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 TheTollRoads.com... TheTollRoads.com...241 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.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

50 for 50: 15 -- Go to a Con with Terry

Con going is actually one of the few things on my 50 for 50 list which is almost bucket-listy.  I can't say I've NEVER been to a Con before, but my Con going history stopped somewhere in the early 1990s (if I could find the T-shirt, I could pin that date down exactly), and I'm pretty sure the whole Con experience has changed dramatically in the intervening 20+ years.  So this is basically a new thing for me.

When I posed the possibility of going to the D23 Expo, Terry volunteered.  We bought tickets for just one day of the three-day All Things Disney fest -- sort of just dipping a toe in the D23 Experience -- rather than a full-scale dive.

And while most people we met there were friendly, a lot of the other attendees were, um, kinda Hard Cord Disnerds who didn't want to waste time with posers.  (Some folks were EXTREMELY committed to their cosplay.)

But let me back that monorail up and start at the beginning.

The beginning was buying the tickets when they went on sale last year.  The middle was when we later actually LEARNED stuff about the D23 Expo and started realizing that this was a super-crowded affair with plenty of lines and the only way you can end up actually seeing the panels that you want to see WITHOUT a massive wait is if you pay way more money (and get a time machine, because you need to have paid the way more money months ago).  The more we learned ... like that there are three speciality shops inside the convention hall selling cool Disney stuff and that THE SHOPS had three-to-four hour waits in previous years ... the more we thought we might be in over our heads.

But, the day arrived and we gamely started our trip to the Anaheim Convention Center.  The Con opened at 9:00 today.  We toyed with arriving at 9:00 too, but figured everyone would do that, so we figured we'd wait out the crowds and aim for something more 10ish.

"Wait out the crowds."  Ha!

We got to the Convention Center around 10 and were simultaneously hit with two signs that we maybe guessed wrong.  The first was the sign telling us to park over at the Honda Center because Convention Center parking was full.  The second was the long line of people.  The looooooong line of people.  Down the block.  Past the hotel.  And turning around and doubling all the way the back.  At 10.

By the time we got to the Honda Center, parked, and caught the shuttle back to the Convention Center, I could not actually tell you whether the line was longer or shorter.  There were two reasons for this.  The first was that they had decided to move the line from the sidewalk to a set of switchbacks they'd taped on the ground on the premises of the convention center itself (but still out in the hot son).  The second was that the D23 Employee helpfully holding the "End of Queue" sign was not, in fact, at the end of the queue, but rather surrounded by a mob of people.  We found her and asked where to join the line.  Since she was mid-line-move, the most she could say was, "You're fine right there," while crowds of people swirled around us -- either moving in their preset line patterns or, like us, slowly spinning around wondering where the hell we were supposed to go.  We eventually found some people who seemed to be near the end of the line, and stood behind them expectantly.

45 minutes later -- including one little line move in which we feared we were being either booted back on the street or (worse) aimed back toward the "End of Queue" lady -- and we made it into the air conditioned glory of the Convention Center.

Yay!  We made it.

We aim to go inside the actual Con, but are stopped by...

OK, I'm not sure whether this is a Good Idea or a Bad Idea, but it's a Damn Frustrating One for the rest of us.  There's a big hall where all the exciting panels are held at one end of the convention center.  They've decided to use ANOTHER big hall as a holding pen/waiting room for that hall.  And the holding pen hall is at the opposite end of the convention center.  So, when we finally get in the convention center, we can't actually get into the convention, because we're stopped by the parade of several thousand people being transferred from waiting room to big hall.

So THEN we get in.  And our first plan is to wait in another line.  Apparently, the four-hour-lines-for-shops thing last time was considered something of a fiasco, so the D23 people decide to create a "StorePass" -- you pick up a StorePass and this gets you in the store later in the day at a designated time.  Great!  Let's get those!

There's a long line.  The End of Queue person somehow sends us to the wrong line (WTF is wrong with these people?!  They have ONE JOB) but we come back and stand in the right one.  It looks to be about 45 minutes.

About 15 minutes in, they run out of passes for the store we want to get into.  (We later hear, from some pin-trading peeps who share our table at lunch, that they waited SIX HOURS to get into that store yesterday.  So, we're thinking maybe without StorePasses, we're just going to take a Pass on that Store.  We later see one of the OTHER stores -- the one we don't really want to go to anyway, has a standby wait time of over two hours.  Yeah, we're not seeing a lot of Disney shopping in our future today.)

We walk around a few of the NOT Disney-owned tables.  The standard con stuff where people sell their collectibles and memorabilia and licensed merchandise and stuff I'm sure isn't licensed (and don't entirely know how it got in there).  We see some dude selling framed posters and cels, and (I am not making this up) a framed square of carpet from Walt's office.  For $2000.  There is also a U.S. post office selling Disney Villain stamps.  There are something like 5 or 6 windows.  The line is longer than your regular post office on tax day.

We move into another section of the Con -- here's the rather more official stuff.  There's a HUGE Marvel area (many, many switchbacks -- there's something Avengersy going on, but apparently you had to get a wristband for it between 9:00 and 9:30.  I think back to the helpful couple we met when we walked in who said they were in line outside the Convention Center from 6:00 a.m. and didn't get in until after 9:30.  I imagine that if they were Marvel fans, they were pretty ticked).  There's a huge area showing off the model of the planned Star Wars land expansion -- the line to GET IN AND LOOK AT THE MODEL looks to be over an hour.

There's a ... thing.  A Pirates of the Caribbean thing.  It's walled off and you can't tell what's going on in there.  You can't tell if it's about the movies or the ride or a wench auction or ... I don't know, an upcoming video game?  It doesn't really say.  There's a line of people waiting for it in a huge set of switchbacks across the way.  We decide to ask them what they're waiting for.  They DON'T KNOW.  We randomly pull over two different guests at various points in the line, and they just say it's the Pirates thing.  We ask if they know what it is, but they don't.  I think about the stories I heard from Communist Russia -- where if you saw a line on the street, you'd just stand in it, on the theory that you needed whatever product they had at the front of it.  We did not join the line.  Wonder if it was toilet paper.

There was a "Lion King" thing -- they had VR Goggles (and headphones) and you sat down and saw about 90 seconds from "Circle of Life" which they'd recorded in 360 degree VR from the Broadway production.  The line for that looked to be less than 20 minutes, and I figured we should do it largely because WE HADN'T REALLY DONE SHIT and I was getting pretty annoyed.  At amusement parks, I think of the "line to ride" ratio -- how much fun do you get for how much time in line.  At this con, all we'd bloody DONE was wait in line, and I was wanting some fun, even if it was just 90 seconds of VR of a show I've seen live quite a few times.  We waited.  We VR'd.  We got little "Lion King" pins.  I felt a measure of victory, but the con still owed us a great deal more fun if they were going to be worth the wait of getting in.

BTW, here is my huuuuuge souvenir Lion King pin (next to a quarter for scale).

I demanded a photo.  Terry and I would, at the very least, have to get a good picture for my 50 for 50 collection.  There were lots of photo opps around the con -- props ("Lola" from "Agents of SHIELD") and promotional-type things (a Lego BB-8) -- but Terry and I eventually settled on this one.

I found its very existence kind of hilarious.  I mean, it isn't like it's THE ACTUAL BOAT from "Moana."  But we lined up for our photo op on the full-scale outrigger created to look exactly like the one from an animated movie because that's how we roll.

Somewhere in our adventures we had to stop walking entirely for the parade.  NOT the next parade of audience from the holding pen to the main hall, but an ACTUAL PARADE down the middle of the convention hall.  With balloons.  And dancers.  And guests standing about three-people deep on each side, all holding their cell phone in the air to catch a glimpse of what they couldn't see.  They had (allegedly) left a path BEHIND the parade-viewers for guests to squeeze past and just move through the convention hall, but someone about three people in front of us was using a wheelchair and unable to fit into the, oh, 12 or so inches we had to sidle through to get to the clearing on the other side.  So we weren't going anywhere, and while our single-file line of people stopped progressing, we stood there NOT watching the parade.  Dude in front of me got genuinely excited when the "grand marshal" came by, but as it was an actor I'd never heard of from a show I don't watch, I didn't feel bad that my only view of him was through someone's cell phone screen in the air.

(Earlier, Terry had glimpsed Jon Favreau being whisked through the crowds -- probably shuttling between something Lion King-y and something Marvel-y.  I toyed with yelling, "Hey!  Happy!  Why were such a dick to Spider-Man?" but he was already gone, and it probably would have been wrong anyway.)

We went back into the questionably-licensed merchandise.  I bought a crocheted tissue box cover with the SHIELD and Hydra logos on it (for the Geeky Guest Room!) and nearly bought a (totally licensed) "Deadpool" handbag.  Terry and I looked at a bunch of pins someone was selling, and I amused myself by asking for a pin which they knew existed, but had never owned -- a Chip & Dale eating apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah.  (I owned one at one time, but may have lost it during the burglary.)

We left.  The fact that we were leaving early dawned on me-- well, it dawned on Terry when we first drove up and saw the line around the building.  But it dawned on me when we sat down for a rest/snack at a table and sat there for over an hour talking about books we'd read.  And as I sucked back my overpriced Italian Ice and chatted about authors who had disappointed us, I started to think, "we could probably have this conversation someplace else."

As we got home, I told Terry I'd had fun and thanked him for joining me on this adventure.  And, we heartily agreed, we're never going back.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

50 for 50: 14 -- Berry Picking with Jacob (or: Sharon Eats Vegetables -- a photo essay)

(Apparently, I was so tired from zip-lining, I skipped right over "13" when captioning that last post.  Sigh.)

When I initially planned 50 for 50, I had pretty much two rules on it:  (1)  I come to you; and (2)  We pay for ourselves unless you say otherwise.  As I've started actually DOING 50 for 50, and getting people signed up for it, questions have arisen requiring new rules.  Like:  (3) more than one person can team up on a 50 for 50 thing, as long as both agree to it; and (4) additional bonus things are certainly encouraged and enjoyed, but, as far as the list itself goes, it's one per customer.

Somewhere in the twilight space between rules (3) and (4) comes the fact that a good deal of my friends are married ... to people who are also my friends.  Do married couples get two things?  Even if they want to share both things?  Um... why not?!  More fun for me!

Last week, I had the big party with the big calendar -- I invited a bunch of my local friends to come on over (with their calendars), pick an item off the list, and sign up for it on the giganto calendar.  My friends with kids brought their kids.

Leading to the hitherto unanswered question:  What about kids?

I hadn't really considered it, to be honest.  I mean, the 50 for 50 things I've done with various cousins have often included various cousins' kids -- and I have considered that to be one of the huge unexpected wonderful things to come out of the 50 for 50 experiment.  I mean, I haven't even MET many of my cousins' kids, and the ones that I do know, I pretty much only see at Bar Mitzvahs and other family events.  This has been an opportunity to get to see who they are outside the Family Function environment, and get to know a little bit of who they are.  So, yeah, sure, bring your kids, by all means.

It hadn't actually dawned on me that a kid would sign up for something until Jacob -- Peggy and Sabing's kid -- did.  He signed up for "Berry Picking," which is a perfectly normal thing for a ten-year-old to sign up for, and it totally makes sense that I kid I've known (and had fun with, and travelled with -- damn kid skis better than I do) for his whole life would sign up for an activity with me.  (Also totally makes sense that his folks would come along.)

SO.  Berry Picking.  

Tanaka Farms is a small family farm with a lot of educational programs located not quite outside civilization in Irvine.  We'd planned to go today, which was supposed to be the last week of "Strawberry tours," but they kinda ran out of strawberries (kinda -- more on this later), so we signed up for a "melon tour" instead.

$18, by the way.  Which sounded kind of steep, but, in retrospect, was well worth it.

We get to the farm and they're having a "corn festival."  It was small -- maybe ten booths selling stuff (including popcorn -- I impulse bought me some strawberry popcorn, which is delicious, even though Sabing thought it tasted like Frankenberries), and a corn-on-the-cob bar.  I almost bought a cob to snack on before the tour, but didn't.  This turned out to be wise.

The "melon tour" involves piling into a cart pulled by a trailer, and going for a short drive around the farm.  You stop for tastings of various vegetables -- they have coolers set up along the route, containing fresh (but already cleaned) produce.  They pass samples around the trailer (and you can just chuck the rinds, leaves, or whatever you don't want outside the trailer for composting purposes -- tossing the leftovers while you eat is actually a very freeing experience).  Before we started, our guide asked us to promise to be "brave tasters," and I figured that I had to be a brave little taster since there were kids around and I was trying to be a good example because I'm pretty sure that's what grown-ups do.  (Then again, I had "Berry Picking" on my list, so I'm not sure I'm super grown-up to start with.)

First stop was cilantro.

And cherry tomatoes.  (I still don't like tomatoes.  But I ate it.  At least they were tiny.)

Then there were green beans. 

And carrots.

(By which time, Peggy -- who was sitting across from me in the trailer -- said this whole thing was just going to be Pictures of Sharon Eating Vegetables.  Which seemed even more monumental than Sharon Having Two Drinks.)

The last stop was sweet corn.  Which was AWESOME.

The tour guide said this was the last tasting stop, and I thought maybe I'd dodged a bullet on squash and zucchini, but NO.  The last REAL stop was the melon tent.  They set up a big overhang in the middle of the farm, with a bunch of hay bales to sit on, and we all got out of the trailer and under the tent.  Then, our driver picked up the Biggest Damn Knife You've Ever Seen, and started cutting up fresh vegetables, which our guide put on plates and passed around for tasting.  Including the dreaded squash and zucchini.

I continued being a Good Little Taster.

I will reluctantly concede that fresh squash is inoffensive.  (Fresh zucchini tastes inoffensive, but lost me at the texture.)  We also got cucumbers which were super flavorful.

Then the melons.  OMG, the melons.  Orange honeydew; green honeydew; seeded red watermelon; seedless red watermelon--

and not little pieces, either.  Big wedges.  And they cut enough for seconds.  Sometimes thirds.  I was so full of melon (no photos, btw -- nobody needs photographic evidence of me slurping watermelon) that I was grateful I hadn't had any lunch.  My GOODNESS there was a lot of fruit.

They weren't done yet.  From the Saving The Best For Last department, they brought out yellow watermelon.  Seriously -- the flesh is yellow.  Bright yellow.  Piss yellow.  It's like God said, "I'm going to make this fruit the color of urine, but lo, for those brave enough to consume it, they will partake of the sweetest freakin' melon I have placed upon this earth.  For I haveth a sense of humor."  That was just crazy CRAZY good.  I had seconds.  I would have eaten more, but I was pretty full up on melon.

Then they lined us up and gave us parting gifts -- our very own seedless red watermelons to take home.  

We put our watermelons in the car and then came back for one last thing.

Behind the little produce market and before you get to the actual fields, they have about a dozen rows of strawberries, and you can get a little basket and do some pickin!  So me and Jacob got to pick berries after all!  Yay!!