The Brain Needs Time to Catch Up With the Body

by rthieme on May 8, 2003

CB015977“Is that how you experience Israel?” asked my friend when I shared what I wrote about a week in Tel Aviv and Eilat. “With all the bombs, guns, and weapons, it sounds more like Texas!”

I was in Israel to keynote the security track of an annual Microsoft Israel conference. I arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday and stayed at a hotel on the beach. Two friends joined me for dinner in a pub near the hotel. One was particularly anxious because there was no security guard at the door. I hadn’t even noticed because I wasn’t really in Israel yet. My head was back somewhere over Cyprus beginning a descent.

After dinner I walked the length of the beach along the Mediterranean. I noticed Mike’s Place, a blues bar near my hotel. I asked about the music and was told that Tuesday was jam night when lots of musicians came to play. Since I was leaving Monday for Eilat, I didn’t go, but a lot of others did and they were inside on Tuesday when a suicide bomber exploded, killing three people and wounding fifty more. As in the train station explosion near Netanya a few weeks earlier, a guard was the hero, stopping the bomber from reaching the crowd. He took the full force of the blast but survived. The guards are mostly young guys just out of the army earning five bucks an hour. Nearly every restaurant, shop, bar, hotel has an armed guard at the door who asks if you carry a weapon (many are), inspects parcels and backpacks, and sometimes pats you down. In the hotels during the conference when hundreds of people jammed stairways to go to dinner or a party, extra guards were on duty.

Walking with a colleague to a neighboring hotel for a session, I waited while a guard checked his permit. “Sorry,” he said as he caught up, “I’m carrying a gun.”

“I’m glad you’re carrying a gun,” I replied. Clearly I was living more in Israel by then. But after a moment I said, “I think. I don’t know you real well, do I?”

By the end of the week I shared my friend’s apprehension if I was inside a place that did not have a guard. It becomes second nature. You scan people around you for a bulky coat, a backpack. You “read the space” for anomalies, looking for incongruities. In a taxi to the Eilat airport at the end of the conference, police blocked the approach and traffic backed up. The cab jumped the divider and circled around the other way. You always have multiple routes to your goal in mind.

Two days before I was scheduled to leave there was a general strike. No one knew day by day how long it would last. All flights in and out of Israel were shut down except emergency flights. I had lunch with the Minister of Science and Technology my last day in Eilat; he had just returned from France and I asked how he was able to land. He said he had to fly to Poland to join the President of Israel who was returning from a state visit. Even at his level, you plan for failure and always have a backup.

I flew back to Tel Aviv knowing only that the flight I was supposed to take home was cancelled. Microsoft investigated a charter flight to Athens where we might pick up a commercial flight and we thought of taking a bus to Amman but long delays at the Jordanian border made us decide not to do that.

That night I looked at the flowers in front of the bombed-out nightclub. They reminded me of bouquets at the World Trade Center after 9/11. The flowers always contrast with the rubble and destruction.. The smell of ashes is always stronger than the scent of petals.

As it happened, they lifted the strike and I left the next afternoon.

I was disappointed not to stay longer, not to have more time to explore the streets of Tel Aviv, brimming with vitality and life. By then the powerful impact of being in Israel, dealing with all that, had taken hold.

What happens is, you focus on what’s happening here and now. You live in the moment and open your senses. You are aware of what’s around you. You evaluate what’s likely to happen next on a short term basis. Because of this, great conversations happen in lines at the airport, waiting for the shuttle, everywhere.

Didn’t it seem surreal? I was asked when I returned. No, it didn’t. It seemed real. The gray cold fog and absolute quiet of the empty streets of my hometown seemed surreal, not the heightened sense of being vibrantly alive in a place you love.

We never know what’s coming next. Most of the time, though, we don’t really know that we don’t know. In Israel you know that you don’t know what’s next and that compels you to live in the present.

Mike’s Place was scheduled to open the next week. Israelis refuse to stop living because of threats. That spirit is contagious. You feel more alive, not less.

The security track was about learning to live with risks, manage vulnerabilities and minimize unpredictable events. Life on the ground was about that too.

“It’s ironic that you see our ‘peace’ as a kind of war,” my friend wrote. “For us things are good when terrorists explode only once or twice a week.”

Another Israeli friend wrote, “I am so glad we met here in Tel Aviv, my home town, where I live and create. This is how we live, this is our essence and our core. Although this lifestyle is not endorsed elsewhere (I say that with a smile), it makes us better. This is our home. This is our home and we love it.”

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