Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rationalization and Catharsis

I am not a violent man. Not really.

Sure, I've studied varied martial arts over the past two decades, dabbling in the pugilistic styles of Hapkido, Aikido, Karate, Kendo, and Krav Maga. Sure, I love wrestling with my sons and my nieces, encouraging both of them to jump on me in a way that nearly always leads my mother to comment, "And you wonder why you have back problems?" Sure, I love playing the occasional violent first person shooter video game, especially if I can save the human race from zombies, alien predators, or particularly vicious insurance salesmen.

But there is a difference between catharsis, survival, brutality, and indifference, and my wife and I have struggled for many years to differentiate these to our children, despite a society that consistently confuses the four. For example, for me to kill another person, I would either have to completely devalue that person's life (indifference), weigh the value of my life against the other person's life (survival), or kill the person despite understanding the value of that life (brutality). As a vegetarian, to eat meat, I would have to ignore the pain felt by the animal (indifference), have no other solution but to eat the animal (survival), or eat the animal despite valuing its life (brutality). These are heady, philosophical ideas, ones that require a balanced perspective and a hefty dose of rationalization. And, yes, despite my soapbox, I have my own level of rationalization. Do I eat eggs? Yes. Are the hens kept in cages? Yes. Do I therefore devalue the suffering of the chickens? Well, possibly.

My wife and I have had many long discussions about this balance, particularly as it relates to touchy issues such as bringing toy guns and gun-related video games in the house. We finally agreed on a balance. We allow sword toys (including and especially light sabers), because despite their violent nature, they do teach the owner a respect for the person directly opposite you with the opposing light saber. You can not devalue them; If you do, you get whacked in the head. But guns, even toy guns, teach children to devalue life. Kids become desensitized to the reality of bullets. Violence becomes removed from consequence. Even as I write this, Indianapolis is reeling from a shooting downtown that left 10 people injured. Can I assume that my children will understand the subtleties between shooting virtual objects for the sake of emotional release and shooting real objects that have become virtual only through their devaluation? It's a slippery slope, and in our modern age of gun violence in the classroom, I fear this is not a subtlety we can ignore.

But yesterday those subtleties flew out the window. Yesterday I took Buck, my oldest son, to play paintball.

Buck had been asking to play paintball for the last two years. Despite his normal aversion to pain and loud noises, nothing could dissuade him, not even my wife's exhortations about the physical effects of a small liquid-filled object hitting his body at 300 feet per second. "Those things cause welts," she said. "I saw it on Mythbusters." Buck could see that any chance at paintball did not reside with his mother.

I, on the other hand, was intrigued. Despite a complete lack of interest in guns or the military in general, I couldn't help but feel a strange yearning for violence in a controlled atmosphere. I found myself in great need of shooting other people with paint while trying to avoid being hit by paint in return. Or possibly even while being hit by paint in return. It was a bizarre mix of catharsis, masochism, and sadism. To Buck, I said, "Sure, sounds fun. Let me look into it."

So finally, today we spent a couple of hours playing wargames at White River Paintball in Anderson, Indiana. We had the time of our lives. We played games of single elimination and capture the flag against strangers who very quickly became friends. We sweated in the hot sun and then got drenched in a sudden downpour. We crawled behind dunes, hid behind metal barrels, dived behind rusting aircraft, and cowered behind boxes. And then we jumped up, aimed, fired, picked off our enemy, laughed, and were immediately blasted with paint by the other guy flanking us. It wasn't painful, but it was exhausting, exhilarating, and exciting.

Most importantly, I felt that Buck learned a valuable lesson about catharsis, indifference, survival, and brutality. Sure, paintball is cathartic, but you can’t be indifferent about the violence, not when the other guy is shooting back at you. You can’t be too brutal, not when there are regulations regarding surrendering, weapons safety, and the like. For the short time we played soldier (and I realize that was all we were doing), we understood that sometimes you have to balance your life against your enemy’s life. This is survival, and even with survival, even in the midst of war, there are rules to be followed.

Unless you have your father within your sights. And then it’s open season.

Monday, June 14, 2010

La Mia Famiglia

There is a sizable challenge in writing a blog meant to reflect the personal experiences of one's family. Namely, writing about real events compromises the anonymity of the central characters. When one has to sit across from those characters at the dinner table, the potential exists for a certain level of domestic conflict. ("Oh, sweetheart...I meant to tell you...I wrote today about when you were in college and tried pot for the first time in New Orleans and then flashed an entire visiting Sunday School class the week after Mardi Gras. I hope you don't mind.")

My family has always cherished their privacy. My wife in particular has almost artistically avoided leaving any Google spoor (the searchable information trail one leaves on the Internet), and she has no desire to start leaving any now. Furthermore, I am deathly afraid that something I write will come back to haunt my children 10 years from now when they are applying for a job. " are certainly well qualified to join our radiology practice, and you come highly recommended from your three residencies...however according to my research, you once made poopy on the living room rug in front of guests. I'm sorry, but that shows a certain lack of character and is definitely not the caliber of professionalism we pride ourselves on."

So, for now on, I will only tell stories about my fake family. They comprise my wife Eshet Chayil and my two boys Buck and Gator.

I toiled over the boys' aliases for weeks, weighing different aspects of their character, their likes and dislikes, their physical attributes, and their ages. I thought about simply calling them Number One and Number Two but quickly disbanded that project for obvious reasons.

I finally selected their aliases after our recent vacation to the Smokies. While visiting WonderWorks in Pigeon Forge, we tried out an intriguing game called Mindball. In Mindball, two challengers attempt to move a ball toward their opponent by relaxing their mind. An EEG measures Alpha and Theta waves which are strongest when a person is calm or relaxed or concentrating intensely. Others can watch your match and see the Alpha and Theta waves displayed on the screen above the contestants. My wife and I discovered that we were very evenly matched. I finally beat her, but only after a very long and grueling game of total relaxation. I’m sure it was fascinating for the spectators…at least those who hadn’t given up on us and left to try out the climbing wall.

My two sons faced off against each other. They were NOT evenly matched. My oldest son had fairly active brainwaves even as he tried to relax his mind. My youngest son had brainwaves like a smooth lake on a windless day. You could almost hear the white noise.

It was like watching two animal minds at work. One was a deer or buck in constant state of alert for predators, consciousness jumping around to keep track of the vast terrain. The other was an alligator, lazily floating like a log, sporting a mischievous smile, waiting for the right moment to jump out of the water to surprise its prey. Buck and Gator. You will hear many stories about them.

My wife's alias, Eshet Chayil, was much easier to come by. Eshet Chayil is Hebrew for, "a woman of valor," and it comes from a verse in Proverbs recited by a husband to his wife on Shabbat. The verse describes a woman who is forgiving, practical, praiseworthy, modest, and particularly talented at sewing. It's a good alias. Especially for a woman who will be sitting across from me at dinner tomorrow night.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

When Life Gives You Lemons, Sell Lemonade

Years ago, my children suggested to me that I open up a restaurant. One might think that they were so taken with my culinary talent that they felt I had missed my true calling. One might think that they were fascinated with the inner workings of food service and wanted to explore the link between the back kitchen and the front table. One might think that they had suddenly developed an entrepreneurial spirit.

No, they simply wanted more money to buy stuff. In their minds, owning a restaurant was a natural way to bring in extra cash. Obviously, all you had to do was make the food and then people gave you money. After all, that’s what they saw every time we went out to eat.

My wife and tried to explain how difficult it was to run a restaurant, how most restaurants went out of business within a couple of years. We explained about the long hours, the back breaking work, and the never ending financial anxieties. But it was difficult for the kids to reconcile this with the model they saw at Denny’s. You give people food, and people give you money. And then you go buy toys.

Thank heavens for Lemonade Day.

Lemonade Day is a nationwide event organized by Prepared 4 Life, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering youth to become contributing members of society. Lemonade Day, their signature event, is designed to teach kids how to start, own, and operate their own business, in this case, a lemonade stand. The event started in 3 cities in 2007, and expanded to 11 more this year, including Indianapolis.

It’s a fantastic program. The kids receive packets of information that explain how to plan out their venture, how to calculate costs, how to seek a loan (usually from their parents), how to select a venue, and how to set up their stand. Although the kids get to keep everything they make, they are encouraged to give a portion of their proceeds back to the community. And most importantly, it dispels them of the notion that all you have to do is give people food, they give you money, and then you buy a Wii.

Both my boys took part in the event. With a bit of coaching on my part, my oldest son, put together a work plan and inventory, marking down everything he needed to purchase. He worked with his younger brother to create the signage, come up with a catchy name (“Winicur Bros. Limonade”), and make the lemonade. My job was simply to develop the perfect lemonade recipe, purchase the ingredients, secure a location, secure a second location after hearing the weather forecast of 90% chance of thunderstorms, drive them to the location, help them set up the stand, and sit on the sidelines, occasionally feeding them helpful advice, such as, “Make sure you say ‘thank you’ even if they don’t want to buy anything,” “Watch out for your thumb when you are slicing limes,” and, “Heads up, here comes a mother and her young girls. They look thirsty.”

My boys commented later that they didn’t realize how hard it was to work to make money (in this case, 2.5 hours). However, I think they both learned valuable lessons about entrepreneurism.

  1. Never underestimate the value of a quality product. After experimenting with various recipes using bottled lemon juice, we finally decided to use fresh lemons and limes to make limonade. Not only did the final product sound more exotic, but it tasted much, much better than anything bottled, frozen, or powdered.

  2. Never underestimate the value of good marketing. I had the boys put a bowl of lemons and limes on their table to show the raw ingredients. The boys had matching aprons that said, “Winicur Bros. Limonade, est. 2010,” (a homemade gift from their mother). And their main sign said, “Fresh sqeezed (sic) limonade,” which absolutely guaranteed a homemade product.

  3. Never underestimate the value of a good promoter. Their manager (and financier and chauffer and financial advisor and sales advisor) searched high and low to find a good spot to set up the stand in the rainstorm. He (yes, me, of course) found the perfect Marsh Supermarket with the perfect overhang, spoke to the manager, and called the corporate office to make sure we could set up outside the store. Marsh graciously acquiesced, and the boys had a steady supply of customers coming in and out of the store. Location, location, location.

  4. Never underestimate the power of a good pricing model. The boys charged $0.75 for a cup of limonade. This turned out to be the perfect price. Since their base cost was $0.41, they could make a decent profit. The price was the equivalent of three quarters so it was easy for the customer to pay. Furthermore, the price was under a dollar, so there was no sticker shock, but close enough to a dollar so that many people just said, "Keep the change." Yes, their financial advisor was very proud of his pricing strategy. I believe he even did a small victory dance in front of his boys.
  5. Never underestimate the power of an attractive sales force. Take a look at the picture above and tell me that you could resist their charm and walk on by. The boys made over $16 in tips alone.

  6. When dividing up the work between you and your business partner, play to your strengths. My oldest son did the strategic planning, cut and squeezed the fruit, mixed the limonade, and did all the “math stuff” like calculating change. My youngest son handled all the actual financial transactions and called out, “Get your fresh squeezed limonade! Come and get it!” at every person within earshot. The jobs were perfectly matched to their abilities and personalities, and neither seemed intent on trading duties.

  7. Even when every component of your business is perfectly aligned, selling a product is hard work with more misses than hits. For every one person who stops to buy a cup of limonade or just drop some money in the tip jar, two or three people will pass by explaining that citrus fruit gives them heartburn.

In the end, the boys made $43.18 in gross revenue, $25.72 in net profit. They agreed to donate $3 (about 10%) to the Indianapolis Zoo, leaving them with $22.72, or $11.36 per child. Not too shabby for 2.5 hours of work on a rainy day.

You know, we might just start that restaurant after all. Of course, we might want to expand our menu. Hey…my boys make a killer peanut butter and honey sandwich.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Keep the Old, Seek the New

Chag Sameach, everyone. Happy 5th day of Pesach. I hope everyone is having an easy week, spending time with family, drinking lots of water, eating roughage, and keeping your egg intake to somewhere below the "ridiculous" level. My 12-year old son went shopping with me before our first night seder, and his jaw dropped when I put four dozen eggs in the cart. "The scary thing," I told him, "is that I worry these might not actually last the week." Never mind you Christians and your egg hunts this weekend. We've got hard boiled eggs, egg salads, cakes with a few eggs, cakes with lots of eggs, matzah ball soup, matzah brie, and kugel. The only thing we don't have is chemical colors, like Paas, although I'm thinking of doing something verrrry interesting with the matzahball soup next year.

Pesach is a time of rebirth, a celebration of Spring, so I think it important to remind everyone of the theme of renewal. Yes, yes, we all know about the theme of freedom and all that. However, I don't think we spend enough time thinking about the year to come. On Pesach, we clean up the house, clean up our pantry, clean out our intestines. OK, sorry about that last one. But the point is, now is when we take that moment to stop, refresh, reassess, reevaluate, and rejuvenate.

However, Pesach is all about balance...balance of the old and the new. Pesach is about tradition. The very idea of the seder is a retelling of a story thousands of years old, using a format hundreds of years old, using family traditions decades old. We end our seder with the line, "Next Year in Jerusalem," a statement that is not only religious and political, but also temporal. We might as well say, "Look ahead!"

So, this Pesach, look for some new traditions and recipes to complement the age old...and then establish them as your old traditions. For example, every year, our seder MUST serve a walnut-egg mock chopped liver, vegetarian matzah ball soup, and a Sephardic orange-date charoset. These are certainly not part of my upbringing, but my wife and I have done this for so long that they are now "old family traditions," and to break them would be messing with "shalom bayit" (peace in the house). And I wouldn't want to do that.

A couple of years ago, we incorporated an Iranian/Afghani/Italian custom of beating each other with green onions while singing Dayenu. No, Mom, I am not making this up. The kids love this tradition, because when else do I allow them to smack each other with food while singing? Now, I must preserve this tradition for all eternity or face a breach in shalom bayit. And who would want that?

Of course, old traditions are always new to someone, so I feel it is incumbent upon us to introduce our religion and traditions to those, Jewish or non-Jewish, who may not have experienced them. We invited a non-Jewish family to our seder; the mother was trying to introduce her three young children to the breadth and depth of ethnic traditions throughout the world. After all the singing, the Hebrew, the symbolism, the meal, the afikomen hunt resulting in 3 gold dollar coins, her 6-year old son reported to his mother his favorite part of the evening. "We got to hit people with food!"

Final note: The seder plate in the picture was made for us a decade ago by our friend Meg Levine, a wonderful ceramicist and graphic artist. Meg, if you're out there, thank you. We are still using your plate every year. We both insist on it, which is a good thing because it maintains shalom bayit. And we are all about that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians - The Literature Thief

I finally saw the movie Percy Jackson and the Olympians - The Lightning Thief this afternoon. I must say that I found the movie fun, entertaining, exciting, amusing, and, unfortunately, entirely forgettable. Shame about that, especially since I have become a big fan of the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan.

My oldest son (who, like Percy in the first book, is 12) is also a big fan, and he complained bitterly that the filmmakers ruined the movie. Well, I'm not sure I'd go that far. However, I will say that if you have seen the movie and you have not read the books, go read the books. They are COMPLETELY separate entities.

The books feel like an American response to the Harry Potter series (full disclosure: I'm also a big fan of that as well). To fully appreciate the books, it helps to have an understanding of U.S. culture, similar to how having a knowledge of the British school system creates a certain background understanding of Hogwarts. For example, if you have never been to a U.S. summer camp, you won't fully appreciate demigods playing capture the flag with real swords and shields. If you haven't lived through the all the news stories, pharmacological treatments, champions, and skeptics of ADHD, you won't full appreciate the idea that ADHD is an unfortunate side effect of a demigod's battle-ready senses. And if you haven't read The Catcher in the Rye or seen the movie Rebel Without a Cause, you might not appreciate the culture of teen angst that, although integral to ALL teen literature, has its own particular personality and flavor in the U.S.

But I digress. My son thinks they ruined the movie by completely diverging from the book. I have to admit that it's difficult for me, a jaded 41-year old who has seen his favorite literature mangled and twisted in the movie theatre over and over and over again, to disagree with him. Obviously, Rick Riordan did not have the creative control over this movie that J.K. Rowling maintained over hers. Much of what pushed the books beyond remaining forgettable page-turner literature was lost in the movie. The movie lacks the books ironic twists. I was mildly amused to find out that Mount Olympus is in the top of the Empire State Building, but I laughed out loud to find out (in the book) that the door to Hades was a recording studio in L.A. And the scene with Charon in the book was much, much, much funnier than the scene in the movie.

Not only that, but Riordan's understanding of adolescent awkwardness is pretty much spot on. Somethings never change from generation to generation.

So, sure. Go see the movie as a matinee. The special effects are decent, albeit not exemplary. The banter between Percy, Annabeth, and Grover is moderately clever (although I felt the movie spent too much time recreating Grover as the movie-standard "black" best friend side-kick instead of the "satyr" best friend side-kick). The romantic chemistry between Logan Lerman and Alexandra Daddario is reasonably satisfying. And I'll watch Catherine Keener in pretty much ANYTHING.

But then go back and read the book. And then read the next one. And then the next. What? Like you have anything really important going on at work this week?

Sunday, February 28, 2010


The editor of Wolfsong Diner would like to apologize to those of you who tried to leave comments on the blog and were thwarted by its restrictive security. I have since relaxed the security on the site so that it is possible to comment without setting up your own Google account. Please feel free to leave your comments, condemnations, and praise on the site. As long as the comments remain germane and genteel (good, bad, or ugly), I will encourage free and open discussion. Thank you for your patience.

Monday, February 22, 2010

King Ahasuerus's Midnight Band

Let’s be fair. I’m not a real musician.

Oh, I can sing pretty well, certainly well enough for our synagogue choir and well enough to have served as a lay cantor for a small congregation in Colorado about decade ago. Sure, I can read music, and once upon a time, I could play mellophone well enough to play second horn in the IU Marching Hundred. But I don’t have that enviable ability to pick up an instrument (or, in the case of a piano, sit down at an instrument) and lead the assembled throng in a rousing chorus of Flight of the Valkyries. Or Kumbaya. Nor do I have the ability to write a wildly creative song a week and publish it to the Web with full orchestral back-up, a la Jonathan Coulton.

However, having said all that, I have to tell you all...I wrote a song. This all stems from my yearly rant about Purim music; my annual complaint about the appalling lack of good holiday songs and albums. It is hard enough trying to find Chanukah music, but Purim music? Feh. Here we have a holiday ripe with intrigue, silliness, love, passion, hatred, violence, royalty, heroism, etc. And the best we can come up with is “Oh, today we’ll merry, merry be and nosh some hamantaschen.”


So, I finally put my money where my mouth is and wrote a song for Purim. It follows my four cardinal rules for Chanukah songs modified slightly for Purim:

  1. It should not retell the story of Purim.

  2. It should not compare Purim to Mardi Gras.

  3. It's sole purpose should not be to retread an old joke.

  4. I should be able to listen to it in July without vomiting.

Is it a brilliant song, written with lyrical poetry, astute political commentary, and technically sound musicality? Probably not. But I think it’s kind of catchy, and it talks about King Ahasuerus’s week long party, a topic that has been sadly overlooked in most Purim songs. Besides, it uses every software trick in my Windows XP arsenal, which sadly, isn’t a whole lot. However, I would like to recommend a piece of freeware called MuseScore, which is an excellent musical notation software.

Herein lies my challenge to you all. I am releasing my song to the wilds of the Internet for any of you to cover. I am publishing it under the Winicur Music copyright, although since I don’t own a legal copyright on the name, it propably won’t do me much good in court. So, for now, I won’t require any royalties from you as long as you give the song an interesting treatment: reorchestration, a new lead vocalist, a snappy new video, or all three. I have written the lyrics below, and I will send you the notated music if you ask me politely. I do ask, however, that any use of this song properly reference me with the following attribution, “Wildly clever music and lyrics by Zev Winicur.”

Chag Sameach.

Click on the play button above to play the song.

King Ahasuerus’s Midnight Band

From India to Ethiopia
One hundred twenty-seven provinces
The Persian-Median sovereign
One hundred eighty days of promises

Come all you noblemen
Come all you common men
Come all you gentleman throughout the land
Come see the majesty
Come see the pageantry
King Ahasuerus’s Midnight Band

One week of partying
One week of reveling
One week of dancing in the desert sand
One week of gluttony
One week debauchery
King Ahasuerus’s Midnight Band

Persian nights are waiting
Stop procrastinating
Start anticipating
Stay a while

Wine is freely flowing
Golden treasures glowing
Dancing girls are showing
Off their smiles

Tables of golden plates
Tables of figs and dates
Tables of luscious grapes peeled by hand
Tables of jasmine rice
Tables of exotic spice
King Ahasuerus’s Midnight Band

Music with harmony
Music with symphony
Music with melodies free and planned
Music that celebrates
Music that syncopates
King Ahasuerus’s Midnight Band

Persian nights are waiting
Stop procrastinating
Start anticipating
Stay a while

Wine is freely flowing
Golden treasures glowing
Dancing girls are showing
Off their smiles

There's no waiting list
Be a hedonist
At King Ahasuerus’s Midnight Band!