouble. We were as free and as curious as little children. We have worked hard to disconnect ourselves from nature to build our own world with our own things and our own identity, to distance ourselves from our mother. But one can never fully detach himself from his parents. And so we try to connect again every time we look through one of our big windows, subconsciously we remember the time of our first cave, longing for the lost innocence of paradise, for the warm embrace of nature.

  • The age of information

    Posted on November 3rd, 2010 Sheila Yair 14 comments

    glassesI am sitting here at my friends’ house admiring their one-year-old daughter. As I am watching her, the actual her, there is also a video of her at 6 months playing in the background. Now, this little girl has about a year of existence under her belt (if she could wear one), but around a year and a half worth of documentation. It would take you about a year and a half to go through all the videos and pictures of her. Well putting first time parents pride aside, I am trying to describe the amount of pixels this little creature has already indirectly has created. I can’t even start to estimate the number. But as I am contemplating this, a flash goes off and another 8 million pixels come in to existence. Now, only 35 years ago when the first digital camera was put to the test in the Kodak labs, it took 20 seconds to generate a 10 kilo pixels image. So there was probably less than a mega pixel present on the face of this planet. I can’t begin to imagine the number of pixels my friend has but can anyone even try to estimate the number of pixels existing in the whole world? And I have just talked about images, what about all the text oriented information? The video? The charts?

    We are swimming in an ever-increasing ocean of bites and pixels.

    The difference between oceans of data and information is accessibility. Google, Microsoft, yahoo and others have made fortunes realizing this. Your data is only as valuable as its accessibility. I could have all the answers in the world, all of them, even the big ones, but if I can’t match them to the questions then really all I have is a pile of yes, no and make a left on the next traffic light. I mean here I have an answer, “Yes”, but if I don’t know if it is to, “is there a god?”, or, “is it my turn again to throw out the garbage?”, I really have nothing. So on that pretext, I begin my story on information.

    We were heading back to the U.S. from Italy and we got one of those connection flights, switching in Frankfurt. Upon arrival in Newark we went to my Aunt and Uncle’s house. That evening was dedicated to talk and battling jetlag. The next day it was time to show a few pixels. We had been on the road for almost a year and a half and in our many iniquities, we accumulated quite a few pixels. So out comes the laptop, and as I try to plug it in I notice the plug is a little difficult in fitting. But as I turn the machine on I am prompt to sign in as Clive. It takes me a second to realize what happened here. The first theory was of a virus taking over the computer. But that lasted for a half of a second. I then thought maybe Sheila created a new user and deleted us as users. But that also was in the split second group as far as existence. I then realized the inevitable. This was not our laptop. As we went through security and took out our laptop a switch has occurred. Now if I was sporting one of those trendy air books it would be one thing, but I am one who never quite understood the concept of a laptop. The totally incongruous name aside, a laptop should be portable, hence small and light weight. Having lived in New York City for a long time I dislike cramped spaces, even if it is a screen. So I carry an 18 inch dead weight around which I call a laptop. But here in line to security in Frankfurt, right behind me or in front of me is standing another person with the same misguided concept of what a laptop should be. And he or she is even carrying a product of the same making. What are the chances?

    So here we are with a little bit of data, which we will try to convert into information. Especially the whereabouts of my precious pixels from a year and a half of traveling.
    OK Sherlock what do we have? Well not too much- we have a first name, ‘Clive’. OK don’t panic, this is the age of information. So off we go to look for Clive on Facebook, only 30,000. A first name is not the best search term but we narrowed it from 7 billion people to possibly 30,000. Next we know it happened on the Air India flight going to Newark. So we call both Air India and Newark to see if anybody has reported a missing laptop. Newark is a maze of phone numbers that lead to other numbers, that finally get to a voice message of a very honest Sargent who quite simply tells you he is totally overworked and the airport police understaffed, so he can’t really get to this phone nor listen to the messages too often, but you should never the less leave a detailed description of the item you have lost. Well we are still in pitch dark here as far as the case goes, so we leave that detailed message. Then we come up with the bright idea of calling the laptop maker. Who ever dealt with databases knows that every table in a database has a key, one unique definition every row of information that makes it easy to locate. And while we only have a first name for our computer holder, we do have the serial number of his or her computer which the company can easily locate, thus having access to their address and having the ability to put in contact the two misfortunate parties and have them both retrieve their lost computers. Ah, the beauty of turning raw data to valuable information, these are the moments that put smiles on database administrators, the moments that make this great age of information worthwhile. Well in order not to disclose the computer manufacturer I will only use their initials, so I will refer to them as HP.

    Off to the phone we go barley able to contain our excitement at solving this little case. As we call this HP Company’s customer service we are very quickly disenchanted. We realize immediately that we are talking to the country from where our airline originated. Yes this is one of those many off shore calling centers that take half an hour just to understand your problem. It then takes you about half an hour to try and decipher the reply. The woman on the other line tells us she cannot do anything for us and we should go to the local police station and report it. “They will get your computer back”, she assures us in her very heavy accent. I can just see the clerk’s face in Morristown New Jersey as I explain to him about my mishap in Frankfurt Germany and ask if he can do anything. “Why sir that is horrible, I am dispatching three units right away. We are also going to have to involve some FBI units on this one, as it is international. Heck we might as well get MI-6 and the Mosad in on this you don’t know how big this might get.” Well off we go to the local police station. “They will get it back for you”, echoes in our heads. The police officer at the desk is very nice and does a great job not bursting in laughter as we ask him what can we do. Well he lets us fill in a form and he even assigns a case number to it.

    So back to calling India. Some times in a database you have certain tables that are confidential, restricted, password protected. We know where the data is, we can almost see it, so hopefully this case number will be the password that makes it available to us. In India another representative answers and again tells us the local police is best to deal with this. We inform her that we went there already and even have a case number. She says she can’t give us private information like that. I tell her I do not want any information, just call Mr. Clive and give him all my information and tell him I have his laptop. No can do. She says that maybe if the local police station calls them she might be able to talk with them. At this point I stop being polite about this whole local police option and explain to her that the local police are not going to do anything. This happened in Germany and they have nothing to do with this. I am forced to draw my last card, the all mighty, “let me talk to your supervisor.”

    The offshore representative: My supervisor can’t talk to you right now.

    Me: I’ll wait (it’s an 800 number going all the way to India).

    The offshore representative: He will tell you what I told you.

    Me: I still want to talk to him.

    The offshore representative: He doesn’t want to talk to you.

    Me: You mean to tell me HP customer service is refusing to talk to a customer? Can you say that again because I am going public with this one.

    The offshore representative: …OK, a supervisor will call you back.

    A little like those automated menus, if you are stubborn enough you eventually will talk to someone. So now a person from the U.S. actually calls us. Of course each time we have to go through the whole story describing the incident. He tells me it is a breach of privacy and that the best I can do is open a ticket and give HP consent to hand over my information if and when Clive calls them. Let’s assume Clive does call you guys, and complains, do you really think someone will put the two cases together and say hey lets get these two people talking? No the supervisor admits. Well then, ‘Why do you even suggest this as the solution?’ I think to myself. I reiterate that I do not want any information, I just want HP to inform Clive of the whereabouts of his laptop. I ask the supervisor if he wouldn’t be glad to hear from somebody if he were to lose his computer? He admits he would but stands firm on the fact that it would be a breach of privacy. He is in eternal loop mode now, and he will give me the same answer until I hang up. I tell him I am very disappointed with his company and the level of their customer service, “it is a breach of…”, he replies. I part with a polite and aggressive mid sentence hang-up. These companies won’t think twice before sending you promotional material or even sending your email to other companies. But to inform you someone has found your laptop, well that would breach your privacy. Well how is one to read all their non-privacy breaching promotional spamming if he doesn’t have his computer?

    My uncle, who works for a company that deals with this HP company extensively, says he will try and get one of the big players over at HP to help us. The only thing he comes back with is that the computer was purchased in the United States. That’s not a huge help, but it is good to know.

    Well it seems we are back to square one with only a first name. OK, the other party involved here is the airline. We are a little sick of the phone by now, and decide on a house call, an actual visit to the airlines offices in Manhattan. Yes let’s see if the personal touch will get more results.

    So Sheila goes in to the lions den to see if she can meet with someone who is a little less of a privacy advocate and is actually willing to help two lost computers find their way home. At this point it has been three days, we have not heard anything from the nice Sargent at Newark, we have exhausted the HP possibility and the local police not surprisingly has filed our case in the paper recyclable bin. Since we had Sheila’s name and last name on our login screen we figured Clive will have a much easier time finding us than we him. Sheila does only have about 6 cousins and 2 aunts who are named exactly as her, right down to the middle name. Don’t even ask about that, it’s an Irish thing. So we posted a message on her Facebook wall and made it public. We even opened a tweeter account and tweeted our distress. But there is a sea of information out there and Clive has shown no sign of life. I start thinking we will never see our computer again, with all our software, images, music etc. Oh well at least we have another computer to reformat and start over with.

    So back to Sheila at the Air India office. She is greeted by a very nice representative. She reservedly describes our predicament along with all our efforts to retrieve information. The representative takes pity on Sheila and starts ticking away at he computer. Yes there was a Clive on your flight, she informs her along with his last name. It seems he booked his ticket through Expedia, let me call them. You know how when your stuck in a traffic jam, moving 5 inches in 15 minutes and all of a sudden it clears and opens up, those few first moments of blissful moving, that energy of actually propelling the car at the speed it was built for. Well that was the feeling as information about Clive started to appear. His full name, his email, a phone number. It is the information super highway, the Clive one, we have been waiting so long to ride. Sheila, sure that this information won’t be shared with her, whips out her eyeliner. She secretly writes all this down in nervous bulky shaky letters. Once off the phone, the representative happily hands over to Sheila all the details. She tells her the phone number is an Indian one, probably of the agent who booked the ticket, the email also looks very abstract and random. But beggars can’t be choosers and this information is a huge leap in the case.

    We go back to the internet and this time our search results are narrowed down to two. There is one Clive in Illinois and one in New Orleans. Now this is a data set that is manageable. We search for any contact information about these two Clives but to no avail. At this point my aunt steps in and suggests we try the 10 digit number, it might not be from India. Sometimes you are so busy trying to solve something while the solution is right there in front of you staring at you. Low and behold the area code is none other but New Orleans. Can it be? Can this be the closing to the case? With trembling fingers we dial the number. It is an answering machine with a British accent. Well that is promising since the Clive in New Orleans is of British decent according to the internet. We leave a message describing our peculiar situation and ask if this might be the right Clive. After less than a minute there is a call back. It is him. He was very tired and busy and didn’t even unpack his bags yet. So while we were jumping through hoops, pulling out our best detective skills, he didn’t even know he lost his computer. We exchanged addresses and shipped our wrong computers off. After a few days our laptop is back home along with all the pixels and bites we love so much. Elementary my dear Watson, we started with 7 billion people brought it down to 300 million then to 30 thousand then 2 and then one. The age of information, where data is flowing everywhere and occasionally put together as some useful information.

  • Of wwoofing and online dating

    Posted on July 14th, 2010 Sheila Yair 10 comments

    wwoofThere are some striking similarities between these two supposedly very different features of modern life. The first one is the fact that when asking someone whether he or she has participated or done one or the other, in both cases the answer would probably be no. With wwoofing that is probably correct since very few people do actually go and break their back for some valuable experience in a field, pardon the pun, where everybody knows there is no money to be made, a career where the more you do, the deeper in debt you get. With online dating, likewise, most people will claim no participation. That of course presents a statistical improbability because the dating sites are filled with profiles, photos, updated photos and newly revised updated profiles. Likewise the membership fees are being paid by somebody.

    In these next few paragraphs I will show some more similarities, as we have been wwoofing for the last three months. Since of course as the rest of us, I never had anything to do with online dating I will base my knowledge on, ahh a good friend who did it, yeah a very good friend of mine who has lots of online experience. Yes and just for the record, I am aware of a certain impersonator who has had my photo with a description very similar to myself up on one of those sites. I am looking for that guy, and he has a huge lawsuit coming his way, but he conveniently left only my email on the profile, which makes it hard to track him down. But anyway, of course none of you came across it since you don’t…

    Anyway the core principle of both comes down to the fact that you are trying to attract someone for a very major mutual purpose through a few modest lines of text. I mean you want to find the one person you are maybe going to spend the rest of your life with, the one you will be with more than your parents, friends and relatives all through a little photo and some sentences about what you like to do. Even if you take the term literarily and just plan on dating you are still getting involved with another person, with a total stranger who you might let in to your car your house or even your life. That is quite a big ordeal to fit in a few lines of text. You are painting a whole house with a toothbrush so every bristle counts. With wwoofing it is the same, you are a farmer who is going to rely on total strangers to take care of your goats or to pick your tomatoes or to clear your vineyard. You will let them in to your farm, your business, all based on some online copy. So you have a very small hook to try and fish a big one.

    wwoof2You see from the get go we are dealing with a non linear challenge here. There is a lot at stake in both scenarios and we only have very limited means at our disposal. Thus the words themselves take on a nonlinear character. In accordance with the imbalance between resources and final goal, the words themselves start signifying more than their meaning. When we say for example in an ad that we are an active person we mean we do go on a hike once a year. If we really wanted to describe ourselves as active we would need to use the term very active or extremely active. A farm that says ‘family atmosphere’ means you might get to eat indoors with the family. If you actually want a warm family you have to look for the word, ‘extremely warm’ or, ‘we will integrate you in our lives’. That will probably mean someone will talk to you after work hours. ‘The farmer speaks five languages’, means he knows the local language plus, ‘how are you’ in two other tongues. So in both cases we have to utilize our good friend exaggeration.

    Due to the limited opportunity to impress, one other crucial tactic is everything is only good. We need to sell ourselves, because we do not want to date someone unworthy or have a lousy wwoofer feeding our sheep. So nothing, I mean absolutely nothing is wrong. If you are unemployed, well you are currently seeking private ventures or are in the midst of a brave career change. If you are totally unsocial, well you are unique. Overweight is curvy, unattractive is intelligent etc. exactly the same on the farm side of things. ‘Lots of interesting activities’ means hard 10 hour days where the chores are never ending. ‘Beautiful countryside surroundings’ means you will be 8 miles from the nearest village and good luck if you need the internet. ‘We prefer working by hand’, well remember that you are the hand so that means even though there is a tractor it is much cheaper to send you with the load of olive branches.

    The next important thing to remember is that you want to stand out. Everybody is looking for a date or a free farm hand. Italy itself has a 50 page list of farms. That almost qualifies as a novel. Is there a single wwoofer who read the whole list? I doubt it. A search for a decent good-looking intelligent person in the ages 35-40 yields about two thousand to three thousand possibilities, depending on which site you are using, your friend I mean, and how far you are willing to travel. Well that too is quite a lot of reading material. You might find yourself outside the realm of dating by the time you read them all. So people list what is special or unique about themselves. If you are into avant-garde German movies from the 1930’s and find yourself watching them daily you might for the sake of compatibility mention it in your ad. Here for example are a few farms that put this last technique to very good use.

    “In the heart of the Tosca Emiliano Appennines at an altitude of 1000 m we try to live in harmony with the sky, the sun, the animals, the woods and each other. We are part of the community of the Elves”.

    “The World Peace Garden, two hectares (6 acres) of organically cultivated fruit and olive trees, vineyard and vegetable gardens. The Garden is a New Time Land Base using the 13 Moon 28 Day Galactic Synchronometer. It’s aim is self-sufficiency and the practical application of the Law of Time, a means of reharmonizing the mind to natural cycles. The social organisation is according to the Dreamspell Earth Families. Living structures include small limestone trulli and lamie”.

    “This is a nudist farm but WWOOFers do not have to participate. Help needed with the olive harvest (November/ December), in the vegetable garden during the summer”.

    wwoof3Well now that you have exaggerated as much as possible, listed all your shortcomes as amazing traits, and thrown some uniqueness in to the mix it is time to wrap it all up with a photo. The human being is a graphic creature. Even those of us who think of themselves as non-graphic, we always gravitate towards the picture. A picture is worth a thousand words, well we look at the picture for a few good seconds before we even notice those thousand little words. National geographic, marvel comics, the funnies they have all cached in on that characteristic mannerism of humans. This might be argued as the most important part of the profile. This is where most people will put great emphasis. And as with the words there are also tricks to be had with the images. We have all heard, from our online dating acquaintances, about people who have a 10 year-old photo on their ad and when you meet them they look like the parent of the person in the picture. Was it just neglect or forgetfulness? I think not. We all know the tricks, a hat hiding a forehead that almost reaches the back of the neck, a fuzzy face shot a picture of two very different looking people without mentioning who is the one in the ad. I mean my poor friend has seen it all. There are even, believe it or not, people who post no photo and just leave the default cartoon outline of a face. Do they really think they will get any responses? Not to be shallow, I know looks are not everything, but you are making a big decision here and you want all the facts. Would you answer a help wanted ad that had no mention of the salary or what you would be expected to do? “ A really great job, really you will love this. This is what you were looking for, call us 1 800 blk hole”.

    Well with the wwoof list you do not place photos but you are allowed to have links to your web site which will be filled with lovely images of kid goats, fruit trees in bloom and yellow wheat fields. No pictures of logs being hauled or 60 goats being milked by hand or acres and acres of vegetables being weeded. And sure if the farm is a little run down go ahead and stick a picture from the 80’s when that coat of paint looked really fresh. All is fair in love and wwoof.

    But the similarities do not stop there. There is the responder, the person who liked the ad, the wwoofer who actually wants to work on your farm. Well again we are confronted with a major persuasion campaign through a limited amount of text. You like the person or the farm but you don’t know how many replies they get and you want to be noticed. So all the same methods from above apply. We have found ourselves claiming to have lots of farm experience (you know, we have been to several farmers markets). We claimed we work very well with animals (there are many squirrels in central park). We love the country side (why we have been living in New York City for years), etc. But at times we had to brace ourselves and curb the exaggeration because both to a farm or a date you do not want to seem over enthusiastic. Heaven forbid they might think you are desperate.

    So, to our first farm whose ad read as follows,

    “60 hectare farm with pasture, olives, vines, 130 sheep, goats, pigs and a vegetable garden. There is also a small campsite, guestrooms and a restaurant. We produce cheese and pasta (with our own label) and offer cooking classes.”

    We wrote back that we love goats and cheese have worked in a bakery and on several farms and are very hard workers. Well we figured with that many goats and sheep, a restaurant and a cheese label we were bound to learn some good food teachings. I have already written in this blog how that worked out. Yes that was a nice lure they had there, very colorful and runs on the water just like a tasty bug, we swallowed it hook and all. We didn’t fall in to that trap, we jumped in, head first. So we learned that these ads should be read with a grain of salt, heck read it with the whole salt shaker. Our next ad was someone who undersold himself. We were looking for a smaller farm, no label no restaurant, just a down to earth farmer who want some help.

    “Il Trebbio is a 40 hectare farm situated in the Casentino valley at an altitude of 500 m where Federico, Caterina, Stella, (8 years old) & Mohammed cultivate olive trees (400) and cereal and forage crops for their goats and pigs.”

    wwoof4The ad seemed like a no frills farm. We were on the rebound and anything would do. We wrote that we were available and looking for a farm. At the train station there was this online date feeling that my friend has described to me, you are waiting for a stranger in a public place. You are not sure what he or she looks like and you start looking at all the faces, especially of those who are lingering. Is that guy leaning on the wall the one? How about this one who looks as if he is looking for someone? Should I walk up and ask them if they are Federico? Should I just sit there? What is he going to be like? We already agreed that if the farm wasn’t good we would leave after one day. We have an excuse prepared much like a person who has an emergency call ready to be made in case the date goes bad, “ahh I am so sorry it is my work I have to go…”. Federico arrives and picks us up. He is not the chattiest person, but we are on the rebound. Awkwardness is expected on a first date. We arrive at the farm and he shows us to our room. It is a beautiful room with a big bed, exposed wooden beams, antique furniture and attached private bathroom. We came from a tiny caravan with a 400 meter walk to the shared toilets. Yes this date has taken a turn for the better. Caterina and Federicao are lovely people, they are funny and interesting and very nice. We have many common things to talk about. We fold the pre-arranged excuse nicely and tuck it away, we won’t be needing it here. The days on the farm are long but there is not much to do as Federico has a very efficient system with the animals. Most of the time we follow him around asking if we can do anything? To which he usually replies “it is all pretty much taken care of”. So we do as he does and stare with admiration at the animals. He has the most beautiful goats and he treats them all like pets. They are very used to people and often come up to you for a pat. We spend a lot of time at the kids’ pen where the little ones are exceptionally playful. It sure beats hauling a ton of olive branches for a cold unappreciative farmer. It is very hard to leave this farm but we have come for dating and we do not want any long term relationships for now.

    We go on two more ‘dates’, in central Italy and in the south. One of the farmers is a walking encyclopedia and he teaches us all about bees, goats, cheese making and alfalfa growing. It is all in Italian so we try hard to keep up. If we could only have real life subtitles. But nevertheless we learn a lot from the 20% we do understand. The other farm is in the very south of the heel of Italy. A different country, very Mediterranean and extremely laid back. There were days where we asked the farmer if we should milk the goats and he said, not today it is already late or to hot or there is no cereal for them. They were very warm and hospitable but laidback almost to a point of neglect with the animals, the 40 goats and the pack of 9 scraggily skinny dogs.

    Although we were only in four places and only for three months, we have seen many diverse ways of running a farm. Many distinct ways of husbandry and cheese making. Many different attitudes towards life and working the land and producing food from it. We have worked through the seasons from the snow patches in Tuscany to the hot dry days of Puglia. From a farmer waiting for the rain to stop so he can put his potatoes in, through a farmer who cut the hay and hopes there will be no surprise rain shower, to a farmer who has all he’s vegetables coming up in march and is actually stocking up on hay for the bone dry summer months. We have worked through emotions from neglect and coldness to openness and friendship. We made cheese, bread, pasta, honey, syrup, lemon curd, along with cultivating olives, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, green leaves and peppers. We fed and took care of goats, sheep, horses, cows, chickens and pigs. We have journeyed through the labor of our legs, hands and backs to where our foods are born, to where all our recipes’ ingredients originate. We were dating mother earth for a good three months.

  • A simple pizza recipe

    Posted on June 7th, 2010 Sheila Yair 6 comments

     pizzaPizza is one of Italy’s greatest successes. It is probably the most recognizable symbol of Italy. With all due respect to Michael Angelo, Da Vinci, the architecture, Rome and all its emperors, Vivaldi, Verdi, Porsche, Ferragamo etc. (I will run out of virtual ink here if I go on) the pizza is by far more present in our day to day life. What entered your conciseness first as you were just beginning to recognize and categorize the world around you? Was it the Sistine chapel or pizza? Was it a Vespa or a slice of melted cheese over tomato sauce and crust? And needless to ask here which one had you desired more. But even as adults the pizza plays a big part in most of our daily existence. A big $1.50 part. Even a classical violinist probably is confronted with pizza as often as he or she is with the fine notes of the four seasons. A car enthusiast sees that cheesy treat more often than an Alfa Romeo, Fiat or Ferrari.

    So all that said, here is a simple recipe to make this fine example, pillar should I say, of Italian culture. The great thing about pizza is that you can make it as simple or elaborate as you want. It is like a platform, a base, on which you can set off your culinary imagination and let it run wild. For this one, the ingredients are fairly simple as we are making a simple pizza. So all you need is a little plot of land, some water and plenty of sun. This is the point where some of you are scratching their heads, but I implore you to read on. By the end of this post a pizza shall be had. So you want to start at least 5 years ahead of the desired serving date, 5 years before your planed pizza party (for those of you who hate planning you can give or take a few days). At which point you should go ahead and plant two olive trees (note that if your plot is big it would be highly advisable to plant more than two trees). The olive tree is quite an amazing one. It is tightly intertwined with human civilization. It was one of civilizations first accomplishments as the cultivation of olives, or evidence of such has been found as far back as eight thousand years ago. It is very strong, bares fruit for hundreds of years, needs very little water and is highly resistant to pests. So for very little effort on your part it will grant you the best oil known to man and as if that is not enough some fine aperitifs. The latter can also be used as a pizza topping. Since we are talking about food I won’t get in to the wood qualities and how perfect it is for sculpturing and carving little souvenirs for tourists. Great, so we planted two or more of this extremely efficient and valuable tree. Now we wait for a few years, it will be between 3 to 4 years before the olive bares fruit. But we don’t have to sit and twiddle our thumbs. We can prune the trees to make sure they grow evenly and get enough light on all branches. We can turn the ground around them and fertilize them. We can even water them to help them through the first few vulnerable years. Make sure you collect all the branches and leaves you cut, we will use them later in this recipe.
    Ok now we are two years before our pizza dinner, it is time to get a goat. Note that a cow is also possible and can be substituted here according to taste. I will stick to the goat since this is a simple pizza and a cow would be slightly more difficult to raise and keep. Now goats like olives are also amazing. They are the first animal man has domesticated. Albeit being domesticated for the longest time, they are still by far the most curious of farm animals. They are very intelligent, they bond with their fellow farmer and they can eat most any plant, even some thorny specimens us humans don’t dare touch. Now this is one of the best parts of this recipe, so enjoy it. You raise the goat, taking care of it, feeding it, taking it out to pasture, seeing it interact with nature and watching it grow. The goat will become a companion of yours, you can confide in her and she will listen to most of what you have to say. It will require daily attention but soon you will find it hard to imagine life without a goat. This recipe is getting better and better isn’t it. Ok we are one year before the pizza, mmm I can already smell it. The olives trees have olives and the goat has matured and it is time to get her pregnant, like any mammal, she won’t produce milk otherwise. So as you harvest your olives, look for a good Billy goat to get your cheese process started. A goat will usually be pregnant for 150 days, it is a very precise animal when it comes to gestation. We are getting closer and closer.

    At this point the recipe will split in to two. Depending on where you live, or rather in which climate you find yourself and your plot of land. If it is a very cold climate you want to plant your wheat the spring before the pizza. That way you can harvest it in the summer or fall and save it for the big event. If you live in a warm environment you can wait till late winter, plant the wheat and have it ready right around pizza time. If you are not sure which climate you are in consult the nearest thermometer, you do not want temperatures below freezing once the wheat has sprouted. I feel a bit like a broken record but I am obligated to say of wheat that it also is an incredible plant. Extremely nutritious while also being the source of flour which can be the base of many great dishes. The wheat once again is one of the first crops man has cultivated and it is one of the first signs of civilization. Makes you wonder, is it just a coincidence that the basic ingredients of a pizza were the first crops to jump start civilization, was civilization just a means to realize a subconscious human desire for pizza? Or is pizza the end result of any civilization, is it the base of progress? Were these last ten thousand years of science, war, art, technology, religion, politics etc. only about pizza? That is definitely food for thought but lets go back to food for digestion. Lets do some math here. An acre of wheat yields around 26 bushels of grain. A little less if you are using older varieties, but lets use the above as a guideline. 26 bushels should put you in the capacity of making about 1400 loaves of bread. Since we are only making one pizza we really just need around 4 square meters of wheat for our crust. But since this is such a basic product with so many possibilities attached to it we should probably plant some more. Go ahead and plant according to your own consumption. Make sure you turn the ground thoroughly and leave no weeds, we want the wheat to grow with as little competition as possible.

    It was all fun and games up to now, but here is where we are going to have to multi-task. Like every good cook we are going to have to carefully plan everything so that it is all ready at the same time, I mean if we have everything but the cheese or everything but the sauce we really do not have a pizza. So let’s concentrate, it has been a very nice four and a half years but now we start to boogie. The olives are picked. We have crushed most of them to get the oil out. We pressed it and stored it in our cool cellar. Some of the olives we slit and put in brine. We made sure to use one tablespoon of salt for every cup of water. Our goat has given birth to a beautiful kid goat, we should attend to her and make sure the kid is drinking enough milk and the mom is well. After a few days we can start milking the goat and use the milk for cheese. We want to bring the milk to 40 degrees Celsius and put some rennet or enzyme. We can also add some of our favorite cheese culture but it is not necessary. We let it sit for an hour and then cut the coagulated milk into small cubes of about one cm. We place it in a draining dish in the shape of our choice and let it sit. Over the next few days we should salt the top, bottom and sides. Now we will let it sit for about 3 months in a cool place, checking on it and flipping it every now and then. Gusts of fresh milk fill the kitchen air, you are starting to smell the very first odors of your pizza. Now we are about 3 months from the actual pizza and the excitement builds. Push has come to shove, shovel that is. It is time to plant some vegetables. You want to prepare the garden before planting. So lets turn the soil and make sure there are no weeds. Then lets put some fertilizer. The goat has supplied us with that and we can mix it in with the compost we have been preparing. Once the area is covered, we turn the ground again, water it and let sit for a few days. Now lets put a few tomato bushes, one or two types of pepper, hot pepper, eggplant, some basil, oregano, garlic and onion. You should probably seed them in a greenhouse or any plot of land protected from wind and heavy rain. Once they are out and about 2 cm tall transplant them. Leave them now to grow, checking every once in a while to see that they have enough water. Eggplant, tomato and pepper have deep roots so check under the surface for wetness.

    Things are really bubbling now. Mother nature is diligently preparing all our ingredients. Like any good chef, we want to check on things as they cook, so lets lift those pot lids so to speak and keep weeding the garden and look for any pests, weed the wheat, milk the goat. The pizza odor is getting ever more present especially when you smell the tomato bushes and the basil plants. We are getting there.

    Now we are a few days before pizza and the wheat is ready to cut. We will cut it and let it dry in the field. When it is dry we will separate the grain from the stem. Now we can grind it in our stone grinder. For those of you who are unfortunate and only have a coffee grinder that will also do. Of course we grind the whole grain with its shell to get a lovely light brown whole-wheat flour.

    It is the night before pizza, when all through the house

    Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

    Well maybe not stirring but we are definitely mixing. We took today’s fresh milk and put some rennet or enzyme in it along with the optional mesophilic culture. We stir it well and let sit for the night. We mix the dough for the starter. We put two cups of flour to one cup of water, to which we add some yeast, half a teaspoon will do. Mix everything together and let it sit covered overnight. Now yeast is readily available in the air that surrounds us. So if we prefer to use the generic one, we should make the flour and water combination a little earlier and let it sit for 4-7 days while constantly adding water and flour. The next morning the dough should be bubbly and the cheese should have separated from the whey. Lets get 3 big tomatoes from the garden, cut them to cubes, and cook in a pot with some finely chopped peppers. Once it is watery we add salt, black pepper, oregano, basil, chopped garlic and a pinch of sugar. We let it cook on a low flame to absorb all the flavors. Lets add a cup of flour and a quarter cup of lukewarm water to our dough, add a quarter tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt and knead it. Kneading will release the glutton in the dough and make it more elastic. We don’t want to over knead it so it stays airy and fluffy. A good 6-8 minutes should do. After that, lets shape it as a ball and let rise while covered. Lets slice the eggplant thin and lightly fry it, chop the onion and sauté it, slice the peppers and roast them. So many words for putting stuff in a pan. With all the above, we want to make sure we cook them just enough so they are soft. Lets collect some of those dry olive branches we have lying around from the beginning of the recipe, the leaves of course we gave the goat as that is one of their favorite foods. We will light the branches in our wood brick oven and get it up to around 400 degrees. Again for those unfortunate people who cook with gas, a regular oven will do. Lets take the dough ball out, it should have doubled in size by now. With a rolling pin we flatten the crust and shape it. This is the point where you decide upon a thin or thick crust pizza. Generally the thinner the dough the thinner the crust. Now you can toss the dough up in the air several times and roll it on your arm but those steps are not absolutely necessary. You can achieve the desired crust with a rolling pin alone. Once we have that done lets spread the sauce, and grate some of the hard cheese and fresh cheese. We place the eggplants, peppers, onions and olives on the cheese. We can also put some hot peppers if our taste calls for it. The oven should be nice and warm now so lets carefully slide the pizza in to it and let it bake for about half an hour. Now you better sit down. Take a deep breath and pull your creation out of the oven. Before you are 5 years of collaborated teamwork between you and nature, before you is a pie that some say is the base of progress, a hidden subconscious desire that has pushed humans towards civilization. Before you is a delicious simple pizza ripe with flavor and ready to please. Think of all you did these past five years to deserve such a delightful treat. Enjoyment is guaranteed.

    So that is the simple pizza, now I am guessing some of you out there might have a simpler way of doing it, I have even heard crazy talk about this hut that has ready-made pizzas. But to me this is a nice and simple way to enjoy the best of Italian culture. Hope it was helpful.

  • Buongiorno Italy

    Posted on May 20th, 2010 Sheila Yair 4 comments

     monteI always liked traveling by train. To me train travel nestles between romantic and adventurous. In a long snake like vehicle you cut through the land. The train itself is a very spoiled means of transportation and it likes its tracks fairly straight. So a lot of preparation and work has to go in to the laying of the tracks, bridges, tunnels, passes, etc. but the result is a very smooth ride for the traveler. And to top that, trains usually carry with in them the most comfortable seats in the most pleasant compartments. I mean much more comfortable than plains or buses.

    So we decide to take the overnight train to Italy. We want to look Italy in the eye as we go through it, not from above, start off our relationship on the right foot. It is also a lot better for the planet. I find it amazing that in the midst of global warming and on the edge of peak oil, flights cost a fraction of any other means of transportation. A ticket from Paris to Rome is only €10. Of course they will go out of their way to make that flight inconvenient. A bad hour, a far airport with only one train or bus that go there and many hidden extra charges. But still the price is quite amazing.

    So we nestle in to our compartment, it is shared with 4 other people, something we didn’t realize when we booked the ticket. The domestic trains in France are very nice. I have taken a few through the Alps, passing through beautiful scenery, in and out of mountains and valleys in the most comfortable settings. The international trains are not quite up to par. More run down and the compartments are smaller and more crowded. So as we walk in to our train we are reminded a bit of our India travel. But soon enough we open up the bunk beds. Sheila and I get the very top ones, we are lying next to each other reading and watching a movie on the laptop. Our eyes slowly close to the soothing rhythm of the train in motion. When next we open our eyes we are in Italy. We pass the area of Milan which seems very industrial but shortly after we are surrounded by fields and farms on our way to Florence. I have never understood where the term rolling hills come from. Hills are present, high, sturdy maybe wavy but they never roll. Like a fact in the landscape they don’t budge. But here in Tuscany they definitely seem to roll. With green and yellow waves of crops swaying between patches of forest with white dirt roads trying to hold the whole scene down like ribbons. Like a Van Gogh painting there is an abundance of motion in something that supposedly is still. I am pretty sure the person who came up with the phrase rolling hills was sitting atop one of them here in Tuscany.

    We arrive in Florence at 10 in the morning. A quick look at the map reveals that most of the attractions are right in the center, a few blocks from where we are. So we check in our bags and off we go. Florence like a lot of colonial cities gives you an impression of a small town when you walk in the center. Narrow allies lead you through beautiful two story houses with only the churches and cathedrals rising high. We have our fist Italian lunch, a slightly known Italian dish called pizza (I believe no introduction is necessary). Afterwards we sit in a trendy café overlooking one of the plazas. Sheila has a tiny espresso coffee and I have a very good beer, ahh this all seems very Italian. We walk around a little more and then head for our bus which is conveniently located a few blocks away. We are both a little nervous as we have never “wwooffed” before. WWOOF is a worldwide organization that connects organic farms with volunteers. You offer your help in whatever is needed and in return you get room and board. What will be the help we will offer? What will the family be like? Will it be too hard? All these questions run through our minds and occasionally make it out our mouths as we roll through the Tuscany scenery. The wife has told us to get off at Montepulciano and wait, for the husband will be a little late. We asked if there is anywhere in particular we should wait and she said just wait at the bus stop. We are drooped off at an impressive little medieval looking town and we wait. Neither one of us has mastered Italian but we are both pretty sure this is Montepulciano. After nearly an hour we start doubting how well we understood the driver or the wife. But we are two foreign looking people with two big backpacks and if we are actually in Montepulciano we can’t be missed. The time passes and still nothing. Finally a car arrives with someone yelling the name of the farm. We nod excitedly. The man seems quite aggravated as he has waited at the bus station, a few blocks away, for a while. We told him the bus driver let us off here and that we are very sorry but he still seems quite upset. He then goes right on to tell us how many wwoofers say they will stay for two weeks and then leave his farm after a few days and how most young people these days are worthless and don’t know how to work, especially young American wwoofers. We both nod awkwardly. I think to myself we are wwoofers, we are American and we both are kind of young there buddy… and by the way I loved your latest book “things to say when you first meet people”. Sheila tries to defuse the tension by saying how famously good Montepulciano wine is. He snaps telling her that the popular one is the cheap one that only carries the name Montepulciano and is actually produced somewhere else, while a real Montepulciano wine is very expensive and is consumed only by people of class. Sheila retreats to silence. Yeah I also loved your book “Wines of the world, not just for snobs”. I am obligated to pull out the old favorite topic, the one that never fails, the weather. You see we have tried calling the farm all last week from France but their phone and internet was down because of a huge snow storm two weeks ago, there is still snow on the ground here and there. I tell him “it was very cold a few weeks ago here”. Not so much he replies. This has been one of the coldest winters on record in Europe and he says not so much? What is he a freaking polar bear who landed in Tuscany and wonders where all the seals and penguins are? We continue the rest of the way in silence. And yes of course I also loved your book “Two years in the Sahara, not so warm, three years in the north pole, not so cold”. I hope the wife is nicer or at least not as bitter. We finally arrive at the farm and are let off at our trailer. It is a very cozy camper and we feel a little lifted from the ride. Why we didn’t just turn around right then and there is something I will never understand. There will be many more times where I will wonder that so from here onwards I will just write the first letters WWDJTARTAT.

    We walk around the farm, see the animals, the barn and surroundings. The place is surrounded by hills with olives, vineyards, green fields and old Tuscany style farm houses. You can see two old medieval looking towns with their high cathedrals and walls in the distance. It is beautiful around here and we both feel glad we are in Italy.

    Dinner is a little discomfited as we are briefly introduced and then all go on eating without much talking, only a little amongst the family in Italian. If the snow storm wasn’t so cold the feeling at the table qualifies as freezing. We sit at a very long table with the family all gathered at one end, the mother and father and their four sons, while the help, three wwoofers and an Albanian worker are on the outskirts. All the food, water, wine and condiments are centered where the family is and every little thing you want needs to be passed to you. So after you ask for the pasta, the salad, the olive oil and the vinegar you figure I am not going to bother the person next to me any more, I will have the salt tomorrow, I will try the black pepper some other time, I will drink water after dinner. The dinner includes pasta with ricotta cheese, bread and a big bowl of lettuce that they call salad. Now I think to officially call something a salad you need at least two vegetables otherwise it is just a bowl of whatever vegetable is there. I jokingly ask to pass the lettuce and sheila elbows me. We go back to our trailer, we are still hopeful and say we will make the best of things. WWDJTARTAT.

    The next morning we wake up at 6:30am to help at the barn. Ulise, the friendly farmer, has about 100 sheep and 22 goats. He milks 70 of the sheep and 20 of the goats all by hand. Well when I say he I mean him and Shima, the Albanian worker. The two of them in the morning and Shima alone in the evening. Those are a lot of udders, 90 for Ulise and 270 for Shima. I have seen farms with 40 goats or less that have a milking machine. Milking here takes about an hour. There is also no milking stand and the animals roam freely as you milk them, you know just to add to the challenge. The sheep you milk sticking their head between your legs, bending over their back to reach for their udders. It looks like backbreaking work, literarily. So I volunteer to help with the goats, with them you can crutch behind the goat and milk. No stool of course as it seems Ulise has a very bad relationship with convenience. I tell Ulise I will help with the goats, he being friendly as he is says only if you know what you are doing. Can someone be any friendlier? As I start milking I can hear my mom telling me to be gentle, not to pull so hard. She also asks the goat how she is doing calling her usually mama, she will reprimand them if they fight with each other or get impatient with me and move before I finish milking. With some of them I have to stop mid way and chase them around the stall, as they don’t always listen to my mom. She is probably only talking in my head and they can’t really hear her. But for me it is nice to hear her. I have never seen goats being milked like this and you really have to sometimes beg them to let you milk. After milking is done we feed the animals and give them water. Sheila has to go in with two heavy buckets of grains and beans. The sheep that are very hungry swarm all around her. Sheep are usually a very timid animal but not at 7am when they are ready for breakfast. It is one slim human equipped with two buckets against a tidal wave of 100 sheep. Sheila doesn’t look to comfortable but she manages very well. The goats are a lot easier to feed as they seem to have a little more dignity and even though they are probably just as hungry as the sheep they don’t swarm around you. They will however come from behind you and nibble at the bucket or your pants. The last animals to be fed are the pigs which are kept in two fairly small cages. It is a walk down a steep hill to feed them. If I thought sheep are aggressive the pigs are down right vicious. The adults jump up on the edge of the cage snarling and foaming at the mouth. I hate to see animals in cages but right now that is one barrier I am glad to have between me and the pigs. I maneuver quickly to get the food from the buckets to their feeders while trying to keep my extremities intact and attached to my body, pigs eat anything, especially when hungry. After that we go have a quick breakfast. Sheila is still a bit shaken from the sheep and I still see the pigs foaming in my mind. After breakfast it is back to the barn to let the animals out to their different pastures. They all know where to go and need very little human intervention. As I follow them each group to their appropriate field I see some more of the beautiful surroundings. The hills, the vineyards, the olive groves and some houses I haven’t seen before. Shima is with us and in his broken Italian he tries to explain the routine, the neighboring farms and the area in general. It is so nice to be outside, to work with animals, to work with the land. Your associates are mother earth, the weather, plants and animals. This bliss and tranquility is quickly cut by our next task. We are facing a pile of wood which we have to trim and then walk up and down the hill to throw the little branches and back to the house with the logs. We have a little axe and clippers for the job. The pile is big and seems to never go down but after a few good hours and a lot of back and forth walking and branch chopping we start seeing patches of earth below the wood. Now we have to start lugging the heavy logs and carry them to the house. I have stumbled upon a little secret which I will share here with you… farm work is not all fun and games. After stocking him with wood for at least the first two month of winter, the friendly farmer Ulise comes out and sends us to the olive grove. He doesn’t even seem to notice the huge pile of wood that has disappeared and transformed in to nicely piled fire wood on the side of the house and a huge mound of branches near the compost. He seems to think the wind just blew it all nicely in to place. In the olive grove, this is pruning time, we are instructed to collect all the branches that were clipped off and make huge piles at the end of the grove for the tractor to pick up. We do this for three days straight in three different olive groves. We must have collected a ton and a half of branches. After three 10 hour days there were 8 piles, 6 tractor loads of olive branches. If olive branches symbolize peace there was enough there for total global peace for the next 50 generations, we just needed a few thousand white doves to carry all of it. I can’t even begin to explain how monotonous the job is. Sheila would get under the trees and collect all the branches making little piles and I, the human mule, would bring them to the big pile. Branch after branch until some of the piles started looking like big walls. One of the piles we built could be seen all the way up the road, from a kilometer away. I looked at some of the little branches and then up at the big pile and thought how this whole monstrous heap is made out of tiny leaves. How anything big is really just a bunch of smaller things. How a tiny leaf with the help of a million others can create something huge. As I philosophize in my mind of small and big I tell the leaves that I collect that they can be part of a bigger thing… wow, OK now I am really losing it, I am giving a pep talk to a leaf in the middle of an olive grove. Help. This whole situation reminds me of the Paul Auster’s book “The Music of chance”, where the two characters gamble their freedom away in a poker game and find themselves enslaved and cutoff from the world. You see we have no internet and according to Sandra the wife their phone is still out of order. We are also 8 kilometers from the nearest village. We are trapped here forever, or at least until we finish pilling half of Tuscany’s olive branches. WWDJTARTAT.

    But the monotony is broken and on the forth day we are taken to an old vineyard a few kilometers from the farm. Shima and I dig holes in the ground and then place heavy cement poles while Sheila has to yank and free the vine branches that were pruned. The other two Italian women can’t believe that Sheila is working without gloves but as we were not told what we are going to do, we didn’t come prepared. Ulise drives off saying he will look for gloves for Sheila but never returns. We find out the next day that there is a huge box of gloves right in the garage and Ulise, the friendly caring farmer, just didn’t want to drive the extra 5 minutes to drop them off. So Sheila yanks vines the whole day without gloves as Shima and I do work that would make even a tractor sweat. After the poles are in place it is time to stretch wires between them with our bare hands. Neglect has roamed freely and uninterrupted in this vineyard for quite some time. You see this vineyard belongs to some guy in Rome who hires Ulise to maintain it who throws his wwoofers and Albanian guy to actually do all the work. So there is not much care or thought about the work. There is an absence of wire stretchers, light weight poles, clear rows and many more things that can make life easier in the vineyard but most of all, this vineyard is lacking attention. On the way here we pass a vineyard that is owned by an old man. He is always out walking between his vines, tying them, pulling them, fixing them. His place looks meticulous, a total opposite from where we are working. We do this for three days battling a forsaken vineyard trying to make it look better and somewhat functional, pouring our energy and sacrificing our body parts to give it some life. At this point between the free range milking and the bare handed wire stretching I can barely feel my left hand. My fingers constantly feel num as if circulation was cut off. Sheila says I probably hurt a nerve but I think my fingers just preferred to put themselves in this stupor so as to not witness the labor they are forced to do. WWDJTARTAT. All this time we continue to nourish our hungry bodies through dinners with freezing cold atmosphere, the polar bear family at one end and the help at the other with everything having to be passed down and practically the same meal twice a day every day. Some type of pasta with ricotta, a bowl of lettuce and bread. You see all these ingredients are pretty much the cheapest food available. And that is the level of appreciation Ulise has for his wwoofer help. I start thinking of taking some beans and corn from the goats and sheep and cooking them for myself to have one decent meal, but I have no access to a kitchen. After the vineyard is up and standing it is time to collect more olive branches. We do that for a few more days and then take our first day off. The wwoof website states that you work for 5 to 6 hours a day and take one or two days off a week. So we worked for 9 to 10 hours for 8 days. Our main mission now is to get out of this farm. You see naïve and optimistic as I am I thought this is Italy, not some remote village in the Himalayas or some small town in the Amazon jungle. We will get to a farm and from there through their phone and internet arrange the next farm. That way if we like a farm we can stay longer and if we don’t like one we can cut our stay. But there is no phone and no internet and the closest village is 8 kilometers away. So we walk the 8 kilometers to Montepulciano hoping there will be internet there. Montepulciano is as I said before a beautiful medieval village built on a hill. It is a very touristy place known for its cheese and wine, not as well known for its cyber cafes. We go from cheese shop to wine store asking about an internet place. The people on the top of the hill send us to the bottom of the hill and the ones on the bottom send us back up to the top. We go up and down till siesta time where everything seems to instantly close. If you ever want to film a since fiction end of humanity total disaster movie with scenes of abandoned cities, Italy during siesta time is the place to do it. Between 1:30pm and 4pm there is no one to be seen. All the Italians have left Italy and only a few confused tourists are left to roam the empty streets. At 4:30 someone directs us to the tourist office which we passed twice but it was closed. It is open now and finally we find the one location with internet. But we only have half an hour as the one daily bus that goes towards the farm left and our ride leaves at 5pm. Otherwise it is 8km walking back. We quickly scan the farm list to take updated phone numbers. We didn’t quite escape but we have a few numbers, now all we need is another free day and a phone. We will both come out of here alive I promise Sheila. This is not the Paul Auster book. We arrive back somewhat discouraged but at least we had a good lunch and a day of rest (only about 8km of walking and then 4 more going up and down the town, but with no olive branches on our backs). We continue doing the olive groves with an occasional stop to chop up fire wood. One sunny day I go down the steep hill to feed the pigs. By now I have already developed a system where I throw a scoop in one direction and as they all run foaming to see what it is, I can quickly unload the bucket in the other side of the feeder. As I lean in to unload their bucket of breakfast, zap, I find myself flying back 2 meters. For a split second I don’t understand what happened. Ulise, the friendly caring and thoughtful farmer has turned on the electric fence. But of course I should have some how figured that out and it does not require him to actually warn anybody. I am all shook up as I climb back up the hill.

    It is now getting close to Easter and we are told there is no public transportation for 4 days. You see I was raised in Israel, I thought Easter was a one day thing. I didn’t know there was Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday and heck lets just take one more day off Monday. So on one of our excursion to collect olive branches in a far away grove we escape to a near village. There is a public phone so we look for a store that sells calling cards, of course no store sells them. So close but no cigar. The next day we escape to a further but slightly bigger town. Now here we find a phone with a shop next to it. A public phone, by now, seems like such an amazing convenience. We can actually dial and talk to the outside world, we can break the curfew of communication. We call the one farm we know is good. It is a farm that was recommended by other wwoofers. They don’t answer. I want to hold out for that farm and not call the others because I want to ensure our next experience is a good one. We can’t fall again on a bad farm. I wait an hour, calling every 15 minutes but nothing. I have to get back to the olives. The next day again I try calling them and no answer. I call a few other farms but they are full and the one farm we want still doesn’t answer.

    It is Easter now and we take our second day off. Sandra the wife is very mad at us claiming we shouldn’t have taken Easter off since there is so much work and it is not fair on our part. We just look at her. I could start a whole 5 hour discussion about how unfair every single day of our stay here was but it is Easter and our day off so I just stay silent. We walk to another village, we always walk there is never any ride offered on this farm. The only rides that are offered are to take you to a place of work. We have a very nice lunch that includes no ricotta and no lettuce and off to the phone. We finally contact a farm not far away that needs two wwoofers, we are close to tears with joy. We tell them we will arrive the day after Easter (otherwise known as thank god Easter is over Tuesday), once public transportation is renewed. On our last day on the farm, we go in the evening to the old gentleman who works his vineyard with such care. He lets us taste his wine. It is very good. Of course it would be. It is filled with passion, tradition and care. It also tastes of fruit, vanilla, berries, oak and all those other things wine enthusiasts always look for. We buy 4 bottles as we are very happy to leave the farm. At dinner we are told that no one can give us a lift to the road where we can catch the bus. It is a whopping five minutes by car and I can totally understand these people, they are extremely busy. We will need to walk the 2 hilly kilometers with all our bags. Oh well at least we know our work here is well appreciated. We say good bye and leave early in the morning. We walk to the road it is heavy and long but we feel light, with every step we are further from this farm. We catch the bus and after a few busses more we arrive at Arrezzo (the town where life is beautiful was filmed). I call the next farm and Federico tells us to go enjoy Arrezzo and he will come pick us up from the station. We walk around a bit, take some photos and have a big pizza for lunch. He comes and gets us. I still can feel every meter of distance we are putting between ourselves and the last farm. When we get to the new farm we are shown to a beautiful room with exposed wooden beams and antique furniture. Hard to believe that only this morning we were walking away from the worst farm in the world and now we are settling in to the nicest farm in Italy, but we don’t know that yet.

    click here to see photos

  • The desert

    Posted on February 6th, 2010 Sheila Yair 9 comments

    desert Have you ever noticed how you shrink to a tenth of your size as you enter the desert? Out of all the fascinating things the desert holds this is perhaps the most amazing. Now some cynics will say I am crazy, I see the look on their face combined with the un-uttered “what?”. But it is true. It won’t help you to run out to the desert with a measuring tape for the desert shrinks everything that enters it, you and what ever measuring equipment you happen to carry with you. upon exiting , it brings you back to full size. That is why modern science has never really discovered this phenomenon. The desert leaves no evidence of its tricks. But those who have observant eyes can see it in the size of the mountains and valleys and in the vast spaces. Those with sensitive ears can hear it in the wind, how it blows much more hollow, like the difference between the same note played on a tiny fiddle and a giant contra-base.

    The desert exists between the edges. It exists in the limits. In its vastness it absorbs and unifies extremes leaving the rest of the world in the middle. The colors we see in the desert are from both ends of the visible spectrum. The warm reds, yellows and oranges from the top merged with the blues and purples from the bottom. The rest of the planet snuggles in the middle of the spectrum, in green and blue. The desert lies within the extremes of temperature striking the hottest temperatures on the face of this planet at day and some of the coldest at night. Again leaving the rest of the earth in the middle of the thermometer. It also has always been at the limits of our societies. North would lay one kingdom south another empire and east and west still different countries. It is the shoreline where man’s world ends. Till this day if anyone wants to escape humanity they will head down to the desert as David and Jesus did.

    In ancient Hebrew there were two words for desert, midbar which meant the livable desert, and miktza which was the unlivable one. The difference between the two was extremely significant in those times. The midbar had just enough precipitation for shrubs and weeds to grow, for wells to be dug and rivers to be dammed on the few days of the year when it did rain. It was just enough for the roughest crops and husbandry of the toughest animals, usually goats and camels. Today we only use one word, the livable one. Maybe it is because we think we have conquered nature and tamed the desert or maybe because it is not important any more and only a very few want to live in the desert these days.

    No matter what we call it, the desert is a fascinating tale of survival. Every dune, hill and ravine is an amazing chapter of struggle and endurance. To walk the desert is to flip through the pages of this incredible story. Anything that manages to live in these harsh conditions is a success story of life defying all odds, an astonishing monument of durability and adaptability. For both in the miktza and the midbar you need to utilize your limited resources in a very smart and efficient way and although the desert is huge there is no room in it for error.

    But let’s leave the desert for a second, let’s resume our normal size for a moment and go to the middle, let’s go to the jungles of the tropics, to Mexico of the Aztecs. The Aztecs, as their descendants till this day, had a great affinity for flavorful food. Far from the modesty of the desert they lived in a plentiful land with an abundance of plants and spices. They would crush seeds, flowers, chilies and fruits to get their distinct flavors. The molcajetes, the Aztec mortar and pestle, had to be very stable supporting all this grinding. To endure such beatings without spilling a drop, before the invention of tables or marble counters, the Aztecs had to give the molcajetes three legs, for they found that three legs will never wobble. Modern furniture manufacturers know this too and will utilize this principle in stools and tables. Now some cultures will claim they have discovered this useful technique, but the desert of course has known about the stability of three, long before the existence of the human race.

    acaciaHere are a couple of three point desert stories of balance. Both have to do with the acacia tree. The acacia tree has totally adapted itself to the desert, it thrives even in the driest regions. It is a little island of green in a sea of aridness and as such attracts many other life forms. One of these life forms is a certain bug that likes to lay its eggs in the tree’s seeds. It will lay an egg in each seed. The egg will hatch and the larva will then grow eating up all the seed’s inside, using the nutrients that were meant for the new tree to propel its own growth, totally free room and board. It then leaves the seed empty and dry. As an adult, when the time comes to lay the eggs of the next generation, the cycle starts over again as the mature bug seeks another acacia tree. Researchers have found that a new acacia tree is extremely rare to spot and that under the older trees all the seeds are hollow with a tiny little hole where the bug laid its egg. Since the bug is not an invasive species and has lived with the acacia for thousands of years there must be something else upsetting the balance. There must be a third point. After more research they have found that the only new acacia trees spotted, the seeds who actually made it, were always in a pile of hyrax excrement. The hyrax eats the tree’s fruits but does not digest its seeds. The digestive acids in its stomach however kill the eggs and leave the seed fertile and able to sprout. Since there are much less hyraxes due to hunting and use of desert land for industry and agriculture the three points were compromised and we see much less new trees. The balance of centuries is disrupted. Nevertheless on a smaller scale you still find this amazing story of coexistence in the desert continue.

    The other story has to do with the acacia and its unique parasite plant the acacia strap flower. It is uncannily similar to some of what is happening today and might have a few lessons for us to learn. The acacia has two sets of roots, one set of deep ones that go as far down as 50 meters seeking the aquifer waters that run deep below the dry surface. The other set is of wide spread shallow roots that absorb the flood waters when the pass by. Knowing how scarce water is and how difficult it is to gather this precious liquid the acacia has very small leaves to bring evaporation and water loss to a minimum. The strap flower on the other hand only digs a couple centimeters into the acacias branches and easily finds an abundant source of water and nutrients. Disrespectful of the effort and preciousness of water it possesses big leaves and shows off extravagant bright red flowers. This is much like some professions and lifestyles in our modern economy. Hard working people with little leaves to show for it while some others barely do anything and have bright red flowers. Now I do not want to make any enemies so I will just say, anybody creating anything is the tree, any farmer, baker, factory worker, builder etc. You can interpret the etc. your own way. The rest, myself included unfortunately, are the strap flower. In the nature reserves of the south they started seeing an unprecedented occurrence. The strap flower would get so big it would actually break the branch it was sitting on. The branch collapsed. Sounds familiar? There was a lack of a third point, a lack of something big enough to control the lavish strap flower. In nature there was no such thing as too big to fall. The people in charge of the parks have left wild camels out of the protected areas, thinking that will enable the protected flora to recuperate quickly. They have fenced huge areas to try and create camel free zones where the flora will flourish and come back to its natural pre-human extent. Unknowingly they have tempered with the third point creating an imbalance. They found that outside of the parks the branches were fine and the strap flower under control. Like markets the strap flower did not correct itself. So call it market regulation or environmental laws the camel was reintroduced to the parks restoring the balance of three. This is a story not only of balance but of coexistence. The acacias branches are well, the strap flower’s red flowers are decorating the desert and the camel is well nourished and roaming the plains it was meant to roam. In Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha, the two men stare and listen to the river to obtain immense wisdom from it. But at the end Siddhartha has an epiphany realizing that everything in nature obtains this wisdom and we can look at the river, sky or desert to learn our lessons. Our society can benefit greatly if we observe the acacia and its friends and put some of their principles into our daily conduct.

    Dedicated to my grandfather Saadia. Although he was not a great nature lover and rarely made it to the desert, he was an enthusiastic promoter of coexistence and unselfish balance in society, throughout his 96 years of life.

    click here to see photos

  • Bravery

    Posted on February 1st, 2010 Sheila Yair 1 comment

    cliffHow do we define bravery? What makes us admire a certain action and call it bravery? Everybody is telling me how brave my mom is. She is lying on her death bed, her body filled with cancer. She is staring death right in the eye without even flinching. Death is all around her and within her, snooping about watching her every move, waiting to claim her and she totally disregards it brushing it off, for now, with a few good books, marijuana cookies and some movies.

    So let’s see if we can make some sense of bravery.

    It is said that there is a fine line between bravery and foolishness. We tend to associate bravery with success and failure with inanity. So bravery has an element of chance to it. It is something we define retrospectively. It can not be judged alone without looking at the consequences. Military history is filled with stories of commanders who defied all odds with risky maneuvers. The successful ones are considered heroes and the ones who failed are usually forgotten or some times shamefully disgraced by history. Many times it was weather or a mistake on the enemy’s side or any other uncontrollable event that sealed the fate of the maneuver and with it the bravery or failure of the commander. But it is not only in the military where we judge bravery this way. Let’s say we have a start-up company and a certain fellow who invests all his money in this risky company, is that brave? Well if the company succeeds and the investment grows a tenfold no one will say there walks a dumb man but if it collapses very few will say this is one brave investor. Albeit being the same man who took the same action, consequences beyond his control will determine his bravery. The only time we are willing to accept lack of success and associate it with bravery is when one sacrifices himself for a greater cause. A fireman jumping in to a burning house is brave no matter what the outcome is. Aid workers who travel to war torn hazardous places are brave whether they succeed or fail in helping the people. But if a person walked a tightrope, without any greater cause, and fell would we still call him brave? It is just as dangerous as a fire or a war torn country. So we have another element to the equation, we judge bravery by outcome and whether there is some greater cause or sacrifice involved.

    Speaking of tightropes I have recently seen “Man on Wire”, the incredible story of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the twin towers of the world trade center. All the images of the twin towers bring back memories, like watching photos of a dear one that is no longer with us, but there is one photo that shows the roof of one of the towers, a tiny Philippe standing above it and the 450 meter abyss below him. That one shot sent shivers down my one meter spine, all of a sudden I realized the proportions, the height, the scale of these buildings, the size of his challenge. He was going to cross this unfathomable depth on a narrow rope. He had to hide from authorities, lug up a lot of heavy equipment, coordinate two teams and finally walk across the abyss. He succeeded and won world fame. And of course is considered a very brave man. So this is what we have so far to define bravery, you have to go against something illogical, to dare do something that seems impossible. You need to succeed in it or have some greater cause involved. But logic is a very general term. Each of us has what he or she defines as logical or illogical. And many times our logic is not very “logical”. Staying on the tightrope, if someone was to attempt walking across a tightrope between two buildings that are 50 meters high that would not be considered as brave as Mr. Petit’s World Trade Center walk. Even though a fall from either endeavor would most likely have the exact same result, one less tightrope walker. That is because our logic is not binary, we do not operate on ones and zeros alone like all the handy computerized devices that we surround ourselves with. What we call logic a lot of times has a great deal of emotion in it. For a claustrophobic person it is probably very illogical to walk in to an office. And it is very brave to spend day after day there with only the fear of being fired and forced to leave that small confined space. Now before all you office workers start fanaticizing about having a documentary done about you, shedding light on your courageous life, how you walked time and time again in to that cramped office space defying no open windows, circulated air and artificial light, remember that you are the majority. Since there is no “logical” logic, we have to go by numbers. Most people fear heights, especially ones that rise up to 450 meters, but Philippe Petit doesn’t, so that is bravery, on the other hand most people are not claustrophobic, so walking in to an office, that is ordinary. I guess my 3 year brush with corporate America will never be documented. We also don’t really pay heed to probability in our logic. For example there are about 3000 automobile accident related deaths a day. That is about a million a year. So I guess we can say we have less than one sixtieth of a percent chance to die in a car. But actually I calculate that based on 6.8 billion people, if we calculate based on the people who actually have and use cars, around 600 million, it is a sixth of a percent each year, 1 out of 160. That is fairly dangerous yet hardly anyone thinks twice before stepping in a car and heading towards the highway. So now the office workers who were denied their documentary for being in an office are saying lets roll the cameras because here is a real danger, statistically proven, that they endure and face each day. But again disappointment, for there is no bravery without fear and fear has little to do with probability. We are dealing with a collective notion, if all society was alliumphobic eating garlic bread would be courageous but there are so very few who fear garlic or even use that word. On the other hand if we would not fear anything in this world than Philippe Petit would only be a commuter, walking between two office buildings he would probably even have to stand in line to get on the tightrope. Since not many people fear automobiles getting into a car is not brave. So we are progressing, to be brave you have to defy something that is feared by most people, you have to succeed in it or at least have a greater cause involved. But documentary films aside bravery like logic and fear should be individual. It is brave to walk into an office if you are claustrophobic, it is brave to eat a garlic knot if you are alliumphobic. To talk to your boss, to take a vacation, to admit your wrong, to run a marathon all these things involve overcoming anxiety therefore they are brave. Bravery is the ability to disconnect yourself from your surroundings, the determination to go ahead and achieve something even when in dire circumstances when danger is lurking and fear is in you.

    So back to my mom who is lying in her room. With cancer the logic above is abolished since it is brave to fight the disease but also brave to accept it and deny treatment. Are we so generous with bravery because we give respect to the sick or because fatal illness is so tightly integrated with our greatest fear of all, the fear of death? I don’t know. Is my mom brave? I also can’t say. I know she made a choice long ago to never get old, to never live without the ability to run and swim and hike. And now she is following this decision adamantly even in harsh circumstances and on the edge of death. And I also know she is acting in a way very few people could bring themselves to act.

  • Stone cold half baked dog

    Posted on January 6th, 2010 Sheila Yair 35 comments

    pitFriday, 6:30pm, Rosh Pina

    It is the evening of the day, Friday in Israel has a special feeling to it. Everything seems to embrace a certain calm, businesses are closed, the streets seem sleepy with only few pedestrians treading their weary surface, families conjugate in their houses, people reading the weekend newspapers on their porches and smells of intricately prepared meals abound the air which also seems to take its rest. Time itself seems to pause for a break. The hectic week has come to an end, the general pace has slowed down dramatically and all seems peaceful (a very rare notion in the Middle East). I just got back from visiting our neighbor who gave birth to twins last week. She is overwhelmed and seems a little lost amongst the two fragile creatures. Although she must weight more than ten times their combined weight and be at least 5 times their height they definitely have the upper hand. They are in absolute control, sending her to and fro and seem to be wearing her out easily with their two hour cycle of eating, sleeping and filling their dippers. I leave her with a home baked loaf of bread and some words of encouragement. Sheila and I will come to help periodically.

    As I enter the house two out of three dogs come to greet me. It is half greet half investigation whether there are any possibilities of treats being given. After a quick hello and affirming there is no scent of anything appetizing on me they run back to my mom’s room to jump on her bed. I fallow them. My sister Sarah is here for the weekend and sitting with my mom. There I discover that the third dog, Pita, is not feeling well. He didn’t get up for his dinner and is shivering constantly. Now the three of them are small dogs and small dogs get hungry fast. Usually two hours before their dinner they are already hovering around their dishes implying that they are fully ready to be served. When they finally hear somebody open the dog-food bag there is jumping and yapping galore. So if Pita, instead of jumping up and down, didn’t get up for his dinner that is a bad sign. He is shivering and seems to be out of it. His reactions are slow and his eyes convey a pathetic expression. Now Pita is a manipulator, he is a small dog and his main weapon is pity, he will lie low giving you a sad look with his big round eyes. His cuteness like a snake bite paralyzes you, forcing you to give him a pat, a treat or some special attention. But I have never seen him quite like this. He is 100% heartbreak with none of his usual conniving mischief. His eyes read total helplessness and fear. My mom and Sarah say he has been very quiet the whole afternoon but he didn’t really seem to sick up till now. We give him a piece of cheese which he gobbles up, that’s a good sign. But when we stand him up he can barely walk. He has difficulty controlling his little limbs, which is usually the first sign of poisoning. Many poisons used on dogs attack their nerve system. He is starting to close his eyes and not respond to his name. We wrap him up in a blanket and jump in the car. My dad calls the vet. It is Friday night and people are extremely hard to reach as this is the one night the whole family gets together for their family Shabbat dinner. He leaves a message. We are all nervous scanning for veterinarian numbers. The vet’s wife calls back, she puts her husband on the line. We describe the situation and he tells us to meet him in his clinic in 10 minutes. Pita is looking more miserable by the minute. We weigh him, he is 5 and a half kilos. He is very scared and seems totally out of it now, he just looks up at us looking for some explanation to his condition. His heart is pounding fast and his pupils don’t react to the light the vet is flashing at him. He says it doesn’t seem like a poisoning, but the eyes not responding are a definite indication something is very wrong. He gives him something to make him vomit. Pita screams when the needle enters his body. He is very sensitive to people touching him and I can only imagine this is even truer for a syringe. I hold him tight and try to comfort him. I speak in English as I can’t quite bark the words of relief, hoping he will at least understand the tone. He is sliding on the table and can’t even stand up. I have to pick him up when he starts to vomit. Out comes the cheese, I promise him more of that if he pulls through. He vomits a few more times but nothing comes out. There are only two black grains the size of sand. The vet says that might be a very dangerous poison and if there are only two grains left it has all been absorbed in his body. We try to recreate his day, thinking of all the places his been to. The vet asks questions as he flips through a poison reference book. I keep talking to Pita to keep him conscious. My hope is directly connected and synchronized with his eye lids. When they start closing my hope starts fading, when they open it is back. I realize how much I love these 5 and a half kilos. He gets a few more shots each one causing him great pain. The vet also attaches an infusion to get some liquids in along with vitamins and amino acid. Pita’s eyes are so dim and full of fear and pain I find it hard to stand up myself. I look into his non-responsive eyes and beg him to survive. I keep talking to him. At one point my sister and I call him together and he gives us back a weak tail wag. It might have been the smallest tail wag in dog history but it was so sincere. We are both on the verge of crying. I promise him meat, cheeses and breads, only get up and bounce around again. The vet says there is not much more he can do. He gave him the maximum dosages and now we can only wait. He says Pita is in critical condition and if he makes it through the night we can inject some more medicine in him tomorrow. He is very cautious with his words and tells us the situation doesn’t look good. We take him back home. We prepare a basket with a sleeping bag and pillows and situate him by the heater. He lays there motionless but his eyes are open. We are all looking at him patting him trying to comfort him. The other two dogs don’t pay much attention to him, they seem more interested in the food that is being eaten. After dinner we give some scraps to the other two dogs and out of the basket Pita comes out. Like the sphinx he raises again. He barely walks and maneuvers himself as if he was drunk, but he is more dog than pillow and we are all so happy. He walks around a bit and we put him back in his little nest. His face and eyes are looking a lot better, he is more receptive and his tongue is red again instead of the lifeless blue it was. We are all grateful but we keep in mind it is still a critical night and he has to pull through it. We give him some water to wet his mouth and tuck him to bed. He makes it through the night and wakes up 95% Pita. A little fuzzy but the cute little dog he always was. I immediately give him some nice pieces of chicken and cheese, a promise is a promise and I have wished for this moment, being able to feed him again.

    But let’s go back a little…

    Friday, 2:00pm, Rosh Pina

    It has been a long day at the bakery and we got home a little late. Fridays are always crazy at the bakery but usually around 10:30 we are done. We get home only around noon today. We have some good bread to compensate for the longer day. If our breads come out good nothing else matters, we take everything else in stride. If the yeast rose and the crust baked to a golden brown nothing can bring us down. We measure our days at the bakery only by the loaves we pull out of the ovens. A direct correlation between our mood and the bread. Two steaming crispy loafs of rye bread with caraway seeds make us very cheerful. After we slice one piece and eat it down with a little butter and a lot of pleasure Sheila starts baking her special cookies. We make my mom marijuana cookies to ease her nausea and give her some appetite. It seems to work better than the smoking. We simmer the pot in butter and water and then let it stay in the fridge overnight to separate from the water. We then use the butter, which by this time is dark green, in the cookies. I strain the butter out and give it to Sheila. She bakes the cookies and we get ready to leave to see my neighbor. She has just given birth to twins and seems overwhelmed. We take a loaf of bread for her. It is a sunny day and the dogs are napping outside on the deck. I throw the very green pot water on the flower pots. Pita gets up from his sunbathing poison to check what I am doing. I figure none of the dogs will mess with the leftover liquid and it can’t hurt the plant, what’s the worst thing that can happen, the plant will get high? That’s exactly what we want plants to do. We head off as the evening is setting upon us and everything slows down here on Friday evenings…

  • Eroticism and the worst email ever

    Posted on January 3rd, 2010 Sheila Yair 1 comment

    kajurahuWe are in Khajuraho, a city famous for its temples. Like many Hindi temples across India the shrines of Khajuraho are covered top to bottom with very detailed and fine stone carvings. Artistic as well as religious façades of statues upon statues, some easily considered a masterpiece on their own. The height of Hindi spirituality takes shape in the cold hard rock. The difference between Khajuraho and many other cities hosting Hindi temples is that all the temples here are dedicated to eroticism, to the activity of sexual union, not necessarily in the smallest even number, as proper conservative sex will dictate, sometimes not in even numbers at all. A collage of bodies in different positions all very busy with their reproductive organs. No one really knows what caused the Chandella dynasty to build such blunt temples. Some theories claim it was due to links with the Tantric cult, who used sex as a fundamental part of worship. Some suggest it was in honor of Shiva and Parvati’s wedding. Others claim it was like the Kama Sutra a guide to love. Still others claim it was to amuse the gods and distract their wrath and some even claim it is symmetrically built to depict yantras for meditation (not speaking from experience, but something tells me it is a little hard to meditate while an orgy is going on around you). Out of the many theories in existent that try to explain these unique temples none blame the British. In fact when they were rediscovered by a proper officer of Queen Victoria’s army in 1838, after they have been abandoned for six hundred years, the blunt carved scenes of masturbation, threesomes, foursomes, coupling with animals etc. shocked him so much he made this comment:

    “I found seven Hindu temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer then there was any absolute necessity for doing; indeed some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive”

    Definitely scenes a little warmer than anything an honorable officer has ever laid his eyes upon, or anything he would have expected to encounter in an abandoned place of worship hidden in the jungle. But as shocked as this poor officer has been, eroticism, in different forms, has been with humanity since the beginning, or at least nine months before the first human baby was born. Although at certain times certain societies and cultures tried to deny it or restrain it, there was always a quest for bodily union. Humans were always engrossed with the beauty of people physically matching, the ecstasy of a higher sexual encounter, the physical obsession of one person with another in a climax of desire. Many tales, operas, paintings and plays have been composed by people throughout the ages, with eroticism crawling through each and every sentence, note or brush stroke propelling the plot and capturing the audience’s imagination. All the famous couples, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Paris and Helen, Catherine and Heathcliff, we like to think of these as tales of love, which they were, but they were all tales of love at first sight too. And well the last word in the phrase says it all, sight. Love at first sight means we are yet to know anything about our object of desire but are madly in love due to appearance, body, face, composition, eroticism at its best, one transmission of the optic nerve, a few neurons passing a small and sexy electrical current and the brain is full of lustful yearning ready to go to war, give up anything, accept any challenge or even die. But our officer was a bit sheepish not because the theme was unfamiliar, it was the bursting power of the sexuality of the temples he wasn’t use to. In England eroticism was served in much smaller doses. We have created a spectrum in physical inter person relations, a scale for sex, something to help us categories the different aspects of sexual activities. Like everything in society we tied that scale to moral and proper conduct. Pornography, peep shows, prostitution are all way at the bottom considered immoral, dirty and bad while love at first sight, eroticism, true love, and the inevitable result pregnancy are at the top regarded with opposite notions, pure and beautiful. England in those days had most of what was depicted in the temples on the low levels of the moral scale. Religion makes it even simpler. There is no scale, only right and wrong, proper and prohibited. With its constant desire to grow in numbers, any sex that leads to a new born baby within a structure that will assure him or her acquiring that specific religion as he grows up, is good, basically any child born to a family. But all other sexual activity is bad, sex out of wedlock, gay sex, Hindi temple orgies etc. It is amazing how many very different religions operate the same concept. It is not for nothing that in the midst of the AIDS crisis the Pope calls for the abolishment of condoms in Africa, the continent with the highest catholic conversion rate. Even the spiritual Dalai Lama maneuvers his religion to greater numbers. In a speech of his that we heard up in Ladakh he was talking about reproduction. The English translation warned how due to environmental changes and global warming we have to depopulate the planet but the Ladakhi translation declared that Buddhism is frail and needs more people so procreation is of the utmost importance.

    But eroticism, desire, love, orgasm are all tricks that nature plays on us to ensure we keep the species going, to make certain we keep producing offspring. Deceptions pushing us to supply more specimens for evolution and more players for the survival game. And it works, even the most rigid society, the strictest and most reserved religion always kept the door a little open on procreation. There was always a hole in the sheet, a key to the chastity belt to let just enough eroticism through to keep the species alive. So nature with its schemes keeps the cycle of life rolling.

    Nature embedded us with very basic natural instincts, fundamental needs, but as always our intellect seeps in, drop by drop creating an ocean of man made social structures. The only difference between a lion eating a zebra and a fancy five course meal is our intellect, our minds, our society, our drive and development prepare the food with great care mixing ingredients from around the planet then heat or cool them in many different ways to get different chemical reactions and tastes to satisfy our discriminating pallet, we then serve and eat it among rituals our society dictates, but the basics are still a lion eating a zebra. We have built the same creative, intellectual, ritual world around procreation with love, marriage, dating rules, match.com etc. turning the zebra to a five course meal. That is what built the temples in Khajuraho, the human five course meal version of the cycle of life. And wherever there is intellect, money is sure to follow. Big industries like the wedding industry, the dating industry, romantic movies, pornography, and escort services all have nature’s imbedded instinct for procreation reeling in the customers. If prostitution is the oldest trade, marriage and dating have to be right after it as the second oldest business. From fathers wheeling and dealing their kids, matching them up to increase stature and fortune and to tie new ties, to the multi-million dollar wedding industry of 7 story cakes and expensive dresses and the sprawling dating industry in all its forms. This is one basic instinct we have taken very far.

    And so here amongst the temples that celebrate in stone the life cycle, with scenes warmer then there is any absolute necessity, here I get an email from my mom telling me she is dying. It is all cycles in nature, there is no life without death, there must always be a balance. I have always believed in that. But now to come to terms with it is to understand and accept I will be a motherless child soon. Something that even approaching forty years of age is hard to do. I walked directionless for two hours between trees and tears just to swallow the news. Now that it is in me I have to start grasping it.

    The ironies in these natural cycles are sometimes mind-boggling. The ovaries where I have started my life have also started the cancer that is now killing my mom. The same organ that has initiated my life commenced the killer that is inside my mom, ending her life. Much like the cancer I too started multiplying my cells using my host’s body for food and shelter, but I didn’t metastasize and after a while when I felt I was too big I came out, something that unfortunately I know the cancer won’t do.

    Nature, life and death.