Sunday, April 30, 2006

Old Habits May Not Die, but They Can Hibernate

I am convinced that I was born a nail-biter. I am sure I inherited that gene from my father, along with many other good genes. This nasty habit has plagued me all my life. Not only is it unsightly, but it has to be a good source of harmful germs.

In my earliest years, I lived to please my parents. So when my mother and I were walking across the street to visit our neighbor and she announced that she was just going to have to soak my fingers in vinegar to cure my nail-biting, I was utterly mortified. It turns out that I begged off with promises that died as quickly as they were spoken. I can remember visiting Santa Claus with my hands in fists lest he ask about my fingernails. Now I wonder if I could possibly have avoided mononucleosis (at 10) or a myriad of other childhood infections that I suffered.

Vanity was my initial cure. By the time I got to high school, I decided that stubby bitten nails would just not be a good way to get a date. Not that it helped my social life appreciably, but I did stop biting my nails. I didn’t just cease biting them, I grew them into dracula claws. I can distinctly remember my petite highly-made-up organ teacher instructing me to “cut those nails” if I wanted to continue to take lessons from her. What a switch!

But as with all addictions, at some point around the end of college I resumed biting my nails. Was it for oral gratification? Just a nervous habit? Was I perhaps instinctively self-destructive? I often wondered what made me do it.

Ironically enough the latest real cure came in the form of orthodonture. When my mouth was so wired, I simply couldn’t bite my nails or my cuticles. So my nails grew out once again, my cuticles healed. Although my hands are starting to show those spots that old people get, they look not-so-bad otherwise. I keep my nails cut short so as not to click on the piano keys.

I’m smart enough to know that any addiction, whether it be alcoholism, anorexia, or drug addiction, is with you forever. It’s just a question of not allowing even one exception, or you’re likely to be hooked again.

I consider myself a recovering nail-biter. I no longer have to satisfy my parents or Santa Claus. I don’t have to attract a husband. I simply have to look at my own hands and be pleased that I can be in control of at least one aspect of my life.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

My Love-Hate Affair with Walking

For as long as I can remember, walking has been a certain challenge for me. There is something about the way my body is constructed that causes me to swing my right leg out and around with every step. In doing so, my toe is likely to catch on any little unevenness in the pavement or sidewalk. If I’m not totally aware, this can mean disaster.

I first became acutely aware of my peculiar way of walking when I was 17 and a contestant in the Panama City Junior Miss Contest. As part of the “pageant”, we had to take turns walking down a runway, reminiscent of the Miss America Pageant. (Did I really do this???) Anyway, in practice the organizers kept telling me NOT to swing my hips as I walked. Believe me, that was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but it was simply the way I walked.

Recently when we were in Israel, we literally walked all day long. I realized just how good walking makes me feel. Instead of sitting hunched over a desk all day long, I was constantly stretching out my legs and lengthening those tight hamstring muscles. My quads felt stronger too. I found that I could hold my legs out much straighter when doing pilates exercises.

Today I met a friend on the mall for a look at the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Hirschhorn. It seemed like we walked for hours in the warm strong sun. The air was as crisp as a Granny Smith apple and the sky was that azure color that precedes the haze of summer. My legs felt strong and confident this afternoon. The irregularities in the sidewalk just didn’t phase me. Instead of being tired after all that walking, I came home full of energy.

These positive experiences with walking lately have made it clear to me that I simply have to include walking in my week’s activities. I will just have to stay focused on what’s underfoot in order to reap the physical and mental benefits that it provides.

If I could have one wish, though, it would be to feel what it is like to experience a balanced body and to be able to pay more attention to what’s all around me instead of focusing on the ground beneath my feet.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

This morning as I sat in stalled rush-hour traffic at the approach to the Wilson Bridge, my bladder was about to burst. I told myself that the traffic would probably start moving as quickly as it had stopped. But after about 15 minutes, people started to turn off their engines and get out of their cars.

What was I to do? There was no exit with a gas station. There was no large tree in the median behind which I could pee. With every passing minute, I was getting more desperate. Then I heard on the radio that most of the beltway was shut down on the other side of the river because of "mud in the roadway." MUD – on a perfectly sunny day? Whatever... It was time to do something to remedy my degenerating situation.

I looked around the car to see what I might have that I could use as a car "chamber pot." I settled on a container holding 4 granola bars – a plastic box about 2" deep with a lid. So the next challenge was to drop my jeans and sit on the plastic container, while taking care not to spill it and not to attract the attention of the man in the next lane talking on his cell phone. Here's where all that practice peeing into specimen bottles came in handy. Of course my worst fear was that traffic would suddenly start moving while I was in the middle of emptying my bladder.

But no, I executed this move without a hitch, closed the lid on the box and stashed it on the floor of the car, and proceeded to wait another 20 minutes before traffic started crawling again. The guy next door never had a clue.

As with so many gridlock problems, the cause was not obvious as I drove into Maryland. There was some dirt on the far right lane, but nothing I would call mud. Maybe it had been scooped up during my bathroom break.

My next challenge as I finally drove on to work was to avoid sloshing my auto-potty and figure out how to dispose of it. As I walked into the building, it found the first trash can just before the guard's office.

I started my day a couple of hours later than planned and feeling a little frazzled. But other than that I am dry and happy to have solved what might have otherwise been a very embarrassing situation.

Ever had this problem? What would you have done?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Is That Really Jimmy?

I just looked out my window to see a lanky Jimmy L walking up the street smoking a cigarette in the presence of two very cute girls. Can this possibly be the same little kid I watched learn to swim at our neighborhood pool? Doesn’t he know that 16-year-old kids don’t need to be smoking cigarettes? It was much more fun watching him ride his skateboard up and down the street.

It's now 6:30 AM, the next day. I just looked out the same window to see the same Jimmy wearing a backpack walking up the street to catch the school bus. He's smoking again. I wonder if he ate breakfast before he had his first cigarette of the day. I wonder if the diminutive Jimmy is now Jim to his grown-up kid friends.

Would I know if my own kids smoked? Would I want to know?

When Half Empty Becomes Half Full

I’ve had moments of downward spirals lately when I felt resentful that I still needed to work, when I was not particularly enjoying any of the many things I was doing, when I felt compelled to do things of necessity, but most of all when I just felt TIRED.

But suddenly yesterday those oh-so-negative feelings turned around and I was on top of my world once again. Was it because

– I had gotten my necessary 7-1/2 hours of sleep?

– I found out I get to go on a work trip to Brazil with the Director in May?

– I almost finished the ridiculous book club book?

– My boss and I had a substantive talk about how necessary it is to have something besides work in your life?

– My poison ivy is almost gone?

Perhaps I’ll never understand what triggers my mood barometer. But yesterday it started to swing toward the positive side once again. I am smart enough to know that this is temporary. But while it’s there, the world looks sweeter. (Deep breath) Ahhhh...

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Just Checking

Yesterday as I was leaving Trader Joe’s, a woman on the sidewalk said to me, “Can you tell me if my mascara is running? I’ve just come out of the garden and I can’t go in there if my face is a mess.”

This was a perfect stranger, who was probably at least 50 and not a terribly attractive person. I took a quick look at her face and couldn’t see any black smudges so I assured her she was fine and she went right in.

Then I stopped to wonder why anyone would care about something like runny mascara when shopping at Trader Joe’s. Was she hoping to meet a hot date? Would it have mattered as much if it were Borders or Petco?

I love the idea of talking to strangers, but there must be something more meaningful to talk about!

The End Game

Kate's comment to me yesterday (on her birthday) prompted me to think about issues associated with wrapping up a career, which it turns out can be just as difficult as getting started.

During my first encounter with Harvey, my brother-in-law-to-be, in 1975, he was quick to tell me that he had 6,500 work days before he could retire and that he was counting down. I made a solemn vow never to start counting down, at least now until I was under 200.

As my retirement eligibility date grew closer, I began to think about all the possibilities for life after work. But then the day came and went with no fanfare and I just kept going to work, not electing to take advantage of my new status. Basically the only thing that changed was my new-found freedom to speak my mind, not fearing any consequences, and I have done this a lot.

My original plan was to wait until our children were no longer in school, until all tuition demands had ceased. That seems to be happening next month when they both graduate.

So what am I waiting for? I just accepted a promotion which I had worked hard to earn. Anyone who knows the Federal Government well will tell you that your retirement annuity is based on your "high 3" years of salary. So it would be best if I worked for 3 more years.

Some days I say UGH! There are just so many things I want to do and not enough time to do any of them well.

My friend Kris said the other night that she was planning to retire next April and I thought longingly about how nice that would be.

I am committed to not retiring on the job, as many people tend to do. I don't ever want to be one of those employees people make excuses for. But at the same time, I have a finite amount of energy and possibly a finite amount of good health. I want to make the most of these years when I do feel like exploring new things and traveling.

Kate is absolutely right about the trickiness of ending a career.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Finding a Niche in the Working World

I have been thinking about this a lot lately as my children graduate from college and law school and decide what to do next. Sometimes it’s just not easy to figure out what to do with your life, especially when you are not independently wealthy. There is always this issue of balancing enjoyment of your work and making money and sometimes the two just don’t intersect.

I have recently been following the job quest of a person who lives with a good friend of mine. She is in her early 20s, she is Asian, and she has a masters degree in double bass. From high school on she trained to be a professional musician. She did all the right things to make this happen: she went to Juilliard, she went to an acclaimed school to get her masters degree. She basically never studied anything other than music.

But then she graduated and decided that she really didn’t want to spend the rest of her life playing the bass in an orchestra. She’s absolutely brilliant – she writes poetry, she’s well-read, she’s funny. But she has no other credentials.

So over the past 6 months, she has worked in a hardware store, a chocolate store, and a coffee house. None of those really worked out. She spent all day yesterday trying to apply for a job at the zoo. She told me that she was the only non-African American, the only one with more than a high school education in the pool of applicants there for the job. By the time they got to her, it was too late for an interview and they told her to come back another day.

I wonder what she will end up doing. Will it be a job just to earn money? Will she find a job in which she can advance? Will she continue to play the bass?

Getting started in life is tough!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Not Every Book Is a Winner

This is the April selection for our couples book club. One of the best things you can say about the book club is that it has enticed me to read many things that I would not have looked twice at otherwise. However, I am having a hard time figuring out what attracted P to this book.

My husband and I helped start the book club 9 years ago. We’ve come to realize that some books are better than others, and some are definitely worse! Among the real duds are “She’s Come Undone” and “The Charterhouse of Parma.” This month’s selection may make it into that list.

I’ll be curious to see what everyone else has to say when we meet on Sunday night. I will try to think of a tactful way to describe my (negative) reaction to the book. I will never forget one meeting long ago when one of our members who is no longer in the club blurted out, "There was not one good word in the entire book." And this was in reaction to "The Sheltering Sky" by Paul Bowles, one of my favorite books. Obviously not everyone sees these things the same way.

Have you read this month's selection?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A Child's Dream

At dinner tonight with our friends Kris and Bill, we were talking about the worsening situation in our kitchen where we can never find the right lid for a storage container. Kris told a cute story about her daughter when at 5 years old she was asked about her idea of a perfect house. She replied “one where all the containers have lids.”

I determined to do exactly what Kris did that day 20 years ago: I am going to match up everything in our hodge-podge container drawer and just pitch out whatever doesn’t match. But I’m not going to do it tonight. That chaotic drawer will just have to wait.

No Lock, No Problem

I just couldn’t pass up a bike ride on an afternoon like we had today. The sky was completely blue without even a wisp of a cloud and there was a slight breeze. I drenched all exposed skin in sunscreen and put on my bike shorts and my helmet. Then I was off.

Mine was a ride with a mission, however. I needed orange juice and some new polish for my toes, plus my daily latte at Starbucks. So my destination was the obnoxiously large Giant Foods just about 2 miles from my house.

I took back roads with little traffic. The only bad part was crossing busy Route 7, which I managed to do at a light. However, as I neared the entrance to the Giant, I said to myself, “Shit! I don’t have a lock for my bike.” My bike if unlocked might be a temptation to someone in this area. I was thinking of leaving it outside and asking the guy who pushes the carts around and loads groceries to watch it, but he looked at me like I was crazy. So I walked it inside and asked if I could leave it in the Customer Service area where they sell money orders, cigarettes, and other things they are worried will be shop-lifted. The tall African-American guy working there said “Sure” and went right on helping the next customer.

So I bought my several items, loaded them in the container on the back of my bike, and headed off for Starbucks. This was the first time I was happy to see all the Ethiopian men drinking coffee out front. I asked if they would watch my bike and one who spoke English said “No problem.”

My only real dilemma was what do to next. I had steaming hot coffee and needed 2 hands to ride my bike. I eventually figured out how to put my latte cup in the water bottle holder and I was on my way back home.

This was my first ride of the season and it just whetted my appetite. Next weekend maybe I’ll ride down by the river. There are so many nice places to ride a bike in metro Washington, DC. I'll have to remember to bring a lock with me...

Size 8 vs. Gorging on Chocolate

Until last year I never thought much about what I ate or what I weighed. I still don’t even own a scale that works. But over the years and with 2 pregnancies, my weight had gradually creeped up and my stomach muscles had stopped working.

When I started doing regular exercise and paying just a little bit of attention to my diet, my body started to change. My stomach muscles really came back to life when I started doing pilates. I could finally go into a store and any size 8 fit perfectly.

But then over this past winter with surgery and radiation treatment and then a major trip abroad, the exercising went down to maybe once a week and I started eating anything I wanted to eat with no thought – bread, chocolate, sugar and more of the same. The pounds began to come back. To the point that when I got to Spring, none of my capris fit. They weren’t just tight. It was more like a 1" gap at the waist.

Just like I like those old pajamas, I like my spring wardrobe from last year and want to wear it again. So I started exercising longer and more often. I started noticing what I ate once again. But those of you who know me know that I am not a patient person. So I am part of the way there towards my clothes fitting again, but it’s a slower process than I would like.

I look ahead to the rest of my life and wonder if I want to always be paying attention to exercise and calories or whether I just want to gorge myself on all the bread and chocolate that my body desires. Or will my body finally give up and just accept being a size 8 and allow me to eat whatever I want? Not likely. It’s a hard choice...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

In Search of My Pajamas

As I prepared for my hasty departure after my treatment with radioactive iodine earlier this year, I left all my contaminated belongings in a pile. My pal Lindsey from the Radiation Safety Department of the Washington Hospital Center assured me that he would bag them and tag them and eventually they would be safe for me to use once again.

I hadn’t given this much thought. But the other day I realized that I did really like those PJs and I had some other things in that pile that I wouldn’t mind having back. So I called the famed Nuclear Medicine Department to inquire about how the decontamination of my things was progressing. I’m not sure they had ever before received such a call about left things. But the woman who answered referred me to the Radiation Safety Department, where the most I was able to do was leave a message the first day on the voice mail of Jarrett Span.

The next day when I called again, none other than Jarrett answered the phone. Here’s the conversation:

BD: I’m calling about my things I left behind when I had radioactive iodine treatment in January.
JS: Exactly what did you leave?
BD: Pajamas and a book and some other things.
JS: What was the title of the book?
BD: A Million Little Pieces.
JS: Was it good?
BD: Yes, but not all that it was advertized to be. I actually bought another copy. Would you like to keep it?
JS: Where did you leave your things?
BD: In my room in a pile. Lindsey (from your department) agreed to keep them for me.
JS: Oh, you know Lindsey?
BD: Sure. Tell him HI for me. (I should have added that Lindsey was the only person who protected my sanity while I was in isolation for 24 hours during a very bizarre medical treatment involving radiation.)
JS: What’s your address?

So I gave him my address. After I hung up, I wondered just what the odds are that my bag of stuff didn’t end up in a dumpster and whether there was a chance in hell that Jarrett Span would actually mail it to me.

What do you think?

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Effect of a Song

This morning as I drove to work, I found the sound of Queen to be exactly what I needed to snap myself out of a funk I was in yesterday. I was struck by how just the sound of a group that I love could have such a profound effect on my psyche.

Then I started to think about why this funk had happened. Just the day before I had been luxuriating in an Aveda salon, followed by lunch outdoors with one of the friends I most love. But then all of this nirvana had been jarred as I got up to leave and my toe found something to catch on. For wanting to discretely blend into the rich Bethesda crowd, I had just called incredible attention to myself. The good news was that the fall left me with no broken bones, just a bruised pinky and a slightly scraped knee and a feeling of "Why does this keep happening?" My friend scooped me up off the sidewalk and offered me her hand as we walked back to the car. I mean, what are friends for?

Also contributing to my funk is the fact that I have been hard at my nasty habit of overloading my schedule to the point where it is difficult to squeeze in a much-needed bike ride. I think it’s time for some serious sorting out of what is really necessary and what might just be done by someone else or not at all. The spring is too pretty to pass up an opportunity to ride around in it.

My series of non-stop problems at work yesterday, to the point where I didn’t even have a chance to do any recreational Blogging at lunchtime, did not leave me with a good feeling either. I found myself wanting to get enthused by things I should be excited about in my new position, but simply not having the energy to put into it.

And last, but not least, is my itchy arm, which most definitely is poison ivy. I have restrained myself from scratching the shit out of it, but it is tempting. I will probably not be able to just ignore this red bumpy mess that is still confined to my right lower arm.

So back to Queen. Just the sound of that group makes me feel happy, no matter what they are singing. It was not even a particularly happy song: Bohemian Rhapsody, which starts off:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.
Open your eyes,
Look up to the skies and see.
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I’m easy come, easy go,
A little high, little low,
Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me,
To me.

Hearing anything by Queen always reminds me of a particular scene almost 15 years ago. My children were incredible swimmers (somewhat at my urging since I have this fear of deep water and drowning.) Their swim team was getting ready for a huge meet the following weekend. The coach, who was also a great artist, organized a party ahead of time where they ate pizza and made alligator hats that they all wore to the meet. While they were cutting and gluing, Queen blared in the background. At one point, a precocious 12-year old Bridget stood up on the table and led the group in roaring out "We are the champions". And they truly were. Why do we remember such things?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Familiar Itch... or Is It?

As I looked down at the red bumps on my right wrist this afternoon, my first thought was that I had been allergic to one of the products used on my skin at Aveda yesterday. After all, the upper body massage had definitely included my arms. But then why would it be on just one arm and not both?

Then it struck me that this is spring time, the time when the poison ivy in my lower yard starts to come out. I never ever go down into that part of the back yard in the spring, but it turns out that I don’t need to. The dogs bring it in on their coats. Or I throw Jake’s Kong for him, which I did just the other day, and the oil from the greening plants is transmitted to my skin.

It is true that that particular wrist is where the poison ivy inevitably first attacks my body. But it usually starts out as a couple of very itchy blisters and this is much more like a rash. It’s so weird that it is only on my right wrist.

I find it curious that certain people are allergic to poison ivy and it doesn’t phase others. The bad thing is that every time you get it, it gets progressively worse.

If it’s poison ivy, I will definitely know by tomorrow. It is unrelenting and may require steroids to get rid of it. I wonder if Deborah has any new ideas for treating it?

Any other ideas out there in the Blogosphere?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Multiple Approaches to Cleaning

Today was a scheduled clean-up day at my office. You see, we are moving to a new building at the end of the summer and they are urging us to pitch out old stuff that we no longer need. Well, I cleaned vigorously for a couple of hours. Then I escaped the scene of dumpsters piled high with paper and notebooks that would never again be referenced.

Instead I chose another form of cleaning. Just after I found out that I got my promotion, I invited Reya to join me for a facial at Aveda in Bethesda. It so happened that it was the same day as clean-up day at the office. Guess which one won out!

I had never before had a facial, so there was no real expectation. After we established that I had sensitive skin, there was a series of cleansing, exfoliation, and multiple masks, interspersed with steam and massage and hot towels and spritzed aroma, all with dim light and soft music. It was one of those experiences that you wish would never end. It was a deep cleaning that resulted in every pore of my face radiating health. And this is saying a lot from someone who was not blessed with good skin. At the end it was like coming out of a dream.

We emerged from Aveda to a picture-perfect day in very rich Bethesda, with our pick of any number of sidewalk cafes for lunch. Although we felt a little out of our element, we blended in to the point where the waiter said, “You’ve been here before, right?” We luxuriated over crepes and salad with hot French bread and chilled white wine.

What a totally decadent afternoon. I’m clean as a whistle now. However, my office may just have to wait to get the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. I only succeeded in creating large piles of things to pitch. The pitching will have to happen some other day.

Meanwhile my skin feels like velvet. What luxury!

The Funny Thing About Identity

Every weekday morning for as long as I can remember, I have passed by a guard at the entrance to my building who checked my badge. Every day, the exchange as I flashed my badge would be:

Guard: OK.
Me: Have a nice day.
Guard: You do the same.

This same conversation could be programmed into two robots who could easily repeat it day after day after day.

It just occurred to me today that I have never learned one of those guards’ names. I have never even been curious. Whereas they have seen my name repeatedly.

Why haven’t I ever wanted to personify these people who check the same date on my badge over and over until the day it expires?

Would they have the slightest idea who I was if someone asked about Ms. Diskin?

Why is it that certain people in our lives get relegated to this robotic exchange and never move beyond it?

I have decided that I will ask the guard his name tomorrow. It’s never too late.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A Blast of Reality

Except for our stop at the Gaza border, where we heard rocket fire in the distance, our stay in Israel could not have been more peaceful. In contrast to our previous visit, there were not a lot of police or military in evidence on the streets. People sat in outdoor cafes drinking coffee and laughing in the warm spring weather. This was the image I had carried home, hoping that it would be permanent.

Then late last night, my husband and I had the following exchange:

He: There’s been another suicide bombing in Israel, in Tel Aviv this time.
Me: How many killed?
He: 9, more injured.
Me: Who did it?
He: Islamic Jihad. Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, condemned the attack, but Hamas called it "legitimate".
Me: Was it in the area where we were?
He: No, it was in a poorer section of the city, where it is easier for the bombers to get in undetected. In this particular case, the guard at the entrance of the restaurant had just asked the bomber to open his backpack when he detonated the bomb. The guard was killed.
Me: Do you suppose any of those people we met in Tel Aviv were hurt?
He: I doubt it, but I think I’ll contact Ofer to see if he is OK.

All of a sudden, I found my stomach feeling queasy as I imagined the carnage left in the wake of this latest attack. The illusion of at least semi-peace had once again been shattered. I found myself calling up the image of that beautiful day we spent in Tel Aviv, wanting to pretend that it was still just like that. I had so recently touched that vibrant city that seemed so unafraid.

And then I become so outraged that any part of humanity could term such an attack "legitimate". This is the sort of behavior that demonizes the Palestinians for those living in Israel.

In response, the Israelis fired missiles at a metal workshop in Gaza City that manufactures rockets that are fired at Israel. And so it goes.

I find myself feeling grateful that there were no bombings while we were in Israel, but how selfish this is. The Israelis live with this day in and day out, sometimes getting a respite as they had had recently, but then being jarred back into reality when some fanatic chooses to blow himself up in a congested place. When, oh when, will this cycle of violence ever cease?

Monday, April 17, 2006

My Friend Sam's New Book

After meditating, Sam would sometimes say he had had trouble getting into the sit because he was thinking about the book he was writing. Well, that was better than "My dog ate my homework." But then I recently got an invitation to hear Sam Fromartz read from his new book, Organic, Inc., at Politics and Prose. He really was writing a book that had been published after 3 years of his effort.

We attended a book launching party at Sam’s house on Capitol Hill over the weekend, where his friends and relatives all came together to laud his success. His 3-year-old daughter was proudly carrying around a copy of "Daddy's book". Among the guests were two organic farmers from south-central Pennsylvania, who had provided some of the inspiration for the book. We talked to them about the path that led them to organic farming and the difficulties that they face. They currently bring their produce to the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market every week, where a growing set of customers await their arrival.

I haven’t read more than the jacket cover of my signed copy of Organic, Inc., and the writeup on the web which shows a handsome picture of Sam and gives an intriguing summary of the book. I’m thinking maybe I will extend the trend that has recently come upon our couples book club to read non-fiction. We have really enjoyed Tom Friedman’s "The World Is Flat" and Alexandra Fuller’s "Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight" and James Frey’s "A Million Little Pieces", even if it contains an element of fiction. So what’s one more?

Anyway, I think it really cool to know real published authors. I congratulate Sam on pursuing something that is important to him and is important to the future health of the world. I will take him seriously the next time he mentions book-related thoughts that are intruding on the quality of his sit!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Finding the Golden Egg

This is so weird! I’m looking out my window at adults in their 40s who are skipping around their front yard looking for Easter eggs. The man is carrying a little pink bag and the woman is taking his picture. I am ashamed to say that I don’t even know their names. They moved in a year or so ago. They are from Texas and are ardent Republicans. They have a nice dog that doesn’t run away when they are in their front yard. That’s about all I know about them. Now the woman and the dog are posing for an Easter shot.

Easter egg hunts are a thing of my distant past. I searched for lots of Easter eggs growing up in the deep South. I even remember school class Easter parties, one at the home of J.W. Birdshaw (children in the South often went by initials or used double names). J.W. was usually one of the slowest learners in my 4th grade class, but he knew the capital of Peru was Lima (because his uncle lived there). I have vivid memories of finding Easter eggs in birdbaths and under all sorts of flowering bushes in J.W.’s big yard. I desperately wanted to find the golden egg, but it always eluded me.

I wonder if my children feel deprived because they never experienced looking for Easter eggs? Probably not, since they got to search for the Afikommen around the same time of the year. Rachel would have really gotten into dying and decorating the Easter eggs, though. That part was definitely fun.

The eggs must all have been found across the street. The man and woman and dog have disappeared into their house with their pink bag of eggs and their camera. I wonder who found the golden egg?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Graduation: The Beginning of the Rest of Your Life

I remember that uneasy feeling of getting out of college and not knowing what I was going to do next. Graduation has this way of throwing you out into the world. My parents never suggested that I come home to live. They didn’t offer to keep me on the payroll. It was understood that I was on my own as I took off to go to Europe after graduation. I had worked a second job at a bar in addition to my computer center job to earn enough money to pay for the trip. But I had no assurance of what would happen after my return. I don’t remember being especially worried, just assuming that something would work out.

My children are in much the same position right now. Dan graduates from law school at the U of Arizona in mid-May. Rachel graduates from Tufts with a bio-psych degree just one week later.

Last fall Dan was feeling a little panicky as he applied for jobs for after graduation and nothing was working out. He expressed interest in possibly working in San Francisco or someplace well outside of Arizona. He had been working at a firm in Tucson for 6 months while going to school. It became obvious that they really wanted to keep him. They kept upping the starting salary until finally he said yes. Even though he may eventually choose to practice law elsewhere, he has an excellent start at a place that already knows what a great lawyer he is going to be.

Rachel on the other hand is a bit more challenged. Her bio-psych degree represents phase one of additional schooling that results in some sort of PhD. Granted, she could stop with a bachelor’s degree and get a job, but the salary would be quite low and the work might not be terribly challenging. So my child who is artistically gifted, who has a spectacular GPA, and who succeeds at everything she tries has some obstacles to overcome as she attempts to sort out her future. She has so many wonderful skills, but it is unclear as to what she is going to do with them. Contrary to Dan, who went immediately to law school, Rachel has had enough school for the time being and needs a break. It will be interesting to see what she chooses to do.

So what happened to me that summer of 1971? Three weeks into my trip to Europe I found out that I had a job offer from the FBI (with a starting salary of $6,800) and at the same time my best friend forever FL offered me a spot in a group house in the Wesley Heights area of Washington, DC. I quickly accepted both. I stayed 5 years in the group house, well after FL left. I lasted only 3 months at the FBI – just not my kind of place. But it was a job and getting another job when you are already employed is far easier. There were times when my checking account hovered around $0 and thank God I didn’t even use a credit card at that time. But I always had enough to eat, a roof over my head, and parents I could have relied on if absolutely necessary. Sometimes I miss those carefree days of living close to the edge and being responsible for no one but myself.

I hope both of my children find happiness in the next phase of their lives. I hope their new-found independence is filled with loving relationships and rewarding careers. Is it asking too much to also hope for grandchildren some day?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Thoughts on Good Friday

Just having come back from Israel, Holy Week seems a little more real for me, even though this is not a part of my current religious tradition. We visited Nazareth, where Jesus lived for 30 of his 33 years. We passed by the Garden of Gethsemene and walked on the Via della Rosa. These places mentioned in the New Testament became much more tangible.

For at least 10 years now, Easter has been a time when I organized community outreach to make sure several local families had Easter baskets for the children and grocery store certificates to cover Easter dinner. But it seems ever since the tragic death of my friend Tondrea (December 9, "A Job Story in the Washington Ghetto") last year, I have lost my zeal for this project. Her enthusiasm and her constant striving to ride the poverty wave were reasons for my efforts.

Maybe by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, I will be ready to start over with new families that need help. There is no shortage of such families in the Suitland area where I work.

But for now, I picture Tondrea rising above all the earthly problems she dealt with on a daily basis – her 19-year-old daughter in the hospital, paralyzed during a drive-by shooting, her son in prison because he tried to go after those who shot his sister, her granddaughter who was left without a mother to care for her, paying the mortgage on a GS-4 salary. Tondrea always had a smile on her face despite these problems and she befriended those in worse shape than she was in this suburban ghetto. I must believe hers is an Easter story and that there is eternal life for people like Tondrea who have dealt with so much adversity in life here on earth.

It’s a gray overcast day, just like it must have been on that Friday almost 2,000 years ago. The idea of resurrection gives us a lot to ponder...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Perfect Seder

Last night I was fortunate to be invited to a Passover seder in someone else's home. They used the Hagaddah we used for many years, which does allow all participants to read and be involved. They had the traditional foods – hard-boiled eggs, gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, well-cooked brisket, apple kugel, matzoh flour cake. I was so tired that I actually fell asleep sitting up during the second half of the readings.

Today I started thinking ahead to next year – thinking about what would be the most perfect seder I could imagine. I think what I want more than anything is a lively discussion of beliefs and symbols and the state and future of our religion. I suppose that is asking a lot.

David actually started down this path last year with a new Reconstructionist Hagaddah that posed a lot of questions. Not everyone liked the discussions we had – ranging from personal belief in God to whether or not the Exodus actually occurred. But I liked the fact that we talked about things where not everyone agreed, allowing that there is no right answer to any of these questions. I want a seder where we don't take anything for granted, including the Passover symbols. I want to experience the salty tears, to feel the mortar used to make the bricks, to ponder the meaning of the lamb shank bone, to explore everyone's reaction to these things we often treat more as decorations.

As for the food, I can't imagine anything more perfect that getting together with people like Reya and Kate to make a simple but delicious meal. None of the cooking should seem like an effort. We should make things that don't require anyone to jump up from the table to attend to cooking. We should have a little snack prior to starting the seder so that no one is so focused on a growling stomach that the reading and discussion aren't meaningful.

The participants should be people of various religious beliefs who have open minds. I think 10 is a good number. Any more than that and the experience loses its intimacy. I really hope we can pull this off because one of the things I enjoy most these days is talking about what I believe and why and seeing how it contrasts with the beliefs and thoughts of others.

My question of the moment is whether we will devour an entire box of matzoh this year or whether I will end up throwing much of it out. Matzoh definitely reminds us of the sacrifice of the Jews in giving up leavened bread as they hurriedly left Egypt. Yuck!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

My Rite of Spring

As the fish heads and skin and bones bubbled on the stove and rendered the richest of fish stocks, I found myself enjoying the feel of kneading together the ground fish and onions and carrots and parsnips and eggs that become gefilte fish. It’s not so much the budding trees, but this yearly rite of making gefilte fish for Passover that signals the arrival of spring for me.

Maybe it’s my Norwegian heritage, but the preparation and taste of gefilte fish was one of my first positive connections to the new religion I took on in 1976. When my fish put a smile on my mother-in-law’s face, I knew I was accepted. She could not have cared less about whether I could read Hebrew, but my ability to cook Jewish food secured my place in her heart.

I wasn’t even sure we were going to celebrate Passover this year, since we just got back from Israel on Sunday and were both so jet-lagged. But I knew that seder or not, I would be making gefilte fish. I mean, it just wouldn’t be spring otherwise! So before we left, I placed my order for the traditional mix of whitefish, pike, and carp with the Korean fishmonger whose store is near Chevy Chase Circle. He carefully grinds the fish and gives me a huge bag of the heads and bones and skin that make the stock.

When I picked up the fish at 6:30 last night, I was not sure I could stay awake to complete the cooking last night. But once I starting chopping up onions and carrots and the stock began to give off that uniquely fishy smell, I knew the fish would happen. I was so tired I didn’t do my traditional worrying about the seasoning. I just dumped in salt and pepper and sugar and started forming what turned out to be around 50 pieces of gefilte fish, each with its little piece of carrot on top. By 10:30 the fish was done and cooling and the house was sufficiently saturated with the inescapable smell.

We are joining our friends Judith and Merv and their family for a seder at their house. As much as I like to host the seder each year, it is a relief to do it at someone else’s house. Merv is such a Jewish scholar that I am sure he will give each of us plenty to think about. It won’t simply be a race through the Haggadah to get to the meal.

So today, happy Pesach, happy Easter, happy Spring. After all, they all in one way or another deal with new life and new possibilities.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Tripping Down Memory Lane

When I graduated from high school, there were only a few people I cared to ever see again. My childhood years in the deep south were certainly not the happiest time of my life. I assumed that I too had permanently fallen off the radar screen of my classmates. But not so!

A group of them who also graduated from Bay County High School in 1967 are planning our 40th class reunion for next year. All of a sudden they are sending me e-mail messages as though I am a long lost friend. I find this almost laughable, but at the same time 40 years is certainly enough time to forgive any slights and I am enjoying a popularity that I never experienced while there.

In addition to my group of close friends (all girls), I have had recent messages from two people. Gary was in most every class with me in elementary school. We were on student council together. At one point I ran for some student council office against him and won. In high school, the roles were reversed and he won the election. I can't even remember what we were running for; I just remember the outcome. He was always a polite very southern boy, whose father owned a local drug store I think. From his e-mail, he is still just as polite and has continued to live in Panama City probably all of his life.

Olivia was the envy of every girl in my class. Her mother died tragically during childbirth when she was 10. But she never let that stop her from excelling. She was a cheerleader, always had a cute boyfriend, was president of the Keyette Club, taught herself to sew, and owned virtually every piece of Villager clothing ever made. She didn't lack for much because her father owned a local bottling plant and they lived in a huge house on the bay. Needless to say, I was not in her group of close friends. So I was most surprised to get an e-mail message from her. You see, she is organizing the reunion. It was as though we had been the best of friends.

I learned that a group of some 15 of my classmates get together for lunch once a month. I am somewhat amazed at why anyone would want to stay in Panama City, but they sound happy enough. It's probably a great place to raise children because life is just a little slower there. One of the most beautiful beaches in the world is just a few miles away.

I'm sure that one of those 15 is John Henry, my 7th grade boyfriend, who was affectionately called "Tank" because he was always overweight. His family was extremely wealthy and spent a lot of time at the yacht club. He talked disparagingly about the few Jews who lived in PC and also frequented the yacht club. He would call me every night and want to talk and talk because he really didn't like doing school work. It turns out that John Henry is gay and works as an interior designer in PC. His sister manages the local country club, which his family built (I think). So I told Olivia to let John Henry know that he owes me a hug if I show up for the reunion.

After attending our 10th reunion, I vowed never to go to another. But I am somewhat intrigued about the 40th. This may be the sort of thing I don't even want to attempt convincing David to go to. I'm pretty sure he would not have much in common with most of my former classmates.

What do you think? Should I go?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Missing Breakfast

As I poured milk on my bowl of Cheerios today, I thought about the beautiful breakfast smorgasbords I had experienced over the past 10 days in Israel. The Israelis take breakfast to a whole new level.

The first day in Israel I had piled my plate high and gone back for seconds. This included multiple salads, cheeses, fish, eggs, yogurt, fresh fruit, bread, cake, coffee, tea, fresh juice, you-name-it – it was all there. And these were some of my very favorite foods. I quickly realized that I needed to exercise at least enough restraint not to go back for seconds. But the good news was that it kept my stomach happy until mid-afternoon.

So this is why my solitary bowl of Cheerios and the banana I took to my 10 AM meeting paled in comparison. By noon my angry stomach was demanding lunch and how about falafel or shwarma in pita? No, instead I am eating Nile Spice Lentil Soup – just add water and stir, a lowfat yogurt, and an orange for lunch. Healthy? Yes, but not nearly as yummy.

There are other things I miss, but breakfast is right up there at the top of the list.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Saying Goodbye

We identified our luggage for the last time as it was loaded onto the bus. Then we drove to Har Adar (Radar Hill) for a final look at Jerusalem and a Havdalah service from this vantage point.

Har Adar is a high spot about 10 miles outside Jerusalem. It sits right on the Green Line, that winding road that separates Israel and what will be Palestine eventually. It was controlled by the Jordanians until 1967. The kibbutzim below suffered untold casualties during the time when the Jordanians were in control because the spot is so strategic.

Today there are old tanks atop Har Adar that remind us of the War of Independence. We climbed up the 50-foot tower to get an unbelievable view of the country of Israel – being able to see the Mediterranean Sea and the outskirts of Ramallah at the same time, showing just how narrow the country is.

As we lit the candle for Havdalah and poured the wine, the sun began to set. We sang and swayed in the semi-light while the lights of Jerusalem came on. With Meryl we sang Samachti B’Omri Li, Jerusalem of Gold, and Hatikvah. Danny gave brief remarks which so nicely summed up our last 10 days.

After leaving Har Adar and our last glimpse of Jerusalem, we stopped off for one last supper on the way to the airport. And what a feast it was! People made teary goodbye speeches to our guide and driver and presented them with small tokens of our appreciation.

Our bus driver Shlomi gave us a “blessing for travellers” as we boarded the bus for the last time. This was one of the few times we had heard him speak in the 10 days. Then we sang songs about Israel and specifically Jerusalem and clapped all the way to the airport.

One more round of profiling questions and vigorous security checks. We spent our last shekels in the duty-free area and sit here now waiting to board El Al to come home.

Goodbye Israel!

A New Friend in Israel

Just as we were about to leave Israel to come home, I received an exciting and surprising e-mail message from Ernesto Maitim, who somehow discovered my Blog while I was in Israel. He came to Israel 6 months ago from Manila. His profile says he is 38 years old. I can’t wait to find out more about why he came, how long he is staying, and what he does to make a living.

Meanwhile I will enjoy his Blog – My Share of Sun in Israel. This absolutely re-enforces the power of Blogging. To think I came halfway around the world to meet someone virtually. We have obviously shared many of the same experiences during our time in this wonderful ancient country.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Day of Leisure

Shabbat in Jerusalem is a nice way to end a trip to Israel. No formal activities are planned because most everything is closed. We were able to sleep late, have a leisurely breakfast, and then head off to look for Palestinian pottery.

We walked through the Old City to get to the Damascus Gate, the closest gate to the pottery store and factory. This took us through the Arab souk, which is always teeming with people. There are veiled women, lots of small children, people pushing carts piled high with merchandise, and everyone is on the lookout for the naïve American tourist who doesn’t know how to bargain. Not having the intention to buy anything but pottery, we had bought a small wood chess set for Dan, a string of supposedly real turquoise beads, three bottles of wonderfully smelling oils, and a container of spices that the Arabs her sprinkle on bread. At one point in our trip through the souk, I panicked when I couldn’t find any of the 9 other people I was with. This is definitely not a good place for someone who suffers from claustrophobia.

Outside the Damascus Gate we regrouped and then began to search for 14 Nablus Road, the address of Palestinian Pottery, which we found tucked away on a small one-way street.

We entered to see women hand-painting the pieces. There were so many possible choices, all colorfully painted and not terribly expensive. This was more the level of souvenirs we had expected to find.

Pottery in hand, we headed back to Jaffa Gate for a final meal of mezza dishes and grilled meat. The “special price” included sweet thick Arab coffee. Good fuel for the uphill climb back to our hotel.

I wonder how many miles a day I have been walking? I’m sure I have registered more miles on this trip than during the entire last year. It makes me vow to continue when I get home, despite my fears of falling. If I could negotiate all of the rocks and uneven pavement and hills that I have on t his trip, I can do just about anything back home.

Shabbat shalom and goodbye to Israel. I’m sure it won’t be my last trip.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Giving a Face to the Settlers

This afternoon we visited Kfar Adumim, a West Bank settlement whose future is uncertain. This particular settlement is unique because it is mixed -- not Jews and Arabs mind you, but rather religious and secular Jews living together.

A beautiful Israeli woman was the spokesperson for the settlement. We sat in her backyard garden and talked frankly about the reality of being a settler facing an uncertain future.

She and her young family came with 60 other families some 26 years ago to an area of Sumeria only 10 miles from Jerusalem, where nothing was green and there were absolutely no inhabitants anywhere in sight. Looking around today, that is hard to believe. Trees are now 30 feet high and flowering plants are in abundance. Today there are 300 families living in Kfar Adumim.

The answer to so many questions that we posed was “That is a really difficult question. It is very complicated.” So true for so many issues having to do with finally fixing the eastern border of Israel.

When asked what she would do if she were forced to evacuate, she said, “I would burn the garden and leave the house the day before we had to go.”

I found myself wondering: Would I have been an early pioneer to secure the land of Israel? Would I have stuck it out for 26 years during the various intifadas? Would I stay to the bitter end? What do I think should happen with the West Bank settlements?

There are no easy answers. But at least one of those settlers now has a face.

Buying Something Special

I can pass up most opportunities to spend money without thinking twice. Today we visited an artists’ colony outside the Old City of Jerusalem. After spending time looking at beautiful but expensive jewelry, I thought it would be just one more experience of “just looking”. That is, until I visited the studio of Emil Stenfeld.

I was immediately attracted to a collection of some of the most beautiful menorahs I had ever seen. Each piece was different. Each piece could have won a design competition. Mr. Stenfeld took great pride in describing each menorah -- giving its name, telling us the history of its design, and showing all the possible arrangements of the movable pieces.

The menorah “Reflections” was quickly my favorite. Not only was it well designed, but it could be used year around to support candles for multiple occasions. However, it was well outside our budget for souvenirs for this trip.

We ultimately ordered our own version of “Reflections”, choosing a combination of aluminum and stainless steel. The artist said it would require three full days to make the menorah. We settled on an inscription including our names, Jerusalem, and 2006 to be placed on the bottom of the piece.

We will receive our menorah in two months time. I expect we will use it every Hanukkah for the rest of our lives and many Shabbats in between, each time remembering this visit to Jerusalem.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Taking a Break

I just couldn’t get off the bus when we pulled up to the Bau Haus Museum. Our day in Tel Aviv had been an emotional roller coaster. Our stop at the Yitzhak Rabin Center was followed by a visit to the Palmach Museum, in which we lived for 7 years with the youth of the fighting Palmach force, which was largely responsible for the birth of the State of Israel. As we dried our tears, we sat down to a quick lunch of shwarma, after which we visited Independence Hall, the site of Ben Gurion’s pronouncement of the establishment of the State of Israel, ending with more tears as we stood to sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem.

WHEW! That’s more than enough emotion for one day. So I opted to take a nap on the back seat of the bus while everyone else went to absorb yet one more aspect of this country. It was such a relief to just close my eyes and know that I didn’t have to keep up with the group. It was a much needed break from the program.

Peace Now

Hope for peace was never higher than on November 4, 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down not by a Palestinian terrorist, but by a crazed Israeli fanatic. Today we visited the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, the first museum established to depict contemporary Israeli society. It is actually a work in progress, designed by Moshe Safdie after a law was passed in January 1997 to establish the center. Built at a cost of $35 million, it will officially open next year.

The young Rabin dreamed of becoming a water engineer in the parched land of Israel. Instead he was drawn into military service with the Six Day War being the highlight of his military career.

After the war he dedicated himself to another battle, where the hope was for a time when there would be no dead and no wounded, the battle for peace. He said that we should not let the land of milk and honey become a land flowing with blood and hate. His focus in life became to support peace.

The Yitzhak Rabin Center when it is completed will focus on education and outreach. It will strive to perpetuate his legacy and to teach the lessons to be learned form his untimely assassination. It will emphasize that democracy is not to be taken lightly. It will examine the threats to the democratic fiber of the State of Israel. The speaker quoted an alarming statistic: 26% of Israelis between the ages of 18 and 25 would support the assassination of any leader who attempts to return the territories to Israel. Is this democracy gone crazy?

It can be said of Rabin that he knew how to lead with integrity. He was deeply admired by Bill Clinton and King Hussein of Jordan, as well as other world leaders.

Just as Americans over the age of 50 remember exactly where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Israelis will forever remember that day when their hope for peace was shaken with the untimely death of perhaps their greatest statesman.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Yad Vashem: Tears of Rememberance

As we approached the Israeli holocaust museum, it was raining or as our guide Shimon put it, the clouds were crying tears.

An interesting note upon entry into the museum: The invitation to membership translated as “Join Now” didn’t at all equate to the Hebrew, which translated literally as “Partners in Remembering.”

Anything to do with the Holocaust always leaves me with a feeling of numb helplessness. This was no exception. But the big difference in Yad Vashem is the emphasis on the individual -- trying to depict real people who had normal lives before being sucked into this world gone wrong. The photos, letters, memorabilia, and personal statements leave a lasting impression with a greater emphasis on their lives than on their deaths.

I was particularly taken by the role of music. Many Jews going to the ghetto chose to take a violin, a viola, a cello, a clarinet. A quote said, “One’s desire for music grows when one is most miserable.” I asked myself if I could possibly have played or sung in the face of such adversity.

The Children’s Memorial, designed by Moshe Safdie, leaves a lasting impression. You walk slowly through a space completely darkened, except for pinpoints of light (sort of like stars), which represent the children who perished. A somber voice reads the name, age at death, and country of origin for each child, requiring 24 hours to complete the entire list. It was a feeling of being enveloped by life and death at the same time.

Yad Vashem makes a point of recognizing the righteous gentiles, defined as persons who were not Jewish, who befriended Jews at great personal risk, and who were not in any way remunerated for doing so. There is tree planted for each such person.

When we emerged, the rain had subsided but our hearts were filled with tears for the unnecessary deaths of so many people who had beautiful faces and promising lives that were extinguished forever.

Off the Record

As we took our seats around the big table in the Israeli cabinet office, I marveled that I would never in my lifetime sit at a similar table in the U.S. We had the rare privilege of a briefing by Oren Magnezy, Prime Minister’s Advisor and Liaison to the Knesset; Mr. David Baker, Senior Press Coordinator, PMO; and MK Ronny Brison, Hetz Party.

We experienced Israeli security at its finest in getting into the Prime Minister’s Office. Belt buckles, barrettes, and metal bra underwires set off the sensitive detection device. After an hour we had all been cleared to enter. Only David and one other person were permitted to bring cameras.

We covered a variety of topics:
  • the process of defining permanent borders,
  • the challenge of building a coalition government,
  • a growing disillusionment with the whole peace process, and
  • promoting religious pluralism – from secular to ultra-orthodox.
We left our two-hour discussion thinking, “If only the walls could talk”…

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Small Flush or Large Flush

Every drop of water in Israel is important. For this reason Israeli toilets are equipped with two flushers -- a small flush and a large flush. And flushing is done only when absolutely necessary. We probably should adopt this way of thinking at home, even though water has not yet become so scarce.

Wishing for a Backward Time Machine

As we toured the ruins of Avdat, a 1500-year-old Nabatean town, I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like to live there. The Nabateans were a mysterious group of people who made their mark by trafficking perfume on The Spice Road. They existed for some 1500 years, ultimately converting to Christianity and assimilating into the neighboring societies in around 500 CE.

I am amazed at their ability to construct Byzantine arches of fitted stones that needed no cement and are still standing today. They had a complicated system of public baths that included three temperatures of water. This was most remarkable because the baths were heated by wood that had to be brought from countries as far away as Egypt. They used sophisticated cisterns to collect water through a series of aqueducts since rainfall in the desert is minimal. They had a marble surface for smashing grapes into wine that was collected in a basin. They managed to cultivate wheat and grapes in an environment that doesn’t naturally support agriculture.

I would love to be transported back in time so that I could see first-hand what it was like to live in Avdat 1500 years ago. It would be so much more meaningful with real people. I want to see water being drawn from the cistern. I want to hear children complaining about carrying firewood. I want to smell food being cooked to serve the 2,000 residents of Avdat who no longer live there.

An Unlikely Bedouin

As we stood in a line at a grocery store yesterday, I remarked that I hadn’t yet seen a camel on this trip. A blue-eyed girl behind us with an infant in a front carrier smiled and the following conversation ensued between her and us:
H: (in Hebrew) Do you speak English?
G: Better than I speak Hebrew.
H: Where are you from?
G: Germany.
Me: Why are you living here (in the middle of the desert)?
G: Because I’m married to a Bedouin.
Me: What does he do for a living?
G: He owns 50 camels (the reason she had smiled when I mentioned camels).
Me: Why did you come to Israel?
G: To work on a kibbutz at Ein Gedi.

So here is this very Aryan-looking German girl who has adopted a very different life, married to a Beddouin and raising three children in the desert. I seriously doubt her parents ever dreamed that this would be their daughter’s future when she signed on to work on an Israeli kibbutz!

The Bedouin Controversy

Our regular guide Shimon has nothing good to say about the Bedouins, especially those living in the south. Our desert guide Jankele, however, lauds the Bedouins as friends of Israel, who have made a huge contribution as trackers.

Last night we had dinner at a Bedouin tent, followed by a pitch for Bedouin support, especially for the right of the Bedouins to live wherever they want to live. The Bedouins last night made only the bread, tea, and coffee, with the rest of the meal being catered by people who did not look like Bedouins. Throughout the meal, the Bedouin family lounged around on the floor at one end of the tent. Apparently Shimon overheard our Bedouin “host” working a shady deal while talking on his cell phone.

I came away wondering exactly where the truth about the Bedouins really lies. Is their loyalty to the State of Israel or are they simply looking to Israel to support their ancient way of like, while they traffic in all sorts of illegal activities?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Older Than Old

As we looked at 200 million year old trilobites, an Israeli F-16 flew low over the desert and dipped its wing in greeting. The pilot was a personal friend of our guide and Renaissance man, Yankele, who had arranged the fly-by before taking us into the desert.

We spent the morning traveling by jeep deep into Machtesh Ramon, one of 6 unique geological formations in the world - all in Israel. A machtesh is essentially a mountain that has been scooped out by water, having only one way for the water to flow out. Where we walked todayc looked just as it had looked at the time of the exodus from Egypt – same plants, same rocks, same weather. As we looked at the rock formations, we could clearly see the evidence of tectonic plates shifting. We learned about the uses of the various rocks – for making clay, for making arrowheads, for starting fires. We saw the plant that may have been the manna that the Jewish people ate in the desert. We saw a plant that has recently been shown to be a natural medication for hyperactive children. Yankele told us that he and others exploring a mountain 60 miles to the north had found multiple small rectangular tablets containing 10 squares and a snake on them. Could this be evidence of the passing of the 10 commandments?

One of the bi-products of scooping out a mountain is the fact that this bares the fossils of all of the plants and animals that have been trapped for millions of years. We saw museum-quality trilobites and sharks’ teeth that Yankele had found in this very location. We learned how so many of these fossils show precise conformance to the Fibonacci series and to the relationship represented by the Golden Rectangle.

One of the most amazing things we saw was an aerial photograph using infrared light. It clearly revealed something that looks exactly like the Hebrew letters for Yahweh in the rocky area where the Jews supposedly crossed into the promised land.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of our morning with Yankele was his true stories about the Israel of today. He told how his son’s army unit had befriended a Palestinian family on the West Bank, even as they had to use their home as a lookout point. He talked about the reality of being prepared to defend the county against all enemies. Every soldier, even if you doesn’t completely support the government policy, is prepared to defend Israel because its survival is at stake. Yankele conveyed his complete love for all aspects of the land that he describes so beautifully to visitors like us.

There is absolutely nothing like the fresh air of the dessert that is basking in sun and coming alive with brilliant flashes of spring color. What better preparation for Passover!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Gazing at Gaza

The Gaza Strip moved from being a topic on CNN to reality when the Temple Micah bus stopped at an Israeli outpost today. The most startling realization was the size: roughly 20 miles long and 4 miles wide, supporting 2 million people.

As we watched, an Israeli patrol of two trucks slowly moved down the road next to the fence dividing Gaza from Israel, a shepherd watched his flock just on the other side of the fence, and the sound of rockets exploding in the distance filled the air.

We saw the sites of the Israeli settlements that had been forcibly evacuated. We saw the tall buildings of Gaza City, funded by the Saudis. We saw the Israeli tanks that had been outfitted to knock down Palestinian homes. We saw the series of Israeli towers, all visually connected, which constantly monitor the area around the fence. We saw the neighboring Israeli kibbutzim that are so often the targets of hostile missiles.

I tried to imagine how the two parts of Palestine will ever be effectively connected. I know it’s the best anyone can hope for, but the reality of forming a viable country from two disconnected pieces is sobering.

As we boarded our bus and headed into the desert, Gaza once again resumed its status as a spot on the map, but it had been reduced to a small, crowded, and still thundering haven for angry Palestinians.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Gesham (Rain) at Zippori

Who says it never rains in Israel? As we were walking around Zippori, an ancient archaelogical site dating back to around 300 CE, I heard the strange loud sound of heavy rain before I actually felt the big drops. We scrambled under trees or whatever was closest by to avoid the brunt of the sudden storm.

Rain says a lot about people. Some, like my husband, are always prepared with the right jacket and an umbrella. Others, like me, actually like rain and are not unhappy about getting wet. We’re the ones that either don’t bring an umbrella or just leave it on the bus. Still others find themselves unprotected and are not at all happy about it.

Fortunately we had already seen the beautiful mosaic floors, the remains of the ancient mikvahs, and the stones that formed the Roman cardos in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

We scrambled back on the bus, putting on all the dry clothes we could find to stay warm. There were some very wet people, but surprisingly I heard few “If I had only”s or “Why me?”s. This is really a pretty tolerant group with few whiners or people who are never satisfied with what nature doles out. That says a lot for the character of the group.

As a reward for the good sports who took the rain in stride, we all went to an Arab restaurant for a lunch of some 8 varieties of salads and humous and lamb shishkabobs and baklava and strong Arabic expresso with lots of sugar – all comfort food when you are wet and cold.


We Jews feel attracted by a strong magnetic force to Eretz Israel – the land of Israel. But in truth, it’s not the land as much as the people who remind us of our connection to the birthplace of our people.

We have a sister congregation – Or Hadash – in Haifa, which welcomed us with open arms as we joined them for Shabbat services. We were greeted with a banner above the doors. The service was almost totally in Hebrew, with no transliteration. But there were familiar melodies. Toby would be happy to know that we all sang the Sh’ma together in a loud voice, followed by a quiet Baruch shem… We were each given a goody bag containing a hat, a tee shirt, and other miscellaneous things. But best of all we were taken to members’ homes for Shabbat dinner after the service.

Our host family – Mario, Judith, and Orim Burman – live in a spacious apartment with a huge outdoor terrace. Mario and Judith are both PhD professors. Omri is a 15-year-old linguistic genius, speaking 6 languages fluently. But his real passion is Brazilian capoeira, a martial art. You would never have known that English was not their native language.

Judith had cooked an absolute feast for us – from homemade tomato soup to Hungarian blintzes to baked salmon to the best cheesecake I have ever eaten, all accompanied by delicious Israeli wine. After we had totally stuffed ourselves, we reluctantly succumbed to sleepiness and returned to our hotel. But not before we snapped group pictures, including the most delightful Israeli dog, which reminded me of Dylan and Jake. It was hard to tear ourselves away from such good company.

During the course of the evening, we came to realize that although we had all come to our Jewish experience through different paths, we shared a core of similar values and hopes for our collective people. What better way to connect to our living religion!