1.28.12

Sunrise, as seen from my kitchen window:



Songs I'm into lately:

1. Motive - Nobody Eats My Dinner
2. Mike Del Rio - Feel Good
3. Rhett Miller - Cynthia Mask
4. Matt Pryor - Freakish
5. City and Colour - The Girl
6. Psychic Friend - Once A Servant
7. British Sea Power - Waving Flags
8. Bombay Bicycle Club - Always Like This
9. Grafiti6 - Stare Into The Sun
10. Friday Sundemo - Drops

israel: people

I don't know that I'll ever get over my nervousness, when it comes to photographing strangers in a foreign country. I had a bad experience in Ireland, where I inadvertently terrorized a teenage girl by taking her picture. In my defense, the shot would have been amazing: she was in a full Catholic school-girl ensemble, leaning against the doorway of a pub, one knee bent jauntily. She was beautiful. And she licking an ice-cream cone. But there must have been a miscommunication when I asked her permission, because as I started to frame the shot, she gave me a horrified, bewildered look and shot off. I think I was actually more traumatized than her. I just stood there frozen, my cheeks blazing, feeling like an idiot.

Ever since then, I'm scared of being intrusive, of offending or annoying with unwelcome attention. But as hard as it can be for me to summon the courage to photograph people I don't know in a place I've never been, I do it, because it's worth the occasional awkwardness. When I revisit my travel photos, it's the ones of people that I appreciate most. They're more evocative to me of the experience, more representative of a country than its monuments, or its landscape, or its food. They conjure moments that I remember vividly: my bumbling attempt to speak a stranger's language is met graciously, and I'm granted a few seconds of someone's time - maybe even a smile. Or, the exchange is wordless: I raise my eyebrows inquiringly, and lift my camera slightly. May I? A solemn, almost imperceptible nod in reply. Click-click-click! I check my camera's LCD and look up with a smile: Thank you. I give a thumbs up: I got it.

An exchange of humanity and kindness, in the time it takes the shutter to close.

One of first things I started doing a few years ago is asking, when I arrive in a foreign country, how to say Do you mind if I take your picture? in the local language. But when I asked Ezra, our Israeli guide, to teach me the correct words in Hebrew, he shook his head. "No, no," he said. "Just take the picture. Don't ask. If they get upset, say I'm sorry, leave them alone, whatever, but don't ask. Never ask."

It wasn't long before I understood why asking wasn't a good idea, particularly in Jerusalem. Every single Orthodox Jew that caught me training my lens on him turned away abruptly, or touched his hat to block his faces, like this:



The first couple of times it happened, I was mortified and felt awful. But I figured they were just generally camera shy individuals. No. It's a cultural thing. Portraiture is not welcome in the Old City, and I received a few sharp looks that told me exactly where I could stick my $800 lens.

But while it was discouraging at first, it ended up making for a fun challenge. And it was better this way. I wouldn't expect such sober-minded men to mug cheerfully for me. That would be out of character, unrepresentative, phony. Capturing people in their element, wearing natural expressions as they go about their business - as long as the shot comes out crisp and clear, these, too, are photographic victories. Provided, of course, no one is bothered or offended in the process. And no one was, as far as I know. I got very good at being quick and discreet. I'd find a location with a lot of traffic, frame and focus the shot in advance, then lie in wait for (what I considered) a picturesque composition.







Jerusalem, quite obviously, is an extremely holy place. People come from all over the world to pray there, to press their supplicating hands against the Wailing Wall, and wedge slips of paper into its cracks. Presumably, these notes are filled with their most private and precious hopes and prayers, thought out possibly years in advance of this moment, this opportunity to feel as spiritually fulfilled as possible.

In such a setting, it's hard not to feel a little...boorish, when you want to take their photo.

I didn't stay near the wall very long, for this reason. I tried to make it a surgical strike. I stood back, outside the entrance area, taking it all in for a few minutes and just watching. Listening to the Islamic prayer, broadcast to all the city from a few hundred feet away, haunting and lovely. Then I quickly and quietly approached the wall, snapped what I hoped would be some good shots of the women around me, and backed out again (it's considered disrespectful to turn your back on the wall).





Then I realized that I wouldn't be able to get shots of the men unless I went back to the wall and pretty much dangled my camera over the division (the men's and women's praying areas are separated by a five foot wall). I walked back down and stood on my tippy-toes, peering over as best I could.



You could easily spend days just wandering around the Old City. The winding alleyways and cobblestone corridors are filled with shops, temples, churches, schools. School children play in courtyards, or troop down the street in excited, laughing clusters.





I was completely captivated by these young men. They struck me as the Jerusalem equivalent of the Superbad gang, and I wondered what their experience of adolescence was like:




Outside the city gates, a group of little boys stood waiting with their rabbi for a bus:





Security around the Old City is, understandably, tight. It's pretty surreal to be there and realize you're in the most hotly contested real estate in the world: all three Abrahamic religions stake a claim to the ground you're walking around on - and the stakes couldn't be higher. I overheard someone say at one point, "World War III will be launched over this land right here." Sadly, he was probably right.

There are heavily armed guards at all of the city's entrance gates:



Israel practices military conscription - there's a mandatory two and three year enlistment period for women and men, respectively. All 18 year-olds must serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, though are some exceptions (including Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs). Interesting facts: Israel is one of 24 countries that allow openly gay individuals to serve in the military. It's also the only country in the world that requires deaf people to serve (in non-combat capacity). Women are allowed to pursue any position that men may, including combat. The only stipulation is that if the position requires advanced training, her two-year enlistment may have to be extended to three.




I will cop to fully flirting, to get this pic:



To their credit, these groups of soldiers - teenagers, largely - were quite focused on their duties. I had to work pretty darn hard to get any of them to break the fourth wall and look my way.



After serving their two or three year commitment, most Israelis - now about 20 or 21 years old - take a full year or more to travel internationally, before heading to university. This is considered a sort of "decompression" period, after their time in action. When you consider that Israel constantly faces threats from both without and within its borders, and that, no, these kids aren't pulling some cushy reserve time, you can understand how necessary this break is. Indeed, up in the Golan Heights we watched some training exercises with kids - again, eighteen and nineteen year olds - practicing formations with tanks and full artillery.

So it isn't until Israelis are 22 or 23 that they enter college. The age difference in itself is an interesting disparity, when compared to American kids. Now, think about what it is they've been doing for the few years prior: serving active military duty and traveling the world. These young men and women have now seen and experienced things that most grown adults stateside haven't. They're vastly more mature and more...sobered by their experience of life, by the time they pursue higher education. Their world view has been informed and expanded in a way that the typical 23 year-old American's, arguably, has not.




Juice carts are all over the place in the cities. Ten shekels (about $3) for a cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate or grapefruit juice.



Dried fruit is also a popular street food. In the Old City, I bought a package of dried, sugared strawberries to share some of the group. They were gone in ten minutes.



This guy chatted me up outside the food court at Masada:



And this guy caught me trying to get a shot of he and his friend rigging up a boat, in Tel Aviv:



Some muslim men outside a mosque in Bethelem:




These kids were such little hams. A few of them walked by with arms linked chummily, but when I whipped out my camera to snap a shot, another half-dozen appeared out of nowhere, loathe to be left out:

theme for a late winter fling

summer

Moving day, and two of my friends are helping me schlepp stuff two blocks over from my old place into the new one. We're in the lobby of my new building, waiting for the elevator, loaded down with boxes and bins. I'm exhausted but excited. Ding! The elevator doors open, and a dark-haired young man steps out. He's wearing a t-shirt and jeans, both of which look expensive and fit him well. He's tall and lean but well muscled, with broad shoulders and a model's features: symmetrical face, strong jaw, full lips. He's easily ten years younger than me. My girlfriend, who's older than I am, shoots me a look as he walks by: Yum. I crack a joke about already liking the new place and am gently chastised. For one thing, I'm already seeing someone. For another, I'm not supposed to be looking at, talking to, or otherwise engaging any boys. I am in the midst of a divorce.

---

At the park, and he's walking his dog near where I'm walking mine. I notice that he has excellent posture. He looks over and says hello in a cheerful tone. His smile is expansive and genuine. Good god, I think. He really is handsome. His dog is a breed I don't particularly like, but I call out anyway, "Cool dog." "Thanks," he replies. "He takes after me." I'm struck speechless by this unexpected bit of goofiness. It's LA, after all. Be cool or die. I can't think of what to say back, so I just smile and steer Chaucer past.

---

Late at night, in my building. I'm taking a load of laundry to the machines on the top floor, having lost all patience with the impossibly slow washer/dryer combo in my unit. I'm a hot mess: tank top, sweats, no bra or makeup, unbrushed hair. The elevator doors open to let me out, and he's standing there. "Oh!" I say, flustered. "Hi there." I silently curse my sloppiness. We step past one another. As I'm walking down the hall, he calls out from inside the elevator, in a slightly too-loud voice: "Where's your smile?" I turn and look back, unsure that I've heard him correctly. He's grinning, looking sheepish and silly and happily self-conscious. It occurs to me he's likely drunk or high or both. "It's so cute," he says more quietly, just before the doors shut. I stand there for a few seconds, blinking, utterly nonplussed. I vow to never leave my apartment without lip gloss again.

---

The sidewalk outside my building. I'm heading to dinner with the man I'm dating, who has his arm around my shoulders. He's walking towards us on the sidewalk, carrying grocery bags. As we pass, I meet his gaze. He glances at my date and back at me, then looks away.

fall

The park again, at the informally designated hour for dog socialization and play. He and his dog join the group. Chaucer, who's been chasing a Jack Russell, breaks off from playing to greet them. It's the first time our dogs have actually met, and after a moment's consideration, Chaucer decides he's none too impressed. The feeling, apparently, is mutual, and before either of us know what's happening, there's snapping and lunging and barking and mayhem. We get them apart. I'm mortified and apologetic. He's polite but seems kind of annoyed and pissed. I drag Chaucer off. "Thank you," I say to Chaucer as we walk home. "I really appreciate the cock blocking you did back there." He trots happily alongside of me, wagging his tail and panting. He glances up at me in response. No problem, his look seems to say.

---

The building lobby, in the late afternoon. We're both walking our dogs. They're returning home; we're leaving. I yank Chaucer out of the way, scared of another scuffle. "No, no," he says. "Let's let them try again." I hesitantly agree, and let out the slack on Chaucer's leash. There's a second or two of calm sniffing, and then it's tooth and nail and chaos again. After we break them up, we each try to put the blame for the fight on our own dog. He says something about his having rescue issues, while I explain that mine has a newfound intolerance for anything more threatening than a shih tzu. This is the first time we've exchanged more than a few words, and I detect a mild New York accent. Once Chaucer and I are alone outside, I remind him what an asshole he is. The characterization doesn't seem to bother him.

winter

Late night on a weekend, in the lobby of my building. I'm waiting for the elevator, which has been slow all day. He walks in the front door, says hello, and positions himself in front of the other elevator. He glances over at me, then up at the floor indicator above my elevator, then at the indicator above his own. "I'm going to win," he says. I'm tipsy from being out all night. I look over and narrow my eyes meaningfully: challenge accepted. A few moments of silence while we wait and watch. Ding! He spreads his hands and smiles. See? I laugh, and we step into his elevator together. He relaxes against the wall, and I mirror him on the opposite side. "How was your night?" I ask. "It was good," he says. "I had a show." We're both drunk and rather shamelessly staring at one another. "A show?" I inquire. "Yeah," he says. "A gallery exhibit. I paint." As I'm getting out on my floor, he tells me the name of his website and encourages me to check it out. "My email's on there," he adds. "In case you see anything you like." I'm not sure if I'm being hit on or sold something.

I bring up the site as soon as I get back to my apartment. I'm afraid I'll forget the address by morning if I don't. The site is a comprehensive portfolio of his various creative works. There are images of his paintings, which are large, mixed media stencils of Hollywood icons. There's a link to a blog with short stories, and several clips of short films he's written and directed. There's a photography gallery, with mostly portraits, cityscapes, and some architectural shots. I read his bio and glance at his Facebook page and Twitter feed.

I sit down and compose an email. Hey ---, it's Ellie, from the building (with the killer dog who's not really killer, except, apparently, where your pets are concerned). Thanks for sharing that link. Very cool stuff. Although, if you want my advice, you really need to expand your talents a bit. Film, photography, art, and writing only? I mean, no offense, but that's pretty weak... I save the draft and go to bed.

The next afternoon, I review what I've written, but make no edits. I click "send", and almost simultaneously, a realization hits me: unless he assumes the numbers in my email address stand for July 5th, he's going to infer that I'm thirty-six years old.

That night, I receive four long paragraphs in reply, the wittiness of which give the impression that there's a good deal of thought behind them. And possibly some alcohol. In the letter, I'm invited to come see his paintings in person, in his apartment, which is six storeys up from mine. I'm still not entirely sure whether he's trying to sell me something, so I reply with equal playfulness, while making a point to assure him of my destitution. The invitation is enthusiastically repeated, along with more witty repartee. I text the phone number that's part of his email signature, and he texts back. We message one another here and there over the next week, bantering and battling wits, and the following Sunday, he invites me up to his apartment for a drink.

letter to a questioning believer

I'm incredibly excited for you. I, who have been one of your harshest critics. I smiled to hear you say I'm not sure. Aren't those three of the most liberating words you've ever spoken? Doesn't it feel good, to admit you don't know? You're in good company. Nobody knows. Least of all those who claim to.

You're on a path. The same one I'm on, though yes, you're much further behind me. I'll walk slowly, if you'd like, so you have a chance to catch up. There is so much we can talk about, so much I can show you that will bring you joy and peace and excitement for your life. Questions will beget more questions, and you'll fall in love with asking and wondering. Rationality and reason and observation and experience - they are ballast which will give you something sure and strong to cleave to, when superstition and nonsense and fairy tails start to fall away.

You've made strides others don't have the strength to make. You've asked yourself questions they refuse to even consider. Whereas others don't have the courage to even light a candle, you are shining a spotlight. With so, so many people watching. That is a brave and noble thing, and you are to be commended.

Keep going. Keep thinking. Keep asking questions, of yourself, and of anyone who tries to tell you they know The Truth. Keep deciding for yourself. Keep feeling the exhilaration of autonomy.

Look at the world around you. Take in every sight, smell, sound. Once you realize it's all there is, that this life is the only one you've got, it will all become infinitely more precious to you. Every day will be a treasured gift.

Some will try to scare you by saying you're on a slippery slope. And do you know what? You are. You know in your heart that you are. And that's ok. You shouldn't scramble for purchase on ground that won't hold you up anyway. The foundation is shaky - shakier every day. The more light you shed on it, the more you'll see that. Give in, and let your doubting mind take you on a journey. It may be fast and furious or it may be plodding and slow. It may take months and or it may take years. Go at your own pace. Let yourself slide down the slope, because there is something good and firm to land on at the bottom.

There's your good heart and your strong, curious, questioning mind - and those are all you need. You already know it. Don't be afraid to feel it. Some day, you'll even be able to say it. You won't be alone when you do.

israel: surprises

If I were forced to come up with a one-word description of my trip to Israel, it would be "surprising."

I was surprised by how much I liked the country itself. Israel was my father's suggestion, not my own. Not that I didn't jump at the chance to go, please and thank you very much - but for various, complicated (or maybe not so) reasons, the Middle East didn't rank high on my list of desired destinations. But in every way it could surprise me, it did. I expected to feel "meh" about it, and I was beguiled, in spite of myself. It was prettier, more charming, and more accessible than I thought it would be.

outside the Old City


I know. Metal detectors and machine guns don't exactly say "accessible", but there you have it.

I was surprised by how geologically diverse it is, for a country so small. Israel is about the size of New Jersey. I stupidly assumed its terrain would be much the same all over. But even though it only takes a few hours to drive from the West Bank to the northern border, I didn't think about the variations in elevation, which are substantial. The changes in landscape I saw driving from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea, then back up north to Tiberias were wholly unexpected, and added a pleasant dimension to the trip - particularly since there was so much driving.

A few shots to show the difference in landscape:

the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Jerusalem, left, and Bethlehem, right

Jerusalem

near the West Bank

the Dead Sea

Galilee

Galilee

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the tour group experience. My father is 73, and finally starting to slow down. His days of unscripted adventure - at least of the type to unfold in a foreign country - are behind him, and understandably so. So, rather than wing it on our own (as we did in Argentina), we went to Israel as part of a tour group. I expected to feel constricted and bored. Embarrassed, even, to be a tourist as opposed to a traveler. I know: Oh, the horror! But the tour experience was such a delight, truly. For one thing, I was exposed to exponentially more information than I would have if we were alone. When you travel without professional guidance, tour books are pretty much your only source of historical and political context. And smart phones, if you spring for an exorbitant int'l data plan (I didn't). Those, and maybe the plaques/pamphlets of the places you visit. But thanks to having an incredibly knowledgable and enthusiastic professional guide (who'll I'll gush over more thoroughly below) we were relentlessly hammered with enough information to edit the Wikipedia page on Israel, should we so have desired.

So yes, I rocked a headset and a name tag, and I followed a little flag around.



We took turns wielding the flag, like gradeschoolers.

my dad rocks an earpiece and name tag.

reading a relevant bible passage (for historicity's, not religiosity's, sake)

But while at first I felt silly and self-conscious about these trappings, it wasn't long before I gave myself over to the cheerful cheesiness of it, and fully plugged in. In fact, I loved it. There developed a sense of camaraderie amongst the group, despite our socioeconomic diversity. I was the 2nd youngest person on the trip, and the youngest woman by about twenty years. But despite not having any "peers" in the group, I befriended some fun, funny, and smart people sitting (where else) in the back of the bus.

This is Jeff and Claude, single doodz traveling together. They were a couple of my buddies.



One's an ER doc and the other, an ER nurse (a total career change from being in construction all his life! I love that!), and they were more than happy to oblige my morbid curiosity about the crazy things they'd seen over the years. I'll never look at sex toys at quite the same way again.

I also befriended our bus driver, Yuval, who was cool as hell, and became my sort of post-activities drinking buddy. He knew I was itching to get a taste of night life, and offered to be my escort, so I'd feel comfortable and safe going out and having a wild night in a foreign country. Here he is:





Really nice guy, who had interesting things to say about his time in the military (at 42, he wishes he could still serve; I've never encountered patriotism like that I saw in Israel), the conflict in the Gaza Strip, and religion in general. He also acted as translator for me, when I'd want to ask a local a more complicated question than "where's the bathroom?".

It was a relief to have some people to socialize with a bit. My dad was fully absorbed in the trip in his own way, and he's not a particularly outgoing guy. He was also asleep by 8pm every night.

At one stop our tour guide was being so...thorough in his explanations that my inner thirteen year old lost all patience and I invented a game to play with my tour friends back on the bus. It was called Guess That Ass.






I know. I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of going to Israel, and I took pictures of peoples' butts. I know. I swear I was fully attentive and learning for 95% of the trip; it's just that towards the end, I got a little burned out on all the history, of which there is a lot in Israel.

But far and away the funnest day hanging out was at a winery in Tiberias, where we were guided by vintner and undiscovered YouTube sensation "Shalom". Here's Shalom:

"You want I should show you where we stomp the grapes?"



And yes, his accent was as thick as it looks. The guy was awesome, and my greatest regret is not filming him a little bit, because his mannerisms and expressions were comedy gold. And that probably sounds horribly patronizing, but really, I have the utmost respect for the man. He's very knowledgable and engaging and great at what he does. He's just a colorful guy. In fact, we declared him an SNL character waiting to happen.

That night we bought a bottle of wine and walked down to the waterfront (the Sea of Galilee). We strolled on the boardwalk, wandered through shops, got hammered, and swapped war (read: divorce) stories. Another night, back in Tel Aviv, some of the guys treated me to dinner at a beachside restaurant where we noshed on all kinds of Israeli tasting dishes and a whole sea bass, filleted table side. Afterward, we stumbled upon a chocolate bar, where we picked out two truffles each, which were wrapped and presented to us in a gold foil, embossed box. We sat and savored them slowly, comparing notes while we discussed, awesomely, women's issues. The next day, apparently one of the guys told my dad how impressed he was that I'd "held my own" amongst a table of professional men, which is kind of lulz-y, for myriad reasons, but a nice compliment nonetheless.

And here's Bill, who was with us that night:



Bill went running every night before dinner, no matter what part of the country we were in. He's 72. I love that (though it sobers me a bit to consider he's only a year younger than my father, who couldn't run if his life depended on it). When he found out I'm a runner, he insisted I join him. I declined, disappointed I hadn't packed my running shoes. "I only have Converse," I explained, pointing at my Chucks. "Those will do fine," he said. "Meet me in the lobby at five-thirty." Bill is 6'5", a trial attorney, and a former basketball coach who's raised two of his own daughters and a handful of foster kids. Bill brooks no dissent.

I exchanged contact info with a few people, and we've kept in touch since the trip. Unexpected, really nice connections. But far and away the most unexpected and awesome connection I made was with our tour guide, Ezra.

It started the day we went to Masada, near the Dead Sea. On the drive down, we saw several Bedouin camps in the hills along the freeway. Ezra told us about their culture, customs, and involvement in Israeli society, generally. I was fascinated and intrigued, and ended up in a semi-heated discussion with him about Bedouin women's rights (think arranged marriages and child brides). From that point on, Ezra was my bud.

He made a point of making himself particularly accessible, helpful, and friendly to me. In the Old City, when he'd notice me trying to get some particular shot (usually involving the stalking of children or rabbis or other unwilling subjects), he'd slow the group down to give me more time. When one afternoon I expressed a desire to leave the group and go exploring alone, he discreetly took me aside to give me some advice about how to handle what he called the "inevitable" and unwanted attentions of local men. (For the record, only once was I ever made to feel uncomfortable, and that was partly my own fault - more on that later. But I've traveled solo before. I went to both Greece and Australia alone, and I like to consider myself somewhat travel savvy, as a woman.) When my dad was being crabby and indecisive at lunch - and I was losing patience - Ezra quietly and calmly took charge of the situation and ordered for him. When he saw me struggling with getting good, low-light photos, he came over and demonstrated how to use settings on my camera I'd heretofore been unfamiliar with. On the bus, he'd come back to my seat and I'd show him some of my favorite shots from the day. At various stops, when there'd be down time, we'd seek one another out to chat about the place - or even just share a few moments of companionable silence, while the others hustled around snapping pics and hunting for souvenirs. He'd tell me about his travels (the man has been everywhere; next on his agenda? Trekking Burma. I die.) and career as a life-long freelance tour guide (since he was 24!) What an incredible life.

Ezra was unfailingly cheerful, diplomatic, engaging, energetic, and warmhearted, and I just adored him. I clicked more with this 63 year-old man than I've clicked with anyone in years; he just kinda got me, in a really lovely, fatherly way. When I had to say goodbye to him, I bawled. Bawled. He got pretty emotional, too. Even now I'm getting choked up thinking about him. Such an amazing man.






I made a very special friend in Ezra, and I'll never forget him.