Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Back to Bloggin'

I just heard from my friend Natalie Baszile that there's a kind of chain-letter/circle of love/pyramid scheme going around for writers, and God help me, I agreed to join it. It will involve posting answers to questions about my book here, on my blog, which I'll do next week, and linking to other people's books or blogs. Remember my book, Grand Isle?

My first thought was, Do I even remember how to post to that thing? So today I've abandoned my new novel and am trying this out.

It's always such a question, whether to do this kind of promotion/linking/networking or just sit at the desk and write, for God's sake. Hence, I'm illustrating this not with a new clever drawing of me not writing, but with an old drawing of a rooftop in Oaxaca, where today it's like 75 degrees and sunny, as opposed to here in New York, where it is unmentionably frigid.
Boy, Was It Nice and WARM There

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Hip Replacement Revision Is Announced

This blog, as some of my eleven faithful followers may recall, began as a creative outlet (read: distraction to prevent full-blown insanity) when I was preparing to have a total hip replacement about four years ago.

Guess what? 

After being in pain (intermittent, not nearly as bad as before the surgery, but still, pain is pain) for about seven months, after having MRIs and exams and blood tests, after trying Pilates and massage and chiropractic, I’m going to replace the replacement.

Well, I’m not going to, but Dr. Mayman, the surgeon who put it in, is going to take it out and put in another one.

The reason for all this is that, as you may recall, after much agonizing I decided to get the Metal on Metal (MOM). 

I'm Glad I Didn't Get the Optional Matching Tattoo

And this can cause elevated metal levels, which, in some patients, causes inflammation, and then, you know, pain. And God knows what else.

I’m in the 5% this happens to.

When I got my blood tested the second time, after returning from Israel, the surgeon told me that some people are recommending you remove the metal hip if levels are over 10. “Yours are 80,” he said, wincing a little.

My metallic blood ran cold.

The next day, I called his office and got on the schedule. Surgery is November 2.

O the many pleasures that await.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Just Before Sunrise in the Desert

And a Couple of Minutes Later

The Jews wandered in the desert for forty years, and they’re wandering still, or at least telling the people who come to visit to wander. We’ve been told we must see the Galilee, the Red Sea, the Dead Sea. The Kineret, the Kursi, the Knesset.

Akko, Haifa, and Masada, too.

By the time we made it down to the Dead Sea, we were ready for a break. Our students, who so enthusiastically recommended all this touring seemed to forget that much of our time here has been spent fashioning brilliant lectures on various points of creative writing, writing incisive critical comments on their work, and searching for the best halva in the Middle East.

We got on the bus for the Dead Sea on a Friday.  This account is written in the present tense, but I’m not sure why.

The bus threads through the streets of Jerusalem--- there’s no easy way out of this city---and then enters a white-tiled tunnel, like a minuature Holland Tunnel, and when you pop out on the other side, you’re out of Jerusalem and in the desert, suddenly, bingo, just like that surrounded by huge sweeping dusky-brown hills, utterly barren save for a few white buildings scattered among them.

The highway cuts across the desert, and not coincidentally, across the Occupied Territories. I wasn’t clear, before coming to Israel, about what this meant, but now I know this is where the Palestinians live, in this landscape that seems uninhabitable. Along the way, we see shanties where people have made homes of tin siding and wooden scraps; I’m sure these are homes even though they look uninhabitable because there’s laundry hanging on a rope outside, a dog curled in the dust.

My perspective on much of life, the world, religion, my own Judaism, has changed on this trip, and in that welter are my thoughts about Israel, Palestine, Arabs and Jews. All this bears much more attention than I can give it right now, but I'm hoping to write something more cogent about it once I get home. So far, it boils down to this: my God, I didn't know that! or that! or THAT! I've always been afraid of taking a side, or questioning the Israeli occupation, and now I think that's a cop-out.

At any rate, once we arrive at the Dead Sea and check in to the kibbutz hotel, we make our way into the desert.

We’re walking into the desert, but unlike the Israelites of old, we have a wooden walkway, with a bench every few yards in case of weariness. In the branches of the first trees, someone sees a motion, and we all turn: it’s a hyrex, like a cross between a pig and a cat,  an overgrown guinea pig the size of a large housecat. We see then there are several lying on the tree branches; the guide, having anticipated them, just smiles indulgently. We’re children discovering the world she already knows.

Walk up into the deserty mountains, follow the cleft, and soon, you hear the sound of water, a surprising sound, here, and then you see there is greenery, rushes growing there, and then you look up, and there’s a waterfall, spilling down from the sky, pounding icy water into a pool. It’s a spring, the water flowing beneath all this desert landscape, then gushing out to feed the pool, and in turn providing a place for the birds. The Tristram's starlings---black birds with orange wings--- swoom in and land on the rock, hanging on to some small crevice.


On Sunday, having had our fill of desert and salt and German tourists, we wait for the Egged bus back, sitting outside in the dry heat. It’s 107 degrees. Even in the shade, it’s just too hot. We've been told that the last bus back to Tel Aviv will arrive at 2:20---and then it’ll be two days of no buses whatsoever, as this is erev Rosh Hashanah, and in about four hours the sun will set and with it will disappear any mode of public transportation. We’re out there by 2:00, because no one can promise the bus won’t come early.

And then a white van pulls up, immaculate, brand-new, and the driver, a stocky guy in a shirt with a name of something embroidered over the pocket, yells out at us: Bus to Jerusalem! Bus to Tel Aviv.

There’s one other couple seated in the front seat, a rugged-looking guy I think must be Australian and a woman I don’t see because the driver is yelling and we have to decide what we’re going to do, and I think this must be how Peter feels when I demand he make a decision: paralyzed.

We approach, then step on as he automatically opens the door for us. I think by now I’m wise to this sort of thing here, and I ask how much, and through an elaborate use of his cell phone, he shows me the number: 80 sheckles each. Peter and I exachange glances, trying to figure out if this is more than the bus had been, but the driver is yelling now, “Hurry, hurry, bus to Jerusalem. Hag, no bus!” Hag means holiday, that much I know, and what if this is the only way back? What if there IS no 2:20 bus? The people we asked seemed certain, but there was that confusing information on the website.

And the van is beautiful inside. It can’t be more than a year old, has fancy leather seats that look comforatable, and the air conditioning is whirring, and the driver is yelling, and we get on.

And take off, peeling out of the parking lot, barely pausing to make the turn onto the road, speeding like mad up the long straight highway along the Dead Sea, and I imagine a cartoon speedometer, the red arrow spinning crazily around to 50, 60, 90, 12, 140 miles per hour. It’s so fast I feel the pressure of the speed push me back into the seat, and I grip the plastic grips on the seat ahead of me. As we come up to the curves, I feel sick, but I look at the horizon and try to transport myself somewhere else.

The whole time he's driving, he’s shouting into his cell phone, the phone held to the side of his head, and we can hear someone else shouting in Arabic back to him. Every now and then, he looks into the rearview mirror and shouts “Service! VIP Service!” and lets loose a maniacal laugh.

At each bus stop along the way, we stop and repeat the routine, the driver hollering at the people sitting there, hollering a price, hollering, “Price Egged,” to the bewildered tourists who just want to make sure they get back before sunset.  A hippie-looking girl and boy refuse, and then we see the negotiations we should have made, as the girl shakes her head at his price, turns away, and the driver leaps out to offer her a deal. I’m comforted when they get on.
By now, I realize that he drives just ahead of the Egged bus, and bullies the passengers into his van, then drives like a maniac to Jerusalem. Probably. Because my other thought is much more sinister, probably---that he’s kidnapping us. We don’t know who he is or what he’s doing, really. He has a nice new van loaded with tourists and he’s hollering in Arabic and driving us through the Occupied Territories. That’s all we know.

As we hurtle up into the desert, toward Jerusalem, I’m not sure what I should fear more: that he’s kidnapping us, or that we’ll crash before he has a chance. He drives right up to the tail of a car, so close I think I can feel the bump against the bumper; if that car’s driver were even to graze the brakes, it’d all be over. We near Jerusalem, and the highway divides, and he drives between two tour buses, creating a new lane for himself, and I suck in my breath, hard, close my eyes, and wait for the crash. We sail between the buses.

As we plunge into the tunnel, I know the traffic will now force him to slow, and I breathe a little. Peter asks the hippie girl where the driver is letting her off in Jerusalem, and she goes up to him and asks, reporting back it’s the bus station. How much are they paying? We do some figuring, and Peter gets the exact amount that our two tickets from Jerusalem to Ein Gedi were on Egged, ready to hand it to him.

At the bus station, we follow the hippie couple, and Peter hands the driver the money. Later, he tells me the pleasure he got from the look of utter shock and dismay on the driver’s face when Peter confidendly and off-handedly said, “No, we said Jerusalem.” And we walk away, into the massive line at the bus station entrance, where it seems the entire population of Israel is trying to get somewhere before sundown.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

O Jerusalem!

We went back to Jerusalem, this time at the invitation of a student for Shabbat dinner with her family. Another student invited us to stay over in her guest room---necessary as all public transportation shuts down for Shabbat.

It was a remarkable weekend. Conversations seemed to gravitate to the situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank. We are still processing this---the information, and the fact that it was four weeks before we heard anyone really talk about this.

Sometimes Things Are Not 

...What They Appear To Be

At the Shabbat dinner, mention was made of the remarkable hospitality of the Arabs---our hosts not realizing how they were matching that hospitality. At the Shabbat lunch, in sharp contrast, the Arabs were viewed somewhat differently.

Details to follow as processing of all this continues.

Curiouser and curiouser.  Just when we’re starting to know enough to know how little we know, it’s time to start wrapping up here. We have just two more weeks, and it now feels we need another two months.

This was a true Shabbat---from sundown to sundown, no turning things on and off, no work, no Internet, no commerce. In Jerusalem, the whole city shuts down (with a very few exceptions, including a Domino’s Pizza), so people are out walking in the middle of the street, dressed up as if for a big party, and at night, the teenagers congregate in the parks, flirting and hanging out.

A festive mood prevails.

In Jerusalem, also of note, we saw a rose-ringed parrot. 

Friday, August 31, 2012

Jerusalem, City of Grumbling

We went to Jerusalem the other day, and in Jerusalem I did not feel the presence of God. I did not feel the Shekhinah hovering over the Western Wall. I did not think I saw Seraphim floating into the hot, blue sky.  I did not feel I was standing at the spot where God created the world, the spot from which Adam and Eve sprang up.
The Western Wall

 I felt I was standing at a spot where everybody hates each other, or at least annoys the hell out of each other. The guys at the metal detector you go through before you get to the wall are annoyed with the tourists, the tourists are ticked off with having to be inspected, and the women tourists who didn’t think to bring something to cover their shoulders (have I mentioned it is 90 degrees Fahrenheit here?) are particularly ticked off with having to put on a paper thing that bears a disconcerting resemblance to a hospital johnny, as if there might be a complete physical exam waiting at the end of the tunnel. Via Dolorosa indeed.

Women At The Western Wall

And apart from the Western Wall, the schlock-hawkers in the claustrophobic alleys of the Old City are annoyed with the peevish tourists, the tourists cranky from the shopkeepers’ heckling.

There wasn’t just the feeling of contention; in the hummous place where we had the best hummous ever, oily and nutty and smooth, there was a photograph of the Palestinian homes being bulldozed to excavate the wall in 1967. All around in the Old City there are darting glances and squints and, in the line at the ladies’ rest room by the entrance to the Wall, a tourist pushing her way past the line, even past the young soldier ---who really looked like any teenaged girl, except in Israeli Army uniform---waiting to use the next stalls.

Said tourist tried to push past me, too, but, in the sprit of old Jerusalem, I stepped boldly in front of her, meeting her dirty look with a dirty look of my own, then feeling ashamed and terrible.

It was very hot, even though it was cooler than it’s been in Tel Aviv. All that contention, all that fighting, for centuries, right up through this past Wednesday afternoon. I wanted so badly to feel something holy there, in old Jerusalem, to be awe-struck at the sight of the Wall, to fling myself against it, or at least to want to. But the air felt saturated not with the spirit of lovingkindness, but with anger, disappointment, grief.

Down the cobbled streets, more shops, selling evil-eye pendants (which, face it, one could really use in Old Jerusalem), selling garish mezuzahs, selling piles and piles of yarmakles made to look like basketballs, soccer balls, baseballs, or stitched with “JERUSALEM” spelled out. Red fezes with black tassels, kaffiyehs stacked in red and black piles, enormous wooden crosses, tiny wooden manger scenes.

The Armenian Hostel
The best thing was the Arabian coffee (with cardamom), thick as mud, at the Armenian hostel.

When we finally escaped the Old City (liberated by three laconic army girls who showed us how to exit at Jaffa Gate) we’d had enough, we were sweaty and tired and defeated as Israelites, or Palestinians, or Romans.

We thought then we’d go up to the ramparts, walk on top of the Old City, see it with a little perspective, get some air already, but there was a guard at the steps, who said we needed to buy a ticket. 

We were tired of being told to buy things, and instead, we walked out of the Old City entirely, walked away from the whole thing, walked into modern-day Jerusalem, found a restaurant, had a glass of wine, a salad, something to eat, whatever it was we didn’t care by then. I painted Peter’s hat and our meal and then we walked the rest of the way to the bus station.

After Visiting the Old City of Jerusalem

A Tel Aviv bus was leaving right then, and we got the last two seats. I fell asleep on the ride home.
The Trouble With Not Having A Scanner

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Return of the Wallet

The next day, the phone rang. The cell phone which has endeared itself to us by waking us every morning at 5:45 because we can't figure out how to get the alarm to turn off. But this was in the afternoon. And it was a young woman calling to tell us she had our wallet.

Her friend, she said, had found it at the cafe. He didn't speak English, and gave it to her, asking her to figure it out. One call to the cafe, and she had our number.

We'd been wanting to see more of Jaffo anyway, so we dashed out the door and high-tailed it (well, as quickly as one can when it's 93 degrees) through the twisty streets of Jaffo. We secured the wallet, and of course she wouldn't take any reward, and wouldn't take any to give to her friend.

"Maybe you could take him out to dinner," I said, and she gave me the universal, "What are you, nuts? I wouldn't go out to dinner with that guy if he was the last guy in Jaffo" look.

You're probably wondering what was in the wallet. Everything except the cash---it was U.S. cash, about twenty bucks. Everything else was there: credit cards, Green Card. The works.

The Runaway Wallet
Later, Peter went up to the police station to tell them to call of the search. I'm sure they were happy to have the man power back.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Case of the Missing Wallet

It was in the Tel Aviv police station that Hebrew suddenly came to me.

The day before, Peter and I were at the café near us, a place probably too hip for us, on a tiny plaza, facing a fountain with the requisite palms towering over us, the Mediterranean sky hanging blue and cloudless above. We sat there reading our students’ stories (which, by the way, are remarkably well-written), having eggs shakshuka.

Peter at the cafe, in the blissful naive moments before the Loss of the Wallet
I saw Peter’s wallet on the table, and figured he’d put it there so he wouldn’t forget it. And then we got up and walked off.

Later, we studied the map again to determine the best route to the train station; we were going to have dinner at the our point man for the creative writing program, Evan Fallenberg, up in Netanya, As we were leaving the apartment, Peter patted himself down, then patted himself down again, proficient as a cop or an airport security guard. No wallet.

We dashed back to the café ---no wallet. We left our number, then trudged home, called Evan, called the credit cards, waited on hold, called the bank, waited on hold, looked up the U.S. Consulate information on replacing Peter’s Green Card. Finally we were on the train, the worst dinner guests in the Holy Land, arriving an hour and half late, with a bottle of warm white wine.

On the train, we discussed the lost wallet at length, and then, a woman across the aisle from us leaned over, and said, in English, “Did you lose a red wallet?”

Stunned, we looked at her. “No, it was black.”

“Oh, they just announced that someone found a red wallet on the train.”

Thinking Back to the Cafe
What kind of country is this, where strangers translate the train announcements for you?

The next morning, our apartment proved once again that it’s in the best possible location: not only are we three blocks from the beach, two from the tourist information office, but also, we learned, just four from the big shiny new police station. There, an older policeman sat behind a desk, two young and quite surprisingly casual guards hanging out by the door. These young guys (shirts untucked, cute as boys) were apparently responsible for making sure dangerous criminals didn’t get past the door without good reason.

The older guy (who bore a striking resemblance to McGruff, the cartoon police dog) spoke not a word of English. (see previous post on how everyone here does not speak English) One of the young guys offered his services as translator, and did, until he had to run off suddenly into the building on some emergency.

(Of note: here in Israel, something like that happens, and I have a moment of real fear: yikes! Even though, by the looks of him, he just had to call his girlfriend or check his Facebook page)

We were left with McGruff, who smiled nervously. We smiled nervously. We got through filling out the form, passing papers back and forth across the desk, and we wrote down our number, and then I realized that both our phone and our Hebrew have been so unreliable (well, no, our Hebrew has been reliably non-existent) that we should also give Evan’s number. But how to communicate this? How to say, “We can also leave the number of a friend who speaks Hebrew?”
Another Examination of the Cafe

“Yesh lanu havarim v’ evrit v’telefone,” I heard myself say. 
(יש לנו חברים ועברים וטלפון)

To my utter astonishment. So what if this really translates as “We have friends and Hebrew and telephone?” And to my continued astonishment, McGruff smiled widely and said, “Tov, tov,” and I wrote down the number and in a flurry of happy “Todahs” and something else incomprehensible that sounded like “babaganoush, baklavah” we left.