Friday, August 24, 2007

dogs get artificially inseminated too

My life lately has revolved around a dog's reproductive system. I've taken Nola (the female German Shepard who lives downstairs) to get a progesterone test every other day at the vet for the past two weeks. We were waiting for some magic number, a number that means, "I'm fertile and ready!"...ready to be artificially inseminated by my boyfriend, Axel's (the male German Shepard who lives downstairs), sperm.
Yesterday I received an urgent call from Max's mom, Amy, at 10:15 in the morning. "Alyse.Hi." I knew by the urgent tone in her voice that it was time. "I knew this was going to happen. I knew she [Nola] was ready to go, but they didn't listen, and sure enough, I was right, so you need to round up Max and the dogs and this [insemination] needs to happen this afternoon. Call Trish, she's expecting you. I told her you are my...surrogate--if you will."

Trish is the "reproductive specialist" at Dr. Greer's small animal clinic up in Lomira, Wisconsin. "It'll take you about three hours to get here," she told me, as I plugged their address into Mapquest. "Wow. Ok. Well we should be able to get on the road around 11, so I guess we'll see you as close to 2:00 as possible."

I threw some magazines and my camera in a bag and ran downstairs, intent on finding Max, who I knew would be stationed in the basement. Before I could make it all the way down there, though, I got sidetracked by Dulcie (70-year-old woman I share the upstairs with) shrieking about the chair in the sun room. Axel, in his animalistic attempt to get Nola, who we've been keeping in her cage to try and prevent mass chaos, completely tore apart the cushion of the chair next to her cage. Yellow foam popped out of the slashes. Great, I sighed as I descended down the spiral stairs to the basement. This is going to be a really fun trip.
Sure enough, Max was parked in front of the XBox. "Good morning," I started. "We will be leaving for Wisconsin in 20 minutes to get Nola inseminated. I'm going to take a quick shower. Be ready to go at 11:00."

While I took a shower, scribbled down driving directions and freed up space on my memory card, both dogs ran around attempting to love each other in the backyard. Ordinarily we let them out one at a time, but we were hoping that they'd tire themselves out in time to get in the car.

No such luck. The plan was for Max to sit in the backseat with Axel and for Nola to sit shotgun next to me. But Nola climbed into the driver's seat and Axel refused to stay in the back so long as his girlfriend was within sniffing distance. To minimize the probability of getting in an accident, we decided to just let them both sit together in the back. And Max took over shotgun.

There were two major backups on 94W within the first 15 minutes of our journey. The first ended up being a minor collision on the shoulder, and once we got past the site, we started cruising...only to come to a complete halt one mile later. Eventually we crawled our way up to the problem. Over on the eastbound side a motorhome had flipped over and appeared to be practically flattened into the grass. Gaper's block, a Chicago favorite.

Amy called to check on our status. I handed the phone to Max so I could continue concentrating on the road. "But I swear--if Axel's balls don't work, I'm gonna be so pissed!" I guess I shouldn't be surprised anymore at what comes out of Max's mouth, but when I know his mom is on the other end, I still cringe a little. Then I reminded myself that his mom was the one who, a few days ago, said to me during our discussion about how I was going to be in charge of bringing the dogs up there while she and Max were out of town: "You're going to have to tell us all about the jack-off session!" I guess it's true when they say kids are a product of their environment.

We had fun for about an hour, singing along to The Clash, The Police and Queen and laughing at my hair, which kept flying straight up out of the sunroof.
Around Kenosha Max and I both expressed that we needed to eat something. A few minutes later, as we entered, Racine, I noticed off to the left the perfect oasis. The old-fashioned A&W drive-in! I quickly threw it out there as an option, preparing to get shot down, but got an "ok." Alright!
I am a product of my Dad, who brought me up on going to A&W (although, usually the one in Woodfield Mall) every other Saturday. While we waited for our food, I called him and left a guess-where-I-am message. We shoveled in our chicken strips and french fries, and I had to refrain from laughing hysterically when Max said, "Cheers" and motioned to clink root beer mugs. He's adorable.

Then he turned to Axel in the backseat, who seemed to have just remembered that he had free access to his girlfriend and cornered her against one of the doors.
"You're about to get artificially laid, Buddy!" Max said to Axel. Then turned to me and said, "Want me to jack him off and see if it works?" How do you respond to a 13-year-old boy who says something like that? I just rolled my eyes. No, I don't, but thanks for asking.

When we were ready to hit the road again, I turned to look behind me as I put the car into reverse. I noticed three men standing about 100 feet away staring at our car, all with knowing smiles on their faces. Who knows how long they had been there, but apparently it had been long enough for them to witness some doggy action in the backseat. If they only knew our final destination...
I stuck my camera out the window and took their picture. For posterity purposes.

We arrived at the Small Animal Clinic around 2:30, amazingly in one piece...or so we thought until Max opened the back door to let out the dogs out and turned towards me yelling, "Axel broke his leash!" (I happened to take a picture just as he made this discovery) "What do you mean he broke his leash??" He held up two pieces of the dog's leather leash. First the chair, now this. Max improvised and looped one of the halves through Axel's collar and used that to try and guide him to the front door of the clinic.

As soon as we walked in, a woman in scrubs (who ended up being Trish) said, "This must be Nola." Sure is. She gave me paperwork to fill out, while she weighed both dogs and handed off Nola to another tech in the back. Trish then debriefed me on the whole procedure and introduced me to Dr. Greer, who would be performing the surgery. They explained that the first step was to collect Axel's sperm to make sure the quality and quantity matched their needs; if not, then they wouldn't proceed with cutting open Nola. I found myself agreeing with Max's statement about Axel's "balls." "Oh I sure as heck hope it works," I said.
"So can we come with him?" Max asked.
I gave him an are-you-kidding-me look. He shook his head.
"As long as you don't say 'Ew'," Trish replied.
The Dr. then stuck a needle into Axel's shoulder. "This acts sort of like Viagra. We'll give it about 15 minutes to start working and then take him downstairs."

Axel laid down on the floor, loving life I suppose. A woman came in to pick up her dogs. It ended up being a pug, so I started telling her how my family has had a pug for 14 years (Happy Birthday [in 4 days], Scrunch!) and we bonded over how the breed makes such wonderful pets. Then a second, younger pug came out. "Aw, you have two??" I stupidly asked. "Well of course! You can't just have one pug!" She yelled over her shoulder as she exited the facility. "Tell that to my parents," I replied pretty much to myself.

Axel must have smelled Nola's trail because he determinedly plowed through the back office and practically pulled Max down the flight of stairs. I stopped on stair #2 as I noticed the wallpaper decorating the stairwell. Animated sperm characters pointing and swimming their way to the lab! Holy shit. I paused to take a picture.

"You'll have plenty of opportunities to take pictures throughout the whole procedure," someone said to my back.
Not expecting someone to be there witnessing my fascination with the smiling sperms, I jumped as I whipped around to see who was talking to me. Dr. Greer.
"Really?" I asked.
"Oh yeah. We have a sense of humor here."
"Well that's great because Max's mom will love to see this. She's a surgeon."

There was a "Penises of the Animal Kingdom" poster framed on the wall and a clock beside it advertising Viagra.
"Are you ok with the word sperm?" Dr. Greer asked Max.
He nodded.
"Oh, don't worry," I said. "He's pretty much seen and heard it all." All I could think about was the number the scathingly embarrassing movie scenes I've sat through with him (#1 being Borat); most recently Wednesday when I took him to see SuperBad, which was basically an animated love letter to the penis.

It was time. Rubber gloves snapped into place, the Dr. had Max hold Axel in place so that he faced Nola (who was being held in place by Trish). Nola in heat served as Axel's Playboy and with no warning, Dr. Greer was down on her hands and knees yanking the poor dog's wiener. I stared in disbelief. Is this really happening? Was "watch my dog get a violent hand job" really on the list of job responsibilities?

Although the show seemed like several minutes in length, in actuality, he filled two unbelievably large condom-like containers with his stuff in less than a minute. Way to go, Buddy! You did it!
Trish gave voice to Axel's thoughts. "Nine years! Nine years I've been waiting for that!" Wow.
She took Nola out of the room so that Axel could "relax and get back to normal." He continued to leak liquid onto the floor, which Dr. Greer called "prostate juice." Max started cracking up as the puddle under Axel continued to grow. Then, as the dog pulled the child toward the door to try and find the bitch, Max lost his footing and slipped on the "juice" almost falling onto it. Close call.
Dr. Greet put the collection of sperm under the microscope, which was then projected across the room onto a TV screen. For several minutes we scanned the goods.
"Well he produced 496x10^ you know what that equals, Max?"
He didn't.
I love arithmetic, so I answered. "496 million!"
"That's right. Half a billion, which is about half of what we expected from a dog his size, but it's still twice what we need to get Nola pregnant. And it looks like a pretty good sample."
"I see a dead one!" Max excitedly proclaimed, as he pointed to a bent tadpole on the monitor. The Dr. told him he was right.

She then switched places with Trish, so she could take Nola upstairs to prep her for surgery. Trish took over in the sperm bank. She spun both samples in a centrifuge, then showed us how the result separated the sperm from the semen. The latter was unnecessary, so she used an eyedropper to remove the liquid and squirted it down into the garbage can on the floor. Then she added a neon green fluid to the viles, noting that it was "sperm extender." "Food for sperm," she added.

Trish confirmed that Axel had returned to normal by feeling his underside (with her bare hand, I may add), so we proceeded up the stairs to check on Nola. To keep Axel from acting on his hormones, they let us put him in one of the their kennel cages.
Nola was lying atop the counter in the center of the room, about to be anesthetized. "Ok Nola you're gonna take a nap," the vet's assistant said.
"...and wake up pregnant," Dr. Greer added. "I guess that happens to a lot of girls," she muttered under her breath.
We watched as she went limp and they pried open her mouth so that she wouldn't bite her tongue or the breathing tube. They carried her into the surgery room and laid her on her back, legs splayed open, her tongue dangling out the side of her mouth.

"What kind of surgery is your mom going into?" Dr. Greer asked Max.
He was spaced out, so I answered, "Cardio-thoracic."
Her eyebrows raised. "I mean she couldn't just go Neuro? What's her problem?" Her follow-up question dripping in sarcasm.
Amy's profession seemed to impress the vet so much so that she insisted on me taking pictures of the entire procedure. "She'll love this," she said. "Yeah you're right. She will."
She placed a blue sheet over Nola's abdomen, with a hole cut out, outlining where the hole in Nola would be. Max and I watched as she made the incision. I'm usually not good with blood and gore, but she kept it to a minimum so it was more interesting than disgusting to observe.

When I came home one day about six months ago to find Amy watching a video called, "How to artificially inseminate your dog," I never would have imagined that she'd actually go through with it, much less that I would be the one standing here staring at Nola's exposed uterus.
"She has a long uterus," Dr. Greer pointed out, as she held both "horns" of the organ in her gloved hands. "So if this works, there's definitely room for 12 puppies."
She then took the green mixture and moved to inject it into the first horn.
"Did Trish tell you what the green stuff is?" she asked.
"Yeah," I answered. "Food for the sperm."
She smiled and said, "More like Gatorade for the sperm."
"It looks like Gatorade, actually," I agreed.

After she finished injecting the second side, she massaged the mixture into both horns, I supposed to aide in the swimming. Find those eggs! Then she pushed everything back into the hole she'd previously cut open--such a weird thing to watch--and then sewed her up.

Since it was going to be about 45 minutes until Nola emerged from the anesthetic, Max and I drove over to the BP gas station to get something to drink. I had a voicemail from Lindsay, who said the tornado sirens had gone off downtown (she lives across from the Hancock Building) and that she had shut herself in the bathroom with her cat, Chloe.
"Looks like we're missing out on quite the storm back home," I relayed to Max.
Light rain hit the windshield. We decided to head back to the clinic to check on Nola.
She was awake, lying on a girly sleeping bag spread out on the floor.
"Now she's still going to smell sexy to him," Dr. Greer warned us. "So try and keep them apart because she needs to rest."
She provided a stick, which she dipped in a tub of peanut butter and stuck a tranquilizer pill amidst the gooey food. Axel whined as Max stuck the concoction into the cage, but he ate it up like a good little addict.
I settled things financially with Trish at the front desk, while Max brought Axel outside to pee. Honestly, I thought this was going to be a multi-thousand-dollar procedure, but the total cost only came to $542. Actually doesn't seem too unreasonable.
Trish then helped me get Nola outside and boosted her into the car. Max sat in the back with her and Axel claimed shotgun. Well, really he had no choice. I thanked Trish for all her help and said we'd let them know if it was successful after the allotted 28-day waiting period.

4:25 p.m. Back on the road. Five minutes later, Axel's tail pushed down the lever that makes the back of the seat recline. This was funny until Max started freaking out that the pressure of the seat was killing his knees. I got off at the next exit and pulled into a random gravel lot, ran around to other side of the car and opened the door to relieve Max from being lodged beneath the seat. Axel ran out of the car and headed straight for a mud puddle, which he proceeded to drink out of for several minutes, before I was finally able to drag him back to the car. He brought the mud puddle with him as his big feet landed on the seat. Dog hair circulated the interior air, several times landing in my mouth.
For about an hour we cruised traffic-free down 45S, which brought us to the 894-bypass just in time for 5:30 Milwaukee rush hour traffic. Max had to pee, so we detoured briefly to a gas station, then turned around and got back into the mess.

Anne, from the place we were supposed to board Axel for a few days upon our arrival back in Chicago, called to get our E.T.A.
"We probably still have about two hours ahead of us," I told her. "We're just south of Milwaukee."
Compared to Chicago, the traffic up in Cheese country was nothing. Once we got off the bypass and onto 94, it was smooth sailing...although I did note that we driving directly into the storm. The approaching sky over Illinois looked pretty ominous, dark clouds that could have been purple and relentless lightning. I like stormy weather and was secretly disappointed that we apparently missed the best of it back at home. But this would suffice. It would have to because all of a sudden, just past Highland Park, traffic came to a complete halt.
"Well this is going to be how it is the rest of the way home," I said to Max in the back.
We barely inched our way forward for the next two hours and 45 minutes. We were across the highway from a giant AMC theater and Max kept joking that we should gun it across the grass and through the trees to the parking lot and watch a movie. It wasn't such a bad suggestion, except the '96 Volvo already has so many random parts falling of it, that kind of distress would do nothing to help our situation.

At first we joked around about how we were stuck with no exits in sight. We made fun of the guy next to us who was riding solo and way too into sucking on a BlowPop, we had a fake farting noise contest, rocked out to some Zeppelin. We even saw a storm rainbow! We thought up names for the puppies that would hearken back to our conception adventure. I suggested Stormy, Traffic, Lightning, and Tornado, while Max, taking a different angle, suggested Semen and Prostate Juice. And while I made a series of you'll-never-believe-my-day phone calls, Max sat in the back seat occupied by his iPhone (yes, he's 13 and has an iPhone).
"What are you watching on there?" I asked.
"The 'Dick in a Box' video," he replied. If only Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg knew how appropriately their SNL digital short fit into our special day.

Max talked to his mom and Alex a few times. At first his tone with them was playful, seemingly still high on the excitement of his live sex ed. lesson. "He was really giving it to the hand!" he told them. "He was giving more to the hand than he ever gave to Nola!"
The longer we sat there, though, the more energy and patience he lost. "Alyse is second on the priority list for getting a puppy!" Max told his mom. "This sucks!" I smiled to myself, appreciating Max's teenaged chivalry.
Amy kept saying, "Well as soon as you guys see an exit, get off the road."
To which Max exasperatedly kept replying, "Mom. There are NO exits. Obviously we're going to get off when we SEE one!"
I'm glad he said that because those were my thoughts exactly.

Eventually we came across a road sign, but not for an exit; on top of all this we now had to "Merge in 1,000 feet" into one lane. Awesome. Nola remained passed out in the back seat for the entire journey. Axel, on the other hand, was totally drugged out and kept falling over, sometimes with his head landing on or near my lap. This would be fine except all the window and mirror controls are located between the two front seats. So every time he passed out, a window would start opening or suddenly I could no longer see out of my side mirrors. Then his enormous head kept knocking the shifter into neutral, which was really fun because in order to shift back into drive, I had to get both arms under his neck and use all my strength to shove him off.

After the merge, the road turned onto a ramp to join up with 41. Still no exits. But at least people had a sense of humor. A Vitamin Water van appeared on our left, and a guy (about my age) stuck a megaphone out the window and announced, "We love traffic!" I shouted back, "Me too!" Then a car rolled up on our right and yelled over, "Excuse me? Is traffic always like this?" I started laughing. "Um, no. This is pretty unbelievable."
"Cause I'm trying to get to Texas," he continued.
"Yeeeah you're probably not going to make it there," I yelled over.
"I've been on this road for two hours..." he said.
"Yeah, we've been on here for over five," I sighed, looking at the clock.
Axel then shifted his huge body and ended up rolling up the passenger window. I tried apologizing through the remaining crack, "Sorry! My dog is rolling up the window!"

This was all happening simultaneously with me trying to listen to my mom on my cell phone...who, incidentally, also advised that we get off the road when we see an exit. "Thanks, Mom. I didn't think of that."
About two minutes after I hung up with my mom, my aunt, the biggest worrywart in the family, called. "What's wrong? Why are you stuck in traffic?" she demanded, her voice strained.
"Who knows," I replied. "We just are."
"Well look for an exit!"
"There are no exits," I stated calmly. "We haven't even seen a sign for one in a about two and half hours."
"Well, you know, when you see one, get off 94."
Is this a joke? Do all these people think I'm that stupid, that I want to be sitting here? Next to us a car reversed up an on ramp, almost causing an altercation with two cars going the correct direction.
"Ok thanks," I said. "I'll try and remember that." We hung up.

Two minutes later she called back. "Eric and I just saw on the news--the Edens [94] is closed from the Kennedy to Willow Road. All the on and off ramps are flooded." (I just found this newscast online at ABC7's website: I94 video)
"Ok well thanks for the update."
"Well ok. Be careful." Before hanging up again she reminded me to get off at the next exit.
I started laughing and turned to Max in to express my disbelief at people's lack of faith in my intelligence.

Meanwhile, Axel's tranquilizer seemed to be wearing off, and he made weird noises like he was going to barf. I shoved him towards the open window. Luckily he never did because that may have pushed me over the edge.
Then Max started freaking out, punching the car seats and the ceiling. At first I thought he was kidding, but then I saw the tears in his eyes as he screamed, "This fucking sucks!!"
I put my hand on his knee. "I know it does, Max, but listen, you're going to have to relax, ok? There's nothing we can do. Why don't you get out of the car and blow off some steam. Pee in the grass. Walk around. Whatever you need to do."
"Fine," he mumbled and exited the vehicle. Shuffled along the grass on the side of the road and took a leak. Boys have it so easy, I thought, realizing that I had to pee, too, but wasn't going to anything about it.
As he clambered back into the car, I was trying to pile my hair on top of my head. My fingers ran along a crunchy spot.
"Sick! What the hell is in my hair?!...I feel like I'm in There's Something About Mary," I shared.
Max wasn't familiar with the reference, so in an effort to cheer him up I tried to re-enact the infamous "hair gel" scene.

Finally. A sign. Tower Rd, 1 1/4 miles. When we finally made it to the godforsaken exit, we had about a 20-minute back up to even turn onto the road. Max started plugging coordinates into his iPhone. He told me to turn right on Willow Road, which turned out to be the wrong direction. So he directed me back through some neighborhood to the intersection we were originally trying to find. Almost every street light was out and debris from the aftereffects of the storm littered the road.

On some back road a Hummer came whipping around a felled tree in its way on the other side of the road...with no regard to the potential of oncoming traffic. I swerved to avoid a head-on collision and slammed on my breaks. Poor Axel went flying into the dashboard and fell, whimpering, half on the floor and half on the seat. I stopped, cursing the hummer (who drives Hummers anyway?! If you want to show-off that you're that disgustingly wealthy, why don't you just sew some hundreds together and wear a money suit--not drive a war machine like a fucking maniac!)

Soon after that I stopped at the next gas station we happened upon. My legs were literally going numb from being in the same position for seven hours, and we were just about out of gas. I left Max with the dogs while the car fueled up and wobbled inside on my Jello legs to go to the bathroom and buy us both something to drink.
Let it be known that the iPhone saved us (did you hear that Steve Jobs? i'm advertising your product free of charge. feel free to send me a free the form of an I can at least be on equal ground with my 13-year-old buddy here). After many a darkened road, we finally found Milwaukee Ave.!! And we both cheered.
Both of us clearly lightened up once we hit familiar territory and called Amy and Alex to share the good news. They said to call back when we reached Logan Square so they could heat up our pizza in the oven. Then they said to call when we pulled into the alley so they could come out and help us with the dogs (at 7:30 I had received a text from Anne saying she had to leave the kennel, so Axel stayed at home overnight).
When we got to the intersection of California and Milwaukee, about three miles from home, Max and I agreed that a song with excellent rock-out potential was in store..."That's it," he proclaimed. "'Fat Bottomed Girls' it's going on."
"I think you're my new best friend," I said, laughing. We sang the intro to the Queen classic at the top of our lungs, the windows rolled down. "Arrrre you gonna take me home tonight/Oh down beside that red firelight...." Should I be singing a song about a "naughty nanny"? Absolutely.

Amy and Alex met us in the garage, Amy in her long nightgown and Alex, shirtless, with shaving cream on his face. I looked at the clock--11:40 pm. Only seven hours and fifteen minutes door to door...
Neither Max nor I had eaten anything since our A&W stop over 10 hours ago, so we greatly welcomed the sight and taste of piping hot pizza. And tall glasses of water with two Advils apiece. Unfortunately, my head was pounding so badly, I could barely focus on eating. But I stayed down there to fill in Amy and Alex on all the juicy details. They huddled over the screen of my camera, while Max narrated the whole experience.

Max and Amy had to leave in six hours for the airport. She told him she had packed his bag. After he got to the part in the story about slipping on the "prostate juice," his mom suggested that he double-bag his shoes before packing them.
I retreated upstairs, eager to lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling. "Oh, Nola, I hope you're pregnant," I thought. We'll know the verdict in 28 days.

Here is the full album of our insemination adventure: photos.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

israel: day 1

Friday. August 13, 2007

I know it’s the 21st century, but I am still fascinated by air travel. How is it that I entered this elongated capsule and 10 hours later am standing on Middle East soil? As we approached our destination the sky appeared to be on fire, which I strained to see and admired from afar (the other side of the plane). We landed around 5:30 a.m., and although the sky was lightening into a lavender hue, the moon stood still over Lod. I strolled off the plane and into Ben Gurion Airport in a daze and met back up with Abbey, who introduced me to Hillary. “I have that shirt with me too!” I excitedly shared with her. “And I think I have the same camera as you,” she replied.

The first thing that struck me was the amount of Jewish Stars. On the tails of the parked planes, on the first aid signs, on the flags. Definitely not something I’m used to seeing in such abundance, if at all. After we all got our bags we gathered together and at Leor’s booming command—“Shorashim!”--made a gigantic human circle. He brought some people into the center and introduced them as the Israelis who would be with us for the remainder of our trip. They formed a mini circle, huddled closely with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and demonstrated the look-at-us-we-have-arrived song and dance. Then it was our turn. We collectively bent down and on our spring up, yelled, “Aaaaaaaaa-CHIM Achim achim achim achim! Simcha simcha simcha simcha simcha!” (literal translation: “happy brothers”) as we bounced up and down to the right, then repeated everything to the left.

A rather tall, red-headed Israeli named Asaf offered to carry my backpack out to the bus. Probably because I looked like I was struggling to get it onto my back. I smiled and thanked him but said I had it under control. Outside there were buses lined up and Shorashim staff waiting to hand us a breakfast bag and a bottle of water. Abbey and I decided to split the cost of a cell phone, and as we waited to do so met the sisters Abby and Alexis, also from Chicago. At first glance you would never peg them as relatives, much less sisters, but the more we got to know them, the more similarities shown through.

Our bus driver’s name was Shlomi, who we all adored right off the bat because of his maniacal style of driving. Leor announced into his microphone from the front of the bus that we would learn a Hebrew word every day. Today’s word: Sharutim. The first word one should learn in any foreign country…bathroom. Shlomi dropped us off at our first scheduled stop of the trip: an overlook of Jerusalem called Armon Hanatziv. After we received plastic shot glasses of grape juice, Leor led us in the “Sheheyanu,” a blessing said on a new occasion…Baruch atah, Adonai Elohenu, melech ha-olam, sheheyanu v'kiYemanu v'higiyanu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this season of joy.

After that, he told us we’d have a moment for silent prayer. “Give thanks to God or Nature or whoever you want to give thanks to.” Any apprehensions I had of this trip turning into the Jewish equivalent of Jesus Camp had been lifted. Here’s this 31-year-old conservative rabbinical student, who does not assume that everyone there believes in a god, but rather acknowledges that although we are all Jewish, we don’t necessarily have the same idea of what that means. As I stared out at the sacred city of Jerusalem, I mentally gave thanks to my parents and my ancestors—thank you for bringing me into this beautiful world.

We had a few minutes to take pictures and eat bagels. Matt, Abbey, and I took a picture together and decided to create an “Elster’s Bitches” series as a gift to our mutual friend back home. After our Kodak moment I met Eran, an Israeli who doubled as our medic and security guard and always had his gun slung around his shoulder. He looked intimidating, tall and burly with long curly black hair, sitting there protecting our bagel supply. But when I asked, “Can I have one of these?” a huge, warm smile appeared on his face and he replied, “You can have whatever you want.” Still not used to the gun, though.

As we wound our way towards the Holy City, we learned some facts from Leor via the microphone. Israel is the size of New Jersey but, despite it’s size, has an impressive number of seven ecosystems. 93% of the trees here were hand-planted, and Israel is the only country whose tree population has increased from the year 1900 to the year 2000. All buildings in Jerusalem are required to be built with Jerusalem stone, a light-colored limestone, which reflects the golden hues of setting suns at night. “You are Jewish and this is a Jewish state. Your homeland. Welcome home.” The people I’ve talked to who have been here weren’t lying when they said they felt something as soon as they landed on Israeli soil. Such a simple statement—welcome home—yet it almost made me cry. I didn’t know I cared, but I do.

We arrived at the Shalom Hotel, our home for the next three nights. I assumed that we’d get to pick our roommates, i.e. Abbey and I would live together for the entirety of the trip, but I was wrong. Alphabetically assigned (again), I ended up with Sabrina and Alexis. The three of us went up to room 623 and picked out beds. Before I let myself take a quick nap, I admired our view of Jerusalem out the window and also the fact that our room key was an actual key.

Not much later we had to meet back up with everyone else in one of the conference rooms downstairs. I anticipated the whole getting-to-know-you games but was in no way looking forward to them. We did the typical go around the room and everyone say your name, where you’re from and what you do. I wasn’t expecting there to be so many Chicagoans, so that was a nice surprise. When it was my turn, I got nervous and instead of saying what I do (how do you explain having a college degree and being a driver?), I said what I eventually want to be. “Hi I’m Alyse. I’m also from Chicago and someday I want to be a travel writer and photographer.”
Then we played a name game followed by a trust game where Leor went around the room, and while we stood atop the chairs, pulled one out from under selected people and we had to figure out how to not fall on the ground. Believe it or not, I succeeded.

[above photo taken by Matt in the food court]

Lunchtime. Reut gave us each 100 Sheckles (or about $25) for lunches on our short drive to the Malha Shopping Mall. We had to go through security before entering the building. I am always torn on whether things like that make me feel more or less safe…more because hopefully it’s preventative and less because it’s scary that they would even have to do that, which makes me uncomfortable and paranoid. Abbey and I stuck together and staked out the food court. I had my heart set on falafel, so I got that and a Coke. What a concoction! There were all kinds of extra ingredients to choose from—hummus (pronounced ho-moose), cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, FRENCH FRIES, and some spicy goodness to top it off.

After lunch we took a bus ride up to an area called Sataf, where we went on our first hike. I walked along with Asaf and Lior at one point, and they asked if I wanted to sing a song with them. Of course I want to sing a song with you! So they taught me a popular kid’s camp song about taking a trip to the spring, and we sang together responsively.

We came upon a well of sorts with signs posted that in English, Hebrew, and Arabic said, “No Swimming!” Naturally there were people splashing around in it anyway, while little kids stood above staring down at the rule-breakers. A guy with dreads decided to take the plunge, and a bunch of us whipped out our cameras and documented his descent. Matt immediately came up to me, his camera in hand and said, “Look. I found Jesus.” Sure enough, he took his picture at a perfect angle where the jumper looks like a suspended Jesus on the cross. Towards the end of the trail I had Abbey take a picture of me standing among cacti in honor of the shirt I was wearing, which showed a cactus and red balloon with little hearts floating between them and underneath in scripted letters says, “Impossible love.”

Back at the Shalom we had a few hours to rest up before our first Shabbat celebration. After I took a shower, which had the craziest water pressure I’ve ever experienced, I took a nap. It took much convincing from Sabrina (the only one with an alarm clock) and Alexis to get me out of bed. In fact, if they hadn’t been there, I’m pretty sure I would have missed out on the rest of the evening.

The three of us met the rest of Shorashim 15B in on the balcony overlooking the pool for Kabbalat Shabbat, or welcoming the Sabbath. The scene from Fiddler on the Roof played out in my head and I wanted to sing the “Sabbath Song” from that soundtrack. We then went down to the lobby and crowded into a tiny storage room to light the Shabbat candles. Leor said it was tradition for the boys to give the girls a flower, as Reut and Jamie handed out what looked like miniature roses to them. I fully expected to be that leftover girl forgotten in the back corner (where I was standing), but Sharon (not to be confused with Sharon), a quiet, unassuming Israeli with a shaved head, turned to me and handed me his flower. Even though I’m sure the gesture was out of proximity, I still appreciated his offering and twirled it around in my fingers the remainder of the evening.

We then had an opportunity to go a service at a “modern” orthodox synagogue. Reut had to give me her shawl to wear around my shoulders, since they remained bare under the string of the long halter dress I (wrongly) decided to wear. Those who chose to go walked from the hotel. I felt like I had wandered onto the set of Fiddler.
I’m still not sure what was considered “modern”; seemed pretty non-participatory to me, having the women still sitting upstairs, tucked away from the action below. I felt like a voyeur peering through any cracks in the dividers to watch what the father and son down below (who appeared to be playing games with each other the whole time) were going to do next.

We didn’t stay too long at the synagogue because we had to be back at the Shalom in time for Shabbat dinner with the 15A group. They were already halfway through their birthright adventure and had a leader who only wished he could be as cool as Leor. We sang the Hamotzi (blessing over the bread) and HaGafen (blessing over the wine) and then were set free to hit up the buffet. I have never seen such a variety of salads before, all lined up in huge glass bowls. Shredded carrots with chunks of pineapple, diced cucumbers in a dill sauce, cabbage and jalapeƱos, etc. etc. etc. Made my planned transition to vegetarianism pretty easy. Abbey and I sat across from each other at the end of one of the long banquet tables, next to Ruth and Jessica. Jessica asked, “So what are everyone’s thoughts on the upcoming election?” Or maybe the question wasn’t so specific, maybe she was just asking about politics in general. Being not only severely jet-lagged, but also relatively apolitical, I’m sure whatever added to the conversation probably sounded like gibberish. We sang songs of celebration (although never “Shabbat Shalom,” which I frequently tried to start), and Leor urged us to sing louder than the French high-schoolers sitting in the adjoining dining room. That was fun.

After dinner we joined up with 15A again for our Oneg party in one of the conference rooms. Both Alexis and Sabrina volunteered to participate in some pretty hilarious games—well hilarious for us as the audience, anyway. Way to represent #623! I sat quietly and laughed at them for being funny and at myself for thinking I wasn’t going to make any friends. “I totally lucked out with the roommate situation,” I thought. “These girls are hilarious.”

On the way back to our rooms, I walked up all six flights of stairs with (Israeli) Lior. He told me that during the games he had been trying to learn everyone’s name in the group. I challenged him and said, “Fine, what’s mine then?” “Aicha?” This made me laugh really hard because that was my nickname when I lived in Madrid three years ago. When we got to the sixth floor we paused to discuss our origins. I said I was an Eastern European mutt—Russian, Polish, Hungarian and Romanian. He made me guess what else he was besides Israeli. “Somewhere where tthere are a lot of French people.” That was his clue. I guessed France, Switzerland and Canada. Turns out he’s half Moroccan. Pretty cool. We said goodnight and I bounded off down the hall, eager to congratulate my roommates on being social. (I, on the other hand, am pretty much the definition of socially awkward)
Before we fell asleep we talked about our personal quirks. Sabrina expressed her undying love of fountains—anywhere there’s a fountain, she’ll jump in it. Alexis is a pizza fanatic, something I could totally relate to.
I couldn’t think of anything to share (cause I am quirk-less…not.), so I think that’s when I told the story of how my screen name came about/how I ended up working at SNL. Then we talked about birth control…I don’t remember why? I believe by this point I was talking with my eyes closed, possibly not even contributing to the conversation anymore.
The last thing I remember thinking: Was today really only one day? I feel like it was at least three.
I can’t wait for the next 10!

Here is the album for Day 1

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

en route to israel

Thursday, July 12, 2007

En route to JFK airport—quite a trek as we slept at Susie’s place in Harlem last night—I shared my anxieties with Abbey about the social aspect to this Birthright trip we’re about to embark on this morning.
“It’s not that I don’t want to make friends, it’s just that I get uncomfortable in large groups….especially when the group has been formed for any religious purposes…even if it’s my own religion,” I said, still half in a sleeping state of mind. “I’m just so glad that we found a time when the two of us could go on this trip together.” Abbey is my single Jewish friend…(I mean I guess that’s unfair—I have a few other friends from pre-school/Hebrew school, but no one that I talk to/hang out with frequently.) and has been since first grade when we met on the playground.

Nevertheless, I was more than ready and excited for this trip, thankful that we were departing on the 12th because I am superstitious about the 11th of any month. For the past week the Hebrew alphabet song, which I don’t think I had sung since fourth grade, kept spontaneously running on loop through my head, while random memories of Sunday school permeated my thoughts as I mentally prepared for this upcoming adventure.

El Al airline staff members took security measures to a whole new level. Four or five uniformed people stood in a row, each behind a podium, and each of us had to approach one of them for what seemed like a formal Jewish interview before being okay-ed to continue on to the baggage check line. A woman, not much older than myself, asked me about my Jewish identity—are you Jewish? Yes. Did you grow up in a Jewish household? Yes. What is your favorite Jewish holiday? Passover. What is Tu-bshevat? Celebrating trees…right? Do you have a Hebrew name? Yes. What is it? Um…my mind went totally blank. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked me that…I know I have one, I said. Oh! It’s Yenta! She looked at me like she was waiting for my serious answer. Really? Ha, yeah, really. I laughed nervously. I’m not sure whose idea it was to give me a name that means “gossiper” but I can’t really do anything about it at this point.

A nice girl, who introduced herself as Reva, started talking to me as we waited in line to hand over our checked bags to the giant x-ray machine. She said she had just been grilled for 15 minutes by one of the El Al people, even asked to write (or maybe read? Or both?) Hebrew. “Yikes!” I said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to do that. I don’t think I would have passed.” She suddenly realized she was sans passport and had to leave the line to find it. My opinion of meeting new people already began to change.

When we first arrived at the airport we were told to meet under a specified sign at 10 a.m. before we’d proceed through security as a group. It was only about 8:30 a.m. by the time Abbey and I checked our bags and received our boarding passes, so we went downstairs to get some bagels and juice at Au Bon Pain and make some last-minute “goodbye-I’m off to the Motherland” phone calls.
As we approached the meeting place we saw a bearded man already addressing a large group of people sitting on the floor—our first glimpse of our leader, Leor and the rest of Shorashim 15B. I looked at my phone. 9:58. I turned to her and said, “Apparently meet at 10 means be here 5 minutes early…” as we sat down behind the of the group. “Thanks for joining us,” Leor said directly to us. I felt my face turn red and stared down at my shoes.
He lectured us about the importance of drinking water and wearing hats and that we would, in fact, not be allowed to wear tank tops. I, assuming that this rule must have been a misprint in our packing list, of course packed tank tops. Then he passed around pieces of paper and instructed us to write why we came on Birthright. “Free trip to Israel,” definitely crossed my mind, but deep down I knew it was more than that. I wrote, “To rediscover my Jewish roots and take a lot of photographs.”

Once on the plane I discovered to my immense disappointment that I had been assigned a middle seat. A girl named Sabrina sat beside the window and a guy named Matt sat in the aisle. Turns out that out of all the people I could have possibly been sitting with, I second-handedly knew Matt. My friend Stephanie had been telling me about him for several years, this guy she was in love with who had the same birthday as me. She had called me back in June freaking out that he and I were going to be on the same birthright trip. Right before we left I stalked his facebook page and realized we had two friends in common--not just Steph but this guy, Matt, who I've known since preschool. Turns out Matt and Matt are best friends from college and were roommates in Chicago this past year. What are the chances of this happening? I thought. (Later, I found out, the seats were arranged alphabetically, so it shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise. But I'm easily excitable.)

The flight was pretty uneventful. We had two meals, I finished reading Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Courderoy and Denim and watched Disturbia on the little TV screen embedded in the headrest in front of me. Good book, not a good movie. Matt hardly ever sat in his seat, and with about three hours left in the flight, Sabrina’s best friend, Valerie, replaced his absence. I couldn’t get over the hilarity of sitting between the two of them. There was a lot of “ Val.” thrown around. I slept a little bit, mastering how to curl into myself, propping the provided pillow atop my bent knees (see photos [taken by Matt] below).

Here's a link to my album of photos from my NYC visit pre-Israel: NYC photos

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

i completed my second half marathon

Ordinarily this follow-up would have been posted by Monday, but our family experienced some unforeseen events, which prevented me from immediately sitting down to write about race day. Around 1 a.m. post-race my mom started getting "intensely dizzy" (in her words) and by last night was admitted to NW Community Hospital, where she stayed for the past 20 hours. The good news is all her tests were negative. The doctors think some crystals got dislodged from her inner ear (who knew we had crystals in our ears??) during the half marathon causing some kind of vertigo (i forgot the the technical/medical term). She's still a little dizzy but in good spirits.

So here is my half marathon overview.

I set my alarm for 3:45 Sunday morning, noting before I went to bed that if I fell asleep immediately, I'd get four hours of sleep. Well, that's better than no sleep, I thought, as my head hit the pillow. Around 3:00 I woke up to what sounded like the house about to be blown over. I remember lifting my head off the pillow, staring at the headboard in the dark and mumbling, "There's no way I'm running in this" as rain whipped against the siding. Next thing I knew my room was suddenly lit up and my mom cheerily announced, "It's 3:30, Alyse--time to get up!" Oh, shoot me in the face. There is no way I'm doing this. I refused to get up and squeezed my eyes against the intruding light, intent on getting back into my dream of a stormy castle on a hill (reading Harry Potter before bed every night has great effects on my dreams).

By the time we left the house, the storm had ceased, but the intense humidity lingered. My dad drove us (mom, mom's friend--Cheryl, Sheri, and me) in the minivan to SuperSibs! headquarters in Rolling Meadows to meet the rest of our suburban teammates by 4:30 a.m. My sister and I remained planted in the back seat, groaning about how tired we were, while my mom and Cheryl went inside to check in and use the bathroom. They came back and handed us temporary tattoos of the SuperSibs! logo and wet paper towels to apply them to wherever we felt like putting them. I decided to go all out, and as we began our caravan down to the city, I put one on my thigh, one on my arm and one on my cheek. Represent.

(Note to my Shorashim crew: en route to the city we passed a school bus that said something Israel on the side as well as something in Hebrew...i got so excited and immediately started singing "Shlomie you can drive my bus" etc. etc. etc.)

When we got downtown, Melanie (founder of SuperSibs!), who was driving in front of us started excitedly pointing out her window for us to follow her past the parking garage entrance. There, to the left, was SUPERSIBS spelled out in lighted office windows of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Building. Not only did we acquire 4x as many team members as last year (our first year), but one of the new members included Commissioner Raymond Orozco of the Chicago Fire Department! Thanks to his help, we got this incredible exposure as part of the city skyline!

Another new and great thing--we had a team tent this year, donated by Peacock Construction. This served as our 6 a.m. meeting place for our team photo, of which Before getting there, though, I insisted on stopping at a port-a-pottie to pee out the bottle of water I had drunk on the drive down. We headed to the start line with the other 10,000+ runners and waited for the 6:30 a.m. "GO!" announcement. My sister and I, who had both gotten hungry last-minute, saw a Wheaties booth and each grabbed a mini box and started shoving cereal in our mouths to feed our hunger. Unlike last year, there weren't port-a-potties lining the start area, which was detrimental to me because I had anticipated on using one at least one, if not two, more time(s) before we took off (as i did last year). I attempted to run to them but only had 5 minutes, and when I saw the lines of people waiting to do the same, I headed back to where my mom and sister were standing and decided I'd relieve myself somewhere during the next 13.1 miles.

For the first two miles or so Sheri and I jogged side by side, showing our overtired-induced enthusiasm by punching the air in time with the music playing on our ipods (We both stayed up the night before constructing our own 10-hour playlists). At one point she turned to me and started singing, "turn around..." (from "Total Eclipse of the Heart"), and I responded by screeching because at that same moment, I had begun singing, "Don't turn around..." (Ace of Base classic). I found this rather amusing.
Around 2.5 miles, Sheri pulled ahead as I slowed down to power walk for awhile, not wanting to use up all my energy in the first 30 minutes of the race. For awhile, I kept her in sight, but eventually I knew I'd never be able to catch up to her and resorted to fully concentrating on my music and the fact that I wouldn't have anyone to talk to for the next 2.5 hours.

Mile 4 was right around when the course curved back onto Michigan Ave. and so there was a good crowd of people milling around to watch the action. As I approached all these people, "You Sexy Thing" started playing in my ear, and I laughed to myself at the irony. "I am so the opposite of sexy right now," I thought. "This is hilarious." A few steps later my dad jumped out at me from the sidelines and yelled, "Lyse! I love you!" as he held my sister's camera to his eye and took an action shot of me running. This only made me laugh harder.
Around mile 6, though, I started to hate my current situation...I was extremely sweaty, sick of pushing myself to run when I knew I couldn't, and missing the company of my sister...or anyone for that matter (last year I pretty much completed the entire race with two other members of our team...this year i flew solo). I thought the music would be enough to keep me motivated, but all my chosen songs made me want to do was dance. Not run. I couldn't even visualize the finish line and had serious thoughts about giving up at the halfway mark, even though I knew that wasn't an option.

Close to the mile 8 marker the path looped around from going south down Lake Shore Drive to a path going north, closer to the water. I recognized my sister heading north while I was heading south and yelled, "Sister!" while frantically waving my arms. She saw me too and happily waved back. She yelled that her ipod had froze after mile 2 and yelled back, "This isn't fun without you!" But seeing her and knowing I only had five miles remaining re-energized me and I started to enjoy my surroundings again as I rounded the corner to head north myself...bypassing the port-a-potty I could have used.
Ended up seeing my mom as I was down there and she was up where I had been previously yelling to Sheri. Unlike Sheri, though, she didn't notice me (even though I was screaming, "MOM!", waving my arms like a madman and running up the grassy hill in her direction) until someone next to her pointed. She looked like she was having a good time.

Just past mile 10 I stared in disbelief at the large amount of orange sponges littering the ground. How did I miss those?? Last year that was the best thing--someone handing out sponges soaked in very cold water, which I kept in my sports bra the remaining three miles. Instead of concentrating on how hot it was and how I missed out on my one chance of relief, I focused my attention on Lake Michigan and the great Chicago skyline in the distance. "This truly is a beautiful city," I thought with genuine appreciation.

At mile 12, with just over a mile left, I was greeted by our neighbors--the Nizynskis--including Shelley, who I've been friends with for over 20 years. She ran to meet me, as I struggled to power-walk the remainder of the race, holding a huge fuschia posterboard that said, "GO ALYSE BONNIE AND SHERI!" complete with a pasted-on caricature of me running. As I ran past her parents, Pat and George, her dad took my picture. Then Shelley's boyfriend, Brent, ran after us and I had one of them on either side of me literally pushing my back to propel me forward, encouraging me to finish the last mile as fast as I could. I thanked them and said to go back to their post so they didn't miss cheering on my mom, who I knew was several minutes behind me.
That last mile sucked. It seemed so much longer than a mile and was a huge tease because you see the finish line but then have to do this like half-mile zig zag to get there. I mostly power-walked, intent on saving whatever adrenaline rush I could muster to sprint to the finish line. As I rounded the final corner, Stevie and Lexie (two of my sister's best friends) stood behind the fence cheering loudly for me, waving flowers in the air. I told them I felt like I was going to die and frantically skipped songs on my playlist to find one worthy enough to listen to as I finished...I found it. "I Feel Good Again" by Pete Yorn.
The finish line appeared to be another half mile away (in actuality it was only 1/10 mile away), so I wouldn't let myself sprint yet because I feared I'd lose steam before I actually crossed it. My dad appeared again, proudly shouting for me to face him for a picture. Then, "Oops! I missed your head! Let me take another one--turn around!" So I turned around and threw my hands in the air in a champion pose as I jokingly jogged backwards. "Got it!" And I continued towards the elusive finish line. With about 100 yards left, I saw one man that I could potentially beat, and that was enough to motivate me into sprint mode. As I crossed over, the announcer guy said, "And she finishes strong at the last second--that's the way to do it!" I expected someone to throw a freezing wet towel around my shoulders, again--like last year, but no such luxury this time around. After someone put a medal around my neck and a different person cut the chip off my shoe, I limped over to the giant fans blowing water into the air and stood there for a few seconds loving the wet breeze. I saw some people with wet towels and found out I could get one at the medic tent. So I headed there, where the medic accusingly asked me, "Didn't someone give you one when you crossed the finish line?" "Um, no. That's why I'm here." And he begrudgingly handed one over. Thanks dude. Didn't see you just complete 13.1 miles.

I slowly made my way over to where my dad, sister, Stevie and Lexie were standing waiting to cheer for my mom. Stevie and Lexie handed me a bouquet of carnations. Not only had they brought flowers for Sheri but for me and my mom too. So thoughtful. I laid on the ground with the wet towel around my head staring at the sky until I heard them yell that my mom was rounding the bend. We all stood up and started cheering, and when my mom saw us, she pumped her arms in the air and yelled, "ROCKY'S ON!" (she loves listening to the "Rocky" theme song when she runs) and we all laughed. My dad stood there displaying his wingspan-long handmade banner, which he's held at the finish of every race she's run, since she started running a year ago. W+2G+O, 1-[graphic of a set of lungs, of which he crossed out the right one with a black Sharpie...see photo].

(For those of you who don't know, my mom had her right lung removed five years ago after she was diagnosed with a carcinoid tumor...and a year ago March she decided to take up running, and has been a running machine ever since.)
She finished in 3:22, improving last year's time by 15 minutes!! I finished in 3:04, a 10-minute improvement, and Sheri, who had never run a race before, finished in 2:53. The final picture is of the three of us back at the SuperSibs! tent to celebrate our great finish. My mom changed into a shirt that said, " 13.1 miles and still smiling."

I've been unbelievably sore since I finished the race Sunday morning, but as I said last year, at least it's a relentless reminder of a worthwhile accomplishment.

Special thanks to:
Dad, for driving, taking pictures, cheering loudly in two locations
Shelley (& co.), for the awesome sign and encouraging words as you ran alongside me in sandals
Stevie and Lexie, for being a pair of extra little sisters and for the flowers
Having you all ^ ^ ^ ^ there (smiling, despite the early hours!) was definitely key in my success (my mom and sister agree).
Your cheers of encouragement kept me smiling and made the experience way more enjoyable than it would have been without your presence

and to Amy, for letting me borrow your earphones the night before when I realized that the foam things on mine were destroyed

And of course, thank you to everyone who donated and helped me surpass my fundraising goal (check your mailboxes--your real ones--soon).
Our team raised $43,000+ this year!!!!, which will allow SuperSibs! to provide full services for over 500 children whose brothers and sisters have cancer. I encourage you to learn more about this wonderful and much-needed organization by visiting their website at

As I mentioned, I attached a few photos. If you'd like to see the complete album, follow this link: CDC '07
If you'd like to see last year's pictures (because last year i brought a camera with me [whereas this year i didn't]), so you can see shots of the actual course, follow this link: CDC '06