Talking Midwest in the Middle East

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

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I'm washing my hands in the sink of a billiards bar called Cafe Noga, which feels like the sort of joint you'd find in my beloved Midwest, not in Tel Aviv. I'm marveling at Israel's bizarre unisex bathroom trend & the many ways it manifests itself in establishments throughout the country. In this particular bar, the bathrooms are divided, men & women, but the two sides share one sink - literally, the sink bowl sits beneath a dividing wall, so if a man were to wash his hands at the same time as me, we wouldn't be able to see one another's faces, but we'd have to make way for one another's hands.

I've finished washing my hands (alone) & am reapplying my red lipstick when an Israeli girl makes her way up to the sink alongside me. She is tall & thin & beautiful, the way so many Israelis are. Smiling broadly & gesturing toward the sink with one eyebrow raised, she rattles off something in her native tongue. I can't understand the words, but I know what she's asked anyway: "How do I turn this damn thing on?" I turn the faucet on for her, shrug in a sort of apology, & in my clunky Hebrew say, "Ani lo medaber ivrit," I don't speak Hebrew.

Her face lights up & she switches languages with an ease I can only dream of: "English?" she asks me, & I tell her yes, so she continues. Am I here with Birthright? (Yes) Am I from the US? (Yes) Where am I from? I live near Boston, I tell her, because Boston is a city foreigners have heard of, whereas Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is most certainly not. "Were you born there?" she wants to know, & I tell her no, I was born in Ohio. Questions like this aren't uncommon from Israelis. 

"Ohio!" she practically shouts, her grin taking over her face. "It's like the movies!"

I'm confused. Say what?! She puts a hand on my arm. "Ohio!" she repeats. "It's like... so America." When I ask her whether she's ever been to the US, she laughs: "Yes! To Los Angeles & New York City & Disney World. But never to the middle. That's like... Ohio is like a place you only see in movies!"

She's so happy about Ohio & meeting a native Ohioan that I don't dream of telling her how most of the country feels about "the flyover states," a term I truly loathe. I find myself silently thanking Sarah Palin & wondering whether her 2007 message of "real America" hasn't proven moderately useful abroad. My smile matches hers as I think fondly of my hometown, thousands of miles away across the ocean.

Ohio! It's like... so America.

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Chai, Y'all! I'm Back!

Monday, February 27, 2012

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I'm not sure whether you know this, but I went to Israel. For 10 days. Remember that? Just as expected, it was inspiring & challenging & emotional & difficult & wonderful all wrapped up in one. And while this is not the appropriate space for me to discuss my experiences as a Birthright trip leader, I'll leave it at this: I learned a lot about myself. I learned what I am capable of, what my breaking points are, what my leadership style is, what my leadership faults are, & so much more.

My co-leader & I were fortunate to have a group of 37 participants with 37 distinctive & distinctly wonderful personalities, who made it easy for us to feel lucky even when things got difficult. And most importantly, I think they had a collectively great experience in Israel - & that was the point of the trip! It wasn't all unicorns & rainbows behind the scenes, but now that I'm home, recovering from my jet-lag & my Israel-induced mystery illness, I can retrospectively say that if given the option, I don't think I would've changed any of it.

OK, maybe some of it. But still.

Anyway, here's a a quick recap:

I struck a Rocky pose atop a tall stone staircase on a nature hike.

I ate corn pizza.

I visited a park full of trees that my friends & I planted last January & marveled over how tall they've grown since then.

I posed like a conquistador atop a hill in the Golan Heights.

I drank tea on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea first thing in the morning.

I donned red lipstick in public for the first time.

I ate cake atop Masada at sunrise.

I saw a really awesome, rushing waterfall.

I rode a camel with a lop-sided harness who my fellow rider (an Israeli soldier!) & I appropriately dubbed Loppy.

And so many more things that went uncaptured in photos because I was too busy experiencing the moments to the fullest. Isn't that how life is supposed to be?

My only regret is that I did not purchase this keychain.
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Words for Times When There Are No Words

Sunday, February 26, 2012

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My grandmother is 82 & has always been the healthiest, most with-it person I know. When other grandmas were baking cookies, mine was making zesty lemon sorbet with me, complete with little pieces of the peel in it. When other grandmas were curled up in front of fireplaces knitting, mine was walking miles a day, traveling all 50 states in the country & all across the world, to Japan & Greece & Israel & beyond. When other grandmas were being old & crotchety, my grandmother was busy living her life, not giving a damn about age or any other societally imposed restrictions upon her active life.

My grandma is a character in the very best way. She sends me Milk ads torn out of all her magazines. She once told me that Rooney reminds her of the Beatles. She writes me a check at every holiday, even Halloween. She does not cry, ever. She goes by her middle name, like me, but doesn't think it's a problem, like I do. She says crazy, hilarious things. She campaigned for John Kerry & Barack Obama & regularly sends letters of political disgust to her conservative Congressman. She is a Scrabble master. She emails my coworkers when she admires their work. She is on the board of the local library & synagogue, a small-town celebrity. She is a fantastic, talented, creative painter. She bought my non-Jewish boyfriend an argyle sweater for Christmas. She pre-toasts bagels & leaves them in a basket on the kitchen table for late risers like me.

It is the summer of 2011 when my grandma begins to experience severe shoulder & elbow pain that keep her awake at night, reducing her to tears I've never seen her cry & leaving her no choice but to take painkillers she otherwise avoids. At my cousin's wedding in Chicago in July, my grandma is all smiles as she reunites with her cousin, two old ladies remembering their pasts & marveling at their presents - but when no one but my mom & I is looking, she dissolves into an uncharacteristic mess of pain & sleeplessness. A doctor has told her that the pain likely stemms from a torn rotator cuff, bursitis, tennis elbow, & to come back in two months; in two months, I tell her, an 81-year-old woman could be dead. "Find another doctor," we insist.

She does. They run tests: blood tests, breath tests, tests I can’t pronounce. “Emphysema,” they tell her, “and COPD,” but neither of those explains excruciating shoulder pain - & nothing explains why a healthy woman with no history of smoking would end up with lung diseases like that. So they keep looking, kept testing, & we keep waiting.

“They found a spot on grandma’s lung,” my mother tells me on the phone one day, & I ask her to just keep talking - don't stop, don't give me time to cry. When we hang up - the connection lost, my fa├žade undone - I spend two hours in bed alone, sobbing. Over the course of the next few days, weeks, months, the details became clearer: a Pancoast tumor, "also called a pulmonary sulcus tumor or superior sulcus tumor, is a tumor of the pulmonary apex." In other words, lung cancer, the rare kind; Pancoast tumors comprise fewer than 5% of all lung cancers. Survival rate is approximately 15%.

"I'm going to fight it," my grandmother says, because that's how she is. Even at 81, there's no chance she'd go quietly into the night, so the woman who never cries commits to chemo & radiation in strong doses, both at the same time, to try to shrink the tumor before doctors can attempt to remove it. Her children make visitation rotation plans, hire my aunt's friend as a part-time caregiver for the times when they can't be in town. The week of her 82nd birthday, she begins treatment.

It has been four weeks since my grandmother began treatment, more than half a year since that wedding in Chicago that saw her unable to sleep for the pain. Four months since we learned that her sickness had a name my family knows all too well: cancer. She has not yet lost her hair, but a wig is on standby; she no longer wakes up early or stays up late, taken down by the illness that now consumes her body & her mind. Last week, she woke up & couldn't move, used her LifeLine to call for help. This week, she did not recognize my mother's voice across the phone lines.

"I can't believe she's going to die like this," I say to my mother, "& she is. Going to die from this." My mother confirms what I've feared all along. She asks me not to come home, not to see my grandmother this way, to remember her as she was when I last saw her, at Thanksgiving, before the cancer had taken hold. But all I can think about is that at Thanksgiving, I fought with my grandmother about God knows what, something unimportant; I fought with my grandmother as though she wasn't sick, as though there would be more days, more years, more Thanksgivings. When we said goodbye at the airport, I never dreamed it would be the last time I saw her. I knew she had cancer, but I never thought it might be the end of her.

My grandmother is the healthiest person I know.

My grandmother is dying.
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Top Chef Master? More Like Top Chef Disaster!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

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I've been home for about 48 hours, jet-lagged & sick. I have no voice & no energy, but what I do have is an appetite for good, old-fashioned American eats. Nathan & I woke up early this morning (damn you, jet-lag) & decided that instead of eating cereal like lazy Americans, we'd get to work making a fancy brunch. Using this cookbook, given to me by a friend & former roommate in recognition of my undying love of the best meal in existence, we tackled French toast - our first try at making it.

We burned the first two pieces of French toast & the first few slices of bacon. Once we hit our groove, we began burning things less, but we never got over it entirely. Though the final product did indeed taste OK - edible, at the very least! - we couldn't help but be embarrassed when comparing our masterpiece to the one we were trying to replicate. For shame:
Hey, at least there were mimosas. There are some things you can't screw up!
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Breakfast of Touring Champions

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

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Arabic Diet Coke: Keepin' me going on the trek through the Holy Land!

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Retro Lovin'

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

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Happy Valentine's Day from thousands of miles away! I snapped these photos a few days before I left for Israel while eating lunch at The Friendly Toast, a quirky Portsmouth diner decorated with funny vintage paraphernalia. I loved these old-timey Valentines - except maybe the first one, which feels a bit stalkeresque.

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I'm Going Going, Back Back...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

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My heart is in the East & I am at the edge of the West - but tonight at 9:30pm, I leave for the East! That's Israel, specifically: I'm headed overseas for 10 days to lead a KESHER Birthright Israel trip, as I explained in this post, & I will have limited Internet access while I'm gone. No blog writing or reading for me! You can follow some of my travels & travails on Twitter by following me at @heysuburban or following my group at @Kesher397. I have but one measly post scheduled in the queue, which means you won't be hearing much out of me until I return home on the 23rd & catch up on my sleep by spending a full day or so in a jetlag coma. Until then, kol tuv & l'hitraot!*

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Read All About It!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

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Actual front cover of today's newspaper. Say what?!

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Mercy Medical

Friday, February 10, 2012

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Today is the seven-year anniversary of Dave's death. Can it have been so long already? Today is the seven-year anniversary of the worst day of my life. As you always hear people say about meaningful life events, "I remember it like it was yesterday." But truly, so many of the details of that day & the ones that followed it are as fresh in my mind as if they've just happened.

When I first got the news, I was walking down the street in my college town, headed back to my sorority house from the dining hall, where I'd eaten cereal for dinner. The news came through the line: "Joel found Dave," & I knew what it meant without any details.
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"I'm the King of New Jersey" Doesn't Have Quite the Same Ring to It

Thursday, February 9, 2012

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Nathan & I have been waiting since October to learn where he'll be stationed come June. All we knew was that the orders would come sometime between October & February, so with no word yet, we were getting down to the wire. This week, we began to assume that the orders would come while I'm abroad in Israel for the next two weeks, & we'd given up on hoping to hear before then.

Surprise, surprise! Yesterday, the orders came in: Come June, Nathan will be stationed at a land unit based in Staten Island, N.Y. Sounds great, right? We'll be living in NYC! Upon learning the news, I started planning to create a fun video to reveal the news to you, complete with me holding an apple & a 30 Rock boxed set while doing a Newsies impression in the lead-up to the big location announcement.


In the last 36 hours or so, we've learned more about his new assignment. While the unit itself is based on Staten Island, the unit's engineering department is located elsewhere - in Sandy Hook, N.J., a remote vacation island off the coast of New Jersey. Observe:

Technically, Sandy Hook is where the Jersey Shore begins - but hold your Snooki jokes, please. No, seriously, I don't want to hear them. Yesterday I blocked a friend on Twitter for doing so.

The Staten Island base was our second-choice pick, behind only Boston. But you know what wasn't second on our list? Sandy Hook, N.J. We never would've put it on our list had we known it would place us in the same situation we're in now - sort of close to a really awesome city, but too far away to actually live in that really awesome city. Sandy Hook is about an hour & a half from New York City without traffic, & we all know that statement is a joke. In other words, it's our current live all over again, but possibly more depressing.

Everyone's got something optimistic to tell me about the news. "You can take a ferry into Manhattan!" (The ferry drops off miles from Nathan's base, so that won't work. Also, I'm terrified of boats.) "There are some really nice places in New Jersey!" (Well, damn How I Met Your Mother for teaching me otherwise.) "You won't be that far from New York City!" (Just like I'm not that far from Boston right now - & what a rockin' social life I currently have.) "I'm sure you can take public transportation into Sandy Hook!" (You can't, actually, as there's no public transportation to the island.)

My office is located near Grand Central Station, meaning that if Nathan had been stationed on Staten Island itself, we could live in Brooklyn & all would be well, two normal people with two normal jobs with two normal-length commutes. As it stands now, we're likely to have hour-plus commutes each, with him leaving around 4am to get to work.

I'm sure we'll eventually figure out how to make Sandy Hook, N.J. & its surrounding areas home... for the next four years. With a long-term sentence like that, we'll have to. For now, though, I'm wallowing, reeling in the surprise of not moving to my beloved Boston & the concern that we're going to end up with some miserable, suburban New Jersey life, just close enough to see the NYC skyline but not close enough to touch it.

You'll forgive me if I'm not excited yet, right?

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The 10 Commandments of Movie-Going

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

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The last few times I've been to the movies have been notably obnoxious, as I've found myself sitting around people who seem to have no idea how to be at the movies. Last weekend, during a viewing of the Woman In Black (don't bother), I ended up next to two girls who were so inept at basic theater courtesy that I felt compelled to - what else? - rant in the form of a blog post. Inspired by my interactions with them & all the others who came before, I present you with The 10 Commandments of Movie-Going.

  1. Thou shalt not contribute copious commentary.
    Movies are entertaining, & sometimes, when you're entertained, you want to tell someone about it. Movies are confusing, & sometimes, when you're confused, you want to ask someone for clarity. Movies are fast-paced, & sometimes, when you're dumb, you want to ask someone to explain. Whatever the reason, limit your comments & questions unless absolutely critical - which is a rarity.

  2. Thou shalt not utter strange reactive noises.
    I have a friend who has a horrible habit of making noises during movies. "Huh!" & "Ha!" & "Oh!" Grunts & sighs & giggles. I have never been as annoyed as I was the few times I went to the movies with her. Nothing takes me out of the moment like an inexplicable grunt. Or something.

  3. Thou shalt keep thy feet to thyself.
    We all love snagging a seat behind an empty one. It's so much more relaxing to watch a movie with your feet up, not a care in the world. But if someone is sitting in that seat? Suck it up & keep your feet to yourself.

  4. Thou shalt refrain from using thy cell phone.
    Your cell phone screen is brighter than you think it is. No, seriously. Turn it on in a dark room & let me know if it hurts your eyes - & remember that the next time you check your texts during a film. If you can't spend two hours away from your cell, you probably shouldn't be going to movies in the first place.

  5. Honor the previews and keep them holy.
    Sure, the previews are not the actual movie, but anyone who knows anything knows that the previews are a major part of the movie-going fun. They're essential to the experience - and though the rules are somewhat more lax during the previews, they still apply. In other words, shhhh!

  6. Thou shalt arrive early or deal with crummy seats.
    I've miscalculated my arrival time once or twice (or always), believe you me. But as much as it sucks, you've got to accept the consequences of your late-coming actions & sit in whatever spots are A) free, & B) easily accessible. It is not OK to arrive 10 minutes after a movie begins & ask an entire row to stand so you can get to a pair of remaining center seats.

  7. Thou shalt practice common-sense snacking.
    Movie theater snacks can be loud. If you neglect/forget to open your treats before the movie begins (mine are usually gone by then...), common sense dictates that you open them at a loud point (i.e. action scene or a time when everyone's laughing) or, if it's a quiet movie, open it at once, even if loudly, & get it all over with. Don't prolong the agony for the rest of us by trying to sneakily open it over the course of 10 minutes.

  8. Thou shalt not laugh loudest at scenes shown in previews.
    The folks who assemble previews have a pesky habit of choosing some of the funniest bits for their pre-production sneak peeks - but when you're at the movie, you know they're coming, so please don't be that person guffawing at a line we've all seen in a million commercial breaks.

  9. Thou shall scatter seating patterns.
    Man Law says that if all three urinals are open & someone is using the one on the far left, you take the one on the far right, not the one in the middle. Similarly, if the movie theater is bordering on empty, don't sit right on top of (or in front of or next to) the few people already seated within. The beauty of a sparsely populated theatre is that we all get our own space!

  10. Thou shalt not clap at the end of the film.
    Others (clappers) disagree with me on this, but I remain steadfast in my belief that clapping at the end of a movie is one of the fastest ways to annoy the rest of the theatre, especially at the end of an otherwise-great conclusion. Unless you're at an actual theatre - which is to say that there are actors on stage taking their bows - save your praise for your Rotten Tomatoes review instead.
And that's all she wrote. Amen!
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    'Cause They're So Delicious?

    Sunday, February 5, 2012

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    Have you ever seen the TV show "Freaky Eaters"? I'm sort of obsessed with it - a woman who only eats tartar sauce, a man who's never tasted a vegetable. It seems so impossible that these people are still standing, much less living normal lives.

    It's likely that I enjoy this show because I've spent my whole life being teased & chastised for my supposed picky eating habits - & "Freaky Eaters" makes me look like the most normal person who ever took a bite.

    Today, I found a freaky eater of my own! I actually doubled back in Target to take a photo of this cart because it was so unexpected & bizarre. I'd love to hear your thoughts: What do you think this guy's deal is?

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    Don't Let Peter Dinklage on This Bus!

    Friday, February 3, 2012

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    Just what sort of things do the good folks at C&J expect their passengers to throw away in the provided trash cans?!

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    ACK! Chocolate! (In Which I Channel Cathy)

    Thursday, February 2, 2012

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    I don't like chocolate.

    I know, I know, I'm a freak. Who doesn't like chocolate?! I guess I'm lying, anyway, because I like chocolate when I'm eating it, but never in my life have I had a craving for it, which seems to be A Thing with other people. When I stand at the ice cream counter, I never think "ROCKY ROAD!" (butter pecan, please), & when I cut into a birthday cake, I'm always crossing my fingers that it's funfetti instead of the brown stuff.

    All this in mind, I was skeptical when Ghirardelli contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in sampling their new milk chocolate line, Ghirardelli Gourmet Milk™ - but even I know that one should never turn down free chocolates. I'm gonna be honest with you: I had planned on taste-testing a little bit of the chocolates & then hosting a giveaway to send the rest of it, to one of you, but... Nathan & I ate it all. Six bars of chocolate over the course of two weeks. We ate it all.

    I was sent two bars each of Sea Salt Escape, Coconut Rendezvous, and Creamy Devotion; the first two are self-explanatory, the third is 32% cacao milk chocolate. Keeping in mind that I'm not a huge chocolate fan, we started with the first two & avoided the last like the plague. Nathan dubbed the Sea Salt Escape (which also has almonds in it) a "Dr. Greatbar," i.e. an upgraded Mr. Goodbar. I hoarded the second Dr. Greatbar in my office in an attempt to keep it all for myself, but he tracked it down! My second-favorite was the Coconut Rendezvous, which tasted like the beach but not like sunscreen, as coconut-flavored things so often do. I even enjoyed the Creamy Devotion, though I left most of these to Nathan, as I was less enticed by straight-up chocolate than I was by delicious add-ins like sea salt & coconut.

    A new study finds that chocolate-eaters may be happier than the average bear, which leads me to believe that perhaps I should be eating more of it. Then again, the same survey says people who eat lots of chocolate are marginally more likely to be employed than those who don't eat chocolate, so I'm doubting the validity of these findings. (See also: Unemployed people probably cannot afford Ghirardelli.)

    Anyway. My point is that this chocolate is delicious. Unfortunately, Ghirardelli chocolate is not certified fair-trade, though their Supplier Code of Conduct states that "Ghirardelli requires all suppliers to certify their compliance with our Supplier Code of Conduct, including the provisions barring the use of forced labor, slavery or human trafficking." I feel slightly more comfortable buying from certified free-trade companies, but this is, at least, a reassurance that my new chocolate habit is not also killing kids.

    I know. I always end things on such an uplifting note.

    *Disclaimer: Ghirardelli provided me with free samples of their Ghirardelli Gourmet Milk™ line. I was not compensated in any other way, nor required to tell you I loved this chocolate. I just did. In other words, all views are my own.
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