Thursday, March 21, 2013

I Hope It's So

We all know how Facebook is the "go to" place to look up old friends, high school mates or just snoop on people you don't talk to anymore. Yea, I admit it but I don't think I'm alone in doing this. In any case, for some reason, for the past few months, I had been curious what had happened to an old college friend I had and with whom I stayed in touch with up until about 1992. Then we stopped speaking for a reason that I can't even recall now. I'd run into her now and then at awards and televised events as she was a teleprompter person, tapping out scripts and words for famous people to say. But not long after that, I didn't see her at these kind of events any more. She just disappeared. And we stopped talking.

Over the last couple of years since Google and Facebook appeared on the scene, whenever I had a free moment, I'd try and look up her name but really didn't find anything current. Did she move away? Did she get married and change her name? I'd search for a minute and then just move on. 

And then today, I had a moment and searched and this time, finally found a lead to a writer who credited my ex-friend as her first editor. She was saddened to hear that my ex friend had died. She died just last month. I know you'll think it's weird but somewhere in the back of my messed up Jewish brain I had recalled when I couldn't find her that maybe she had died. That's me, always imagining the worst. Yea, maybe she died. And stupid me, she really did die.

I have to say I'm ashamed to say "friend" because I wasn't a good friend, particularly since she died and I never made amends with her. I guess as a means to lessen my guilt, I was curious to find out what were the circumstances of her death, as if somehow that would make me feel as if I was with her when she was suffering.

BTW, my ex-friend was Lauri Klobas. We met at Cal State Hayward and kept in touch over the years in my moves first to New York and then to LA. Lauri was a big Jan and Dean fan and Beach Boys fan and eventually worked for Brian Wilson. She also had a flair for writing and authored several books on Disability and images and portrayals in the media. She was good but also very dramatic. I wasn't surprised then that after some searching, I found that she kept a blog called 'Letters from Home." There, I came across one of her last blogs dated two years before she died which sort of gave me a chance to do all the catching up we would've done had we reconciled as friends. 

I must say that reading it was weird, in a movie sort of way, where letters after the fact take you to the beginning of story you want to tell. But if you knew my friend Lauri, you'd know that would've been a perfect exit for her. She loved all things movie and music and as I said, had a flair for the dramatic. 

Lauri's last words to me in a letter she wrote (she wrote letters even when people moved over to emails and they were very descriptive and sometimes dramatic): "I hope it's so" Those four little words became sort of an inside joke between me and Marlee, as she knew her as well, and we always said we'd look to each other and mouth them if we ever ran into her. Oddly, they are most fitting here, as I paste her last blog entry. Feel free to read it below. She was whip smart, kind, sometimes annoyingly precise but always had a smile. Appreciate the words and the person she was. 

As Lauri said "I hope it's so." 


Posted 10/18/08 9:57 PM From Lauri Posts 8864 Last Apr-2
To All [Msg # 61449.1 ] 

I got off the LFH list when Barbara started it up again... so, this is not really a letter
from home, just a letter to friends.

I had a good spring and summer, busy and running about... working and just enjoying life. I did a big editing job on a MS for a Forumite and that started getting my writing engines going a bit. And then a miracle occured-- I started reading again.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, I thought my reading and writing would be good companions during the treatment but they weren't. I pretty much abandoned the wirting because I could not lose myself in a make-believe world when my own had become so serious. As for reading, well, I just couldn't concentrate anymore. Reading something like Alex McCall's Precious Ramotswe books was an ordeal. I could have once been through a book like that in a day!

In 2004 when the cancer came back, I still hadn't gotten back the reading and writing. Now, some four years later, in the blink of an eye, the reading came back. I read more in a week than I'd read in the previous six years! I knew it wa sonly a matter o ftime for the writing to come back. I've felt it in my bones.

Or maybe it was something else. The second week of June, I bent over to put my laptop under my desk at work as we broke for lunch. Somethng went sproinnnngggg! under my right arm. After that, I couldn't life my arm to do anything. When I'd pull open a door, I could feel the whole girdle of muscles on my side aching.

Since that's been my troublesome side (where the cancer was found), I went for a mammogram. "It's as perfect as perfect can be," the docter said, much to my relief. When I asked about the sproinnng, she traced a line on me, exactly where it hurt. "That's your latissimus."

I was relieved it was just a weird muscle pull.

I went for my six month oncology check-up on June 30th. I told the doctor about the sproinnng and she palpated the area and felt nothing. "If you're not worried about it, I'm not worried about it," she said, and I was told to come back in six months.

Also in that time frame (I'm just not sure when), I was making my bed and I bent over and something that felt like electricity exploded at the base of my spine. I fell on my elbows on the bed saying, "WHAT was that??" I thought that, at last, my if-fy back had gone out" on me. I've had pinched nerves, slipped disks, the whole gamut. This was new.

As I babied my right sproinggged side, something else went out of whack in my back. And then, I fell right on my tailbone. Needless to say, my back has been a mess for months. The acupuncturist is getting rich.

The oncologist called back. She didn't like my blood test from the 30th. Wanted me to take another. It got delayed because I got bit by some nasty insect that left a 4-inch red welt on my arm. I waited for that to improve before I had blood drawn again, not wanting it to skew the results with the bite business going on. Got it done a week later. She liked the second blood test less than the first which turned August into an odyssey of scans and appointments, The day after the Labor Day weekend, she called me and told me that I had metastasized breast cancer. She'd known before the weekend but let me have the holiday to enjoy.

And so, I am about to start Chemo 3.0, a regime that will be far more brutal than anything I have had. Before, I had one treatment every three weeks. This will begin as an oral regime, 14 days straight. I imagine I will be far sicker than I've ever been but I don't care as I now feel it in my pelvis and spine. I have already had one surgery, a thing called the Gamma Knife which radiated out four small, small tumors in my brain. This was so painless that I went home and had pizza for dinner that night. It's rather amazing. I am also a candidate for something called the Cyber Knife that does the same sort of thing in the body... computer pin-pointing of tumors and they are blasted away by some beams of whatever (I forget). I am hoping that removes the problems and that the chemo will be more of a "mop-up" operation. Before the Cyber Knife option came up, she said I might be on chemo for as long as a year this time... and that really gave me pause to think-- would I rather die with my soul intact... or go through this grueling marathon again which tears one apart mentally and physically?

Well, things hurt now and I want to fight it. Hurts so bad that I am having trouble walking and am about to go out on disability at work.

I'm going to fight to keep my reading and the almost-there writing stuff intact. I may not have another six years to gain them back.

I have a friend who's going to help me out with things, should I not be able to go shopping or what have you. One of my immediate needs is to get to the DMV. I need to renew my driver's license before the 28th (my birthday) and want to have the picture taken with my hair, which is REALLY good right now. I don't want to be pictured in a wig. But it hurts to walk to get into the car to get to the DMV! I need to try and do it this coming week.

The Pavilion of Pink Lights was a wonder to me in 2004. I hope, what with all the troubles and everything else around us, that some of you can blast me pinkly or prayerfully or however you send energy and love. The odds are much different this time but I know I can beat the Beast back again. I've done it twice before. After four years, I thought I was done with it but no, it wants me really bad. And I want it gone as much as it wants to eat me alive.

Up until 2002, my medical record read that I'd had a tonsilectomy at age 6. There was nothing else. But I have certainly made up for lost time since then, unhappily so.

I just have to hang in there. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Happy Ha-noo-kah! Happy Eas-tah!

By popular demand, it's time for Jack's Happy Hanukkah story. It's a yearly tradition! Enjoy!

San Leandro is a small suburb of about 70,00 people, outside of San Francisco, right next to Oakland in Northern California. It lays claim to a few distinctions. It is the Sausage Capitol of California. It is the home of Rice-A-Roni – even though Rice-A-Roni is advertised as "The San Francisco Treat.”

And it was profiled by a piece on CBS in the late 60's as being one of America's most racist cities. It may have been but we never really knew..well, sort of...

San Leandro was (is?) my home town.

Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, being a minority wasn't too much fun for most minorities in San Leandro; that's because there really weren't many minorities in San Leandro. There was one African American family who had a cross burned on their lawn. And there were stories floating around that when a family that was not Caucasian was planning to move into another part of town, neighbors would conspire to buy the home themselves. We even had a part of town where people called "Oakies," lived. Though San Leandro was “The Cherry City” and prided itself on being friendly and welcoming, it was oddly conflicted when it came to its residents who were different.

As for our family, we were definitely different and certainly part of a minority - but not like any of the other minorities in town. Our parents were deaf. We didn't "speak" another language so people could identify us by the sounds of Spanish or Tagolog. When we walked into stores, we “spoke” in American Sign Language. Sometimes our parents, in an attempt to be like hearing people, tried to speak, but most times, we all conversed quietly, with only the small grunts that my parents occasionally made and swish of the hands in the air to break the silence. It was all very fast and stealthy. And it was great when you wanted to talk about someone who was standing right there who didn’t understand sign. In any case, there were definitely not very many people like The Jasons in San Leandro; people didn't quite know what to make of us.

We were also Jews. Because San Leandro was primarily Catholic and Protestant, being Jewish meant that once in a while you got your share of weird remarks. My PE teacher, Mr. Barry, often called out to me with this greeting, "here comes the roly- poly Matzah Ball." And I'm not sure what my lunch mates were thinking as they stared when I took out Matzah for lunch when it was Passover time (Maybe it was because it was TUNA on Matzah, don't you think Jack?) . But there was sanctuary (pun intended) from the stares. It was in Temple Beth Sholom. It was San Leandro's only Jewish synagogue. It stood right in the center of town and was rather modest and respectable, as conservative congregations went. It was where every Jewish kid in San Leandro and Hayward went to get Bar Mitzvahed or to attend Sunday school from the 1950's up until today. Though Jews were definitely a minority in San Leandro, Temple Beth Shalom allowed them to feel as if they belonged someplace. That worked for most members of Temple Beth Sholom, but again, we just had to be different from everyone else.

That's because were Sephardic Jews - Jews who hailed from Southern Europe. Our grandparents who lived close by didn't speak Yiddish like everyone at Temple; they spoke Ladino, a form of ancient Spanish. Jews who spoke Spanish? Suddenly my friends assumed we were Mexican. We didn't eat brisket, bagels or Kugel either. We ate baklava and fassoulia. Someone once asked me if we were Greeks. And I wasn’t fair skinned like temple members that came from Eastern Europe. I was dark and swarthy. If you looked at my baby pictures, you’d actually think I born a black child - Jew-fro right there for all to see. Well, at least I didn't burn quickly in the summertime.

We were just very different. And being different, we attracted other temple members who were really different.

One Jewish couple in particular -- I can't quite remember their name -- lived on Oakie Hill. Oakie Hill was the unincorporated part of San Leandro just above our house. (The place probably got its name from the people who moved there from Oklahoma during the Depression thus the name, "Oakies"). But more than likely the name came from the fact that most people who lived on Oakie Hill were just poorer than everyone else in San Leandro. In any case, we never really saw any other members of the temple hanging out with them but we continued to say hello to them when we saw them at the grocery store and we didn’t even mind sitting next to them in the back of the temple when no one else would.

The most distinctive thing about the couple was that they drove the biggest, oldest Lincoln Continental - black. People probably thought they were undertakers. Many years later when I moved to New York, I also realized they reminded me of a couple I might have seen living on Chrystie Street or Hester Street on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. They were older, probably in their seventies and they always wore black clothes. The husband was portly and was never without his hat. The wife was usually nicely coiffed but wore clothes that were definitely from another era. she also also wore the thickest glasses I had ever seen. They were tinted blue - not like sunglasses - but as somehow prescription glasses because she might have had a problem with sunlight. And they both spoke with heavy accents. It sounded as if they were Eastern European but their speech was delivered in a cheery, high pitched fashion. It was as if Borat married Minnie Mouse and they had kids. Different. But we liked them.

One day around Passover, we were riding with our parents in our Sky Blue Chevrolet Biscayne. My brother was probably playing on the dashboard beneath the back window waving to people behind us and I was more than likely playing with the hole in the floor that allowed me to see the pavement whizzing past below. I remembered we pulled up to a light and waited for it to change when suddenly, my brother and I heard a horn honk. Of course since we were Mom and Dad's ears, we looked around excitiedly. Every ride for us meant that we were practically the drivers. We had to pay attention to sounds, look for ambulances. It was grownup for sure. Anyway, we looked for the honking sound and right next to us at the light was the black Lincoln Continental, idling noisily. And inside were our friends in black from temple. And the were waving hello. My brother and I got our parents’ attention and we all excitedly waved back.

Then our friends in the Continental motioned for our parents to roll down the window so they could talk to them. (They never seemed to get it that our parents were deaf). Instead, I rolled down the back window and shouted "Hello!" With a cheery smile as she pushed up her dark glasses closer to her eyes as if she wanted to see us more clearly, the wife leaned around her portly husband and shouted out in her loudest Eastern European accented voice, "Happy Happy Han-oo-kah! Happy Eas-tah!" He husband nodded in agreement.

It was neither holiday.

Hanukkah was months away and Easter wasn’t a Jewish holiday. But we didn't really mind. They were being friendly to us swarthy deaf types and we were happy to talk to anyone who wanted to talk to us. Birds of a feather, you know.

They remained there smiling and waving, even when the light changed to green and we drove away. That was the last time I remember seeing them, but from that point on, no matter what holiday it was - Jewish, Christian or secular – my brother and I would intone "Happy Han-oo-kah! Hapy Eas-tah!" We’d do it on Yom Kippur. We’d do it on Passover. We even do it on Christmas. And we definitely did it on Easter and Hanukkah.

And we do it to this day. I'd like to think that we do it because it was part of our interesting childhood, of growing up Jewish and Sephardic with deaf parents in San Leandro. If kids made faces or adults stared at us in the market because our parents talked differently or laughed because we ate Matzahs or that our friends were different, our parents taught us that it didn't matter; though we were minority, within a minority, within a minority, we were definitely not minor - by any means. At least that's what they implied with their cheery smiles when we wondered out loud that the gas station attendant ignored my brother and me when we would interpret for our parents. "They're just hearing people," my mom would say. And with that carefree attitude, it was if they wanted us to understand that we were unique and COOL. It's an attitude my brother and I carry around to this day and one which for which I am forever thankful. How else could we have dealt with living in such a strange land of white skies and rock gardens that was San Leandro?

So if you see me on the street this holiday season, you could say "Happy Holidays" or "Peace" or "Happy New Year." But it would be really fun to say "Happy Han-oo-kah! Happy Eas-tah!" instead. Just to be unique. Just to be cool. Just to be different.

Happy Hanukkah, or however you'd like to spell it.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fat Jack

This is me in high school. As you can see I was a chub. In fact, my nickname in high school was Fat Jack.

But when I went back to my 35th high school reunion recently , I looked as I do now. I was proud of my change/transformation. That's because I told myself Karma insured everyone else who was skinny in school was fat and I was skinny.

I really wasn't interested in going up to people who made fun of me in school. I was more interested in hanging with old friends who I had seen many times over the years who treated me like Jack without the fat.

And yet, I had to talk to just ONE person, someone who made fun of me just as a way to show off, just like in some bad TV movie about the ugly duckling turned into a swan. Big mistake Former Fat Jack. Karma's a bitch and works its magic both ways.

After a few minutes of scanning the room, I found the perfect person. It was Cas Munoz,who was my gym teacher. He was the one who always taunted me for being last when we had to run laps around the track. He was old, he looked like a bulldog, and he liked to bark out orders. "Jason, run! Jason go to the showers."

Or sometimes just "Jason!"

Cas Munoz also happened to be the teacher who taught me how to drive. For that one summer in 1972 while a classmate whose name I can't remember sat in the back seat snapping her gum as a means to open and close the cold sores she had in the corners of her mouth and while Randy Cashion, the big bully who kept eyeing me in the rear view mirror, waiting for the right moment for Munoz to turn his head so Cashion could womp on me (just another word for beating the s@#^ out of someone), I was happy to sit behind the wheel humming to "Daniel" or "Song Sung Blue." For that one summer while Munoz maneuvered me around the white lines in the car with two sets of brakes, I was finally driving and I was happy. In the end when I got that little driving certificate, I was so proud that I could finally get behind the wheel of my inherited 1961 Ford Falcon that was peeling grey paint, that I didn't care I had to do it while sitting on a telephone book. Yea, I was fat AND short and my arm still hurt from Randy Cashion womping on me but I was now a licensed driver. It was boss.

So, now, 37 years later, as I walked up to him, I suddenly realized I didn't hold any grudges. Not against Randy, not against the other kids who called me Fat Jack. Not even against Cas MunozI was more interested in thanking Cas Munoz. And maybe I didn't need to show off. Maybe all I needed to do was to just thank him; let bygones be bygones.Thank him for teaching me how to drive.

That's because looking back, I realized that i've loved the times I've spent driving down the open road. Lots of times, I took road trips not because I wanted to go someplace but simply because I wanted to find a big stretch of open highway with a big black thunderstorm at the end or a blazing setting sun and just DRIVE. One summer I even drove 13,000 miles, through deserts, cornfields and big cites, eventually touching 38 states with the wheels of my Datsun B-210 with only an AM-FM radio to entertain me because it was there. When I got home, my car festooned with stickers from every tacky tourist attraction and Civil War memorabilia shop, I proudly proclaimed that if all else failed, I could be a truck driver; that's how much I loved the open road and the feel of a steering wheel in my hands.

Now, here I was once again with the guy who taught me how to drive. I considered Cas Munoz as he drank his cocktail. He looked the same, as if he hadn't aged a year. Same face that looked like a fist with eyes, same thinning hair. Then I overheard someone say he was 80. Only 80? Wasn't he 80 back then? And then I remembered how we perceive people older than us when we're young. If you don't believe me, just look at your high school yearbook. Then try and tell me students and teachers don't look older than teenagers and teachers look today.

Now I was in front of him, both of us adults. We could talk as equals, And now I would be doing something good because mom taught me it was always good to talk old people; you might learn something.

With an air of former-fatty-turned-skinny confidence, I cleared my throat, shot out my right hand.

"Hey Mr. Munoz, I'm Jack Jason and I just wanted to thank you for teaching me how to drive. Every time I get into a car, I think of you. I just wanted to tell you what a gift you gave me.

Then I added, "thanks for being my teacher."

Munoz cocked his head, considered my words for a moment and then looked over his glasses and got within three inches of my face. I could smell his aftershave and see the hairs in his nose (I'm still short).

Then he cleared his throat, and barked, quietly but just as if we were back on the field at San Leandro High School 35 years ago,

"Hey, you were fat..."


Today, I struggle to stay away from Fat Jack and vow daily never to be fat again. Former fatties know the next part. Sometimes the fat voice in your head gets too loud and you overdo it and get too skinny. In fact, all you have to do is watch my stint as interpreter for Marlee Matlin on Celebrity Apprentice. Someone commented that I looked like a Holocaust victim by week 12.

Though I professed to haveI an excuse - we never had TIME to eat because the producers kept everyone so busy making pizzas or running around finding camping equipment. In the end, sometimes I listened too much to the voice of Cas Munoz or the other kids who taunted me way back when that made me obsessed and kept me away from the carbs and sweets that made me fat when I was a kid.

But I eventually realized that all I needed to do was just chill. And make sure that as I get older, I STAY ACTIVE - some Spinnng, P90X, lots of hiking - and watch the dessets and sweets and definitely, no Cracker Barrel. It's pretty simple, really. Eat sensibly and definitely don't starve. Most of all, enjoy food but don't revolve your life around it. And go figure, my Grandmother lived to be 97 and pretty much ate whatever she wanted. It's all about moderation.

I still have that fat kid in my brain and I guess that's okay. It keeps me balanced. It keeps me on the edge. It keeps me sharp.

Mostly, it just keeps bullies from womping on me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Evil Eggs, A Holiday Treat

Ah, the Deviled Egg. Everyone's favorite hoiday treat once you've realized that you've bought too many eggs for your Easter Egg hunt. Yes, the Deviled Egg. You'll find them on movie sets and family picnics; church socials and PTA meetings. The treat that's sure to please. And why not? Who could ever resist those little salmonella boats, just waiting to be eaten? Why even Fluffy, the cat, enjoys them too as she walks about unoticed on the dining room table.

And don't forget to let them sit out for at least a couple of hours to get nice and ripe. Nothing says Happy Easter better than four hours on the john after enjoying a warm and aromatic Deviled Egg!

Happy Easter..err, Eating, err..Passover!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It is a joyful day. Yes, today I found out where the delicious additives in Cracker Barrel's "healthy" string beans come from. They probably come from Hormel. The video above just reaffirms it.

You see the one and only time I ever ATE at Cracker Barrel was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (I admit I've been to Cracker Barrel many times since as I've traveled the country because though I'm no fan of the restaurants, I can't get enough of the gift shops where tea cozy's made to look like barnyard animals and Coca Cola decks of cards with extra large print sit beside jars of foot long licorice whips and refrigerator magnets). There has never been anything on the Cracker Barrel menu for this finicky former fat boy with an acid reflux issue could eat; it was all pork, Pork, PORK with some red meat, brown/white/yellow sauces thrown in and lots of potato products. As we walked into the Cracker Barrel Restaurant with my family and cousins in Grand Rapids, I whined "I can't eat anything here. It's gross."

After employing a delaying tactic looking at the travel sized Sorry game in the gift shop, I finally decided I would be a team player and at least go into the dining room and SIT at the table. No sooner than I had sat down then my cousin said she had made a discovery.

"I found something YOU can eat."

My eyes scanned the giant tri-fold menu but all I could see was more variations of Arnold the Pig (name that vintage 60's TV show).

"They have string beans!" she pointed proudly. And there, under "sides" of corn succotash and creamed spinach were string beans. Simply string beans.

Great, string beans I thought. Give me a couple of buttermilk biscuits (without the pork gravy) and I guess I can call it a meal. What more could I expect from Cracker Barrel. The waitress didn't seem to mind that the little fussy guy from the Left Coast of the USA who, just a few moments earlier sat there with a disdainful look and who shook his head "no" when she asked if there was something he wanted to order, now was ready to order. "Coming right up," she said cheerfully.

For some reason the string beans took longer than everyone else's meal. While my family and cousins dug into their Country Fried Steaks and Gravy and Over Easy Runny Eggs on Hash, I waited patiently for my string beans. Well at least I had my glass of water in the mason jar with a handle to sip from.

Finally the beans arrived.

I have to admit the first bite was pure heaven; salty, creamy texture and just the right temperature, I didn't mind that they were covered with slivered almonds. They just tasted good. Now everyone was happy that I was happy (or they were just happy that I stopped whining). Oh frabjous day.

After a few minutes of "hmmm, these are good" and "wanna take a bite?" I decided to engage our waitress. I was just so happy there was something for me to eat. I motioned to her (I can't recall her name but she Somebody "Lou" like Betty or Joan) because I had to tell her how much I enjoyed the beans.

"Scuze me," I piped up as she poured some tap water into my mason jar with a handle, "but I had to tell you how much I LOVE these string beans with slivered almonds."

"Why, thank yew!" She was as proud of them as if she cooked them herself.

Ever eager to find a way to continue the conversation with Somebody Lou, because, face it, everyone else was too into their gravy, ham hocks and potato skins, I asked her if she could tell me how they made the string beans. Were they steamed with a little butter? Parboiled and then tossed with some oil like canola or olive? Or were they flash fried, then tossed in a baking dish and lightly seasoned with herbs and sprayed with Pam?

"They're made with bacon fat.."

The whole room fell silent while everyone looked to see what my reaction would be.

"B-b-b-b-acon FAT?"

"Yep! Good isn't it?"

I realized then that no amount of sticking my finger down my throat (forget that I have a fear of vomiting that I will elaborate in another blog posting) or greasy buttermilk biscuits would erase the damage to my esophagus/stomach lining/duodenum/small and large intestine that I imagined, let alone the image of my long passed Grandmother who now loomed it front of me because she was the one who made me throw out the little Christmas tree I brought home from school or who taught us that bacon and all pork products were evil just because we were Jewish.


I had eaten nearly half of plate of string beans and the other half sat on there in a pool of slivered almonds and slightly yellow and cream colored liquid that was basically liquified lard. It was then I realized I would have to make a choice. Push away from the table and never set foot in Cracker Barrel ever again; or suck it up.

I sucked it up.

In fact, I ate it up and used my biscuit to finish off the sauce. For me, it was pretty disgusting but damn they tasted good! While I ate the rest of the beans, everyone else at the table sat in disbelief. I had crossed the pork barrier and there was no turning back; acid indigestion, the runs, and eternal Jewish hell (aka eternal guilt) be damned.

655Jack was eating pork meat trimmings and pig lard. And I liked it.

Guess I can check Cracker Barrel String Beans made with bacon fatt off of my pork bucket list.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Happy New Year / L' Shana Tovah

We Jews are lucky. We get two New Years. The regular one and the Jewish one. Except the Jewish one isn't so festive, in that Dick Clark-now Ryan Seacrest-can I stay up until Midnight because the champagne I drank way too early has made me loopy and I can't keep my eyes open kind of way. It's a sit in temple (and usually during the hottest day of the year) in your best suit and tie and contemplate the year you've had and the year that's coming up kind of way. I wouldn't have it any other way.

I'm home and it's 2 am and I can't sleep. It's New Year but unfortunately this year, I was flying as the Jewish New Year began and for the first time in a long time, I wasn't in temple. I stressed out a little and then rationalized that perhaps being at the Western Wall last Thursday was the next best thing I could've done. I'm not sure, but just in case, I'll ask for forgiveness next week on Yom Kippur.

From me to you, a sweet and Happy New Year

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A long, last vacation blog 9.28.09

Cruising the high seas isn’t for you if:

You don’t like people who talk loudly. I’ve noticed a pattern now and it has nothing to do with the fact that cruises typically attract older people who might, in turn, be hard of hearing. Outside on dry land, people talk a moderate level and even when the occasion necessitates an elevation of voice volume (“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!” or “You’re what???” or “My stock is NOT worth how much?!”). But for some reason, the open ocean makes people want to talk loudly. They talk loudly at meals (I’ve heard every detailed conversation from people several tables away); they talk loudly during on board presentations; they even talk loudly in the library (“Miss, why is it that I can’t get my “In-ter-net” to connect to my favorite soap opera web site?”). I figure it must be that we’re so removed from civilization, from the throngs of people we encounter in our daily lives back home, that many people feel the need to release all that pent up noise and just TALK. They’re loud and they’re proud of where they hail from. I think it’s an American thing. The foreign types I’ve seen like the Germans, the Spaniards, the Chinese don’t seem to talk as loudly as the Americans.

You don’t like to see big bellies and by-pass operation scars by the poolside
. Cruisers are very proud of their bodies, no matter what shape or size they come in. And if they got scars, well, show ‘em off, they seem to say, as they parade around the pool (and sometimes around the dining areas, library and shops), scars in full view. I know you know that I’m a bit of a shy guy, some might say a prude but a scar is one thing. A big belly is another. But big bellies with scars just don’t look good together.

You don’t like people watching. If you don’t like people watching or observing how people on board remind you of people back home, try another kind of vacationing. I for one LOVE watching people and looking at how much they remind me of famous people is one activity I get into here. Everyone we’ve met on board does it! Even the nice couple from Minne-SOH-tah that we’ve been fortunate to share our dinner table with each evening does it. The woman who sits behind us each night is “Lucille Ball.” “Look, Lucille Ball is getting on tour number 4.” The Asian guy with the long white hair and moustache is “Mr. Miyagi.” “Mr. Miyagi” was doing the 4000 piece crossword puzzle in the library.” Last night I found myself saying to everyone at the dinner table that I ran into Wilford Brimley in the elevator and everyone nodded in agreement, knowing exactly whom I was talking about. It’s fun!

Anyway, back to my travels. After two days of open sea cruising (I spent time reading, going to the movies (saw a great little movie called “The Visitor” and napping) I woke up early yesterday morning in Israel. It had been 20 years since I’d been to Israel and I had forgotten what a beautiful country it is. And safe. I had a chance to talk to our tour guide Moshe about the threat of terrorism and he said that it was all a matter of perspective. He said to take into account the number of days in the year that you DON’T hear about something bad happening in Israel (or any place for that matter). He also said if he believed the news, the US is more dangerous than Israel. He said the news from the US is always about school shootings, hurricanes, commuter train accidents and child abductions. Perspective.

It was interesting to note that during the course of this trip, I got 4 emails from friends who sent me news about 8 tourists kidnapped in Egypt. Was it a warning not to go there? (Too late, tour ticket’s been paid for). Eight million tourists visit Egypt each year; I’m not good at math but 8 out of 8 million is a pretty small percentage. I know, I know, you’re just watching out for me but again, try looking at the world from the opposite end of the binoculars. The stuff up close looks awfully small if you just turn the binoculars around and look in the other end. Every day people die, but babies are born. Every day, people get into car accidents and many die, but millions more enjoy the road. And every day people travel all over the world visiting the most exotic and wonderful places and a very small, small, small percentage are kidnapped or killed.

One thing that has changed in Israel since I was last here is the traffic. It’s crowded as hell on Israeli highways and many times I thought it made LA traffic look like Christmas morning. They don’t drive fast in Israel but they drive crazy. Cars come perilously close to each other as they drive down narrow streets; but no one seems to get hit! Pedestrians are brave too; they dart in and out of cars and manage to make it across the street in one piece, even as vehicles barrel down on them. It’s funny that I’ve seen more accidents on big wide highways in the States than the narrow little streets or scary traffic circles that you see all over Europe and the Middle East

That being said, after a few hours of landing in beautiful Haifa (reminded me of San Francisco with it’s hills and seaside locale), we found ourselves at the Jaffa Gate, ready to proceed on foot into the Old City, Jerusalem. The golden stones which the city is built from and which brightly reflects the sunlight, only enhanced the sense of holiness that surrounds the city.

Our first stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church erected on the site where Jesus was crucified. Imagine climbing a narrow set of steps with people from all over the world, speaking every language imaginable to a small hole in the ground where the cross that Jesus died upon was placed in the ground. The wait to see the spot where Jesus was resurrected was even more crowded and the line to crawl into the room, 6 people at a time, was 2 ½ hours long. The best bet to get close to Jesus was the slab of rock where his body was purified. That only required a few minutes wait as people kissed the stone, placed their money and crucifixes on it (obviously to bless the crucifixes but I couldn’t figure out why they put their money on it). Even as Jew, I was in awe of the history of the place; a church where millions of people over the eons have come to pray and remember a man who started out as a simple carpenter.

Our next stop was the magnificent Western (Wailing) Wall. I had only been here once before and it still gave me goose pimples when I walked up to it. There at the wall, I saw the thousands of notes placed in the cracks as I placed the 8 notes that friends had given me. I also said a personal prayer and then, of course, did the tourist thing and began snapping pictures. I didn’t want to forget the moment. My dad walked over in his floppy hat and smiled broadly for the camera. Not bad for an 84 year old guy!

The rest of the day was devoted to walking in and among the streets of Jerusalem. It was interesting to hear from our jovial Israeli tour guide that the Arabs in Israel were just that - Arabs - and he seemed to refuse to recognize any of them as Palestinians. He also told me that most Israelis are not religious, contrary to what many might think. Patriotic yes, religious no. But here and there, we did see the familiar black hats, long coats and beards and we laughed to hear Moshe say “why they think that wearing clothes from 100 years ago in Russia in 90 degree heat means you will be closer to God, makes no sense to me.”

We left Israel watching traffic crawl on the other side going into Jerusalem for at least 20 miles and the Mediterranean sun setting before us. If any of you ever had doubts of coming to Israel, get rid of them. The sense of history is just too much to ignore. Plus they’ve got the best hummus this side of Pico Boulevard.

Next we visited the largely unconsidered island of Cyprus. I say unconsidered because how many of you would ever think of going there? It’s really quite interesting; an amalgam of Greek, Turkish and British cultures. It’s supposedly the birthplace of Aphrodite and we visited many sites of antiquities devoted to her and her mate, Apollo. But more importantly, it’s the home of Haloumi cheese! Yes the only cheese you can throw on the grill (I learned that from our very musky smelling but pleasant tour guide). We visited a small Greek Cypriot village, tasted some very sweet Cypriot wine and marveled at the overpriced souvenirs.

Yesterday we’re cruised our way to Egypt and waited to begin our tour at --groan -- 6 am. That’s because we landed in Alexandria and Cairo was 3 hours away. In fact, we had signed up for a 12-hour tour where we were scheduled to see the Pyramids at Giza and the much-heralded Egyptian Museum. No matter what time I had to get up, I was determined to go, as I’ve wanted to see the Pyramids for years. Last year it was the Great Wall and this year it had to be the Pyramids. (Maybe next year it will be the Taj Mahal in Agra, India)

Egypt was fascinating. My first impression was that it was pretty poor as countries go. Many buildings are left empty, litter covers the highways and public transportation consists of several people jamming into private mini buses. The landscape was definitely desert and reminded me of parts of Mexico – cactus, date palms and dry riverbeds. But what was fascinating was the influence of religion on daily life. Unlike in Turkey where being a Muslim wasn’t necessarily reflected in the clothes that you wear, in Egypt you’ll rarely see a woman’s head uncovered. At one point in the Egyptian Museum, I saw the freakiest sight – three women dressed in black, head to toe with just their eyes exposed looking into a display case of mummified animals. The room must have been 90 degrees (no A/C at the Egyptian Museum so if you want a sauna experience, go there first) and yet they walked about without a bead of sweat on their eyebrows (all I could see!). Wild!

When we drove into Cairo and saw the Pyramids in the distance, I found myself bouncing up and down as if I was ten years old again waiting to see the Matterhorn along side the San Diego Freeway on our way to Disneyland. Funny, they looked just like the Luxor Hotel from afar! But when we drove up to them, the size and grandeur of 3 pyramids perched on a sandy hill was just awe inspiring. I couldn’t believe I was finally there.

I also couldn’t believe how much of humanity was there; thousands of people, on foot, on bus, on camel -- all crowding the site. And it was hot – Palm Springs hot; about 90 degrees and a very warm wind blowing the dust about. Nevertheless, I tackled my photo taking in earnest and snapped about as many angles as I could of the spectacular stone structures. Next we ventured to the magnificent Sphinx, which, as I’m sure you’ve all heard, is not as big as you would imagine.

But I was impressed nonetheless probably because the damn thing has always appeared to the statue where all the world’s secrets reside. The sight of the sand colored statue, worn and weathered by time, as it gazes towards the East, and knowing how many people over thousands of years have come to visit it is overwhelming. You can’t help but take pictures as if you’ve seen a UFO for the first time. By the time we left the Sphinx, I was dripping in sweat having had to contend with thousands of people who ventured together through stone corridors to find the right vista which to see the spectacular Sphinx.

After a great lunch at the Cairo Hilton, we made our last stop at the magnificent Egyptian Museum, the largest museum of Egyptian antiquities in the world. It was crazy to think that we had only 2 hours to see over 500,000 pieces so we budgeted our time wisely and tackled the main exhibits like the Rosetta Stone and the treasures of King Tut. The museum was oppressively hot – no air conditioning as I said EXCEPT in the King Tut treasure room. Once we found it, we all huddled in there like dogs lying on a cool garage floor trying to escape the summer heat. But it was certainly worth it to see that funeral mask, in all its gold and lapis glory once again (remember when the King Tut exhibit and all the hoopla that accompanied it came to the US in the late 70’s?). Even the creepy room of mummies at 90 degrees was worth the visit. It’s too bad they didn’t allow cameras; otherwise I would have been there for hours snapping away.

We got back to the ship at 7:30, tired and sunburned but satisfied that we saw sights that not many have a chance to see. Which brings me to the point that I want to make here. Travel if you can. The world is so damn interesting to stay locked up at home. If you’re afraid of what might happen, fuggedaboutit. You’ve been watching the news too much. There are millions of tourists who visit these places every day and the chances are greater that you’ll slip and fall in your bathtub than suffer some terrible fate while traveling on the road in some faraway country.

And if you can’t afford to travel, open up a book and read about those faraway places. Go to the bookstore and open up a big atlas and see how many countries you can read about; renew your subscription to National Geographic (and when you’re done with a bunch of issues, give them to a school or donate them to the Goodwill; they love to take them!). You will find yourself amazed and fascinated by the variety of the world’s culture and its people when you have the chance to see it in person or through the lens of travel books and magazines. Travel is a great leveler. One you’re away from home, you find all the cultural arrogance you carry with you slipping away and in its place, and you’ll find some much needed humility. I can’t live without it.

I’ll be back home tomorrow night but going right back to work and this time traveling to more sedate places like Alabama and Michigan. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about this trip as much as I have had writing about it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Just a moment while I return to the real world. Then it's back to vacation...9.26.09

I'm writing this from somewhere in the Mediterranean, between Cyprus and Egypt and I read this transcript on line and couldn't resist posting it. It's amazing how news that takes place 6,000 miles away can seem so close thanks to the wonders of the Internet. I feel like I'm at home with all of you, cringing each time Sarah Palin speaks.

Back later with my vacation blog from Israel and Cyprus.

COURIC: You've cited Alaska's proximity to Russia as part of your foreign policy experience. What did you mean by that?

PALIN: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and on our other side, the land-- boundary that we have with-- Canada. It-- it's funny that a comment like that was-- kind of made to-- cari-- I don't know, you know? Reporters--


PALIN: Yeah, mocked, I guess that's the word, yeah.

COURIC: Explain to me why that enhances your foreign policy credentials.

PALIN: Well, it certainly does because our-- our next door neighbors are foreign countries. They're in the state that I am the executive of. And there in Russia--

COURIC: Have you ever been involved with any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?

PALIN: We have trade missions back and forth. We-- we do-- it's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where-- where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is-- from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to-- to our state.

Monday, September 22, 2008

I'm Available for Weddings & Bar Mitzvahs: 9. 22.08

So, we’ve sailed through the strait of water that separates Europe and Asia. We’ve visited ancient churches in Bulgaria and the famous Potempkin Steps in Odessa, Ukraine. We’ve even visited Romania, home of Transylvania and Count Dracula’s Castle and what’s been the highlight for me during the last three days? I made marzipan flowers…see? What do you think? I’m the next Food Network star!

Three days ago (I’ve lost track of days of the week) we sailed the Bosporus. It was wild to find ourselves between two continents, sailing up a waterway that men and women have been sailing through for thousands of centuries.

The next day we found ourselves in Bulgaria (I heard someone refer to it as Ulgaria because they didn’t find it so pretty. I’m inclined to agree). Not much to speak of but we did find ourselves in a Bulgarian Orthodox Church where two monks chanted in harmony together beautifully. (I'll try and upload the video later).

Speaking of ugly, because it was cold outside that day, I decided to wear my Obama ’08 hat to keep my keppe warm. Just as I was departing for our tour bus, some fat American guy walked by, looked at my hat and exclaimed loud enough for me and about 20 other people to hear, “there’s another idiot!” I yelled out “who said that?” and this guy with a gut so big that he probably hadn’t seen his feet in a few years said defiantly “I did.” I considered the source and left it alone. But I was fuming. I wanted to yell out something but couldn’t come up with a comeback fast enough. Then I looked around to see if people were nodding in agreement with him or me. But I should’ve known. No one seemed to care. They wanted to start their tours, damnit!

The next day, we were in more picturesque Odessa, Ukraine but the weather was pretty bad with rain coming down in sheets and a cold wind blowing like it was the middle of November. Now instead of signs being in letters we could recognize, were definitely in a place where they used the Cyrillic alphabet. I couldn’t decipher anything. Despite the rain, we were able to visit the magnificent Potemkin Steps and later, marveled at the architecture that reminded me a bit of St. Petersburg, Russia; buildings painted in pink and yellow and there were large boulevards lined with Sycamore trees. It’s unfortunate that the weather ended up being so bad because Odessa seemed to have a great deal of character and I would’ve liked to have explored more of the city on foot.

After a delay of a couple of hours last night due to rough seas, today we visited the last of three countries on our Black Sea tour - Romania. Romania was probably my least favorite. Except for the magnificent Beaux Arts Casino that was built around 1913, the architecture was gray and drab. Even the people seemed stuck in another era as they walked about in long shapeless dresses, clunky shoes and pants and jackets that were straight out of the video for “Bad.” But I guess that’s understandable when you realize that the country just came out from one of the most oppressive Communist regimes only in the 1990’s. An interesting side note: our tour guide told us that if you wanted to make a lot of money in Romania, just open a chain of private restrooms for public use. There are so few public restrooms available in Romania, he said, that people would be willing to pay just to use a clean toilet. Imagine that, a chain of public restrooms. I’ll call McCrapper; anyone want to make a fortune with me?

Seriously, there is money to be made in the countries of Bulgaria, Romania and Odessa. They have joined the European Union but the change over is still a few years away. So before they switch over to the Euro, it’s clear that there are bargains to be had. Seeing, for example, that the average salary in Ukraine is $500 a month, one could easily snatch up some cheap land or set up a business. And if commerce isn’t your style, just take a vacation here. Traveling is very cheap. Granted you wont get the usual luxuries you might be used to but still pretty reasonable and it would certainly be an adventure, if that were your thing.

Back to my marzipan. And no scoffing at my stylings; from what I’ve read on line about the Emmys last night, my marzipan making class sounds like it's way more exciting!

655 Jack

Friday, September 19, 2008

Istanbul, Day Two: A Day of Contrasts 9.19.08

New York may be The Big Apple. Paris may be the City of Lights. And after being in Istanbul for 2 days, I’d have to say that Istanbul is the City of Prayers and Spices. Everywhere you go in this city, the air is filled with the scent of spices and herbs as you see men on their bended knees in supplication to Allah. As a city that straddles two continents, it’s a city of contrasts, of architecture old and new, of a culture both religious and secular, and of cuisine both East and West. It was the perfect place for us to enjoy new adventures while indulging in our past.

Yesterday we had a chance to visit the Grand Bazaar with our friend Lale whom my parents met over 25 years ago in the town where my Grandmother was born – Canakkle (pronounced “cha-nah-kah-LAY”). Canakkle is the modern name of the area of what was once known as ancient Troy. Lale brought her friend Isaac, whom we found out after a few minutes was also from Canakkle, shared a few of the names we had in our own family – Candiotti and Gormizano. If the name Gormizano looks familiar that’s because it is the real name of Edyie Gorme, whose family came from Canakkle and was distantly related to my Grandmother. Like most immigrants, they shortened their name when they came to U.S. Can you imagine if they hadn’t? “Ladies and Gentleman, please welcome to the Stardust, Steve Lawrence and Edyie Gormizano!”

Lale and Isaac became our interpreters for the day as roamed the halls of the Grand Bazaar, as we looked and bargained for souvenirs. At one point Lale exclaimed “Mashallah” which I recognized instantly as a word my Grandmother used to say whenever she saw a beautiful baby or someone she was very proud of. I asked Lale what it meant in Turkish and she said it meant “Praise Allah” and that was said as a means to ward of the evil eye. Immediately, I came to understand that it was a word that the Sephardic Jews who lived in Turkey and Greece appropriated but which was actually a word that Muslims used. Now I know what to say when most Ashkenazi Jews say “kenahora”. I’ll just say “Mashallah” instead! Isaac and Lale then took us for a walk down cobblestone streets to the Egyptian Bazaar, otherwise known as the Spice Market. There, we were overcome by the scent of a thousand spices – Curry and Cardamom, Cinnamon and Cumin. The sight of piles of rainbow colored spices and herbs was incredible. Now we were hungry!

Though we thought we could just find a restaurant and sit down, we were told that if we didn’t move fast, we’d be out of luck. That’s because in the Muslim calendar it is Ramadan, and as such, Muslims fast all day but eat from 7:30 pm to 4 am. We quickly found a great Turkish restaurant near Spice Market just before the Ramadan crowds began. We had more great food and topped it all off with creamy rice pudding just like Grandma used to make. We got back to our cabin on the ship wondering if we ever needed to eat again.

Today, we had an early pick up at the port and drove 45 minutes outside of central Istanbul to meet our cousins, Joseph Abrevaya and his wife Sara. Joseph and my dad are second cousins; their Grandfathers were brothers. While my dad’s family moved to the United States, Joseph’s parents stayed in Turkey. My parents had first met Joseph and his wife Sarah in 1982 but I had never met them before. If you would ask me to pick them out of a crowd, it would’ve been easy; the family resemblance was scary. Every Abrevaya looks the same! Joseph, a hearty and strong 89 years old and his wife Sara, who is 82, both spoke good English but the conversation veered in and out of Turkish, English and Ladino, the Judeo Spanish language of Sephardic Jews that my Grandmother spoke to us. We found out that a Great-Great Uncle, Jack Abrevaya was an interpreter to the Grand Sultan of Turkey and that the Abrevayas all share a tendency to be hard of hearing or deaf and live to be in their late 80’s and 90’s; some have lived to be over 100! “Mashallah!”

I forgot to mention that when we walked into the Abrevaya house, I was instantly transported back to my childhood and my Grandmother’s house. There were the familiar scents of borekas and boyos, of cheese and olives; a visit to a Sephardic household is ever done without food. We looked pictures and delved into memories of families who were separated by years and miles but who still remained close to each other’s hearts. How awesome it was to know that I was sitting in a room with a man with whom I shared the same Great Great Grandfather!

Soon it was time to head back to our ship and we said our goodbyes. It was great to know that we didn’t have to wonder if we’d return to Istanbul to see each other again; the Abrevayas go each year to Chicago to visit their children. Back at the port we indulged in one more Turkish treat and we had “cay” (pronounced “chai” and which means tea in Turkish, served in little curved glasses) and Baklava with Lale and Isaac at the restaurant that first popularized the sweet honey and nut treat in Istanbul. I noticed that unlike the hard chewy Baklava we had in Rhodes, this Baklava was soft and delicate. When I asked Lale where Baklava really came from – Greece or Turkey, she asked me which Baklava I liked better; the one I was just eating or the one we had a few days ago in Greece. The one I was eating right now, I told her. “Need I say more?” she replied.

Tonight we sail up the Bosporus, the channel of water that separates Asia and Europe and into the Black Sea. Tomorrow we will wake up in Bulgaria. The thrill of venturing someplace I’ve never thought of visiting is exciting.