Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Moveable Feast

There is absolutely no holiday I like better than Thanksgiving. It might have something to do with giving thanks. Surrounded by endless blessings: loved ones, good health, happiness and an abundance of riches (these days one calculates their prosperity by counting the number of screens there are in the house), I cannot help but seek a way to express my eternal gratitude. But there's definitely more to it than that. First of all, beyond being the only American holiday I celebrate, it is the only secular one period. Here in Israel almost every holiday--and there are a lot of them--has some religious significance. Accordingly, it is ironic that this secular holiday has become my holiest of holies. 

This confession leads me to an even more significant one: It might just be about the food. In Israel almost every holiday is centered on a meal featuring a particular cuisine. At Rosh HaShana we bring out the apples and honey, Passover, matza, Hanukkah, jelly doughnuts, Purim, Hamentaschen and Shavuot, a variety of cheeses. Sukkot actually offers a seasonal parallel to Thanksgiving, timed to the local squash (think pumpkin) season, usually in October, and traditionally celebrated by gathering for a meal under a Sukkah –or tent. While a Sukkah is unnecessary for the celebration of Thanksgiving it would make an excellent addition—after all, it offers an excellent way to collect those we love under one roof and yes, to give thanks! 

My annual tribute, whose sanctity supplants all other annual celebrations (including those enumerated above), has nevertheless taken on a vastly different significance for me as an expatriate.  First of all, it has very little to do with the historical origins of the holiday. There is nary a hint of those thanksgiving pageants staged back in elementary school (where we all wanted to be Miles Standish). And although I might have mentioned something about the original American settlers to my children, it was probably more in passing than any attempt to actually educate them. New information regarding that first mythical meal has, in any case, indicated that most modern Thanksgiving dinners are a far cry from the original feast celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts back in 1621. Nathaniel Philbrick's groundbreaking book, Mayflower, recently adapted for children and very likely to become the new textbook on the Anglican settlement of America, describes neither the abundance, or good feeling, we have come to associate with this annual chow down. 

Philbrick points out the discrepancy between items included in the original meal and our modern celebrations. Turkeys, being much smaller at the time, and cranberries, for example, played minor roles, while there was quite a bit of shellfish! But there's no reason to panic, two staples of most modern meals—local corn (albeit far more colorful than our white and yellow variety) and squash, were featured. Beyond the culinary differences, there were the more significant ones regarding the atmosphere at that historic event. As most of the original Pilgrims were religious extremists, actually Separatists, who had escaped from Anglican England, their aim was more at conversion than acceptance. The natives resented their intrusion and any harmony achieved within this meeting, albeit ostensibly in celebration of the harvest, was fragile at best.

Perhaps the blurry lines surrounding the myth that became the tradition of Thanksgiving are exactly what make it most importable. Our annual menu, following some folkloric checklist, includes the mandatory Thomas the Turkey (squeezed into my European-sized oven with a broken limb or two), bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn bread, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. My effort to put together this meal, as a national/foreigner (forever struggling with that designation) in sometimes hostile territory (no evidence of the US poultry campaign here and most cans of pumpkin have an expiration date of 2006), recalls that of our Pilgrim forefathers. They too sought to organize a feast, with whatever they could find locally, that would reflect abundance and successful settlement. Beyond the menu is the question of just what it was like for those Pilgrims and Natives as they gathered around the table. In this way the gathering in my own home well recalls that original sit-down: a meeting of different cultures and languages whose fragile harmony is tinged with the stress of everyday tensions. Nevertheless, I can proudly attest to the fact that the meal itself, sacrosanct within our home, is NOT squeezed in between "downs" or "quarters". (I'm certain that the next generation will give up eating around a table and opt to simply crowd around the television screen). 

Our bi-cultural, bi-national Thanksgiving dinner all boils down to pumpkin--or more precisely, pumpkin pie.  Back in 1995 I spent hours trying to conquer the local, stringy pumpkin. This grainy squash, absolutely enormous in size (you actually only take a chunk home from the market), could not be tamed into a smooth pie custard. It was staunchly rejected around the table by all of my guests save my husband. His gallant effort to eat a whole piece can probably be attributed more to devotion than sensory appeal. Undaunted, I started to annually import canned pumpkin and soon enough, those Israelis guests brave enough to try a dessert based on…pumpkin?...were converted. Of course the irony here, and the detail that recalls the combination of different cultures, races and languages symbolized generations ago by the meeting of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Tribe, is that the recreation of this American classic within the Holy Land was enabled by a classic recipe culled from one Mrs. Segal at Sunday School in Philadelphia back in the 70s. There could be no better tribute to the spirit of cultural integration and root origins--in this case, my own!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Double Vision

Unbelievably enough I'm headed for cataract surgery.  After suffering double vision in my left eye for over a year I've decided that enough is enough! For a while there I thought I could live with it. I mean, we don't really need two healthy eyes, do we? All we have to do is close one and things become clear. That would seem to be enough! (For the record that was proved wrong when I tried this exercise while biking and veered sharply off course). And for the record, bad vision has been a part of my life for a very long time. In fact, it dates way back to 4th grade. There I was, in Mrs. Purdy's class, desperately trying to read the board (it was, believe it or not, a black board—the dark ages!!) and fighting off a vicious headache. And indeed, just 30 years later (give or take a few..maybe even 10?), one eye would seem to suffice. Cataract or not I still identify the child approaching my bed in the middle of the night by vocal cues. Visually my progeny are all just smears of varying shapes and sizes!

Yet as the solutions for improving my visual acuity become fewer in number (and outrageously expensive) I've come to the conclusion that one eye really isn't enough. For example, I've begun to find it absolutely unbearable that when I close that other eye, the healthy one, everything is, well, nothing! Whatever's out there is a big, ugly blur…or even, two blurs. So I'm taking the plunge, putting away my swimming goggles for one month (boo hoo), and lowering the statistically-assessed average age for cataract surgery (73-75!!) significantly.

On the eve of this procedure I'm wondering what I'm actually going to gain from "better" vision. After all, as someone who has suffered from extreme myopia just about forever, I'll still have to wear glasses. I won't be as lucky as that friend of mine who was able to throw her glasses away the morning after Lasik surgery. Although I haven't come up with a suitable answer to this question, I can confidently state that double vision has added absolutely nothing to my quality of life. In fact, I think it has only clouded my already obscured sense of reality—and I mean that both literally and figuratively: Blurry vision--blurry existence?

 I've opted for the surgery after coming to the conclusion that decent vision is a blessing that one must embrace. No more double headlights speeding towards me late at night (Good news for the parents of those children I carpool from hither to yon); some chance at removing the various splinters my barefoot children happen to attract; the ability to help my ten year old daughter put on a necklace and to not have to ask my husband to read me the tickertape news headlines on the television. (There's still no hope for conquering those miniscule text messages that pop up on my cell phone but disability has actually allowed me to reach beyond my shell and connect with passers-by on the street! Not all visual impediments are negative ones!)

And here I've found an answer to my query! Achieving better vision will enable me to exercise my right to free choice! I choose vision. I choose clarity. I choose to see things for what they are before my mind decides to interpret them for what they might be.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Story of my Life

Eilat 2010 was all about survival. But not mine.

Eilat 2009: Many of you don't know that three days before the competition last year we rushed my, then 9 year old, daughter to Ichilov. She was virtually unable to breathe and was hospitalized in the Intensive Care Unit for 14 days with a special IPAP breathing mask. I sent my sons (aged 12 and 14 at the time) down to Eilat alone to compete. I'd worked so hard towards this competition and now it wasn't even relevant. Not only was I going to miss competing myself, but I wouldn't be able to see my boys. And how would two young boys do it all on their own with no parents? I was fortunate enough to have my parents there to help be on hand. But grandparents aren't exactly the same as parents. On top of all of this, and beyond comprehension, was the critical condition of my daughter. Dealing with all of this at once was simply impossible.

But here my teammates and Nir stepped in to make it all somehow more bearable. Nir called me almost daily, throughout this horrible time, to check on Brit's situation. He helped me actually get the boys to Eilat and back. My friends who were there called me before and after the competition, checking on Brit and updating me on the race itself.  Everyone made a major effort to not only express their concern for my daughter but additionally to keep me in the loop—to make me feel as though I were actually in Eilat and had actually competed myself.

Eilat 2010: A year has passed. My triathlon family has expanded tremendously. This year I arrived ready to go with two competing sons, (both in the mini-Sprint) a healthy daughter, a devoted husband and a whole group of encouraging friends.

We went to pick up our race numbers. My older son Noah, number 1, Daniel, number 2 and me? Supersonic 747!! What a fortuitous start!

 The day before the race I was terrified of the water temperature and to my great delight found it bearably chilly!!!! Nir took us out in the water on Thursday and pointed out the triangle between the Royal Beach and the Dan, that magic point to which we should aim on our swim back to shore. He walked us through the changing station. Nir, your preparation was EXCELLENT and made all of the difference. On competition day I felt as though I'd already done it!

But here the picture gets stickier. We all gathered in the auditorium for the official preparation talk and learned that the biking section was going to be much longer than expected: 26km!, due to the new highway dividers installed along Kvish HaArava. Well, I cursed my way out of the meeting. Biking really isn't my strong point and here they had gone and made it longer!

On to competition morning: My sons' start was 7:30 and as I waited with them on the beach one of them came to show me how he'd cut his foot, fairly badly, during the warm up. I knew it! Warming up is a BAD IDEA!!! Poor dear…so my mind really wasn't on myself…After all, I was here to be a mommy as well. But off they went…Noah came out of the water fairly early but yes, that big gaping cut did effect Daniel--he came out of the water much later than expected….

But I had to focus…they were on their way. Now it was my turn. First of all I have to say that the Start was BRUTAL and VIOLENT!!! Women are DEFINITELY the more aggressive sex!!! Chopping through those first few minutes was a nightmare and I was sure that I left a body behind with a very annoyed karate kick. I'd had enough of one woman grabbing onto my leg!!!  But there I was swimming along and feeling great, turned through the floats and THERE IT WAS!!! The TRIANGLE> Thank God for Nir I said to myself and off I went…BUT WAIT!!! I soon realized that no one was in front of me…I was heading to the WRONG triangle!!! I was heading towards the Hilton Hotel!! ON NO!!! I quickly veered to the right and swam even faster in order to get back into the stream…but HOW ANNOYING WAS THAT!!! (My husband said that on shore everyone wondered where the group that I was apparently leading…was going!!!). What can I say: Oops!!!

So, moving on to the biking: Can I just say that it was endless!!!! At one point the woman I kept on changing places with turned to me and said, we just passed 14.1km!! And we still hadn't come to the turning point…So for the record, I think we did something in the range of 29km! NIGHTMARE! Straight into the wind. And who said it was flat? What about that climb towards the checkpoint! UGH!!!! And let's not forget worrying about not drafting the whole time. And let's not forget that it's actually scary!!! One of the women ahead of me wiped out on the cobblestone circle before the descent by the airport road. For the record, the fact that you FLY back most of the way doesn't make up for how difficult it is to get to that turn around point. I told Nir that next year I'll be happy to pick up my bike at the 10km turnaround point, climb over the guardrail and be on my merry way back home!!

The run: Well, after all of the biking I have to say that it really wasn't that easy. There was plenty of water but I felt totally dehydrated and nothing that went in seemed to have any effect whatsoever…But here I had Nir and Tsafrir cheering me on. Asher Ben Gal was there as well. He's the one that brought my sons into this in 2005 so he's really responsible for me being here as well!

But again, where was that turnaround spot….and what an ugly trail! Hard to appreciate any of it…but then I passed my coaches at the last turn. Of course, in addition to cheering me on, they all had one hundred comments for me: To accelerate my pace, take larger steps, open my hands, pull down my shoulders! Phew! At this point I was so thirsty I didn't know how to process all of these comments but somehow I did them all….and I was heading down that hill, running under 5km, beginning to pass a few people. None of them were my age category so I didn't really care….I moved up a few more slots and made that U-turn for the finish. I heard my son Daniel yell SPRINT!!!! Took the last few runners but was an elbow behind the last woman. I passed the line…it was over. I tried to catch my breath…I had to sit down. Some nice tall man, who I guess had also just finished, made me sit down and brought me water. I must have looked WIPED OUT!  I glanced over at the leg of that runner who'd come in before me--A woman--Aged 49!!!

S*&T!!!! I'd let an old lady beat me!!!! By 1/4 of a second!!!! For the record when I told Nir this story he said that next time I should put the leg with the chip through first. Well, I think he's giving me a lot more credit for coordination of body and mind, under exhaustion, than would ever be due!  That's about as ridiculous as saying that I should put my shoes on while biking!!! I can just see me trying to process which leg has the chip and switching and falling before the finish!

And here were the boys….and I had to focus on them. And hear the whole story of how Rami ran with Daniel to the First Aid Team after the finish to bandage Daniel's, still bleeding, foot. How did he compete that way!! And hearing about how they finished, basically one after the other! And how well they'd done….and here I was, the mommy again…..And that was a good thing too. And I could enjoy their accomplishments and try to forget the fighting in the car that continued during the entire 5 hour trip down to Eiilat (and that which lay ahead on the way home….ugh!) And I could relax, drink drink drink and drink…Because that was something I definitely hadn't done enough of…and look forward to all of the stories to come….

Coda: And just for fun. My son Noah was honored to be part of the Doping Commission on Saturday. He was assigned an Elite Male and had to follow him around after the competition to make sure that he didn't go to the bathroom!!! They have a random urine check for doping after the ceremony. Anyway, he got to sit in the tent with the athletes at the finish, watch them pop the champagne…and guess who was his athelete…NUMBER ONE!! The French man: Roualt! So now he has a new friend for Facebook! Cool, right?

Pride of Place

Day to day life in Caesarea is changing as I type. The “Country” is now “Go Active”, Cluster 13 is now “The Golf Neighborhood” and the 25 kids-a-class at the Caesarea School, which accounted for much of its intimacy, have ballooned to an average of 35.

Nevertheless, today I participated in an event which managed to shake off the great disappointment I’ve recently felt over the loss of accountability which had, in earlier days, made Caesarea such a truly special place to live. Today the entire fourth grade class of the Caesarea School hosted its parallel grade from neighboring Jisr al Zarqa. This visit was part two of a new program intended to become a school tradition. Part one included a visit to Jisr by our fourth graders back in November. While I was unable to take part in that trip and cannot attest to its success (albeit I heard the meal offered by the parents there was extremely well prepared and delicious) I must share today’s experience.  The day started off with old-fashioned games:  groups of about 7 kids from Jisr mixed with 7 kids from Caesarea. This was followed by a tour of the Bird Mosaic replete with writing and crafts activities, a dance session in our covered sports court and finally, a buffet prepared by the Caesarea parents. 

(Actually dated to June, 2010)