Thursday, December 20, 2007

Steel Crazy (after all these years)

Jerusalem – Yesterday began Eid al-Adha and Tuesday is Christmas. Rather than slaughtering a sheep or attending Midnight Mass, the ritual I’m most focused on will take place at around 4:30 tomorrow morning. That’s the time that I’ll be waking up for the second half of the Steelers-Rams game.

There are two weeks left in the regular season and the Steelers basically need to win out to win their division. When I started this blog, I intended for it to be about Live from Jordan, travel, culture, people, and my little obsessions – Mexican food, Big Hair, and the Steelers. “Living on the Seam” in Jerusalem has yielded some colorful posts, but I’ve fallen down on the Steeler front.

I thought there would be posts about new coach Mike Tomlin and his separated-at-birth resemblance to Omar Epps, the heroism of Hines Ward, and a petition drive to get rid of Steely McBean, the embarrassing mascot introduced at the start of this season. But I haven’t written a single post dedicated solely to the Steelers, and the season is slipping away. So this week’s blog is devoted to my favorite team and my love for them from thousands of miles away.

When I lived in Jordan, I listened to the games free on or Yahoo. I have memories of Myron Cope screaming “Yoi and double yoi” while the call to prayer echoed outside. 1:00 games were the best. With a seven-hour time difference, it was my own primetime Sunday night football. Night games that started at 11:15 or 4AM were problematic, however. You gotta support the team, though, the next day in Arabic class be damned.

Besides Myron Cope’s retirement, things have changed in the last four years -- it is no longer free to listen to the game. I bought NFL Game Pass from Yahoo for about $200, which allows me and other fans outside of the country to watch a game a week on the Internet. Because Yahoo’s service is inconsistent, I’ve also subscribed to radio broadcasts with NFL Field Pass ($9.95/month) as a backup.

Silly you say?

Well, this last week, despite selecting the Steelers-Jaguars game on my menu, Yahoo broadcast the Miami-Baltimore game. I had a full meltdown. The only people who wanted to see the Dolphins-Ravens were the top five picks of next year’s NFL draft. I spent much of the first half of the game IM-ing with the Yahoo help team (who were helpless) and refreshing my screen. For the second half, I listened to the streaming voices of Bill Hillgrove and Tunch Ilkin while I wrote an angry email to customer service. The bitter loss to Jacksonville didn’t make it any better.

Still, in a few hours, I’ll be getting up to see what the Steelers have left in the tank after two awful losses. Why go through work on Friday in a stupor just to see the Steelers play the Rams you ask? Well, there is something special about football and the Steelers for Pittsburghers.

The Steelers transcend sports in Pittsburgh; they represent the heart of the city. I think it goes back to the 70s when mills were closing and unemployment numbers were skyrocketing. The Steelers won four Super Bowls and gave people a diversion that swept them away. The Steelers were America’s best, better than the glamor-boy Cowboys. They won with a style of toughness and grit that embodied the city. The Steel Curtain defense and guys like Jack Lambert and Mean Joe Greene represented the qualities of Pittsburgh’s everyday – and in many cases, unemployed – heroes.

The tradition continued in the 80s and 90s, as the mantle was passed to Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd, and Rod Woodson. They didn’t win the Super Bowl, but the Blitzburgh defense made us proud. And then, along came Jerome Bettis, the Bus, who just kept hitting defenders again and again until he ran them over. Pittsburgh has never had the “Run and Gun,” “West Coast Offense,” or Sharpie moments (which I admit are creative and funny). Instead, the Steelers have won consistently over the years by being tougher than their opponents.

For a working class city like Pittsburgh, success with that style of play has generated a love affair that has few comparisons in all of sports. I read a story the other day about a widow who brought her husband’s ashes to the game last week. It was his dying request to see a game at Heinz field and the family couldn’t afford tickets or the trip from New Hampshire. Donors helped out. In the realm of things Steeler, such stories aren’t out of the ordinary.

When you arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport, a statue of Franco Harris making the “immaculate reception,” greets travelers (click for video). Next week will be the 25th anniversary of the play that launched the Steel Curtain’s dynasty. What other city celebrates the anniversary of a play?

The Steeler Nation lives in Pittsburgh, across the country, and around the world. With the demise of Pittsburgh’s economy in the 70s, many Pittsburghers took their terrible towels to the road. As a result, there is a Steeler bar in every major American city and road games in some cities take on a home-game feel because of the number of Steeler fans in attendance.

When I lived in D.C., I followed the Steelers run to the 2006 Super Bowl at the Pour House in Capitol Hill. The Pour House is three stories of Steeler Bar packed with the Black and Gold faithful. It was the next best thing to watching at home. I drove home for the big game, though. My buddy Joe flew in from Boston and we watched the Super Bowl in a bar downtown. When Hines Ward caught the winning touchdown, it was the realization of a childhood dream. We danced in Pittsburgh’s snowy streets with people we didn’t know. Our generation had a championship too.

I’ve been a part of the Steeler Diaspora for 14 years. I imagine there is something great about a Pittsburgh Monday morning after a win. In Jerusalem, as I set the alarm to get up for the game this week, there is something equally great about tuning in from afar. While I didn’t lose a job in the mill and I am too young to have first-hand recollections of Lambert and Mean Joe, following the Steelers is being part of a storied tradition that is associated with all the good things of home.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Holiday Gifts

Jerusalem – The best gifts this season are being given by unofficial ambassadors who are using their resources – both financial and human – to make the lives of strangers better. Their efforts are providing hope not just for the people who they are helping, but for us all.

I decided that I’m not giving gifts to family and friends this year (and this is the first time that I’m sharing this information with them). Instead, I’m donating money to several organizations that are doing inspiring, humbling, and wonderful work with and for children. For family, friends, and other devoted Live from … readers, if you were trying to figure out what to buy me for Hanukkah, please make a contribution to one of these organizations instead:

No More Victims
is a non-profit organization that assists American communities in providing direct assistance and medical treatment to Iraqi children war victims. In the process, the organization -- which has an all volunteer staff -- creates personal linkages between the Iraqi children (as well as their families) and the community that has sponsored the treatment for the injured child.

I found out about No More Victims by way of a front-page story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about Abdul Hakeem, a nine-year old boy from Falluja, Iraq who returned to Pittsburgh this last week for follow-up medical treatment. Doctors at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh volunteered their services to repair his jaw, face, mouth, and eye. Prior to the original surgery, he couldn’t chew food well and had stopped going to school because other kids were making so much fun of him.

You can watch videos about Abdul Kareem and other similar stories from No More Victims by clicking here. Frankly, I wasn’t able to watch without getting choked up – not just from the beautiful story of a life saved, but also from pride in the Pittsburgh community. Regardless of your views on the war in Iraq, a donation to No More Victims – and even better, an offer from your community to take on a case and to help – can go a long way.

Another way to help child victims of war is by addressing the issue of landmines. I raised the landmine issue a few months ago on this blog and we tried to get a golf accessory company to donate to the cause. They never responded to our encouragement. Obviously, my Uncle Ed is not getting their product as a Hanukkah gift. Instead, $169, the cost of the product, is going to landmine victims.

Landmines maim or kill 15,000 – 20,000 people a year. Many of these victims are kids at play. Other times, these are family breadwinners, trying to work or access drinkable water. Landmines Blow and Adopt a Mine Field are two organizations that are making a difference on this problem. Follow the links for each to donate.

In one of my Live from Jordan radio interviews, I met Ali el-Hajj. Ali is an Arab-American, about my age, living in South Florida who came up with the idea of the Bethlehem Christmas Project after a recent visit to Israel. He, other Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians will be delivering Christmas gifts to Palestinians in Bethlehem from December 7 - 15. The project is bigger than just the individual gifts, though. On their website, they have a blog that details the experience as it happens and they are also working with Code 81 Films to put together a documentary that will hopefully take this great effort by a few individuals to a larger audience and promote mutual understanding.

I want to mention another great project working with children that is worth your attention and donations. This one is domestic, but it is an idea that would be wonderful to take abroad. Critical Exposure is a U.S. non-profit organization that buys cameras for inner-city kids, trains them in documentary photography, leadership, and advocacy, and gives them a platform and the tools to raise awareness about the conditions in their public schools. Critical Exposure has worked in four states as well as in Washington D.C. They have a terrific website that has more information as well as students’ pictures.

You can donate online at Critical Exposure's website and you can also participate in Jared and Stacey Schwartz’s project to raise money for them. All you have to do is go to their Audio Exposure website, and add your favorite song to a mix that they are making. They are donating $1 for each song added.

So, my holiday message is to be an unofficial ambassador and to give your time, your expertise, or a financial contribution. Whether it is one of the causes listed above, Darfur, or something else, it makes a difference, both on an individual and communal level. As everyday Americans, there is a lot that we each are able to offer to not just improve our standing abroad, but to make our shared future better.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Friar on the Road: A December Rant

Jerusalem – Last night, on my way home from a Bat Mitzvah in Haifa, I was almost run off the road, three times. That isn’t bad. It is a two-hour trip each way and one potential incident every hour and twenty minutes is much better than what I face every morning on my 2.5 mile, 20 - 30 minute commute to work.

The driving here is awful.

According to Israel’s National Road Safety Authority, there were 428 fatal crashes leading to 480 deaths inside the Green Line in 2004 (most recent stats). There were also 3,091 drivers involved in “serious crashes.” That might not seem like a lot by American standards, but by Israeli standards, that is a ton. By comparison, 471 Israeli civilians, inside the Green Line, were killed by Palestinians between the start of the second Intifada (9/29/2000) and the end of last week.

I only realized the extent of my developing road rage a few weeks ago when I took a cab home from the Pittsburgh airport. The experience was nothing short of lovely. The driver and I talked about the Steelers for a solid half hour – the success of Mike Tomlin, Ben Rothlisberger’s comeback, and our distaste for the newly created mascot, Steely McBeam. As we spoke about the prospects for the Steelers’ post-season and cruised past yellow and red leaves on a wide-open three-lane road at a steady 55 mph, I realized that I was relaxed in a car for the first time in months.

Traffic was moving, there was no one bearing down on us from the right or left lane, and the traffic that did pass us (on the left no less!) used turn signals when changing lanes. When the road was empty, my fellow Steeler fan didn’t gun the engine and go 85 mph. We had a connection not just to our destination but also to other cars on the road.

What do I mean by that?

In Israel, the only thing that matters is your destination. There are speed limits and other cars, but for too many Israeli drivers, everything is about getting there (wherever it may be), as fast as you can. There is no driving etiquette – zero, zilch, bagel. Honk, cut off, honk, swerve, honk, make a u-turn, and honk some more. Just do whatever it takes to get to your destination three minutes earlier.

The worst thing that you can be in Israel is a “friar,” Hebrew for sucker. Little guardian angels fly around here, sit on people’s shoulder and scream, “al taytseh friar!” or don’t be a sucker! I’m convinced that the “al taytseh friar” factor affects how people drive.

If you let someone in ahead of you, you’re a friar.

If you wait in the turn lane to make the turn, you’re a friar.

If you don’t block the intersection at rush hour, you’re a friar.

Every morning on my way to work, I wait in a designated left hand turn lane to cross a major street. The lane usually has 10 to 15 cars in it and it takes two to three light changes to make the turn. Without fail each morning, per every light-change, at least one car drives all the way to the front of the line and shoots into the intersection before the first car and cuts it off. Actually, usually two cars do this per light, with the first one going fully perpendicular to the line of waiting cars. What are you going to do, T-Bone him? A couple of weeks ago, a van carrying kids pulled this move right in front of me. That’s great. They must have been late to homeroom.

The swerving and passing is just as bad. It is all a game of chicken with drivers thrusting between lanes and lurching into intersections. They put the onus on you to slam on the brakes or your car will be in an accident. Mopeds are the worst. They fly in and out of traffic, brushing between side mirrors and weaving back and forth between lanes.

I have a good friend in Pittsburgh who used to own a VW Jetta with a broken driver side window. Anytime he’d want to roll down his window and yell at a driver who’d irked him, he’d have to fumble around in the ashtray, grab the handle, attach it, and then roll down the window. Frequently, the driver would get away before the window had made it down and my friend would be left shaking his Jetta window handle at the windshield.

I wish I had a window handle to shake.

Instead, I pound the horn; long honks, double honks, and the rapid-fire repeater with a long blast of “I hate you” at the end. I swear, I point my finger, and then I grip the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white. I yell at the radio and the fingernail-on-the-chalkboard morning show DJs from RAM-FM (the only English language music station and the subject of a different diatribe).

And then, when I’m done, after a 30-minute, 2.5-mile drive full of fluster, I arrive at work to start my day.