Friday, February 29, 2008

Politics in the Snow

Fridays are usually a day of low productivity for me. My workplace usually closes up shop around noon, and I generally head down to Paoli to put in a few hours at my dad's shop. Today I'm positively dragging ass, mainly since I was in Milwaukee last night to catch the Drive-by Truckers at the Pabst. More to come on that later. But I do have a lot to post about. Over the last couple weeks I've been fairly busy. Here's one of the interesting things I've done lately:Two weeks ago the political spotlight was on Wisconsin, as our primary elections came around. As a result, there were suddenly candidates criss-crossing the state. I ventured out one cold Tuesday night to see Barack Obama at the Kohl Center in Madison. I met up with M. Haak, who still apparently has my Tragically Hip CD. We hit up the west-side Tex Tubb's and made our way downtown. It was packed, and the Kohl Center was standing room only. We stood around waiting for about an hour and a half, with music playing on the PA and a few warm-up speeches from campaign staffers. After seeing the Will.I.Am video on the scoreboard screens, Governor Jim Doyle came out and introduced Obama. The place went nuts. Cameras flashes were ubiquitous, and I added my own contribution, resulting in these pictures. Obama gave a fairly typical (from what I've seen on the news) stump speech, coupled with a defacto victory speech for the Potomac Primaries (VA, MD & D.C.). His speech clocked in around thirty or forty minutes, but he is an unbelievably gifted speaker so the time seemed to really fly by. I had come with the intentions of passively listening to his positions with the pretense of being undecided, but toward the end I was enraptured and cheering along with the crowd. I was highly impressed. I try to keep knowledgable on current events and politics, so I like to think my BS detector is well-tuned. In that setting, however, I was swept along with the emotion and enthusiasm of the crowd. Regardless, I've come back down to Earth and can look back on the experience (somewhat) rationally: I was able to see a Presidential candidate speak in a live setting, and it's something that everyone should take an opportunity to do at least once.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Greetings from Grand Rapids, MI

It's been a strange 2008 so far: I haven't had a site trip since November. I almost didn't know what to do with myself. Thankfully this has been resolved, as I'm sitting in a hotel room in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I'm splitting my time between looking out my hotel window at the lunar eclipse and watching Bill Maher on HBO (and posting, of course), neither of which I get to do on a regular basis. Tomorrow it's on to Oakland County, outside of Detroit and then Ypsilanti. Then I can get back to doing not so much at the office, and maybe post a bit more on Israel.

Monday, February 11, 2008

At the Ramon Crater

I was asked if I had any pictures of myself in Israel. The answer is: Yes, but not too many. I was the only person with a camera so I was generally doing all the picture-taking. A couple of times I handed the camera off to Natan. I do not really take "good pictures" and a lot of these are not an exception. The bright sun generally had me squinting to the point that my eyes appear to be closed. But I went through all of the pictures, and this one's respectable. Here I am at the Ramon Crater overlook:

Saturday, February 09, 2008

D4 @ Club 770

I'm going to take a brief detour from the book I'm writing on my vacation to Israel to tell the story of a Friday night on campus. As I previously posted I was frickin' stoked to see this band. I might have been a bit off on the math - it was more like five and a half years since I'd last seen D4. Regardless, once I'd read on Punknews.Org that they were playing a one-off in Madison there was simply no way I would miss this. Twice before I had gone over to Club 770 in Union South to see them, in 2002 and 2003 I believe. At the time I was still in college, resisting the inexorable pull to graduate. Both times I more or less attended the show solo. The first time I had convinced my friend Missy to come, since no one else could be persuaded. She brought along a date whose name I doubt I ever bothered to learn. What I do recall was his predilection for country music, most definitely not in line with the straight-up punk slated for that Sunday night. I don't think they stayed past the first of the opening (and admittedly shitty) local punk bands. I recall Missy coming up to me and saying they were leaving, and if I wanted a ride back to my apartment I'd have to go with 'em. I declined, of course, and was treated to one of the better shows I can recall. Yeah, I had to walk back by my lonesome the mile and a half to my off-campus apartment, and I think it was late winter, but it was worth it.

The second time the Dillinger Four came to Madison, I was living a bit closer to campus. I had convinced my roommate Joe to come with, since he wasn't doing anything else that night. Well, I waited for a couple of hours for him but he didn't come home from work that night. I finally got him on the phone and he informed me that he was going to hang out with his girlfriend instead. His choice, but a little heads-up would have been nice. Anyway, the show was killer, and I got to talk with the band afterwards. It topped the previous year's show by far, and cemented D4's status as my favorite punk band. There was a bit of lingering controversy, however. Joe and his girlfriend Erin accused me of pouring wine on Joe's bed after I got back from the show. I'll admit I was pissed at the dude before the show, but afterwards I was blissed out - I went back to my room and played Midwestern Songs of the Americas, Versus God and "Situationist Comedy" until the wee hours.Now you've got the backstory, here's the newest chapter. I made my way up to Madison Friday evening after having dinner with my parents. This time I knew that I was going by myself. I parked and made my way over to the Union. Even though I graduated long ago, I still don't feel too old to go to the Union. Part of it is that I received a lifetime membership upon graduation as a gift from my parents - one that just keeps on giving. This was going to be a night of reliving the past. Much like the time I saw the Lawrence Arms, I got to look back from 27 to 18. The memories have dulled with age (and adult beverages) but in the right situations they come back, clear as day.

The first band is a local punk act called The Gusto. I missed the first part of their set, but what I heard I enjoyed. As it turns out this band is made up of several members of a band called Koji, who played the Madison all-ages scene way back when I was in high school. I remember seeing them play multiple times along with Introversion, the band my high school friends were in. I'm happy to see they're still around, doing what it is they love to do. Believe me, there's not a whole lot of money in being a punk band. The second band was called Garrison Killer, and while it wasn't exactly my thing they got a decent response from the crowd. The crowd, by the way, was young! You would expect as much from an all-ages show on the UW campus, but some of these damn kids just amaze me. I realize that I wasn't around in '77 with the Clash and the Pistols, but these ones were even born when Op Ivy was around! (Yeah, I didn't exactly get into Op Ivy until I was 17 either - it wasn't like my nine-year old self was jumping around at 924 Gilman)

The next two bands were hardcore bands, a genre that doesn't hold any appeal for me. It was interesting to see some of the hardcore fans, however. The lead singer of the first band, In Defence had a bit of a temper flare-up about five songs into the set and stormed off for a bit. There were about 30 people up front that made up a little pit, and they managed to get a few people up - I've never been one to crowd-surf, but with that few of people there weren't as many people crashing to the floor as I would have imagined. The last opening band was Get Rad!, out of Milwaukee. Again, not really my thing. What was nice was I ran into a couple of guys that I knew - Kevin, who works for E Eugene during the landscaping season, and Dave, the younger brother of one of my high-school friends. I spoke with them while we waited for D4 to come on stage. Both Kevin and Dave decided they wanted to get right up front. I kept a bit off to the side - I'm getting a bit too old for the pit!D4 hit hard and heavy. The crowd went nuts. Even from my position off to side I was still knocked around a good deal. I even got a shoe to the neck as someone came tumbling down after crowd-surfing. The band flew through songs I've been singing along to for years. It was magic. There were so many things I remember, funny banter, little explanations of songs, and a faux smack-down of In Defence - Paddy indicated that the lead singer was doing cocaine and telling racist jokes backstage, not a very straight edge thing to do. He also asked who had been to their last show and I got to raise my hand with pride - take that you damn kids! I absolutely loved it. I knew every song and sang along with every line. The hour or so they played just flew by, and at the end of the show I was ten years younger in spirit, if not in body. It's why I still listen to punk. No matter how old I get, and no matter where my wandering musical tastes take me, I don't believe anything will ever be able to replace that feeling.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Following a packed day of touring the Negev, including Mitzpe Ramon, we west east on Saturday to the Judean Desert. The drive from Kibbutz Urim took about two hours, which was about the longest to date I had experienced in Israel. I still have a hard time comprehending how so much fits into a place that small. As we drove Julia explained the Bedouin towns constructed by the Israeli government and the unrecognized villages throughout the Negev. We drove past several of these along the way. As we approached the Judean Desert the landscape became steeper and the popping of my ears indicated we were dropping in elevation. Soon we had descended nearly 1,000 feet below sea level. At this point David pulled over at a scenic overlook - even at this distance below sea level there was quite a view.We drove down along the southern part of the Dead Sea, a shimmering light blue lake cut into sections by man-made salt evaporation pans. The mountains of Jordan were barely visible through the haze. We came up to the visitor center at Masada and decided to tour the newly constructed museum. I had a passing knowledge of the site from before. I knew it was a fortress that the Romans had sieged, but beyond that I was relatively clueless. I think I'd heard of it in conjunction with the band O.A.R. The museum quickly remedied my ignorance. Masada was first constructed as a palace and redoubt for King Herod, the Roman ruler of Judea back in Biblical times. During the Jewish-Roman War a group of Jewish zealots took over the palace from the Romans in 66 CE and were the last bastion of the rebellion by 72 CE. The Roman Army laid siege to the fortess, building a wall around the mountain and a rampart up to the fortress wall. The legend of Masada is that once the Romans breached the walls, the Jewish defenders chose suicide over surrender. The ruins were excavated in the early 1960's and the site is now a significant tourist attractions. For me it was my second UNESCO World Heritage site in as many days. We took a cable car up to the top, which was an easy decision. Here's the view up toward Masada as we waited for the cable car.The ruins of the fortress and palace sprawled across the plateau. The palaces of Herod were located on the northern face, followed by extensive storerooms and houses. In contrast to Avdat, there were significant numbers of tourists present. We followed the guideposts around the site, and I occasionally eavesdropped in on a passing tour guide, most of which conducted their tours in English. Here is a view looking across the storerooms from the uppermost palace.The overlook at the upper palace looked out upon a unbroken expanse of mountainous terrain and salt flats. A gentle breeze came off the cliff face, the reason why Herod chose this location for his quarters. We walked along a narrow walkway along the western cliffside to the lower palace. Several frescoes had been excavated throughout the site, and at the lower palace several had been restored. Here is a picture of the three palaces on the north face of Masada.The Romans built a rampart along the western side of the plateau, and after a siege of several months the outer walls were breached. The story as it's told at Masada (which is disputed, like any historical legend) is that the Jewish rebels had placed a wooden wall behind the stone wall breached by the Roman battering ram. The Romans set this wall on fire as the sun set, and over the next night the Jewish rebels had killed themselves rather than surrender. According to the legend, the men killed their wives and children then drew lots. The ones that were selected killed the others since suicide was discouraged, then came another lottery until there was one man left, who committed suicide. I guess the don't call 'em Zealots for nothing. Later, I saw a good number of souvenirs emblazoned with "Masada shall never fall again." which is apparently an IDF slogan. I was a bit discomforted with the reverence shown for the suicidal Jewish rebels. It brought to my mind the Japanese civilians at Saipan in World War II. Granted, the Roman Army wasn't likely as humane as the American Army, but it's still something I found pretty despicable. Here's a picture of the Roman rampart as viewed from above.Natan and I had decided that we would walk down from Masada rather than take the cable car. We followed one of the original routes, known as the Snake Path. It took us about half an hour to traverse our way down. I don't know how long going up would have taken. There were railings interspersed almost randomly along the route, and Natan and I had a running commentary on just how steep of a slope necessitated a railing. Once we reached the bottom there were several previously unknown muscles in the shin region that made their presence known. Walking downhill is most certainly not as easy as I'd anticipated, especially when there just wasn't a lot of room for error. Once we reached the bottom I turned around and took this picture:
I think of the unfortunate Roman soldier - "You want me to do WHAT now?"

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Negev

A day after seeing the sites at Latroun, we took a trip south into the Negev, the southern desert region of Israel where Natan's parents live. Kibbutz Urim is located on the northern edge of the Negev, and as previous pictures attest it does not at all remind one of the desert. David and Julia warned me that this day we would be heading into the desert and it would likely be "cold" - I tried not to laugh. I had emailed my parents the night before and learned that Wisconsin had received five inches of snow, while I had awoke to sunshine and birds singing.

We first went to Sde Boker, another kibbutz in the Negev that was the home of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, following his retirement. When I first heard the name, I mistook it for "Stable Care" - which sounds like a clinic or something. Knowing how ridiculous I likely sounded, I refered to it as Ben-Gurion's House for the rest of the trip. Here is a picture of "the Israeli Mt. Vernon", the house that Ben-Gurion and his wife lived in, which basically consists of two of the standard kibbutz huts combined. The rooms inside have been left as they were when Ben-Gurion died in 1973. This kibbutz was also quite green, a testament to the irrigation systems developed in Israel.I'll admit, it was a slightly chilly day. The wind in the desert was constant, and I'd estimate the temperature was in the mid-60's. But there just was no damn way I was wearing a jacket. I was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. I must have been a bit of an anomaly, since all of the other people at Sde Boker (mainly young Israeli Army recruits) were wearing their winter jackets. The docent in Ben-Gurion's house remarked to Julia in Hebrew about my lack of winter attire, and Julia responded that I was from a freezing part of the U.S. Once I heard about this I beamed with Wisconsin pride. We drove just down from the kibbutz to Ben-Gurion's gravesite at Midreshet Ben-Gurion, pictured above. It is a beautiful setting, overlooking a large valley. There is a branch of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev located here, as well as several other institutions. The overlook was starkly beautiful, and was my first experience of the Negev landscape. It was a very peaceful setting. In fact, the only real disruption came from the occasional fighter plane cutting through the cloudless blue sky, another reminder of the duality of the Israeli Thing. Here is a picture from the overlook of the valley, with Natan's father David.Following the tour of Sde Boker we drove further south toward the Nabatean ruins of Avdat. For a UNESCO World Heritage site, there weren't many signs leading to the place. You drive down the road, and there it is, with a small visitor center and an adjacent Yellow gas station, which David assured me were the best gas stations in all of Israel. We stopped at the Yellow station first, where I had my first (of many) Turkish coffee and my first (also of many) Krembo. Suitably fortified, we went up the hill to see these fascinating ruins.The ruins at Avdat were originally a Nabatean waystation along the old Incense Road. The Arab caravans brought incenses like frankincence and myrrh across the desert, utilizing secret oases and cisterns along the way. The city later came under the Roman empire, and a large Roman Army camp was constructed outside the city walls. The city was destroyed in an earthquake in 623 AD. We first saw the ruins of several houses outside of the main city. This also amounts to the most people I could fit into the frame, because I never saw more than eight tourists at this site at any one time. Here's a picture taken from atop the city walls looking over the ruins. If you look closely, you can see Julia's Chevy in the parking lot - the only car in the parking lot. You can also see several of the metal sculptures, which I found to be incongruous with the historic nature of site.See what I mean:Here is the view of the main courtyard, looking west toward the Byzantine churches that were built after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. The fenced-off section in the middle of the courtyard is a water cistern. The inhabitants of Avdat collected all of the rainwater that fell on the city, which is how they could survive in the desert.The northern church had the best view, and the southern church still had a marble baptismal font and burial markers. The ruins commanded the entire area - it was almost unbelievable that people had even decided to live there, let alone build a city. Avdat itself was remarkable in that here was a archaeological site older than anything found in North America, an Israeli National Park, yet it seemed that it was "routine" judging by the few people there and the lack of commercial development. This was the first ruin I had seen in Israel and I was completely astounded. I hadn't come to realize the extent of the history in this country. Yet my memories of Avdat rank about the highest of all the sites I saw in Israel. Part of it has to do with this being the first of the several ruins sites. Part of it undoubtedly relates to the intimate way we were able to see the site, free of the crowds of tourists one would expect. It wasn't even the last place we saw that day. Following this we drove south to Mitzpe Ramon. My experience at Avdat can be taken as an analogy of my entire trip: I was privvy to experience both the places you've heard of (Masada & the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, etc.) and the places that are off the beaten path. I'm sure my time at the more well-known attractions is comparable to anyone else's, but there is something satisfying to me about having seen parts of Israel not necessarily listed in the tour guides.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Rally Round A Cage!

It's been approximately six years since I've seen D4, also @ 770. So I guess you could say I'm due. I could not be more excited!