Sunday, July 13, 2008

Focusing on the Goal...and Having Fun

Sometimes I wish I could record moments of my life in order to save a precious event, but even as they are happening, one piled upon another, I know that the first is slipping away in my mind as I enjoy the new one. We were invited to a wedding Wednesday night in Jerusalem, held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. The ceremony took place with the sun setting behind the happy couple, as they faced east, to the Temple Mount.

It was a wonderful moment, a joyous celebration and a relaxing one for me as well. But even as I was enjoying watching the ceremony and then the dancing; while I was talking with friends and smiling at the ecstatic parents and beautiful bride, a part of my brain was tracking Elie.

Once again, Elie was on his way home, this time for an extra free day - Thursday. He had already told me that he'd dropped his cell phone. I could probably start a whole story just about the adventures of his phone in the army. Amazingly enough, the army almost expects each soldier to have his own phone and this becomes a major communication tool. Without the phone, Elie is cut off. With it, he is easily reached and when necessary, can be called. This was the case when the Arabs said they'd captured a soldier and every commanding officer was ordered to immediately verify all his soldiers were safe. This was the case several weeks ago when the army practiced "mobilizing" Elie and his unit.

So, Elie is very connected to his phone as part of his army service. This time when he dropped it, the screen broke and while it is under warranty, it still had to be addressed. Elie decided to go with us to Jerusalem to take care of errands on Thursday and when he returned, we all decided to have a fun night - bowling.

So, I took my four youngest children: Elie, his two brothers and his youngest sister to the nearby bowling alley. It was an experience to watch them all bowl, each with their own style, strengths and weaknesses. The alleys are very modern. That means there is a machine that scores for you (and tells you the speed with which you throw the ball). On average, I throw a respectable 20-22 kilometers an hour. My younger son was throwing around 15-18 and my eight-year-old daughter only around 5 km./hour. Although it didn't happen this time, the ball has been known to surrender to the greater cause and simply stop along the way. No matter what, she remains determined to take her turn and roll that ball down.

Elie's middle brother simply enjoys and has yet to understand the finer points of angles and dots. He kept joking about how the computerized system kept recommending that we hit the center pin. "Gee, Ima, it says you should hit the center pin," was his constant refrain. Shmulik throws the ball in the high 20s, but doesn't take the game seriously at all. For him, there is only the joy of the game and the actual pins and points mean little.

And then, along comes Elie, and the ball goes zooming down the lane at over 30 km. per hour. The only problem is, Elie kept missing the pins. He kept pointing out how fast; I kept reminding him how many points I was getting. The goal, I said again and again, was to knock the pins down, not throw the ball as fast as you can. "You're being beaten by your mother." Now, if that wasn't going to get him going, I didn't know what would.

There were jokes about my being old (and yet I still beat him soundly) and laughter throughout. My daughter played with the guard rails that block the gutters. The ball rolled from side to side as it slowly made its way down the lane and ever-so-gently knocked some of the pins down. At one point, she bowled down the wrong lane, while Elie was about to bowl and that too caused a round of laughter.

Another time, Elie's ball flow with incredible speed, yet again, firmly into the gutter. But as it did several times, the power of the throw caused the ball to jump out and knock some pins down. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was wrong, or at least partially wrong. Yes, it's about the goal of accomplishing the task, but it's also about the trip along the way. What lives on after isn't the score you get, but the fun you had.

The younger two finished their three games more quickly and went off to play air hockey. Elie's 12-year-old brother was easily defeating his younger sister while Elie, Shmulik and I were playing our third and final game. Elie went over to quickly make several points for his sister to even out the score and put her in the lead. Having accomplished his goal of putting his brother on the defensive, he came back with a smile to play some more. It's part of that special relationship they have - Elie and his younger sister.

Later, though it was already quite late, I had to do the weekly shopping and at first, Elie thought to go with his middle brother to take the littler ones home and to bed. But something made him change his mind and so he came and helped me do the shopping. I can't let him know how precious these moments are for me.

The rest of the weekend passed quickly and calmly. There were several discussions related to the army and where Elie is going. Elie is bothered by the fact that Israel is about to release the child-killed Samir Kuntar. Elie understands that the world has many shades, but in this one, he sees black and white. He feels for the families but justice is not served by releasing this murderer. He isn't wrong - there is no justice in this prisoner release.

This week, Elie is back to the sports complex near Netanya where he and the incoming commanders for the training courses will have time to meet each other and become a team. For the next few months, they will be each other's support system and friends. The incoming soldiers will have each other. They will see their commanders as mentors, as task masters, as hardened soldiers demanding that they learn and perform.

They won't see Elie. They won't really get to know him - not yet. That will come after the Tekes Kumta, when Elie will meet them as equals. For the next four months, Elie will be "Commander" and they will say, "Yes, Commander" and "No, Commander." Elie will visit their homes and explain to their parents what is expected in the next few months of their sons' lives. What Elie will have is other commanders with whom he will share, consult. They will all live together, separate from their soldiers.

The commanders will run faster, be stronger. They will push themselves to the limit, and make it look easy so that the soldiers will try to emulate them, follow them and give them their loyalty. This week is his last chance to rest, Elie explained, his last chance to sleep for a while before the marathon begins; before the training starts.

Concerned, I said, "but you got six and a half hours sleep during basic training. Won't you get at least that?"

"No, that's what the soldiers get," Elie explained. And when they finish with them each night and finally let them sleep, the Commanders have to prepare for the next day's training. They have to watch these men to make sure the sudden pressures of the army are not overwhelming. They have to teach them discipline; teach them to measure everything in minutes. Be on time; follow orders. Stand, run, sit, eat, shave. Do it all, again and again, when you are told. They must break them of the boys they were and build them into the men they will become and all the time, they have to watch to make sure they aren't breaking them too much; that for all they are pushing them down, they are building them back up even stronger.

Some days, Elie will be lucky to get two or three hours and sometimes he won't be home for three weeks. He could see that I was not happy with that, "I'll be fine. It's not that long." And as often happens now, I am the immature one. I am the one who wants to complain that it isn't fair and that he needs to sleep too. I want to tell him that commander or not, he isn't superman; that he can get sick and exhausted and dehydrated just like anyone else. While you are so busy making sure your soldiers drink enough in the desert training, who will make sure you drink enough, Elie?

"Will I at least get an invitation to the Tekes Kumta like I did for you?" I asked and Elie just smiled. No, I won't get an invitation because it isn't my son finishing the course, at least not in the simplest meaning of the word, but it is my son learning a new facet of leadership, a new level of his abilities, a new sense of independence. Elie will watch that his soldiers drink enough and that he does too.

And so the circle comes back - like the bowling, it's about focusing on the goal. The trip down the lane is important, but the real success comes with meeting the goal and, if you can, having fun along the way. This week, Elie will have fun bonding with a group of soldiers with whom he will serve for the next 4-8 months. In a few week's time, new soldiers will come in. They will begin their basic training, while Elie and his commanding officer watch from the side.

The goal will be to assess the soldiers and choose the ones best suited for the tasks ahead. But somehow, as I watch Elie move through his army service, I know he is having fun. Yes, you have to aim and focus on the goal, but the goal alone is not all there is. Sometimes, the growth is really in the path along the way, and the fun you have in getting there.

Yes, I know the army is serious business, perhaps the most serious we have ever experienced in our lives as a family. I don't make light of it for a moment. I see it and hear it and dream it. I see the gun my son carries; the bullets and the magazines. I see the helmet and vest meant to protect him from being shot. I hear about the weapons and the armored vehicles and I dream, I have nightmares of phone calls and officers at my door. No, not for a single moment when Elie is away do I forget what it means to have a son as a soldier. Thursday night was a reminder that if you focus only on the serious business, you might just miss the glory of the trip and probably half the benefits.

"I hate the weather here," Elie said with a smile as he got out of the car this morning and swung his gun onto his back as he breathed in the humid air beside the coast. Even in that, there was joy. I left him there to his week among the commanders, happy for him and for us.

The best moments in life are the ones in which you combine both the goal, and the joy. Have a safe and wonderful week, Elie - see you on Thursday.

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