Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your Engines

Monday morning started with already elevated blood pressure as I concentrated through all the booms and pops of the celebrations from the Muslim holiday on the other side of the city. It’s not so bad when you know that this acoustic backdrop is festive, but considering the proximity to the recent war and continued tensions in the area, I can think of more calming accompaniments to the tappings of a keyboard in our office.

I went for a walk around mid-afternoon and noticed a variety of incongruities that perked my attention to some sort of something going on. The traffic patterns had been altered around the base of the Old City; and a parachute hung in the air in the distance . At first glance, it simply seemed to be a strange choice of location for the sport, but it turned out to be tethered about 150 feet in the air by a barely visible strap. My boss explained that it was a security measure – they use parachute military instead of blimps for aerial surveillance. I wondered if he had balloons and a painted face or maybe was dressed like Santa Claus (that’s logical, right?).

Usually when I do a loop past the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, I pass groups of older Russian Orthodox women with delicate scarves covering their hair, tourists from South Korea clicking photos in front of David’s Harp, or groups of Jewish families dressed up for a bar or bat mitzvah at the Western Wall. On Monday, I passed a kid with a bull nose ring and jeans holding on for dear life just below his ass and a dude wearing a gray t-shirt with yellow splotchy letters that said My idea of balanced is a beer in each hand. Neither of these offended me, but they were nevertheless a jarring introduction to a new demographic taking in the consecrated scenery of the Old City.

I should have figured it out sooner, but it wasn’t until I heard the distant growls of gunning engines (and our director came to tell us that the office was closing) that I learned a Formula One racetrack had been set up at the base of the Old City and would be doing figure-8s along the route between my home and my office. Despite my profound connection to the Appalachian hills - where racing actually got its start running liquor during the Prohibition and still has a huge following – I have pretty much always despised everything about race car culture. My encounters with racing mostly center around Bristol, Tennessee, where I simply acknowledge its existence and move through as quickly as possible – taking extra care not to get bowled over in the passing lane by some yahoo with no muffler and a Bud Light in his hand.

To be fair, I’m not judging all race car fans individually – it’s also my fear of the commanding influence of stupidity that takes over in large crowds of people. ESPECIALLY considering that we live in a politically charged environment already and are now cramming thousands of people like sardines into the perimeter of less than a kilometer with engines and emotions revving. (Awesome opportunity for creative coexistence, or just needing a spark for the gasoline? Yes.)

Also consider the environmental factor: I can think of no more efficient yet meaningless way to burn fossil fuels than doing laps around a track – aside from maybe lighting up oil fields outright. And the only sound more obnoxious than the incessant honking already plaguing the roads of Jerusalem would be to add exponentially louder engines and more aggressive drivers. In short, I hate racing and the thought of being around it made my skin crawl.

I’d been hoping to leave the office before the hullaballoo got started. But given that our timing was slightly off, Lucy and I wound up leaving the office just as the race began gearing up. We could hear the motors roaring past the Old City and turning up the main drag towards Bethlehem. We took a longer route home and cut up behind the mall nearer to the City Center to try to skirt the course, but we missed by about a block and wound up at the main junction with a huge projection of the drivers coming around the bend and about 400 people all crammed into the four corners of the intersection. One car zoomed by, but didn’t slow down enough and skidded around the turn, coming within meters of the barricades where teenagers were perched with their lemonades and camera phones. I realized that the only way to get home was by crossing the rickety scaffolding staircase that led to a footbridge over the track. 

Scores of other people had stuffed themselves into a makeshift line to get across, but were bottlenecking as they lifted bikes and baby strollers and pausing to watch the race. Lucy, whose father had not taken her to football games as a youth and hence not taught her how to ‘shoot the gaps’ in the crowds (nor who was about 14 seconds away from a panic attack like yours truly), got caught in the line. I knew she’d catch up with me eventually and I crossed and came down the other side without looking back. Waiting for Lucy, however, meant that I was standing in the street just behind the barricades, during which I had the delightful opportunity to watch the environment-leech-sound-polluting-waste-of-every-possible-resource epitomes of human over-consumption come screaming towards me at death-defying speeds before slowing to turn and thunder past some of the most sanctified sites on Earth. I would've rather spent that 5 minutes pulling out my fingernails, but managed to continue breathing, which sometimes is all you can ask. We finally escaped the crowds and made it home in record time.

This city is full of surprises. I think I read somewhere that next week they’re doing a mobile Biblical petting zoo in the park – lions, lambs, serpents, the works…. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Ultimate Cheer

My friend Seth has this cheer for before an ultimate frisbee game. He’ll come running into the huddle and start a story. The story escalates in absurdity and so does the team’s response with alternating “YAAAY”s and “BOOO”s. Something along the lines of:

“Guys – I’m so sorry I’m late – it’s because we had SUCH a great tournament party last night!”


“But now I’m really hung over.”


“But I’m ready to play defense anyway!” 


“But I can’t play because I threw my cleat in the ocean with a message for the people of Indonesia last night…”


And so on and so forth until either our team gets fired up to play, or the story becomes so outrageous that the other team gets engrossed and comes over to join us.

We also bring a couch to the fields...and bacon

This cheer is analogous to my experiences since returning to the Middle East from a few weeks in the States. Take any aspect of it. The war, for example: a real ceasefire (yay!) to the following land grab by Israel in the West Bank, thus continuing to ostracize international alliances or even compassion for the Jewish State and its cause (boo!). Or moving into a wonderful new apartment (yay!); and having the faucets and the stove immediately fall apart (boo!); but getting them fixed with the kind support of our landlady (yay!); who then proceeded to scold us like little children for getting overcharged (boo!). (I swear, dealing with Israelis is like eating Sourpatch Kids or Warheads – you just gotta pucker up and hang on for the ride ‘til the outer layer dissolves.)

Or how about going to play in a frisbee tournament on Saturday: I found out on Thursday that my toe had only been dislocated instead of broken, so I would actually be able to play (yay?); I woke up at 5am to catch a sherut (mini-bus) at the central station, only to remember after my 40-minute walk that they don’t run from that side of town on Shabbat (boo!). Huffing it back to the East side, I found many sheruts waiting to leave for Tel Aviv (yay!) and got juggled by six shouting Arab men into four different sheruts over the span of 30 minutes. Each time, I was the first passenger in a bus that must be full before it departs (boo). I returned to the shouting men and kindly declined one offer to drive me to Tel Aviv directly for 300 shekels (boo!), but then got in a cab to the secret sheruts  (and by secret I mean the ones I just didn’t know about) – a ride for which the kind old man, Rami, did not charge me at all (yay!) (I may leave the part out where he kept patting my knee…grandfatherly or creepy ? The ride was short enough that I did not need to make a clear distinction or assess the speed at which I could leap from the car, which was great because he seemed nice and it was still too early in the morning for a dive-and-role). I was the second-to-last person on the bus and was immediately whisked away to the big city very, very quickly (yay!)…on a speeding bus ride of death (blarf).

The latest in this proverbial roller coaster (were there roller coasters in Proverbs? If not, what would they have said instead? A Judean hill chariot race? Fishing boat on a stormy Galilee?) – anyway, the latest escapade of this sort was navigating the medical system. I’ve recently diagnosed myself with a deadly, flesh-eating bacteria (boo!) but had a not-so-painful appointment yesterday during which the doctor actually answered my questions and even drew me a map of where to go to the pharmacy. I found a receptionist who told me where to go to drop off my packet and then encountered a super friendly pharmacist (all yay!)

And by comparison, I’d much rather be at the doctor than the bank. My roommate and I returned from our respective life errands at the same time, but her simple chore to remedy a wrongly dated check spawned treks to two separate branches, a series of blank stares accompanied by completely fabricated fees with multi-step transactions, and hostile rebukes for messing up the check in the first place…none of which resulted in any clear way to solve the issue because that task is just too tricky to tackle. My tough-as-nails Brit cried in public. She has never cried in public, at least not since England lost a war (oh, wait – yeah, she’s never cried in public.) They gave her a glass of water and asked her why she was crying over a silly piece of paper. …boo.

New roommate Lucy and I bonding over Proverbs, roller coasters, and cactus fruits

Lately my life has felt like playing he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not with the flower petals of my sanity (which is, ironically, a not-so-far-off analogy to be frank). It’s a gentle roulette that turns me to meditation and chocolate. But I am not so blind or narcissistic as to not understand that this is all a hyperbolic anecdote of what every other creature is going through: that is, simply life itself – a cosmically balanced cycle of ups and downs to which we are intended to respond with grace and an open mind and perhaps someday even influence through positive intention. And like the freezer door that falls out every time we open the fridge, it’s actually quite funny when it doesn’t make you cry. But when you are in a foreign land and everything is just a smidge more complicated and those cycles come in large waves that coincide with a particularly emotional other cycles in the month (which is not an excuse but simply a reality), then this life roller-coaster-ancient-fishing-boat-on-the-stormy-seas makes me want to curl up in the fetal position or barf - depending on how much chocolate I’ve eaten already. 

Frankly, I usually enjoy these free-falls - the moment of seeing that huge drop in front and reaching the realization that it’s coming whether I want it to or not - so I might as well commit and enjoy it. (Let’s define “commitment” at a surface level for now, though. We’re talking small decisions - not life choices - for the time being. Yesterday I spent quite literally 10 minutes in the baking aisle trying to figure out which chocolate to use in the brownies I was baking for my friend in the hospital. Didn’t matter I guess – I burned the SHIT out of them anyway (boo). But my point is that decisions are not my strong suit (yet), so I’m taking one small commitment at a time). I acknowledge this about myself and so I think that leaning into these drops is actually a healthy thing. I can’t change the banking system or predetermine which sherut driver doesn’t have a death wish, so maybe the best thing to do is to get out on the field and tell the story with vigor; to sob when it feels right and to cheer when the heroine conquers the flesh eating bacteria and gets new faucets in the bathroom. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Here and There

It's been awhile since I've written, so before I dive into this blog, I might offer a bit of context: I wound up taking a whirlwind trip home to the States for three weeks at the end of July. The trip started off with a bang when a rocket hit near the airport and the American airlines shut down their Tel Aviv circuit. I spent two days on hold with the airlines to see if I'd actually be able to get out. I finally made it via Spain (Olé!) and went immediately from the desert and a war to a week at the lake with weenie roasts, Bingo (where I won big: $4.75), water skiing, and family that I hadn't seen for over five years.

From there, it was two weeks at home with more family time, doctors' appointments, feasting on Asheville's plethora of organic meats and ice cream flavors, wonderful friends, a frisbee tournament, and oh, working part-time from home with the dogs and the doorbells during that whole period.

When I returned home to Jerusalem, I immediately started work again and finished moving apartments - a process that had been turned into a tight-quartered circus of frustration and solidarity. I'd technically moved in before-hand, but joined forces (and space) with the departing roommate as we were both trying to figure out how to escape the country during the airport shutdown.  I'm now living with a delightful British friend in the same neighborhood as before, with so many trees, functional internet from anywhere in the apartment, AND A PATIO! (The only downside is that I can no longer randomly take on a British accent without wondering if I might be offensive instead of just strange.)

I took on all of these life adventures with full force, and then spent last weekend kind of laying on the couch, alternating between a book and staring off into space (...and yet, couldn't seem to figure out what was wrong with me). So, that's what's new with me, and this blog is about the parallels that I've encountered as I bounced between my two homes.


There, a far off rumbling is a thunderstorm trying to gauge its ambition. You can set your watch by its timing, but it doesn't often telegraph its might. 
Here, perhaps a truck shifting into second gear; perhaps a rocket being intercepted and falling in defeated shrapnel on a neighboring village. The magnitude is a point of boastful pride, but its the timing that will catch you off guard. 

There, ISIS is my friend’s bar – I watched his family turn the dilapidated movie theater into an elegant restaurant and festive music venue. I’d often walk over from my house for the best habanero cocktail I’ve ever had, or important civic causes like bluegrass shows to raise money for bike lanes and the esteem of self-impoverished hipsters.
Here, ISIS is also my neighbor (but they’re not so big on the cocktails): the increasingly powerful Islamic state garnering support and beheading babies in Syria and northern Iraq. Are they the ones taking advantage of the volatile times to launch a few friendly reminders of their presence across the northern border?

There, everything feels exactly the same as as how I left it - like a dollhouse discovered in the attic. 
Here, there is a mild breeze whispering of change, and everyone is holding his breath to see which way it will shift.

There, I dodge street performers and vagabonds in a bustling downtown, waving to the occasional familiar face.
Here, I dodge between tall, pointy hats of bishops, swiveling tourist cameras, and high-speed pita carts. I make my daily greetings to vendors, beggars, and taxi drivers stationed along my route to work.

There, I wait in line to be handed a menu, but I already know what I want: the chocolate mousse stout cake and a liquid truffle – smoked sea salt and maple of course. 
Here, I stand in a gaggle at the sneeze glass (if I’ve chosen carefully). There is no menu, but I already know that I want tabouleh, a carton of hummus, and some baba ganoush if they've got it.

There, the world around me seems certain, and I feel restless. 
Here, I feel a sense of calm despite the world’s uncertainty. I wish I could understand why this paradox guides my course.

There, I worry if my brother will be safe walking down the street in broad daylight. Will the police turn on him? Would strangers turn on him? 
Here, I worry if my neighbors will be safe walking down the street in broad daylight. Will the police turn on them? Will strangers turn on them? I sit in the comfort of my home, nestled down with a cup of coffee mixed with guilt, compassion, and a spoonful of sugar; never doubting my own safety, I watch the borders of my worlds blur. A protestor asks despondently of those holding the power and pointing the guns: “Why won’t they walk with us? Why don’t they want better?” Is there any difference between Ferguson, Missouri and Damascus Gate? And I can’t remember if I’m here or there.