Friday, January 30, 2009

After the bombs, a fragile hope for peace

The bombs stopped falling after 23 days.

When the last of Israel's troops left the Gaza Strip Wednesday, more than 1,000 people lay dead, most of them civilians.

Forty-five minutes away, 31-year-old Megan Coss hears the chugging of helicopters and the rumble of fighter jets roaring across the western sky.

Home is a cooperative agricultural community that sits in between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but the distance from the Gaza Strip -- which she says is similar to the distance between Saratoga Springs and Albany -- means she is relatively far removed from the war.

"I try to explain to people back home that it's not like you see on the news. Even though there is this crazy conflict, we have fun. We have everything you have in America," said Coss, who grew up in the town of Greenfield, graduated from Saratoga Springs High School in 1995 and completed her college studies with a desire to teach and a yearning for travel. The combination led her to Israel in the summer of 2000. To Coss, it was the calm before the impending storm.

"Everyone was so optimistic. Then, suddenly everything exploded," she says.

In October 2000, riots broke out in the streets. Banks and businesses were set on fire. People were killed.

"It was scary, and I was clueless to the situation because it was so new to me then. Now, I have a sort of blase attitude about it," she says, although the threat of suicide bombers is always near.

"You can have a false sense of security. The next eruption could be just around the corner. It's a way of life."

Coss met the man whom she would eventually wed when he worked as a guard at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. Today, he works in the Israeli military, and the couple have two daughters, ages 2 years and 5 months.

Coss teaches at a Christian International School in West Jerusalem, where a diverse student body includes children of missionaries who support Israel, as well as children of diplomats and U.N. personnel who share an allegiance with the Palestinians.

"One of my students is the son of a CNN correspondent, and today he was wearing a sweatshirt that said, 'Free Palestine,' and had a map of Israel without the borders," Coss noted, during a conversation that occurred last week. "I just rolled my eyes at him and gave a little chuckle. He smiled in response. Things are usually like that. We accept each other's viewpoints and leave them aside in the classroom."

Outside the class, the fear of war and annihilation pushes many toward nationalism.

"I will say there is a lot of hate on both sides, but I think that's because people don't have exposure with one another. In times like these, people become desensitized. They start seeing things as 'us' and 'them,' but there are many Israelis and Palestinians who are friends. They have a human connection.

"There are human relationships beyond this war, beyond the terror. It's a different side people don't really see. People just feel despair at these times, because peace seems so far away."

By Thomas Dimopoulos

The Post-Star, January 2009.
Saratoga Bureau writer Thomas Dimopoulos can be reached at

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The man who watches helium balloons

Ice fell from the sky and clung to the fragile trees and vines of Saratoga. Snow pelted the roadways in Glens Falls. The winds blew through Poughkeepsie at gusts of more than 30 miles per hour, and Bob Kilpatrick knew all of it was going to happen in advance.

"Here, there is no such thing as a normal day," says Kilpatrick, one of approximately 15 meteorologists providing forecasts at the National Weather Service office in Albany.

The center is one of four NWS offices in the state and covers a region that spans from the Adirondacks to the Hudson Valley, from the Catskills to the western fringes of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

The work goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the center on Fuller Road, which sits about 15 miles, "as the crow flies," Kilpatrick explains, from the primary radar the center uses near Thatcher State Park.

Forecasting, he admits, is an inexact science. And despite technological improvements over the years that have allowed paper maps to be replaced by high-resolution radar data, there is still a lot that is unknown. Perhaps the greatest predictability is in the turns of a phrase used by fellow meteorologists.

"We do have our favorite phrases, like 'wintry mix,' to describe a potpourri of snow, ice and freezing rain. In the warmer season, one of the favorites is 'The Triple H,' -- hazy, hot, and humid," he says.

The most commonly used phrase, which is reserved for ice storms, is not appropriate for print, jokes Kilpatrick, who is given to peppering his speech with phrases like "sampling the atmosphere aloft," and, "air mass contrast."
Ask him what has been most memorable during his forecasting career, which dates back to the mid-1970s, and Kilpatrick reels off a list of local disasters: The blizzard of '93; the Memorial Day tornado of '98 and the flood of '97, when a section of the State Thruway bridge over the Scoharie Creek collapsed, plunging four cars and a tractor trailer into the water. Ten motorists died that day.

Kilpatrick also recalled a tragic storm that hit the city of Newburgh in November, 1989. The storm came with high winds that knocked down the wall of a school, killing nine children. Maybe it is simply human nature, but sun-filled days with cloudless skies don't seem to make the list of lasting memories.

After 35 years on the job, Kilpatrick continues to watch helium-filled weather balloons hoisted from the forecasting center twice a day. He continues to answer questions from news media services across the state about what tomorrow will look like, and he will respond to similar inquiries from his friends and neighbors when they spot him on the street. And he will carry on with the important work of forecasting the future with his inexact science.

"There will be a wintry mix, but it's going to turn to snow," he said matter-of-factly. "The skiers will be happy, if nothing else."

Thomas Dimopoulos
The Post-Star, January, 2009

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Waiting for Mr. Obama

The white blizzard blew through the region last week.

It forced area schools to close their doors for the day. It beat out a rhythm as it passed across the windows of Jodi Leight's home.

Tucked safely inside, the Schuylerville school music teacher spent the day with her equally snowbound husband, Bill, a seventh-grade teacher at Troy's Doyle Middle School.

The couple was watching TV when a message flashed across the screen alerting them of an incoming call from Washington, D.C.

"It was from Hillary's office," Leight said, then chuckled, "Hillary -- like I know her."

It was a luck-filled snow day for the couple, who learned they scored a pair of tickets to President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony.

Sen. Clinton made 350 tickets to the inauguration available to the general public. The Leights delivered a letter to the senator's office about their role as educators.

Theirs was one of tens of thousands of inquiries requesting tickets, and they were happily surprised when they learned they were selected.

"I know what it feels like to be at a rock concert and big sporting events, but I cannot imagine what it will be like at the inauguration," said Leight, who managed to secure one of the last available hotel rooms in the D.C. area, located two miles from the Capitol and overlooking the Arlington National Cemetery, at a cost of $600 a night.

The plan is to drive to Washington Sunday, Leight said, pick up their tickets from Clinton's office on Monday and spend the afternoon taking in activities honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

They plan on starting their journey to the Capitol at 4 a.m. Tuesday, where they will be among a crowd of 240,000 other ticket holders.

The music teacher in Leight is looking forward to performances by singer Aretha Franklin and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The American in her is anticipating the moment that Obama takes the oath of office using Pres. Abraham Lincoln's Inaugural Bible.

"This shows how progressive our country is. It will be awesome," said Leight, who has taught grades seven through 12 at Schuylerville since 2000.

"Even if I can't physically see him, just being together with so many people and all that energy will be enough," she said. "I like his ideas, his positive attitude, his stance on education. With both of us being teachers, we're very concerned about funding for education," Leight said.

She also has a clear grasp of the historic ramifications Obama's moment will have.

"When people ask: 'Where were you that day?' I know where I will be," she said. "I feel blessed to be able to be there."

Thomas Dimopoulos
The Post-Star Jan.16, 2009

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