Friday, November 24, 2017

Lessons from last year's fire

Smoke rising from the direction of my home
One year ago today we had to evacuate our home due to fires in our area. Here are some of the lessons I learned from this experience.

People sometimes ask hypothetically: "What would you rescue if your house was on fire?" I faced this situation in reality, and the answer was that I just took my cat, Eleni, in her carrier, and my everyday backpack. I didn't think about saving any valuables, or any items of sentimental value, or even about taking practical things like a phone charger. When I heard that we had to leave, I just took Eleni and left. Since then I have prepared an emergency backpack, which I keep near the front door. It contains things like a change of clothes, food and water, cat food, toiletries, and a spare phone charger. I'd like to hope that there won't be a "next time", but if there is, I'll be better equipped.

The experience showed me something about my personal coping mechanism. When bad things happen, I tend to shut down emotionally and react practically. It's my way of protecting myself from becoming overwhelmed. During the entire experience, I was mostly just thinking about getting through the next few hours and not about the chance that our home and all our possessions might be destroyed. I don't know if this is necessarily a good response, but it seems to work for me.

I learned that Eleni is adaptable and flexible, provided she knows we are with her. During the 4 km. walk to the evacuation centre, the wait there all afternoon, and the night we spent with friends, she didn't panic the way she does when we go to the vet. In retrospect, I later realized that she must have already been deaf, so at least she wasn't bothered by the unusual sounds during this experience. I did realize, though, that things would have been more difficult if I'd had more than one cat! If this had happened a couple of years earlier, I would have been carrying both Eleni and Pandora, in two cat carriers as they wouldn't be willing to share. It did make me wonder if we'll ever have more than one cat again, considering the difficulty of escaping with them in emergencies!

I discovered who my friends are. Throughout the day, I got phone calls and messages from family and friends, and also from people who know me professionally. It was gratifying to know that so many people care about me. We received many invitations to stay at other people's homes overnight. In the end, we chose to stay with Maia and Ben. I'm very grateful for the welcome we received. They took their dogs to stay with relatives because Eleni was uncomfortable with them, borrowed a litter box for Eleni, made us dinner, and were great company, distracting us from worrying about our potential loss. I'm sure other people would also have been similarly helpful, and it's good to know that at times of need we're not alone.

Another lesson was that even the thought of losing everything we own didn't upset me as much as I would have expected. I thought to myself: "we're strong enough to overcome this", and decided that if we'd lost everything, this would be a good chance to start from scratch and live a more minimalistic lifestyle. The biggest loss, of course, would have been all our books. I don't know if we'd ever have replaced the vast majority of them, but perhaps it would have given us the opportunity to repurchase only the most important books. We own so many things we never use and may never use again. This got me thinking about decluttering our life and reducing the amount of possessions, and while we haven't done much of this yet, it's certainly on our to do list.

Finally, the experience of the fire added to my overall anxiety. I've lived through wars, rocket attacks, waves of terrorist bombings and stabbing attacks, other fires, and minor earthquakes. This was the event that came closest to having a major impact on my life. The feeling that something life-threatening could happen at any moment has never really left me, and each traumatic experience just reinforces the sense of fragility of my everyday reality. I don't let it control me, but it has changed my outlook on life. This is just something that I have to accept and live with.

Friday, September 15, 2017

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

This week our vet clinic, Medi-Vet, organized a different sort of customer event. Instead of the lecture evenings they have held before, with animal-related topics, this time they arranged a special screening of the documentary film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.

The film addresses the issue of climate change, focusing on the lead-up to the Paris Climate Agreement signed in 2016. I haven't seen the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, and I was expecting this film to present further evidence for human-caused climate change. It did some of that, but mainly focused on Al Gore and his efforts to educate about climate change and influence policy. While Mr. Gore is obviously sincere and committed to his cause, and could be considered a hero, I find hero-worship and personality cults distasteful and sometimes counterproductive, and would have preferred to see a bit less of this aspect.

Climate change has its opponents, who deny that it's happening at all, or deny that human activity has had any impact on the climate. These deniers seek to discredit the scientific proof. It seems that their reasons for this are disingenuous. In some cases these people have a vested interest in the polluting industries, while others consider it hubris to believe that humans could have such a profound influence, sometimes due to their religious beliefs that place humans as subordinate to deities.  However, the scientific consensus is unanimous, and choosing to reject and ignore it seems much more hubristic than accepting it and trying to mitigate the self-evident problem before it gets worse.

Also, many of the climate deniers have an ideological opposition to any government regulation, seeing it as a restriction of industry's freedom. But when the choice is between granting companies the freedom to make the world a worse place for the current population and for future generations in the name of short-term profit, and forcing them to do the right thing and care about humanity and our planet, I think regulation seems to be absolutely justified.

The film presented one of the ethical dilemmas facing the struggle for clean energy. Before and during the Paris Climate talks, the Indian government argued that in order to bring India (and other third world countries) out of poverty and into prosperity, they would have to use the tried and tested fossil fuel economy rather than the new renewable energy model. They argued that western developed countries had used fossil fuels for 150 years, and that the third world should be given a chance to catch up instead of being accused of polluting the planet. This is a flawed argument. Once you know that something is bad, you stop using it no matter what its benefits might be. One could similarly argue that some of the US economy's early progress was based on slavery, and therefore other countries should be allowed to use slavery to catch up.

In all ethical arguments, justice lies on the side of what benefits the community as a whole. In this case, the community is the entire human race and the whole planet. The problem is that the issue is being addressed on a country level and the human race has yet to achieve the cohesion required for a global consensus. I would have expected the whole of humanity to unite in the face of this global threat, but instead we still see governments thinking in narrow national terms. I hope this sort of thinking will change.

The film showed how Al Gore was instrumental in getting India to sign the Paris Climate Agreement. He achieved this by obtaining favourable conditions for the construction of solar power facilities in India instead of the polluting fossil fuel power plants that India had been intending to construct. Ultimately, the use of renewable energy is a win-win situation. It does create jobs and does contribute to economic growth, despite what the deniers argue. It is particularly suited to third world countries, where there is a lot of sunshine and wind that can be converted into clean energy. And, as the film pointed out, installing renewable energy in third world countries is similar to the "leapfrogging" effect of third world countries adopting cellular phone technology instead of emulating the past path of western development by starting with land-line phones.

As the film drew to a close, we all knew what was coming. After the hope inspired by the Paris Climate Agreement came the disappointment of President Trump's decision to withdraw the US from it. It seems that progress is always two steps forward, one step back. This short-sighted ideological stupidity, which is either incredibly ignorant or incredibly malicious (or both) will have a devastating effect on the planet we all share. We can only hope that this withdrawal will be short lived, and that the next US administration will do what it can to redress the balance. In the meantime, individuals, companies, and governments should do what they can to reduce their carbon footprints and contribute to educating the public on the importance of science and progress.

This was a thought-provoking film, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to watch it and think about the issues it raised.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Living with a deaf cat

Our cat Eleni, aged nearly 18, has recently become deaf. We don't know exactly when it started, and presumably it was a gradual process. It took us a while to be certain.

The symptoms of deafness include, obviously, not reacting to sounds. Eleni stopped responding when called, and also stopped being startled by loud noises like she used to. She also started meowing really loudly, because she can't hear herself.

Deafness is common in senior cats, and there's nothing to do about it. When we told the vet, he just shrugged. But while we can't change her condition, we have had to adapt our interactions to this new situation.

First, we obviously can't call her. We have to get into her field of vision and make hand gestures at her. She is learning to come when beckoned. We also can't comfort her by talking to her when she meows in another room, and have to get up and go to her, see if anything's wrong, and help her get settled.

We have to accept the loud volume of her meows, which have often made people talking to me on the phone to comment on my "crying baby"!

We have to be careful not to startle her when we approach. It can be disconcerting when we walk up behind her and she doesn't realize. So we have to try to move gently into her field of vision so she sees us. I've also tried treading more heavily on the floor, hoping that she'll feel the vibrations of my footsteps, but this doesn't seem to work. Perhaps our tiled floor doesn't pass the vibrations as well as a wooden floor would.

One advantage of her condition is that she is no longer upset by loud noises, including dogs barking outside and things like sirens and thunderstorms. In fact, she now sleeps more deeply, sometimes for many hours.

Eleni has also become more interested in watching the computer screen, where we watch kitten cams, live safaris, and various films and series. She seems to recognize cats on screen, and particularly enjoys watching birds.

I wonder what it felt like to have her hearing gradually weaken and disappear. Does she feel isolated? Does she feel threatened by not having this important sense? The only thing I can compare this to is my frustration as my eyesight became imperfect before I got glasses, but that is nothing like losing a sense entirely.

I miss seeing her swivel her ears around to hear sounds coming from different directions. Her ears are now almost permanently in the relaxed, front-facing position.

I still talk to her. This is partly because it's a habit and I do it for my own benefit, as part of treating her as a person. I also hope that perhaps when she's sitting on or next to me she might sense the vibrations of my speech.

To make up for the lack of vocal communication, we spend more time stroking and holding her. She's always been a very tactile cat, and now that she's elderly and less active, she demands and receives even more physical contact. I hope that this makes up for the loss of her hearing as much as possible.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Happily Married

Today we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. To mark this occasion, I want to share some thoughts on what makes a happy marriage, along with some of our wedding photos.

To have a happy marriage, you have to choose the right person. I strongly believe in choosing someone similar to you, and dislike the phrase "opposites attract", at least when it comes to stable relationships. Partners should share the same values and should agree on important matters like religion and politics, whether to have children and how to raise them, and what lifestyle they want to share.

In order to find a suitable partner, you have to understand yourself and learn what is important to you. You also have to learn how to be authentic and communicate your true self when entering an intimate relationship. The early days of falling in love involve taking some risks. At first, you may not be sure that your love is reciprocated, and you may fear rejection. Ideally, both partners share their feelings for each other early in the growing relationship and learn how to talk openly and honestly.

Marriage is the most intimate form of friendship. Friends understand each other and want what's best for each other, and married friends have a vested interest in each other's happiness and well-being. You want to do what's best for your partner, and to be the best person you can, both for yourself and because it benefits your partner. You want to support your partner's development and help them be the best person they can. There's some sort of mutually beneficial altruism in being part of a committed couple.

As one of the few people whose first relationship turned into a happy marriage, I am unable to compare relationships that eventually end with those that last, at least from my personal experience. One of the important things is to form a sense of "us" early on, and to make that the centre of your life. People around you may not see your partner the way you do, or may not understand the strength of your relationship. Once you have decided to make the commitment to spend your lives together, your priorities are decided.

People sometimes ask "why get married?". I think that making a public commitment to each other, a declaration of intentions, can strengthen a relationship. The fact that most societies have a system of formalizing relationships indicates that this is a human need. There are also legal advantages to being a married couple, which is why I think all countries should have full equality for adults to marry their partner of choice, and a range of options, including both civil marriages (like ours) and various religious ceremonies.

I see marriage as a commitment of two individuals to share their lives and form a household or family. Within this formal arrangement, each couple has a relationship based on the partners' personalities and behaviours. A good marriage allows each partner to grow and develop, knowing that their spouse gives them support and trust. My visual image for a marriage is of two trees planted next to each other. Over the years, the roots and the branches become intertwined, holding and supporting each other, but the trees are still separate individuals and can develop in their own way.

Successful marriages are those where the partners respect, trust, and even admire each other, along with the expected love, affection, warmth, and compassion. There should be no power struggles within a marriage, and both partners should know that what benefits one of them benefits both, rather than coming at the expense of the other partner.

Ultimately, happily married couples grow old together, sharing the memories and accumulated wisdom of their long, shared experience. Knowing that someone knows you so completely and has chosen to share a lifetime with you must be one of the most satisfying feelings possible.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Pixies Live at Caesarea

Last night I saw the band Pixies play live at Caesarea Roman Theatre.


This was the first time I've watched a show at this venue, an ancient theatre seating about 4,000 people, right by the sea. We sat right at the top and enjoyed the sea breeze after a very hot and humid day.


It was a nostalgic concert for me. I enjoyed the Pixies' music in the late eighties and early nineties, and it both informed my subsequent musical taste and influenced some of the other bands I love.


I was familiar with the older songs, and found that the newer songs were consistent with their signature sound. Their style can best be described as distortion guitar rock with weird lyrics. The songs are quite short, and the concert moved quickly from one song to the next.


The performance was polished and professional, with good acoustics and lighting, but it lacked any personal interaction with the audience. People who come to see bands play live crave the appreciation of the musicians they enjoy, and it seemed strange and perhaps even hostile that the Pixies didn't even say "good evening", let alone acknowledge what country they were in.


It seemed that the audience wanted to enjoy the show regardless of this coldness and despite some of them, like me, not being familiar with the band's entire repertoire. The atmosphere might also have been slightly muted by the venue not selling any beer, which tends to be standard at rock concerts. Also, although smoking was prohibited in the theatre, many people ignored this and smoked, which reduced the enjoyment of non-smokers like me.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Radiohead Live in Tel Aviv

Last night, I was one of the 47,000 people who watched Radiohead live in the Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv.

Radiohead has been one of my favourite bands from the beginning, and their music is a regular part of my life. I've always admired both their creative genius and their artistic integrity. I'm not a fannish person and tend not to display my taste in art as part of my identity, but my phone's ringtone is Radiohead's "High and Dry".

A music critic might describe their style as layering complex rhythms with both melodious and dissonant tones to create lyrical soundscapes. To me, their music is sophisticated, beautiful, interesting, and a particular flavour of weird that appeals to me. It sends shivers down my spine.

The concert included songs from all the stages of Radiohead's development. They say it was their longest show for a long time, and they played several beloved favourites. Listening to their recorded music is intimate, but hearing the loud, live performance was a much more visceral experience.

From where I was standing, I couldn't see the stage itself, and the screens were not much help. The side screens mixed the close-ups of the band members with the video art shown on the central screen. But I didn't mind too much as I was there to hear the music more than to see the performers. The visual effects were spectacular.

The band's decision to play in Israel has been controversial since it was announced, with BDS proponents trying to persuade them to cancel it. Thom Yorke commented on stage, somewhat obliquely: "A lot has been said about this, but in the end we played some music".

BDS supporters single out Israel for criticism, ignoring other countries that commit much worse atrocities and human rights violations. Israel is far from perfect, but supporting its right to exist does not imply endorsing its current government and all its policies, as many Israeli citizens can attest. In the song "No Surprises", the lines "Bring down the government / They don't speak for us" received the loudest mid-song applause I heard all night.

I enjoyed this experience and wish that everyone who loves music gets a chance to see their favourite artists perform live.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Jill Pickford - Sing to the Moon

Jill Pickford, Sing to the Moon: Tales from the Kitten Cam, Greater Circle Productions, 2017.

This is a book of short stories, poems, and illustrations relating to the livestreaming kitten cams I have been watching online for about five years. I read some of the stories on the author's blog, KittenKamKattery, when they first appeared. It is good to see them collected and published in a format that, I hope, will reach an audience beyond the cams' dedicated viewers.

The stories revolve around the lives of cats and kittens living in foster care and later in their forever homes. They create a whimsical fantasy of the cats' internal lives and social interactions through two main devices: first, the Great Circle, a way that cats can communicate with each other over great distances through the magic of the moon. Second, the feline afterlife the follows crossing the Rainbow Bridge. These concepts embody two desires of cat lovers: to believe that their cats can communicate with each other, even remotely, so they can keep in touch with relatives adopted elsewhere, and learn from each other; and to believe that their deceased cats have gone to a better place full of pleasure.

The stories are vividly written, charming, and full of emotion. To use the term "sentimental" would imply that they were somehow superficial or exploitative, while in fact they serve a real purpose for the reader, helping to process the genuine emotional impact of loving (and eventually losing) cats. Whether or not readers choose to believe in a feline afterlife or enjoy anthropomorphism of cats, the world created by these stories feels true to something authentic about the nature of cats and the love between humans and their pets. The personalities portrayed, the interactions, and the poignant feelings and lessons are in tune with how we would like to think about our cats.

I recommend this book to cat lovers everywhere, whether they watch online kitten cams or have yet to be introduced to this pleasure.

The kitten cam that started it all is Foster Dad John's Critter Room.