Saturday, August 19, 2017

50 for 50: 19 - Kayaking with Laura

Laura, bless her, is largely what made me think the "50 for 50" could actually be accomplished.  I'm pretty sure Terry was the first one to actually agree to a thing, but when I threw the idea out there and Laura said she was up for kayaking, I thought, "yeah, maybe I actually CAN do this."

This 50 for 50 was accomplished in almost exactly 25 hours.

The clock started at 4:30 on Friday, when Laura picked me up from work, and we headed South for a quickie evening at Disneyland.  (To avoid getting stuck in Friday evening traffic all the way down to La Jolla.  Seriously.  That was my justification.  I'm sticking with it.)  We had both really wanted to check out the new "Guardians of the Galaxy" overlay to Tower of Terror, and I kept checking the wait time on the Disneyland app as we were driving down.  When she picked me up, it was under an hour.  As we neared the park, it was over two.  By the time we got ourselves there, parked, through security, and into the ol' Happiest Place on Earth, it had settled down to something like 90 minutes.  Armed with that data, our deep desire to ride the ride, our general understanding that Disneyland overstates line wait times, and a coupla hot dog platters for sustenance, we joined the queue.  We were pleasantly surprised by how fast the line actually moved, as well as all the cool stuff to look at.

And then we rode it, and it was awesome!

And then we rode the "Cars" cars ("Cars"-land is so beautiful at night!) and then we went over to Disneyland to see the fireworks (catching a bit of the Main Street Electrical Parade on the way) -- but it was too windy "at high altitudes" so they had to cancel the fireworks mid-show (although we did get to see Tinkerbell fly before they stopped, which was great, because who doesn't want to see Tink fly?), and then we got root beer floats, and then, and then...  (Geez, I really AM a 12-year-old with a credit card.)  Fortified by the sugar rush from the floats, we went back to the car and drove all the way down to La Jolla.

I'd booked a hotel on hotwire, and called the hotel to confirm we'd be there late.  I had guessed midnight.  We got there more like 12:30.  By the time we'd parked, found the Registration desk, pinged the little bell, and began check-in, it was pushing 1:00 a.m.  The nice man at the hotel upgraded us to the Executive Floor.  (Free breakfast!  Thanks, Christian!)

At some point during the day -- but not early enough to do anything about it, I realized I hadn't packed a toothbrush.  Christian said he'd send one up.  I waited a good 20 minutes, but then hung the "do not disturb" and crashed into bed, with great hopes of being visited by the Toothbrush Fairy overnight.

Six and a half hours later, I awoke refreshed and excited ... with my neurons firing enough for me to get creative with some floss picks and Q-Tips, as I was still toothbrushless.  A situation remedied by a nice lady from Housekeeping while Laura and I were enjoying our Executive Lounge free brekkie.  (I am grateful to the lady from Housekeeping for getting the toothbrush, because I partook of some lox and bagels at the breakfast, and I thought nobody -- except my cat -- really enjoys Salmon Breath.)

Having been alerted that parking at the kayaking place blows, we took a Lyft from the hotel.  And arrived at La Jolla Sea Cave Kayaks right on time.

On time to sign the waiver, on time to change into kayaky clothes, on time to snap a pic, and on time to lock the rest of our stuff in their lockers.  (Their lockers, btw, work on the principle that everyone is honest.  They give you a zip tie to use to lock your locker, and when you get back, they give you pliers to snap off the zip tie.  And everyone in your group is just passing around the pliers -- you just hand them off to the next guy and assume that he's using them on his own locker, rather than to steal someone else's junk.  And while you were off kayaking, you were assuming that nobody in the shop was snapping zip ties off and stealing stuff.  BASICALLY, the zip ties were there to keep your stuff safe in the unlikely event everyone in the shop went on break and a thief with zero tools happened by.  But, really, we were trusting this shop with out LIVES, so maybe we could also trust them with our mobiles.)

Then, our group and two guides walked over to the beach, had a brief lesson ("this is your kayak paddle; this is This Side Up on your kayak paddle"), and a brief safety briefing ("when I say face the wave, TURN INTO THE WAVE or you'll capsize"), and then loaded up the kayaks and started paddling out.  There were a few small waves we had to get by, but we'd been well schooled in how to deal (lean way back in the kayak so the weight is toward the back and the tip flies up harmlessly over the whitecap), and we got out in the water pretty good.  Laura and I were, at this point, trying to figure out a good rhythm for paddling together in our two-person kayak.  At times, I thought we were doing poorly and we were the last kayak to catch up with our group, but there was at least one single paddler out there who seemed totally, well, at sea with the whole thing.

We saw much pretty scenery and wildlife, and thank you, Laura, for bringing a waterproof digital camera, because my pictures on the little plastic thing probably won't get developed until ... hey, does anyone still develop film?

Here's us, btw.  I am fairly easy to spot as the idiot with the plastic, film camera uselessly hanging 'round my neck.

We did, actually, go into a cave.  The entrance was a bit choppy, but the nice folks from the kayak shop handled it quite safely -- they sent us in one (kayak) at a time, with one of our guides standing in the water outside the cave and physically pushing each kayak around the corner and through the difficult waves at the entrace.  Small cave, two sea lions inside.  No photos from there as we were focussing on following all safety instructions and getting out without ramming the kayaks (from other shops) coming in from the other direction and the nice snorkellers who were bobbing in the water nearby.

At one point in the tour ... somewhere between that photo at the actual cave, Laura and I got genuinely good at paddling together.  Had to use Much Less Force to get moving at a good clip.  It's all about the synchronicity, and when you get it down, it's really pretty nifty.  We started confidently passing some of the solo paddlers, and I even tried some (slightly more) challenging maneuvering moves, and Laura was right there with me.  Very cool.  After the caves, though, we kind of lost that, because I was starting to get tired (afterward, we were told we paddled for 3 miles) and started losing my form, such as it was.  When I commented on this to Laura, she said that she was still trying to match me stroke for stroke, and I had a good laugh on that.  (You ever watch synchronized diving at the Olympics and see some pair go off where one of them blows the dive so the other one tries to blow it too, so at least they are BOTH doing, like, zero somersaults?  Yeah, that's Laura matching me paddle out to the last buoy.)

We went back into shore one kayak at a time.  The dudes from the shop were pretty happy that they had only one capsize event on the way back in.  Remembering my eyeglasses lost at the bottom of the Pacific from that time, a few years back, when *I* was the one who capsized (in Santa Barbara), I had all kinds of sympathy.

And, after lunch, drove back to work.  Through it all, we talked politics and protest,  working at (and retiring from) the court, friends and family, and how stuff is GREAT but people are even BETTER.

Arriving back at 5:30 and wondering how the hell we'd fit all that in 25 hours.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

50 for 50: 18 - Day Spa With Alice

Some time ago, I had a bunch of friends over, told them to bring their calendars, set up a big calendar for my next year, posted a list of the unclaimed 50 for 50 things, and let the magic happen.  Alice signed up for "Day Spa" and chose today.

Turns out today was a really good choice.  Hadn't expected the white supremacists to have been marching in Charlottesville yesterday.  Hadn't expected the nation to be demanding the freakin' President of the United States denounce actual neo-Nazis.  Hadn't expected to be so disappointed in so many of my countrymen.  (I can say that I expected, as a general rule, to be pretty disappointed President Trump, but I hadn't thought -- I really, truly hadn't -- that the whole damn country would be looking expectantly to him to condemn something as indisputably condemnation-worthy as a white supremacist driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, and yet...)  Nutshell:  I am depressed by shit I can do nothing about, which threatens long-term peace of mind.  So escaping for a day of indulgence is a really good plan.

Alice and I didn't want to do a standard day spa thing -- where you go and get a massage and get a facial and meet when you're passing in the locker room.  We decided something a little more destinationy:  one Glen Ivy Hot Springs.

Glen Ivy is a bit crowded on a summer Sunday.  By the time we got there (just after 11), we had to park in the "additional parking."  Made our way to reception (after some guy did the mandatory bag check -- and confided that he isn't really security; he does massages later in the day) and checked in.  We got directions on which things to do when, stopped at their little Starbucks (tea!) and made our way to the locker room.

There are a certain amount of, er, out of date statements on the Glen Ivy website.  One of them is the bit where they "respectfully request that you leave all electronic devices turned off.  We encourage a digital detox while at Glen Ivy and therefore we do not provide WiFi."  Much later in the day, we learned that there's WiFi in the Starbucks.  AND we saw damn near everyone had their phones with them.  And, upon getting home, I noticed the map they'd handed me upon check-in encourages you "Instagram your Hot Springs pictures using the hashtag #GLENIVY."  So, "digital detox" my butt, basically.

BUT, we hadn't figured any of this out when we checked in.  So when we got to the locker room, we did the obligatory selfie ...

... and then locked our phones in our lockers.  (I love how Alice is doing the total selfie-model pose, whereas I look like I'm plotting something.)

Glen Ivy recommends a three-step process:  (1)  Mineral Baths (for to open pores); (2)  Club Mud (for to draw impurities out of your skin); and (3) The Grotto (for to moisturize). Honestly, I don't know if any of that shit WORKS, but it's an experience and it's fun, so I'm in.

The Mineral Baths are a few small pools -- really small pools (most of them take a max of two people, and there was a larger one you could cram about 15 into) which smell like sulfur and tarnish your silver jewelry.  All the two-person ones were taken, so we joined the group in the 15-people one.  They had air jets going, so sulfurous water was bubbling up all around us, and the whole experience was part soothing and part ... toxic cleanup site?

We did not spend long in the mineral baths.

We moved on to "Club Mud."

(Another lie on the Glen Ivy website is the suggestion to bring your own towel.  There's towels everywhere.  In fact, you have to toss your (locker room) towel upon entry to Club Mud and use a special Club Mud towel.  Because Mud.)

Club Mud is an area of the spa where there's a pool of (muddy) water and, on a stand in the center, a big ol' pile of red clay mud.  You go in the water to get yourself wet, and then slather on the mud.  Cover pretty much everything not covered by your swimsuit.  (I avoided my face, because of the specs, but, yeah, that's an option.)  They then have a nice warm room (but not as toasty as outside) where you can sit and wait for your mud to dry. At this point, I speculated that there's people in the Glen Ivy Executive Dining Room, watching us on a secret webcam, adjusting their monocles, and heartily laughing, "Can you believe we got them to PAY US to cover themselves in mud?!!"

Now, there is one special thing we got to take part in.  Usually, you just shower off the mud, but they were offering a little treat called "Sudsy Mud."  Sudsy Mud involved some guy (probably the same dude doing security checks when he's not doing this) spraying you with a high pressure hose blasting soap.  We watched Sudsy Mud guy blast two women before us, and, when he was done, NOW they were covered with Mud AND white foam.  I wasn't really sure WHAT was in that hose, but I imagined it was akin to the stuff in a fire extinguisher.  We HAD to do that.

I again regret that our phones were in the locker.  (We later noticed, when he was spraying the people after us, he had the hose in one hand and their camera in the other.)  So you're just going to have to imagine what we looked like.  Soggy.  Giggling.  Foam everywhere.  Mud underneath it.  Imagine a gentle, skin-friendly version of tarring and feathering.

The only thing for it are the Club Mud showers and, yes, the sudsy soap made the mud removal pretty easy.

We had some time before our Grotto reservations, so went back to the Starbucks (more tea!) and then off to the Grotto.

Well, no, wait.  Actually, I had to take a bathroom break.  (I mentioned all the tea, right?)  I was wearing a one-piece swimsuit, so using the bathroom required, well, taking the whole damn thing off, and resulted in me very nearly saying aloud, "Holy Hell, how did mud get THERE?!"  The entire front of my swimsuit is lined with white fabric, and quite a bit of the inside lining was now brown in color.  Lovely.  Good thing I'd followed the website's directions and brought a swimsuit I didn't care very much about at all.

The Grotto is an underground experience taking place in four rooms.  In room one, you stand in a little alcove while a woman with a paint brush paints you front and back (wherever your swimsuit isn't) with some green moisturizing body masque.  Then she has you hold out your hands and pours the rest of the bowl of goo out into them, telling you to apply it wherever you want (except your forehead, so it doesn't drip in your eyes).  Then you move into room two, a darkish, peaceful, warm place with benches, where you're supposed to sit for 10 minutes and continue to massage that crap into your person.

I said "benches."  I lied.  The theme of the Grotto is an underground cavern, so the benches are stone and rough-hewn to seem like stalagmites that have gotten out of hand and connected themselves.  The problem is that they are sloped downward toward the floor.  And the backs of your thighs, I might have mentioned, are covered in slippery goo.  I sat on one of the benches and gingerly put my feet up on it.  In what HAD to be a badly-thought-out move, while massaging the masque into my legs, I also took some of my leftover goop and massaged it into my feet.  The bottoms of my feet.  So we're here for another 10 minutes, and while I'm having a nice chat with Alice, part of my brain is flashing back to High School Physics, mentally drawing vectors of all the forces working on me -- the tilt of the bench, the lack of friction between my feet and the bench... and the odds of me staying on the bench seem so slim, I have a vision of the alternate universe where I slide off the bench and end up a green-goop covered puddle on the floor.

As time passes and staying seated seems to be winning the day, we decide to (gingerly) move on to the third room, which is showering the goo off.  (Alice holds the door open for me.  How the hell they expect ANYONE to hold the door handle, after having had goo poured in their hands, is beyond me.)  Sufficiently de-gooed (the mud had actually been easier to remove), we moved on to the last room:  tranquil rest area.  (Even more tea!  And apples!)  I quite liked the tranquil rest area.  It was tranquil.  (And restive.  And an area.)  But Glen Ivy was very busy that day; we couldn't even find two open deck chairs in Club Mud.  Here it was nice and cool and peaceful and uncrowded and QUIET.  And we talked.  About Charlottesville.  About what good people CAN do about it.  About what some people are doing already.  And there, in the tranquil rest area of the underground grotto, it didn't seem so insurmountable anymore.

Yeah, then we got massages.  Because, fuck it, it's a day spa.  :)

Before leaving, there was, of course, the obligatory shower.  Upon stripping off the swimsuit I discovered that the brown stains on the lining were now joined by greenish stains on the lining.  My God, this swimsuit looks like I had a food poisoning incident of epic, EXPLOSIVE proportions.  I feel kind of bad for my lousy Costco swimsuit -- I never intended it to live longer than this, but what a way to go.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

And that's about it for Israel

"Get to the airport three hours before your flight," they advise.


The first security check ("For what purpose did you visit Israel?  Did anyone give you any packages to take back?  You understand why I'm asking this, right?") went by fairly quickly, and the check-in desk for my flight was not yet open, so there was quite a bit of standing in front of the desk, watching the British Airways shift-change, and trying to look bored, but not annoyed.

(There was a flight leaving 2 hours before mine.  Those folks could get immediately checked in, as they had to run.  A group of about 7 rush the desk, desperate to check in.  There was bad news:  the flight had already closed; there was worse news:  they had bypassed the security check, so couldn't even be moved to the later flight until they'd gone back and cleared security.  I am watching this unfold.  A few minutes later, the person politely waiting in line behind me quietly asks, "Did you clear security?"  (Yes.)  "Where is it?")

So, after they allowed me check in, I cleared passport control (automated) and the usual metal detector/carry-on screening.  (Which did not seem nearly as intense as what the TSA does.  Either they don't give a damn what you take OUT of the country, or the promised "security measures you never see" are going on behind the scenes.)  Made a brief tour through the Duty Free and the Judaica store, and ended up in the British Airways lounge (to the left of what looked like a Chabad ... recruitment desk?  tefillin loan station?  Honestly, I didn't ask) where I am the ONLY person (in the lounge, that is).  Am enjoying the free tea (and wifi) but am truly wondering Where The Fuck Everyone Is.

Back to yesterday:  we drove into Jerusalem for a tour of the Israeli Supreme Court.  The building was genuinely lovely (aside to my co-workers:  the Reagan building should be ashamed of itself).

We also got an introduction to the Israeli court system in which my court does not exactly have a counterpart. (Non-lawyers can just skip the rest of this paragraph.) They got their magistrate's courts (for low-value civil matters and low-exposure crimes -- but not as low as what we did in muni court); then district courts above that (unlimited civil and higher-value crimes; also handles appeals from magistrate court -- seems very like our superior court); and the Supreme Court is right above THAT.  They're a 15-member court, but never sit all together -- they sit in panels ranging from 1 (seriously) to 13, depending on the significance of the case.  I imagine that in 3-judge panels handing appeals from district court, they're rather like our court, and in larger panels rather like our Supreme Court -- but where things really get wacky is that they have original jurisdiction over any matter in which an individual (or organization, read: ACLU-type) brings a complaint against a governmental entity believing their rights have been violated.  (I expect that's when they get single judge panels most often.)  I tried to picture what it would be like in the U.S. if supreme court justices had to hear every single action under 42 USC 1983, and my brain kind of exploded.  (And while, yeah, totally impractical in a country of our size, and they'd never get any other work done, one wonders if resolution of those cases DAILY wouldn't have a positive effect on the justices themselves, getting them out of the ivory tower and making them more aware of the problems of the little guys.)

(And we pause for more tea.)

After the court, we drove over to a market.  (Imagine what you think a street market in Jerusalem looks like.  It looks like that.)  We weren't really there for the market, but for a nearby restaurant.  We were eventually directed to the restaurant, but we deemed it too loud for our last lunch together -- we wouldn't have been able to have any conversation over the music.  We looked for another place -- but it was hot as fuck and we just needed a place with food and air conditioning and we weren't too picky.

We saw a likely candidate across the street and stepped inside.  Turns out about 90% of their menu was a Syrian-Kurdish meat pie thingy called Shamburak.  (I googled it.  I hit this article which is actually about the restaurant we ate at.)

When we'd finished, we decided we needed to top this off with baklava from the market.  We went back to the market and found a baklava guy.  (It is not difficult to find a baklava guy at the market.)  We bought a plate of several different types, and Baklava Guy sent us over to Coffee Guy, so we could have some hot beverages and sit in the shade while enjoying our baklava.

The Coffee Guy, btw, is NOT what you expect in a street market in Jerusalem.  Off one of the side passageways, his shop is PRISTINE.  Wood panels on the walls, different types of coffee lining the place, various grinders, coffee presses, an espresso machine ... whatever the fuck people use to make coffee.  I'm a tea girl myself, and dude was able to brew me up a nice cup of Assam with a splash of milk.  (His shop would be at home with the avocado-toast eaters in the upscale market in Tel Aviv.)

Despite the Britishness of my tea, this seemed the most Israeli thing we did -- it was also special in its way.  Crowded around a little table, surrounded by shops in the market overflowing with goods, chowing down on some heavenly baklava, and sipping our hot beverages of choice -- this was in some way the epitome of my experience of Israel this trip -- Old World Middle Eastern intersecting with New World Western, with a big dose of family love.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Actual Touristy Stuff in Israel

When my aunt first told me she would be taking me to the "Bullet Museum," I didn't entirely know what she meant.

Actually, I entirely DIDN'T KNOW what she meant.  Thought she was talking about some dude name Bullitt who'd founded a museum.  Eh, whatever.  I'm not doing anything else today.

Bullet Museum.  AKA Bullet Factory.  AKA Ayalon Institute.  

Oversimplified history lesson:  Israel declared its independence in 1948, in the midst of, well, let's just say "tensions" with the Arab world.  There followed what Israelis refer to as their War of Independence (although Wikipedia would rather call it The 1948 Arab-Israeli War). 

Now, it's pretty obvious that militaries going to war need bullets, but when the British were controlling the place prior to independence, they prohibited the future-Israelis from owning guns or gun-making equipment.  Now, the folks who would eventually become Israel saw this as problematic, seeing full-blown war with the Arab world as somewhat inevitable.  So they needed a way to stockpile bullets without the British knowing it was happening.

Enter, in 1945, a clandestine, quite-literally-underground bullet factory.  Using equipment smuggled into the country in the 1930s (and hidden away for this eventuality).  The damn thing was built UNDER a Kibbutz, which served as a front for it (although about one-third of the Kibbutz population -- the ones who weren't actually working in the underground bullet factory -- did not know it was there).

About the size of a tennis court, made of reinforced concrete, totally underground -- with entrances hiding under the kibbutz bakery oven (to get the heavy equipment down there) and the kibbutz laundry (for the 45 workers).  It had all the risks of accidental explosion that come with any bullet factory, plus all the risks of arrest and punishment (including death) if caught making ammunition under the noses of the British, AND the added fun of spending 10 hours per day underground in a sunless bunker, with no A/C, incredibly loud machines, and breathing the chemical byproducts of bullet manufacture.

The tour starts with a short film.  Then you go into the laundry room and learn about how the kibbutz laundry ladies were so GOOD at doing laundry (as a cover) they actually ended up getting the cleaning business of some British soldiers.  Then your tour guide moves aside the (1940s era) commercial washing machine, revealing the ladder downstairs to where Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are mixing up the good stuff.

(I kid.)

Then you go into the bakery where they've (permanently) moved the oven aside and (bless 'em) added stairs, so you can make it down there in a somewhat more civilized manner.  And it's a bullet factory, with a row of the necessary machines side by side.

Even has its own indoor firing range for quality control.

I found the whole thing spectacularly interesting.  Even more that they had the plans ready for this thing (and the equipment in hand) as early as 1938 -- even though they didn't set about to build it until 1945 (when it only took a few weeks from groundbreaking to ready for business).  The foresight involved in this project, and how critical it was to surviving the early days of the war of independence, was truly impressive.

Now, my aunt had offered to take me to some other museums to see art and stuff, but, after years of museum-going, I've finally gotten it through my head that while, yes, there is SOME art which I quite like, I generally prefer artifacts to art.  Antiquities, especially.  So she changed plans somewhat and we next went to the Musuem Eretz Yisrael, which had all kinds of artifacts -- a room of just pottery, a room of just glass, one of copper, and so on.  (Also some more modern stuff -- an exhibit of art all made of paper by current Israeli artists.)  Very cool.  I particularly dug the pottery exhibit.  Mostly because with one tiny little display, it totally blew my mind on my (supposed) liberal college education.  

See, I took Art History 1A and 1B -- your standard History of Art survey course.  And it started with proto-geometric pot painting in Greece, and moved its way into a TON of pot-painting.  Proto-geometric, geometric, the occasional figure ... blink for a few hundred years and they're painting complex scenes of gods and goddesses in three colors on a curved surface.  And from Greek to Roman, and pots to walls.  And you think:  that's how it PROGRESSED.  You could draw a straight line from the proto-geometic stuff through the peak of pot-painting and, taken out far enough, that line would go right through the Renaissance.  And the line wouldn't be WRONG, exactly, either.

But.  In the museum's pottery room there was also some VERY EARLY pot painting from Kenya.  And when they started off in Kenya, they used a different style and different tools with their early geometric ceramic art, and I'm standing there in the middle of a museum in Tel Aviv faced with perfectly good evidence that the "History of Art" that I was taught was really just the "History of Western Art as We Know It" and there's whole other lines of art which didn't just MAGICALLY APPEAR in the 1980s when we started recognizing that African culture existed -- and, really, why did nobody bother to even mention, "Meanwhile, in Eastern Africa,..." every so often in Art History 1A?

After a stop in the museum gift shop (where I did not purchase the $350 Seder Plate because IT WAS $350 and also, I don't make Seders), we headed off to dinner in another section of Tel Aviv -- Sarona.

This is getting super long, so I'm just going to cut to the chase here:  Assuming you changed the language, you could plop Sarona down in any perfectly good First World Western Country and Millenials (or, at least, the ones with good jobs and disposable incomes) would flock to it.  People who shop at Whole Foods and eat avocado toast -- THOSE people would be totally happy at Sarona.  Our restaurant was "Farm to Table" and had Vegan options.  Put unusual things in the desserts.  (Our chocolate dessert had olive oil and sea salt, and a caramel mousse on the side and some sweet sesame thing on the other side.)  Also was pricey and EXTREMELY tasty.  I was not expecting to find this in Tel Aviv.  It was also not kosher.  I had pork.  Really, really good pork.

This was not the Israel I knew from 20 years ago.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Um, 51 for 50: 17 -- Stuff in Israel?

I clearly have a problem here.  When I set up the 50 for 50 plan, I didn't think I'd be going to Israel now.  And when we planned this trip, I hadn't actually thought I'd be able to squeeze in any 50 for 50-type activities.  Resulting in me never actually pitching the plan to my relatives here.  (I believe the very first thing I posted about it said:  Offer valid in U.S. only.)  Yeah, well, best laid plans.  Nobody here got dibs; nearly everything on the list has been claimed; and I get a day like today which is so solidly within the SPIRIT of 50 for 50 -- if not the rules I've set for myself -- that I'm just going to have to quietly strike something from the not-yet-done list and come up with something to call today and then happily cross it off.  It's a little late right now (and we're eating into sleeping time), so I'm just going to write this up now, and we'll deal with the Administrative Intricacies at a later date.

The logistics alone involved in today are really quite impressive.  I'm staying in a hotel in Ashkelon (read, for those unfamiliar with Israeli geography:  resort town on the Mediterranean).  My aunt and uncle live in a moshav (communal farm, not quite as communistic as a kibbutz) in the Negev (desert, south of here).  I can actually describe the distance quite easily -- Ashkelon is pretty much due North of the Gaza Strip; whereas, the other day, my uncle took me sightseeing from the Moshav, and we went down the road a bit to see the Southern border with Gaza (also, the wall separating Israel from Egypt).  So, this morning, my cousins Bentze and Elaine drove here from the moshav; picked me up; and we drove to an archeological site of a rather impressive synagogue from the Byzantine era.  (Maon Synagogue), where my aunt and uncle met us.  Actually, I don't know how impress the synagogue WAS, but as a ruin, it has a very spiffily-preserved mosaic floor, which we got a good look at.

Then my uncle led us around the area, showing us sights like the new high school for local moshav and kibbutz children.  Normally, I don't think of a high school as a tourist attraction, but this was very interesting due to the safety and security measures.  Protective perimeter fence; bullet-proof glass windows; heavy-protective roof; bomb shelters at every school bus bay....  You can't help but think about what it must be like to live in a place where the threat of war is so high these measures are necessary in all newly-built schools.  You may even think that it might be better for Palestinians and Israelis if they made a lasting peace which enabled them to invest school security money in improving the futures of ALL their kids.

Then we had lunch.  Also chocolates.

I pause at the memory of the chocolates.  Dude.  80%.

My uncle then took their car back to the moshav while my aunt joined me in Bentze & Elaine's car and tooled down to Be'er Sheva (largest City in the Negev, inland).  We wandered the city a bit and then did ... an Escape Room!  (Hee!)

They'd never done one before, but were (perhaps) persuaded by my enthusiasm.  Dungeon-themed room.  Pretty straightforward, but we needed some hints to escape.  To be honest, though, there were three technical malfunctions we also needed advice on.  (On one puzzle, we did what we thought was the puzzle solution, and nothing happened.  So we started rethinking whether there wasn't another solution we hadn't thought of, when the Voice of God came from above and said, "Try what you did before again."  But I think my favorite was when we called on the intercom to complain that a key wasn't turning a lock, and after we said we'd tried it for five minutes, the Hand of God opened the door to the whole room and threw a replacement key on the floor.)  I quite enjoyed the room -- it started with the four of us split up, but to get back together, there was a puzzle we had to work from both sides of our door -- real mandatory teamwork stuff.  Awesome.  All four of us contributed to getting out of the room, and I always like it when that happens.

Now, I've got another cousin that lives in Be'er Sheva, and he's got some little kids.  We dropped my aunt off at his house to watch the kids, so he was free for dinner.  And then ANOTHER one of my cousins drove in from the moshav (she could then drive my aunt/her mom back home after dinner) and the fourth drove in from Jerusalem, and we'd suddenly managed to get ALL FOUR of my Israeli cousins, plus two spouses, to dinner with me!

That.  That right there, man.  Me with cousin Bentze and cousin-in-law Elaine standing up; bottom row is Cousin Zev, cousin-in-law Yoram, cousin Tzipi, and cousin Rami.  The large empty plates in front of us are three desserts which were even-better-attacked than the Escape Room.  That's a 50 for 50 thing, somehow.  Watching the four siblings interact (with the in-laws added in there), chatting about travel and parents and kids (and Marvel movies, again).  They're good peeps, and it was amazing to be able to check-in with them without 150 other people around like at the Bar Mitzvah last night.  I'm beyond grateful that they all hauled in from all parts of the country, so we could make that happen.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

On Israel

I haven't written anything about Israel since I've gotten here.  This is mostly due to the fact that I've been wiped out, but also because I never really know what to say about Israel.  It's an odd place for me to visit.

There are some Jews who get off the plane in Israel and think, "I'm home."  I get off the plane and think, "That sign is in Hebrew; which way for international passport holders to clear Immigration?"

It isn't that I'm one of those Americans Abroad who expects the rest of the planet to speak English for them.  It's just that I *like* being independent and self-sufficient wherever I am, and, in Israel, the language barrier means that I either rely on someone to translate or am left missing a good 95% of what's going on.  I do not think, "I'm home."  I think, "I am an outsider."

But what makes Israel different from any other foreign country on the planet (with one small asterisk), is that it's the only country outside the U.S. where I actually have family.  My father's brother moved out here, with his family, when I was just a little kid.  That family has now grown to:  my aunt and uncle; four of my cousins (plus three cousins-in-law); and seven first-cousins-once-removed.  That's a lot of people I'm related to.  And nearly all of them live here.  (The aforementioned asterisk is that one cousin + wife just left Australia for a somewhat nomadic existence.)  Heck, my grandmother even moved out here, a couple months before she passed.

So, when I come to this place... this very politically-charged place... this astonishingly religiously relevant place... this place where I don't speak the language... this place where religious extremists of My Own Damn Faith have a home... this place where my hotel casually mentions its bomb shelter... this place where cutting edge farming innovations coax food out of the desert... this place of mind-blowing history... this place of seriously tasty kebabs...

... I push all of that aside (except maybe the bit about the kebabs), because, above all, this is the place where a big chunk of my family lives.  And I came here to see them.

There will be some touristing over the next few days.  So far, mostly, I've hung out at my aunt and uncle's house on a moshav, attended my cousin's kid's Bar Mitzvah, and basically reconnected with cousins I haven't seen for anything ranging from about a year to very near 20 years (based on when they've last made it to my part of the planet).  I met a handful of the first-cousins-once-removed for the first time.  Even the ones I'd met once before were met seven years ago, which isn't all that much time from my point of view, but when the eldest was, like, TEN, then, seven years is HUGE.  She's, like, a grown-up person now, and I'd pretty much missed it entirely.

So that's why I'm here.  To tease a Republican cousin about how that possibly could have happened growing up in his liberal home.  To argue the relative merits of "Wonder Woman" and "Spider-Man" with my peers.  To enjoy that surprisingly tasty mango-flavored dessert thing my cousin's kid whipped up.  To make silly faces at one of the two-year-olds from across the table and try to get a giggle.  To give the Bar Mitzvah Boy a tangible gift, so that maybe, when he uses it, he'll remember he's got a distant cousin off in California who cares about him.  To put a stone on my grandmother's grave.

Monday, July 17, 2017

50 for 50: 16 -- Hot Air Ballooning with Sam

Once Jacob signed up for Berry Picking, I realized that Alice and Daryl's kid, Sam, could also sign up for a 50 for 50 activity.  He seemed pretty excited about the idea of Hot Air Ballooning, and his dad signed him up.  (Alice would not be going with us as heights aren't her thing.  But Daryl's mom was planning a visit which coincided with Sam's 5th birthday, and Daryl thought they might be able to work it so she could come, too.)

Which is why the day after D23 with Terry, I found myself driving down to Encinitas (which is in North San Diego County).  The drive was largely boring, although I kinda freaked out when I saw Google Maps was taking me on the toll roads and I don't have one those FasTrak transponder thingies.  But the sign said I could make a one-time payment on their website, as long as I did it five days.  (There followed about twenty minutes of me mentally repeating to 133... 241 to 133.  And, in fact, it wasn't until just now that I remembered to pay them.  And I'm about 80% certain I properly told it my route.)  The drive got even more exciting near the end.  I'd vaguely looked ahead on Google Maps, and knew that there were about two turns I'd have to make once I got off the freeway to get to the balloon place.  But, right when I got off the freeway, Google Maps ended and asked if I was happy with my navigation.  No!  I'm not happy!  I'm not there yet!  What the hell do I do at the end of this offramp?

Make a wrong turn is what I did.  Until I got far enough way that Google Maps was able to create a route for me on surface roads.  So I follow my new and improved route ... which ends me pretty near the freeway at ... absolutely nothing?  I mean, there's this Park 'N' Ride lot, but Google Maps has the balloon place right after that and there is nothing there; just the chain link fence separating the sidewalk from the side of the freeway.  I circle around a few times.  I get gas.  I see if Waze is smarter than Google Maps on this.  I finally just park in the Park 'N' Ride, and call the balloon place to see if, in fact, their meeting place IS the Park 'N' Ride lot, and there's no actual office I should be looking for.  I confirm that this is the case.  I also confirm that the restroom for our use is at the gas station.  And that the nearest Starbucks is back down the road I'd made the wrong turn on.  So I go to Starbucks, get a beverage, use their probably-better-than-a-gas-station restroom, and head back (for, like, the third time) to the Park 'N' Ride lot.

Daryl, Sam, and Daryl's mom show up, shortly followed by the balloon people and the other four passengers.  There was a big guy with tattoos on his arms, and his girlfriend/wife/I didn't ask -- they were friendly enough when directly brought into conversation, but otherwise kept to themselves.  And there was a couple from Canada whose son had gifted them the balloon ride.  (More on them later.)  We were told the balloon basket had three compartments -- one for the pilot and two four-person passenger zones.  So the four of us would take one compartment, and the two couples would get friendly in their compartment.  OK.

We drive out to the balloon take-off area.  This wouldn't be notable except one of the balloon guys was questioning Canadian dude about the Canadian government.  For the duration of the ride.  ("Do you have a President?" "How does a Prime Minister get elected?" "Does you guys have, like, a Prince or something?")  Canadian Guy answered every question totally patiently; I wondered if he gets this regularly in the States.  I was sorta growing impatient during the van ride, but Canadian Guy (correctly) approached this with an attitude of "Hey, anytime someone wants to be less ignorant, it's a good thing."  And it isn't like balloon guy was completely on top of American government either.  ("So, the prime minister can't just declare war like our president can?")

Canadian Political lesson ended and we got to the lot.  There were three other balloons there, all unrolled in the lot, awaiting inflation and takeoff.
Even though we were the fourth balloon there, we were the first ones off.  After the Safety Briefing where I was a total smartass.  (Pilot:  As soon as the basket goes vertical, I want you to get into the balloon.  Don't stand around waiting; just climb onboard.  OK, test: as soon as the basket goes vertical, you...?  Me:  We all rush to the balloon and jump in!  Pushing people out of the way!  Climbing over bodies!  Pilot:  OK, now we don't want that happening either.  What did you say, climbing something?  Me:  [looking down]  climbing... over... bodies?)

So, we climbed in the balloon at a reasonable pace where nobody got injured, and the guys who didn't know shit about our neighbor to the North came around the basket snapping picks with everyone's camera for them.
And they released the lines and we were off!  Nice and smooth and riding the currents up over some crazy expensive houses.  We waved at some folks in their swimming pool.  (We also waved at the folks in the other balloons.  And some dude in a powered paraglider.  Basically, we waved a lot.  We're in a balloon!)

The flight is not bumpy at all.  Indeed, as the pilot pointed out, you don't even feel the wind, because you're pretty much moving with it.  It's a very quiet calm ride, and isn't scary at all.

Excepting when we, er, parked.  Experience in airplanes tells your body that you can continue flying in the air as long as you're MOVING, but if you stop, you're going to drop like Wile E. Coyote having just discovered he's run out of cliff.  Now, when the balloon stops, there's SCIENCE holding you in place.  (Some sort of equilibrium between the force of the hot air on the inside of the balloon against gravity.  I don't know what's going on exactly, but I'm pretty sure I drew it out with vectors in High School Physics.)  Our pilot kept throwing a little flame in there any time we needed it to maintain height, but we pretty much just sat at 3000 feet, just above the clouds, and admired the view.

Sam, as befits a five-year-old, was alternating between being bored and saying this was the best day ever.  I particular liked the time when he started yelling, "Mom!" as though she could hear him from 3000 feet up (and about 15 miles away).  (And then "Alice!" because, clearly, he didn't need a response from all Moms in a 15-mile radius.)

During the ride, our pilot kept talking with the chase team on the walkie, trying to plan the location of our landing.  It was not going well.  He'd named a general area, and then we heard him say things like, "the large rectangular field after the white fence."  And then the chase crew responded, and he'd say, "it's a field that looks like a large rectangle."  I questioned if maybe this was a new chase crew.

Since the crew couldn't quite place the rectangular field, we landed in a tiny little valley off an access road (which they COULD place).  The landing was a little bumpy.  Our pilot (who had not shown a massive sense of humor to this point) came up with, "Don't worry; those rocks will break our fall."  We bounced on the rocks a couple times, but ended up nicely landed ON the access road.  Which made loading the balloon and basket back on the trailer a lot easier.  The guys did the loading (after deflating the balloon -- which first covered the entire basket while we were still in it -- and totally reminded me of when we were in kindergarten and played under a giant parachute.  

The pilot opened the Traditional Balloon Champagne (and offered to mix it with the Not Very Traditional Sprite) and we enjoyed our beverages (I had about a half cup of Champagne/Sprite, and two cups of water) while the crew rolled up the balloon.  We drove back to the Park 'N' Ride, where it dawned on me that maybe I shouldn't have had all that water because the Gas Station Bathroom seemed Even Less Appetizing after dark.

I drove those 110 miles home very quickly indeed.