Monday, September 16, 2019
When I was 13 I decided to walk across the country. I told schoolmates I was planning to do it the following summer. Someone asked me, “What would you eat?” I said, “Cheerios,” meaning that would have been one of the foods I’d eat along the trip. But it spread throughout the school that “Steven Friedman is planning to walk from coast to coast and only eat a box of cereal.” People laughed at me to my face.
I once jogged two miles to my grandmother’s house and thought I was going to collapse. I was often picked last for sports teams in school. I was a benchwarmer for JCC basketball and rarely got a hit in Little League.
I made it a habit often of waiting to the last minute to submit assignments in high school through college. I once resigned from a synagogue summer maintenance job by leaving a note not-so-indiscreetly in one of the classrooms I was supposed to clean.
Through my late teens and into my 20s, I saw myself as a quitter with few physical skills. Then I ran a marathon after training for a year and finished in under 4 hours. The discipline of running and training 5-7 times a week and then finishing the Boston Marathon gave me a newfound confidence that I could establish goals for myself and achieve them.
As I neared the finish line of my first Boston Marathon in 1981, the golden Prudential building looming in front of me, I started to cry at all that I’d accomplished. I couldn’t believe that I’d run 26.2 miles of the world’s most famous long distance race.
But, still, the tiny voice lingers in my head after all these years that I am not good enough. Even after I’d finished three more marathons, earned a Bachelor’s degree after 10 years and a master’s degree 5 years later, got my teaching credential, and raised two kids with and without a partner, I sometimes see myself as the physically inept quitter.
Four years ago, I entered a 20-60 mile mountain bike ride over the often arduous climbs along Mt. Tamalpais. I completed the 20 or so miles I’d registered for, but several times I had to get off my bike as I plowed over the dirt and walk it up a steep ascent. I was so mad at myself. I figured--incorrectly--that I was the only person to ever walk during a competitive bike ride. I was so stressed out and ashamed.
Fast forward to this past weekend and the 25-mile ride along the rim of Crater Lake in southern Oregon. The voice returned several times while Tricia and I were camping in Rocky Point, an hour from the entrance to the National Park outside Klamath Falls. Why was I biking over the steep ascents and descents, some that lasted 4 miles uphill? I was unprepared. Remember Mt. Tam? You are not worthy. I shared my fears with Tricia who believed in me. But I ignored her and let the voice grow louder and louder inside my head.
“I saw how you never stopped in Norway,” she said, referring to our summer bike ride along the southern coastal fjords.
She and I differ about the level of difficulty along the roads in Norway, but she insisted that I’d shown myself more than capable on a bike over varied terrain.
After the check in, I hopped on my Bike Friday and proceeded to the route and began a one-mile climb at 7000 feet. Over the course of the full 25 miles, I climbed several hundred feet with ascents ranging from two to four miles. The descents were even worse as I hit over 30 MPH and my small folding bike started to rattle along the car free road.
But an amazing thing happened up the first climb: I was biking--not in my granny gear--and maintaining a comfortable pace up the hills. I. Was. Doing. It. Even as I was pedaling up the longest uphill stretch at nearly four miles, I felt a surge of confidence from knowing all the biking I do each day, each week, each year had prepared to tackle these types of challenges.
The majority of cyclists were like me, regular people who love to cycle. Some were tall, some were short, some were skinny, some were actually overweight. One woman biked next to her 8-year-old son. Some used electric pedal assist bikes. But everyone was going forward. A few people walked their bikes up the steeper stretches of the ride. But nearly everyone finished the ride, which began at 8 am and closed 10 hours later, to accommodate all abilities.
I started crying as I reached the final rest stop which signaled the end of the ride, 25 miles, in just under two hours. I muttered to myself, “I did it. I fucking did it.”
While I’m not ready to tackle the Tour de France--and that’s not the point--I think that I am worthy of the title ‘Cyclist’.
Monday, December 17, 2018
Dear Las Vegas,
We need to talk. My wife and I just spent a weekend with you, the second time we visited this year. And we’re not even Las Vegas people. We don’t gamble or drink. We like the musical artists and the light show at the Bellagio fountain. But all the glitz and glamour and alcohol and cigarette smoke and ear-splitting and soul crushing noise are way too much for our not-so-gentle souls.
First, we like the people. I know service industry folk thrive on being kind, but it seems as if you are filled with genuinely nice people. From the waiter at the Hash House to the staff at the Strat Café to the tattoo artists at Iron Horse, everyone was inordinately pleasant.
Second, if you don’t gamble or drink, prices are fairly reasonable. Three of us ate at the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Palms Hotel and Casino for $33. And there were two tofu dishes. OK, I did leave my backpack open and the book of short stories I was reading fell out somewhere between the bathroom and the parking lot, but we never paid more than $35 for dinner and always under $25 for breakfast and lunch.
Third, there are neighborhoods with regular stores and regular people. We sat for a couple of hours yesterday at the Barnes and Noble café and read magazines, and I drank tea. The bookstore was tucked in a strip mall with a movie theater and Hobby Lobby (boo, hiss).
But there is so much about you that troubles me. Why do so many people smoke just about everywhere? We were in town to see Reba McIntyre with Brooks and Dunn at Caesar’s Colosseum Theater which has a strict no smoking policy. But as soon as the show ended the men’s bathroom was filled with more smoke than choke-inducing Mumbai at rush hour.
And everyone has a drink, usually alcoholic. I’m not teetotaler, but people started drinking early and never stopped or started late and never ended. I am not sure. The guy sitting next to me at the Reba show was lit after having had at least four 24-ounce beers during the nearly 2 ½ hour show.
Don’t get me started on the gambling. People deserve to have fun and throw away their hard-earned cash. But the casino at the hotel where we stayed looked like a scene out of the Walking Dead. Scores of people stared into the slot machines and silently and obediently dropped their coins in again and again. I imagine the amount of money spent in your town over the course of a day, a week, a month, I am not sure, could pay down the national debt.
I know what you’re thinking: if you hate me so much then why did you come knocking on my front door and stay at the penis poking the sky hotel the Stratosphere? Well, my wife loves country music, so we saw Cher in May and thought we had to fulfill a time-share obligation this time. By the time I wrangled myself out of having to sit for another 2-hour session, I’d already bought plane tickets, the hotel, the rental car, and two tickets to a show.
I first visited you in 2001 after a week of camping at the Grand Canyon. You made a terrible impression then, too. Blaring lights, oppressive heat, a cacophony of music and noise. I vowed never to return. I made good on that promise for 17 years.
Well, I shall be back. Probably next March to see Cher again. So, do something. Go on a diet. Take better care of yourself. Read a book. Listen to some jazz. Maybe we can go for a run or bike ride together? But if you find my book, Maigret’s Christmas by Georges Simenon, the thick paperback with the blue leather Westminster Abbey bookmark, give me a call. You know how to find me.
Friday, January 5, 2018
Why is the food so much better in Paris? Tricia and I asked ourselves that question several times during our two-week honeymoon there December 18-January 1, 2018. We did learn that the croissants and other baked goods are tastier because the French use butter with at least 82% butterfat content.
But the desserts were better: we had creme brulee our first night and it was flat out the best I’ve ever tasted. Near the end of our vacation we went to the Italian restaurant, with its menu etched onto the walls, two doors down from our Montmartre apartment, and the tiramisu, which I don’t normally like, was heavenly.
Even the garlic was better. It wasn’t as stinky or spicy and added a wonderful flavor to the vegetable dishes we cooked together. Garlic is considered a staple of French cooking.
And the quiche was amazing. Tricia bought us several mornings a simple egg and cheese slice for breakfast, and it was literally one of the best tasting meals ever. Don’t get me started on the hot chocolate, which was thick with a slightly hazelnutty aftertaste. Ask Tricia about the sausage and creamy potato dish they made outside our neighborhood metro stop. She made me go back and buy her more.
The eggs seemed fluffier, the coffee more potent, and the mashed potatoes under a layer of brie, also at the outdoor metro market, positively sublime.
Tricia and I got to saying, “Everything is better in Paris,” which obviously makes sense when you’re on your honeymoon in a historically rich and romantic European city and away from the mundane reality of daily living in America. We actually slept ten hours one day. Tricia nudged me and said, “Steve, we should get up. It’s ten.”
We didn’t just eat our way through Paris, though that would have been a fine way to travel. We did the usual: museums, churches, cafes, bookstores, an evening boat ride along the Seine, a castle in Chambord, getting “lost” in different neighborhoods with outdoor markets, and climbing the Eiffel Tower as well as the steps of Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, and the Arch de Triomphe.
One night we went to a Gregorian chant concert at Notre Dame, which has pitch perfect acoustics. At first, as I looked at the program of 18 songs, I feared I might nod off. But as the music continued, haunting and vibrant melodies punctuating the solemn and sacred evening, I grew to appreciate the sheer artistry of the musicians. I actually liked it. Tricia was positively entranced.
Beyond the sights and sounds and flavors of Paris, the best part of the vacation--any vacation--was meeting people. We met a hearty and funny group of Floridians. One of them, a retired Cuban lawyer, gave me a quick primer on using my camera better. Her husband kept grousing good-naturedly that his sister hadn’t shared her free Super Bowl tickets with him when the game was in Santa Clara a couple of years ago. And then we stood behind two doctors from Mumbai, a married couple, who advised us against Versailles because the lines were close to four hours.
Another time we went to a cafe to drink hot chocolate and read, and we met a couple who live in Japan. He is from Switzerland; she is from Malaysia. The both speak fluent English. He designs roller coasters, including Disneyland’s California Screamin’ and Superman at Six Flags New England. They’d celebrated Christmas in Switzerland with his parents, and then left their two kids there while they hopped a train to Paris for a long weekend. Both husband and wife were utterly fascinating.
We visited the Eiffel Tower three times. Once at night and the top was already closed. So we took the elevator to floors one and two. Then we went a few days later, but the top was closed because it was too crowded. So we climbed up the 720 stairs to each floor. On our third visit, after an hour in the security line, we got up to the entrance only to find the top was closed again, this time because of high winds. But it was still powerful to be on and near such an iconic monument.
Our Montmartre neighborhood has once been the home to Toulouse La Trec, Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Seurat, and Van Gogh. We saw Van Gogh’s house and the ale house Lapin Agile where the cluster socialized after a day of creativity.
We also visited the Jewish Quarter in the Marais and bought Maya a Jewish star bracelet and Hebrew alphabet letters for Tricia. I spoke Hebrew with a camera salesman who was half-Israeli and wished another group of Israelis a Shabbat Shalom on a Saturday.
There was the washing machine incident. The drum inside the machine in our apartment stopped mid-cycle, trapping my clothes, the only remaining ones I had left beside the ones I was wearing. I unscrewed a small plastic filter cover and reached in to pull out each piece of clothing. My hand got stuck. Twenty minutes later, as Christmas Eve bled into Christmas morning just past midnight, I finally pulled my hand out, scraping the skin off in three places. Then we took the machine completely apart in order to get to the trapped clothes. But the drum was behind the motor and we weren’t going to mess with that, so it took us another 45 minutes to put it back together.
The next morning I got up early and lugged my wet laundry to the laundromat.
There was also the Action Adventure Hero incident. The door that three small apartment buildings shared and opened to the street became locked from the inside. We were not sure why. I thought, ‘Why not jump from the window of our 1st floor apartment and punch in the code from the outside?’ So I climbed over the wooden bar, looked down, then squatted onto the ledge when I realized that jump was close to six feet. I stuck my landing well, but tripped just after I planted my feet, causing me to fall forward onto my left wrist, as I tumbled into the street, a narrow cobblestone one that leads from the majestic Sacre Coeur to the town square by the Abbesses metro station. I rolled over, stood up, and said to no one in particular, “I’m OK.”
I was already in pain and could barely move my fingers, but I figured if I wasn’t crying in agony then nothing was broken. But it was hard to grip my fork at dinner and later brush my teeth as I am left-handed. My hand swelled up and was puffy on the top side, but I should be ready for spring training.
Paris was otherworldly because we rarely had a set schedule, sampled amazing cuisine, including a croissant making class, encountered fascinating people in a city that is an amazing hybrid of the old and new. We found so much of the architecture beautiful and compelling or just plain cute. And there is history, both good and bad, and spiritual centers that stand out so impressively as monuments to people’s desires.
It was the perfect honeymoon both of us deserved even if we will never eat another croissant in America. Merci!
Monday, May 1, 2017
My brother went to visit my mother, who has Lewy Body’s disease and lives at the Hebrew Home, a skilled nursing facility, last week and texted me a picture of her. The photo is hard to look at. She is lying against her white pillow, tucked under white sheets, having been bedridden for a few days because she was eating and drinking less and less. Skin stretched taut over her face, her mouth open and sagging, eyes closed, she looks nothing like the mother who danced at weddings, bar and bat mitzvah receptions, town celebrations, even when she ironed clothing as American Bandstand was on TV.
The painful picture, of my 80-year old mother who can no longer walk or feed herself, has to wear diapers, and exists each day in her wheelchair until she is put to bed in the late afternoon, brought back a flood of memories of the vibrant woman who was Beverly Bernstein.
Probably not coincidentally for she is on hospice now, both my brother and I have been thinking about her eulogy and what we might say when it comes time to say goodbye. In all honesty, my mother has been gone for a few years now. Even when she was able to respond with a perfunctory “thank you” or “I love you too,” the women strapped into the wheelchair was not really our mother, the one who sat with me when I was 12 and listened to me as I read her from the novel I was writing or rushed to my room in the middle of the night if I was sick or played word games with me before bed.
I could go on and on and on.
I’ve said it before: I had a complicated relationship with my mother. She once renounced being my mother; she was so neurotic at times (I wasn’t allowed to cross the main road near our home until I was 12) that she was the main reason I moved to California in 1987 to attend graduate school. I needed to be away from her. And all the crying she did in those first months after I’d moved, essentially asking me in tears over the phone or at a local diner when I visited the East coast, “How could you do this to me?” made me just want to scream.
But she was the one who rushed to my side in the hospital in 1988 when I had emergency ulcer surgery after it burst. She brought the newspaper each day, bonded with my roommate, who was donating a kidney to his brother fighting cancer, and just sat and talked with me as I recuperated for two weeks. She kept a diary the year I was in Israel in college and sent her daily musings to me every single week. She taught me to drive on the tobacco backroads of Bloomfield. She took me to concerts. She looked over every piece of school work, and every photograph I took.
So, now, at what could easily be the end of her life, the memories that pop up are almost all positive. Why not honor her as completely as possible for her loving legacy?
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Like many Americans, around 59 million, I am shell shocked this morning, stunned, not quite sure if I am living in a parallel Twilight Zone universe.
Donald Trump is president? With Mike Pence, the man who advocates for gay conversion therapy and ending a woman’s right to choose, a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land?
Yes, we will survive? Yes, we will overcome whatever Trump and the Republican majorities in the Senate and House throw at us. But at what cost? Will people be deported? Will Muslims be banned even temporarily from entering the United States? Will we overturn Roe v. Wade? Will same sex marriages become illegal again? Will millions of health-insured Americans lose their coverage if (when) the Affordable Care Act is repealed?
I am mostly sad. Sad for our country, sad for my children and students, sad for all of us.
I have dedicated my life to fighting for social justice and social change, and yesterday’s election seems like a swift and painful kick to the gut, to the core of my being.
When I was eleven or so, I started writing a novel about the friendship of a white teen and a black teen. The white protagonist, upset over the inherent racism of society, decided to go on a roadtrip/quest to find justice and peace. I wanted to be the youngest person to write a novel. My mother often sat with me on lawn chairs under the maple trees in our backyard and listened as I read my story.
I abandoned the story after a few months, but I have never wavered in my commitment to making the world a better place.
I organized a local chapter of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry when I was in high school, and protested against the treatment of Jews in the USSR. I canvassed Connecticut neighborhoods for the Connecticut Citizens’ Action Group (CCAG), fighting against utility rate hikes and the pollution of groundwater with toxic waste.
In 1982, I joined 250,000 people in New York City as we marched against nuclear proliferation. In August of 1983, I drove through the night with a dozen CCAG colleagues and friends to the 20th anniversary March on Washington, commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech”.
A month later I was in Europe on a trip sponsored by Mother Jones magazine to protest Reagan’s decision to install nuclear weapons in England and other parts of Western Europe. In England, we met with a group of women who’d established an encampment at Greenham Common to protest militarization and promote peace. In Germany, we met with activists who’d fasted for more than a month to challenge the presence of Reagan’s Cruise missiles.
When I started teaching Jewish Studies at a private school in 1987, my whole focus was on social change and recognizing the prophetic imperatives built into my religion. And that commitment deepened when I became the school’s community service coordinator and was able to lead students in projects that made a difference in our neighborhoods and with people in need.
In 1992, Verna and I helped to register voters outside Safeway in San Francisco. We truly believed in being part of the process to help more Americans vote and express their political convictions.
In 2000, when many of us believed the election was stolen, Verna and I set up a website, bushstolethepresidency.com, and sold t-shirts with his face on it and the website listed. We made nearly $3000 and donated all proceeds to anti-Bush and social justice-related causes and organizations. We even gave one to Michael Moore who said it had made the cut of t-shirts and other donations he’d amassed. A local columnist, Stephanie Salter, mentioned our t-shirt in her penultimate column of things she was grateful for before she departed San Francisco for the midwest.
Verna and I and her then 77 year-old mother, along with Miguel in a stroller, protested against the men in power at the Bohemian Grove in 2001, and again in 2003 with more than 200,000 people in San Francisco, as we voiced our opposition to Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Miguel and I once helped to paint the house of a local refuge for families in crisis. My students and I used to serve meals to the homeless, and even recorded many of them for an oral history project that won an award. Maya and I have made teddy bears that were donated to kids in the hospital.
Our commitment to change will not waver with the election of Donald Trump. My children and my students still know that we must be forces for good and justice in the world, and that we will not succumb to the racism and misogyny and ethnocentrism that was so pervasive during this election cycle.
Even a Hillary victory would have meant that those of us who cherish liberal ideals, the same ideals that helped to end slavery and mount the Civil Right movement, would have had to lead a chorus of change from the progressive left against the wall of oligarchs who prefer profits over people.
I am sad, I am shocked, I am worried. But I will never, ever stop fighting for basic human decency, for the Golden Rule that we treat each other as we want to be treated. I refuse to accept that our nation is a Trump nation. We are better than scapegoating immigrants; banning Muslims; attacking women; and other recklessness.
The hard work of battling for justice continues. I will do my best to remain on the frontlines.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
We are a nation of binary opposites: on one hand, there is Donald Trump and his blatant and inexcusable misogyny and racism, spewing forth about Muslims and perfectly legitimate bodily functions as he tries literally to bully and insult his way to the White House.
Trump represents the worst of America’s rugged individualism ethos: that we can somehow return to a mythologized greatness by being ugly and vindictive.
On the other hand, kindness and compassion abound throughout our amazing and challenging country. There is the Compassion Collective, started by a group of well-known writers to raise money for the Syrian refugee crisis (http://thecompassioncollective.org/http://thecompassioncollective.org/). The Collective wants to raise $1 million to support the refugees during this tragic crisis. The maximum donation is $25.
Another philanthropic and heart-warming effort was started six years ago by my friend Bob Welch (www.bobwelch.net) when he was a columnist for the Eugene Register-Guard. Inspired by an anonymous $1000 from a reader to help those in need during the holiday season, Bob and friends seek out worthy recipients in the Eugene, Oregon area in order to not only spread some holiday cheer, but to make a bit of a difference in the lives of those struggling with bills and mental illness and homelessness and other issues.
Bob retired from being a full-time columnist, but he is still actively involved in his community, and today he posted about his latest mission of mercy (http://bobwelch.net/the-1000-christmas-giveaway/).
The Compassion Collective and Bob Welch (and friends) represents the best of humanity, people willing to stand up and say, “I need to make a difference and help,” or, in the words of the Collective, to “stand with love.”
We live in scary times, and it’s easy to lash out against enemies both real and imagine, and also find scapegoats to soothe our anxieties. But by doing so we also abdicate our basic connection to others, to everyone we meet or can assist. The choice is clear, and we can easily opt to stand with love.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
I wish I understood how the world truly works. Yesterday, three people allegedly opened fire with assault weapons on a group celebrating at a center for developmentally disabled adults. There are reports one of the alleged gunmen may have become radicalized in Saudi Arabia, while he was on the traditional Muslim pilgrimage, and met his future bride, a woman from Pakistan.
My heart hangs heavy with profound sadness when I ponder the loss of life and the sheer terror everyone in San Bernardino experienced amid what was supposed to have been a holiday party. I don’t understand how anyone can resort to such mind-numbing violence even for a cause.
But the melancholy is even thicker today because my neighbor, Jen, died at 4:30 am this morning, after fighting a battle with tongue cancer. She leaves behind a loving husband and two young children, ages 8 and 6, as well as other family. I grieve for them, especially her two adoring and adorable children who now face life without a mommy, something with which I am quite familiar.
Last Saturday, I went outside to play with Maya, who was already at the park, on the swings, next to Jen’s six-year old daughter. They were giggling and smiling as young children often do, enjoying the crisp autumn air and the attention of one father and one grandmother.
I knew Jen’s situation was dire, and when I saw her daughter and pushed her on the swings, at one point lifting her onto Maya’s lap (facing her) so they could do a butterfly swing, legs and arms entangled, I breathed deeply and felt the sadness wash over me again. She was going to experience what Maya had and has: deep, deep loss, tears, anger, anxiety, fear, loneliness. And it didn’t seem right that a little girl, blond-brown hair, and an exuberant smile, should be plunged into such sorrow.
I know people cling to faith in times of crisis, and I admire many of them, but I can’t make sense of Jen’s death or the terror in San Bernardino in any religious or spiritual context. I know someone who once said, after a hurricane had ravaged her town but she was unharmed, “God was looking out for me.” I have seen friends post thanks to God on Facebook for answering their prayers.
But I always come back to: does that mean God did not answer the prayers of the others, such as Verna who wanted to live and grow old as her children became adults and beyond? Or sweet, sweet Jen, an amazing woman also with everything to live for? Or our other neighbor, Shauna, who died this past May from colon cancer, and had a zest for living that shone like a beacon to everyone?
Shortly after Verna died, the priest she’d personally enlisted to officiate her funeral service, said to me on the phone, “I just don’t understand when people say, ‘God wanted her more’ or ‘It was just her time’.”
I think Father Paul was saying we cannot understand why someone dies, but we should not lapse into easy answers and try to make death into some deep theological phenomenon.
But knowing that there are mysteries to the Universe that may never be satisfactorily explained to an agnostic like me does nothing for the utter despondency and helpfulness I feel today as we come to terms with the deaths in San Bernardino and in my neighborhood.