Thursday, November 25, 2004

In De-Nile

One of the hardest things about living in Israel for Western immigrants is not having access to the vast consumer marketplace we grew up with in North America.

I know, that sounds pretty trivial and maybe even a little petty. After all, we are living in another country. We freely chose to put 5,000 miles between us and the nearest Disney Store. But sometimes it can be downright hazardous to your health.

For example, last week my phone headset broke. I use this simple audio device all the time to keep my hands free to take notes when I’m interviewing people long distance for the various newspapers I write for.

No problem, you say. Order it online. Or head on over to the nearest Fry’s or Best Buy and pick up a new headset.

Except that the superstores that make life so convenient in North America just don’t exist in Israel.

Ah...Fry’s. I like to call it conspicuous consumption on steroids, but that barely begins to describe the place.

The Fry’s I used to shop at in the “old country” is something like three football fields long and maybe as many wide. Fry’s started off years ago selling electronic gear for geeks. Now they hawk everything from music CDs to refrigerators, 42-inch plasma screen TVs to candy bars.

And, yes, telephone headsets. Racks and racks of them.

Well, while we don’t have Fry’s in Israel, we do have Office Depot. I headed on over to our local store. I still had a good 90 minutes before the 4:00 PM interview I needed to conduct by phone that afternoon. I figured it would take a couple of minutes to sort through several models.

I figured wrong.

Ein lanu,” the perfunctory Office Depot clerk said. Meaning, “We don’t carry that.”

How could that be? I was sure I’d seen them at the Office Depot, wait a minute; that was in Los Angeles.

“Maybe try the Home Depot,” the clerk offered. It wasn’t far. So off I went, from depot to depot.

Ein lanu.” No headsets there either. “Have you tried the Sakal store?”

No, I had not tried the Sakal store. But I would now.

The Sakal store was closed for repairs. Mamash ein lanu.

By now I was getting a little panicky. The clock was ticking: I had little less than an hour until my phone call at this point.

What about the electronics store down the street? I headed towards my car. It had been raining off and on all day, and now it was coming down pretty hard.

The closest spot I could find was a couple of blocks away. I stepped out and – splash – I made contact with one of Jerusalem’s infamous puddles.

I don’t know if it’s the fact that the streets aren’t paved evenly or bad drainage, but trying to stay dry while crossing a street in this city when it’s raining is like playing hopscotch on your heels. Eventually, someone falls.

I felt the water seep in through my tennis shoes. It was cold and slimy (note to self: buy those waterproof boots already).

As I sloshed unto the Lior Electric store and held up my old broken phone headset, I heard a familiar refrain – now, don’t everybody shout it all at once – ein lanu.

“Any idea where I could find one?” I asked, desperation starting to mix with the mud in my sneakers. I was down to 50 minutes.

I could go on with the story for took another five stops, seventeen puddles and a street that flowed like a concrete swamp before I finally found a cell phone store that sold headsets. It wasn’t even what I wanted. But it would have to do. I had only 30 minutes left.

I ran back to the car and gunned it towards home. Only to find myself stuck in a long line of traffic waiting for a light that seemed to never change. But the digital clock in my dashboard sure did.

20 minutes. 10 minutes.

As we inched our way forward, fingers tapping nervously on the steering wheel, I thought to myself, would it be so much to ask for a CompUSA and a little valet parking? It's not that I'm in denial about the place in which I live; it's just that on a day like this, it felt more like wading through the Nile.

I made it home with minutes to spare before the scheduled time of my interview. I bolted up the stairs to my home office and plugged the headset into the phone. Hallelujah, it worked! I dialed the number...

...and was promptly shunted off into voicemail. I checked my email. There was a quick message. “Sorry, have to reschedule. Hope it wasn’t any kind of inconvenience.”

Inconvenience? Now why should it be an inconvenience?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Music and Meet

I was asked by a colleague to help out on a friend’s website. Nothing fancy, just a little advice to help the guy get up and running.

And, oh yeah, could I do it for free?

As it turns out, the website happens to be for a good cause, so I took up the challenge. After several hours over a period of weeks, I got to know the website owner pretty well. One day he dropped me an email.

“My daughter is having a bat mitzvah party at our house. We would be honored if you and your wife could attend.”

Well, Jody and I are always up for a simcha. And the bar mitzvah dad is a pretty funky guy, so I figured it would be a happening event.

But as we drove out to the party, in a moshav (communal village) perched on a picturesque hill about half an hour due west from Jerusalem, Jody and I started to feel uncomfortable.

“Do you think we should have brought a gift?” Jody asked, worriedly.

“Didn’t the work I did count?” I replied.

“I don’t think so...” Jody said, quickly reviewing in her mind what she knew about Israeli bar and bat mitzvah etiquette.

“You know, we don’t even know the bat mitzvah girl’s name,” I said.

“Have you ever met her father?”

“No. I’ve only spoken to him on the telephone. But I know what he looks like.”

“We should have at least brought an envelope,” Jody said.

“Want me to turn around?”

“No...let’s try to enjoy ourselves. Maybe we’ll meet someone interesting.”

The setting for the party was low-key and laid back. The afternoon summer sun was making a slow descent. A large pergola, ensnared in vines, served as a gateway to a lawn where several musicians were playing soft jazz.

Two large barbeques set up under the pergola were churning out burgers, kebabs and chicken wings at a satisfying rate.

“You must be Brian,” the bat mitzvah dad called over to me as we sauntered into the scene. I introduced Jody. He introduced his wife and some of his nine children.

“Did you figure out that Photoshop problem we were talking about?” I asked, trying to make conversation.

“Not now,” he said. “Get some food before it’s gone. And enjoy yourself.”

We sat down and ate our meat. Sitting at the table with us was a young girl, maybe 14, with braces and long wavy hair. She was all by herself. We said hi.

A bongo player had joined the band, seamlessly transforming their sound from jazz to jam with a little bit of Guster thrown in for good measure.

I turned back to Jody. She was deep in conversation with Tmima, the 14 year old.

“So what’s it like living here?” I heard Jody asking.

“It’s very pretty. We have six dunams of land,” Tmima answered, glancing towards the stunning view which stretched all the way to the Tel Aviv beachside. “Where do you live?”

“Jerusalem,” I told her, joining in.

“That sounds nice,” Tmima said. “It’s so boring here. There’s nothing to do at night.”

“Aren’t there other kids here on the moshav? Do you have a scout troupe or anything?” I asked.

“Well, I go to Bnei Akiva. But there are only six of us. And we don’t get along very well.”

“Do you have family here?” Jody asked. “In Israel, I mean?”

“No one. Other than my parents and brothers and sisters, of course.” Tmima said.

“We had three cousins here,” I offered. “But one of them was killed two years ago.”

I have no idea why I said that. It’s not something that comes up regularly in conversation anymore. At that particular moment, enjoying the view and the food and the cooling air, thoughts of Marla, our cousin who died in the bomb at Hebrew University July 31, 2002, seemed far away.

Or maybe they weren't. Maybe on some level I thought that in a land where everybody knows somebody who’s been affected by terror, that this would be a way to bond with an Israeli teen.

We both were silent for a moment.

Then Tmima said, brightly, “So what do you like to do? When you’re not working, of course.” She had snapped back from a moment of awkwardness just about as fast as the average Israeli bounces back after an attack. I don’t know anymore if that’s a good thing or a symptom of denial. After so many years, it just is.

We talked a little longer, and eventually Tmima got up to hang with her friends – all six of them, I suppose. Jody and I settled back to listen to more music which had now taken a definite Shlomo Carlebach turn. Smoke from the barbeque occasionally drifted across the lawn.

As we said our goodbyes a few hours later, Jody grabbed my hand. “Aren’t you glad we didn’t turn around?” she asked.

“Mmmm...” I mumbled, wordlessly agreeing with her.

Because between the music and the meat, you never know just who you might meet.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

An Elvis-Sized Hangover

If this story seems a little bleary, it’s because I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night. Seems we were locked out of our house.

By our kids.

Mabye it was our own fault. My wife Jody and I decided a few months ago that the kids were old enough to stay home without a babysitter when we went out. After all, Amir is thirteen and already does some babysitting for pay.

We were invited to our friend Alan’s birthday party at the Elvis Diner. That’s right, just a few minutes outside Jerusalem on the highway to Tel Aviv there’s an authentic circa 1950s American diner with a pure Elvis theme.

Elvis pictures on the walls.

Elvis music on the jukebox.

Even a great big golden Elvis statue on the way in.

OK, so to the best of my knowledge, American diners have never and probably still do not serve humus and tomato-walnut salad with the French fries.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that we had such a good time, we didn’t get back until well after midnight. We told the kids not to wait up.

So they didn’t.

But when we got to the door, the bolt was on. Not the one that opens with the key, but the swinging handle bolt that is 100% secure from robbers or other undesirables and can only be opened by someone on the inside.

It was surely an oversight, a habit before bed by either Amir or his eleven-year-old sister Merav. I was peeved, though, because I had specifically said before we left “Remember not to put the swinging handle bolt on.

So fine you say, just knock on the door. Yes, you would say that if you didn’t know what sound sleepers our kids are. Nothing wakes them up.

Remember the story last year about then five-year-old Aviv when he walked into a window and cut up his knee? We took him to the emergency room to get stitched up and on the way over he fell asleep in the car.

He slept through the shot to numb the pain. He slept through the stitches. In the morning, he woke up, looked down and said, “Hey, what’s all this on my leg?”

The irony of course is that while we have truly relished the fact our kids are such good sleepers – especially when other parents tell us about multiple wake-ups all night long with their youngsters – on this night, the blessing became a curse.

But still we tried. For a solid hour and a half, we stood outside the door knocking, ringing the bell and calling over and over from my cellphone to our house phone. I could hear all three handsets ringing all over the house. I must have called close to a hundred times.

At one point Jody went out into the courtyard and started lobbing rocks up at Amir’s second floor bedroom window.


Our neighbor Marc was still awake and offered to smash a window for us. “That should wake someone up, right?” he suggested helpfully.

With our kids, not bloody likely. Plus what would the neighbors think? Oh yeah, he was the neighbors.

“Maybe the terrace door is unlocked,” Jody said referring to the third floor terrace that we share with Marc’s apartment.

“No,” I said. “I made sure to lock it before we left so nobody could get in.” I just didn’t know it would be me on the other side.

Eventually we gave up and Marc offered to let us hang out at his place for the four hours remaining until the kids would be getting up to prepare for school.

Jody nodded off pretty quickly. Me, of course…I couldn’t sleep. I tried watching TV. I rummaged through Marc’s video collection. Pretty sparse. A few old thirtysomething episodes. Seen those.

I scoped out the bookshelves. There was a lot of George Eliot and Kurt Vonnegut, but nothing trashy. I don’t have anything specifically against staying up late. I’ve got about a zillion books I want to read. Videos too. But they were all on the other side of that locked door.

Night slowly turned to daybreak.

At 6:20 AM, my cell phone rang. It was Merav.

“Abba? Where are you?” she asked. She sounded on the edge of panic.

“Come to the front door and open it,” I commanded.

All three kids – Amir, Merav and Aviv – opened the door to see me standing there, still dressed in my clothes from the night before. As they unlocked the door, realization set in.

I was ready to get nasty. To give them a talking to about never ever using that bolt again. About the misery they’d put me through. But there were tears in Merav’s eyes. Amir was standing in his bathrobe, a mix of sheepishness, guilt and relief all mixed up on his face.

Only Aviv seemed unaware of what had really happened.

“I got up first,” he said, starting into his usual blow-by-blow but ever so playful recitation of his actions, “and I saw that you weren’t in your room, so I looked upstairs and then I told Amir and he called your name but you weren’t here...”

“We thought maybe there was a terror attack,” Amir said.

“Or that you were in an accident,” Merav said, then added, “If you died, how would we know?”

I couldn’t stay mad.

Jody tramped in a few minutes later rubbing sleep from her eyes. I pulled her off to the side and, after I explained what was going on, we did some quick damage control, reassuring our potentially traumatized children.

OK, so what can we learn from this experience? That maybe thirteen is just a bit too young to babysit into the wee hours of the morning? For sure, that we shouldn’t come home after the kids have gone to sleep.

And that in a place like Israel, where terror is part of the daily language, we need to consider all sides of the emotional equation.

“ was the party?” Amir asked just before leaving for school.

“Ask me later,” I said. I might have been able to work my way out of my mental funk, but there was no way around the Elvis-sized hangover I'd gotten from this unplanned all-nighter.

Now pass the humus and fries, OK?

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Doing the Para-Macarena

Twenty-two years ago, on my birthday, I jumped out of an airplane. How I got up the courage, I still don’t know, but I have had nightmares about it ever since.

It wasn’t the freefall to earth that got me: I had a parachute on after all and it was hooked to the plane so that it automatically opened after all of about three seconds. I rather enjoyed the feeling of gliding slowly to the ground, suspended by only a billowing roll of thin cloth.

Nor was it the landing that freaked me out: I had spent the previous day practicing how to bend your legs and roll in order to break your fall.

Rather, it’s the replaying over and over in my mind of the jump itself. That moment when I pushed myself out the door of the plane into the void, so many miles above the earth. It has at once been a source of consuming terror and ignoble bravery.

How did I do it? I have often wondered. And:

Could I ever do it again?

On our recent family vacation to Turkey, I had the opportunity to find out.


Skydiving for wimps.

You take off from a boat, not a plane, and remain tethered by a steel cable the entire time. At only $35 a pop, it sounded like the perfect way for me to confront my fears and live out the thrill of sailing high in the sky again.

Plus it was my birthday. Fate was surely speaking to me.

“This is your destiny, Luke.”

Still, we put it off until the last moment. The first day at our Turkish resort, we lounged around the pool, watching the other parasailers on the distant horizon. On our second day, we lounged around the pool some more. On the third day, Amir spoke up.

“I thought you said you wanted to go parasailing, Abba?” Apparently he’d decided he wanted to go too.

Invigorated by my thirteen-year-old’s enthusiasm, we trudged down to the parasailing office on the beach. But when we got there, the man at the desk shook his head. “Too windy...” he said.

“Oh well, we wouldn’t want to do something that isn’t safe,” I said, turning like the cowardly lion back towards the pool.

“ send up a tandem, that is,” he finished his sentence. “But it’s OK to go up solo.”

Before I knew it, Amir and I, plus his ten-year-old sister Merav, six-year-old little brother Aviv and my father-in-law Ron, were all riding the choppy waves in the parasailing outfit’s little red boat.

“You want to go first?” I asked Amir. I figured I’d gauge how tough it was for him before making a final decision.

Amir suited up. The parasailing apparatus, consisting of nothing more than a flimsy chest harness and a canvass seat that looked like it had been ripped off of a broken swing set, didn’t put me any more at ease. I stifled an instinctive desire to call out to Amir: “Stop, don’t go!”

It was too late anyway. He was already taking off. Before I could even look up, the parasailing operators were strapping me in.

Efficient little devils, these guys.

Despite the distance, it was clear Amir was having fun. As he was reeled back in to the boat, he gave me a thumbs up. “It was so great, Abba! You’re going to love it.”

Just at that moment, Aviv started to wail. “I’m seasick,” he screamed.

This was my chance to back out.

“Go,” my father-in-law told me. “I’ll take care of him.”

I stepped tentatively towards the platform where I would replace Amir and be connected to the rainbow colored parachute that was inflated by the wind and speeding direction of boat. Hands guided me swiftly and then, with a whoosh, I was airborne.

The take-off, the equivalent of my skydiving jump, was smooth. So smooth that my fears quickly piped down and I found myself soaring high above the water. A feeling of gentle calm and quietude that I had not expected washed over me. The resort grew smaller and smaller.

I was alone.

No people. No trees or forests like when you go for a hike by yourself. I tried to get in touch with powers beyond me. The peace of the moment spoke to me, saying: this is your a dialogue, communicate with me...

I closed my eyes. And a song planted itself firmly in my consciousness and demanded my attention.

It was the Macarena.

The resort entertainment staff had been playing the incessant ditty at the pool earlier, trying to provide the right environment for a game of water polo.

And so, here I was, when I should be thinking about God, absorbed by a Ricky Martin dance tune.

At that moment, there was an unexpected jerk. I looked up at my parachute: it was tipped off to one side. At least I think it was. Was it about to separate from my harness, I wondered?

I glanced down. I was no longer over the ocean but directly above a tall spire at the top of the resort’s main restaurant. If I fell now, would I plunge straight into the dessert buffet? Would the Jello cushion the blow?

The jerking jolted me again before settling into a gentle tug. I realized then that I was being pulled back in by the pulleys on the boat.

Down I went. Too fast it seemed. I was still over land. Now I was near the beach. Coming closer to the shoreline. And closer. My feet skimmed the bald head of a man in the water. Then the whole lower part of my body splashed into the water.

The boat sped up and I was catapulted back into the sky. I was close enough to see the parasailing skipper laughing. This was apparently an old standby and I had literally fallen for it quite nicely.

As I was tethered back to the boat, I made a soft landing. Aviv was whimpering now and fell into my arms as I stumbled back to my seat. And there was Merav, all suited up and ready for her turn. So brave…and only ten years old.

“How was it?” Merav demanded. “Was it scary?”

“Piece of cake,” I said. “Enjoy yourself.”

And away she went. No fears. Total joy. And why not? What was there to be afraid of?

Now, all I have to figure out is what we should all do for my next birthday. I’ve always been a little intimidated by rock climbing...