Saturday, July 29, 2006

Why Shouldn't I?

So I woke up from my daily rest hour nap, and pondered why shouldn't I be entitled to an hour long nap every day? Of course, followed by an hour long swim. And lots of soccer and basketball. As I woke up from my nap, I really debated why I should do any differently. I mean, sure I took a few naps under my desk, but those were always the 10 minute power nap varieties. With no swim to follow. I absolutely don't miss office world, and could thoroughly enjoy a few more endless summers. Being the eldest camper is such the life.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Almost...

Fired!! Wow, I came really close, without even knowing it, to be sumarily booted from my job as a counselor. Long story, but basically I was almost fired not for something I said, but for the way it was understood by some Palestinian kids. In the Middle East, perception is reality. It doesn't matter what I said to these kids, it was how they perceived it. What I said was not bad, but the way they perceived it was pretty awful.

To make matters worse, I didn't find out any of this until a week after it all happened, because the incident took place at the end of camp and then I was on break. When I got back to camp, I got a very angry lecture by the director. I then went on a two day, kafka-esque odyssey of trying to figure out what it was believed that I said. I even had two counselors tell me that they believed I should have been fired for what I supposedly said. The whole thing was not pretty. In any case, I am still here. Lesson learned- it doesn't always matter what I say because if enough people perceive it in a different manner then that becomes the reality.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

PFLP

In the myriad discussion at Seeds of Peace camp about the status of Occupation and its discontent, I was very tempted to tell all the campers that I consider them to be "occupiers." They are occupiers of my camp, as their present camp has "settled" on camp grounds that I very much consider to be rightly mine.

In that regard, I'm currently heading a guerrilla movement (of one) to liberate it. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Powhatan (PFLP) has been carrying out random acts of mischief and sabotage to the tightly-ordered world of Seeds of Peace, so that the libertarian, libertine values of Camp Powhatan remain.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Time Traveler's Wife

“Why did you come to me?”
“Because I had to come to you. It wasn’t a matter of choice.”
“Fate?”
“Call it whatever you want. Things get kind of circular, when you’re me. Cause and effect get muddled.”
-The Time Traveler’s Wife

July 18, 2006 (Paul is 26 and 13)

Today was the last day of the first session of camp. I bade my kids farewell in a semi-detached manner. I said goodbye to the kids that I wanted to, and gave them all big hugs, but I didn’t make it the sobbing emotional affair like so many. In situations like this, you can either laugh or cry, I chose the former and sang “You’ll never see your friends again” at a decibel just soft enough not to get me lynched by emotional teens.

After the kids left, we started cleaning up the ghost town that is now camp. The calm after the storm, as the kids return to their own maelstrom. It was a beautiful, hot day and I planned to go swim in the lake after my work was done. Unfortunately, a rainstorm appeared out of nowhere, and brought torrential rains down upon us. The rains soon subsided enough that I could make my way back to my deserted bunk and finish my wonderful book.

I just finished reading “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. It is a fantastic book, recommended to me by my friend Sarah. While I don’t agree with her statement that it was better than “Love in the Time Of Cholera,” it was still a book I could not put down. As I finished the book, the rain returned in a soft, subtle manner. Just as I closed the book, I looked up at my name on the ceiling of my bunk. I was a counselor last session in Bunk 14. I had also been in Bunk 14 previously as a camper in 1993. I stared up at my orange spray-painted “Rock ‘93” and left the cabin.

While I was walking down the road, staring at the drops landing softly on the shallow puddles, I suddenly felt like the main character “Henry.” I just spent the summer in a place that I once resided. 1993 was the last time I lived in that bunk. I was 13 that summer, and no one had any idea the storm that was to come that fall. That autumn, I had my first bouts with the terrible teenage years. I was melancholy and depressed without ever knowing why. My parents struggled to figure out how to motivate a seemingly listless body that never acted this way before.

1993 was also the first summer of Seeds of Peace. That summer, the program took its pioneering first steps in trying to accomplish what no one thought possible. I almost took part in that first experimental summer, but my apathy had already started kicking in. I turned down the invitation to participate in that first session, and went on with my business. The historic signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn that Fall later buoyed the exuberance of the first summer program that Fall. The first SOP campers were at that event, standing with Clinton, Rabin and Arafat as all hoped for a brighter future.

My listlessness continued until I made my own journey to Israel. In 1996, I was convinced to go to Israel for the summer on an Israel Discovery program by my then-girlfriend Heidi. For the first time, I didn’t return to Camp Powhatan. That summer I was reawakened as I found purpose of being again. I also had no way of knowing that the summer would be Powhatan’s last. I left Powhatan to go to Israel, and the identity that was formed that summer would sustain me for the next decade. My father once remarked that it was this trip which gave him his son back. If I hadn’t gone to Israel that summer, it is highly unlikely that I would have ever ended up working for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. It is also highly unlikely that I would have returned to this place as a counselor at Seeds of Peace to find my closure that I so longed for.

So now I have returned. I returned for closure that I am finally able to achieve. I spent the first session being the counselor I always wanted to be, and the kids loved it. The kids wrote the most wonderful things to me in my scrapbook. There was at least a good handful that I feel I really reached.

As the Middle East is racked with violence, I sadly hark back to the innocence that 1993 held. The calm before the storm for me, and for the region I have found myself so inexplicably tied to. As Henry of the novel writes, “Time is nothing.” As I wake up in the same place I where I went to sleep thirteen years ago, I have to agree.

Pains of War, Seeds of Peace

An op-ed I wrote years ago about my experiences at Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine:

Pains of War, Seeds of Peace

Amid the sylvan splendor of the Maine woods, I spent my summer working as a counselor at Seeds of Peace camp.  Seeds of Peace is a camp that brings teenagers together from areas of conflict.  Teens from Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan, as well as India and Pakistan are brought together to learn about each other, and to meet their enemy face-to-face.  For 2 three-week sessions during the summer, this veritable "camp o' conflict" is abuzz in its mission of creating dialogue and friendship for groups that have never so much as sat down together.  

Seeds of Peace is absolutely amazing in its ability to break down the barriers that exist between communities, and fashion friendships and understanding between divergent groups.  I will readily admit that I became a drinker of the proverbial Kool-Aid, as I witnessed my own bunk of Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian teenagers coalesce together over endless games of soccer and basketball. 

The campers spend their summer in dialogue sessions, learning about the conflict from the eyes of the other side.  Moreover, they also spend much time on the sports field, competing together and learning to play with their teammates.  The competitive nature of sports does much to help break down the barriers that exist between all sides.  

Beyond traditional sports activities, these kids learn to value and trust their fellow campers through Ropes Course Group Challenges.  The Ropes Course Group Challenge activities force the campers to learn how to work with, and rely on each other, despite their previous differences.  Furthermore, a thriving music and arts programs helps the kids express their creativity and identity in alternative fashions.  Through a wide variety of activities, the campers learn to do what their parents have never been able to achieve, that is to co-exist together.  

Over the summer, the campers learn to trust the process that brings them together and the environment surrounding them as a safe place to discuss their differences.  Making peace among enemies is never easy, even in an idyllic Maine setting.  Yet even amid the currents of political instability and the torrents of war that flooded throughout the Middle East this summer, the kids were able to tread above the conflict and reach understanding.  As the violence in the region reached its apex during the first session, the kids were caught up in the coup d'grace of the session: Color Games. [Ed note: I was there in 2006 during the Israel-Lebanon War, this was the first summer where war broke out during a session]

During Color Games, the entire camp was divided up into two teams, completely irrespective of religion or nationality.  The two teams, Blue and Green, fought pitched battles of competition on the sports fields.  Green Israelis cheered on Green Palestinians, and rooted against their rival Blue Israelis.  For nearly three days, the most intense sports competition of their lives raged, and enthralled these precocious teens.  Finally, when the winning team was announced, the Green team ran pell-mell first into Pleasant Lake, only to be joined moments later by their Blue opponents.  As both teams splashed in the lake, and washed away both victory and defeat, the lesson of the summer was apparent to all sides: identities that have been forged over a lifetime are as arbitrary as that of the divisions of blue and green shirts. 

The motto of Seeds of Peace is that they do what no government can— make peace between people.  I saw with my own eyes this summer that this statement is more than any buzzword-filled catchphrase; rather the Seeds of Peace mission is alive in all of the wonderful teens who gain such tremendous growth, understanding and empathy for each other and all humanity.   

 Paul Rockower spent the summer as a counselor at Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield, Maine.  He formerly worked for the Israeli Foreign Ministry as the Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest, located in Houston, Texas.  You can read more of his misadventures at camp at his blog: http://levantine18.blogspot.com


Saturday, July 15, 2006

Color War

We just wrapped up the Color Games extravaganza, and it was intense. When I went to camp here, it was called "Color War." For obvious reasons, they changed the name. Color War was called "three days of the most intense competition of your life"; little has changed. Color Games is kept as a surprise for the entire session. We tell the kids that it has been cancelled because of any number of bs reasons. Then, we surprise them.

Color Games is the coup d'grace of the summer. It is the singular event that brings these kids together. The entire camp is divided up into two teams, blue and green (my red and gray). Green Israelis and Palestinians root for their fellow teammates, and against their own Blue countrymen. I was not a coach this session, so I was on the referee white team (poiple). White never loses.

The three days were off like a rocket. People were full of energy and spirit, as they competed as friends and teammates together. The most amazing thing was all this took place against a backdrop of chaos and uncertainty in their own countries. You would have never known that the Middle East was creeping towards war, because there was nary a mention of the events at home. The only thing that was on both teams' mind was getting in the lake first.

Beyond the sports aspect, there were othere events like a variety show. I was amazed by one of the sketches that the Green team did for the drama portion. It wasa silent sketch, in which a group was playing together. Someone found a giant object that was painted half white and half black. They put in on a pedestal, and slowly divided up into two groups. One side began painting images of the white side, the other did the same for the black side. They both acted like they were worshipping their respective sides. As the skit continued, people on both the black and white side put on masks that matched the side they were "worshipping." Then both sides acted like they were arguing and fighting over which side was better. Then one person took off their mask, and beckoned someone from the other side to do the same. As they all began to take off their masks, they realized they were the same, and had nothing to fight over. It was powerful, and game me goosebumps, and I don't think my description does little justice to the poignancy of the sketch.

The Color Games were ultimately won by the Green team. They were up early, and never trailed. It got close at the end, after the Blue team won an event called "Haji Mai." Haji Mai is a camp long relay race that involves the entire teams. At each leg of the race someone has to do an event like make ten free-throws, or eat a whipcream pie. It's an event that gets everyone involved. The event is worth a lot of points. After the race, both teams lined up in front of the lake. Tim the director read off the winner of Haji Mai, which was Blue. That increased the anxiety, because Green had been winning by a lot, but this could have closed the gap enough to reverse the outcome. Then Tim read off the winner, Green, and the whole team darted into the lake. They were quickly followed by the losing Blue team, and then everyone else got in.

The beauty of Color Games is that it by splitting the kids into two teams, it helped meld the kids into one cohesive unit. Color Games is the event that forges these opposing sides into one. Even with al the uncertainty and angst in the region, these kids were able to move past that. It was truly something special.

Later in the evening, a Quaker Meeting was held. As part of the pluralistic nature of the camp, different services of different faiths and denominations are held throuought the summer. Quakermeetings are characterized by silence, with no priest. People speak when they feel moved to do so. The Quaker Meeting started in silence, and stayed that way until someone felt moved to share. That opened up a torrent of feelings. People spoke of peace, of their sadness of leaving, and how this has changed them. I said I was so moved by how much people had grown in the last three weks, and how we all could see it. One girl menioned her skepticism at what 200 people could do to change the world. I replied that if she didn't 200 people could change anything, what about all the times just one person changed the course of history. I think this resonated more with the kids, especially because the meeting was taking place under the portrait of the late founder of Seeds of Peace John Wallach. He was just one man, but he had a vison that Israelis and Palestinians could co-exist together in peace.

When people were discussing how they didn't want it to end, I mentioned the poem that I always say to myself when I don't want moments to end:

"Ayli, Ayli
sh'lo yigamer la'olam
hahof ve ha yam
rishrush b'mayim
barak b'shamyim
tfilat adam"

Oh lord, my god
I pray that these days never end
the sand and the sea
the rush of the waters
the crash of the heavens
the prayer of man."

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Azzurri vs. Les Bleus at SOP



The World Cup festivities here have been intense. The kids couldn't watch any of the games, so they would beg us for scores. I would announce them at lineup. All summer, the campers had been asking if they could watch the finals. We honestly didn't know, so we told them we would try. We offered to tape it, then show it later. We also offered to disconnect the internet and phones so no one would know the score. Regardless, it's not the same as seeing the game live.



Today, we posted the normal schedule. I had no idea we were going to be able to watch the game, so I tried to switch my schedule to be able to watch the game. One counselor pulled me aside and told me the truth. We were going to watch the game live, but the kids didn't know the secret. At lineup, we had a German counselor address the kids (in German) with another counselor translating. She told them that we have all enjoyed the games, and for a special treat, we would let them watch the third place Germany game. Then, counselors dressed in Italy and France paint ran out. The kids went nuts. We announced the game would be shown live.

The camp quickly divided. Everyone was painting their faces in either the French or Italian tricolors. When the game started, the place was rocking. You could hear the cheers nearly a mile away. Israelis and Palestinians together cheering "Viva Le France" or "Forza Italia." It was awesome. When the game went into penalty kicks, everyone was cheering so loud. We all went nuts when Italy won, it was a mob scene. Forza Italia!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Boer War memories

Boer War memories
BILL O'BRIEN
The Edmond Sun


EDMOND — Paul Rockower formerly served as the press officer at the Israeli Consulate in Houston, Texas, and in that capacity he became acquainted with a variety of people in Oklahoma. He recently spent several months in the Republic of South Africa as a Rotary fellow, and he detailed his experiences and adventures in that land in a blog found at http://levantine18blogspot.com.

Like most visitors to South Africa, he was entranced by the natural beauty of that nation, and was struck by the friendliness of all the diverse people he encountered there.

And in the city of Bloemfontein, he came upon a museum that is dedicated to an event that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten — the Boer War. That conflict was fought from 1899 until 1902 by the Afrikaners who resided in the two republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and the British government that controlled the adjoining areas of the Cape Colony and Natal.

The Afrikaners were the descendants of the Dutch settlers who had come to Southern Africa in the 17th century and in the subsequent century that had left the Cape Colony to escape British rule.

The war took its name from the Afrikaans word for farmer, “Boer.” And many people sympathized with the Boers, and citizens from as far away as what was then Oklahoma Territory signed petitions supporting them.

That conflict launched the career of Winston Churchill, who became famous in England after escaping from a Boer prisoner-of-war camp. During the Boer siege of Mafeking, a town held by British forces, a young Englishman named Robert Baden-Powell directed young men that he described as “boy scouts” to patrol the town at night.

After the war, he returned to England and founded the Boy Scouts as a result of that experience. The Afrikaans words “trek” and “commando” made their way into the English language as a result of the Boer War.

After some initial setbacks at the hands of the Boers, the British were able to capture the Boer capitals of Pretoria and Bloemfontein. The British military thought the war was essentially over. But it wasn’t. The Boers then began a campaign of guerilla warfare that was to keep the war going for an additional two years. The Boer soldiers were supported by Afrikaners who lived on farms and were often given supplies and information on the location of British forces by them.

Decades before Mao Tse Tung would write “the guerillas are the fish and the people are the sea,” the Boer guerillas were relying on their civilian counterparts for support in that manner. To remedy that situation, the British commander Lord Kitchener issued an order that directed that all of the rural Boers were to be “concentrated” in camps so they couldn’t support the Boer fighters. And more than 60,000 Afrikaner women and children were moved from their farms to camps operated by the British army. Well more than 26,000 of them would die in those camps.

Johann Wolfaardt, a researcher and information officer at the Boer Republics War museum that Rockower met, explains via e-mail the reasons for those deaths. Kitchener was an arrogant and autocratic man who cared little for the plight of his own foot soldiers, let alone the wives and dependents of those whom he was fighting.

And it is not surprising that the British army would get priority in the allocation of food and supplies, and Wolfaardt reports that often food unfit for human consumption was given to the Afrikaners in the camps.

Many Boers had large families, and Wolfaardt says his museum has copies of the British regulations that mandated that each family only receive a daily ration of half bucket of water, a tablespoon of condensed milk, half a tin of bully beef, a teaspoon of sugar and salt and a small cup of soup. Soap was in short supply as well.

Under those circumstances, it is not surprising there were outbreaks of cholera and other diseases that would kill many of those interned in those camps. And the British government has never apologized for those actions.

Houston Chronicle Article about my group and me

Houston Chronicle July 5, 2006, 4:24PM
Area Rotarians leave mark in South Africa
Group members share details on infectious diseases


By LISA VIATOR
Chronicle Correspondent

Three current and two former Houstonians received much more than they gave during a recent health and education goodwill trip to South Africa.

The group — comprised of Houston residents Barbara Clemmons, Jerry Morales and Sandi Pruitt, along with former Houstonians Paul Rockower and Carol Davis — was sponsored by Houston's Rotary District No. 5890. They left March 11 for a five-week benevolent journey to the country.

The gist of the trip followed closely with Rotary's mission, "Service Above Self," which included donating books to South African citizens, a project that has distributed nearly 6 million volumes in the past five years.

The books were distributed in Johannesburg, Eastern Cape and Free State Province.

Clemmons, a long-time area Rotarian, took on the task of group leader and Rockower documented the journey.

With health-care providers Morales, a housing case manager for AIDS Foundation Houston, Pruitt, a pre-doctoral fellow at the University of Texas' School of Public Health, and Davis, who works for the Texas Department of Health, the trip also took on the added dimension of serving as a vocational exchange with a focus on infectious diseases.

The group visited numerous clinics and hospices, and spoke with medical practitioners to learn more about how clinic directors strive to maximize private and government funding in the face of AIDS and tuberculosis.

While group members say they were enthralled by the exotic locales, they also agreed the foreign land and their own home state had a few things in common.

"It was 100 percent Texas," Rockower said. "Good old boys, windmills, cows — the only difference is (in Texas), no zebras. We were ambassadors from Houston, Texas and (found out) that all they know is J.R. (Ewing, from the 1980s television series Dallas) and 'Houston, we have a problem.' "

Morales agreed.

"Texas, with an occasional giraffe," he said. "We shared many experiences together (with the natives) and my focus was on the health aspect. I've served African immigrants but will be able to do so much better after having spent time there."

Pruitt said her participation in the trip was the result of being in the right place — in her case a coffee shop — at the right time.

"I was sitting in a Starbucks on Shepherd, mulling over my dissertation, and saw a poster advertising for a free trip to South Africa," she said.

Upon further investigation, Pruitt discovered aspects of the trip might benefit her studies on how a community's socioeconomic status affects cancer treatment — she would be able to visit cancer-oriented hospices while on the trip.

"I'm not sure how it will apply to my research, but at some point it will," she said. "There are not many people who do what I do in South Africa. AIDS has created such a vacuum of medical staff."

Tour benefits
For Rockower, a former press officer with the Israeli Consulate in Houston, the trip benefited the people he was there to serve as well as his own personal journalistic passions.

"My aspect was meeting with newspapers, radio and television (stations) and seeing how they cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said.

Clemmons said the group stayed in homes of South African Rotarians, and members were treated like visiting royalty, despite woeful working conditions in the country.

"They have 60 percent unemployment, and there are many middle class domestics," Clemmons said. "It's almost a civic duty to create jobs and many (domestics) have been with the same families for 20 or 30 years."

Clemmons said in equal synchronization was the Houston-based group, most of who were not acquainted before the trip. The group leader said she had high hopes in the beginning that that would be the case, "and by the time we left, we were a solid team," she added.

"By the end of the month, we couldn't identify who among us was the most eccentric," Rockower added.

More discoveries
Morales said among one of the more amazing bits of information he gleaned was the South African national anthem contains four languages.

"And there are 11 official languages in South Africa — nine of those tribal," he said.

"The Rotary project supports a computer training center and at one I requested the students sing," Morales added. "The next day, 90 children filed out in uniforms and sang. We were all in tears."

Pruitt was disturbed by the lack of what she referred to as "cancer infrastructure," but was encouraged when she learned the physician at the most progressive hospital-clinic had worked at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

"The best thing was meeting so many people," she said. "They constantly remarked on how they were learning from us and I feel like I was learning from them"

"We never had the same day twice," Rockower added. "One day, it was 2,600 feet underground in a gold mine; the next soaring in glider planes."

The Trials of Hercules

I was in my bunk the other day, when the head counselor came by for inspection. He said our bunk was clean but started complaining about the neatness of a certain shelf. I pointed out that the shelf in question belonged to a counselor, and should not be subject to inspection. He disagreed. Later at line-up, the same counselor was reading off the scores for inspection. He mentioned my declaration that counselors areas should be off-limits. Upon hearing this, Tim the director laughed and announced that I would be forced to clean the boys shower house.

Gross!! This place hadn't been cleaned in the three weeks I have been here. You need a cleaning crew, bio-suits and power hoses to carry out such a task. Yet here I was stuck with the most unenviable task of cleaning this den o' filth all alone. I pleaded to be removed from the task, arguing that I was merely standing up for the principles of counselor rights. Too bad. Nor could I skip the assigmnent, considering that Tim the director is not someone who you ignore when he tells you to do something.

So I was stuck. I got a mop and bucket, but quickly realized that it would take me a very long time to mop the shower house. Then, I had a brilliant idea. I remembered the 12 trials of Hercules, and one particular trial in which he was forced to clean the Aegean Stables. The Aegean stables were the largest horsestables in the world, and Hercules had to clean them all in a single day. To accomplish this task, Hercules diverted a river, and flooded the stables. In flooding the stables, Hercules was able to clean it out in a matter of hours. Much the same way, this hero turned on all the showers in the shower house. I flooded the entire place, and squeezed out all the shampoo into the torrents of water. Then I grabbed a squeegee and pushed the flood waters out the doors.

I was like Tom Sawyer sloshing around in the water, having a great time cleaning up. When i announced that I had completed my task, I related the stary of Hercules, and stated that I knew the shower house would stay clean because I knew how often the boys actually showered. In any case, I finished the unenviable task in a such a short time that both the director and head counselor thanked me in front of the whole camp at lineup.

PS: I previously wrote I was having difficulties with a co-counselor. Things seem to have been worked out. He has chilled out, and we are communicating much better. He is even pretty cool. I met a friend of his, and that guy said it was his first time at camp, that might explain why he was so uptight at first. In any case, it is a big relief that things are even-keel.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Cultural Difficulties

The last two days I have had two unenviable tasks. The first task was to try to teach soccer to a bunch of teenage girls who had absolutely no interest in playing. We both learned very quickly who was in-charge, and it wasn't me. Some said they were tired, others claimed "girl reasons" for not wanting to play. I begged, pleaded and cajoled. I threatened. All to no avail. They didn't want to play, and I was powerless to stop them. I never thought that I would be humbled by a bunch of teenyboppers.

The second unenviable task was teaching foreign kids to play American football. They just don't get it, and don't really care to. It seemed the only thing they liked was punting the ball. You should have seen the looks on all the Jewish and Muslims faces when I told them the football was called a "pigskin."