Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Abigail Tucker - The Lion in the Living Room

Abigail Tucker, The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, Simon & Schuster, 2016.

This book studies how cats became such a popular animal, and in doing so takes a step back and examines our accepted ideas as objectively as possible. The author is, like me and like most of her readers (presumably), a devoted cat lover. This does not prevent her from uncovering some uncomfortable truths that may make many readers view their love of cats in a different light.

The book first examines the evolution of cats. Unlike the other animals humans have domesticated, cats are completely carnivorous hunters and scavengers. Cats are solitary and independent by nature, and it seems that the only reason they became domestic is that those with a more friendly, confident nature were fed by humans. The book argues, based on research, that cats "domesticated themselves". One change that happened in domestic cats is a reduction in the size of their forebrain, leading to a reduction in fear. Less fearful cats had a survival advantage in human communities, so this trait became reinforced and passed on through the generations.

Traditionally, people have said that humans domesticated cats in order for them to hunt rodents. This utilitarian approach to domestication mirrored the way dogs were bred to serve various purposes in human society, from hunting to guarding to helping disabled humans. However, research has shown that cats are not the great hunters of rodents that people like to think they are. While they do hunt rodents, it was probably never a significant enough contribution to human society to be the main explanation for domestication. There is even a widespread idea that the killing of cats by Catholics in Europe in the middle ages led to a rat-spread plague, when rats multiplied without being culled by cats after their population was reduced. But there is insufficient evidence that enough cats were actually killed to make a difference to the rat population, and new research shows that the Black Death might not have been spread by rat fleas, but by human fleas and by people coughing. Another recent theory suggests that the bias against cats during the middle ages may have resulted from people being allergic to cats, which would have seemed to them like an evil influence.

Cats seem to have become popular with humans because they are similar to human babies. Their faces, with their large eyes, and their size, and even their vocalizations trigger human parenting responses. This is how cats, as a species, became loved despite their questionable utility and their requirement for meat rather than just any leftover food we could offer them.

One of the most controversial issues for cat lovers around the world is the issue of cats hunting various species, often to the point of extinction. While cats may not have hunted rats as successfully as people used to believe, this may be because European rodents co-evolved with them. As cats became popular and followed humans around the world, they adapted to hunt prey animals that had never encountered cats and therefore never learned to fear them. While cat lovers may instinctively prefer cats to other species, it is our responsibility as humans, who have had such an enormous impact on the world, to consider the spread of cats as part of our "meddling" with the biosphere. Reading about the impact of cats on other species has reinforced my support for keeping all pet cats indoors and for humanely reducing the vast population of feral cats through TNR (trap-neuter-return) projects. I feel more ambivalent about actually culling outdoor cats (which is very difficult to achieve), though in some cases I can understand the justification.

Cat lovers around the world are often outraged at any suggestion of restricting cats' freedom of movement. From those who believe pets should be allowed to roam free to those who are upset at anyone even discussing a reduction in the feral population, cat people believe "every cat matters" (the slogan of Purrfect Pals, the shelter for whom Foster Dad John of the Critter Room 24-hour kitten cam volunteers). We are outraged at the very idea of euthanasia for "unadoptable" cats, and prefer to support no-kill shelters that house special needs cats for life. Some of us donate significant amounts to these causes, while others volunteer their time in various ways. It has been argued that TNR can only be effective if around 90 percent or more of a feral colony is spayed and neutered. TinyKittens recently achieved this percentage with its feral colony in the Happy Forest. I have been thrilled by every case where a former feral became adoptable. But when I am honest with myself, I know that cat overpopulation requires a much greater investment of resources. I am also aware that by spaying and neutering feral cats, we provide them with longer, happier, and healthier lives, during which even those who are fed by humans are free to hunt. It is hard to think of a solution that can be humane to both cats and other species.

The book discusses the possible influence of the parasite toxoplasma on human behaviour, and on other species that had not encountered it prior to the arrival of cats and humans. Research even suggests a possible connection between toxoplasma and schizophrenia, though this does not seem to be conclusive. It is worth reading about such research in reputable sources, as the media often misreport such stories in a sensational way.

After a discussion of the ways in which humans have adapted their homes to the needs of indoor pet cats, the author turns to the breeding of domestic cats. To me, this is a slightly distasteful subject, first because selective breeding reminds me of eugenics, and secondly because cat breeds focus on external appearance rather than personality. As cat lovers become increasingly aware of cat overpopulation, it seems frivolous to breed cats for their looks and sell them, sometimes at great cost, to owners who could otherwise have rescued a shelter cat. Then there are the hybrid cats, descended from a crossbreeding of domestic and wild cats. The human desire to have the beautiful fur patterns of a wild cat has unfortunately created domestic cats with wild personalities. The creation of domestic cats unsuitable for domestic life, just for their looks, seems to me a typical example of hubris. I would prefer cat lovers to focus on "normal" cats and to give their love to rescued and perhaps former feral cats.

The book concludes, fittingly, with a discussion of cats and their online presence and celebrity status. As a cat person, I was happy to discover the popularity of cats online, but as time went on, I tired of the silly photo captions in LOLspeak. I discovered kitten cams, and over the past five years or so have received an extensive education in all things cat-related from watching these 24-hour, uncensored webcams. I also find it offensive when some celebrity cats are exploited to give their owners lives of luxury. If you want to make your cat famous, the least you can do (as some owners of celebrity cats indeed do) is donate generously to help cat shelters, fund research into feline diseases, and educate the public about cats.

This is one of the most enlightening books about cats I have read, and it is always good to see authors relying on recent research. It is written in the style of investigative journalism, with the author taking us on her journey of discovery as she interviews experts. It raises questions that cat lovers may find unsettling, and that is a good thing. We need to see reality as it is, and understand that our love of cats has wide-reaching implications throughout the world. What we can do about it is a complicated question, which I hope many readers will keep in mind.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fire in Haifa

This week was one of the most difficult experiences I have had, apart from wars. We have been having unusually dry and windy weather. After a long, hot summer, this weather created perfect fire conditions, particularly in areas with trees and vegetation, and a series of fires broke out all over the country. On Thursday the fires reached Haifa.

It was about ten o'clock in the morning when I noticed a strong smell of smoke. I looked out of the window and saw ash floating in the wind. I quickly closed all the windows and checked the news sites. They were reporting a fire elsewhere in Haifa, and it took a while for them to report that there was also a fire quite close to our home. I then found out that they were saying our road was being evacuated. I didn't really know what to do, and since I had an idea that when you are told to evacuate you just leave, without wasting time packing and saving precious possessions, I did just that.

Smoke coming from the east
I put my cat Eleni into her carrier and went out to the street, with just the clothes I was wearing and my usual everyday backpack. I walked down to the main road, where people were starting to gather. The traffic was bad, and the police had started blocking some roads. Parents were trying to get their children out of the local schools and kindergartens. There was chaos, and the smoke was increasing, so I decided to walk away from the smoke, down the main road.

 As I walked, I could see the smoke coming from the direction of my home. I tried to get away, sometimes stopping to check the news, talk to people on the phone or by text messages, and take photos. I had to take a break every now and then to rest my arms. Carrying a cat in a carrier is not easy over long distances. I saw a few other people with cat carriers, and more with dogs. After a while, the news site reported that an evacuation centre had been opened at the Haifa Auditorium, where I have seen many concerts and films and ceremonies. This was in the direction I was heading anyway, so I decided to go there.

Smoke in Haifa
I arrived after a walk I later found was 4 kilometers long. The volunteers from the municipality took the details of everyone who arrived, and asked people to let them know if they left so that they would have a record in case people were looking for each other. I sat in the auditorium lobby with Eleni in her carrier, and waited to see what would happen. They provided water and sandwiches. After a while, they brought in the residents of some retirement homes, and they were the main groups in the evacuation centre. It was later reported that 80,000 residents were asked to evacuate their homes, but only about 700 people went to the various evacuation centres around the city. Most people made their own way to stay with friends or relatives outside the risk areas or in other towns.
Firefighter plane above Haifa
 During this time, I was waiting to see what Ivor was doing. He had been evacuated from the university. The bus he caught was moving very slowly because of the solid traffic jam, so he got off and started walking. He soon got to an area full of smoke, and decided not to go any further. He waited around for a while. It became apparent that we would not be going home that night. The retirement home residents who were not collected by relatives were taken to a hotel, and some stayed overnight in the auditorium. Various people offered us a place to stay overnight, and we chose to go to the closest place, in Nesher. Eventually Ivor walked in another direction and managed to get a bus. After having a very low battery on his phone, he was finally able to recharge it at the bus station, and then contacted our friends in Nesher and arranged for them to pick him up and then come to pick Eleni and me up from the auditorium.

 It was good to get out of the evacuation centre after about 6 hours and spend an evening with friends, alternating between watching the news and trying to distract ourselves from it. Our friends had two dogs and since Eleni doesn't get on with dogs, they took them to stay with relatives so Eleni would be comfortable. We had bought some cat food on the way, and they borrowed a litter box for Eleni. We slept in our clothes on mattresses on the floor. This discomfort didn't bother me as much as not knowing whether we would have a home to return to.

On Friday morning we waited for the authorities to say everyone who had been evacuated could return home. We were relieved to come back in the afternoon and find our home undamaged, though some buildings further up the road and down the hillside had reportedly been damaged or completely destroyed.

 Today we went for a walk up our road and around the area. The closest fire damage to us was a tree about 200 meters away. I wanted to see what had happened in the area, not out of prurient curiosity, but as a form of coming to terms with the anxiety I had experienced, so see what could have happened. We didn't see the houses that were damaged, because to do that we would have had to go down stairs into their property. Most of them were not visible from the road.

Used fire hoses abandoned up our road
Remains of a motorbike up our road

Burned trees down the hill from our road
Burned bench

The lessons I have learned from this experience: First, it would be worth having a small emergency bag packed and ready. This should contain a change of clothes, basic toiletries, bottled water, and a phone charger. I was grateful for the offers of help and for people getting in touch to see if I was safe. I was also grateful that nobody was killed in the fires, and it did seem that the firefighters did a good job and coordinated well. The evacuation was less efficient than it could have been, but it seemed that most people sought help from family and friends rather than from the authorities. Several countries sent firefighters and firefighter planes or vehicles to help with the efforts.

We are now waiting for the fires in other parts of the country to be put out. This is why we always want it to rain as early as possible in the autumn or winter. People in rainy countries don't often understand how important it is to get rain in a dry country, where there is no significant rain for 8-9 months of the year. Lack of rain is a serious issue for us, both for our agriculture and because it creates an increased risk of fires, such as the Carmel Forest fire almost exactly six years ago.

There have also been reports that some of the fires were started deliberately, and some people started calling it "arson terrorism". A few suspects have been arrested. Even if this is true, making public declarations about terrorism only serves to incite more hatred and distrust at a time when we should all be working together. Haifa is famed for its coexistence, and the Israeli Arab community as a whole has been offering help to those who have lost their homes. Obviously, most Arabs disapprove of burning down cities. Even Turkey and the Palestinian Authority sent firefighters to help, despite any political disagreements. There have also been fires in Arab areas and in the Palestinian Authority territories, and it seems unlikely that all or even half of the fires were arson.

In emergency situations, it seems that some people focus on survival and become hostile and suspicious, while others want to help and maintain social cohesion. We all live in this world together, and nobody benefits from watching it burn. I would like to thank and congratulate those who helped others, offered to help others, and focused on the positive.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Returning to NaNoWriMo

Long time readers of this blog know that I have participated in NaNoWriMo several times before. Now I'm about to participate again.

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge in which people write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. Usually people write novels, or at least part of a novel. The challenge takes place all over the world, with people of all ages, languages, and levels of experience using the month of November to motivate themselves to write.

This year I will be writing a non-fiction book instead of a novel. It's a book I have been thinking about and working on for about two years, but I found that I wasn't making progress, so I decided that NaNoWriMo would be a good opportunity to make the effort to write every day and get it finished. I will be starting from the beginning, not using what I have already written.

The subject of my book is cats, and specifically how we can make ethical and responsible decisions in our relationship with cats. I will be presenting a way of thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of various decisions for us humans and for our cats. I intend to self-publish this book, and hope to interest the kitten cam viewer community in it, so they can help spread the word. If it sells well, I will be donating a share of my profits to the cat-related organizations I support.

I find it very poignant that just recently the word "Nano" has come to mean something else to me, in addition to "NaNoWriMo". Nano is the name of a small kitten rescued by TinyKittens, whose short life inspired many to help cats in various ways. The recent Fixathon was named after Nano, and I have heard that many viewers have started, or continued, perhaps more intensively, to volunteer in shelters, to foster kittens in their homes, or to donate to organizations involved in saving cats.

Everyone does what suits them best. I see one of my main roles in life as writing about things I care about and informing and educating my readers. This book, written during NaNoWriMo, will be my contribution to the #nanoeffect, as people are calling the influence of Nano's life story on those it touches. I hope that the book can have a ripple effect, spreading the cause of treating cats ethically and responsibly to many more people beyond the kitten cam community.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Feral Cat Fixathon

Nano, the mascot of the Feral Fixathon
To mark Feral Cat Day this weekend, Tiny Kittens, a cat rescue in Canada, will be holding a Fixathon at a feral cat colony. The aim is to trap all the cats on a rural property, spay and neuter them, treat any medical conditions they may have, and later either return them to the farm or, if they show potential, keep them for socialization and eventual adoption.

Tiny Kittens has had remarkable success in TNR (trap, neuter, return) with the previous feral colony in the Happy Forest, with over 90% of the 200+ cats spayed and neutered, and many of them adopted. This colony continues to receive daily feeding visits from volunteers and neighbours.

So far, since Tiny Kittens was granted access to the new rural property, the cats there have been identified and named, and a few have been brought into Tiny Kittens HQ for medical care.

The first group were three 5 week old kittens who were found living in a hayloft. Amelia fell from the hayloft, but fortunately was not seriously hurt by the fall, and her two brothers, Wilbur and Orville, were also rescued. You can watch the Hayloft Flyers on TK's livestream channel.

Next a family of tabby cats was rescued. The mother, Zetta, had done very well at keeping her five kittens healthy for 5 weeks. Unfortunately, one of them, Nano, was only a quarter of the size of his brothers. This was due to an internal deformity that made it difficult for him to breathe, especially after eating. He enjoyed a few happy days with his family at Tiny Kittens HQ before his situation worsened. Surgery was attempted despite the low chance of success, and sadly he died, leading to a massive outpouring of grief among the kitten cam viewers. His spirit will be remembered, and he has become the mascot of the Fixathon efforts. The rest of the Metric family can be viewed on the VIP livestream (for a monthly or yearly subscription).

A few days later, two 8 week old sisters were brought in with serious eye infections leading to complete or partial blindness, and one has a nasty upper respiratory infection too. At the moment it is not certain whether the treatment they are receiving will help restore their vision. Faith has little or no vision in both eyes, but has adapted well to being blind and plays happily with the Hayloft siblings. Hope has one eye that probably has some vision, but she's still recovering from her cold and is not yet very playful.

As often happens with feral cats, at least one of the Hayloft kittens and both the blind kittens have ringworm, which is why they are now sharing a room, while the Metric family seem to be clear and are kept apart. Ringworm treatment means they will have to remain in Tiny Kittens' care for a few weeks longer than the minimum stay before adoption, which gives them more time for socialization and for treatment of their other medical conditions.

These stories show the importance of TNR. Cats can survive in the wild, but it is not the ideal life for them. The lives of feral cats are full of risks: predators, disease, starvation, extreme weather conditions, and cars are among the main causes of death or injury. Unfixed cats are driven by instinct to mate and reproduce, and this leads to toms being injured in cat fights and the queens having to care for litter after litter of kittens, which takes a toll on their bodies. Not all the kittens born survive. Some estimates say that only one in four kittens born in the wild survives to reach its first birthday. Those few kittens that live may have diseases and parasites that cause constant suffering.

Humans are collectively responsible for domesticating cats, and so I believe we all share the responsibility of caring for as many cats as possible, whether they are loving pets or skittish cats living out of doors. One way of caring for cats is to reduce the number of unwanted kittens born to a life of probable suffering. TNR both helps the cats who are spayed and neutered to have better lives, and also prevents the suffering of the kittens who would otherwise have been born in the wild.

When feral cats are fixed, they can return to their original outdoor home and have much better lives. Spayed and neutered cats are healthier and happier, and some of the ferals gradually learn to like human company and can eventually be adopted and become happy indoor pets.

To help this weekend's Fixathon, you can donate to Tiny Kittens, or else spread awareness of this event to others who may be interested in helping in some way. Watch live broadcasts and updates from the Fixathon this weekend.

You could also mark Feral Cat Day by finding events in your local area. Even if your local area is not doing anything special, it is worth finding out which local rescue organizations are helping feral cats.

There are many ways people can help feral cats, depending on their situation and ability.
  • Adopt a formerly feral cat, whether one you rescue yourself, or from a shelter or foster home.
  • Donate money to a rescue organization or shelter that helps feral cats.
  • Volunteer to help feed a feral colony or become involved in TNR.
  • Volunteer at a shelter that rescues feral cats.
  • Sponsor a rescued cat living at a shelter.
  • Buy or make items to sell at fundraisers for a rescue organization or shelter.
  • Raise awareness of the importance of caring for feral cats.
If this blog post has inspired you to help feral cats, feel free to share it with others.

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.