Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A few thoughts on my Israel trip

Here’s the problem with trying to write a blog on my trip to Israel. It was so amazing, so wonderful that I want to write about everything I did and saw. However, except for my Mom, I suspect no one wants to read a 10-page blog post. So, I’ll try and just jot down a few observations and anyone who is planning a trip can hit me up for details.
I’ll start with a cliche. You must go visit Israel. Not because its your duty, not because its can be spiritually uplifting, not because your Mom wants you to, though those are all good reasons. You need to go because it’s an incredibly magical place to visit.  As wonderful as Europe is, when you are in Israel you are really aware of being in a completely different world. Plus there is something for everyone, no matter what your interests. Love exciting cities, wonderful restaurants, luxury hotels? Check. Love ancient history, walking tours, people watching? Check. Love hiking, nature, and outdoor activities? Check.
We spent 2 days with wonderful tour guides; one to visit the North and the other in Jerusalem, which added so much to our trip. We also did a small group excursion to Masada and the Dead Sea. Aside from that we were on our own and it was incredible easy.
A few brief thoughts. I can see why the kids fall in love w Tel Aviv and never want to leave. Around every corner there is a garden or courtyard with trees, fountains, playgrounds and inviting benches so you are both in the city and away from it all at once. Everywhere you go there are children playing, dogs romping and young couples falling in love. Add to that an incredible beach right in the city where people are swimming, eating, and playing morning, noon and night.  How does taking a walk along the seaside promenade while the sun sets into the Mediterranean Sea sound? It's hard to imagine a younger, more vibrant, more enchanting city.
Jerusalem is where you really feel like you are in a completely different world. There is nothing like it. The old city is so perfect that at first it feels like a Disney creation and the Hasidim like character actors paid to wander around to add flavor. You can go back every day to just sit, stare and walk and never get tired of it. The new city is filled with pedestrian streets and courtyards all packed with people, mostly young, drinking, talking, yelling and playing music. It is wonderfully new and alive.
History is everywhere. As a Philadelphia I’m proud of our wonderful colonial history, which of course pales in comparison to Europe with its medieval structures. Then you come to Israel where 5000 years of history are everywhere, usually all in the same spot. You stand on ancient Roman ruins, so perfectly preserved it seems unfair to call them ruins. On almost the same spot are the ruins of the Ottomans, the Byzantines, the crusaders, and a few more empires no longer standing.
So I’ll stop typing now though I long to ramble on and on. Final words; just go.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What kind of Art do you Like?

Recently, I was asked, “What kind of art do you like”? A simple question but one I found incredibly difficult to answer. ‘I like lots of different types’ seemed inane. So did listing them, post impressionism, abstraction, installation…I don’t mind a bit of humor. I don’t like being too creeped out. I prefer painting to sculpture. I don’t want all technique and no emotion. Or all emotion and no technique.  None seem satisfactory answers.
There’s always the old standby, stealing Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography-I know it when I see it. And while that’s true, since being asked the question, I have been thinking about trying to figure out a real answer.
The hard problem is that every answer is both simultaneously true and false. For example, I have found that the more I learn about an artist or about an art form the more I love it. Except when I don’t. While I love Duchamp and have some knowledge about him, I have refused to learn anything about one of my favorite pieces, Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. (Go see it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) I’ve always found the piece to be incredibly moving and unlike my general attitude to everything else art related I’ve decided to keep my interaction with the piece solely emotional rather than intellectual. I don’t know why.
Another answer that is both true and false; I want art that shows me something I haven’t seen before, either visually or emotionally. Look at enough art in enough galleries and you feel like you are seeing the same pieces over and over again.  Something fresh, something that makes me stop and look again, is always desired. On the other hand, I can find myself visiting the same paintings over and over again, and the pleasure and impact is still there.
And none of these answers address perhaps the more important question, which is why do you like art at all? Why does it feel so important and so worthwhile? But perhaps that’s best left for another day.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The IRS scandal , in my humble opinion, a with a little insider insight...

Full Disclosure.  One; I worked for the IRS, in two different positions and departments. Two; It was many years ago and I am no longer in touch with anyone who still works there. In short, this is simply my opinion.
In my opinion the current IRS scandal has nothing to do with the targeting of conservative political groups. I would say the same if it was liberal leaning or left wing groups who had been the center of the scandal. This is not to say that in the past Presidents haven’t used the IRS to target their enemies. They have. I just don’t think that is the case here.
One of the IRS defenses has been that they began to be overrun with requests for non-profit status applications from groups that seemed to be political in nature and in an attempt to get a handle on the workload they picked key terms like tea party or patriot to help in sorting. While this may seem to be a lame excuse , to someone who worked there this explanation makes perfect sense.
First it helps to understand that the IRS is an agency that prides itself on being efficient. While anyone who has ever dealt with a government agency may find that hard to believe, its true. When I worked there, again, many years ago, we used to make fun of other federal agencies for being, in our eyes, inefficient and useless. A fun parlor game was turning their initials into mean nicknames. For example, the OMB was the office of mismanagement and bureaucracy. I guess we saw ourselves as the cool clique and the other agencies as being those kids we wouldn’t sit with at lunch. Again, this was many years ago but I suspect that type of culture doesn’t change.
Of course if your organizational pride is based on your efficiency, maintaining that efficacy is essential. This isn’t always easy in a place where the workload can be both overwhelming and out of even managements control. Remember, a private company can choose to not take on more work, or more clients, than it can handle. The IRS doesn’t have that ability. It can’t for example, say, ‘sorry, can’t handle any more tax returns this year’ or ‘we have our max on applications for non-profit status’.
At my first IRS job my co-workers and I were handed a caseload considered at least 2x the ideal number. Our job was to close as many as possible as quickly as possible.  Not that this reduced your workload, as there were a never-ending number of cases waiting in the wings. But fast, efficient workers were praised, admired, respected.
Its not hard for the drive to efficiency to go a little haywire. While I was there I worked on a task force that investigated the scandal of that time involving a large number of tax returns that had gone missing. The answer turned out to be neither sinister nor Machiavellian. A group of employees, overwhelmed with their workload, and wanting to impress their bosses with their efficiency simply got a little too creative. Picture Lucy and Ethel working that chocolate conveyor belt.
Almost everyone I worked with at the IRS took his or her jobs and responsibilities very seriously. No one would have ever suggested doing anything illegal or immoral. But proposing a creative solution to streamline an overwhelming workload? That would have been welcome. Perhaps welcomed too fast, without consideration as to how it would look to those outside the agency. But maybe the villain here is underfunding an agency, not those trying to do their job

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Real Moms Dont Cook

A  shortened version of a great article in sunday's new york times by Jessica Soffer.

Wow , I hope my kids feel this way!

Real Moms Dont Cook

My mother is a great believer in takeout. She has her reasons.

She is a pragmatist. For her, it’s about the destination — not the journey. Five minutes devouring something scrumptious does not justify, in her opinion, hours and hours of shopping and chopping.
Perhaps most important, she’s not a big eater. She could survive on a steady diet of grapes and books. When smoothies became the fad, she jumped right on the bandwagon. Not for their health benefits, but because they freed her from the pretense of a traditional meal.
Food in a cup. Call it done. Call it dinner. 

It’s not that she never cooked. She had her go-to recipes  but even had she not, I wouldn’t have minded. Growing up, I pined for nothing in the mother department. My mother is the stuff that dreams are made of, minus the meatloaf and marble cake. The fact that she preferred talking to me while paging through the Times’ Book Review than while stirring a caldron of Bolognese did not mean that she loved me less, was any less motherly. 

And yet it seems that everywhere — in commercials, films, books — I find the conflation of parental love and cooking. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that mothering can be smeared onto a sandwich, nurturing tucked between the wings of a garlicky roasted chicken. 

 But my impulse is to defend her — as if telling the truth would be revealing a dark family secret, my mother’s shortcomings, and worse.
  As if I have to justify it. As if she didn’t feed me. As if she didn’t love me. As if she wasn’t quite simply the best, which she was. Is. 

But cooking accounts for only one part. Whenever I visit my mother for dinner there is all the love a person can handle in the tidy form of endless sashimi, shumai and Stella Artois. Love is evident in takeout, too.
When Hurricane Sandy hit last fall, my boyfriend and I headed north from our apartment in Lower Manhattan to my mother’s place, on higher ground, where there was electricity, running water and cellphone service. After the storm, more than one person said how nice that must have been: a home-cooked meal.
But no. Yes, it was nice. But the nice part was her: being with her, ordering Indian for dinner, watching the news and eating apples on the couch, reading as she tucked my feet into a blanket.
The nice part was being in my mother’s hands, whether those hands held a spatula or not — then, now or ever. 

Jessica Soffer is the author of the novel “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.”

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Nation of Wusses! Listening to Rendell

A Nation of Wusses!
Had the great pleasure of seeing Governor Rendell speak last night in Upper Dublin. He is promoting his book, A Nation of Wusses: How America's Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great.
Appropriately, he was introduced by a beautiful young woman who spoke warmly and articulately of her admiration for him and also poked a little fun at his tendency to shoot his mouth off. It was a great introduction.
The governor began by saying that he believes his greatest achievement was the changes in Philadelphia under his time as mayor. Not so much the substantive changes, though they were significant, but that he restored a sense of pride in Philadelphians and made people believe in the city again.
He remarked that he had spent 34 years in public life; as a DA, mayor, governor and Democratic party chair. In what I felt was the most moving part speech he said that his life of public service has been thrilling, exciting and rewarding. “I didn’t make a lot of money but I made peoples lives better.”
How many of us will be able to say the same about our lives work? 
According to Rendell he wrote the book for two main reasons. One was to encourage young people to go into public service as he worries that the current negative political scene will discourage them.
The other was to clearly articulate his view that government is not the enemy. While it may not have 100% of the solutions it is essential in protecting our most vulnerable citizens and creating opportunity for those who do not have any. As he pointed out after 9-11, Katrina, and Sandy no one was calling for less government.
He spoke about what he sees as the main problem facing the country today; elected leaders who lack the guts to get anything done. He noted that our country was founded by shopkeepers and farmers who had the chutzpah to think they could defeat the greatest army in the world, and by men with fortunes who were willing to risk it all to do the right thing.
He emphasized that we cannot have a first rate economy with a second rate infrastructure. Currently America has the 22nd best railroads and the 32nd best airline transport system. As every successful business knows you need to invest in yourself.
He noted that democrats need to stop being afraid to agree to entitlement reforms and republicans need to agree to revenue enhancement. He believes politicians are terrified of special interests and of making a mistake in the media. They need to believe in the intelligence of the voter. He noted that he raised taxes significantly in his first term as governor, a point hammered on by his opponent. But he won by 22 points because “we did stuff”.
During the Q and A he was asked if he had any future political ambitions. He joked that while he wouldn’t mind being president he had no interest in running for president. ‘I don’t want to spend three years of my life in Iowa and New Hampshire’. He felt Hillary received terrible campaign advice in 2008 and offered to run her next one for free!
He reminded us that we must vote in all elections, not just presidential ones. The ‘off years’, when we elect the state legislatures, are often the most important as they determine who controls Congress thorough redistricting.
It was a terrific evening and we can only hope that we can fill Rendell’s prescription for our national health with elected officials who have the ”heart, courage and willingness to do the right thing”

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Volunteering. How it all goes terribly wrong.

Volunteering. Not as easy as it looks.

I've done a lot of volunteering in my life for a variety of organizations. Religious, political, art related, educational. Along the way I've learned a few things both about being a volunteer and also about how to, and how not to, use one.
Since every non-profit has a disproportionate amount of work to funds you would assume they would be ecstatic to have a free, enthusiastic labor. Sadly, this is often not the case.
Many non-profits suffer from dystracto-volunteer, the inability to
properly handle a volunteer.

The most common variety is slotism, where the organization is only able to use a volunteer in one narrow way. The 'slot' could be anything from fundraising to answering phones. What if that slot isn't immediately available, or the volunteer is unable to do that particular task?  The organization sends them away, losing their talent, passion, and connections to their friends and family.

Another common variety is non-prepareism, also known in-capablism, in which the organization is completely incapable of knowing how to use a volunteer.
Symptoms can range from having volunteers sit around for hours doing nothing to, in severe cases, never returning emails or calls from prospective volunteers.

The final variety, volunteer odiumism, is the rarest but most harmful variety. In odiumism the employee assigned to give work to or train the volunteer approaches them with fear or disdain rather than appreciation.  In some cases this is a result of the employee being insulted by the idea any portion of their job could be done by an unpaid, and therefore less skilled, person. In other cases the paid employee fears that the volunteer is secretly there to make them look bad and steal their job. There is little to no cure for this affliction.

Not that all volunteers are blameless. While the ideal volunteer comes to an organization with the noble intention of reducing its workload, and helping it to achieve its mission without increasing its expenses, not all volunteers are noble. Some come with the conviction that they alone know the secret to making the organization more successful. Others are more interested in socializing than working, or are uninterested in performing any task they feel is beneath their lofty perch.

Still, the smart organization can usually find a way to sooth these egos and successfully match their volunteers’ skills with their own needs. The result is well worth the effort.