Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Multiple motivations

When people do something unusual, it is natural for others to try to understand their motivations. This is particularly true when the unusual thing is an act of violent crime or terrorism. Most people can't imagine doing this themselves, and so they wonder how the perpetrator could be so different.

Unfortunately, in such cases people often tend to think simplistically. They want to find one motivation, one explanation. But in fact people are complex and have multiple motivations for their behaviour and actions. There is no logical requirement for "purity" of motivation. In our everyday lives we often have multiple motivations for our actions. For example, the more fortunate among us both enjoy our work and do it for the money. The fact that we enjoy it doesn't mean we would necessarily do it for free, nor does our being paid for it mean that our enjoyment is any less authentic.

One of the expressions of this sort of simplistic thinking in recent days has been in discussing the spate of violent attacks around the world. The question tends to be "was this an Islamist terrorist attack?". People then search for clues in the perpetrator's past and try to find another explanation so they can rule out a terrorism connection.

One example of this was the investigation into the Orlando killer's background. At one point the media started to argue that he had spent time in gay clubs and was a "closet gay", filled with self-loathing, and therefore his decision to attack a gay club was entirely personal and had no connection with Islam. This seemed to me to be very illogical, since even if this were true, his self-loathing would have been a result of his awareness that in Islam homosexuality is considered sinful. In such a case, regardless of whether the killer hated gays because he was one or because he wasn't one, he hated them because of religious teachings, and therefore he had an Islamist motivation. This can be in addition to any personal motivation he may have had.

More recently, several young Moslems have committed violent attacks in Europe. The media doesn't want to admit that there is a pattern emerging here, because that would be racist or "islamophobic". I have written before about what racism is and what it isn't. It seems to me that when people insist on denying a trend that is emerging, they are potentially endangering lives and blocking any attempts to prevent future crimes.

Yes, many of these individuals acted alone. They may have been mentally unstable, but that is to be expected when people turn to murder. But to say that these crimes have nothing to do with Islamism, when the killers themselves left messages declaring their loyalty to IS seems to me a denial of reality. Even if they had several motivations at once, that doesn't make them any less authentically motivated by Islamism.

To be a terrorist of this type, an individual does not have to "belong" to a group. It is sufficient for him or her to identify with the group's aspirations. Even those who act alone are inspired by, and consider themselves part of, the Islamist holy war against the west. For the west to continue calling them "lone wolves" and to deny that this war is taking place is dangerous and irresponsible.

I would like to see people starting to think more maturely about issues of motivation. People can decide to become terrorists in the name of IS in addition to having other reasons for their decision. For example, some may feel guilt at their previous "sinful" way of life. Some may know that if they become martyrs, their family will receive financial support from Islamic "charitable" organizations. Some seek glory. Some may be attempting "suicide by police". This does not lessen their self-identification as holy fighters for Islam, as they see it.

Obviously, I don't consider every Moslem to be a terrorist. However, to say that no terrorist can be a Moslem is equally unhelpful, and the element of identification with the extremist form of Islam has to be taken into account when trying to prevent further attacks.  Similarly, the many refugees entering Europe are mainly victims of war and should be given help. But at the same time, we have to remember that victims can also become perpetrators. Again, this is not to say that all refugees could be terrorists, but nor should we assume that no refugees are ever terrorists because they are victims.

It seems to me that the west has to find ways of helping the Moslem community, primarily through education, both in order to benefit a minority that feels marginalized, and also for the sake of the majority society. If we think in a more complex way about people's identities and motivations, perhaps we can help those who need help, identify those on the cusp of becoming violent, and prevent some of the violence, rather than just shying away from any profiling that might be seen as racism.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Memories of the Second Lebanon War

Building in Haifa damaged by rocket
This week marks the tenth anniversary of the start of the Second Lebanon War. This is probably the worst, or second worst, war I've experienced as a civilian under attack. I want to share my subjective memories of this war as it affected me, a resident of Haifa. I don't have the emails I wrote at the time, and my diary for that year only contains short notes about the events of each day.

The war lasted from 12 July 2006 to 14 August 2006. We first heard about the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah and subsequent exchanges of fire, then on the 13th a Hezbollah rocket landed in Haifa. On the 14th we went out for a drink with a Greek academic who had just arrived in Haifa to take a summer course in Hebrew. We talked about the situation and expressed our opinion that it wouldn't develop into all-out war. We tried to persuade him, and ourselves, that Hezbollah had too much to lose by provoking an Israeli response. Unfortunately, we were wrong about that. We later heard that the Hebrew course had relocated to Tel Aviv, out of the range of the rockets.

After an uncertain weekend, on the 16th we heard sirens and went down to the shelter in our basement. We soon started to hear rocket explosions. That day 8 railway employees were killed in Haifa, and we realized this could be a bad war if that sort of casualty rate continued. The station where they were killed has since been renamed "Hashmona" (= "the eight") in their memory. I think this was actually the highest number of people killed in a single attack in Haifa, though there were larger casualty numbers in some other attacks further north.

My diary notes rocket attacks every day for the next few weeks. There were over 300 rockets fired on Haifa during this period, and we could hear many of the explosions from our shelter. Some buildings and cars were damaged or destroyed about 10 minutes' walk from our home. We have 50 seconds to reach the shelter from the moment the sirens sound, which means we had to stay alert all the time and be able to drop whatever we were doing and rush down the stairs. We left meals on the table, abandoned work in mid-sentence, and one time Ivor had to rush out of the shower and go down to the shelter wearing just a towel! We spent many hours in the shelter with the neighbours, listening out for the explosions and trying to guess what direction they came from and how far away they were. We had a radio in the shelter, which we played quietly, waiting for them to announce the all clear, usually ten minutes after the last rocket exploded. Sometimes we had just climbed the stairs when there was another siren and we had to go straight down again. We had to leave the cats at home as it would have been impossible to grab then and carry them down the stairs quickly enough.

One time we had just got into the shelter when we heard loud knocking on the building's front door. Someone went and answered it, and a scared couple came in. They had been walking along the road when the siren went off and they rushed to the nearest building to take cover. They spent the attack with us and then left.

Life did not quite continue as usual. While some work places remained open, everyone's routine was ruined. Public gatherings were forbidden. The civilians under attack were collectively known as the "home front", and political and military leaders were constantly praising the bravery and resolve of the home front. I had mixed feelings about this, because I felt the initial reluctance to send ground troops into Lebanon came at the expense of the civilians in the north. Soldiers are supposed to protect civilians, not the other way around.

During the month of the war, it was estimated that about 15% of the population of Haifa (45,000 people) left the area for at least some of the time, while 30% of the population of the entire northern region (350,000 people) did so. We were invited by my parents, my sister, and some friends in the centre and the south to stay with them, but we couldn't leave our cats and taking them with us would have been difficult. I also felt that leaving my home would make me more anxious. We had only moved into our new flat a few weeks earlier, and now there was a real risk that it could be destroyed.

I spent a couple of days away from home, but couldn't relax and kept expecting sirens even though I knew the rockets didn't reach that far. We went out with friends a couple of times, supporting the cafes and pubs that remained open. We also visited a friend who was volunteering in a shopping mall's shelter, looking after the children of the mall's employees who could spend the day in safety while their parents were at work. The volunteers tried to keep them occupied and distracted.

During this time, I continued working as best I could. I remember I was preparing the Index of a book I had translated, which was quite boring and unimaginative work. Even so, it was hard to concentrate, and my computer was right underneath a window, so I felt exposed and was constantly listening out for sirens. I later moved my desk away from the window. I couldn't listen to music, I couldn't read, and it was even hard to watch films on DVD. I also had a toothache throughout this war, and obviously couldn't go to the dentist because I was afraid that something bad might happen if the siren went off while the dentist had a drill in my mouth!

The day before the ceasefire came into effect, 13 August, there were more attacks on Haifa than ever, and I saw that as evidence of bad faith. Hezbollah had already agreed to end hostilities, so why try harder than ever to cause damage right at the last minute?

After the war ended, it took me a while to trust that it was really over and there would be no more sirens and rockets. At the time, I felt I would never be the same again, and didn't know when I'd be able to get my concentration back and to enjoy life again. I think that like most people in Israel I have some low-level PTSD. I still startle easily at anything that sounds like a siren, dislike explosions (including fireworks, which I used to enjoy), and have some residual anxiety and vulnerability. But I believe people are usually resilient, and I gradually returned to my normal self.

My experiences of war have played their part in shaping my identity. I don't take my safety for granted, and I am aware that at any moment there could be another attack, whether from across the border or from within. I can hope to live in peace for as long as possible, but part of me feels that war is inevitable, not only in the Middle East, but soon throughout the western world too. People's insistence on sticking to group identities that divide us rather than finding what we have in common can only cause suffering.

War comes in many forms. It no longer involves professional armies meeting to fight on a remote battle field. It often involves attacks on civilians, either by a military group or by individual terrorists/fighters. We can all become victims of war, whatever our opinions on the issues used as a pretext to justify it. Instead of feeling powerless in the face of destruction, my choice is to try to spread compassion and empathy in the world. I try to do this through my writing and through my personal example. It might not be much, but that's all I can do.

Friday, July 8, 2016

New craft: Needle Felting

Today I tried needle felting for the first time. I was given a kit to make a cat brooch, made by Hawthorn Handmade. Before starting, I watched the tutorials on their website.

The kit contained the various colours of wool required, two felting needles, and the brooch pin, along with clear printed instructions. There was plenty of wool left over, so the quantity supplied is generous. Felting is done on a foam pad, so I used a piece of foam packing material.

First I made the body of the cat. I quickly got used to the felting technique, stabbed the wool faster than I was expecting to, and managed not to stab my fingers.

Next I made the head and connected it to the body.

Then I put the ginger patch on the cat's head and then made and attached the ears.

I decorated the cat with coloured patches. The picture on the box was of a white cat with ginger patches, but I decided to make a calico cat with ginger and black patches.

I made the tail, and decided it should be stripy.

Finally, I added the facial details: eyes, nose, and mouth, and sewed the brooch pin on the back.
It was a good idea to start a new craft with a small project, which I finished in about two hours. However, the small size made some of the details fiddly. I also found it difficult to estimate the right amount of wool for some of the stages. The instructions said how long and wide each section should be, but not how densely packed the wool strand should be.

I enjoyed making this little cat. It took shape quickly and it was easy to follow the instructions and also to customize the design. I can understand why people enjoy this craft.

However, I don't think I will be doing any more needle felting. This is not because I didn't enjoy it, but I am sensitive to wool and can't wear any clothing that contains wool, even a low percentage. I also avoid wool blankets. I was a bit worried about touching wool for so long, and I did feel a slight tingling or itching in my hands that hasn't gone away even after I washed my hands. So this is probably not a craft for me. I recommend it to people with patience and no wool sensitivity.




Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The ripple effect of compassion

I have written here often about the work of TinyKittens in rescuing feral cats. This week we have witnessed a heartbreaking story, but one that also demonstrates how a compassionate action can have a ripple effect that creates positive change in the world.

Skye is a feral cat who was in the forest. She was going blind from an eye infection, and was pregnant. Shelly trapped her and brought her to TinyKittens HQ. Without human help, Skye would have found it increasingly difficult to find food and survive in the forest, let alone care for kittens, as her vision declined. Shelly worried at first about how she would able to give eye drops to a feral cat, but Skye became socialized and friendly within days and cooperated with her treatment. The vet, Dr. Ferguson, was able to bring in her portable ultrasound device to check on the kittens. Skye spent a few weeks in a bathroom, and enjoyed sleeping in the sink.

Soon it was time for the kittens to be born, but Skye had difficulty with the labour, and Shelly took her to the vet for a caesarean. Four healthy kittens were born, and Skye enjoyed nursing them and caring for them. After a while, the kittens from two other feral mothers, Savina and Neelix, were added to Skye's brood. This was because she is friendly with humans and can teach the kittens to trust and love humans, instead of them learning from their mothers to be afraid or even aggressive. Skye loved having 11 kittens, and nursed and washed them all.

Last week a stomach virus started making Skye and the kittens ill. One night Skye collapsed and was rushed to the emergency vet. She spent two days in hospital, close to death at first, getting urgent care and undergoing various tests, and eventually recovered. She has since had a few more visits to the emergency vet and to Dr. Ferguson, with more tests and expert evaluations. The diagnosis is that she has a heart disease and may only have a few months to live. At present she is back in her bathroom, and can have supervised visits from the kittens when she is dressed in a protective garment to prevent them from nursing, as her medications would pass to the kittens in her milk and endanger them. It is fortunate that this happened at a stage when the kittens are eating and are not dependent on nursing.

This is very painful for all those who have watched her on the Livestream. We watched a cat born in the forest become a gentle and loving indoor cat, friendly with humans and an adoring mother to her own four kittens and seven others. She has overcome partial blindness, a dramatic C-section birth, and has survived the first symptoms of a dangerous heart problem. We were all hoping for her to be adopted into a loving home and have a full, happy life. Now it seems that she will have a much shorter life, and will require regular medication and constant supervision. We hope a suitable home will be found to give her the love and care she needs, despite the short duration of her expected future.

With all the pain of this story, what I have found inspiring and uplifting is the way it has had a ripple effect. From the moment Skye was rushed to the emergency hospital, viewers from all over the world started donating money. So far, I believe over $10,000 Canadian has been raised for Skye. I hope that all her hospital costs are covered by the donations.

Another form of ripple effect stems from the very fact that Shelly chose to try to save her. It is very rare for people to invest so much in feral cats, who have usually been assumed to be unadoptable and resistant to socialization if rescued as adults. Shelly's work has shown that ferals are individuals, and some of them can be fully socialized and become loving pets just like cats born to pets and socialized from birth. So Shelly wanted to give Skye every chance possible for a good life, even when she was close to death. For Shelly, and for those inspired by her, euthanasia is only an option if the cat would have a life of incurable suffering. If there is a chance of recovery and a stable period of good health, it is worth fighting for. The tests conducted on Skye had rarely been done on feral cats, and Dr. Ferguson said that this is in itself a contribution to science. New things will be learned from Skye's case that can be applied to other cats in the future, and her survival might encourage other people to try to save cats in similar conditions rather than give up and euthanise them. This is also true in the case of Cassidy, who is at the forefront of veterinary implant research.

So we see that people who have followed Skye's story have made a personal effort to help her, and that Shelly's compassion for feral cats is helping to advance medical science, which may save the lives of other cats in the future. One of the ultimate aims of what TinyKittens is doing is to educate the public about feral cats so that more people understand that they are worthy of our compassion and help. Some people may be inspired to get involved in local TNR (trap-neuter-return) programs, or local feeding stations, or perhaps even to try rescuing and fostering those feral cats who may have the potential for socialization. Instead of treating feral cats as wild animals who deserve to live on the margins, we should call them community cats and provide them with appropriate care.

Compassion can be contagious and can spread and ripple out when people see what caring can achieve.

Watch Skye and her kittens (currently in separate rooms) on TinyKittens Livestream.
Donate to Skye.
Learn about the feral program.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Directing blame

When I talk about politics, I usually prefer to discuss a general principle that can be widely applied to many situations rather than the details of a specific issue. A while ago, I heard someone on a podcast quote a statement that resonated with me. I can't remember or find the source of the quotation (if you know, please let me know in the comments), but the idea expressed was something like this:

People should direct blame upwards and inwards instead of downwards and outwards.

This idea seems relevant to a lot of things in Israeli politics, and also to discussions surrounding the referendum in the UK about remaining in the EU or leaving it (I hate the compound word "Brexit"!). It is also worth applying to the statements and attitudes of various candidates in the US presidential race. Readers are welcome to see how this idea can be relevant to various situations in their countries.

"Upwards" means that the people who are to blame for what is wrong are those who have power and wealth: the politicians, business leaders, and the wealthy in general. They shape our economy and society through their political and economic influence, through lobbying for their interests, and for constantly increasing the wealth gap to benefit themselves. They have brainwashed much of the public to believe the following ideology: that the rich deserve their wealth because they "worked hard"; that everyone could improve their circumstances; that the wealth "trickles down"; that the business sector benefits society by creating jobs; and that any centralized regulation aimed at increasing equality and providing care for the less privileged is a violation of basic freedoms.

Meanwhile, "downwards" in this statement refers to the tendency of many politicians to blame the poor for their own situation. This is often expressed in terms like "lazy" and "entitled", when in fact these could be more accurately applied to those at the top of the scale. Poor people are poor firstly because they did not inherit wealth, secondly because they did not receive the sort of education that would get them well-paying jobs, and thirdly because the entire economy is based on "reducing costs" and "improving efficiency", which often means finding employees willing (or forced) to work for less, sometimes moving whole industries into third-world countries at the expense of the local poor. Also, people are increasingly accused of being "exploiters" if they claim benefits such as unemployment or disability. This is a classic case of blaming the victim and even of psychological projection, where the wealthy must be subconsciously aware of knowing they are getting money they don't deserve and instead of admitting it they prefer to accuse the poor of doing this.

"Outwards" refers to the tendency to accuse "outsiders" of destroying society. Politicians often blame minorities and immigrants for all society's troubles, and this issue is becoming heightened by the struggle between Islamism and western society. While it is true that it is preferable for a society if those who join it become assimilated, at least to some extent, rather than insisting on maintaining their foreign way of life, this sort of accusation ignores the contributions of immigrant communities to the economy and to culture. There are confused statements from those who want to believe that immigrants are both "claiming benefits" and "taking our jobs", when in fact many immigrants are taking jobs that locals no longer wish to do and are contributing to the economy, and it's highly unlikely that anyone moves to another country out of a burning desire to live off benefits, which are increasingly difficult to obtain and are being cut by many governments.

Finally, directing the blame "inwards" is the most difficult part of the quotation. It asks people to consider that their own actions or inactions are partly responsible for the situation they find themselves in. People who don't vote and then complain about the policies enacted in their names are a prime example of avoiding responsibility and not looking inwards. Those who claim to be "not interested in politics" and so avoid learning about the reality in which they live, and are then easy to sway with cheap demagoguery, fail to realize that they could and should acquaint themselves with the relevant facts and think beyond populist slogans. I am always in favour of individuals taking responsibility for their actions and educating themselves, and in a democracy it is in the voters' interest to know what they are voting about.

I call upon voters everywhere to seek out the truth, to shed their apathy and complacency, to have sympathy for the less privileged, to question the motivations of politicians, and to blame the rich and powerful for what has happened in society as a result of their greed.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Home ownership

This week marks ten years since we moved into our home. After many years of living in rented flats and having to move, we were finally able to buy our own flat. This made a big difference in my life, and now seems to be a good opportunity to reflect on what home ownership means.

The first thing to note is how difficult it is for most people now to buy their own home. We were only able to do so after inheriting money from Ivor's parents and grandparents and from my aunt. This gave us enough for a down payment and to get a mortgage with a monthly repayment that is lower than the rent we used to pay. So while we obviously didn't want anyone to have to die for the sake of our home, at least we were able to make good use of the money we were given, and I think our relatives would be pleased to know that they had helped us in this way.

The second interesting thing about our home is how we chose it. When we decided to move to Haifa, someone recommended this street as being in a good location. It is close to shops, and also close to buses going to the university and to other parts of the city (this was before I had a car). I remember one day we came up to Haifa to look at the area, before we moved. We walked up this street and noticed that there was a vet, which was useful. We saw this building and the balcony, and realized there must be a good view of the sea from that balcony. A couple of weeks later we were able to rent a flat in a building up the road from here. A while later, this flat that we had noticed from our first visit had a For Sale sign. The first time we saw the sign we were not yet ready to buy, but a few months later, when our inheritance money had arrived, the flat was for sale again, and we went to have a look at it. We knew we would have to do some major redecorating, but we wanted the flat for the location and the view, and had a good feeling about it. So we bought the first flat we saw!

Once we had bought the flat, we started the design and redecorating process. We hired an interior designer who adapted the space to our needs and helped us find all the professionals and items we needed. The redecorating took six months, and it was interesting watching the place take shape. After so long in rented flats, it was good to have things looking the way we wanted. There were some delays and setbacks during the redecorating, and we have had to do more work on the place since moving in.

Owning a flat gives you both freedom and responsibility. You are free of landlords and their possible interference. You are free to decorate any way you want. You are free of the worry that you might be asked to move at the end of the contract. However, you become responsible for looking after your home and making whatever repairs are required. It seems that there is always something that needs to be repaired!

Being homeowners gives you a certain social status, especially in a society where it is difficult to buy a home unless you have a really well-paying job or have help from relatives (living or dead). For a while we had thought we would be renting all our lives, so being able to say that we own our home felt like a social achievement. It might be a rather conformist, normative, or bourgeois sort of thing to feel, but for me the main thing it represents is security and stability, which have always been important to me. The uncertainty of living in rented homes and having an unsteady income from a variety of jobs was finally over.

Ten years is by far the longest I have ever lived in one place. I think that the longest time I had lived in the same home was six years (twice: my parents' current home and one of our rented flats), and I only lived in most places for one or two years. I hope to stay in this flat for as long as possible. There are circumstances that would make it necessary or worthwhile to move, but until or unless they come along, I would be happy to stay here forever.

For me in particular, my home is important as I work from home and spend over 90% of my time here. So being able to design my rooms and furniture to suit my taste and needs means a lot to me. Home is not just where the heart is, it is where almost all aspects of my life take place: work, family, hobbies, friends, and creativity. It also became a stable home to our cats, who had moved with us every couple of years and adapted to our new rented flats each time. I'm happy that Eleni won't have to move again at her age.

I hope everyone fortunate enough to own a home appreciates it, and those who have to rent are still able to make their temporary space feel like a home.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

New music versus new fiction


Listening to a new album is a different experience to reading a new novel. I think this hints at some of the differences between the media.

When I listen to music for the first time, I go through a process of discovery, second by second, as the music unfolds and gradually forms into a sequence of sounds that makes sense over time. When it is music that I love, I get shivers down my spine and a tingly feeling all over, and I know that I will listen again, often. At the same time, I sometimes feel impatient to become familiar with the music, so that it becomes part of me that I can anticipate, rather than something unknown I am discovering.

Reading fiction for the first time is also a journey of discovery, and also involves connecting the memory of what has gone before with the new words acquired one at a time. As the story unfolds, I feel engaged and enveloped by it. I want to carry on reading to find out what happens next, but at the same time, if the story is good, I feel reluctant to get to the end of it and have to leave the fictional world. But I don't have the sense that being familiar with the story and anticipating how it develops could be better than the first reading, as I sometimes do with music.

Music is intended to be experienced repeatedly. When you love a piece, you can listen to it hundreds of times, often more than once a day, and still love it. Sometimes you become too familiar and grow tired of it, but later return to it and enjoy it with a fresh perspective. Some favourite pieces accompany us throughout our lives, or are rediscovered at later stages, when we are different people and have a different reaction to our old loves.

I'm not sure if novels are deliberately written with the thought of being read more than once. In fact, we say we "reread" a novel after the first experience, but never say we "relisten" to a song. This choice of words reflects a perceived difference in the experiences. While most of us have "reread" our favourite fictional works, there are also books we read once and enjoy, but never think to open again. I estimate that I have read the novels I love most perhaps 10 or 20 times over many years, which is significantly less than the times I listen to music I love.

Music can accompany us while we are doing other things. I listen to music while working, while driving (long journeys only), and when I'm on public transport. Reading is its own activity and requires one's full attention. But I don't think this is the only reason for the difference in frequency. I think the familiarity with music increases our enjoyment of it more than our familiarity with fiction.

A good day involves both listening to music I love and reading good fiction, with my preference being for familiar music and new fiction!