Friday, October 26, 2012

Reductions All Around

Shalom, chaverim! Yesterday we had the first big thunderstorm of the fall, which was very dramatic to watch as giant bolts of lightning came cracking down into the sea and the cats ran for cover. The strong winds also reminded us of the draft-proofing we need to do in the apartment before it gets much colder. Having grown up in Michigan, at the beginning of winter, everyone I knew seemed to haul out their front and backdoor "draft dodger" apparatus, which took the form of a long, soft tube filled with dried beans or sand, which was laid at the foot of each external door to keep out the cold. Many of my friends had cute ones shaped like long dachshunds.  I think my mother sewed a cheerful cover for ours. I have not seen any draft dodgers here (the non-human variety, anyway), so I might just grab an old pair of pantyhose and fill each leg with navy beans. I don't sew, knit or crochet, either, so if anyone wants to contribute a draft dodger snood, I'd be very grateful!*

As the weather changes, it is nice to be able to walk two blocks without completely drenching my clothes with the fruits of my own built-in, personal evaporating cooler mechanism. It's also refreshing to wear clothing slightly more substantial and stylish than my Israeli summer uniform of shorts, sneakers, tank tops and my one, ever increasingly sweat stained, baseball cap.

Nahariyan women's clothing style seems to be heavily influenced by Russian tastes, which, for winter, seems to be comprised of lots of layered tops of varying lengths (but all with deeply plunging necklines), paired with crazily patterned leggings or teeny tiny miniskirts, with high-heeled shoes. There is nary a sensible preppy turtleneck, crewneck sweater, or a good pair of longjohns to be found, so I am already starting to worry about spending another winter here freezing my tucchus off. Beauty is pain, indeed!

It's too bad there aren't many used clothing stores or consignment shops in Israel. This is surprising, because Israel is ahead of the curve when it comes to conserving other things like energy and packaging. All new buildings are required to install solar heated water systems, for example, and just down the road there is a station that charges up electric cars. In Nahariya there is a recycling bin every few blocks. Whoever designed the Nahariyan recycling bins did a great job, in fact. Not only do they take plastic bottles, there are also two additional boxes in the unit for batteries and for CD-ROMs. Paper and cardboard go in the round bin next to it, and bottles and cans are returned to the stores from where they were purchased.

Cheerful recycling bins makes it fun to dump garbage through the center of flowers.

Another clever technique for reducing waste that would normally end up in landfills is what I like to call the "Israeli Bag 'O Milk." Instead of having a big, bulky, gallon jug for milk, a cheap way to buy milk here is by the bag. You can buy little plastic jugs that even have a built-in cutting edge incorporated at the spout, to make sure the angle at which you cut the bag is optimized for spill-proof pouring. Obviously, you keep the pitcher for good and just replace the bags of milk as needed.

I was sanctimoniously sure to take a picture of our 1% fat milk bag, rather than of the yummy 3.6-4.0% fat milk we use for coffee. Why be honest when you can be hypocritical?

Speaking of all things frugal, I recently discovered a way of simultaneously saving money, decorating our minimalist (read: nearly empty) apartment, and reducing landfill contribution. My method was to strip and dry the cut flowers we purchased for a Shabbat service, after they had wilted. Once they were dry, I stuck them into a thermos, whose cup had been broken while we were attending Ulpan. As long as you don't look too closely, it looks slightly "modern industrial." To prevent people from doing just that (looking closely), I put them far above eye level, on top of a tall bookcase.


Wilted cut flowers, as Pini looks on in disgust.


"These would look better if we dragged them onto the floor and chewed on them," Dudu pronounces.
Of course, if we ever buy an apartment with a balcony, or a house with a yard, I could always start a compost bin and use old cut flowers as part of the composting mix. However, despite the wonderful case made for creating homemade compost in the classic book "Worms Eat My Garbage," Elul has not yet consented to having a plastic bin full of simmering garbage and wriggling worms in the kitchen. I am baffled by his resistance to this wonderful, eco-friendly solution, but a happy marriage is all about choosing one's battles and effective compromise.

You might get the impression that with all my talk about finding junk and turning it into treasure, that I'm cheap and a garbage hoarder. In fact, I look at it more as a creative challenge and as a way to reduce my own footprint on the Earth. There are a million more ways I could help the environment, of course, so in no way am I trying to toot my own horn about this. The truth is, I spent many years being a real spendthrift. I bought stuff that I didn't need and couldn't afford, to impress people I didn't even know.

I have made studying frugal and simple living a hobby of mine for more than six years now, and my life has changed for the better for it. I turned to it initially because I was scared about my financial situation, and when I read Vicky Robin and Joe Dominguez's classic book, "Your Money Or Your Life," that's when everything started to change for me. I spent less, saved more, paid attention more, and worked towards getting my self out of the debt hole I'd dug for myself. I stopped spending mindlessly and stopped thinking of shopping as a diversionary pastime or as an antidote to loneliness.  It wasn't until we had to move from Nevada to Florida, however, that I really had to jettison my junk.

Fortunately, the combined pain of spending many years mired in the debt that I accrued when I was buying too much crap, along with the shame I felt when I was confronted with the enormous amount of stuff that I had to discard in order to free ourselves up to come to Israel, was enough to make me finally say "no more." I was ashamed of not only all the money I'd stupidly wasted, but also of all the natural resources I'd taken up for no good reason at all.

Living out in the Nevada desert for seven years certainly triggered a major attitude shift in me when it came to material desires and aspirations. It's not that I can't appreciate a fine Italian sports car or the impeccable lines of a gorgeous Chanel handbag. I still can, and do. But it's very liberating not to feel the nagging desire to own them anymore.

Moving across the world to a new country and a new career is not the most frugal move we could have made, of course. There has been the temptation to equate this "new life" with buying "new stuff" to go along with it. And indeed, there are some new things we needed to buy now, to adapt to the way we are living now.  But living simply is not about counting money and being cheap. It's a way of life and an ongoing process. Ten years ago I would have been drooling over an issue of Italian "Vogue," and seriously dreamt of building a giant collection of rental properties in glamorous and exotic cities.  I now get excited when I read something like "how to make your own button candles out of olive oil," or when I make an enthusiastic and impassioned contribution to an online discussion about the usage of handkerchiefs versus paper Kleenex.

Recently I found almost twenty discarded plastic plant pots that a sloppy landscaper threw on the ground when he was finished transplanting their contents into the property's flower beds.  I picked them up, washed them, and now have them ready to root new plants I will create out of cuttings from my friends' plants. This makes me far happier than I would have been if I'd just gone to a nursery and spent a lot of money on the same types of plants. Some might scoff and call me a cheapskate, but from my perspective I reduced some litter on the ground, saved some space in the landfill, didn't spend any money, and increased bonds with friends by trading cuttings for other little tasks I can give in exchange, like helping with their computer or clipping their pet's nails.

The only constant in life is change.

Shabbat shalom, everyone!

*By the way, if you're going to the trouble of crocheting a draft-dodger snood for me, could you also throw in a crocheted toilet paper snood that has a legless plastic doll attached, so it looks like the doll's "dress" is covering the paper? My grandmother used to make them...they rocked! Thanks!

Friday, October 19, 2012

How We Made a Home Recording Studio Out of Garbage and Gifts

Shalom, chaverim! I know I've been banging on about work for the past several months, but as still relatively new olim, it is taking up the majority of our time and energy to create careers for ourselves out of virtually nothing. Fortunately, there is a lot of support available for new immigrants in Israel, thanks to Nefesh B'Nefesh's excellent job boards on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media outlets. In addition, there are plenty of other organizations that provide job postings targeted towards olim, such as, the AACI, the Jewish Agency's Aliyah Job Center, and numerous Facebook communities like the Anglo-Israeli Job Network and Digital Eve Israel. I found the leads to all of my jobs through these sites, so while the old maxim that you have to network when you get to Israel is true, these days it's possible to do this networking from your laptop and cellphone as well as in real life.

I shudder to think where we'd be at this stage if we'd made Aliyah thirty years ago. Before the advent of home computers, telecommuting, virtual call centers, cellphones, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on, it typically took every Israeli family about four years to have a telephone installed in their apartment. I kid you not--a friend our ours in Nahariya made Aliyah at that time, and she had to wait for four years to get a phone. When we moved to Nahariya, we had our phone, high speed internet line, and a 500-channel satellite television package installed within about three days of our landing in the country.

Other friends of ours came to Nahariya with four children in the early 1980's. The husband was (and still is) a doctor at Western Galilee Hospital. Back then, he worked as an emergency room physician for the grand sum of earning the equivalent of one U.S. dollar per hour. Fortunately, they lived on the kibbutz at Rosh Ha'Nikra, which allowed them the ability to survive on a non-viable wage.

What would we have done with ourselves, with regard to finding work, in the Nahariya of 1982? Well, to be chronologically accurate, if I'd made Aliyah in 1982 I would have still been in high school, but you know what I mean. Had we been the same ages we are now and had come to Israel then, I really wonder how it would have all gone down. We might have ended up on a kibbutz. That may be wishful thinking, however, as we are already too old to be considered for kibbutz membership in most places. I probably would have ended up teaching somewhere. Perhaps Elul could have cobbled together a career as a stringer (freelance reporter) for international news agencies, or could have trained as an English teacher.

We've had it extremely easy compared to our predecessors, thanks to Israel's wholehearted embrace of high tech and interconnectivity. Israel's rapid expansion into building software platforms used worldwide has created a demand for various high-tech programmers, web developers, and other white-collar workers who are comfortable with using computers and have an excellent command of English. This has meant that doors are opening to us here that we would have never even gotten the chance to knock on if we were still in America. This is not because we are such magnificent gifts to the labor landscape, but simply a matter of having skills that are in demand here, but are in a state of oversupply in America. No one would bother to put on their American resume, for example, that they are native speakers of English, but in Israel, that just might get you an interview.

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this post. While we were both actively job hunting, we came across an ad for a startup company looking for people who could do in-home voiceovers for video news clips. We submitted audition "tapes" (actually just .mp3 computer files) and crossed our fingers. Some time went by as the company got itself organized, and we finally went "live" last week in terms of doing hour-long shifts as real-time voiceover narrators. The work is very fun and very interesting, but in order to produce voiceovers that are of the level of quality needed by the company, we had to get very creative in building a home studio. I am proud to announce that we were able to assemble this studio, made entirely out of garbage and gifts.

This was a huge step up from my previous recording "studio," which was a crazy assemblage in which I sat on a pile of pillows on a bed and spoke into a recording device propped up on another pillow. I had a Petzl headlamp strapped to my forehead, and, for sound insulation, I covered myself and the recorder with a Snuggie. For good luck, I'd prop the recorder up on Chaim Potok's excellent "Gates of November."

Now just do this under a Snuggie, please. And make sure you do it with no air conditiong on. In August. In Israel.

I kid you not. I would routinely record thirty-minute scripts in this setup.

Clearly, neither Elul nor I wanted to do hour-long voiceover shifts sitting under a Snuggie. How did we do it? Well, to make a home recording studio, you first need a space. (My amazing brother Joe Milner, who owns and runs Puget Sound, a Hollywood sound production company, bought and renovated an entire movie theatre solely for this purpose.) We, however, chose our "guest bedroom," which is actually just where the cats sleep, eat, and do their business. Second, you need a work surface of desk height. For this, I chose the "desk" that I'd made earlier out of a portable piano stand and an old wardrobe door I'd found in the street. The chair was another dumpster find, which Elul reinforced with wood glue after it collapsed for the first time.

My piano stand with dumpster-find "desktop" and wood-glued, street-salvaged chair.

On the work surface was a laptop generously gifted to us by Elul's aunt Marlene, who had upgraded her own to another model. This laptop had a problem in that it tended to get overheated very easily, making it uncomfortable to have on one's lap, and putting unnecessary strain on the fan. The fan also makes noise, so that's not good for doing voiceover work. Elul solved this by cutting off four little pieces off a piece of scrap wood, which created little blocks for the laptop to sit on so the computer could ventilate properly and not overheat.

The microphone was a loan from the company, but before it arrived we used a microphone that was a gift from another client I do voiceover work for, when he was upgrading his own studio. We had the headphones already. The recording software we use is on a free trial, which we can either purchase at the end of the trial or simply switch to a free software program like Audacity.

Now for the most important thing: noise reduction. It is very important to create the most acoustically "dead" space you can for doing voiceovers. Otherwise, your voice can sound too hollow, too bright, too ghostly, too filled with echos, or any other type of effect that makes it hard for producers to work with. In Florida, for example, I used a walk-in closet to do my voiceover work, which was lovely and squishy and full of sound-absorbing clothes and a noise-crushing high-pile carpet.

Our apartment in Israel, however, like most older apartments here, is very poorly designed for doing voiceover work. Old wall-mounted air conditioner units run, traffic honks and beeps, kids run and shout joyfully outside, "discussions" take place at high volume in hallways and in adjacent apartments, and so on. Israeli walls are usually very poorly insulated (if at all), and windows are not double-paned. Furthermore, wall-to-wall carpeting is almost unheard of, and tile floors with plaster walls and ceilings are the norm. In other words, everything seems to be designed to create as much noise as possible. If we had a "safe room," or an in-home bomb shelter room, it would be much quieter in that room. But we don't, because our building was built before having private bomb shelters became the norm.

To make our little setup have the acoustics of a studio, we had to come up with some kind of insulating material. Of course, had we had plenty of money, time, and our landlord's permission, we could have gone all out and built a little drywall closet lined with studio-grade, sound absorbing wall covering. But we had none of these. What to do? We were pondering this very question while walking home a few days ago, and as we were passing a vacant lot, Elul spotted the answer. There, as if it had been put there for us specifically, were two large pieces of very thick styrofoam, about two feet by two feet each. I clambered over the wall to take a look, and passed them back up to Elul, who carried them home. It turned out that they were the top and bottom pieces that had been the packaging materials for a washing machine. Some litterbug had simply thrown the styrofoam and the carton in the field, but their slovenliness was our gain. Instant insulation!

Pini and Dudu oversee the installation of our "insulation."

Now, how to suspend it so we can have a facsimile of a "room," when there is only one wall to work with? Elul grabbed some scrap wood that he'd salvaged from the packaging that our oven was wrapped in, and had stuck in our storage room downstairs "just in case." The case being at hand, he then quickly hammered together a small frame on which to mount the insulation panel and some sound absorbing blankets.

Elul's ingenious L-frame. There was one sinkhole available in the "desk" surface, which he used to anchor the frame so the cats wouldn't be able to knock it over. That hasn't stopped them from trying, though.

Time to assemble.

Dudu oversees the installation. You can see Elul's hand securing the panel with zip ties. The bottom is supported by a mic stand we weren't using.

The other panel was mounted on the wall directly behind, and covered with one of the quilts my mother made for our cat Pini. The tile on the studio's other "wall" was also covered by an old packing blanket Elul had used for years, and another of my mother's quilts, which she had made for our cat Dudu. I'm not sure if the cats exactly agreed to "gift" us these quilts, but let's just say it was a family-based redistribution of wealth, in the name of the greater good.

Elul's legs show as he tests out our new studio. Hubba hubba!

So, we've now made our audible, if invisible, entry into the Israeli international media landscape. Today, we're doing voiceovers about Derek Jeter's broken ankle, Amanda Seyfried's dinner with a mystery man in New York City, and, invariably, Katy Perry's cleavage. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Shabbat shalom, everyone!


Friday, October 12, 2012

Getting My Work Groove On

Shalom, chaverim! Well, things are finally starting to take shape with my new business, Aliyah Petsitting. I took the leap and have begun running my first paid advertisement in a local newsletter that caters to English-speaking residents in the area. Even more exciting, I finally got my Hebrew flyer back from my graphic artist. She did such a terrific job that I want to share it with you.

Here it is:

This reads "Pet Babysitter" and gives a brief description of my services and contact details.

I hope the big picture of the dog will really catch people's eyes when they rush by a crowded billboard full of tattered flyers. When I get them photocopied on hot pink or acid yellow paper, it should even pop even more.

In other work news, my work life is finally starting to come together after the interminable--er, extensive--holiday season. After waiting, and waiting, and waiting some more, phone calls are finally being returned, emails are flying thick and fast, and everyone, it seems, wants everyone else to rush hither and yon for various appointments and other types of meetings. It feels like some sort of national trigger has been pulled, and now everyone is frantic to get some work done.

It brings to mind something I read a long time ago, back in the bad old days of the Soviet Union. Then, it seemed like everyone had to stand for hours in line for bread, because there were constant food shortages. It turned out, though, that the citizens themselves actually ended up wasting enormous amounts of food. The wastage occurred because they felt they had to stock up so much, on the few times that there was bread available, that the food went stale and ended up having to be thrown out anyway. Hence, a vicious circle was established. People had vegetables and bread, but it was either too much, or too old, to eat. The poor supply line led to hoarding, which led to more breakdowns in distribution, which led to longer lines, which led to more hoarding, which led to more wastage.

I am seeing this phenomena show up in my work life, with all sorts of emails rushing in with urgent demands for all sorts of things. Had these issues been addressed in a more timely manner, they wouldn't be urgent at all. Likewise, the lines at the bank and the post office are laughably long as employees struggle to deal with the backlog, which leads to more time being wasted and less accomplished by everyone overall.

But, enough grousing about that, because certainly some work is far better than no work at all, and an open shop or office is better than a closed one! I now have two "official" part-time jobs with two different Israeli companies, which gives me a nice sense of security in that I'm protected by the strict labor laws here. Working for Israel companies also means that I will be paying into the the Israeli social security system, which is important for matters like my eventual retirement pension. I'm only 46 now, but as time seems to be moving even faster the older I get, it feels like retirement is just around the corner. I want to be covered, at least by a basic Israeli pension. It may not be much at all, but at least it will be something.

In addition to having finally started my official employment with the two companies, this Monday I also begin volunteering as an English tutor for high school students, as part of tutoring program put on by my local ESRA chapter. For any English-speaking olim who are planning to make Aliyah, I highly recommend that you join your local ESRA club. "ESRA" stands for the "English Speaking Residents Association." ESRA is a highly regarded and long-established organization for English speakers who live in Israel. They have branches all over the country, and do a number of worthy volunteer projects for the greater community. They also publish a very interesting and substantial magazine, which you receive as part of your membership. You don't even need to be residing in Israel in order to join, so you're welcome to join right away. Also, when you make Aliyah, your first year's membership is free, which is a great bonus. Our particular chapter, "North Coast ESRA," does a great job with putting on interesting activities, a Hebrew conversation group, and very fun coffee evenings.

So we are moving, gently, into our next stage of our new lives in Israel: working, paying taxes (!), and being active in the community. I am very happy about this, because I so dearly wanted to become an asset to Israel, rather than just a drain. I am so grateful for all the support given to new immigrants by the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, and Nefesh B'Nefesh. Without this support, it would have been seriously doubtful if we would have been able to come here and make it at all.

Shabbat shalom, everyone!


Friday, October 5, 2012

Little Black Dresses and the IDF

Shalom, chaverim! I'm writing this on Friday morning, slowly descending from my post-performance euphoria following a concert I performed in last night. A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to join an excellent local choir. I'd heard them perform at Nes Amim, the world's only Christian kibbutz, last spring. When I saw the outstanding skills and musicality of the conductor, Chen Zafrir, and heard what she could produce from an amateur group, I immediately knew I wanted to join them.

However, I'd happened to attend the last performance of the season, so I had to wait until fall for them to start up again. Once again, our real estate agent and friend, Yoram Shurany, came to the rescue. He made a phonecall to Chen, got the details about the rehearsal times and locations, and was even kind enough to "pitch" me to her. So instead of needing to shlep out to her house to audition, I was allowed to start attending rehearsals right away. Not only that, but Yoram also contacted another choir member who lives nearby, who kindly agreed to let me ride along with him to rehearsals. Yoram, what in the world would we do without you?

I began attending rehearsals a couple of weeks ago. We meet at 8 p.m. every Sunday night at a community center for local kibbutzim and moshavim, and rehearse until 10:30 p.m. That's a late night for me, since I'm used to going to bed at 10:00 every evening. However, it's such a great group of people, and Chen is such an engaging director, the time just disappears. It's only the next morning that I start to feel it.

About a week after I joined, I got a rather panicked call from Chen. We were to perform at the Renaissance Festival on October 4th, at a nearby Crusader's fortress, which is part of the Yechiam kibbutz. One of the key pieces on the program was Vivaldi's "Gloria," in which there are several solos and one soprano duet. Israel being what it is, the second soprano of the duet had suddenly been drafted into the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), which meant there was a sudden opening for the"Laudamus Te" number. My big break had finally come. Time to go shopping...this olah chadahsa needs a little black dress!

I quickly enlisted the help of my good friend Jody Garbe, a sister olah chadasha from Canada and fashionista extraordinaire, who helped me find the gown of the century. After a few false starts at the local department store and some other boutiques, we finally found the dress at Dina's, a little place I'd passed on the way to Ulpan for months, but had never had the guts to enter. Trust Jody to find the store that is reputedly the most upscale one in town, where the Mayor's wife and other members of the Nahariya hoi-polloi frequent.

If you need a personal shopper, jewelry procurer, hatmaker, artist, or just a great friend in your life, talk to Jody. You can also visit her blog at

Jody is so cool that she even painted a card for me in honor of the event. Wow! The last time anyone ever drew a picture of me was when I was about five years old. She was even kind enough to use her artistic license to make my face look more sculpted (read: less jowly) than it actually is. What a mensch!

This card separates the women from the girls. I am ashamed to say I have offered words of congratulations to others written on postcards I've picked up for free.

The concert went very well. Since we were peforming in a stone room with vaulted ceilings and a dirt floor the acoustics were exeedingly live. Our amazing Ukrainian-Israeli accompanist, Ina, played on an electric piano that also had organ effects. Fortunately, it wasn't just a cheap Casio; rather, it sounded very good and, naturally, was also in tune. As the weather is so humid and changeable here, it is very difficult to keep acoustic pianos in tune, so tonal quality sometimes has to trump historic authenticity. (Although, to be honest, if we were really going for historic accuracy, we'd have had a chamber orchestra accompanying us. And that is not in the budget now, nor will it ever be.)

Here are some glamour shots from the event.

View from the Fortress itself, looking towards Nahariya and the sea. Invading infidel wanna-be's, beware!

Some of the choir. If I get a different camera lens someday, Elul will be able to take wider shots.

Left to right: Me, contralto Victoria, and soprano Sivan. Now, all we need is an agent.

Sivan's and my big moment of glory, performing "Laudamus Te."

Left to right: Accompanist Ina, conductor Chen, and me, enjoying the post-concert afterglow.

Finally, if you're interested in what "Laudamus Te" sounds like, here's a great YouTube video clip I found when I was rehearsing. In fact, I used the dress worn by the second soprano (the singer with her hair pinned up) as my shopping inspiration. You can't get any cooler than modelling sexy Italian sopranos, right? And of course, if you can't see the video, go directly to my blog at

Shabbat shalom, everyone!