Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Happy Birthday Israel -- and Artemis!

Today is Israel's 62nd Independence Day. I'm so grateful to have a State here which allowed me to move to Jerusalem and live in this wonderful city.

Today is also the day before Artemis' FIRST birthday! Happy birthday (tomorrow) Artemis!

I adopted Artemis when she was 9 weeks old, so it's been almost 10 months now that she's been my ba-- I mean, cat, and she's a great pet, if a bit whiny when I refuse to play mouse-on-a-stick with her. Tomorrow, for her birthday, she'll get a serving of raw chicken skin. Mm, mm, mm.

My sister asked for new pictures, so here are some I took today:

Artemis asking "Who, me?" or maybe she just spied a flying bug (which she'd never catch).

Artistic image of "Cat and Toy."

Portrait of Cat and Toy.

Lunching on kibbles.

Getting tired.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Not (As) Boring Anymore

One of the advantages of teaching a course with only four students is that I have only 4 sets of papers to grade with each assignment.

But what helps, above and beyond the lower numbers, is that the types of assignments I'm giving this year (since I'm teaching a different course entirely) allow for more open-ended topics. Within a certain framework, the students can choose to write about pretty much whatever interests them. And it's always fascinating to see what they come up with.

Over the last few weeks they've been working on short research papers (they are limited in how much research they can do, both by time and lack of access to a good traditional library; I'm working with them to assess the reliability of various online sources). Here are the topics:

1- The benefits of running for exercise, and the best ways for new runners to take up the sport without injuring themselves or losing motivation.

2- The central arguments for and against stem-cell research.

3- The central arguments for and against the legality of abortion.

4- The history of cryptography (secret codes).

The papers about running and cryptography were especially interesting to me since I knew almost nothing about these topics before.

Today, the students must let me know the topics for their next papers, which will be "argument" papers (they have to take a position and support it). What I've gotten so far:

1- Satirical paper (a la "A Modest Proposal") arguing that the Hammurabi Code is a good thing.

2- Position paper on whether the TRY program (the program these kids are on) should continue having "creative tfilot" rather than traditional prayer services.

When kids are allowed to come up with their own ideas, they think of topics far more interesting than anything I would have given them. I also love the variety.

This is so much better than reading 17 papers on the same topic.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Try To Follow

I got to Cleveland Hopkins Airport on Wednesday at about 2:30, for a 5:30 flight. My itinerary, with Swiss Air, was thus:

  • Cleveland to Chicago on a flight operated by United.
  • Short layover in Chicago, followed by a Swiss flight to Zurich.
  • All-day layover in Zurich. I'd done my research and discovered that a) if I'm not tired, there are bus and river tours of the city to take, and museums open until 7 or 8 pm and b) if I am tired, there are couches and beds to rent in one of the airport lounges, with showers.
  • Zurich overnight flight to Tel Aviv, scheduled to arrive Friday morning at 3:30 am.
Upon arrival at the Cleveland airport, I was told that my check-in bag was 53 pounds and I'd need to remove 3 pounds of stuff. I took out a book that I need to plan lessons for the class I teach. Luckily, my parents had just bought me a beautiful new carry-on with the maximum amount of allowed room and 4-wheel drive -- in addition to a shoulder bag to put under the seat in front of me-- so I was able to stuff in a lot of stuff, including my winter coat, plenty of food for my day in Zurich, all my toiletries, even a set of pajamas in case I sleep in Zurich. This will all become important later.

I got through security in Cleveland. At about 5 pm they announced at the gate that, due to thunderstorms in Chicago, my flight would leave at least an hour late. I stood on line to talk to the United gate agent about the fact that I'd now have no more than 27 minutes to make my connection. He said that actually, if you add the time it takes to get to the gate and all, I'd have about 3 minutes. He found that there was no way for United to get me to Tel Aviv in a timely way, so he instead gave me a ticket for Air Canada, thus:

  • Air Canada from Cleveland to Toronto (in about 30 minutes, just one gate over, thank God)
  • 5-hour layover in Toronto, then a direct flight on Air Canada to Tel Aviv, arriving Thursday night at about 10 pm. For this flight, the agent said, I'd have to get the boarding pass in Toronto.

This itinerary was, as you can see, much better than my original one, so I was pretty happy. About the loss of my chance to take tours of Zurich, my feeling was "Man plans, God laughs." I was just excited to get home Thursday night instead of Friday morning.

I saw them load my checked-in suitcase onto the little propeller tin can that we flew to Toronto. The flight was bumpy but otherwise fine.

At Toronto, I went to the Air Canada Customer Service desk to get my boarding pass to Tel Aviv. The agent said that actually, the flight was overbooked, but she's giving me a priority-seating pass. If anyone cancels, I'll get a seat. Unfortunately, there was no way to know if anyone cancels until one hour before the flight, when they "close" the check-in for the flight. (Please note that United had made a reservation for me without confirming that I'd actually have a seat!)

From the way she talked about it, I felt confident that I'd get on the plane. So I killed a few hours in Toronto looking for a gift for my roommate, eating a sandwich I'd packed for dinner, and standing around in a bookstore skimming through autobiographies of Andre Agassi and Melissa Gilbert, and then made my way to the gate about 90 minutes before the flight, to make sure I was first on line. (I was actually third.)

After another 30 minutes of waiting, they opened the gate and it turned out that everyone in front of me AND behind me were trying to get boarding passes with a priority-seating ticket. It also turned out that they were giving out the one available seat on the basis of the order in which people got their ticket. They called someone's name ... he didn't show up. They called someone else's name... it turned out to be a couple who didn't want to split up, and there was only one seat. And then they called my name! I got the seat! Whoo hoo! They gave me my boarding pass and I snuggled into a chair in the waiting area, happy as a clam.

Five minutes later, they paged me and TOOK MY BOARDING PASS AWAY. The gate agent said he was sorry, but he hadn't realized that I'm not actually an Air Canada customer, but a United Customer. He called ahead to the Air Canada Customer Service Desk, where they would give me a voucher for a hotel stay and meals in Toronto.

I got to Customer Service and said half-jokingly to the two agents there "I'm an irate customer. Which of you wants to deal with me?" They were pretty nice about it. What irked me wasn't that I didn't get on the plane, but that they issued me a boarding pass and then took it away. They said that it was United's fault that I'm stranded, but Air Canada didn't want me to spend the night in the airport, so here is a night at a hotel and $32 for meals. Part of me was thinking "Thanks, Air Canada," and part of me was thinking "what kind of airline TAKES AWAY SOMEONE'S BOARDING PASS after issuing it?" But whatever.

There was also the question of my luggage. The Air Canada guy said that when I come back in the morning, I should talk with a United person about locating the bag which I knew for a fact was in the airport in Toronto somewhere.

The Hotel Delta Toronto West is a nice little place. From the desk in my room I called United to say "What the hell?" The agent, "Shar" ("Char"? Charlotte? Sharlene?) was sympathetic and put me on hold for 15 minutes while she tries to find a new way for me to get to Tel Aviv. Finally she gets back on the line and offers this (remember, it is now Wednesday night at about 11:30 pm):

  • Flight leaving Toronto on Thursday at about 6 pm, to Frankfurt, with Lufthansa.
  • Two-hour layover in Frankfurt, then a Lufthansa flight to Tel Aviv, arriving on Friday at 3:30 pm.

My answer: Look, technically this itinerary is fine. Lufthansa is a good airline. But I'm Sabbath-observant (had to explain that a little), and if anything goes wrong, if my first leg is delayed for any reason, I'm going to spend the weekend in an airport.

Shar: Two hours is plenty of time to make a connection.

Me: Shar, you know as well as I do that flights are OFTEN delayed more than two hours.

Shar: Well, this is all I have for you.

Me: Fine, I'll take it.

Meanwhile, I'd put in a call to my sister (who was still awake, due to the time difference -- she lives in California -- unlike my parents who may have been asleep already). In typical, wonderful Rivka style she said "I feel like going over there myself and smacking someone for you." Being a bit more clear-headed than I, probably because she wasn't the one looking at spending Shabbat in Frankfurt, she persuaded me to call United again and say that I'd rather go back to Cleveland, spend the weekend there, and then try the whole process again on Sunday.

United agent: I can't do that. You've partially used the ticket.

Me: I partially used it because United sent me a wild-goose chase to Toronto without confirming that I'd have a way, from there, to get to my final destination.

Agent: You'll have to go to the airport in the morning and talk to the United agents there.

Me: But you are a United agent.

Agent: Yes, but you'll have to talk to the ones at the airport.

Me: I don't understand. You are a United reservations agent. What can they do at the airport that you can't do for me right now on the phone?

Agent: I'm sorry ma'am. That's the way it is.

Me: I want to talk to someone who has more power than you do.

Supervisor: Hello, what can I do for you?

Me: Do I need to repeat the whole story?

Supervisor: No, ma'am.

Me: So you are aware that United has stranded me in Toronto overnight. And that with this Lufthansa plan chances are very good that I'll spend a night sleeping on the floor of an airport.

Supervisor: One moment ma'am.

After another 15 minutes on hold, he offered me this:

  • Continental flight out of Toronto on Thursday at around 12:30 in the afternoon.
  • Two-hour layover in Newark.
  • Direct flight on Continental to Tel Aviv, arriving on Friday morning at 9:30 am.

You can see how this is so much better. If nothing else, being stranded in Newark is 1,000 times better than Frankfurt, because I actually have good friends and relatives in New Jersey and New York. (Hi Rivka! Lisa! Jessica! Aaron! Miriam!)

Now, why the supervisor could offer me this itinerary and Shar couldn't is a mystery for the ages.


I slept pretty fitfully, even though the bed was comfortable and I had my own pajamas and toiletries.


The next morning I used my $32 meal voucher to breakfast on whatever kosher food I could from the hotel buffet (yay berries! melon! cereal and milk!) and a bottle of water and two bananas to add to my stash of sandwiches, since with all the flight changes my chances of getting in-flight kosher meals were slim.

I got back to the Toronto airport at 10:30, two hours before my flight, got my boarding pass to Newark AND Tel Aviv, and proceeded to try to find out where my checked-in suitcase was. The Continental people told me to ask Air Canada, since my suitcase had come in on an Air Canada flight--and assured me that it wouldn't take more than 20 minutes for me to come back.

The Air Canada people told me to ask United, since the luggage tag had been issued by them.

United told me to go to another terminal and ask for a security escort into the baggage claim area.

The people in baggage claim told me that they definitely do not have my suitcase, and if it ever was in Toronto it has left again. Their computer had no record of what happened to it after it left Cleveland, but it certainly was not in the airport. They said I should ask Swiss Airlines, since the luggage tag said that the bag was supposed to go to Zurich on Swiss and then Tel Aviv. In all likelihood it was on its way to one of those cities, and I could put in a claim for it in Tel Aviv when I got there.

Back to the first terminal where I made my way to the proper gate about 15 minutes before boarding.


The flight to Newark was bumpy but otherwise fine.

The flight from Newark to Tel Aviv was long and involved sitting in the middle of a group of 41 teenagers from two Jewish day schools in Florida who were on their "trip of a lifetime" to Israel. Nice kids, but of course they were up talking and laughing all night. I don't blame them, but it was all rather miserable for me. I slept for about 2 hours and watched "The Godfather" (wow) and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (fun), both for the first time. And indeed I got kosher meals.


At Ben Gurion, they said my bag was definitely not in Israel. I put in a claim and they entered my tag number (ALWAYS SAVE YOUR LUGGAGE TAG STICKER!!!) and information into the computer system which is accessible by all airports around the world. They were pretty confident that it should arrive in Israel within a day or two -- and they said they'll deliver it to my house when it arrives.

So, here I am. I got home at about 12:30 in the afternoon--only 7 hours later than I'd originally planned, COOKED FOR SHABBAT believe it or not, and then slept the ENTIRE Shabbat except for meals with my roommate (and Liz for dinner. Hi, Liz!). It is now Saturday night at 10:21 pm and I am WIDE AWAKE. Thank God for melatonin, because I have to teach tomorrow and can't afford to be jetlagged.

Also thank God for all that stuff I had in my carry-on. Especially the book.

Artemis was the picture of indifference when she saw that I'd returned, but since then has come to me for snuggles a few times, and she slept on my bed last night (after two weeks on Liza's bed, so it seems she prefers me, aw.) She's less verbal than when I left. She stalks around more silently now. We'll see if that changes over time.

It's so good to be home! Finally!