November 4th, 2001

A Moose in Monterey

I digress from this journal's mainstream to bring some personal impressions of California, which I'm currently visiting (on business) for the first time. Specifically, I'm in Santa Clara (part of "Silicon Valley"), about a half-hour's drive from San Francisco.

The annual ATA (American Translators Association) conference has just ended in Los Angeles, and at first I thought I might drive down to LA to see a couple of old friends who now live in the States, and who attended the conference, as well as perhaps meet some people I remember from my time on the fabulous mailing list Lantra, several years ago. alexpgp is one, by the way. However, it turns out that it'd consume the entire weekend, and the eight or nine hours of straight driving are a little too much to do on your own, I think. So the LA idea was ditched, in favor of a less ambitious drive, to the cities Monterey and Carmel-by-the-sea, following several recommendations from Israeli colleagues.

So yesterday, noonish, I drove to San Francisco's outskirts, where I got on California State Road #1, going south. That road eventually takes you to Los Angeles. Road #1, leaving San Francisco, winds through a small forest, which had a nice diagonal sunbeams effect going, and immediately conjured up the image of the opening scene of Wagner's Parsifal, when Gurnemanz wakes up the sleeping holy knights of the Grail. I'm weird like that.

Emerging from the forest, I was enshrouded by mists. I opened the car window, to breathe in the air, and it smelt of water, and was cool and mysterious. The road wound its way over some hills, and then, all of a sudden, following a sharp curve, the pacific ocean revealed itself to me, glorious and primal. The mist was due to a huge cloud hovering over the ocean and slowly conquering the cliff on which I was driving as well.

Itching to pull over and gaze at the ocean, I was delighted to discover that some clever designers have created occasional wide shoulders in the road, to allow people to pull over safely, acknowledging the breathtaking view. (update: Kedorlaomer (T.G.) experienced the same) It was at one of those stops (I made at least six) that I thoroughly regretted not being able to draw. I was standing on a steep cliff with a slight diagonal angle, and the ocean beneath me rolled determinedly ashore, to crash against the unrelenting cliffside. I was breathing the cloud, which was slowly climbing the cliffside and rolling onto the road, and thence climbing the opposite mountainside, silently. I stood on a rock, above the ocean, and fought the urge to throw myself down. There's a name for this tendency, but I've never looked it up.

I was in awe. With all my acquired sophistication and worldliness (ha!), I was feeling the same way most people feel when facing things like Niagara Falls or Mount Everest -- Nature in all its glory, primordial landscapes and indefatigable forces, the puny insignificance of Man, etc. Even as I felt all that, I was trying to examine it critically. I could not help but speculate that man is a basically religious creature, in the pagan sense; that Protagoras is right (I've always believed that): Man is the measure of all things, and that therefore man is compelled to admire things larger and more powerful than himself. The ocean may not be able to build machines or fly to the moon, but it doesn't need to. Its resilience, the fact it is so perfect and devoid of weakness, is, I suspect, some of what makes its enduring power, which holds us spellbound.

Recovering from that, I drove on, down to Monterey. At my parents' recommendation, I drove "The 17-Mile Drive", which is a circular route south of Monterey and just north of Carmel-by-the-sea (the coast there is called Pebble Beach). It's basically an elite neighborhood entirely owned and maintained privately (they own the road and the beach, apparently). Paying $8.00 admission, I drove around the admittedly beautiful landscape and observation points. Lots of seagulls, no seals [pout], and plenty of chilly wind. The place is like a reservation, only it's spotted with elite golf courses. The whole place was a bit too upper-class for my taste, perhaps like modern Caesaria in Israel. I would have declared the whole thing a disappointment, if not for two heartwarming things: a street named Elk Run, and a house mailbox reading "Wit's End". Both brought a big smile.

I emerged from the 17-mile circuit at the Carmel gate, which dumps you smack in the middle of Carmel-by-the-sea. Carmel is a small town on the coast of the pacific ocean, and enjoys lots of tourists (the placed was teeming with them) and pretty houses. Another claim to fame it has is its mayor: Clint Eastwood (yeah, the same). I drove around the town, but since the sun was about to set and I wanted to see Monterey by day, too, and since the town appeared entirely commercial and quaint-on-purpose, I didn't stop and drove straight back to Monterey.

Monterey was the capital of California under the Spanish rule, and has some historic buildings and museums to show for it. Since I arrived in the evening, they were all closed, and I contented myself with visiting the somewhat-kitschy but very pleasant Fisherman's Wharf. Following warm recommendations from Israeli colleagues, I tried the famous local clam chowder. Now, I don't eat fish, lobster, or other seafood. But outside some of the restaurants there stood people who were dishing out free samples of their clam chowder. That's good marketing for you. I figured I'd give it a shot, and if I don't like the sample, no harm done. Well, I tried it, and it was rather yummy, very much like a rich, creamy mushroom soup. So in I go, and I have an excellent dinner consisting of clam chowder served in a large circular loaf of bread (yum!), and a decent fillet mignon with brandy-and-pepper sauce, this while gazing out at the Bay of Monterey.

Heading back to my hotel for my beauty sleep, I successfully navigated California's inner roads to make a shortcut to Santa Clara. I'm proud of myself.

I have some deeper thoughts about California, and about Israel, and about humanity, but I have a long technical document to get through, so I'll postpone that.

We shall return you to your regularly-scheduled ramblings and theorizin' (hi, alyna), as soon as I'm back in Israel, next Sunday.
  • Current Music
    Chick Corea - Hand me Down

A moment in America

Just now on CNN, Larry King replayed an interview with CBS's Dan Rather, from October 4th, in which they both viewed a minute from the first David Letterman show after the September 11th disaster. In that Letterman show (I'm telling all this as I saw it just now. I don't normally watch TV, and I've never seen the Letterman show), Rather answered some question and mentioned a verse from "God Bless America" (I think), saying they could never sing it the same again. As he said it, he broke into tears. Struggling to finish his sentence, his arm clasped by Letterman, apparently in an emotional flux himself, he sobbed and choked again, and began apologizing for the display. Letterman shook his arm supportively, and in a choked voice said something like: "Dan... Christ, you're a human being... Good God, this is...", and trailed off. Both men contended with their gushing emotion, and the audience, limited in expression as ever, applauded softly.

Here's my angle: Israelis like to be smug and feel superior to Americans. They like to pretend that Americans are automata, programmed by their own ultra-sophisticated consumerism and art of spin. All American television is taken to be basically "Hollywood" -- everything is planned, directed, targetted. The brilliant movie Wag The Dog makes the case remarkably well. But here are two veteran TV professionals, positively in tears at the thought of a verse in "God Bless America". This did not happen to Israeli TV broadcasters, and I doubt it will any time soon. Israelis are cynical, and also tragically innoculated against the shock, horror, and sorrow attendant upon terrorist acts. They would not find themselves bursting into tears over HaTikva, Israel's national anthem. It seems few people in the country could (I can't).

I think this is a symptom of Israel's fragmentary identity (i.e. the lack of a truly national identity), in stark contrast to the Americans' often-ridiculed patriotism. Phrases like "red-blooded American" or "American as apple-pie" seem, to the cynical Israeli, laughably naive and simplistic. Israelis have been living with dissonance in several huge issues, like religion and state, or the nagging necessity to realize that they're using "Israelis" to mean "Jewish Israelis", with non-Jews only being equal citizens de jure. This dissonance, I think, prevents many Israelis from being able to feel with their national anthem (which is strictly Jewish and Zionist, by the way, thereby excluding people such as me). This dissonance, I feel, eats away at the feelings of solidarity and fraternity which are the basis of a healthy society. This dissonance, these unresolved questions of identity and common, nay, national values, are challenges that Israeli are yet to overcome, and we can learn a lot from Americans, both on building a nation supporting diversity, and on banishing the all-too-common vice of racism and xenophobia, if not completely, then to remote corners of one's soul.

Hmm. Preachy.