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Friday, February 09, 2018

Portion of letter from Tel Aviv by my father

October 28, 1959
     Life on a kubbutz is a wondrous thing.  I could gladly spend my life here.  The people... every single one of them an idealist.  They are strong, they are smiling, they are beautiful.  There is much laughter and song here.  There is much togetherness:  as a community we eat and work, sing and play.  But often we can be alone to read, to listen to music, to wander along the beach.  There is complete freedom here.  One works with, not under.  There is no director, no boss.  Each person is an equal individual.

     Today as I was standing, pitch fork in hand, on a huge pile of green silage, I was exultant.  I was exultant looking first upon the many bales of golden hay, the neat houses with well-trimmed lawns, the barns, the cattle, the white waving wheat, the dark citrus groves, the deep blue sea, and then, all around us, grinning in defeat, the dry waterless desert.  There are still jackals on the sands, howling at night.  Here is something one can truly feel for.

     From nothing was this land conceived.  It is one of the driest, most sterile, rockiest places I have ever seen.  But Israel blooms.  There are green fields and cool orchards, gleaming white cities, immense irrigation projects.  And there are people!  People who have been persecuted for five thousand years.  Jews from Iraq and Morocco, Jews from Germany and Yemen.  And on their faces is not only the dream of a hundred generations, but the spirit of Israel today.  I have never felt so alive and aware as I am now.  I have never been so proud as I am now.  And I have never believed in anything so strongly as I believe in Israel.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Letter from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1963

Dear Mom and Dad,
     There are two fights here, and not one: the negro insisting upon his rights often takes second place to the internecine strife between the "Uncle Toms" who want to go slowly and take things easy, and the liberals who push and push-- sometimes so hard that they push themselves out of any Negro backing.  There are resignations and counter charges: the Pine Bluff Youth Movement becomes the Pine Bluff Progressive Movement and a new faction takes over.
     Seven months ago the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee sent a white field representative to Pine Bluff.  Bill Hansen is 24, dedicated, lives and dreams civil liberties.  He has had a very difficult time getting accepted by the Negro community(46% of the total population of Pine Bluff), but now is accepted wholeheartedly by the liberal faction and has been complained about to SNCC headquarters by the conservative Negro faction.  They want him out since one of his ideas is to fill up the jails.  His idea--which I subscribe to entirely-- is that once a kid gets sent to jail for freedom he is more than ever committed to the movement.
     I am living at Freedom House, the headquarters of the Pine Bluff movement.  There is another white boy from California.  What I do is difficult to say.  They won't allow us to picket or demonstrate or sit-in.  White agitators-- "nigger lovers"-- are the quickest means of starting violence.  Therefore, anything that we do must be circumspect.
     This afternoon, Governor Faubus spoke at the dedication of a new building at the Negro College.  Since yesterday, when I got here, I have been making posters for the kids to carry, such as
                                            Governer Faubus--
                                              Would you send Your children

                                        New Buildings Don't Teach--
                                        They only salve consciences.

     Who carries these signs?  Who has sat in or lain in or stopped buying at certain stores?  Who has gone to jail repeatedly?  A bunch of negro kids whose average age is 15!  Many 13 and 14 year old girls.  There are a few older boys of 17 or 18.
     There is a terrific spirit here in the 15-year-olds.  Unfortunately, this age group is the only communication with SNCC though they have tried the high school and "college" ages with little success.
     Yesterday we arrived an hour or so before 25 kids were released after 3 days in jail for sitting in the public library and demanding that they be issued library cards.  It was amazing to see how sophisticated in the ways of non-violence they were and also how backwards they were in most of their education.  Adamant about civil rights and ambitions no higher than the army or being a bootlegger.  But to hear them talk!  How they walked into the paddy wagon with their heads up and singing freedom songs; how they insisted that their names be spelled correctly when booked-- that their parent's name have a Mrs. or a Mr. in front of it.  How they sang for 3 days in jail with only 1 meal all that time, with very little water in cells that were 120-130 Fahrenheit.  (It is 2 in the morning now and the temperature in this cool house with a big fan is about 85 degrees.)  How they had no mattresses and slept on the stinking, filthy floors, eaten by roaches and fleas.  How they sang until they were hoarse.  Many of these were kids who had just finished taking part in a sit-in where they were locked in a part of a restaurant, hundreds of whites were jeering outside and the owner threw in large Dixie cups of ammonia and acid after thoughtfully turning the heat up full blast in the middle of the day.  When some of the kids got sick and passed out, the other sit-inners panicked and tried to get out.  After someone was knocked through a plate glass window the rest got out and by some miracle only a few were hurt by the white mob outside.
     So these were many of the same kids who just got out of jail and yet they all picketed Faubus.  We couldn't go because we would be white agitators.  Therefore we strolled up to the college which was swarming with police and troopers.  We passed the first cordon of them-- just going to hear Faubus and nowhere in sight of a picket line--when a policeman stopped us and motioned us into his car because we "looked funny".  After all, not too many whites ever step on the premises of a negro college.  Then we were driven downtown and locked safely up in the city jail.  A short time later we were released.
     This evening we went to a mass meeting where there were spirituals sung, and the preachers exhorted the negroes to stand up, to fight, to register, to vote.

     All this in two days.  How much I can do is doubtful.  But we are working on some sort of education plan that perhaps can be of some service in.

     Do not worry.  We do not want to get into any violence or go to jail since we are told this only hurts the civil rights movement.

My dad travels to Iceland

August 1, 1965
Reykjavik, Iceland

Dear Dad,
     It is cold here in Iceland and the wind blows at almost all times, but always in the back of the wind.  Surrounding one wherever one goes is the silence of an island somehow removed from the rest of the world in time and space.  I walk along deserted roads that lead nowhere, through meadows filled with flowers blowing furiously in the wind and shining in the clear northern light that only goes out for about one hour every 24.
     After the South, with its hot, humid violent days, Iceland is just the place to be.  Nothing to do, few people to talk to and a chance to get to know myself as well as nature.  I walk a great deal: 7,8,9,10 hours a day along the great, deep fjords, from one tiny village to another, through the streets of Reykjavik.  My body feels hard and healthy.  I can respond well to the quiet beauty of Iceland.  It is eerie here the wild ponies running through the green meadows, the forbidding clouds, the ruins of a 1000 year old civilization, the days that never end, the nights that never come, the boiling springs, the glaciers.  Iceland is a place that exists in dreams, in old books.  I feel that I have stepped into another age.
     This is all vague -- no facts, just musings, just wanderings.  But for this month I shall continue to lead a vague wandering life that has no relation to my life at home or in school but maybe closer to me that my usual life.
     In the evenings, I read French poetry -- by day I walk.  Now-- this is all that I desire.

Letter from my father to his parents during the civil rights movement in 1965

                        Tuesday morning, July 12  (1965, Bogalusa, Louisiana)
Dear Mom and Dad,
            As usual, no one in the Civil Rights movement knows what will happen in advance.  You may have heard that the Voter’s League rejected the 30 day moratorium on marches and demonstrations suggested by the Governor.  Therefore we will probably march this afternoon without a permit, probably cross the river to the court house and there may be mass arrests.  I will march at the end as usual in my white coat but I will not get arrested if I can help it.  I’m more useful now out of jail.
            Marching is an amazing experience; one is reminded of the Roman prisoners being paraded back in Rome.  Shouts and curses by the onlookers, there are confederate flags waving everywhere and gangs of teen age boys walk along taunting us.  As a white and as an obviously medical personnel I am often singled out: white trash, they jeer and their favorite epithet: Nigger Ben Casey!
            Along side of us and separating us from the white Bogalusa populace are long lines of blue shirted state troopers carrying pistols, rifles, machine guns, billy clubs.  We are followed by a bevy of police cars, some canine corps filled with barking German shepherds and a school bus (to pick up the demonstrators and take them to jail) flying a confederate flag.  With all the police we are presumably safe.  So far, only one shooting incident has occurred.
            The Medical Committee is housed with a Negro family- the Smiths.  He works in the Crown-Zellerback corporation, is a deacon and carries a gun wherever he goes.  His wife is a deaconess.  When the Klan rides at night, all lights go out in the Negro community and men and women sit up on their rocking chairs talking and cradling their shot guns.
            The spirit here in Bogalusa among the Negros is very high.  Mass meetings are well attended.  Last night I heard Lomax speak: poetry, as well as a gift of $15,000 for the Bogalusa Voter’s league.
            It seems like a very long time that I have been down here in the South!  I suppose this is partly because each moment is made important by the fact that one cannot take anything for granted.  At night we are not supposed to drive except with an armed armed deacon.  Like the front lines of a war, there are things we can do, things we cannot.  We do not know what to expect.  Therefore the present becomes of much greater import.
            Dad—I am looking forward to your description of your trip, especially when you were in Hungary.  Mother, you should be leaving soon and therefore Bon Voyage.  Don’t worry—things are fine.  I’m looking forward to my trip to Iceland.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


     I was shopping at Trader Joe's this evening and as I finished putting my purchases on the counter, the cashier asked me in an oh so casual way how my day was going.   It took me aback.  I didn’t know how to answer.  He was approaching me like an old friend with good understanding of me, as if asking me how the whole scenario of US relocation was going.  But he had only known me for 30 seconds.
     As I sit at my computer, reflecting on this, the first frame that comes to mind is reverse culture shock.  I start to write from this perspective.  I start to contrast this experience in Trader Joe's to how I felt shopping in France, following a familiar storyline based around a simple binary between public warmth in the US and public coldness in France.
     On reflection, two thoughts emerge that complicate this story.  The first is that if I think back in more detail to my French shopping interactions, it is not a sense of rudeness that comes to mind (at least not in the majority of cases).  I actually remember how sweet the employees at Franprix were that I shopped at weekly in Grenoble.  No, they didn't ask me a lot of questions and get to know me personally, but they were certainly warm and welcoming to me.   It strikes me that they would not deign to intrude on my private life.  They would not assume familiarity with someone they have spent such a small time getting to know.  While it is certainly a more formal approach, it also leaves a lot of room for mutual respect, and a sense that one can navigate substantial personal difference within the frame of this respect. How do we deal with real difference if we start with this assumption that everyone is just like us?
     The second thought that occurs to me is that the way I felt taken aback by the employee at Trader Joes and other businesses in America is similar to the feeling I experienced with respect to the homeless people on the street in Grenoble.  They were sharp and impeccably friendly and polite and invasive of personal space.  These encounters actually really disturbed me because I felt like this person shouldn’t be on the street if they have the psychological accuity to peg me and my mood in 10 seconds and try to draw me in to a friendly conversation.  Why don’t they use these reserves of mental health and psychological strength to earn money in a more productive fashion? In contrast to many American beggars who often strike me as truly destitute and on the edge of health and sanity, I was not motivated to give money to many of the French beggars.
     In any case, I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from these reflections on public formality versus familiarity and similarities between customer service in the US and homeless beggars in France.  But it does remind me to pause and think for a moment before spouting off stereotypes.

Thursday, September 07, 2017


As I prepare to leave Grenoble and start up a new life in Boulder, Colorado, I think about the moving process and also about what it means to have roots.

We often think of having roots in a country or in a region as meaning that we have a history there.  Our parents and grandparents and perhaps even many generations further back may have lived in this region.  This is an important definition of roots, and a powerful basis for a sense of belonging and embeddedness in one's life.

I want to consider a different definition of roots which is more directly related to the biological notion of plant roots.  Roots are a network that allows the plant to be nourished.  From this perspective, we can think of creating new roots in a more directed fashion.  In some ways, this is what I have attempted during my time in France.  For example, learning French is part of developing roots because it leads to such an array of connectedness and ability to communicate for practical needs, emotional connection, and general cultural belonging.  Knowing which grocery stores to go to, how to apply for a carte de sejour, and reading train and bus schedules is also a form of roots.

This line of thought also allows us to think about which kinds of environments may be suitable for us to live.  Some city or region may have many resources available to those who live there, but without the appropriately developed roots, one won't be able to take advantage of them and be nourished by them.

Of course, people aren't plants, but we all need nourishment, in so many different ways.  I think it is a valuable pursuit to start to make our roots in the world more visible!

Friday, March 25, 2016


Seeking community here.  The fog of language.  The separations.  “Les associations sont très figés,” I offer the group of Baha’i organizers who try to enthuse me about their vision of service and community growth at Achene's house in Fontaine.
            This is offered in response to a statement about how it is difficult to interface with the French associations.
            I try to develop my own sense of what positive work is in the development of community.  I log onto networked social software platforms like Twitter and Facebook, creating casual connections with people spread geographically.  Many I knew from before and I feel closeness and kinship.  But what is the common ground of life now?  An illusion of community is created.  It is illusory because we don’t actually have shared responsibility; or not by default, at least.
            The Baha’i group impresses me with its effectiveness, but as always, I wonder about that which is not said.  Only successes are shown.  They seem to have such a confidence in their rightness of approach.  But that approach is not up for discussion.  The answers lie in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, their interpretations by Abdul Baha and translations by Shogi Effendi.  Why choose this body of writings to found a new society?  And why the reluctance to attempt to convince via the ideas and coherence and rightness of the vision?  Instead I see the flexibility of a group that wants to govern, and its principles will adjust to the circumstance.
            Wendall Berry writes about the value of community, and its role in protection of some human values.  He always insisted community be tied to a geographical particularity, a piece of land.  Only the ties and care for a particular piece of land is adeauate to create the shared identity and responsibility that fulfills the full sense of the word community.
            The Transcendental Meditation organization also seeks a new government, a new organization of world society, here based on the writings and person of the ellusive guru who called himself the Maharishi.  Here, the outreach is achieved by meditation and a highly unlikely link made to quantum field theory.
            But with TM, the inward turn is encouraged.  Indeed, through this turning inward, the benefits to society are assumed to flow.
            How do we form a local community when so many have origins elsewhere?  I look to my own family history, Jews dispersing from a misty Eastern Europe of my imagination.  Shtetls in Ukraine and Moldova, complex political background in the Lithuanian city of Vladislovov on the German-Russian border.  My step-mother’s Armenian relatives fleeing a hostile Turkey, marching through desserts to Lebanon and Syria.
            And now I’ve gone back across the Atlantic, following abstraction, mathematics and science, trying to settle in a mountain surrounded cuvette of Grenoble.  Does it do my own life justice to imagine there will be a complete stopping of this generational motion?  Will I integrate into an old community, adding my spice and flavor to the mix?
            The loose ties on the digital, social networks can drain meaning from attempts at coherent social organization.  But they also create new possibilities, hinting at new stabilities.

Monday, February 02, 2015

On moving beyond messes and swamps

I've often conceived of various topics that I pour huge energies into as 'messes'.  Perhaps a 'swamp' is another way of conceiving it.  It is slow moving, and one may sink and be lost if not careful.

I suppose everyone must have their messes and swamps in life.

If I have approached mine in a slightly more intelligent way than others might, perhaps it is in that I try to recognize what I am doing as early as possible.  When one knows that one is working on a mess, one doesn't have overly grand expectations to come out of the work with something clean and easilly presentable.

Lately I've felt a bit lost again, like I took on one too many messes and truly lost my way this time.

What are some of these messes?  Family history has been one for me, although I feel like this is less of a mess now than it used to be.

Non-linear dynamics in accelerator physics has been another one of these messes.  I also feel like this is less of a mess.

But in both the case of family history, and non-linear dynamics for accelerator physics, I feel a kind of disappointment.  I feel like now that I can see things a bit more clearly, what I see is not beautiful enough to have justified the amount of torment these topics caused me.

I suppose the issue is that in both cases there has been a kind of trauma hiding there that obscured the topic.  It made it look like the topic was about one thing, when that was really just a very small part of the topic.  In the case of non-linear dynamics, that topic was normal form theory.  In the case of my family history, it was the story of the Armenian genocicde.  Not that both these topics aren't important in their own right, but due to a story of trauma, they have magnified themselves out of proportion until they sat in conceptual and emotional territory that did not belong to them.

In some way, the life of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is still doing that for me.  He was someone who should not have been such a big man, but through self-aggrandizement, took up more space than he deserved.  Reading his writings and debating his legacy thus becomes a kind of mess that I continue to fall in.

It can be hard to give up on something when one realizes that it isn't as great as one initially thought.  One is left with a lot of disappointment and with the job of seeing that one has a lot less than one thought.

Monday, September 29, 2014

History through family history

I continue with the story of my granparents, Dorothy and Acatius, following through my grandfather's finishing his medical thesis at the University of Geneva in 1933 and then moving to New York.  My father was born in 1938 in Astoria.  Several years later, they moved to Los Angeles, living in Los Feliz, near Hollywood.  We then get into more familiar territory, where I have heard a few stories from my dad about his childhood.  This puts him pre-baby boomer.  I know from some of his poems some of the stories as well.  And I know some of his friends that shared this time with him.

I write out of a need to fill in gaps.  I uncover a fact with a date and I polish it and use it to illuminate its surroundings and act as a tack on which to pin a quilt that creates a fabric that holds.
Today I add a tack for Los Angeles, 1950.  Now I just to fill in the time between then and 2014.
Or perhaps it will be 2020 before this happens.

LA, 1950 is a satisfying tack to place.  It includes my mother who was also living in LA at that time, born in 1943.

The gap includes the civil rights movement (1954-68).  It includes the 60's and the Vietnam War and the hippie movement that developed to some extent in opposition to the war.  There was also the Diggers of 1968 in San Francisco. And I suppose this is the time I was really born out of.