Pediatric memory.

This is what I completed from the Memoir Writing class I not-so-recently finished. I’m not sure if it’s complete yet.

The pleather cushioning of the examination counter-tops in the patient rooms still call to me as an inviting yet risky place for a sick kid to sit. Carrying my infant son from the reception area towards ‘Room 2’ makes me realize the cast in this medical office hasn’t changed in 20 years. The patients are still either awkward teenagers or snotty toddlers. The nurses are still squealing over some red, wrinkled newborn. The doctor is still running late, and most definitely won’t be sorry about it.

I set S down on Room 2’s green version of the pleather counters and take in the mock-kid-friendly décor. As S polishes the counter top with drool and coughs up a demonstration of why he was brought here, I attempt to osmosis a mental warning to his seven-month-old mind.

Two decades ago, my two brothers and I endured these doctor visits as a group, lead by our mother. The three of us, cub-like, would squirm in the cramped patient room while waiting for our common foe. Together we were a recipe for a rumble, but we (mostly) heeded my mother’s warnings not to fight, lest the doctor walk in and see it. Collectively, we knew that equaled a bad start and little-to-no hope for surviving the checkup intact.

The cartoons on the walls gave us a little courage. They were stupid, and we knew we were better than they were. In the hierarchy of pediatrics, the doctor was at the top and the cartoon wallpaper was at the bottom. We were somewhere in between the height chart and the rainbow band aids.

My mother would make jokes to calm us in between scolding us for climbing up the cabinets. Just as we would start to laugh, we’d hear the thickly Boston-accented pediatrician barking down the hall and she’d shh us while controlling the smile breaking through her lips.

Waiting for the pediatrician, I notice the smell of band aids and tissues make a sterile contrast with the cartoon wallpaper. S is still perched on top of the counter cushion, held up with the light support of my hand on his back. Through the open door of our room, he’s flirting with a 14-year-old girl across the hall. She smiles at him, he smiles back. She coos, he squeals. More smiling and their conversation is a nervous patient flirtation.

I can still taste the intimidation like a wooden ‘aaah’ stick – raw, dry, with the fear of splinters. I stand next to S, mama now, and wonder what kind of mother I’ll shortly be in the face of terrible bedside manner. In my mind, the unsmiling, impatient pediatrician of my youth doesn’t wait for new mothers to make up their minds.

My mother watched closely from behind the doctor’s hunched shoulders as we were poked and prodded. This, while we were forced to answer inane questions in a mumbled jargon that as kids we had to learn to comprehend. It was that or ridicule. Somehow, my mother kept the pack dignified and kept us safe with her own bullish remarks or maternal brand of protective sarcasm. She’d crack a few sharp-witted retorts and we’d watch as sometimes – sometimes – the ice-cold doctor from Boston would betray a microscopic upturned lip.

There were other times when she’d manage to prove her industry intelligence and score an outright conversation in the patient room while we strained not to hear the crickets in between the lines. Sometimes, her coolness would actually match the doctor’s. It was a transformation that made me shudder inside.

The finish line was piling into the doctor’s fish-tanked office for the check-up ‘review,’ which actually meant listening to him and my mother spar about the latest kid-disease news. Contented not to be a part of it, we knew our tongues/ears/self-esteem were safe; we relaxed and enjoyed the fish. At the end of it, my mother herded us out of the office with our vaccine charts and dignities intact.

S is smiling bouncily and the pediatrician walks in. The childhood stuff stays with me as I pin my baby down at the doctor’s request, robotically listing symptoms. Doc is fairly quiet. Does my projected calmness disarm him? S lets out a yelp and my childhood pediatrician soothes him. He makes a remark about his lady-killer eyes. He adds that whatever is making S cough is viral and will clear up in a few days. I hold my face still.

He tells me to join him in his office after I finish dressing S. I take my son to the fish-tanked office, assuming there’s nothing much to ‘review’ since I don’t have much to say about the latest news in childhood diseases. Maybe it’s because I’m young, maybe because he heard what I do for a living, but my pediatrician gets to talking about YouTube and his latest internet venture.

“See, I’ve set up this entire directory of videos, interviewing medical professionals, built it from scratch – doctors talking to doctors. And this damn video start up is giving me hell getting it licensed out to them. Obviously they’re offering way below what this stuff is worth.”

I nod in faux earnest. “Yeah, you’re most probably getting ripped off for your premium content.”

“I mean, you search for this stuff on Google, and what, they think I don’t know about SEO? That I could easily post it on YouTube and call it a day? This stuff is pure value…”

I nod politely as he lectures me on topics that are my career; I don’t bother interjecting when he makes incorrect assumptions. His rant is a token of trust. A recognition. I hold on to it like some delicate trinket, something paper-thin.

And anyway, his ego is too big for me to break alone. If my brothers were here, we could have teamed up.

Writing, Etgar Keret, and where the &%*# is Peter Pan?

Every year or two I get an itch to complete something on my bucket list. Last year, it was performing in the Vagina Monologues. For the past six months, it’s been getting back into my writing habit.

I’ve been on a quest to discover the right outlet for skill-sharpening. It’s no shock that Israel would lack easily-accessible writing courses for English speakers. There are a few here and there, amateur and professional,  and I’ve been dipping my fingers into different pots trying to find the right one.

I recently completed a memoir-writing course with Madelyn Kent, a former NYU-Tisch writing instructor turned olah chadasha. She led me to Evan Fallenberg, a seasoned oleh (1985), who writes, translates and teaches, operating from The Studio, a workshop for writers in his home. On his website I found out he was bringing Etgar Keret to speak there the next week.

So last night I drove the hour and 45 minutes in evening traffic, up past Netanya, to hear Etgar Keret talk. His writing and his speaking go hand-in-hand, which was fun to discover.

It was also funny to hear him say that he can’t write from truth; he needs to make up his stories and keep the true experiences unwritten. He has trouble taking the experience and turning it into a written story. Opposite problem from me, you see.

The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God was the first present my then-boyfriend/now-husband ever gave me, and I became completely enamored and inspired with Keret, seeking more. But since then (2005) I have not been able to tap the inspiration the way I’ve wanted.

The last time I wrote something I was really, utterly, completely proud of was in 2003. It was a series of short-short stories about some of the very first ways I experienced Israel. The truth of it and passion behind it lent me a hand I never realized I had before.

And slowly I began to come to the conclusion: it’s much easier for adult-me to write based on experience than actual story-telling. Kid-me could tell you tales of worlds and planets and creatures; at sleepovers with my best friend, from my sleeping bag on the floor I would sprinkle her and her younger sister with colorful characters that just flowed from my mind to my mouth. I would dream of places I knew by heart, and before I went to bed, I’d think up new chapters for my reappearing players. I didn’t just have imaginary friends – I had fine-tuned characters.

But somewhere along the way, Peter Pan grew up and I can’t find that place anymore. And now that I have a kid, I really, really want to. Maybe it’s what will help me reunite with my story-telling. That, and working on this item from my bucket list.

Etgar Keret #3.

A third Etgar Keret piece that can be found in the NYTimes.

Who loves Etgar Keret?
We love Etgar Keret!

The Way We War

Tel Aviv

YESTERDAY I called the cable people to yell at them. The day before, my friend told me he’d called and yelled at them a little, threatened to switch to satellite. And they immediately lowered their price by 50 shekels a month (about $11). “Can you believe it?” my friend said excitedly. “One angry five-minute call and you save 600 shekels a year.”

The customer service representative was named Tali. She listened silently to all my complaints and threats and when I finished she said in a low, deep voice: “Tell me, sir, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? We’re at war. People are getting killed. Missiles are falling on Haifa and Tiberias and all you can think about is your 50 shekels?”

There was something to that, something that made me slightly uncomfortable. I apologized immediately and the noble Tali quickly forgave me. After all, war is not exactly the right time to bear a grudge against one of your own.

That afternoon I decided to test the effectiveness of the Tali argument on a stubborn taxi driver who refused to take me and my baby son in his cab because I didn’t have a car seat with me.

Etgar Keret is the author of “The Nimrod Flip-Out.’’ This article was translated by Sondra Silverstone from the Hebrew.

Etgar Keret in the NYTimes 2.

nytimesMarch 27, 2006

Stupor in Our Time

Tel Aviv

THE parties my father votes for never get into Parliament. One year he’ll vote for some economist with thick glasses who promises a revolution in tax law, the next year for an irate teacher with a ponytail who advocates a revolution in the school system, the year after that for a restaurateur in Jaffa who explains that only a new culinary approach can bring peace to the Middle East.

The one thing these candidates have in common is a genuine desire for fundamental change. That and the naiveté to believe such change is possible. My father, even at the age of 78, is naïve enough to believe this, too. It’s one of his finest qualities.

In the last elections, my brother, a founder of the Legalize Marijuana Party, asked my father for his vote. My father found himself in a quandary. On the one hand, it’s not every day that your son founds a political party. On the other, my father, who had a taste of the horrors of fascism during World War II, takes all his civic duties very seriously.

“Look,” he said to my brother, “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but there are all these serious people who claim that grass is actually dangerous, and as a person who’s never tried it, I can’t really be sure they’re wrong.”

And so, about a week before Election Day, my brother and one of the senior members of the party rolled my father a joint. “What can I tell you, kid?” my father said to me that evening during a slightly hallucinatory phone conversation. “It’s not half as good as Chivas — but to make it illegal?” And so my father became the oldest voter for the coolest party in the history of Israel’s elections. From the minute he said he would vote for it, I knew it wouldn’t get into Parliament.

That’s why I’m really surprised that my father, an enthusiastic supporter of underdogs, is going to vote for Kadima, the party of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The polls say Kadima is a shoo-in. “This is the most boring election campaign in the history of the country,” he explained, “and I’m telling you this as a person who’s been here since it was founded. I won’t even turn on the TV on Election Day — well, maybe for the weather forecast, but that’s it. These elections are one big sleeping pill.

“In past elections, there was always a little suspense, something to raise your blood pressure. And it didn’t matter whether it was Menachem Begin burning up the town squares with his speeches, or the fuss over Ehud Barak and that brilliant remark of his: ‘If I’d been born a Palestinian, I probably would have joined a terrorist group.’ This time, there’s nothing. Sure, Olmert’s smug. But one look at his face and I’m already yawning. Forty years that man has been in politics and he hasn’t done a single thing anyone can remember.”

“That’s not exactly a reason to vote for somebody,” I said, trying to argue.

“The hell it isn’t,” my father replied. “Listen, we’ve had so many Rabins and Pereses and Begins, people who tried to galvanize everyone with their charisma and energy. None of them ever really managed to bring us peace. I’m telling you, what this region needs is Olmert — someone who’ll bore us and the Palestinians so much that we fall into a kind of stupor. A stupor that’s a kind of co-existence. A co-existence that’s a kind of peace. Forget all that ‘peace of the courageous’ stuff Barak and Arafat tried to sell us. Even a child knows that courageous people go into battle, they don’t make peace. What this region needs is a peace of the tired, and Olmert’s the man to put us all to sleep.”

On the way home from my parents’ house, I began to think that maybe my father was right. And that it wasn’t exactly good news. If, after all the hopes and disappointments, all the accords and intifadas, the best a whole country can wish for is a politician so nondescript that the pundits are still arguing over whether he’s on the left or the right — if we want a non-event on Election Day — then we really must be exhausted.

Etgar Keret is the author of “The Nimrod Flip-Out.” This article was translated by Sondra Silverston from the Hebrew.

Etgar Keret in the NY Times.

February 12, 2006


Suddenly, the Same Thing

“I just hate terrorist attacks,” the thin nurse says to the older one. “Want some gum?”

The older one takes a piece and nods. “What can you do?” she says. “I hate emergencies, too.”

“It’s not the emergencies,” the thin one insists. “I have no problem with accidents and things. It’s the terrorist attacks, I’m telling you. They put a damper on everything.”

Sitting on the bench outside the maternity ward, I think to myself, She has a point. I just got here an hour ago, all excited, with my wife and a neat-freak taxi driver who, when my wife’s water broke, was afraid it would ruin his upholstery. And now I’m sitting in the hallway feeling glum, waiting for the staff to come back from the E.R. Everyone but the two nurses has gone to help treat the people injured in the attack. My wife’s contractions have slowed down, too. Probably even the baby feels this whole getting-born thing isn’t that urgent anymore. A few of the injured roll past me on squeaking gurneys. In the taxi on the way to the hospital, my wife screamed like a madwoman, but these people are all quiet.

“Are you Etgar Keret?” a guy wearing a checked shirt asks me. “The writer?” I nod reluctantly. “Well, what do you know?” he says, pulling a tiny tape recorder out of his bag. “Where were you when it happened?” he asks. When I hesitate for a second, he says in a show of empathy: “Take your time. Don’t feel pressured. You’ve been through a trauma.”

“I wasn’t in the attack.” I explain. “I just happen to be here today. My wife’s giving birth.”

“Oh,” he says, not trying to hide his disappointment, and presses the stop button on his tape recorder. “Mazel tov.” Now he sits down next to me and lights himself a cigarette.

“Maybe you should try talking to someone else,” I suggest in an attempt to get the Lucky Strike smoke out of my face. “A minute ago, I saw them take two people into neurology.”

“Russians,” he says with a sigh, “don’t know a word of Hebrew. Besides, they don’t let you into neurology anyway. This is my seventh attack in this hospital, and I know all their shtick by now.” We sit there for a minute without talking. He’s about 10 years younger than I am but starting to go bald. When he catches me looking at him, he smiles and says: “Too bad you weren’t there. A reaction from a writer would’ve been good for my article. Someone original, someone with a little vision. After every attack, I always get the same reactions: ‘Suddenly, I heard a boom’; ‘I don’t know what happened’; ‘Everything was covered in blood.’ How much of that can you take?”

“It’s not their fault,” I say. “It’s just that the attacks are always the same. What kind of original thing can you say about an explosion and senseless death?”

“Beats me,” he says with a shrug. “You’re the writer.”

Some people in white jackets are starting to come back from the E.R. on their way to the maternity ward. “You’re from Tel Aviv,” the reporter says to me, “so why’d you come all the way to this dump to give birth?”

“We wanted a natural birth; their department here — ”

“Natural?” he interrupts, sniggering. “What’s natural about a midget with a cable hanging from his bellybutton popping out of your wife’s vagina?” I don’t even try to respond. “I told my wife,” he continues, ” ‘If you ever give birth, only by Caesarean section, like in America. I don’t want some baby stretching you out of shape for me.’ Nowadays, it’s only in primitive countries like this that women give birth like animals. Yallah, I’m going to work.” Starting to get up, he tries one more time. “Maybe you have something to say about the attack anyway?” he asks. “Did it change anything for you? Like what you’re going to name the baby or something, I don’t know.” I smile apologetically. “Never mind,” he says with a wink. “I hope it goes easy, man.”

Six hours later, a midget with a cable hanging from his bellybutton comes popping out of my wife’s vagina and immediately starts to cry. I try to calm him down, to convince him that there’s nothing to worry about. That by the time he grows up, everything here in the Middle East will be settled: peace will come, there won’t be any more terrorist attacks and even if once in a blue moon there is one, there will always be someone original, someone with a little vision around to describe it perfectly. He quiets down for a minute and then considers his next move. He’s supposed to be naïve — seeing as how he’s a newborn — but even he doesn’t buy it, and after a second’s hesitation and a small hiccup, he goes back to crying.

Etgar Keret, an author and filmmaker, lives in Tel Aviv. An English translation of “The Nimrod Flipout,” his latest collection of short stories, will be published in April by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This essay was translated by Sondra Silverston from the Hebrew.