Monday, June 26, 2017

You have been writing checks wrong!

Welcome to my first attempt at click bait. I know that I have put out a bunch of more serious posts which, though necessary and (thank you) read by many, do not represent the heart of this blog, which is to waste everyone's time and often, be idiotic.

In that vein, I present my article on How You Have Been Writing Checks Wrong.

In the past, you have been confronted with a blank check like this:


For more, click "Next"





The "Next" button doesn't do anything but all the click bait articles have them.








Usually, when a person fills out a check, he writes in information.








And click bait articles have background that is stupid because it increases the number of pages and therefore ads. But I don't have ads because I'm awesome.









This is how you have been filling out checks in the past:








And that's wrong.








This is what your checks should actually have on them:









Imagine how much better the world would be if everyone just started writing checks correctly! Stay tuned for more informative articles like, "You have been giving holiday gifts to the wrong person!" and "5 Ways in which you can make Dan's life Easier!"

The answers will shock you.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Anti American Airlines

I'm not generally one to use this blog to rant and air grievances. At least not naming names. But in this case, I have made every effort to get some measure of satisfaction and the public venue is the only one I seem to have left. I don't use Twitter though I have heard that companies are sometimes more responsive to that, so if you have Twitter I empower you to post a link to this blog and tag American Airlines so that maybe someone there will see it.

I also implore you -- do not fly American Airlines.

I will lay out a fact pattern as dispassionately as I can so that all can see exactly what happened here, and before you pass judgment and decide that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, realize -- I know many people have it worse than I do. I know that in the grand scheme of things, this isn't so horrible. But there is a principle involved and I am loath to walk away when a principle has been violated.

As you might have read on a previous post, my wife and I recently went to Israel to visit our elder daughter. Our flight on the way there was a one-stop (from JFK to TLV by way of Charles De Gaulle airport -- CDG) American Airlines flight. I'm not much of a flier so when we got the deal we got, we decided that we still had money in the budget to pay for "Preferred" seats. For this leg of the trip, the cost was $80.54 per seat. One hundred and sixty-one dollars did not seem like a large expense for the chance at a more comfortable experience.

As we were flying in a 767, we looked at the seat map on the American site and chose preferred seats -- row 20, which happens to be an exit row. We are able bodied and understand English so we felt able to discharge the duties of the exit row.

We arrived at the airport and went through security and we waited for boarding to commence. At a certain point, it seemed like something was amiss -- the gate crew was confused and a line formed. Many passengers seemed agitated. Then an announcement was made -- apparently the 767 expected FROM Europe was diverted so the airline had to replace it with an available 757. As the 757 is a smaller plane, people on stand-by had less chance of getting a seat and people in business class might get bumped down. The representatives were offering a $500 voucher for anyone willing to be seated on a later flight. We were happy with our seats (and were informed that we had not been bumped from the flight) so we simply waited. I did confirm that I would get "preferred" seats as I had paid for them. I was told by a gate crew member that either I would or I could contact the corporate offices for a certain refund.

We boarded (2 hours late). My wife and I DID get row 20, but row 20 was no longer an exit row. I was just a regular row in the midst of the main cabin. I explained the situation to the cabin attendants and was told that 20 was not a "preferred" seat but I could surely get a refund once I contacted the corporate offices. I sat through a difficult flight (as I said, I am not much of a flier) and was only reassured by the understanding that I would get the money that I spent on this perk back. After we got back from our trip, I, as per the instructions, emailed the corporate offices to alert them of this problem.

I received an email in return which told me that American was willing to send me a $100 voucher but not a refund. I responded that I did not receive a particular service and thought it proper that I simply receive recompense relevant to that issue. The next email notified me that I, in fact, DID sit in a preferred seat so I was not eligible to receive any money -- that the service was tendered.

A couple of side notes:
1. I know, $161.08 is not a huge amount, but I'm a teacher with kids and bills and a mortgage and every little bit helps.
2. I have and am about to make a series of claims and representations -- I assure you I have diagrams, pictures, documentation and support for each thing I claim (other than my reporting on conversations I had - I didn't record them).

I have tried to explain myself to American Airlines in a series of emails. They have presented no counter-factual claims and have simply restated "you did get a preferred seat" over and over. I asked, repeatedly, for a phone call. I finally received one, but it was while I was in the middle of proctoring a test. The woman, Shannon Tatum, said she could call me again the next week. I agreed.

Here are some facts (which I can support with diagrams and seating charts).

A. On a 767, row 20 is an exit row and has a bit more leg room.
B. On a 767, row 20 is for sale as a preferred seat.
C. On a 757, row 20 is not a preferred seat
D. In fact, on a 757, there are NO preferred seats. All exit rows are "Main Cabin Extra".

So getting row 20 on a 757 meant not getting a preferred seat. Pretty straightforward. Except that American, and Shannon Tatum repeatedly insist that row 20 is a preferred seat.

I have gotten more emails from Shannon Tatum insisting that she tried to call me back. In this day and age of cell phones, I find that hard to believe. My phone registered no missed calls or voice mail messages. SO I called back this morning and left a message asking for a return call. A later email indicated that there needed no continued follow-up because they had not changed their position. (in the interim, there were other emails where they made confusing claims about whether row 20 specifically was always an exit row, or whether an exit row was always a "Main Cabin Extra" seat or anything else, all the while never dealing with the precise facts that I laid out for them)

Today, Shannon finally called back. She had nothing to offer except the insistence that

I. Row 20 on a 757 is a preferred seat
II. My focus was only on leg room but not all preferred seats assure extra leg room. When I tried to explain that my focus was on getting the preferred seat that I paid for and it just so happened that on a 767, the preferred seats in row 20 have extra leg room she interrupted me and refused to let me finish.

I tried to stay calm and explained that I had diagrams and seat maps of a 757 going from JFK to CDG on which row 20 is clearly NOT a preferred seat and, in fact, there are NO preferred seat. I said that in any discussion, when one participant presents proof and facts it is reasonable for the other side to present different facts which would either disprove the offered evidence or substantiate an opposite claim. She asked me to send the diagrams I had. I said I would but when I asked her to present any maps or diagrams on which row 20 is labeled as a preferred seat she said she had none. She said "I don't have to send anything to you." I tried to explain that it wasn't about "having to" but that in the absence of any countering evidence, it would be hard for her to prove that row 20 is a preferred seat on a 757. She hung up on me.

I want to repeat that.

Shannon Tatum, of American Airlines Customer Relations told me I didn't have the evidence I had, said she had no proof of her own to support her position, and because I was not simply taking her word for it, hung up on me.

I'm sure there are plenty of honest, hardworking and sincere employees at American. My flight back from LHR was fine and my preferred seat had a huge amount of legroom.

But Shannon Tatum is everything that is wrong with American. She refused facts, made claims that displayed an ignorance of the situation and facts, did not communicate in a timely fashion and did not value that a customer took the time to appeal to American in pursuit of what is right and fair. I didn't ask for repayment for an entire ticket. I didn't ask to be compensated because the flight was late or even because the seats were uncomfortable. I fly with my eyes open -- I know what is in and out of the control of an airline. But refusing to honor a provable purchase and not being willing or able to show that my claim lacks validity is insulting. If she can show me that row 20 is a preferred seat on a 757, I will shake my head but will have no leg to stand on. I accept that. But I have been told by AA employees that it isn't. I called a ticketing agent, I spoke to gate and cabin crews, I checked the website.

I have to give a big thumbs down to the corporate structure of American and to Shannon Tatum specifically. This is not how business is done and it will be a long time before I even consider flying American again. All because of Shannon Tatum.

I adjure you -- if you are flying any time soon, do not fly American and if asked why, simply tell them that Shannon Tatum and American's Customer Relations department have made it clear that American Airlines doesn't care about its customers.

Monday, June 12, 2017

*Cats-A-Risk

I have been wrestling with a good name for this post. While I was writing it, I called it "In Terem" and thought about "Scratching Post" and "Children at Friskies." I settled on what you see above because it hearkens back to the marker I put in that other entry a few days ago.

On our way back from the kotel, as mentioned, we passed by some of the local fauna. Julie has developed a love of all things animal. I have a similar love but mine usually involves a grill. She likes petting animals and speaking with them about the day's events. So we saw a cat. Jerusalem is known for its plethora of cats -- they were brought in to get rid of the mice. There was a mouse-cat war. The UN stepped in and called the cats colonialists and suggested a multi-state solution. The mice, still bitter over the whole pied piper incident bid a hasty retreat into the dark corners of the world and the cats took the day. And bred. When I say "bred" I don't refer to all those pictures online about cats and bread. They made more cats -- mostly babies at first.

So the cats roam free, often in packs, wearing leather jackets and terrorizing the villagers. But Julie saw this mid-sized (might have been a sedan) orange cat and made that kissy noise. The cat, attracted to the attention, started rubbing against her legs. Julie, though she has developed a love of animals, is not a cat owner and doesn't understand the psychology of the cat mind. Some of us have more insight into the way a cat thinks. So as Julie made nice-nice to a mangy, matted street cat, I made helpful suggestions like "No, stop. Don't" and "stop, don't." I said "I'll give you three reasons I won't pet that cat -- I don't want fleas, rabies or to pet that cat." Apparently, my advice did not come across as sincere and well founded. After the cat did figure 8's and rubbed against Julie's legs, and Julie petted the cat, she reached for some Purell to sanitize her hands with. The cat did not leave. I explained that this might be because according to the cat code, the cat now owns Julie and Julie is required to raise the cat, feed the cat, and teach the cat to drive. Instead, Julie chose to pet the cat again with hands that smelled of rubbing alcohol. I feel that the cat was offended by a couple of things -- first, the smell of Purell, and second, by the decided lack of lunch foods in said hand.

Anyway, Julie then stopped petting a second time and reached for the Purell. This was considered a horrible offense in the eyes of the cat. Harsh words were exchanged, tables were overturned, bottles were thrown and eventually, someone bit someone. I shan't be more explicit here than to say that Julie now hates all cats and cats have acquired the taste for tangy, human calves, especially shapely gams like Julie's.

After the cat sauntered away, under the cloud of Julie's expletives, she wiped down the area (a little blood, a little bruise) with Purell and then walked into a soup kitchen and washed the area with soap and water. Then the googling started. The primary concern was rabies. The cat seemed non-rabies enough, but you can't really tell just by looking. So as we walked, we called Dr. Sharon. She recommended (after confirming that we washed the bite down) that we visit Terem, the Urgent Care clinic. Remember, this was Friday afternoon in Jerusalem and we are out of towners. So, next step, contact Maddie to find out where Terem is and how to get there. We also called a select group of others to try and figure this out. Maddie told us to call a cab (not so easy to do in the old city -- you have to find your way back to the Jaffa gate) and get to her, and she would take us to Terem. We flagged down a cab after a bunch more walking and he quoted us a price which Maddie said (over the phone) was too much. Here's the thing -- I don't like to haggle in any case. I like it even less when I feel I am not in any position of leverage. And even less when my wife has been bitten on a Friday afternoon by a possibly rabid cat in a foreign country. It's like a thing with me.

Cab taken to her place. She comes out after the cab leaves and asks "OK -- where's the cab, let's go." We explain that the cab left because his job here was done and there were sad people elsewhere. She sighed the way only a child can sigh at foolish parents, called a Gett (think Uber, but from right to left) and we headed to the local Terem. It wasn't far but the neighborhood was a more religious one (and we were not dressed for the occasion -- cat bites demand a certain level of formality). So, up the stairs, and we try to explain to the nice man behind the glass that we are worried about rabies and don't happen to have our passports on us -- had we known that this was important, we would have scheduled our cat biting adventure differently, making sure to ask the cat to wait until we had assembled all relevant paperwork. It took a bit more convincing but we were finally given a number for the initial vetting. Not exactly the right word, but I get to throw the word "vet" into a discussion of a cat bite. Awesome.

The first guy (I don't know if he was a doctor, a nurse, or a friend of Stanley Milgram's) sees us within 10 minutes and takes a history -- do you have a family history of cat bites? Are you feeling at all feline right now? Is anyone in your family allergic to dogs? The person took her blood pressure ("It's a little high, but that's to be expected when you are freaking out over rabies in Jerusalem.") and sent us back out to the waiting room. It could be up to an hour, we were told. We contacted our various peeps and let them know that our afternoon schedule was a bit up in the hair-ball. HA! By now, Maddie's friend has sent over a picture of Julie's passport so we proffered our pertinents and such and got a drink from the vending machine while we hunkered down for the wait.

It didn't take an hour; we were called rather quickly to the inner sanctum where Julie was checked by a doctor type. I didn't ask for his CV. He was tall and spok-a the good English. He said that rabies is very rare, moreso in Jerusalem and even moreso in cats. He and Julie exchanged googled info about the most recent cases and he told her that she most probably had nothing to worry about. Most probably. But just to be sure, we had to pursue 3 courses of action:

1. Julie needed a tetanus shot. Well, these days, who doesn't. Really.
2. Julie needed a few day's worth of antibiotics. This led to its own story. If you want to read about that adventure, go to page 12. If not, go to page 12.
3. Julie needed to visit the ministry of health ASAP to report the incident. They would be able to tell her definitively if she needed a series of rabies shots and even if not, they could keep track of all cat attacks.

OK, so she had the shot. She was very brave. No lollipops or anything!

Then, to get the antibiotics, we had to find a pharmacy that was still open on a Friday afternoon, and find a cab to take us there. There were 2 -- one in Abu Ghosh and one in Pat. In Hebrew, the latter neighborhood is pronounced Pot. The one in that area (which was closer) is called -- and I'm not making this up, "Pat Pharm." We chose to go to the Pat Pharm in the hopes that, you know, but at least, to get the medicine. A 10 minute drive out, no parking, Maddie runs in to get the medicine, a ride back to Maddie's place and I ran back to the Swidler's to get ready for Shabbos. Which they had already started. Now, to item 3 on the top 2.

The concern, of course, was that if the doctor sent his paperwork along to the ministry, they might want to hold Julie in-country for the duration of the incubation period since we foolishly forgot to catch the cat and bring it in for testing (and we didn't get its phone number). Now, nothing against the socialized medical system in Israel but, well, let's be honest: everything against the socialized medical system in Israel. There are plenty of great doctors, but the system does grind exceeding slow. And with plane tickets in pocket, the idea of having to wait while bureaucracy does what it does is a scary one. So the prospect of going to a ministry which might then decide to shuffle paperwork and maybe even quarantine or freeze a passport (and the person attached to it) was problematic at best.

A decision had to be made. Julie started feeling gross from the tetanus shot and feared having to hang out in Israel even for the extra 3 days after I left, feeling gross. Hanging out WITH me while feeling gross is fine because I'm usually the one making people feel gross. But without me? What's the use? So Julie decided to change her plane reservations and buy a ticket to come home on Sunday -- that way she could call her doctor and set up an appointment quickly, she could feel gross in my company and she could avoid any problem with the Israeli government. This required a call to Priceline, through whom we bought the initial tickets. Julie's basic question was, "Aside from a standard change-ticket fee, what is the price differential between her ticket and one that would have her on my flights on Sunday, and are there any seats even available on that combination?" These, though logical, proved to be very difficult questions for the phone reps at Priceline. But, I am happy to note, 45 minutes later, they finally figured it out. It was a lot. Well, only $1800 more. But that's a lot. She scoured the internet and actually found a non-stop, United Airlines flight (round trip so if she wants to, she can go back to hunt down the cat and give him a stern talking to), right to Newark airport for less than my original ticket. Can you believe that? I have a one stop with a layover, and I end up in JFK and she finds a non-stop to Newark. For less. I went out to look for a cat to pet.

We got a little sleep and got out of dodge the next morning.

Post scripts now that Julie has been to the doctor -- apparently, most people don't keep rabies shots handy so she was recommended to go to the ER and get shots there. No one assessed whether this was necessary; it was just decided that this is the prudent course. Thing is, more research has uncovered that the side effects of the shots are daunting. But she decided to persevere and get jabbed in order to avoid even the chance of death. That's a good thing, avoiding being dead and all. I make it a personal practice to avoid being dead. At the ER, the first two shots were administered old school. Not in the arm. Not in the thigh. Old school. Yeah, there.

As a final note, I spent my day working on getting Maddie the right kind of combat boots, and have been emailing back and forth with American Airlines who have decided that our seats on our Paris-bound flight were still preferred even though they were horrible, because they were the same row as the one we chose in the other plane. It gets more ridiculous but I'll wait until they make it really bad and then I'll plaster the info for all to see. I still have to resolve the problem of the money that I transferred to Maddie not having arrived yet. And also, work.

The morning after

I realized mid-flight that the post about flying out of Ben Gurion should have been called "De-Israeli, Gears up" but this is what happens when I don't sleep. My dumb, ineffective puns go completely bland. Also, to clarify a closing coent earlier, JFK had announcements in Spanish and the flight on American to Paris had announcements in French. El Al has Hebrew as does Ben Gurion.

OK -- back home after a reasonable night's sleep. Sure, it still feels like I am in a plane, rising and falling, but I am sitting in a real chair and, if I have to, can use a bathroom that isn't rife which chrome.

I flew in a 777-300 (3-4-3) for the last part of this trip. The one lesson is "always pay for the upgrade." I had an aisle seat with no seat in front of me so I had endless legroom. I actually regretted not being any taller. Sure, I had the same problems of there being no seat in front of me:

1. No seatback pocket to put stuff in or go through
2. No seat under which to put my personal items
3. the fold out video screen lacked the power outlet that the others had, and the viewing angle was less ergonomically convenient
4. the fold out meal tray was smaller and less sturdy
5. I couldn't reach the airflow nozzle thing

But big deal. Awesome legroom, nothing over my head so I could stand up. Call this a stronger win. I also had an empty seat to my right so I flipped up the arm rest and man spreaded (sprod?) liberally. The down side was that I was next to the "front" row in the middle section which houses small children who, by law, are required to cry. And these kids were no scofflaws. Take-off and landing were cry-fests for the younger child. In the middle there was a lot of sleeping so it wasn't horrible.

The meal -- wow. Made by "Hermolis". The label claims "grilled vegetables" but I don't recall any. They did have a pasta salad with tuna and basil-pesto dressing which was great, plus a mezonos roll and chumus, and melba toast with a sunflower spread which actually tasted like real sunflowers. The dessert was "Chocolate orange delice". Imagine what looks like a decadent slice of seven layer cake but in fact is all just a shaped mousse. Wow! Allergens listen mentioned no nuts at all (not even "may contain") so I dove in. The main was called a "Chicken stir fry" but was more like "chicken in tomato sauce" with rice. Not horrible but the weakest link in the gustatory chain.

I watched two movies -- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One. The Beasts movie was pure "meh". Just not that interesting and plenty confusing. Also, the audio was often muddy and with accents, I had trouble figuring stuff out. Rogue One was useful in terms of contextualizing episode 4 but was not, independently, a great film. It had some humor but the characters were generic. I'm glad that I didn't pay to see them beyond the thousand plus dollars I spent to fly on the plane. FTW! I also 2 episodes of Brooklyn 99, a show I know to be great. I was not disappointed. Great work Mr. Samberg and friends. Great work.

I made an effort not to sleep on either flight so that I would be so tired when I got home that I would sleep through and wake up on New York time. So far so good -- the ride home was long and I fought sleep the whole time. Sparky was there to greet me and all is right with the world.

Except that the package I was expecting while I was gone is missing, the money I transferred never got transferred and I have a week's worth of work to catch up with (and I still feel like I'm on an airplane).

Thanks to Hillel for the rides and watching the place and dog, to Heather and Marc for watching the kid. Thanks to the Efrat contingent for the hospitality and rides, and the Swidlers for their love, room and board. Thanks to all the roommates who humored us on our visit and, of course, to the IDF for molding my child into something incredible.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

De-Israeli

To pick up where I left off when I was so rudely interrupted by the boarding of my Heathrow bound flight.

We boarded a 777-200 at Ben Gurion. I moved down to 53H (a 3-3-3 configuration). This plane is more tech full than the others -- USB ports under the seats and in the seatback, right next to an Ethernet cable port. ETHERNET! I don't have that, but wow. Ben Gurion has multiple layers of security (check in, security questions, second check in for your yellow sticker check, bag screening/metal detector, biometric passport control and gate screening. I think they also collect a urine sample. Very high tech.)

A side note to the tangent in my flashback -- we took the 485 bus from next to the central bus station in Jerusalem. 7AM bus, got to the airport at about 8:20. 16 Shekel (about 4 dollars). Good deal. I recommend it.

I rarely pay for fancy seats or upgraded boarding preference so I often have to board last and jockey for overhead bin space. As I do I curse under my breath at the people who clearly did not have any preferred boarding, but did so anyway so that they could get a bin first. For this flight, I didn't hear the announcement details for boarding and just saw a line so I got on the line and sat myself down. I became one of those jerks and I could see the resentment in the eyes of the masses who boarded a while later, finding my bag already taking up 3 seats and 2 overhead bins. This doesn't mean I will be any more charitable to the exploiters on other flights. I made a mistake. They are all clearly evil.

And also? If you pay for one seat, you get one spot overhead. Don't bring a back pack, a carry on, a bag of laundry and a ukelele and expect that they are all going to take up valuable overhead real estate. That's selfish.

We were told of a delay before take off. The captain announced that there needed to be maintenance done on the left engine. Don't tell me that. Lie to me. Tell me that a bulb is out in the bathroom. I don't want to think that as we are powering up, some guy with duct tape is "fixing" the engine.The delay continued for about 45 minutes and I started worrying about making my connecting flight. The stewards served crackers and water to appease us and I watched as the woman in front of me started yelling at the closest stewardess as if she thought that this waitress of the sky could magically make everything all better and lift the plane into the clouds with a flick of the wrist. The stewardess kept explaining "I'm stuck here also" (with the subtext being "I don't want to be around you any longer than I absolutely have to be"). At least about 35 minutes in to the delay, the A/C got fixed, so it went from stifling and boring to just boring. I noted that of the 3 legs, all three experienced delays. Maybe I'm the cause.

On the flight I watched Argo (again) and it is still a really good movie. I also started The Founder but, though I saw some solid performances, the story started getting a bit sad and dark so I turned it off. I assume that everything works out in the end and everyone eats hamburgers so I'm not feeling any real drive to rent it and watch the rest.

Just to round out the trip, we were put in a holding pattern, delaying our landing. Yes, my fault, I know. This must also explain why that tailor didn't have Maddie's uniform done properly by 3PM. We landed at in London and I worked my way towards the shuttle from terminal 4 to terminal 3. The thing drove on the wrong side of the road! It reminded me of that Led Zeppelin lyric from Stairway, "If there's a bussle at your Heathrow, don't be alarmed now. There's still time to change the road you're on." So true. So true. I went through many lines and did much walking and going up and down stairs, passing through a variety of types of sscreening and security until I finally got to the gate. I noticed 2 things -- one is a lack of announcements. There are a few but not as many as in other airports. Also, Heathrow is the only airport I have been in on this trip where any announcements are made in only 1 language!

Anyway. As I started with, I'm at gate 27, in terminal 3, waiting for boarding. They announced the time but between the use of the 24 hour clock and the fact that I simply don't know what time zone I'm in now so i don't know what time it is, I have no idea when I'm going to board. Also, this waiting area is spartan at best. There are a few food machines that I'm eschewing, but no plug in ports for recharging, and it is separate from the rest of the gates -- I had to pass a final level of security to get in so I can't get out. It looks more like a very large hospital waiting room.

The wi fi is weird here and my computer is indicating that every word is misspelled so I'll take a break now. Unless something significant arises, the next post will be from home, or thereabouts, sometime tomorrow or today, depending on what time zone you are in. Or I'm in.

Thereby hangs a tail

It is Sunday mid morning and I'm sitting in Ben Gurion airport, withing for my flight to Heathrow so I'll try to catch everyone up on how I got here.

Friday morning was supposed to be a relaxing time filled with felafel and a walk to the Wall. Before that, Maddie said she and Julie wanted to meet up and walk on Ben Yehuda and the environs. Sounds nice. We met at the tailor so that Maddie could have her new uniforms made stylish. He promised everything by 3PM. An impressive promise. He pinned and folded. She tried on things and we all enjoyed the afterglow of the tekes. Then, to walk. My job was to hold the bags as the ladies picked out shirts and dresses that they would buy so that they would have something to return later. Then, shoes. Gotta have shoes. Apparently there are many shoes stores but none is the right one. "Right one" is defined as "the one that isn't here." Since none was "the one that isn't here" we went into all of them. Not to buy anything, mind you. That would be silly.

We also had a chance to drop into the Lone Soldier center. It was a happening spot filled with soldiers and support staff and pizza and cake. I struck up conversation with a couple of the cakes while Maddie and Julie wasted their energies on human beings. Foolish, but what can you do?

And by the way, the Lone Soldier Center is good stuff. You seriously should look into them and support them. What they have done for Maddie and other people I know is nothing short of life saving. And pizza.

We met up with the friend (I think it was after a shoe store) and then he and Maddie returned to her apartment with a whole lotta bags. Julie and I headed to Moshiko and then to the Wall. I really like Moshiko. I mean, seriously, I REALLY LIKE Moshiko. Julie got an espresso or cappucino or something but what matters is that I got my felafel. We walked to the Kotel and I got to spend some time there. I view it the way Wordsworth viewed Tintern Abbey. It recharges me. It helps be reflect on the time between my last visit and this one and prepare for the void between this experience and my next one. I take time to say a private prayer, admire all the types of people, Jewish and not who come just to touch the wall, and then a bit more formal prayer. It was very moving. I feel much the same way as my visit to Moshiko so there's that.

Julie and I left the wall and walked up some stairs, taking selfies the whole time. We passed some of the local cats*.

We settled in for Shabbat -- I returned to Nomi and David's and showered and changed. A person gets sweaty and stinky walking around Jerusalem in the heat and so do I. Then, a walk back to the friend's for a dinner with him and his roommates. Good stuff. A few drinks and Maddie and Julie fell asleep. Fun to watch. I headed back to the Swidlers'. Shabbat morning prayers at Kol Rina and then lunch back at Swidler. Extended Swidlers showed up and we spent a pleasant afternoon chatting. Eventually, we headed back to Maddie's apartment for more chill time. Then, because this has become a running theme, back to Nomi's. I decided to spend the last night at Maddie's so I had to pack my stuff up and, you guessed it, walk back to Maddie's apartment. Then the standard evening activity of arguing about the evening activity. It was decided that friend and I would walk to Cinema City and get some food for everyone.

We walked into Moses Burger and placed an order, called the ladies to get their order and realized we had 20 minutes to kill. I suggested that while we waited for our burgers, we should go and get some burgers. So across the hall to McDonalds. I spent 20 shekels (5 bucks about) so a big Mac and an orange juice. Was it as thick as the Moses burger? No. Was it as subtly flavored and was it medium rare? No. Was it ready in 3 minutes and oh my god right there and a big Mac? Yes. A resounding yes. I now understand why people eat there. You go up and say "I'd like some food NOW and I am not a gourmet so stick it in my face" and they do it! I scarfed that down and felt happy knowing that I also had more stuff coming to me.

My flight is boarding so the rest will have to wait.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Tekes away

The night was a complete bust unless my goal was "not sleep." In that case, the night was a complete success. I stayed up reading the wikipedia entry on Maddie's unit (in Hebrew and English) and then reading it again. Then I made sure to get up, shower, get everything all ready and look at the clock, realize that I still had 2 hours to go before we left and do it all again.

Jeff picked us up at 7:05 and we headed out. First, to Beit Shemesh to pick up his wife and elder son, and then down to Zikim, a touch south of Ashkelon to the base for the graduation ceremony. The ride, itself, was wonderfully direct and uneventful, except for the parts that required spinning around and driving up and down mountains. And there were some cows also. But we made it down before 9AM and found out that the parking was being handled by the people who run the Israeli bureaucracy. There was a modicum of yelling and pointing and eventually forms had to be filled out. So we, as tourists, walked away and assumed it would all sort itself out. Julie and I walked up a hill and down a hill and got to the assembly point where we would all (the hundreds of other families and friends) meet the approaching soldiers who were on the last part of a 10 mile hike and walk them to the celebration. It was hot but exciting. It wook a bit but then, under the cover of yellow smoke, the group approached. Maddie was towards the back, helping to carry a soldier on a stretcher. I applied for the job of "lying on stretcher" but it was already filled by another soldier who was taking selfies. Maddie was radiant in her camouflage war paint and Israeli flag.

I have to say, all kidding aside, this was an incredibly touching moment. She has become part of something really special. She has followed a dream and persevered, keeping up and surpassing and I really am proud of her! So there.

We walked with her and her unit and all the families over to the open area so that we could mill around, buy a DVD and find seats on the grandstands. Then, after some pictures, we took our seats in the sun heard all the songs, watched the soldiers stand through all the speeches, took more pictures, saw the exemplary soldiers receive their special certificates, witnessed the giving of the orange berets to replace the basic-training-olive berets and then saw the soldiers throw the berets up in the air as we all cheered. And took more pictures. We came down off the bleachers so that we could congratulate her and realized that, because of the uniformity of the uniforms, the distance and the camouflage, we had been cheering the wrong kid. Whatever. Yay IDF. All of you.

More pictures, the compulsory meeting of the friends, seeing her concrete slab of a bed (seriously -- they all slept in sleeping backs on what looked like a basketball court, her returning her special vest (with extra pockets for junk food when one doesn't feel like carrying grenades), and gathering her stuff. The Lone Soldiers had a special gathering where there were more speeches (the standard ones with themes like "You aren't really alone" and "you are part of an important tradition" and "make sure you give us the vests back") and grape juice. After more waiting around we all got under way for the return (Maddie and Julie got in the car while Maddie's friend and I took a shuttle to a bus stop in the middle of nowhere to catch a bus to the central Jerusalem bus station). I slept on the bus.

Maddie reported that she and Julie were waylaid in Efrat so they wouldn't meet us just yet so we decided to go to Cinema City and kill time after the friend showed me his apartment and got out of his uniform. He's in the infantry and carries a different gun from Maddie. I think that's how the soldiers assess each other -- not by stripes or shoulder patches, but by which gun they carry. Maddie has an M-16 or an M-4. I would carry an M+M. In my vest.

A light lunch at Greg's Cafe (where you can get anything you want, except Greg). The friend had the Indian tapas platter. I don't like having to assemble my own lunch so I got the fish cakes and an egg salad sammich. To drink, a fruit smoothie. All very nice. The accompanying Israeli salad had too many red onions, but tasted of fresh Israeli. We met Julie and Maddie and saw Maddie's apartment. The friend worked on "aging" Maddie's beret so she didn't look like such a newbie. The required shaving it down and then hitting it with a combination of hair spray and a lighter. Then shaving off the charred bits (and admiring the friend's newly smooth legs, his having burned off the hair accidentally) and wetting and shaping the beret. After a few hours of delaying, we went over to the shuk where we argued over where to eat. We settled on 2 different restaurants (Fishen Chips and Pasta Basta) and sad amidst the Thursday night throngs. In Israel, the conversion rate has 1 Saturday Night (US)=1 Thursday New Israeli Evening. The bars were loud and over full. The walking was difficult and the music was obnoxious. Imagine Time's Square full of 16 year old Israelis and 19 year old Israelis. Mix in 55 year old Israelis smoking and some random Europeans and put it all indoors in a mid-sized mall. Make it all smell like old fish, and voila. Shuk.

The last question was whether we would go out for a drink afterwards. That was solved by the sleeping. I returned to Nomi and David's place, chatted with them for a bit and fell asleep and that's the important part. Today, walking around Yaffo Road, spending money (Maddie wants to get her uniform further tailored), eating felafel and going to the kotel before Shabbat. More info if anything actually happens.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The night before

So here I am, lying in bed with a cool Judean hills breeze and the sound of Israel outside my window, unable to sleep. 1:17 AM and nothing. I'd love to say it is because of the excitement as I eagerly await Maddie's tekes (graduation type program) in the morning, but that's not really it. How can any civilized country consider itself part of the global community if it puts its darkness on in the middle of the afternoon. My body knows that it is not even 6:30 PM. It should be light out and I should be complaining that I'm tired. Someone should tell the prime minister that the darkness machine is broken and needs to be set back 7 hours. Truth is I should not be expected to have adjusted to the new time zone yet. That should set in about 30 minutes before I return to the U.S.

Did I mention that when we left the Paris airport, the recorded announcement warned us that pickpockets abound? Maybe it would be more efficient to, you know, arrest criminals instead of just warning tourists. Maybe not. What do I know - clearly the French government has more experience dealing with lawless behavior and it knows that acceptance is the best course of action.

So today (yesterday? I don't know. Will this be on the test?) I woke up at about 9. Maybe. I showered, ate food. Caught up on the Internet and then went back to sleep til 1pm. At the time  it seemed like the most reasonable course of action but now I realize that I don't know what "at that time" even means anymore.

At 2, Steve and Senja gave us a ride to the big, local mall. Because we have no malls in Bergen County. When I go to the mall in America, I look for products that I can't get locally or online, so I buy nothing. At a mall in  Israel, I look for anything I can't get at a mall in Bergen County, so I got pizza. There are 5 kosher, dairy food choices in the mall. I chose Il Fresco or something like that because it was the only one that had regular pizza ready to go. I don't like olives, I don't want onions. Keep your weird veggie slices. I want pizza. So I got two slices and ate in the food court like a normal, obese American.

Julie went to a Judaica store and spent half an hour looking at head scarves. I don't understand how one can agonize over the color or texture of a head scarf thing. Green or black or red. They are all the same. Who is going to notice? Maybe the proprietor of another scarf store? I won't. The same holds true for ritual items. Do I care if my sacramental wine cup is etched or bejeweled or glass or blue? No. As long as it holds the grape juice, whatever. What was nice  though, was that Julie kept me in the moment by asking me all sorts of rhetorical questions like, "do you like this one better?" and "does this match the red dress I have at home?" and "please give me the credit card." The mall had stores like Zip, Diesel and Nimrod where they were selling none of those things. Pity. I need a new Nimrod.

Good times.

S and S picked us up and we returned to Efrat. By now you should have asked the obvious question (and I'll admit - I'm a little peeved that you haven't): "Pizza? You were in a mall with all sorts of kosher food and you had pizza?" A fair question and I'm glad you asked, jerk. First off, I had had a long espresso and needed something to eat fast. Caffeine sometimes makes me crazy like that. Hey, maybe that's why I can't sleep. No. Definitely not - the problem is that the sunlight is broken. Anyway, we were scheduled to arrive on June 6, our 24th anniversary and I had asked the Lauderdales to pick up a cake. They searched and found one that was nut free and dairy so that I could skip the benadryl and the cake would be dairy (Zog say dairy cake good) . But when we came in, not only was it after midnight, but I  was still within the 6 hour waiting period after eating what passed for meat on the plane. So the cake was waiting for me today after the mall. I stuck with pizza so I could eat cake, a truly Noble purpose.

It was worth it. Damn fine cake.

We got back, I ate much cake. Others might have had a little but who cares. I ate cake. We had received an invitation to the Oshins' for a cookout and I sorely wanted to take them up on that (the Oshins throw a kick-butt cook out) but, you know, cake. If the Oshins ever invite you and you have a dairy cake option, you will understand how difficult a decision it is. Jeff had suggested cake first, but by the time I stopped eating cake, the idea of having other food seemed ill advised. So shout out and apologies to the Oshins.

Julie and Lauderdale kids made a banner for us to wave at the tekes and then I thought I was tired. Clearly I was wrong. I wonder if the Oshins gave any hot dogs left.

Also, there is a mosquito in this room now and I was promised no mosquitoes. This will not end well.

1:58 in the morning, fake time. Maddie begins her long hike imminently. We are incredibly proud. Thinking of her and counting the moments before I can get up, shower and have more cake.

Delay of Deland (or, Going on 2 legs in the afternoon)

Ah Paris. What a way to spend an anniversary -- and then to top it all off with a romantic plane ride...this is what I signed up twenty-four.

Did I mention the flight from Paris was delayed? Maybe it was the rain and thunder, maybe standard inefficiency or something more interesting but bottom line, sit and wait. And wait. CDG is a lovely airport at which to pay too much for water, play solitaire or charge an iPhone. They also kept making announcements about people being asked to come over to gate A40-something, and though the announcements were in 3 languages, I wasn't sure what they were saying. Incomprehensible is a universal concept. Eventually, when I worked up the courage, I asked Julie to find out what was going on and she said we should report to A40-something for additional security screening. Cool, I like screens.

Our little meeting with the good folks at El Al was interesting. Julie and I share many things, but not a last name, so they had some trouble wrapping their heads around why I never took her last name or why we would leave the airport for 2 hours. They also were concerned that we left our carry-ons in the possession of the guys at the local "leave your luggage here" place so they had to be hand searched. The luggage, not the guys at the place. But how would the El Al guys know if something not ours was slipped in there? They wouldn't, so they watched us as WE searched our own luggage. I was hoping they wouldn't ask me to give myself a cavity search. I can be pretty rough.

We found some questionable nail polish but that's about it.

On this flight, I also paid extra for the leg room (an exit row). I requested an aisle seat for Julie. Our tickets actually said "exit row" and on Julie's, "Aisle." But here's the thing, Ralph -- even though her ticket said "aisle" her seat was a window seat. This is the joy of a 747-400. And right in front of her was the airplane door which jutted out actually giving her LESS leg space. I had the middle seat which did give me the leg space but there are trade offs. The video screens flip out and up from under the seats and have no remotes. That didn't prove to be a problem because they didn't work, anyway. The tray tables are a bit wider but snugger on one's lap. Also, no overhead bins or lights or seatback with magazines in it. But legroom. Legroom good. Other stuff, not good. Verdict? A weak win, but I'll pay for the ability to stand up without climbing on people any day of the week.

Julie spent much of the rest of our anniversary on the flight professing her love for the cheesecake from Korcarz. I suggested a fromage a trois but was roundly (and rightly) ignored. My humor is oppressive, but it's a dry humor.

By 4:05 (though I don't know what day or time zone) we hadn't left (2:40 ETD) I was feeling punchy because according to my circadian rhythm it was actually half-past-I-should-have-been-asleep-yesterday-ago-o'clock. By punchy I mean I had no filter left and wanted to punch that kid who kept crying a few rows back. We finally took off at 5:15 local time. We should have taken an express. See? Punchy.

I ate a meal (I have lost track how many meals I have eaten recently. I would certainly pay less for a 4 hour flight with no meal service). What is nice about El Al is that I can eat the food everyone eats and not struggle with layers of plastic and aluminum foil. Sure, the food is still pretty bad, but it is the same "bad" as most everyone else's. I realize one of the reasons for this -- in an effort to avoid bad people with bad intentions' being able to do anything evil, only plastic cutlery is issued so the main course has to be edible with a dull spoon. Therefore, there can be nothing in the way of chicken in the chicken nuggets and the nuggets must be the most tender and succulent collections of bread meal and eggs. Also, no spices as they might be used to blind the flight crew I guess. And for some reason, properly cooked green beans are a no-no according to the TSA. I had the chicken and Julie had the wine. Her meal was better.

On my iPad, I watched "Fist Fight." Don't. Save yourself the hundreds of dollars it would cost to get a plane ticket, get an iPad and watch this. It wasn't very good. You're welcome. Julie then watched "A Dog's Purpose." Now I thought Sparky's purpose involved fertilizing my lawn and biting people but according to this movie, the reincarnation of the soul has more to do with a spiritual need to meet Dennis Quaid. Who knew? I wonder what Sparky is up to.

We landed at Ben Gurion airport at 10:15 Israel time, I think. Someone's time, that's for sure. Last off after we got our stuff and made the rounds apologizing to the flight crew. Because we didn't check any luggage we assumed that things would move quickly. We made the mistake, though, of lining up at booth 23 for the Passport Control. Friends, please, don't use line 23. The guy wasn't just asking people questions before he let them into the country, I believe he was writing biographies for each person. Except us. He was a bit confused by why we had different last names and yet still insisted we were married, but then he shrugged his shoulders and let us go. Senja and Steve had set up a car for us so we contacted the driver and made it to Efrat by a bit after midnight. Julie used the shower and I availed myself of the pillows.

So now (for those of you keeping score at home) it is almost 11AM. I am sitting at the computer while Julie sleeps. We traveled thousands of miles (and, if my calculations are correct, and why wouldn't they be, billions of kilometers) for an experience like this. To our various hosts, drivers, family and friends (Steve and Senja, Jeff and Sharon, Marci, Nomi and David and anyone else) a sincere and hearty THANK YOU for making this all possible.

More events as updates warrant.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Leg 1, Dan 0

We are on our way to go see Maddie's tekes kumta, her beret granting ceremony in which she marches 10 miles to get a beret. In other words, a regular day at the mall. We started out by experiencing Igor the Uber driver and a nice drive to JFK. Our flight was scheduled on American Airlines, for 5:15PM.

We got to the airport with time to spare, got ourselves checked in and settled in at the gate. I noticed a desk and went up to ask a question about our Kosher meals. Then the line started behind me. I figured that they all had questions about Kosher meals so I shrugged it off, but soon, the desk agent started telling people to sit back down because "if you don't have a seat, I'll call you." Well, I had a seat so I didn't worry. Then the Chuds came.

Apparently, our flight equipment (ii.e. the plane) had been downgraded. I don't want to hear that my plane has been downgraded. When I hear "downgraded" al I can think is "rubber bands" and damned if I am going to have to twist rubber bands to fly across the Atlantic. The 767 which was expected FROM Paris was delayed so they gave us a 757 instead. Now a 757 is a fine aircraft but not state of the art. It holds fewer people so stand-by passengers could not be given seats and people who paid for seats couldn't be given seats. Let the madness ensue. Business class people were being pushed into commoner seating and commoners were being bumped. An offer was made -- if you are willing to take a later flight, American would give you a whopping $500 credit towards another American flight. Um, that's not going to cut it. We already regret taking American -- we aren't going to be bought by the promise of more poor planning. Cash or go blow, my friend. So we didn't give up our seats. I had paid for the "plus" seats with more leg room so I didn't want to risk losing that. And I was afraid that the Kosher food reservation would be lost. We demured. The flight became severely delayed. Apparently, a smaller aircraft means smaller shaped meals so we had to wait for catering services to come over and get things all squared away. The next rumor to circulate was that the later flight was downgraded also so no one who volunteered could even be sure of getting a later seat. Suckers, I thought.

Then the karma came. Amidst the sour mood we began boarding at 6:05. Yes, we had seats. Yes, they were seats 20A and B as expected. But on a 757, those are not the preferred seats we paid for. They are regular "I can't breathe" seats. Calls will be made and a refund had better be tendered because I went crazy stuck in those seats for 6 hours. Harumph! Also, the overhead bin above row 20 is full of oxygen tanks so there is no room for the carry on luggage! Oxygen? Who even uses that stuff anymore?

Now the 757 is a fine plane, but it is like asking your friend Biff to help you move and getting his little brother Peanut, instead. Yeah, he'll try really hard and do a serviceable job, and he is cute in a way, but still, Peanut. Come on. So, yes, I'm taking your gol-darned earbuds whether I need them or not. Cold comfort is still comfort. The exit-information card is from 2013. I'd like to think that exit card information has gone through a series of advances technologically since then and I was afraid I missed something by using out of date diagrams and such. Worrisome, indeed. My subsequent nausea was both caused and exacerbated by the 2 films, Beauty and the Beast and The LEGO Movie. The audio jack didn't work very well and I never liked "Don't Worry, Be Happy" especially on a loop.

We made fine time and eventually deplaned. I had to find a place to daven and had researched Charles De Gaulle airport so I knew that there was a synagogue available to the faithful. Well, that's not entirely true -- there is a multi-faith service area which means a mosque with a small room with a star of David on it. Julie and I made the decision to avoid that particular configuration so I davened in a photo booth. Not as spiritually fulfilling as you might think. And no, no pictures.

Our plan was to hop an RER train (sort of a light rail) into Paris to have some breakfast and lunch (simultaneously) and then jump back on the train and get to the airport before our flight to Tel Aviv left. So we struggled with our phones, paid a company to store our bags, tried to figure out the ticketing line and asked many strangers many questions. Eventually we got to the station (Eau de floret or something not at all like that) and walked down a bunch of streets with names like Rue De and Sauf or Neuf or Sortie or what not. Eventually, we found our way to the Jewish neighborhood and explored the bakery (I had an espresso, Julie had everything else), a falafel place (I had a cup o' falafel, and Julie had one in a pita). Julie insists that this falafel place (World of Falafel, or in French, Vorld Le Falafel, I think) is the best ever. Good, yes. Best, I still hold Moshiko in that spot. Then she bought chocolates at Dam-yell, which is what you do when you have to pay obscene prices for chocolate.

Then back on the train and back to get our luggage, only to find that our flight to Tel Aviv, scheduled variously at 2:30, 2:35 and 2:40 was now listed at 3:30. So I'm sitting -- falafel, 2 airplane meals, a beer and an espresso rumbling their way through my intestinal tract watching, and waiting for the second leg, El Al flight 324 to start boarding and giving me more reason to hate most everyone and everything.