Category Archives: Travel

Stuff that happens on the road, mostly for work, and sometimes for Fun

The Firth of Fifth of Macallan

Not exactly a Wheel of Fortune “before and after” clue, but my 2 day trip to Aberdeen, Scotland was full of musical and cultural references.

Despite being within 100 miles of the Macallan estate, I did not venture over to get the origin story of the amber spirit that powered Neil Peart through multiple Rush tours (and is well documented in his musical and motorcycle tour books).

Roger Dean, the artist famous for his Yes album cover art, once said that he drew inspiration from the rocky Scottish coast. I opened my talk with the cover of Yessongs, depicting what could be sea stacks, taken with liberal artistic license, and perhaps a few drams of Macallan. The point was that disruption typically comes from pulling ideas across domains, whether new applications of automation or transforming the Scottish coast into 70s prog rock art.

The city of Aberdeen reminded me of a cross between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem – it’s sparkly (mica infused) granite, and when the sun reflects off of the wet stone the old city practically shimmers like the polished sandstone facades of Jerusalem. It’s an even older city, settled for nearly eight milennia and recognized as a city since the 12th century. Part of my geographic and history lesson included the etymology of “Aberdeen” – “the mouth of the river Dee” – a modern industrial city (North Sea oil) sited on a river drew additional parallels to Pittsburgh.

Upon hearing about the derivation of “Aberdeen” I had to ask about the “firths” – inlets or bays. First thought was of course the Genesis song “Firth of Fifth,” with hope that it referred to some real place. The song’s lyrics seem overwhelmingly appropriate for the terrain, the coast, the sea faring life, and the rolling hills replete with (large bore) cows and sheep; it captures a certain haunting melancholy I felt while camped in a miniature version of the Balmoral castle. Sadly, there is a Firth of Forth (and a pair of football teams, named Firth and Fortha leading to unwieldy tongue-twisting scores like “Forth 5 Firth 4”), but the Firth of Fifth exists only in Peter Gabriel’s expansive imagination.

It’s a beautiful country, taking the time to visit and photograph the myriad northern castles would exhaust the full Genesis catalog, but sampling the variety of single malt scotches would make it a truly heady trip.

United’s PR Flap

Having flown nearly 2.4 million miles on United (and Continental, pre-merger) Airlines, having probably lost likely one full weekend per year due to delays and operational problems, and being remarkably vocal about what I see as United’s operational woes, I seem to be tagged left and right in reposts of coverage of the recent forced removal of a passenger from a United flight.

I have three thoughts on the matter (since a number of people have asked): United was within its rights as a carrier, but barely; United created this issue for themselves due to lack of operational excellence; United poured gasoline on the dumpster fire by once again handling a customer relations issue without the simplest of apologies (even if they believed they were in the right).

United and all other airlines routinely overbook flights. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the maximum revenue per flight (or accommodate all passengers) when people fail to show up, change plans, or get delayed on their inbound connections. While it’s a huge pain to those on the flight when this happens, it also means that there are seats when you have to make last minute travel plans. What is borderline about this case is that it wasn’t caused by an overbooking but rather by United’s need to move four flight crew to Louisville. United needed the seats, they weren’t sold as extra capacity in advance. United then followed procedure – they asked for volunteers, and when they had no volunteers, they selected based on an algorithm that rewards fare paid, loyalty and disabled or minor passengers. Had they decided to skip the chosen passenger, and pick the next one, they set themselves up for cascading chorus of “I’m important, pick the next guy”. And not to truly pile on, but if you have something time critical, do not depend on the airlines to get you there just in time when you’re flying through a busy hub known for weather and operational delays. Just as doctors sometimes slip their schedule due to emergencies, airlines do the same. There: I defended United. On the other hand, I’m not defending the manner in which the passenger was forcibly removed from the plane — but that’s on the policing force, not on United. I know, shocking for me to admit that an action with bad optics performed by United Airlines was within guidelines, but from my perspective, it was.

Here’s where it goes south: United created this problem for themselves. If you have to move four crew members to the next destination, and your flight is oversold, book them on another carrier. Charter a flight for them. Put them on a helicopter. Clearly, the backsplash from this incident is costing them more than the $50,000 it would have cost to do this in an egregiously expensive but less customer impactful way. This is where United continues to fail its customers – they seem to operate with the thinnest margins of slack in the system, whether it’s maintenance windows or crew arrival or gate availability. My BOS-EWR flight on Thursday was delayed 5 1/4 hours by weather — yes, there was bad weather — but the operational information on the United website was useless — it had incorrect inbound flight information (so there was no way to gauge or plan alternatives), and the sequencing of inbound to EWR and inbound to BOS flights was laughably implausible for hours. In the 18 months, I’ve had more than five flights held for a variety of mechanical problems, or flights held because crew was on an inbound and there were simply no options. I had believed one of the tenets of the hub and spoke model was to make it easier to substitute crew, equipment, and services as needed, but it seems that United is gaining no operational efficiencies at all, and perhaps suffering from needing to get crew to and from hub cities (EWR and ORD being among the worst).

And here’s why United continues to be the public relations pinata they so richly deserve to be: They routinely fail to apologize to the customer. This is true in every interaction I’ve had with United over the last ten years. They never admit that they created a bad customer experience (whether their fault or not, it’s the customer experience that matters). Admit that this could have been handled better. Admit you caused no end of public humiliation and personal aggravation. When my BOS-EWR flight was delayed and I began chirping @United via Twitter, I got back a series of “Tell us what flight” and explanations of their plane logistics, rather than (John Mullaney voice here) “We are sorry! We just destroyed your evening and the first day of your vacation, here is a $100 travel voucher or 25,000 miles for your troubles”. JetBlue does this — I flew on JetBlue right after Christmas, had a TWO HOUR delay, and was given 10% of my ticket price as travel voucher, without me asking, purely because they saw and admitted the problem (which was weather, not their doing). That’s customer sensitivity and customer service.

Until United starts to demonstrate an understanding of the total end to end customer experience of their airline, each and every incident (whether the leggings issue, or an involuntary bump, or just a hideous in flight experience) will get amplified and echoed through social media, because United offers no other signal to combat the negative noise.

CEO Oscar Munoz posted a public promise to focus on these things just a short time ago: Let’s see some transparency and accountability, and maybe the friendly skies will start to feel that way again.

Guitar Heaven: Chicago Music Exchange

After years of second hand conveyance of its greatness, we ventured into the Chicago Music Exchange Saturday afternoon as part of our pre-Phish-at-Wrigley festivities. With adulthood musical interests heavily influenced by the original Sam Ash and Manny’s (when they were two entities) in Musician’s Row, we are both somewhat snarky about music shops and also always on the lookout for that sincere mix of expertise, axes, and environment that makes you feel at ease no matter the extent of your chops, geography or wallet.

The Chicago Music Exchange (@ChicagoMusicEx) is our new comfort zone.

The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

When you walk in you’re greeted by walls of guitars, sorted by vendor – if you’ve never seen a wall of Rickenbackers, or better yet, an entire wall of Gibson Les Pauls (further sorted into black and sunburst/tobacco finishes) then you should make the trip. It’s hard to quantize properly – imagine being at a car show where car from commuter can to high end speedster is on display with all variations in color, options and vintage. There are 50 year old guitars with all of the signs of being played hard, and pristine mint models that await their first introduction to an amplifier.

The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

The second, and more subtle, sense is that the store is optimized for people to come in, play and relax. There are comfy couches and chairs, and some benches lining the display walls. Sound protected rooms with an abundance of high-end amps and cabinets are there for you to audition guitars, so you avoid the cacophony and fatigue-inducing “I can go one louder” of a purely open floor. I was looking for the “No Stairway To Heaven” sign – although this weekend it more properly should have read “No Stash” (the dexterity demonstration of Phans with six strings everywhere).

Downstairs, in the appropriately punned “Bassment” we found an equally wonderful assortment of gear, from new Rickenbacker 4004s to local luthier Serek’s work to more Fender basses than you could play in a lifetime. Again, accommodating setup for musician and family roadie alike, and the staff knowledge was as remarkably deep as it was freely and politely dispensed. Years ago I read stories about Steve Howe (of Yes fame) going into Manny’s in New York to see “what was new” and I have to believe Chicago Music Exchange provides an equivalent experience.

The bass-filled Bassment

The bass-filled Bassment

Despite the siren (and drop-D tuned) calls of the Serek, Sandowsky and Warwick basses, it was not our day to add to the ever-growing guitar collection. The coda to our visit: “We just played $50,000 of guitars, can I get a shirt?” asked Ben, and the front desk staff was only too happy to go find one in the right size/color scheme. It’s the small things that make customers — especially long-distance customers — eager to return again and again. It may be the centerpiece of our next pilgrammage to the Second City.

Navigating Prague Modulo Language Skills

Needed to grab an Uber today as I’m recovering from some travel bug and didn’t want to be out in the rain for ten minutes waiting for the Prague city tram to get to the office. Fired up the app, got a driver assigned, went to the lobby to wait. I had entered the office address in the Uber app, but Prague addresses have a variety of slashes, vernacular annotations and other information that remind me more of disk formatting than street geography. To be safe, I told the driver “MSD Riverview, Smichov, Prague 5.”

“No English. Sorry.”

The smart play, of course, is to type what you want to say into Google Translate, then either have it spoken for you or attempt to further butcher the native tongue. Given that Czech has an accented r which is the love child of the Spanish teacher who rolled her Rs for 20 seconds and Crazy Ivan from “Red October” emphasizing his Cyrllic “X,” I always opt for help. Then again, the translation of “MSD Riverview” is reflective in any language. Google untranslate back to self.

Inspiration strikes – I know a landmark and know about six numbers in Czech.

“Pivovar Staropramen, dve ste meters (indicate straight through with karate chop motion)”. Rough translation: “Staropramen brewery, then 200 meters further on”.

Got it in one. It’s amazing how much you can pick up from reading the denominations on currency (I know 100, 200 and 500, as well as 1, 2 and 5 this way), and knowing a local landmark is always helpful.

So far this trip I’ve learned the words for “right” and “left”, “emergency” (not needed, I was wondering what a sign said that translates to “Beer Emergency!” and yes, this is a thing in Prague) and at least I understand there are seven declensions of nouns and verbs, none of which I will remember. Unless they are currency related.

Good King Wenceslas Season

In what can only be one of the longest running plates of shrimp, I’m off to Prague again next week, where I expect to spend at least one night in the Christmas market of Old Town Square. Central to Prague is the legend of Duke Vaclav, known in English circles as King Wenceslas of the eponymous Christmas carol. 1970s high school band led me through an array of “holiday music” that most definitely included Christmas carols — and we were careful, specific and dedicated in performing the music of the season. Unfortunately, we never learned the lyrics, so most of my repetitions of “Good King Wenceslas” ranged from nonsensical to possible Cheech and Chong covers.

Statue of Duke Wenceslas, Prague 1

Statue of Duke Wenceslas, Prague 1

But if you actually check the book, “Good King Wenceslas” is historically accurate and what I consider to be a uniquely Christian stories: A rich duke notices a peasant outside his court during a winter storm and offers the stranger lodging and food. Learning the carol (music and specious lyrics) didn’t diminish my love of Hanukah, or impair my religious freedom; instead it gave me a chance to celebrate the season and a song to sing while enjoying the pageantry in a city that has celebrated more than 1,000 Christmases. I adore Prague — the people, the architecture, the food, and at Christmastime, the feeling that you’re in Renaissance era outdoor market, participating in a set of traditions that literally became the stuff of carol-y legend. And the pernicsky – Czech gingerbread cookies that are made with honey, making them particularly spicy, sweet and outrageously addictive – is in fact something around which to focus a work outing.

There are any number of lessons in there, starting with what director Nick Santoro asserted as rule #1: “Band teaches you about life.” Getting past red cups and misplaced outrage over impedance mismatches in greetings and religious preferences, the holiday season should be a time of tolerance, of looking for good, of welcoming strangers with kindness, of simple and small gifts, and of religious freedom.

Seven For Seattle

I have been to Seattle exactly twice before: once in 1986 for a meeting of everyone involved in UCSD’s MOSIS project (small-scale VLSI fabrication for students) and once in 2001 with the Bubba for the MLB All-Star Game. Finally got to spend more than 2 nights in the Emerald City, and I have to say that it’s a place I’d revisit — Seattle gets many things “right.” Here are just seven of them:

1. On game day, everyone is a fan. Perhaps this was a function of bisecting the main walking paths to the stadium, but everyone was in their Seahawks gear – attending the game or not. Businesses have their 12th man signs up, and restaurant and store staff were dressed to cheer on Sunday.

2. Cleanliness counts. It’s the cleanest downtown area I’ve seen, probably due to the street sweepers out at 7:00am every day.

Vacuum Press at Seattle Coffee Works

Vacuum Press at Seattle Coffee Works

3. Starbucks is the mass market, coffee is the main market. I studiously avoided Starbucks in the city of its founding and instead had cold brew coffee in four different boutique shops, including a store front on Pike called “Monorail Espresso” that was so smooth that I ventured out without a jacket — twice — to grab a large one during conference coffee breaks.

Mount Ranier, as seen from the Space Needle

Mount Ranier, as seen from the Space Needle

4. Nature is literally in the backyard. The majesty of Mount Ranier is hard to escape, and only 60 miles south of Seattle proper it brings hardcore outdoors right to your doorstep. While people in the Northeast buy “outdoor gear” that might suffice for a blustery November day, Seattle outdoors folks are sealing out the elements in $500 Arc’teryx jackets that are meant for, you know, mountains. Big ones.

Pike Place Market, Seattle

Pike Place Market, Seattle

5. Public conversation works. The Pike Place Market is thriving, and not just from the “guys throwing fish” — it’s full of artisan shops, local green grocers, and buskers. Goes to show that you can combine maker culture and historical significance and produce a result that has legs and appeals to a wide range of interests beyond tourists.

6. It’s a foodie city. Start with a core of dedicated seafood places and a unique supply (Alaskan king crab, dungeness crab, coho salmon), whisk gently with the emergent restaurants in the Ballard district, season with some serious hamish burger joints, and top off with the fresh fruit and produce in the markets, and you have a foodie mecca. Where to start? Wild boar burger at 8oz Burger, possibly top ten dinner at Art Of The Table (still dreaming of grilled broccoli with preserved lemon), and fruit and vegetables that you can only dream of on the east coast? (romanescu broccoli? lobster mushrooms? medjool dates for $7 a pound?) This caught me by surprise; I figured I’d be eating salmon on a stick (which I did, but only once).

7. Comics FTW. Three different people commented on my “Coffee of Doom” t-shirt from Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content – not only that they liked it, but knew the strip, knew the reference, and had met Jeph during one con or another. I got better sight reading from strangers on Pike Place than I did from carefully curated comic placements in my LISA talk, but that’s on me.

All in all, a fun week in a fun city. Can’t wait to come back. And I’ll be hungry (again).

Heed The Call of the Shofar

This one is a bit late but still seems timely. My wife and I decided to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Curacao, at the Mikve Israel synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere. Now a Reconstructionist congregation, Mikve Israel is a “famous” building (if synagogues can have fame) for its sand floor, meant to remind visitors of the steps taken to protect the identity and assembly times of Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the post-Inquisition Iberian. After taking a ferry across the narrow channel between the Otro and Punda sections of Willamsted (the floating Princess Emma pontoon bridge was opened for boat traffic), we found ourselves mildly lost in the tourist section of Punda.

Sporting northern-climate synagogue clothes, carrying a tallit bag and navigating stone streets in high heels and dress shoes, we were easily to pick out visually or audibly from 100 meters away. From behind us we heard a shout and the click of more heels on stone. We picked up the pace, as did our tail, until the shout resolved to “Shofar! Shofar!” — it was a member of the Mikve Israel congregation who had spotted us, realized we were lost, and offered to guide us to services.

I don’t know what prompted the woman to call to us using the named voice we would hear repeatedly through the morning service – the shofar, the call to action, the shrill, undulating insistence on waking up and taking action. Easier and less embarrassing than shouting “Hey Jewish tourists!” and “Rosh Hashanah this way!” but in the back of my mind I wonder how much this was modulated by the visible and abhorrent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe over the summer months. “Shofar” was simply an encoding that only the desired recipient would understand without drawing undue attention.

In four centuries, so much has changed, and yet so much has not.

United Airlines’ Social Media Flailing Adds To Their Problems

My long-standing dislike of United Airlines is well documented on Facebook and Twitter. I haven’t quite gotten to the point of having a flying playlist with mostly angry music, but it’s close. This week’s misadventure in social media with United Airlines is just so typical, and so indicative of their fundamental problems in understanding their customers (and their resultant anger) that I have to share it.

Backdrop: I was in Washington (Reagan) and flying home on an 8:00 pm departure (United Express 3900). The United Club (for which I pay a handsome sum each year) closes at 7:15pm, nearly two hours before their last departure, so there’s that bit of unreceived value. As I’m sitting in the departure area (where the seats are ripped, the floor is dirty, and there are no accessible outlets – the creature comforts I use the United Club for) I get a notification that my 8:00 pm flight is now delayed due to a late arriving aircraft. Using the United app on my phone, I see (a) the inbound is delayed due to mechanical issues (b) the inbound is supposed to arrive at 9:03 pm but (c) my outbound is still listed as having a departure time before that, which varies from 8:50-8:55 pm. If the inbound isn’t coming in until 9:03, we aren’t leaving much before 9:20 pm.

Why people find this infuriating: It’s a lack of consistency. We have access to information, via the web, that lets us piece together a logical chain of events. Providing contradictory information implies that either (a) you don’t know what’s going on or (b) you’re going to update and deliver increasingly bad news incrementally or (c) you don’t care about your customers. I think it’s a combination of all three, as I did what any annoyed but loud-mouthed individual would do in this case and used my remaining 15% iPhone battery life to take to Twitter:

United's Twitter Fail: Asking useless questions too late.

United’s Twitter Fail: Asking useless questions too late.

Let’s spot the fails:

I tweeted just before 8:00 pm. United replied 90 minutes later, when I was on the plane. Any trivial amount of Google searching would have revealed my full name, and my itinerary. This is just someone flailing in a customer service center, seeing @united show up and then issuing a stock reply.

When I finally saw their reply (the next day) I provided the flight information (again, which United could have easily derived). United’s response: It was weather! No, actually, it was mechanical, as your own app and operations data shared with the world.

I realize that planes break, and it’s very bad for them to break between destinations, so some mechanical issues are par for the United concourse. But — this was my second delay of 100% of the flight time or more due to mechanical in my last three trips with United, and the second one where the information about departure and arrivals just seems to have been made up by someone without looking at the logical chain of dependencies. Do not, however, immediately blame the weather — take responsibility for your lack of clarity. Take responsibility for informing passengers. Take responsibility for maintaining your fleet, provide enough slack in the system to handle the inevitable issues, and treat everyone, from pilots to employees to passengers to support staff in the airports, with respect.

True to form, United hasn’t finished the conversation. I filed an online customer service report nearly 24 hours ago, without an acknowledgement. And you can no longer call customer service. There’s your root cause: They don’t want to engage. The social media fails are only the symptoms.

From (Former) Russia, With Love

Toby and I have participated in the Jewish Federation’s Peoplehood Project for most of the past two years, knowing it would culminate in a trip to Ukraine and Israel, tracing our family’s lives from the very first roots of persecution in the pale of Jewish settlement to celebrating Israel Independence Day, in Israel, with our new friends and adopted families. It’s taken me close to two weeks to write even 1,500 sensical words about a trip that veered into the non-sensical at times – whether it was pillows that had the supple feel of depleted uranium, 7 hour bus rides over roads left unimproved through a half century of Russian winters, or trying to grasp how entire communities could be eradicated.

This is what I learned.

Leaving my host Ronit’s house in Mabuim, Israel, she pointed out her olive tree named Adi. Pomelo, lemon, and almond trees are known anonymously by their fruits; her olive tree has a name and so called it gets a touch more love from the family. When we know or assign names, we breathe life into their stories.

Our Greater Metrowest Federation Peoplehood trip to Ukraine and Israel began, for me, with the story and assembly of a differently branched tree. Cobbling together hopelessly short anecdotes shared by my grandmother’s generation, I traced my family tree five generations back to the Ukraine. They emigrated to the United States to escape pogroms and a rising German power that had already pushed the family east into Galicia. Piecing together the family history was an exercise in transliteration and trying to fathom what happened to those relatives noted only with a first name and a question mark. The further back I went, the less of a beginning there was to my story.

Window in the Odessa synagogue, converted into a basketball gymnasium during the Soviet era.

Window in the Odessa synagogue, converted into a basketball gymnasium during the Soviet era.

“We have to tell the story from the middle” said Misha, the docent at the Jewish Museum at our first stop in Odessa, Ukraine. “It’s a bubbemeise” was his usual introduction for each group of cultural artifacts, the remnants of vibrant Jewish life that largely vanished during the Second World War. Today, Odessa is home to a small but rebuilding Jewish community, a fitting first stop for our journey of discovery. Jews accounted for nearly 40% of Odessa’s population before 1941, but public massacres by Romanian and German troops and the ensuing Soviet era eradicated nearly all traces of Jewish life. Ina, our guide, told us that she and some friends took turns cooking each other dinner, and upon sharing her favorite dishes with them, she was asked “Are you Jewish? These are Jewish foods.” For two generations, her peoplehood existed only in steganographic form; recipes handed down encoding her Jewish heritage that avoided unwanted attention. When we discover the middle, we can look for the beginnings, and move forward. The Joint Distribution Committee and Federation are investing in giving voices to the Jewish community, and to providing community care for the growing number of social orphans, their parents taken by the realities of post-Soviet economics where vodka costs less than soda.

I found more subtle cultural clues about my family: An exhibit card in the Jewish museum shows “HaKohayn” spelled “KAGAN” in Ukrainian, and the spelling of a great-grandmother’s name comes into sharp focus. A plaque in the wonderful community center thanks a Rabbi Ezekiel, transliterated into Ukranian as “YE-KOZIEL,” and suddenly I know the answer to the 100-year old riddle of my great grandfather’s first name. He was known as “Koziel”, a diminuitive of that name. At the Odessa community center, we meet a dozen young Jewish people, a collection of Toumas and Katias who invite us into the private fold of their familiar, diminutive names, as we are part of the same, larger family.

From Odessa, it’s almost 500 kilometers north to Kiev, passing through alternating forests and farms. Most of the trees are the institial growth between cultivated land or small villages, but every so often we pass a rectilinear plot – a tree farm. I can see backwards three generations, the handiwork of men like great-grandfather Koziel, a treecutter who was forced to sharecrop because he could not own land in Yarmolints. The beginning of my story is there, too, carefuly encoded.

Memorial to the Jews massacred at Babi Yar, in the ravine just behind this menorah

Memorial to the Jews massacred at Babi Yar, in the ravine just behind this menorah

Our morning in Kiev begins with Anna, our guide, telling us about the events that led to the Babi Yar massacre. Anna’s grandmother related the story to her, and even the passing of nearly 70 years can’t prevent Anna from choking up as she describes both the horror and the nearly twenty years of political pressure needed to get a monument erected to the Jewish victims of that brutality. We walk, as a group, down a long path into a public park, where we see mothers with strollers, and people jogging, until we come to a 2-meter high menorah in front of a ravine. There is snow on the ground, in April, and we gather overlooking the site where 33,000 Jews were killed in a single day, their stories abruptly ended, erased, leaving no trace. My grandparents’ refusal to discuss life before their immigration made sense; how can you give voice to something that culiminates in a horror so abject, so deeply personal, that 40 years of Yom Kippur martyrology do nothing to prepare you for the overwhelming sense of loss?

We left Babi Yar as a group, walking away from the ravine, moved, saddened, and prepared to tell this story, too, from our vantage point in the middle. Despite a growing a sizeable Nazi Party, democracy in the former Soviet republic means that “Jew,” “Jewish” and “Judaism” are names that can be said aloud, no longer passed along through secret family recipes below the threshold of detection. As difficult as visiting Babi Yar was, it was empowering to leave, to walk away, with a Jewish tour group. Regrouping around the bus, I compared notes on small Ukranian villages with Jeremy, our Joint representative in Kiev, and it turns out he knows the archivist for Yaromlints. A century and a half, 7,000 miles by air and 12 hours in a bus, and yet playing Jewish geography still produces results.

Children's Ukranian (from Hebrew) transliteration of daily prayers.  Note the English "h" for the voiced "h" in "Ha-Olam".

Children’s Ukranian (from Hebrew) transliteration of daily prayers. Note the English “h” for the voiced “h” in “Ha-Olam”.

From Kiev, it was another bus ride paralleling the Dniepro River down to Cherkassy, a Greater MetroWest partner community, where again we saw the public, outward signs of Jewish rebirth. It’s exciting and fascinating to see these inclusive Jewish communities find their feet and emerge back into the light. From the Hesed center providing needed community care to the Chabad synagogue where we joyfully and loudly welcomed Shabbat, we saw the power of a different kind of 1% – Cherkassy’s 2,500 Jews in a city of 300,000. In each of the three cities of Ukraine, we found a Jewish community taking care of those forced to the edges, putting deep roots into soil stained by decades of hate and bloodshed. As our daughter told us after returning from Rwanda, the positive, successful post-genocide cultures simply celebrate life in the “after”; you define the beginning as now and live in a growing, robust series of middles.

We left Ukraine for Israel to observe Yom HaZikaron, the day commemorating fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks. Each ceremony mentioned “Am Yisroel” – the people of Israel – as the state is the place that is defended, but the people are what make it worth defending. Having seen the resurgence, and equally fragile nature, of the Jewish people in Ukraine over the preceding week, my personal sense of responsibility was amplified. Knowing Israeli officers who visit the families of their fallen soldiers makes the day more emotionally intense, building on the sense of community responsibility. We caught up with Ronit’s husband, an Army medical officer, later in the day. Ronit explained that he had led a ceremony, and then gone to see the family of one of his soldiers killed in the line of duty. There was no more discussion needed; we had spent a week understanding how sometimes the story cannot – and should not – be softened with explanation.

The soldier’s name was Adi and the olive tree is in his memory.

Atlantic City Is Drowning In White Space

We celebrated my wonderful wife’s birthday last weekend with some good foodie friends (they are good friends, foodies and good foodies all at once) in the basement dining room of Chef Vola’s in Atlantic City. Eating on the later side, we had a chance to talk with some of “the guys” and at one point we were asked “What do you think of Atlantic City?”

There is no easy way for me to answer the question. To me, Atlantic City is years of New Jersey Dental Conventions, and the place that took our teachers one 4-day weekend each November. It’s the 1920s captured in Boardwalk Empire and the dark light shone by Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster and the hope of tall new hotels dotting the beach like a small strip of Caribbean island transported 1,500 miles north. But all of those things leave space between; they are all incomplete when it comes to giving the city a soul and an identity. Atlantic City isn’t suffering from too much darkness; it’s suffering from way too much white space, opportunity squandered and therefore covered over with the civil engineering equivalent of doodles and marginalia.

The casinos had a 30-year head start, and have no identity, individually or collectively. With legalized gambling at New York racetracks, up and down the Delaware River, and at Connecticut’s Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, the lure of cards and dice is no longer sufficient. There’s nothing particularly inspiring or relaxing about the hotels, save perhaps the ultra-expensive spas at the Borgata and Revel. The boardwalk lacks the appeal of Seaside or Point Pleasant for the younger set, and lacks any redeeming value for adults. Even Mr. Peanut has migrated to saltier latitudes.

Every city in the world has crime and poverty, and yet none of them feel as desolate as Atlantic City. What’s lacking is a destination, or a set of destinations; there’s simply no “there” there. What local color should be flood filled by restaurants, boutiques, surf shops, or bed and breakfast places that create an experience superior and smaller and friendlier than the hotels is instead washed out by the pallor of Bader Field and the light-sucking facade of dilapidated and abandoned buildings. Look north from the odd-numbered rooms at the Revel, and you see a landscaped dotted with houses in various states of disrepair. The emptiness stares back at you; the people in the buses who take a vig on their Social Security checks to get a free sandwich and sit at slot machines don’t seem to notice.

Hurricane Sandy didn’t make things better, but the erasure was already underway. It was underway when the H-tract turned into the Borgata, when Trump’s casinos changed names and capitalization faster than he changed hairpieces, when the millions of redevelopment dollars didn’t result in any new development.

But I am a believer in the words of our state poet laureate and keeper of the flame, the true Boss of the 20th century, who has always found a way to balance the white space and the darkness on the edge of town:

Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

When there are places to meet, and reasons to dress up, Atlantic City will fill in the space around the casinos and institutions like the White House, Formica Brothers and the Knife & Fork, and become not just a city but a destination again. Maybe it means turning Bader Field into something other than a grass-riddled patch of tarmac for concerts; maybe it means getting large-scale financial investment and real estate development to deal with the abandoned and damaged houses; maybe it means attracting small businesses and non-seasonal ventures to the shore. It’s a challenge, but white space is meant to be filled in.